Prima Facie

Prima Facie is a 90-minute one-woman play that centres on Tess (Sheridan Harbridge), a high flying criminal barrister who, after being sexually assaulted, finds herself on the other side of the courtroom.

The play begins with Tess describing the thrill of winning in court and the way she overcame the assumptions of her privileged law school peers to become a successful lawyer. She has fully bought into the theatre of her profession and does not demonstrate a lot of empathy as she dramatically relays the thrill of trapping a witness in the dead ends of their own recollections (“you have stated that you drank four gin and tonics, two vodka shots and numerous glasses of wine. Would it be fair to say that you were drunk?”), and the jokes she shares with her colleagues about “naïve” graduates who get confused about the difference between legal truth and the actual truth (“what if he admits he did it? Do I still have to defend him?”). Only legal truth matters, only legal instincts matter.

Between courtroom victories and after-work drinks, Tess is offered better chambers on a more prestigious floor by a QC that she admires, and also starts dating one of her colleagues, Damien. One night this same colleague rapes Tess at her own house after they have had dinner and drinks together. They have had consensual sex on two occasions- the second time being on the same night as the rape. It is clear to the audience that the act is not consensual; Tess narrates the incident, describing how she struggles but is pinned down, and how she tries to call out but is gagged by Damien’s hand. After 763 days Tess is in court for her hearing, but despite knowing all the ins and outs of the system, cannot convince the jury to believe her.

The format of the play is the key to its effectiveness. As criminal barrister turned complainant, Tess embodies both sides of the law. She fully understands how her own choices (to drink alcohol, o invite a member of the opposite sex back to her house, to seek to advance herself at work) will be (and are) used against her in court, and uncomfortably recalls having done the same thing herself in the course of examining witnesses. The irony is that although the audience hears only her voice throughout the play, ultimately it is her character that is rendered voiceless. The men in this play- the men who rape and the men who uphold the legal system that allows rapists to get away with it- hold the power despite being physically absent. This irony is amplified by the staging, which consists of black background and floor, and a single office chair on a raised platform, drawing attention to the way the legal system theoretically allows women the opportunity to speak in court, but ultimately does not administer this right in a meaningful or effective way.

The playwright Suzie Miller is a former lawyer herself. In the program notes Miller reflects on her experience working within a system that is supposed to deliver justice, but which seems rigged to do the opposite:

The legal system is shaped by the male experience. While innocence/guilt focuses on whether the (usually) male person believes there is consent or not provided from the (usually) female person, it has always been the victims, (usually) women, who are on trial, cross-examined and made to relive their experience, only to be doubted and have their motives for reporting such a hideous crime questioned. Significantly, research shows that women giving evidence in sexual assault cases aren’t believed, even by other women.

The Director Lee Lewis also provides reflections on the play’s broader cultural significance. The focus on Tess’s character taps into the social context of the #metoo movement which aims to render women’s voices audible as a means to challenge male dominated social structures. Lee states that:

[Suzie Miller] writes with a language that has struggled to find a place on the traditionally male stage that is mainstage theatre. She is one of an extraordinary number of female playwrights who have continued to create despite not being produced by major companies… This play won the 2018 Griffin Award. It would not have won ten years ago because the audience did not want to hear this story then.

Ultimately, the play becomes an impassioned plea to change the system. During the trial, Tessa is granted voir dire, an opportunity to speak in front of counsel without the jury. Tessa uses the opportunity to draw attention to the male-dominated nature of the system, and how it is designed to discredit women. Her speech underpins the irony inherent in the title of play. Prima facie means that, at first glance, there must be enough evidence to establish a case. Tessa points out that the memory of rape is crystal clear for women, while the legal system is premised on degrading women’s ability to reliably articulate what they have suffered. As Tess demonstrated to her peers who wrote her off at the beginning of law school, not everything is as it appears at first glance, and if a concerted effort was made to uncover the facts instead of spinning plausible alternate stories at every opportunity, perhaps the legal system would offer some degree of justice to women.

The pain and suffering experienced by Tess is palpable, but there is one aspect of her characterisation that I found particularly challenging to interpret. At the beginning, Tess talks freely about corroding the stories prosecution witnesses have prepared, and states that if the defence wins it is either because they landed a better story or because the prosecution didn’t execute their case properly. Despite the pantomime Tess willingly participates in when in court, she seems to be able to morally exculpate herself from the shortcomings of the system, but then at the end of the play she talks about how her faith in the legal system has been broken.

