Selected for The Best Australian Essays 2013
FOR NEARLY A decade, my art has been concerned with aspects of female identity and sexuality and the way both are shaped by the expectations of a society drip-fed images of male-idealised female roles through pervasive, unrelenting advertising and entertainment 'programming'. My images are troublesome, in every sense of the word, because at times they appear to pander to those expectations, which is to say the critical irony that's intrinsic to them is sometimes mistaken for prurience.
I first began making art as a way to process my hard-to-articulate emotions and experiences. However, in recent years, I have been uncomfortably aware that art has also been a convenient way to avoid them. My early life was troubled and unhappy. My parents separated when I was very young. The disruption and hurt this caused set me on a path that within a very short period – and for the next decade or so – would lead me into violence, addiction, self-harm and sexual abuse. It continued to haunt me as an adult, so much so that, for a time, I abandoned art completely.
My recent years of success as an artist have brought me enough money to afford regular, expert psychiatric therapy and enough confidence (and public acclaim) for me to fool myself into thinking I don't care about my past. However, I have never really been able to express adequately what happened to me – and what it did to my head – and it is discomfortingly absent from all but my most expressive watercolours and drawings. While I have been candid in my public writings and documentary photographs, almost to a fault, about my life as it is now, I've been utterly unable to confront the narrative of my life before I was twenty directly or honestly. I write around it. I hint at it in elements of my more expressive drawings and watercolours, but mostly the real story has been left to moulder in the shadows. And I can't quite rid myself of the stench of it.
I've been in Brisbane for over a year now. I left here a decade ago, vowing never to return. And for a very long time I didn't, not even for my brother's wedding. I hate the place not for what it is – although that's reason enough to shun the place – but because scattered everywhere around the city and its environs are physical reminders of experiences that I've spent half my life trying to forget.
My father's illness brought me back. And my grief following his death kept me here. And the longer I stayed, the harder it was to block out the memories that caused me to leave in the first place.
I was eleven or twelve when my parents separated. We were living in rural New South Wales, not quite the outback, but on a smallholding on a wide expanse of flat, dry, sparse scrub country that suited snakes and kangaroos a lot better than it did people. I stayed with my father for the first years but I moved in with my mother, in Brisbane, when I was fourteen because I'd been bullied at high school and was desperate to escape. Like most teenage girls, the bullies were also my 'friends'.
Every day, I was told I was ugly. Everything I did was greeted with snide remarks and callous chants, from the colour of my bicycle to my straight-A grades. One kid spat in my face. Another used the heel of his palm to hit my nose so hard that the back of my head banged the wall behind me. A 'friend' told me that a guy who lived at the end of my street wanted to rape me. I couldn't take it anymore. Isolated, unconsoled, I became sullen, depressed and robbed of all confidence.
From my mother's Brisbane home, I went to a local girl's school for six months. I didn't fit in there either. Then my mother enrolled me in an alternative high school with no uniforms and a university-style timetable. It had additional courses in drama and photography and it was supposed to be 'progressive'. Teachers were addressed by their first names. The other students were troubled kids who didn't fit anywhere else.
A PHOTOGRAPH OF me at the time shows a girl who could be anyone's sister or daughter, a bright and studious girl with bobbed hair and sensible clothes, in Year 11, the second last year of high school. The photo was taken in my bedroom, at the desk where I studied. Atop is my leather school case and the antiquated typewriter I used for my essays. A picture of my grandmother, a manic depressive who killed herself before I was born, hangs on the wall behind me. Out of the picture is my single bed, with its white antique lace duvet cover, on top of which is a huge, white stuffed teddy bear.
At school, I was in P's English class. He was twenty-nine and considered a 'cool' teacher (how easy it is to impress a bunch of insecure kids). He rode an unremarkable motorbike and played seductively to our ambitions to be regarded as rebels. He taught us how to hand roll cigarettes and organised (through his brother) for a punk-satire trio, the Doug Anthony All Stars, to play for us when they were at the height of their brief national success. His classes loved him. I couldn't figure out whether I thought he was cool or repulsive. English had always been my favourite subject and back then, I wanted to be a writer, not an artist. He set us a couple of essays about love and sex, made off-colour jokes about erections and asked who in the class wasn't a virgin. He said it was a joke only after half the students raised their hands. I wasn't one of them. I was curious about sex but I was too shy to speak to anyone my age who seemed to like me. Besides, years of bullying had convinced me that no one could possibly find me attractive.
And yet I felt that P was always watching me. I didn't pay much attention to it at first; after all, he was my teacher. Then he started walking with me as I made my way from one class to another, making small talk. Occasionally, he'd offer me a coffee when I handed in an assignment. I didn't think it unusual. Students often had a coffee or a cigarette with a teacher. Or, at least, that's what he told me.
The following year, when I was sixteen, my best friend at the school went to Japan on an exchange program. I spent my lunch with other students but as usual, I didn't quite fit in with any of the well-established social groups. I wasn't in P's class anymore and yet we always ended up walking and talking together between classes. He'd appear in the doorway whenever I gave a presentation in a class he didn't teach, or in the library when I was studying there. He'd offer me coffee in the breaks between classes and I'd accept. I didn't have anyone else to talk to: I was, even then, an intense, serious girl who read poetry – and, worse, read it out aloud.
P loaned me books: Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. I told him I wanted to travel and he told me about Morocco and other places he'd claimed he'd been. He told me he'd written a play that had been performed at the La Boite Theatre and showed me evidence of his writing. He suggested we write each other a page on what we hated about our lives. I was a good student and I did what teachers told me. I didn't keep his letter but I still remember the last line: All I want to do is get the fuck out of here, with a girl called Hazel.
