To write about sex at all, we must first face down the polite pretense that it doesn’t really matter to us and acknowledge that in the grand scheme of things, nothing could matter more.
I once dated an electrician by the name of Kevin. A good-looking man with sandy coloured hair and a bright smile on his innocent face. He went to Mass on Sundays. But Kevin, despite his pious upbringing, was as corruptible as the next.
During my early twenties, I fancied myself as a femme fatale. Beware any man who came under my spell. I’d ensnare him, steal his virginity, lure an erection from his otherwise limp body, and force him into a penetrating relationship he could not resist, until finally, I dumped him.
The complexities of our bodies derive from our minds, and Sigmund Freud was right, much of it relates to sex. But sex can become confused, not an act of pleasure, desire or of love, but of hostility, of hatred even. And sexuality is bound up in the inextricable nexus between our minds and our bodies.
I have an uneasy relationship with my own body, and so, too, with my mind. I do not want to suggest here that others are as ambivalent as me, but in my exploration of bodies I have come to see how confused I am. Others might be more reconciled to their bodies and minds. Others might be okay about sex, but I doubt it. Somehow, I suspect we all struggle with this most ancient of yearnings, which begins in infancy and childhood in our flesh and blood.
As a child my access to bodies derived from numerous sources. The first, my own body proved unsatisfactory. Something told me I should not look too closely at any of the bits normally covered by clothes. My brothers’ bodies were off limits, too. They slept in separate rooms and did not parade naked in front of us girls. My father, on the other hand, took off his clothes often.
My mother’s nakedness ended at her cleavage, which she shared with the world. Otherwise, she wore a girdle that covered her from mid-thigh all the way up to that cleavage. Her arms were free to move, as were her legs.
And I was free to explore my own arms and legs but my torso, especially the parts below, were off limits. Next, I looked to my father’s art collection; his books on art that took up space in the middle of bookshelf in the lounge room. I borrowed them, one at a time, then hid them under my jumper to smuggle into my bedroom and under my blankets where I could study each image free from detection.
How did I know it was wrong to look at these pictures? In my memory the looking ranks along with other crimes of a far more serious nature: stealing biscuits from the pantry cupboard, ordering lollies without permission from the milk bar account, thinking badly about my mother.
One image stays with me, the painting of two men in the clothes of Roman soldiers who drag a naked woman from a horse. As a child the idea of being dragged off a horse naked thrilled me with a strange tingling pleasure. Does this make me a masochist? I did not see malice in the eyes of the men dragging the woman off the horse’s back. And the naked woman’s expression is one of apprehension but not in my memory, one of terror.
Why then did I decide that bodies held desires that were forbidden? The pictures on the front of the Truth newspaper, of naked women’s breasts aglow, stay with me, too. I found copies the empty blocks of yet to be built properties in the abandoned market gardens of Cheltenham when we first moved there in the sixties. These women simpered for the camera. They seemed to enjoy their nakedness. They women enjoyed being looked at.
Why then when I took my clothes off at night, did I seek to conceal my nakedness? Why as a child when I went to the swimming pool and it was time to change from my wet bathers into dry clothes did I wait in line to get a separate cubicle in which I might change, rather than as some women and girls did, change from my wet clothes and stand naked in front of everyone? Why was I so fearful of my own nakedness but excited by the nakedness of others? In secret.
Does it go back to my father prowling the house at night? Prowling like a fox in the hen house looking for a chicken to eat. Is that how it was? Is that how I imagined it when I shared a room with my older sister and my father came into the room when all was in darkness? When my father moved along the floor on padded feet, silent as a snake, and stood between the bed in which I slept and that of my older sister.
I could hear his breathing and turned to face the wall. I knew to play dead. To be asleep, even if it meant my sister was up for grabs.
My sister was four years older than me. Her bed stood in the middle of the room away from the opposite wall against which mine stood. Her bed jutted out like a doctor’s table; her body ready for examination.