How are we to read this? Is she reckoning with the way she morally deluded herself during her courtroom battles to pursue the particular image of career success that she desired? Or was she an accomplice in her own defeat? The latter strays towards victim blaming, which the play is ultimately trying to redress. My preferred interpretation is that our society as a whole is implicated in the ongoing maladministration of justice for women; the legal system’s poor grasp of how sexual assault affects women is shaped by both the misogyny that runs through our culture, and by our failure to defend women from it.

Prima Facie was a timely, well-acted and gripping play that could well be a catalyst for social change.

Written by Suzie Miller

Directed by Lee Lewis

Canberra Theatre, 29 June 2019

Griffin Theatre Company


Gloria Bell

[background music here]

As a general rule, I hate wishy-washy reviews, but this might be one of them. Bear with me though. It is possible that ambivalence may be the point.

It started off promisingly enough. Palace Cinema was offering tickets to advanced screenings of Gloria Bell, a film written and directed by Sebastian Lelio, starring Julianne Moore as a fifty-something divorcee looking for love on the dance floors of Los Angeles. One night she bumps into Arnold (John Turturro) and things move very quickly. The main aspect of the plot- if there is one- is Arnold’s character: a poetry-reading ex-marine who claims to be divorced but constantly fields calls from his irate (ex?) wife and daughters and disappears suddenly for long stretches.

Most of the scenes, including the ones of Gloria and Arnold on dates, are of a mundane nature. They feature Gloria attending dinners with her children, doing her laundry, repeatedly shooing an errant cat out of her house, putting up with the yelling of the suicidal maniac in the flat above her, and generally being nice to everybody, including her clients. (She works for an insurance company and deals with car crashes all day… clearly a metaphor for what her life is about to become).

All around Gloria people are dying. Figuratively, not literally. Over lunch, her ageing mother foreshadows that she may not leave behind much of an inheritance, while reminding her that life goes like that (cue finger snap). A colleague has a meltdown over her meagre lack of retirement savings (“I’m going to have to work until I’m eighty”) and is subsequently retrenched. Her daughter, showing a video of her new Swedish dreamboat boyfriend surfing ridiculously huge waves, reminds Gloria that we could all die at any moment. Not long after they meet, Gloria and Arnold are sitting in bed talking, and Gloria mentions an article in the newspaper about cell rejuvenation, which claimed that the skin cells covering their arms and legs might only be ten years old.

Nevertheless Gloria is not immune. Visiting the optometrist, she is told she has to take eye drops from now on to prevent blindness. Drop by drop, the rest of her days are measured out for her. The film wants you to know that the clock is ticking, and as it meanders along you are definitely conscious of time. But when I started to feel the drag, I paid more attention. I could feel the repetitiveness and emptinesss of Gloria’s days, and wondered whether the reaction in my own body was a stirring of empathy; a recognition of the empty spaces within my own life. As Gloria’s life unspools and the passage of time becomes disorientating in its repetitiveness, the sameness resembled the time warp that happens when you are grief-stricken. Grief features in the form of her adult children, neither of whom “need” her. Her son has a small child and her daughter leaves California to join her boyfriend in Sweden where they await the birth of their hastily conceived baby. You start to wonder where the meaning -of both Gloria’s life and the film- is located.

But the banality ticks by and Gloria keeps being nice to everybody: her clients, her ex-husband and his new wife, her children, her colleagues. And Arnold. After disappearing without explanation, he reappears equally without one, and takes Gloria on an impromptu mini-break to Caesar’s Palace. Gloria professes to find the complex- essentially a theme park for adults- beautiful, and spends a lot of time looking around in wonderment. The night almost descends into a maelstrom that is almost hyperreal, with Gloria’s drunkenness backlit by neon lights. Arnold is nowhere to be seen.

Caesar’s Palace is the clue to the meaning of the film. It is the apotheosis of the American dream; everything is bright and sparkly and over-the-top, but empty at heart. Mirage-like, it reflects the lack of substance embodied by Arnold (close by, there is actually a resort named The Mirage), which is in turn encapsulated by his profession: Arnold owns his own amusement park. Early in their courtship, he takes Gloria there to shoot paint balls at targets and gawp at grown men re-enacting military combat. This scene is disorientating in its invocation of simulacra, but at Caesar’s Palace the simulation is complete. The complex aims to give visitors a taste of the Roman Empire, but the Roman Empire as imagined by Hollywood in the first half of the twentieth century. In other words, a simulacra of a simulacra. (But it gets even more meta: this film is a remake of Lelio’s 2013 Spanish language film of the same name. As an article in the new Yorker suggested, he could “sue himself for plagiarism”).

