About Not Writing

 

See the source image
Source: Running in Heels

 

I used to measure the timeline of my life through journals. When a friend said to me, “Remember that time – “, I’d think in my head yes, from the red journal. That system kind of shattered when I was gifted two identical books, but the main ones still stick out in my mind. I used to read back through them, but I never do that now; I haven’t for years. The last time I revisited a journal I learned about an experience I’ve had that I’d completely blocked out – realising that thing had happened, being told by myself in my own handwriting, was almost like going through it again. So now these books remain shut.

See the source image
Source

Until, that is, somebody – a person who knew better – decided they could open one.

I’ve come across other people’s diaries and journals in the past and I have had absolutely no desire to open them. They’re not written for other people – that’s literally the point.

If you’re not a writer, if you’ve never written anything purely for your own eyes, you might not understand what this has done. I used to have a safe outlet for everything and now I don’t. That’s hard. I’ve taken quite extreme precautions to ensure this won’t happen again, but still I’ve barely written outside of my compulsory uni assessments, even though it happened months ago.

And now I’m not sure I feel like a writer. Blogs that used to take me an hour are now much longer tasks. Stringing together a written assessment takes a magnitude of effort. It never used to.  That’s what months of regretting your entire practice of writing will do.

This experience has nudged me to renegotiate my ideas of public writing and storytelling. Last semester I grappled with the idea that the content I was writing on my blog might not have a place there. Now the content I write privately might not even have a place on paper. They stay in my head, which isn’t really where they belong.

I never envisioned such a halt in my writing timeline, yet here we are – but I’m writing this (finally). We’ll see what comes next.


A Stranger’s Welcome Back to UOW

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Hello, it’s me (source)

My seventh semester at the University of Wollongong – an institution for young adults with anger management triggered by crap parking – started on Sunday. I arrived on campus and pulled into an almost-empty car park. I’m the first to admit I’m not the greatest at parking, and when I ended up just over the line, I didn’t bother to straighten up. It was mid morning on Sunday; I was running late, nobody was around and nobody was likely to turn up – or so I thought.

carpark

Image

Shock, horror – I was wrong. When I returned to my car several hours later, in all its diagonal glory, cars were crammed everywhere. Probably unsurprisingly, on my windscreen, somebody had tucked a note. It was saturated with rain. I unfolded it with the utmost care and precision. It read, nice parking – NOT.

It was fifteen degrees and pouring with rain. The fact that my slightly obtuse park had inspired a complete stranger to halt their day, kneel in the heavy rain to pull a notebook and pen out of their bag and scribble me such an observant, thoughtful critique, inspired me deeply. It was borderline romantic (well, almost).

It was truly a wonderful way to begin the semester. I feel like I’ve finally embedded myself into UOW culture, and earned the full experience.

At least I didn’t end up on Buy and Sell.

Onward and upward from here 😉

The Blinking Cursor

Never mistake silence for weakness. Remember that sometimes the air stills, before the onset of a hurricane – Nikita GillHer Silence

I tried to write this post on a Friday night. I leaned back in my bed, opened up a blank page on my laptop and stared at the cursor, blinking at me tauntingly; I think it knew it would be stationary for a while.

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Image: rebloggy

I was listening to the thunder crash around me, half wishing I was outside being soaked in it. I was talking to a new friend about sky poetry. I was thinking about eyes and what is silently projected through them. Is this why my Dad likes being around his new friend and her children, because when he looks at them he doesn’t see the (albeit unintentional) resting anger, resentment, maybe even fear, like he might when he looks at us? I was thinking about a guy who mocked me during last semester for not holding his eye-contact. He scared me with his too-many questions that I didn’t know how to say no to. I was thinking that I can’t actually recall the eye-colours of my friends, because I don’t focus on their eyes enough. Maybe my mind wanders too far during conversation. Some people tell me I’m attentive and a close listener. They’re wrong. I’m never present. There’s too much to think about.

eye
Image: Korshun 

 

I used to write about snakes. Not the type that betray you, not those with stealth who sneak up on you in disguise. We forget that snakes are enchanting and alluring, as well as dangerous and deceitful. That’s the first thing the Bible got wrong. Vipers, with mere bright slits for eyes, who ferociously leapt out at you in anger, and a basilisk, whose huge eyes would never blink, but froze my insides if I dared to make eye contact. So I don’t do that anymore. With some people.