I cannot tell her story. Only what I observed which then becomes my story.
I am the gatekeeper here. I am the one who decides what you as a reader can know, which is different from the way it was when I was a child with a body that was mine but seemed to belong to someone else.
This is a woman’s story, but there are men, too, men like Kevin, who must know something of what it is like to feel disempowered, of what it is like not to own your own body. And as a young woman to imagine your body as a powerful weapon, one you can use to gain control of helpless men like Kevin.
I have an uneasy relationship with my body, not that it often lets me down, but my relationship is more like one of distrust. The inside and the outside are disconnected in ways I cannot fathom. I long for the ease that comes of unawareness, a non-self-consciousness that left me as a twelve-year-old when I first became aware that my body was changing.
As ever it hit me in the summertime, this awareness of bodies, of my own and of others. The way my older sister came with us to the swimming pool on weekends but refused to go into the water. Instead, she rested her body on a towel near the edge on the hot concrete. The only coolness she could allow herself was the splash of water after one of my brothers dive-bombed close by.
On Saturdays, my mother worked in a children’s home in Burwood looking after other peoples’ abandoned children. She worked reluctantly because she needed the money. She worked at a time when most respectable mothers did not work. She had no choice. And so, we children were left at home alone in the care of each other and you could say in the care of our father, who worked only during the week.
On these days, my older sister took responsibility for the running of the household. She washed clothes, load after load, a week’s washing piled high on the laundry floor, for a family of nine children. She cleaned the house, vacuumed, scrubbed, and issued instructions to us little ones about what we must do to pitch in and help. The boys rarely helped. They took off to play, but my younger sisters and I were expected to pitch. We were girls after all.
To this day I marvel at my older sister’s determination to get the house into order, weekend after weekend, while our mother was out working, and our father sat on his chair in the lounge room drinking. By mid-afternoon on hot summer days my younger sister and I made our escape to the local swimming pool but not before we had walked past the open hallway door and seen my older sister perched on my father’s lap. He seemed to whisper in her ear. I could not bear to look. Just as I have found it difficult to look at the photos of my mother half undressed.
Years later after I told my mother about this memory, she spoke to me through misty eyes, ‘The things your father did to me…’
I did not have the courage to ask for details, but I want to know now. I wanted to know what it was my father did to my mother as much as I have wanted to know what it was my father did to my older sister. Otherwise the images float through my imagination and know no bounds.
To this day the thought of making love in the afternoon while children sit outside playing fills me with anxiety. Too much knowledge of sexual behavior too soon can overwhelm a child. Too much sexual knowledge can cripple a child’s spontaneity and natural lustiness. Can freeze-dry her sexuality in time. Even as she can go through the motions as I did in my early twenties, play acting the role of a woman in control.
A colleague once told me it is not unusual for children who have been sexually abused to feel that they are stupid and unintelligent. The experience of being exposed to adult sexuality too soon can fracture a child’s mind. It leads her to believe she should understand matters she cannot possibly understand, and because she cannot understand them, she begins to think she is stupid. And in the process her ability to learn can become further stunted in mind and body.
My sense of my own body growing up is that of a commodity. My body was an object that I needed to prune and pamper if it was to be of any value to anyone. My body was not so much sacred, as the nuns had taught at school, as it was a source of pleasure to men. As long as I tended to it. As long as I kept it small, smell free, and smooth.
This was not easy in adolescence when the onslaught of pimples left my back a ripple of raised lumps. There was a movie on the television screen, Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rodgers. Their bodies sway against the music and his hand brushes against her arms, her skin, her back. She wears a long gown, backless with pencil thin straps. Ginger Rogers whose skin is satin smooth.
I imagined Fred Astaire’s arms on my lumpy back and shuddered; no man would want to put his hand on my skin.
‘If he touches you scream,’ my sister warned me from earliest days. And so, I learned to remain invisible even as I longed for the touch of a man. Not just any man, but certainly not my father.