Caesar’s Palace also clinches the superficiality of other aspects of Gloria’s life. Gloria is overjoyed when another woman at her favourite nightclub asks her if she has had plastic surgery on her face (she hasn’t). She cuts a stylish figure and her body, which has borne two children, is remarkably toned. For someone who is an insurance clerk she rents a very nice- looking apartment, also tastefully decorated. Her car has leather seats. Everyone around her is white. But what kind of life is this, in an anonymous, car dependent concrete jungle where being mistaken for someone who has had plastic surgery is the climax of your existence? Unfortunately for Gloria, most of the time she doesn’t realise she is looking at mirages.

The cat- presumably a neighbour’s, is a kind of omen. Gloria herself remarks that it reminds her of the cats in Ancient Egypt that were said to accompany mummies into the afterlife. For a while it seems she may be crossing the Styx (ok, that’s Greek mythology but you get the point) when her mother bails her out of Caesar’s Palace after Arnold does another runner. She returns home partially shod, incapacitated to the point where her mother has to help her get dressed, and with what is presumably the hangover to end all hangovers. The cat awaits her, and she is later seen feeding it, resigning herself to the possibility that the animal presents what she cannot obtain from the people around her: a reliable relationship.

Until the junket to Caesar’s Palace, it was hard to tell whether the film was a self-indulgent ride through the emptiness of modern existence, or whether it was taking the mickey. Likely it is both. In true existential fashion, Gloria’s only option is to give in to the meaningless. One hopes she learns to recognise a mirage, but the conclusion is ambiguous. At the wedding of her close friend’s daughter, Gloria dances on her own to “Gloria” (If everybody wants you, why isn’t anybody callin’?/ You don’t have to answer/ Leave them hangin’ on the line), her own tune, except that it’s not. Is she giving in to self-love, reinforcing the cult of individuality that underpins her empty society, or is she at peace with her fate?

Gloria Bell was often very awkward- so much so that at the end I felt apologetic for dragging my friend to it. However, we both came out feeling oddly hypnotised, and the following morning I woke up disorientated, still mesmerised by the bright lights of LA, and I felt a surge of gratitude for my extremely reliable partner. Clearly, the film did its job after all.

Belated summer reading

While I’ve read lots of great books recently (hello, Sally Rooney) I haven’t written any reviews. Conveniently, I stumbled across a review I wrote back in my summer break which I had forgotten about. It talks about three great feminist memoirs: Emilie Pine’s personal essay collection Notes to Self, Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object and Viv Albertine’s To Throw Away Unopened.

In her piercing and gripping essays, Pine reflects on her troubled teenage years, and the ways in which she has internalised the prevailing ideology that, as a woman, she should not speak up. About anything. But especially about the painful experiences that are relegated to the sidelines purely because they are regarded as female experiences. While her essays tackle structural issues in Irish society, such as the illegality of abortion and (formerly) of divorce, the way the Constitution privileges unborn babies over their mothers, and the way the neoliberal ideology underpinning university administration places undue stress on academics, Pine also tackles the taboo: menstruation, body image, self-confidence, and sexual assault. She cogently links a male colleague’s comments about her “cute” appearance to the broader iniquities of the patriarchy, writing “[usually] sexist comments in the workplace don’t involve references to genocide, and this can make them easier to live with, but also easier to miss.” She is also highly attuned to the nuances of privilege and silence, making reference to the irony that sometimes she can struggle to publicly call out misogyny, but at the same time, as a lecturer, she talks for a living: “you can be silent and loud at the same time, it turns out.” Each essay is filled with insight, compassion and forgiveness- including for herself. This book won the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year award 2018 and I would urge everyone to read it- once I started I literally could not stop.

Valenti’s memoir is a disturbing catalogue of the sexist violence that has surrounded her since she was born. Growing up in an under-privileged borough of New York, Valenti was confronted by flashers and molesters on the streets and on the subway as she made her way to school. Generations of women before her have experienced sexual assault and abuse. A long line of boyfriends treated her badly. Then, as she became a feminist writer, she started receiving death threats, and had to move out of her own home when her daughter was very young to escape these threats being carried out.

Like Pine, Valenti also interrogates the silence that has been enforced on generations of women in her family. Valenti talks about how her mother and grandmother were both sexually abused, by either family members or close family acquaintances, and how she herself has been raped. Her call for everyone to speak out to protect women has taken on a new urgency with the birth of her daughter who has selective mutism, and therefore finds it literally impossible to speak in front of strangers.

These disclosures are all shocking and made me recommit to calling out misogyny when I see it. However, the thing that really drove home to me how the struggle for our own bodies is still subject to institutionalised ownership and control is when Valenti has her baby. She writes “no one quite prepares you for the sheer number of people whose hands will be inside you”. Despite the doctors making the decision that she was having a caesarean, the nurse still shaved her vagina. How does that happen?