I came across a photograph of a basilisk and me recently. Quite the charmer, with the deadly gaze to go with it. I mutilated it. I tore the picture, over and over, and scrunched up the little pieces. I shoved them back in their little slot in the album. That memory is still there, in its physical form – because sometimes you need proof of old dreams – but now he can’t look at me.

The snake-scales have become
Leaf, become eyelid; snake-bodies, bough, breast
Of tree and human

-Sylvia Plath, Snakecharmer

I never did figure out what this post was supposed to be about. I was too lost in thought to compose something structured, with planned meaning. It will come, though. Until then, I can see my cursor blinking at me hungrily in my reflection, when I stare at my own eyes in the dimmed screen.

 

Say “Yes” to Me.

I

January 27th 2016

He’s pulled me to front counter at the end of my shift. Out of earshot of everyone else. They’re cleaning up. They don’t need instruction, they’ve been doing it the same way, in the same order, for years. Like greasy teenage robots. Lots of things are beeping, but that’s normal. 

I don’t want to talk to him; I don’t want him to tell me he’s disappointed or I need to try harder – because that’s impossible. I keep telling him I’m doing the best I can, but he wants more. 

“I know you can’t switch off”, he begins, “but – ” and said something about not liking it when I give him ‘attitude’.  I guess that must be his word for the thing I do when I stop talking to him after he tells me to forget what’s happening at home and focus on my shift. I walked away from him, not giving him a chance to finish. I know I’ve made him really angry now. 


II

Black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot

For thirty years, poor and white,

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo

(Daddy, Sylvia Plath)

In late 1913, Henry Ford introduced the world’s first production line, to fill the need for cheap, fast (efficient) production. To achieve this he consulted Frederik Taylor, the creator of scientific management theory. This theory is based on the idea of transferring impersonal, scientific method into human resource management. It involved removing autonomy from skilled workers and simplifying jobs into mindless tasks which could be performed by even the most unskilled workers. Taylor argued this would increase productivity and efficiency far more effectively than the old “initiative and incentive” method of motivating employees, which incentivised workers to increase their productivity but gave them the freedom to conduct their routine in any form they wished.

With help from Taylor, Ford was able to reduce the cost of making cars dramatically, and exponentially increased his output simultaneously. Even today he continues to be praised for revolutionising the workplace. At the time, his employees had it pretty good; they were paid far above the award rate and their hours were cut. Today’s workers, who receive neither benefit, remain employed by a rigid system which is suffering invisibly without empathy in its bloodstream.

George Ritzer is an American sociologist who looked at this paradigm later, in 1993. Ritzer’s concept of McDonaldisation is an update of Weber’s bureaucracy theory. It comments on the current “economic and social order” as being comprised of efficiency, calculability, standardisation and control. He argues this concept has “rippled” from fast food human resource structure across many organisations in various industries.

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Standardisation and high modality reproduction are characteristic of today’s ‘efficient’ workplace (image)

These three men have a magnitude of people to answer to. From the drowsy patient, stiffened with pain, staring at a corpse being wheeled out of the building he’s about to be operated in, who asks the doctor what he saw (even though he knows), to that same doctor who doesn’t know the standard answer, and who lost control of the situation when the corpse was sighted, and has forgotten, from thousands of student hours poring over text books, from hundreds of exams filling in tiny dots with a 2B pencil, and who has been taught, from years of practice, how to isolate himself from patients, emotionally, because it’s easier. Twenty years into his career, it’s all he knows. From the social worker, so overcome with grey from her emotionally exhausting work that she has to leave, not having enough support from upper management to stay safely, to the fast food Area Manager who knows that of the most recent three managers employed, none have stayed more than several months. He mindlessly punches those numbers into a new turnover statistic, forgetting that these people have stories which can be learned from. From the woman returning to her workplace after a battle with cancer crossing paths with a colleague who hasn’t been trained in what to say. Because we come to work to produce statistics, results, goods – nothing more. This is a structural issue.

Ultimately, we must remember businesses exist to generate profit. They have a responsibility to society to be profitable to benefit the community in an economic sense, as well as keep its employees at work. But humans are still humans, and they have stories; they have what Kate Bowles refers to as details.

There is a Japanese word; in English we call it kaizen. It means continuous improvement and it’s what organisations all over the world strive to do. Over the last century or two, continuous improvement has been synonymous with increasing efficiency. Specifically this includes eliminating waste and reducing time and cost in standardised processes. These are worthy objectives, but what is the cost of this narrow focus on the humans inside these organisations?

