Journeys to liberation
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