To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine, formerly of the punk band The Slits, is a reflection on her mother’s life and death. After her mother dies, Albertine finds a bag among her mother’s possessions with the label “to throw away unopened.” Naturally, she opens it.

The bag contains clues about her mother’s experiences that she rarely discussed, including her enforced abandonment of her son from her first marriage. This is a caustic, empowering and heartbreaking book in which Albertine is brutally honest about her own shortcomings and struggle to fight back against sexism and violence, but also about the irreconcilable inequities within families and between siblings. After a spectacular physical fight with her sister as their mother lays dying, Albertine later reflects that they had been set up for such a fight for nearly six decades, because her mother nurtured competition between her daughters. What stands out is Albertine’s appreciation of, and reconcilement to, the complex relationship she had with her mother. While there were moments in which the only support she had was from her mother, at other times, particularly during her parents’ divorce, both parents behaved abominably towards Albertine and her sister. When interviewed by the Guardian, Albertine said:

Some people will say that I’m bitter and twisted, but so what? I’m 63 and I’ve been an outsider as far back as junior school. When you’ve fought and fought to keep positive and to keep creative even though there was not a space to be creative, well, you show me any human who is not angry after 60 years of that.

I can’t wait to get my hands on Albertine’s first memoir, Clothes Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. You can also listen to an interview by RN’s Kate Evans with Albertine on a podcast extra of the Bookshelf.


Between Authenticity and Distraction: Sebastian Smee on the inner life

When I was in year eleven, my English Literature class studied To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Initially the length of the sentences, some of which are half a page long, came as a shock. On the surface not much happens, also a strange reading experience for a group of pimply students who had come to understand plot as a series of external events inducing an effect on the protagonist. Mr and Mrs Ramsay, their eight children and some guests including the aspiring painter Lily Briscoe rent a cottage by the beach, where they all grapple with the elusive nature of meaning and the ephemerality of being. Written in stream of consciousness from multiple characters’ perspectives, the structure and flow of the novel challenged the prevailing view of history as objective; a current of external events whose footprint was material. Towering over the characters both literally and figuratively is the lighthouse, a beacon of security in rough weather, and a guiding light in a dark night of the soul. The characters set off to reach the lighthouse, and their physical journey outward to it parallels their individual journeys inward to a place of greater understanding.

I grew to love this book, and Woolf’s work more broadly. There was something soothing in the way she drew connections between her characters’ inner states and the world around them. She acknowledged that we process events and observations on a profound level, and that the passage of time is experienced subjectively. The fluidity, ambiguity and bracketed interruptions that mark her style represent the interplay between our inner and outer worlds, and reveal the ways in which the material is superseded by memory. An experience can be fleeting, but its effect is felt, and can take on a life of its own, in one’s inner eye for long afterwards – perhaps a lifetime.

It is this inner life that concerns art critic Sebastian Smee in the latest Quarterly Essay. While the inner life is a concept that remains difficult to define and pin down, Smee is certain (and I agree with him) that we are losing our ability to both cultivate it and appreciate it. Smee argues that this is largely due to our willingness to give ourselves over to social media and other forms of technology which promise us connectivity, new relationships and entertainment. He asks whether we are adapting ourselves to fit this software and, consequently, reducing the depth of human connection and understanding that we bring to our existence. His fear, and the whole point of the essay, is that “as we live more and more of our lives online and attached to our phones, and as we are battered and buffeted by all the informational, corporate and political surges of contemporary life, this notion of an elusive but somehow sustaining inner self is eroding.”

I came across Woolf at a precipitous moment in history. It was 2006, a few years after Facebook was launched. Even then Facebook seemed to be more than a passing fad amongst teenagers; the “responsible adults,” namely parents and teachers, were also using it. Though the craze could partly be explained by its novelty, evidence was already there of the enduring clique it was to become. A few years later, one of my friends revealed he had missed a few weddings because the invitations were only sent out on Facebook. A colleague of my mother found out on Facebook that her grandfather in England had died because her cousin posted about it before anyone bothered to telephone the extended family in Australia. “Is nothing private anymore?” my mother wondered. But privacy is distinct from inner life. “Privacy,” writes Smee, “is linked to political freedom” and “refers to what you do and think away from the interested, potentially controlling eyes of others. Inner life is different. Next to it -and despite all we hear about privacy- privacy is a shallow concept.”