This isn’t how the workplace ought to exist.


II

Arthur Frank says that generosity begins with a welcome: “a hospitality that offers whatever the host has that would meet the need of the guest”, even if that guest may be disruptive or demanding. In her exploration of homosexual and transgender education in schools, Jen Gilbert refers to Derrida’s maxim, “let us say yes to who or what turns up“. She gifts us an anecdote of a party in which a neighbour’s eight year old “boy who may be a girl” turns up in a party dress. The child’s parents laugh it off but the neighbours are uncomfortable with the ‘interruption’; it’s not a norm, nor by the book and therefore they do not know how to act.

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We need to say ‘yes’ to whoever turns up, regardless of unanticipated ‘interruptions’ (image: PDN)

We can relate Gilbert’s discussion of “saying yes” to what turns up in a classroom (walking through the door radiating kindness, ready to listen to twenty students each coming from vastly different homes – some of which may be happy, some broken, some violent, some stricken with illness – and prepared to adapt to their needs) to the workplace. The concept of sonder applies beautifully here. Each person we meet has an intricate, delicate and fruitful life which we aren’t usually exposed to, at least completely, and because we can’t see it, we don’t consider it.

I value the way a compassionate boss won’t fire someone because they need the day off to take care of their mental health. I value the teacher who actually listens to a student’s problems that are affecting their work. I value the compassion afforded to those who are ill, whether be an invisible illness or physical – Maddy Cook 

In short, the sense of empathy embedded in the structure of organisations tends to be highly conditional. Mark Westmoreland  argues that conditional hospitality is somewhat exclusive in the west; it has historically been juridical and regulated. It is concerned with rights, duties and obligations. Neither acceptance, nor empathy, exist in this model. Immanuel Kant presented a perpendicular model; he claims that, in terms of hospitality, the “right of a stranger” is strictly limited to not being treated with hostility.

The latter paragraph sketches a brief but uncomfortable caricature of many industries in Australia (and I daresay beyond). If your manager doesn’t assault you physically and pays you correctly, you don’t complain.

 

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Image: rebloggy

 

The former paragraphs contain beautiful ideas from Frank, Gilbert and Derrida, three exquisite thinkers – but that’s all they are: ideas. A clash sometimes exists between academic theory and physical field work. It’s not usually obvious; we all have a tendency to believe our ideas will work, but when these theories are proposed as answers to real-world problems, we sometimes end up using squares to patch up circular holes. Awkwardness crawls through the gaps and the solution becomes truncated and half-effective at best.

Sadri, Weber and Gentry published a paper on workplace empathy in 2016 which claims that empathy is the quintessential ingredient to effective leadership. Their corresponding study revealed that empathy has a positive relationship with workplace performance. There’s absolutely nothing new here. They go on to present some decent arguments for incorporating empathy in the workplace (aka it increases productivity and efficiency), backed up by solid academic sources. The paper even provides various how-to’s detailing skills on listening and encouraging empathetic discussion. This theory is fluffy, pleasant and encouraging – but in no way practical in making real change.

Talking about empathy is great, telling people how to be empathetic is wonderful – but the whole argument backing up empathy is still aligned to efficiency like a magnet. This might not be enough to push the mammoth shift we need. On a perpendicular scale, efficiency is so deeply embedded into organisational structure that a ‘how-to’ isn’t going to cut it. Even if we manage to convince managers that empathy is important, and we take the time to teach it to them, time constraints make it unreasonable to assume they’ll actually take the time and care to incorporate empathy into their structure. The empathy strategies suggested by Sadri, Weber and Gentry disclaim that each exercise “takes time” – time that efficiency-driven organisations do not have to spare on a regular basis. Structurally this is difficult to achieve.

The conflict between hospitality and practicality is as old as organized medicine. Practical lack of resources is immediately complicated by possibilities of financial gain (Arthur Frank)

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Financial gain overrides genuine care for individual humans; it reduces us to transformational assets rather than existences (image: rebloggy).

Can efficiency goals be realigned so that the most important key performance indicator is staff turnover? If this were the case, empathy might organically reinvest itself into organisational culture as an attempt at understanding, listening and delivering to employees, to keep the staff turnover ratio low. Realistically, the only way organisations can learn to value staff turnover is if they are in a position where they genuinely need staff to stay. Where could this happen? In an economy where the demand for labour is significantly higher than it is now; a world where employers are fighting to hire employees, rather than vice versa. It’s unlikely, in the current economic climate, that this will occur naturally. Indeed, it is far more probable that the power gap will continue to stretch, through the increasing use of robots which are predicted to replace humans in the workplace in the near future.


