How to oc­cupy the mind of a mon­ster

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - KATE GRENVILLE

WRIT­ING fiction takes you into some strange ex­pe­ri­ences. For me the weird­est was the in­ner world of Al­bion Gi­d­ley Singer, late 19th- cen­tury gen­tle­man and in­ces­tu­ous fa­ther, the cen­tral char­ac­ter in my novel Dark Places. He’s a mon­ster: ar­ro­gant, bul­ly­ing and vi­o­lent in word and deed. He’s also a stunted, fright­ened speck of be­ing in­hab­it­ing a shell too big for him. The dark places of the ti­tle are, of course, the se­cret cor­ners of his psy­che.

How I lived in the head of such a man for four or five years is one ques­tion, but the other mys­tery is, why? Un­fin­ished busi­ness is the near­est I can come to an an­swer. My first novel, Lil­ian’s Story, was about a wo­man in the early 20th cen­tury who tri­umphs — in a way — over rape by her fa­ther. Her story was a joy to write, full of reck­less life and a bold­ness I vi­car­i­ously en­joyed. But it dawned on me slowly and with hor­ror that I’d only told half the story. The real mys­tery in child sex­ual abuse is not the one who suf­fers it but the one who in­flicts it.

The mys­tery of evil? Evil is too easy an idea. Evil is al­ways some­thing done by other peo­ple. But the Al­bions of this world tell them­selves a story that makes it per­fectly all right to do what they do. It would never oc­cur to Al­bion that he was a mon­ster.

To write the book, that self- jus­ti­fy­ing story was the one I had to find and in­habit. In Al­bion’s case, that story was about women: how in­fe­rior to men they are, how they’re se­duc­tive but also dis­gust­ing, and how they have an in­sa­tiable ap­petite for sex. They may say no but they al­ways mean yes.

Be­ing in the psy­che of such a misog­y­nist was re­pul­sive and scary. But it was also strangely easy. I fright­ened my­self, find­ing that his voice — full of ha­tred and fear of women — came so eas­ily.

What was a wo­man do­ing ven­tril­o­quis­ing such a man?

Well, the fact of the mat­ter ( as Al­bion would say), is that women live in a cul­ture still rid­dled with misog­yny. From sen­sa­tional rape- and­mur­der sto­ries to sleazy ads, it’s ev­ery­where. It’s hardly sur­pris­ing that women are, as it were, bilin­gual: misog­yny isn’t our own lan­guage, but we un­der­stand it pretty well. We can speak it and we might even have in­ter­nalised it to some ex­tent. Men don’t have a mo­nop­oly on misog­yny.

That in­sight gave me per­mis­sion to har­ness my sec­ond lan­guage, my in­ner misog­y­nist, and use it to write Al­bion from the inside. Writ­ing in his voice gave me the op­por­tu­nity to try to un­der­stand Al­bion rather than sim­ply judge him.

As the main char­ac­ter of a novel, that made him some­thing much more in­ter­est­ing than a mon­ster: he was a com­pre­hen­si­ble per­son, far out on the edge of hu­man but still on the map.

I also hoped that writ­ing him from within would broaden the scope of the book. In the world be­yond fiction, child sex­ual abuse is hor­ri­fy­ingly com­mon. The path Al­bion fol­lows to take him there is only one: abuse is born out of many kinds of dam­age to the psy­che. But any­thing that helps us un­der­stand the per­pe­tra­tors is more use­ful than the blank­ness of in­com­pre­hen­sion.

Where does misog­yny come from? Are the Al­bions of the world weirdos from Planet Creepy? Or are sex­ual mon­sters made, not born?

Lil­ian’s Story was partly about what hap­pens when a clever, am­bi­tious, dy­namic young wo­man hits the wall of the fe­male stereo­type. Where does all that as­sertive­ness and dy­namism go, if the pres­sure is on to be no more than pretty in pink?

Watch­ing young chil­dren po­lice the gen­der bound­aries in our chil­dren’s kinder­garten, I saw that males were the vic­tims of gen­der stereo­types as much as fe­males. The lit­tle boy who wanted to play with dolls and do the iron­ing in the Home Cor­ner was mocked and sneered at ( by girls as well as boys) un­til he stopped.

What was go­ing to hap­pen to that for­bid­den urge of his to play ‘‘ like a girl’’? He would split him­self off from it, was my guess, and dis­own it, the same way a girl might split off the un­ac­cept­ably as­sertive parts of her­self.

But Freud showed us that those dis­owned parts of the self don’t go away, they just go toxic. A boy for­bid­den the fe­male parts of him­self might ex­pe­ri­ence an un­der­ground stream of some­thing like envy of those al­lowed to ex­press them. It’s a small step from envy to ha­tred.

So, what hap­pens when such a man has a daugh­ter? An echo of him­self, but fe­male, his own split- off as­pect in bod­ily form: hated for be­ing the for­bid­den other, but loved as well, for be­ing lon­glost parts of him­self. In the dream- logic of the

psy­che, to phys­i­cally and lit­er­ally join him­self to her may seem like par­adise re­gained, mak­ing him whole again.

The break­through came when I saw that the book was a ghastly kind of black com­edy. Al­bion is grotesque, and the best part of the joke is that he never re­alises how lu­di­crous he is. A per­son slip­ping on a ba­nana skin is only funny if he doesn’t see what’s com­ing. The rich ironies al­lowed by a novel can al­low writer and reader to unite in watch­ing Al­bion head solemnly, step by stately step, to­wards that ba­nana skin.

It means, too, that a sub­ject that might seem too con­fronting can be ap­proached obliquely, in a way that makes it pos­si­ble to think about.

It took me 10 years to write Dark Places . I gave up on it sev­eral times as just too hard. But the need to try to un­der­stand al­ways drove me back to it, and I’m glad it did. Al­bion Gi­d­ley Singer is some­thing more com­plex than evil: he is, to some ex­tent at least, a prod­uct of his world, and in many ways his world is our world, too.

Dark Places by Kate Grenville ($ 29.95) was reis­sued by Text Pub­lish­ing last month.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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