But what is the inner life? The idea of an inner self is an abstract concept. Both the experience of it and its definition are, like the lighthouse in Woolf’s novel, elusive. From the essay’s early pages, Smee grounds his exposition in art and literature, rather than science, arguing that our capacity for rich internality is infinitely more complex than corporations, armed with their algorithms, would have us believe. His description of the possible constituents of an inner life is profound and beautiful:

It has to do, I assume, with your age and personal history, with the ebb and flow of chemicals inside your brain, and with your body’s itches and aches. But also, I would say, with your apprehensions of beauty, your intimations of death, what is going on inside you when you are in love, or when your whole being is in turmoil.

Instead of turning to psychology and theories of consciousness and personality, Smee turns to writers and artists such as Chekhov and Lucian Freud. Chekhov is invoked as a unifying reference throughout the essay. Smee refers to his short story, “The Lady with the Dog,” about a man with two lives: “everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him… was hidden from other people” and “all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth…. All that was open.”

A key question invited by the premise of Smee’s essay is: if our capacity for nurturing and paying attention to our inner lives is eroding, when was its heyday? It is easy to romanticise the past and yearn for an imagined time when things were simpler. Smee acknowledges that the distinction between public and private selves is not a unique twenty-first century phenomenon. It makes me think of Oscar Wilde, whose complex position as both insider and outsider allowed him to write theatre that revealed his contemporaries’ public fashions and private fancies. I also think of Jane Austen, who cannily dissected her society’s performative selves, false friendships and mercenary hypocrisies. But surely in the historical moments in which Austen and Wilde were writing, there were times when they would have been genuinely alone. Death was never far away. Apart from social occasions, their connection to the outside world was through the postal service, which was limited by human or equine energy, the weather, and the quality of the roads. Austen lived her whole life without going abroad because of the war between England and France. So, presumably, alone at night with only the candlelight for company, people had to nurture their imaginations, and found it more difficult to be distracted from the contemplation of the human condition. Today, conversely, as we “stare at our screens all day” and “feel visibly bereft without our phones” it “gets harder… to be alone with ourselves or to pick up a book; harder still to stay with it.”

As Smee argues, the internet has allowed our deceptions and social performances to become entrenched on a new level. Cyber bullying and trolling demonstrate how easy it is to nurture the fictional selves that we create online without being forced to confront their lack of authenticity, or question our motivations and the integrity of our relationships. Children “are encouraged to present performative versions of themselves online… concocted from who knows what combination of software design, peer pressure and fantasy” which “appear to take on greater and greater substance in the formation of their characters.” Are we able to tell what is real and what is not? Smee argues that, on some level, we understand that we are being duped, but that surrendering to the ulterior version of reality that technology offers is part of the attraction. He remains bewildered by, though empathetic towards, our apparent “eagerness… to make ourselves smaller” by conforming to tech companies’ goals of capturing and commodifying our time and attention, thus perpetuating the reductive algorithms that such corporations derive from our data footprint.

An explanation for our inability, or unwillingness, to break with the virtual world is the missing link in Smee’s essay. While lamenting our behaviour, he does not analyse how it is shaped by the social conditions arising from late capitalism. Ultimately, this impacts on the strength of his suggestions for reconnecting with our inner selves. At the end of the essay, he contends that nurturing an inner life is about acknowledging our own mortality and paying attention to the things around us. In a theoretical sense, this is obviously, manifestly, true. But in a practical sense, it is an oversimplification. Something is stopping us, so what it is? Smee himself acknowledges in an earlier part of the essay that our awareness of our mortality is not enough to make us turn inwards. Rather, as he observes, anxiety about death sends us outwards, to:

disperse ourselves, by being as widely visible as possible. Social media, and the internet generally, make this feel possible, to an unprecedented degree. They allow us to lay before the world (in the hope that the world will be watching) the things we love, the things we hate, and a mediated image of our lives that can seem to rescue us from the threat of oblivion.

Though it may be born out of panic, this state of affairs is also the logical endpoint of consumerism. The acquisition of material objects is a distraction from oblivion. I shop, therefore I am. Similarly, dispersing oneself through the panopticon of the internet is about the accumulation of likes and followers, and the pursuit of the viral. It bears a resemblance to shopping, but we pay with our performances and in return receive attention that we take to be an affirmation of human connection, although (at least to start with) we know that what we are experiencing is not necessarily authentic. Our devices offer us a simulacrum of human connection.

Simulacra is a concept of simulation popularised by the French philosopher and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard posited that, as the simulacrum develops, its relationship to reality changes. In the words of theorist Robin DeRosa, “first, it reflects reality; next it hides it; then it hides that it is hiding it; and finally, it replaces it so that the original is impossible to decipher.” In the consumer age, as we exhaust material options, we pursue simulacra. Industry and science acquiesce to our demands for the next big thing, producing ever-more inflated versions of the previous big thing. A simple but ubiquitous example is the development of artificial flavours. Prior to the 1960s, artificial flavours were not expected to completely replace naturally occurring flavours but today, most products on supermarket shelves contain them. We are surrounded by simulacra, but often take it for granted that they are the real deal.