IV

Not guns, not abuses,

But a thin silence.

Wrapped in flea ridden donkey skins,

Empty of complaint, forever

Drinking vinegar from tin cups: they wore

The insufferable nimbus of the lot-drawn

Scapegoat

(The Thin People, Sylvia Plath)

Injecting empathy into a static organisational structure is a feat by itself, but we’re dealing with a dynamic structure which is becoming increasingly industrialised at an exponential rate. On one end of this structure, as already mentioned, we have employers increasingly treating employees purely as a means for generating profit. On the other end of the spectrum we are victims of corporations which suck data out of our internet practices. This does nothing to shake corporations’ views of people as less than humans.

Firstly we can examine the role the internet plays in tertiary education. A plethora of degrees have become available online. Despite benefits of cost and convenience (efficiency), there is absolutely minimal face to face contact between student and teacher, and between students. Very much the most authentic communication between student and teacher is numerical and/or categorised grades. This strips education of empathy and sets a worrying standard for future adult employees.

Secondly, automated robots have been predicted to “inevitably” replace humans at work, doing everything from making burgers to driving public transport, providing sexual pleasure and writing news stories, according to economist Eduardo Pol. Despite the trajectory of technology for creating robots anywhere close to human capability being far off, robots are likely to slowly transcend upon the workforce. They don’t require empathy, understanding, and certainly not listening. This is no encouragement, nor example, for employers to demonstrate empathy to their staff.

Thirdly, freelance culture is a growing phenomenon. An employer can become a faceless intermediary between freelancer and client. Again, the lack of human contact and expression is a dangerous standard to be setting. I fear that over the next decade, this will become the norm, and we will be even further from setting structural empathy standards than we are today. Not recognising employees, who walk through a door at 9am, produce goods for profit and leave at 5pm, as human beings, has disastrous impacts on organisational culture, multiple industries, and a variety of worlds which exist outside of business.

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When human contact lacks from an organisation process or transaction, efficiency subconsciously overrides empathy (image: Sortra)

This movement can be seen in the way that the migration of humans from places of famine, dire war and natural disasters, has been choked by ideas called borders, and white men in business suits who call some humans “asylum seekers”, and don’t consider their details because of that. Borders are invisible colanders which strain through ‘desirable data’, leaving clumps details caught in the rusty, silver dish. Borders are something that someone decided we had to protect, even though they were never threatened by these people.


V

Say yes to what turns up.

This is where we can start. There’s little we can do to influence efficiency-obsessed men in black suits at the top of bureaucratic hierarchies. Efficiency is their responsibility, they simply don’t have room for deep empathy in their day to day timetables, even if they want to.

There are twenty-three of us in BCM311.

That’s twenty-three workplaces we will become part of over the next several years as we graduate. That’s twenty-three workplaces we can lead by example. If some of us end up in leadership roles, we have the capacity to influence more people directly. As we work our way up corporate ranks, this number just keeps increasing. It’s been predicted that millennials will dance between 6-7 careers in their lifetime; 15-20 jobs each. If you project some numbers, the capacity of the 2017 BCM311 class to brew empathy and listen slowly but stoutly in workplaces all over, surely some change could be predicted. If we manage to influence other people on our way, who go on to ignite and practice empathy on their own paths, the number continues to grow. At a micro level, we have a real chance to make a difference. We can build up to a structural change over several decades, even generations. Norms can be adjusted over time. At this point, perhaps this is all we can hope for.


VI

He messaged me later on.

“I don’t want to come across as saying ‘just turn it off’, as I know it gets hard and you have a lot going on, but I’m just really trying to keep it professional.”


 

Literature Review: Tabooed Topics in Narrative

Article: Breaking with Taboo: Writing about Forbidden Things

Read full article here

Guntarik, O, Van de Pol, C, & Berry, M 2015, ‘Breaking with Taboo: Writing about Forbidden Things’, New Writing: The International Journal For The Practice & Theory Of Creative Writing, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 4-13, viewed 19 August 2017, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14790726.2014.956121


Some stories are hard to swallow. They contain material that is taboo and some would say the taboo is forbidden territory (Guntarik et. al 2015).