Each evening, his rough fingers brushed across my forehead in the sign of the cross after I came into the lounge room to say goodnight.
‘Say goodnight to your father,’ our mother said. I did not want to say goodnight. I did not want to acknowledge my existence to my father or to have him recognise me in any way other than as one of the many. One of his many children, one he could not remember, one he would not bother to visit in the night. After all, as second oldest daughter I reasoned, my turn would be next.
As my body shifted and stretched, those tiny buds of breasts swelled into full-grown breasts and saying good night became even harder. It involved leaning over my father as he sat in his low-lying armchair. Then I imagined the possibility of my father looking down my cleavage. I imagined my father recognising that I too now had breasts. An invitation for him to visit me in the night.
His rough nicotine stained fingers brushed across my forehead: ‘In the name of the father, of the son, and of the Holy Ghost.’ A blessing to keep us safe. A Dutch tradition, one our father took with him from his homeland. But as each night wore on and he drank more, brandy from a bottle of Saint Agnes, he shifted from a man of God into a man of desire. A man made up only of a body and of urges he could not satisfy with his wife, she pregnant year after year with babies.
When did I first decide it would be better to travel through life without a body, only one that walked and talked, ate and shat, but not too much of any of these things? When did I decide it was best to remain invisible?
I think back to the nights when my father prowled the house. When he moved from room to room in search of something. I knew to close my eyes, to turn to face the wall, feign sleep, stop my breath for long enough to urge him to pass by my bed. There was nothing and nowhere here for him only a lifeless corpse, a non-existent girl, a little girl whose body had not yet developed into enough of a woman to be of interest to him.
But we do not talk about these things. We did not then. We do not now? These are the things of bodies that remain secret. The generational tug, the sense that girls’ bodies are fair game for some men, even when they breach the taboo of incest.
In the past, psychologists presented Rorschach ink blots to test for personality attributes, now instead they offer photographs of typical family scenes, a kitchen table, people gathered around, and then they ask their interviewees to describe what they see.
The same family can become a family riven by conflict, a family drowning in grief, a family of strangers, a family having fun. The same family can be in equal parts happy, in equal parts sad. To one onlooker, the older male figure in the photo can be seen as gentle; to another he is a despot. We see what we see from behind our eyes within our minds and not so much what we see in the picture when we are given permission to imagine.
There is room then in our imaginings to see all manner of things that arise from within our own experience. We can only imagine from there, however wild and woolly our imaginings. We all come with a past, and we all have an unconscious that is fuelled by experiences that go back to infancy and all the primitive thought processes that existed then, before we could even think, when we experienced ourselves as a storm of sensations, bodies without clear form, arms, legs, mouth, teeth, tongue and insides. Skin, hair, nails, fingers, toes, taste, smell, the sight of objects as yet undefined, wordless, reliant on others outside for our very survival.
One day my father was home sick in bed. He called to my sister. He needed help to get to the toilet.
‘Don’t be frightened of my penis,’ he said to her. She did not want to look at his penis. She could scarcely bear to touch the body of this six-foot three man who leaned on her heavily as she steered him to the toilet. And this was in the daytime.
‘What did he do to you at night?’ I asked my sister for the first time when we were well into our forties.
‘He never penetrated me,’ she said, as if this alone mattered. ‘He only ever masturbated me. And the awful thing is, it felt good. I never told Mum because she seemed so happy when he left her alone.’
There are some who argue that everything that happens to you comes as a direct consequence of your own actions. It’s your fault. You can only hold yourself responsible. I do not ascribe to this school of thought. It smacks to me of infantile omnipotence, a child’s way of viewing the world: It happened to me and therefore it’s my fault.