Our preference for simulacra also underlies our relationships with the internet and our devices. Social media and applications emerged from the same consumer ideology that governs most, if not all, other areas of our lives. They nurture our expectation of instant gratification. We’re not easily extricable from these devices because the logic that holds us captive to them – the logic of capitalism- is so ubiquitous, we have come to believe there is no alternative. The hyper-connectivity that we are promised is a kind of pseudo-connection, a hollowed out version of our most intimate need that has been sold back to us. In short, our addiction to our smart phones and social media represents the quintessential triumph of the capitalist model.

It then falls to Smee to suggest a way out of the mire. As important as art is to Smee, he avoids the easy claim that art and literature are panaceas. Instead, he suggests that “[finding] ways to pay attention again to our solitude” and “daring to hope that we may connect that solitude to the solitude of others,” constitute the balm we so desperately need. Nevertheless, I would argue that connection is a basic function of art. When an artist creates art, they are seeking to expunge themselves of something that disrupts their internal equilibrium, and to put out into the world an object that embodies this strive for clarity and meaning. When I engage with art that that really moves me or gets me thinking, I feel connected, in a small way or a larger way, to the artist and my fellow gallery visitors who are also caught up in the moment. Fundamentally, art is a way to find a moment of peace, the memory of which can sustain us after it has receded.

Woolf understood this predicament. In the third and final section of To The Lighthouse, as Mr Ramsay and two of his surviving children embark on their journey, Lily Briscoe seeks to finish the painting she started ten years before. As she tries to realise her vision, she focuses on a space on her canvas, which draws her “out of gossip, out of living, out of community with people into the presence of this formidable ancient enemy of hers- this other thing, this truth, this reality.” But in a moment, her vision, sequestered in a hidden part of herself, bursts through, providing an impulse for the completion of her painting:

She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done, it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.


Works cited

Beaudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981.

Robin De Rosa, “Preface” in Simulation in Media and Culture: believing the hype, 2011.

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 1927.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

[contains spoilers]

It is most important to keep yourself very still. Even breathing can remind them that you are there, so only very short, very shallow breaths. Just enough to stay alive. And no more.

As Elaine Showalter notes in her influential book The Female Malady, “madness has been the historical label applied to female protest and revolution.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, when women in Britain were campaigning for access to the vote and to universities, hysteria was the most common of all the nervous maladies to be associated with the feminist movement. She also points out that men benefitted from women’s actual experience of psychosomatic illness. In addition to using it to rhetorically delegitimise women’s calls for equality, its disabling effects prevented women from expending energy on campaigns. But perhaps Showalter’s most important point is her reading of the origins of women’s mental distress, contending that throughout history women have suffered because of their traditional role, rather than mental illness being a deviation from it. Until the mid-twentieth century- and echoes of this are still heard today – the options afforded to women did not allow them to fashion their own narratives or public presence: you disappeared into marriage and motherhood, or you could very well have disappeared into an asylum.

The consequences of feminine “impropriety” are the subject of Maggie O’Farrell’s 2006 book The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. A young woman, who calls herself Esme, although her given name is Euphemia, survives a childhood tragedy (her baby brother dies from typhoid) and goes on to become a “difficult” young woman. Her family, burdened by Esme’s reluctance to get married and preference for books and education over banal social niceties, incarcerates her in an asylum where she spends the next six decades. The story cuts between the 1940s and the present, when Esme is released because the asylum is being closed, and is taken in by Iris, a thirty-ish single woman who, as a distant relative, has unknowingly inherited guardianship of her.

O’Farrell’s writing is beguiling and magical, her concerns with memory, family, secrets and everyday violence timeless and penetrating. Australian readers may be familiar with O’Farrell through her 2017 memoir I Am, I Am, I Am, a haunting and lyrical series of vignettes that detail her seventeen brushes with death, from contracting encephalitis in childhood to narrowly escaping the clutches of a psychopathic killer. When she was hospitalised with encephalitis, O’Farrell was not expected to survive, then when she did, it was predicted she would never walk again. Happily, today she retains her ability to walk, but, the disease having made “lacework” of her cerebellum, her coordination and sensory perception are severely impaired. While her memoir may have been a way to expunge herself of the visceral horror each brush with death left her with, O’Farrell ostensibly wrote it to give courage to her elder daughter, who has a severe immune disorder that results in as many as a dozen anaphylactic episodes a year. Everyday items have the potential to kill her. Consequently, O’Farrell and her family cannot travel more than twenty minutes from a hospital. They cannot allow visitors to the family home to bring items that most other people taken for granted. They exist, O’Farrell writes, “in a state of high alert.”

