How to occupy the mind of a monster
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.