Original sin. Another category proposed by the Catholic Church to account for our human frailty beginning with Adam and Eve. Of course, it was Eve’s fault. She tempted Adam to eat of that forbidden apple and the rest is history. Eve to her credit was curious but then you have the naysayers – curiosity killed the cat. Too much curiosity is bad for you.
I sat with my mother one night when she was in her nineties and perched on the seat of her walker close to her chair so that she could hear me better. Once again, we launched into her memories of days gone by. We started with her childhood and the glorious days she spent, the first of seven children, on the Marnixplein in Haarlem Holland in a two-storey house, which her physical education instructor father bought in the 1930s when she was a young girl. This time I had a plan. I was on a mission.
I began by asking her questions. How she felt becoming the helper for her parents, younger sister and five brothers after leaving school as a fourteen-year-old.
‘It was okay,’ she said. I didn’t have to do much. Only get up at six o’clock in the morning twice a week to scrub the floors. In those days we scrubbed floors. But it was easy. I only had to scrub the hallway and the kitchen floors. They were made of stone, terrazzo we called it. It was easy and the rest of the day I was free to do as I pleased. Then the war came, and everything changed.’
My mother reached across to feel her shoulder. ‘It hurts when I move, but as long as I sit still, I don’t notice it.’
I was impatient. I wanted to ask questions about my father. I had a store of questions, but I could not ask them straight off.
I wanted to know what happened when I was young, but I did not tell her this. My mother did not like to talk about the hard times. The ‘yuk’ stuff, as she called it. She told me instead about her days as a cub mistress; about camping in the Black Forest with friends; about how the German tanks lined the streets; and how she and her friends were not allowed to take their cameras with them into Germany. The soldiers took away their cameras at a checkpoint and only when they left the country could they reclaim them. ‘The Germans did not want us to see, but we knew. We could see that war was coming.’
I did not want my mother to tell me yet again about the war. I did not want my mother to tell me yet again about her childhood. I wanted her to tell me about mine.
‘It’s hard when you get older,’ my mother said, pausing for breath. You get slower.’
The lights in the room were dim, the way my mother liked them. Every evening she turned on five lamps, one at her bedside, one at her chair, one in the far corner of the room and two behind me in the corridor. The light was golden. The heater pinged off and on. The room was stuffy. My mother’s thin blood needed more warmth.
‘Your father was different when he came to Australia. He changed.’
‘Were you scared of him?’ My mother hesitated. We were approaching unsafe territory.
‘Not during the day, but at nighttime when he…’ She hesitated again. ‘He became violent if I did not do what he wanted me to do.’ She skipped on. ‘He was not always like this.’ A pause. ‘Why did I marry him? I liked his brains.’
It was late. I looked at my watch.
‘You have to go?’
‘I don’t regret that I married your father. I don’t regret a thing’.
I kissed my mother on one cheek and joked that if she had not married my father then none of us her children, would be here. But I missed the moment.
All the way home driving my car through the sleet and wind and rain on the Monash freeway I plotted my next move. A different type of plotting from those early days with Kevin, when the truth and intimacy mattered less to me than giving an appearance of sexual sophistication. That way, no one, including me, needed to know I was still afraid.
Elisabeth Hanscombe is a psychologist and writer who completed her doctorate in 2012 on the topic ‘Life writing and the desire for revenge’. She has published a number of short stories and essays in the areas of autobiography, psychoanalysis, testimony, trauma and creative non-fiction in Meanjin, Island, Tirra Lirra, Antipodes, Southerly, and Griffith Review as well as in Life Writing and in psychotherapy journals and magazines throughout Australia and in the United States. She is winner of the 2014 Lane Cove Literary awards for her memoir, ‘A trip to the beach’ and was short listed for the Australian Book Review’s 2009 Calibre essay prize, long listed in 2011 and 2014, with several book chapters on subjects such as complicated grief, the therapist in film and television, motherhood in midlife, feminism and women’s writing. Her childhood memoir, The Art of Disappearing was published in 2017. She blogs at sixthinline.com