A former journalist, she also occasionally writes on assignment for various publications. Her recent article in the Guardian on her chronic back pain, like her memoir, reveals an intuitive grasp of the secrets of the body, and the way memories and past experiences can be reawakened through somatic phenomena. When, working as a journalist in the 1990s, O’Farrell experienced pins and needles in her back and shoulder, her boss worried that she had RSI, and sent her off to the company physiotherapist. But O’Farrell knew better. In between making phone calls and chasing copy, she had a “sensation that there was something behind me, something only I could see, nebulous and malevolent, something I thought I had outrun, a long time ago, but here it was, back to haunt me, placing its clammy hand on my shoulder and saying, you didn’t think you’d get away that easily, did you?”

Bodily hauntings are a recurring theme of her fiction. Peppered among her novels are characters who are prompted, through what can start out as an innocuous occurrence, to re-evaluate the significance of a past experience. In her debut novel, After You’d Gone, a young woman goes on a mental excursion through her past after being injured in an accident. Her Costa award-winning 2010 novel The Hand That First Held Mine jumps back and forth between the 1950s and the mid-2000s, revealing the ways in which strangers’ lives can be indelibly linked. Secrets are revealed through experiences of birth and death, highlighting once again the way in which O’Farrell’s writing thrives on the idea of the truth making itself known through our bodies. And in her most recent novel from 2016, This Must Be The Place, referred to by one critic as her “break out,” a lecturer in linguistics, Daniel Sullivan, must come to grips with the grief he has spent his life running away from.

O’Farrell’s writing is underpinned by an acute appeal to the senses. Sometimes her imagery is intensely sensual, at other times sparse, but it always manages to add depth and convey emotion. She often alludes to action that occurs off stage or in the background, which underlines her preoccupation with excavating our past to understand how we came to land in the present: “Somewhere out of sight a child is crying. The dog stands in the doorway, watching the tiny figures of people walking along the bridge high above them. Sometimes this street feels so deep cut into the city it’s as if Iris is leading a subterranean existence.” These sentences, taken from The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, exemplify O’Farrell’s talent for melding description with penetrating insight. Appearing early in the novel, they allude to key themes in the story: the ways in which our lives are influenced by what has come before, including by grander occurrences that we have no control over, yet in whose shadow we find ourselves existing.

In The Vanishing Act, the narrative voice switches between the third person, focusing on the lives of Esme and Iris, and first person from the perspective of Esme’s sister, Kitty, whose role in Esme’s incarceration is part of the intrigue. The style is unsettling, with no clear-cut answer as to whether Esme has an intellectual disability or mental illness. At times I speculated whether she could be on the Autism spectrum, then wondered if I could be blinded by the prejudices of my own era, which have their origins in the very ideas that led to the incarceration of women like Esme. Other women in the asylum have tragic stories, and, like Esme, have experienced significant grief or trauma:

There was Maudie, who married Donald and then Archibald when she was still married to Hector, even though the one she really loved was Frankie, who was killed in Flanders… In the next beds were Elizabeth, who had seen her child crushed by a cart, and Dorothy, who was occasionally moved to strip off all her clothes.

In an interview with the Guardian, O’Farrell advised that these stories are all true; she came across them while researching conditions of asylums, and discovered that some of her acquaintances had had relations incarcerated.

While these days Esme’s presence in the asylum would be regarded as an abuse in and of itself, her treatment at the hands of the authorities is mostly portrayed with an understatement that serves to reveal its insidiousness.  When Esme spends the night at Iris’s house, she sleeps in her coat “buttoned up to her neck” and barricades the bedroom door with an armchair, revealing protective behaviours she learnt in the asylum. So it is in the asylum that Esme becomes docile. This was after all their intended purpose: to iron out the kinks in the personalities of rebellious women who bucked against what Charlotte Wood has called “the natural way of things.” The discipline meted out in the asylum via the punishment of individuality and the inculcation of “appropriate conduct” through brutality also results in Esme’s erasure. After her incarceration she became persona non grata to her family, but she also learns to vanish herself as a coping mechanism:

She shuts her mouth, closes her throat, folds her hands over each other and she does the thing she has perfected. Her specialty. To absent yourself, to make yourself vanish… Even breathing can remind them that you are there, so only very short, very shallow breaths. Just enough to stay alive. And no more… Concentrate. Really concentrate. You need to attain a state so that your being, the bit of you that makes you what you are, that makes you stand out, three-dimensional in a room, can flow out from the top of your head…

With this magical thinking, her discipline is complete. To be a good woman is to be a non-entity.