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How much of the truth should we mask in storytelling? (image: Tumblr)

What happens when the story involves suicide, murder, crime, war, death, incest or rape? What if these were part of our family stories? And as writers, what do we ‘do’ with these difficult memories? (Guntarik et. al 2015)

The article Breaking with Taboo: Writing about Forbidden Things investigates the difficulties of expressing tabooed issues in narrative. The authors suggest that the starting point for exploring aforementioned taboos is simply to start storytelling with care. They draw on their own ‘tabooed’ experiences to explore this.

Marsha Berry, a Senior Lecturer in creative writing and digital media at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), shares her story of “exiles”; being the Australian-born child of a German woman who escaped Dresden after the atrocities of World War II. She explores how she shared her mother’s sometimes horrific life via post-memory; tragic wartime stories and photographs.

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It’s often difficult to tell the stories of others with authenticity. How do we build their ‘truth’ using facts? (image: noupe)

Caroline Van de Pol, a lecturer in public relations at RMIT, completed her PhD on truth in memoir at the University of Wollongong. In Breaking with Taboo: Writing about Forbidden Things she reflects on the narrative of her sister’s suicide. She notes the ‘facts’; “as the dictionary states, (they) ‘are known  to be true and exist'” (Guntarik et. al 2015). These are the manner and fact of her sister’s death, but little else. Van de Pol goes on to question the relationship between hard facts and the truth, and how this is represented in narrative practice.

I find that the facts alone rarely tell the whole story . . . at times, this truth has often only been revealed when I have allowed myself moments of imaginative play . . . a space where I might pretend to be the inquisitive child again (Guntarik et. al 2015).

The intricacy of sorting between fact and truth made me recall Charlene Bose’s post, The Presentation That Never Ends (And How We Grade It)Charlene considers the complexity of self-representation in the era of social media connectivity. Everything posted online is accessible to a variety of third-parties; we seem conscious of this when choosing how to present ourselves. Given this, Charlene then poses the question of how to represent others in online storytelling. This links nicely to the article’s discussion of truth and fact. How much is okay to share about someone else’s life, especially when their story contains a taboo and may implicate others?

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How do we portray the truths of others? (image: rebloggy)

This is also an issue I touched upon when I composed The Antagonist was a Good Man, a recount of the influence family violence has upon my life. What is okay to write about and what is too taboo to be spoken about? Undeniable facts include that my father physically hurt people in my family and that my parents are separated now. The impact of this damage, and the psychological violence which occurred are less straight forward and remain subjective in nature. This makes it difficult to claim it as truth.

As my family story took shape, transforming into a kind of hybrid, writing it continued to maintain truth as its source, but with imagination as its guide (Guntarik et. al 2015).

Van de Pol also considers how the limitations and biases of memory make writing more difficult, particularly when the narrative is composed after a traumatic event. Kris Christou explored the challenges of memory in his post Words are Powerful Entities which convey the Values of an Individual, through interviewing his mother and analysing the difference between his perception of his father’s diagnosis and hers; also noting his mother’s surprise at the words she chose to convey her version of the truth.

Olivia Guntarik, a lecturer in media communication history at RMIT, examines the role that death plays in our lives; in particular the way we portray others’ stories after death.  She also discusses the need for expression after a tabooed hardship.

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The truth is not always factual (image: The Artroom Plant)

There is, in each survivor, an imperative need to tell and thus to come to know one’s story, unimpeded by ghosts from the past against which one has to protect oneself (Guntarik et. al 2015)

I see this idea reflected in Brooke Eager’s post, entitled A Double-Edged Sword. This piece beautifully explores notions of dealing with the past and coming to peace with it. She explores, perhaps unintentionally, the aforementioned relationship between fact and truth. The fact – what happened to her – did not change, but the truth did over time; her realisation that the assault was not her fault changed her story and subsequently her values.

The storyteller will always see a particular version of the past; broken bits of the past … always pieced together after the facts of the event have taken place (Guntarik et. al 2015).


More questions than answers are raised in this article. This is powerful yet somewhat frustrating. It’s vital that a solution is reached so that these stories can be told. Although it discusses truth as authenticity, this article fails to recommend actual research values or appropriate methodologies in writing tabooed stories. Until a conclusion is reached, research and storytelling of this magnitude ought to be conducted with the fullest intentions of respect and honesty.

