Jour­neys to lib­er­a­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Kirk­wood

od asked, ‘ Have you been eat­ing of the tree I for­bade you to eat?’ The man replied, ‘It was the woman you put with me; she gave me the fruit, and I ate it.’ Then God asked the woman, ‘ What is this you have done?’ The woman replied, ‘ The ser­pent tempted me and I ate.’ ”

That is an ex­cerpt from the bi­b­li­cal story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Ge­n­e­sis. The tale is of­ten called The Fall, and through the cen­turies in Chris­tian cul­tures it has helped shape a neg­a­tive view of women.

It has been used to present fe­males as in­trin­si­cally sub­or­di­nate to males, weak and open to temp­ta­tion, fallen and them­selves temptresses, the cause of hu­man suf­fer­ing and strife.

In th­ese two mem­oirs, both writ­ers ex­plain well how their lives were bound by this pow­er­ful myth and as­so­ci­ated stereo­types, and how they strug­gled against them.

Rochelle Siemienow­icz’s Fallen takes its ti­tle di­rectly from the Adam and Eve story and ex­plores par­al­lels with the bi­b­li­cal nar­ra­tive. Rather than straight mem­oir, per­haps it would be more ac­cu­rate to call it fic­tion­alised mem­oir.

Siemienow­icz calls the nar­ra­tor Eve. “Of course it’s not my real name,” she ex­plains. “My good Chris­tian par­ents would have con­sid­ered it a curse to give their baby the name of that orig­i­nal sin­ner.” She con­tin­ues: “It is a story, with parts made up and frag­ments re­ar­ranged, like a dream half re­mem­bered now that 20 years have passed.”

The ac­tion of the story oc­curs when she’s in her early 20s, at “that time when I was a young wife — so very young, so very hun­gry — and I picked the fruit and ate and drank un­til I was drunk with free­dom and cov­ered in juice and guilt”.

Siemienow­icz, daugh­ter of a Sev­enth-Day Ad­ven­tist min­is­ter, grew up in a fam­ily that ad­hered strongly to the be­liefs of that con­ser­va­tive Protes­tant de­nom­i­na­tion.

The Sev­enth-Day Ad­ven­tist Church was for­mally es­tab­lished in the US in 1863 and its core tenets in­clude be­lief in the im­mi­nent re­turn of Christ and Judg­ment Day, a lit­eral read­ing of the Bi­ble, tra­di­tional fam­ily val­ues in­clud­ing no sex out­side mar­riage, a veg­e­tar­ian diet and no drugs or al­co­hol.

As a teenager Siemienow­icz re­belled against her re­stric­tive up­bring­ing and had sex with two of her Sev­enth-Day Ad­ven­tist boyfriends. The ac­counts of her sex­ual ad­ven­tures through­out the book are frank and graphic.

For in­stance, she de­scribes an en­counter with her first boyfriend, Mar­cus, on the back seat of his car, “where his cock was rest­ing, damp on my thigh, pre­car­i­ously close to slip­ping in­side me and punc­tur­ing my pre­cious Fallen: A Mem­oir About Sex, Reli­gion and Mar­ry­ing Too Young By Rochelle Siemienow­icz Af­firm Press, 272pp, $24.99 Set­tling Day: A Mem­oir By Kate Howarth UQP, 320pp, $32.95 hy­men”. Her re­bel­lion was mixed with deep am­biva­lence and shame.

Siemienow­icz de­scribes well the ex­pe­ri­ence of see­saw­ing be­tween long­ing for free­dom and feel­ing bound by her Chris­tian be­liefs. No mat­ter how she tried to es­cape them she harked back to the bi­b­li­cal phrases “that flowed from my tongue in a river of cliches’’: “I’d drunk them in with my mother’s milk, and lis­tened to my fa­ther’s prayers and ser­mons ev­ery day of my 19 years. They were part of the way I formed my thoughts.”

The only way to rec­on­cile her reli­gion and have some de­gree of sex­ual free­dom was to marry young. At 20 she had the tra­di­tional white wed­ding, mar­ry­ing her sec­ond boyfriend, Isaac. But it was a dys­func­tional union of two im­ma­ture peo­ple and grad­u­ally, with both want­ing broader sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ence, it be­came an open mar­riage. They aban­doned core church teach­ings: both had af­fairs, be­gan eat­ing meat and binge­ing on drugs and al­co­hol.

The cli­max of the book comes in Perth where Siemienow­icz was on hol­i­day, vis­it­ing old Sev­enth-Day Ad­ven­tist girl­friends. In a tu­mul­tuous few weeks she has sex with sev­eral men be­fore her hus­band joins her from Mel­bourne. Af­ter a drug-crazed night out on the town they re­alise their mar­riage has ended.

There is a sort of res­o­lu­tion of her story in a brief epi­logue where she re­flects on her present sit­u­a­tion.

Twenty years later she has a part­ner and son but, af­ter the trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence of mar­ry­ing young, can’t con­tem­plate mar­riage. Be­ing burned by reli­gion, she has reared her son with­out re­li­gious be­liefs. And she is more ac­cept­ing of her­self and ten­ta­tively op­ti­mistic.

“Some­times I’m still hun­gry and some­times I want more, and that’s who I am. I don’t know if I’m go­ing to fall and I don’t know if I’m go­ing to fly, but right now I feel alive, so alive, bal­anced on white lines head­ing to in­fin­ity.”

Kate Howarth’s Set­tling Day is a se­quel to her award-win­ning 2010 mem­oir Ten Hail Marys. This ear­lier work tells the har­row­ing story of how she be­came preg­nant at 15 and, in keep­ing with what was com­mon prac­tice in the 1960s, was placed in a home for un­wed moth­ers in Syd­ney.

The home was run by fierce Catholic nuns who treated her as a fallen woman, un­wor­thy of bring­ing up a child. They pres­sured her to re­lin­quish her baby for adop­tion. She re­sisted this and kept her son, whom she named Adam.

Set­tling Day picks up the story of the des­ti­tute in­dige­nous teenage girl on the streets with her new­born baby. Out of des­per­a­tion she mar­ries the boy’s bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther, but the re­la­tion­ship is short-lived. Be­cause he is older and has means and she has noth­ing, he keeps the baby.

Through many ups and downs, the re­source­ful and gritty Howarth seeks to build a ca­reer and a life with one sole aim: to prove that she’s a wor­thy mother so that some day, some­how she can be to­gether again with her son.

“My mo­ti­va­tion was not about money or sta­tus for its own sake,” she writes, “I was driven by the need to make some­thing of my­self. I was determined to be­come some­one my son would be proud of when we were fi­nally re­united.”

Af­ter a suc­ces­sion of re­la­tion­ships and jobs she does at­tain a high-fly­ing cor­po­rate ca­reer and an af­flu­ent life­style. With her sec­ond hus­band she runs one of Australia’s most suc­cess­ful re­cruit­ment com­pa­nies.

But the sep­a­ra­tion from her son gnaws at her. Fi­nally, when he is 16, she writes to him, then speaks with him on the phone, and af­ter this they meet.

“For sev­eral mo­ments we just held on to each other, trem­bling slightly, our hearts beat­ing

Rochelle Siemienow­icz, main pic­ture; Kate Howarth, right

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