There is a cruel, ironic element in the way that Esme’s intellectual thirst is her downfall. She wants to acquire knowledge, but not the right kind. By refusing to husband hunt, she refuses the only sexual outlet her society permits, and thus denies herself a sanctioned expression of sexuality. Despite many of her peers ostracising her, a boy takes an interest in her, and her family pushes her to accept his invitations. She is initially uninterested at an intellectual level, but when he makes physical advances, she becomes curious. Alas, she has not been warned of the dangers that lie in wait for her as a woman; she cannot avoid becoming his prey. She gives birth in the asylum, where the staff assume she will simply forget about her child.

Esme’s sister, Kitty, encounters marital problems; her husband refuses consummation. Neither of them possess the requisite knowledge, and their times prevent them from seeking advice. When Kitty hears that Esme has given birth in hospital, she does not realise that her sister had been raped, and sees her child – the only evidence of a woman’s worth- through jealous eyes:

I don’t think, until that moment, I’d fully realised what had happened, what she had done. She had done that with him. And in me rose an anger. How had she known and not me? She was younger than me, she wasn’t as pretty as me, she certainly wasn’t as accomplished as me, she wasn’t even married and yet she had managed to…

Kitty takes possession of Esme’s son and spends the rest of her life erasing the memory of her sister in order to keep up the pretence that she has imbibed the requisite knowledge for successful womanhood.

The novel’s only flaw is that the juxtapositioning of Iris’s and Esme’s lives are a little too clean cut. Esme is unquestionably a victim; Iris has free reign, her own sexual transgressions going unpunished. These include an affair with a married man and a fledgling relationship with her step-brother. While these actions add complexity to Iris’s character, they downplay the ongoing presence of misogyny in contemporary women’s lives, and the way our behaviours and aspirations are still guided by the sexism that we have internalised. However, this qualm aside, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is compulsively readable, heartbreaking, and endlessly though-provoking.

Great feminist reads

Over the last two months I have had the privilege of reading some fantastic texts that delve into our society’s enduring misogynistic values. These include two novels, The Wife (Meg Wolitzer) and A Separation (Katie Kitamura), the essay collection Notes to Self (Emilie Pine) and the memoirs Sex Object (Jessica Valenti) and To Throw Away Unopened (Viv Albertine). In this post I share some observations that didn’t make it into my review of A Separation and The Wife.

When I was discussing the film adaptation of The Wife with some friends (this was before I had read the book), I expressed some puzzlement at it being set in the early 1990s. Apart from a reference to Clinton which did not serve the plot in any overt way (other than producing a shadow of irony at his own looming infidelity), there didn’t seem to be a need for the plot to take place in that historical moment. One of my friends suggested that it was necessary because it would be unbelievable that a woman in our present day and age would sell herself so short.

But is it unbelievable? Women still pay a price for being intelligent or successful (or both). In The Wife Drought, Annabel Crabb discusses the inverse relationship between a woman’s income and the amount of responsibility she bears on the home front. According to research uncovered by Crabb, once a woman’s income hits two thirds of the total household income, she increases her share of unpaid work at home. The amount of unpaid domestic work that Australian men do, conversely, remains stable regardless of their employment status or income. I can’t help but feel this is a form of punishment; that there is an underlying attitude among male spouses that women need to be reminded where they really belong.

My formative experiences certainly demonstrate the persistence of entrenched sexist attitudes that devalue women’s autonomy and ambition. When I was in high school in the 2000s, the prevailing view was that guys don’t like girls who have their heads stuck in a book, and most girls at some time or other downplayed their intelligence. The Australian writer Anna Spargo-Ryan recently recounted on Twitter how, upon receiving her school leaving results, her boyfriend at the time wouldn’t speak to her until she had apologised for doing better than him. In my early twenties, when I still harboured a dream of winning a place at a prestigious overseas university, my boyfriend at the time told me straight out that if I was accepted into that university our relationship would be over. I should have dropped him on the spot but I didn’t. At the back of my mind a little voice said: “this is all there is: there is no alternative.” Keeping your talent under a bushel is still the price a woman may be required to pay to stay in a relationship, and sometimes acquiescing to that is easier than facing your society’s belief that ambitious or intelligent women are unlovable.

The self-entitlement of the male characters in both The Wife and A Separation is unsettling but infinitely familiar to female readers. Such recognition both shocks and relieves; it made me think of the ways I have fallen short in standing up to misogyny, particularly in past relationships. It is alarming to confront one’s own impotence in the face of sexism, but liberating, in a way, to see its insidious nature laid out so eloquently as a structural feature of our society, rather than as a personal failing.