-Claire

 

Excerpts from Before

“If you don’t ever reflect, you just stay an idiot” – Jenna Marbles (YouTube comedian)

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image: superwall

19th August 2015

18:30

It’s times like this, when even though my blood is crying as it pumps reluctantly through my veins, I feel perfect. The universe is staring down at me, the cold breeze is belly-dancing at my window, trying to lure me outside. The soft, busy hum of my computer’s engine somehow complements the pin board above me which is decorated with colourful, sporadic notes; a microcosmic world of inspiration. Sitting atop years’ worth of imagination and fear in my journals, the blank white screen of my laptop beckons me closer.

It is 6:34pm. The sun has just fallen.

Now I am ready to live.

_____

12th September 2015

18:20

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image source: favim

Honestly, I’m feeling a lot better. It’s not because anything has been resolved or spoken about, but there’s an odd acceptance exuding about me, the acceptance that there’s nothing I could physically do to change any of it. Except write about it, of course. So here I am.

***

When we got to my car, he went to open the passenger seat door. I quickly pushed in front of him, mumbling that I had to move something. “Your journal”, he said. I don’t think it was a question. I think what he said next was don’t worry, I’m not going to snatch it or read it.

“Yeah, I know”, I whispered. “I’m just going to move it”. He knows that I write and he knows that sometimes it’s about him. Why am I shaking?

***

If we assume Adam Smith’s invisible hand theory to be fate, and institutional intervention to be decisions, suddenly we have a whole new way of looking at why things are the way they are, and maybe even a way of modifying them. The economic battle between efficiency and equity becomes the struggle of head and heart, and suddenly my journal becomes revolutionary (for me).

_____

30th August 2016

10:58pm

Me: hey are you busy?

Her: yes x

That’s our friendship in a nutshell. Paper is easier to communicate with than people.

_____

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image source: Tumblr

14 December 2016

Coldplay concert

I liked watching the lights on everybody’s armbands from the opposite side of the stadium. If I focused carefully enough I could drown out the noise and movement and imagine it was just me, sitting on stony, cold pavement, admiring a brick wall decorated with Christmas lights. Strangely enough, this illusion made me feel much less alone. The only alternative was reality; a voluptuous musical performance which all my friends were consumed by, whilst I sat tapping poetry of pain on my phone before my head exploded. In a stadium dancing with laser beams of triumphant orange and sensual violent, I have never felt more green.

_____

19th August 2017

17:40

That’s enough for tonight.

I’m glad I write.

-Claire

 

The Antagonist was a Good Man

“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

Don’t go back to sleep”

These two lines were extracted from a favourite poem of mine, The Breeze at Dawn, written by Mewlana Rumi. They’ve been speaking to me as I have drafted this post over the past several days. I read an incredibly moving blog post from Kris over the weekend and my mind has not stopped since; families, stories and words – and how we construct them ethically – have been jiving in my mind for days, so here it is. This is a story which belongs solely to my family and me.

Disclaimer: this post will discuss themes of family violence.

A massive hug to my mum for not only giving me her consent for this piece to be written, but her fullest support ♡

2013

I was sitting in a plastic green chair in the middle row of my year 11 legal studies class, shaking and pale-faced. We’d spent the class learning about domestic violence; a topic I’d heard of along the grape vine but never stopped to contemplate nor consider. By the end of that hour, I’d come to a life-changing realisation: domestic violence was infested inside my own family home. Prior to this, I’d known something was wrong; I knew that I and my siblings were scared, I knew that other families were different to mine. I had noticed that my dad’s concoctions of bourbon and coke were steadily growing paler in colour until he almost consumed it straight. You could smell it on him from the front door.

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Home is a foreign and confusing concept now (image: Gretchen Miller)

I had noticed the irony of the relief I felt when I saw him passed out in a field or on the couch and curiously saw this reflected in my mum, brother and sister, because we didn’t have to worry about making him angry whilst he slept. But, I didn’t realise (consciously) that it was wrong and I didn’t realise it was crime. I was only sixteen and I had no idea what to do with this information. I didn’t even know if they realised what was happening; my younger siblings certainly didn’t. Would they hate me if I called the police next time something happened? Is that what my mum even wanted? I never asked any questions; I think, because I was afraid of every possible answer. I did nothing. The situation grew worse.

Two years later, toward the end of my first year of university, my parents separated.

2017

It’s almost been two years since we left my dad. What’s of interest to me now is the storification of what happened. We live in a small town and people have a pathological need to know everything which occurs in another’s life. My mum’s incredible. She was determined not to dishevel my dad’s image in this small town, despite what he had done. The story she put out, when questioned, was “it’s sad, but it’s just one of those things”, implying they just sort of grew apart. It’s a wide stretch of the truth but I copied it nonetheless. I sort of struggle with that, though. I’m quite a private person. One of the hardest things about the separation for me was the questioning from people whom I would normally never share important things about my life with. Colleagues at work, my bosses, friends of friends and more wanted to know why. I just mumbled Mum’s answer because I didn’t want to get into it. It was just easier that way.

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Image: Agnes Cecile

One day a colleague at my workplace at the time said to me “I saw your Dad earlier. He looks so sad, so down. He’s living in that house all by himself, you guys never visit him!” I mumbled something about being busy all the time. How could this be happening? How is my Dad, the perpetrator, the person who single-handedly destroyed our family, receiving sympathy for being alone? If it was physically safe for us to live with Dad, we would. It’s that simple.

From that moment on, I’ve been pretty upfront about the whole thing, when asked (that doesn’t mean I like to be asked, or that I want to talk about it). If there’s one thing I am sure of, it’s that my Dad is not a victim in this scenario.

I asked my mother tonight why she made the choice to keep our story hidden;

“When our marriage ended after almost 25 years I couldn’t tell most people the real reason. I still loved him, we had been together since we were 17, and I felt I needed to protect him. I didn’t want people to think badly of him. In some weird way I had a feeling of embarrassment in admitting to others what I had been through. It took a long time for me to realise I cannot be responsible for something I have absolutely no control over. A part of me still loves him. A part of me always will”.

***

About Violent Stories

The complicated thing is, if there’s a random burglar who breaks into your home and starts to abuse your family, you’d recount the incident as horrendous. He’d be painted as the enemy in every recount. When we hear of indicted criminals, we think and say bad things about them, just like the antagonist of a fictional novel or film. When that person is part of your immediate family, it’s really different. We didn’t live with a hardcore, violent criminal. We lived with a loving dad by day who became a monster by night, fuelled by bottles of alcohol he couldn’t live without. That made it really hard for us to leave him. As soon as you mention alcoholism or domestic violence, a very negative picture is painted of an antagonist, even if they have a good heart deep down (in a sober sense).

What are the implications of this when it comes to ethical and reflexive family storytelling? How do you portray the ‘bad guy’ in your story ethically? When I think ‘ethical’, the first value conjured in my mind is honesty (it’s a Sagittarius thing, look it up). That’s a problem. Honesty means telling the truth, right? How do you tell the truth in a story if it means making someone look really bad? Even if they are really bad (sometimes, not always)? Is it unethical to make someone look bad? Is it more ethical to just not tell my story at all – even though that kind of goes against my value of honesty?

Does this mean that not all stories can be told?

I really don’t like that idea. In a domestic violence scenario, saying no to the telling of a story is the same as saying to a victim, you have something to be ashamed of. We don’t want to listen to you. That’s a powerful push in the wrong direction.

A quick web search tells me that autoethnographic literature in domestic violence is extremely lacking. Is this because of the latter question? Is this something I can contribute to? Current literature is predominantly victim-focused rather than perpetrator focused, and relies on hard facts and statistics rather than qualitative storytelling.

I’ve skimmed the surface tonight, writing this blog. I have years’ worth of journals which contain really powerful, honest and sometimes scary stories. I decided against publishing anything concrete on this post, tonight. I don’t know if I’ll write more on this topic, but we will see. Maybe one day I can write something much more substantial that might have an impact on somebody’s life.

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Image: Pinterest

He still lives in the same town as us, some thirty minutes away. If it was any closer I would be scared. We try to have a good relationship and do things as a family. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. He’s still unpredictable and scary. The difference is, now we can escape it. I’ve learned to take each day as it comes and follow my gut instincts. Normal for me is keeping my car keys really close to me when I visit his house so I can escape if I need to, especially if my sister is with me. This doesn’t mean forgiveness, it means dealing with it on a daily basis, however we see fit. It doesn’t get easier; I don’t think it ever will. Nobody should have to experience what I, my two younger siblings and my mum have lived through. If there’s one silver lining, it’s that the four of us are closer than I ever thought possible. We are unbreakable – and that makes us a story worth telling.

-Claire