One day he drove me home from school. My mother was away for work. Standing together on the doorstep, he kissed me. My skin went red and I started to tremble uncontrollably. When he left, I had a cool shower to try to calm down. Before I'd even turned on the tap, I lost control of my bladder and pissed all over myself.
I don't remember much of what happened in the weeks after that. I saw him every day at school. He told me he couldn't stop thinking about me. Once, he told me he'd driven to my mother's house, drunk, in the middle of the night and had tried to climb up the lattice into my window on the second floor. He'd fallen and then run away.
I told my mother about him one night when I was lying in bed. She asked me if I wanted to make love with him. I didn't know how to respond. I said, 'I don't know.' Then, because there was a pause and she was saying nothing and I wanted the moment to end, I added, 'I think so.' I didn't really want to. I wanted to have someone to talk to. My mistake was thinking it should be my mother.
P AND I started seeing each other on weekends or after school. He'd ply me with wine and kiss me. When I wasn't at school or with P, I'd cut myself with scissors under my pubic hair and bite my wrist until the skin broke. P told me I had seduced him and that he was in love with me. We had sex for the first time on his thirtieth birthday, at the house he shared with his brother. P had told me it would be the best present I could give him. I met his younger brother in the kitchen, inhaling hash from between a couple of heated up kitchen knives. They offered me some, but I said no. A few weeks later, he took me to the sea, at night, where we drank wine and he blathered on about how it was the most romantic night he'd ever had. Then he told me he'd had a girlfriend for the last several years. I found out, later, that she was also sixteen when he'd first met her; he had been in his early twenties.
I was a late developer. I was tall but my breasts were still growing and I looked pubescent. P wanted me to read Lolita. When I refused, he gave me a copy of Death in Venice, about a writer who becomes obsessed with a beautiful young boy. One day, in the school library, he told me he wanted me to take off with him on a long road trip. As if, I thought. I wanted to get good grades and go to university. Later, when I did read Lolita, I realised there was a road trip in the novel. I recognised passages that P had quoted or mimicked when he spoke to me and understood why he called me Haze, Haze, Dooney Haze. It echoed a poem by the paedophilic protagonist, Humbert Humbert, called Wanted.
Years later, in a rage, I demanded that my mother tell me why the hell she didn't protect me, why she had blithely let it all happen to me. She'd always given me the impression that she condoned it. She told me that she thought that if she intervened, I would run away. But I suspect this was just the story she told in order to live with herself: I'd been a straight A student; I'd barely missed a class. But I had become increasingly depressed, remote, angry, and at times abusive. In hindsight, I suspect that the threat that I would leave had been implied to her by P. Still, I've never quite managed to forgive her or trust her judgment. I never quite got over her glib, self-justifying, faux-feminist observation that maybe it wouldn't have been quite so bad had I been a boy and the teacher a woman.
When my father found out about my relationship with P, he told the head of the school. I was hauled out of class and taken to an office where I was subjected to an unsympathetic, accusatory interrogation. The principal, whom I hadn't met before, asked if I had slept with P. I didn't answer.
Afterwards, P told me that the school's administration thought I was obsessed with him. The incipient scandal was swept under the carpet. P rented an apartment at the beach and picked me up on weekends. Most of the time, when I was with him, I read. Or he paid me to mark my peers' English assignments in red pen.
At some point he left the school; he told me it was his decision. He continued to take me to dinner. We would drink a lot and I'd let him have sex with me. If I refused, he got angry. He wasn't physically threatening – he was skinny and soft and I could have beat him in a fight – but back then, I avoided conflict. I never touched his genitals. I never sucked his cock. I disliked the texture of his skin, the lack of elasticity that was so markedly different from my own teenage body that it made me think of raw chicken skin. I faked orgasm so that the fucking would stop.
He refused to use a condom and often came inside me. I thought that maybe he was trying to make me pregnant. I didn't know how to get a prescription for contraceptives and I was too embarrassed to ask. My periods stopped a few months after we got together anyway and didn't come back until more than a year after. A doctor said it was probably related to extreme stress.
P would tell me I was like a big doll, that I looked like a picture in a teenage magazine. Or he'd tell me I was fat because my thighs touched when I stood with my feet together. He'd tell me I was a selfish lover because I just lay there while he clumsily slobbered over my pussy or penetrated me. I did everything I could to avoid touching his cock. He told me that, one day, I'd have better lovers than him (well, yes, he was right about that). He always managed to be self-deprecating and yet insistent that we were equal in this insidious relationship – I had, according to him, 'accidentally seduced' him. The implication was, of course, that this wasn't abuse or rape, that it was all at my own instigation. It was only years later that each of a handful of psychiatrists I saw would describe it as borderline paedophilia – and it was only in the context of sexual abuse that the relationship started to make sense to me.
The worst thing about the situation was that a lot of other adults knew about it – and said nothing. My art teacher told me she thought my relationship with P was'romantic'. The parents of my peers were distant, disapproving. If other kids at school said anything it was usually along the lines of, 'Well, at least it's the cool teacher'. No one reached out to me. No one tried to put a stop to it.
I DON'T KNOW why, but I was afraid of what might happen if I broke it off. I was convinced it would become public – I pictured humiliating headlines in the local newspaper that painted me as an obsessive, slutty schoolgirl. P and I argued often, but mostly he won. I was precocious, aware that I was intelligent yet naive and without a clue how to extract myself from this destructive situation. I felt powerless, frustrated and utterly alone. I think that was part of P's modus operandi. He wanted everything that was mine, especially things that I liked or had been given. If I was given a gift by a member of my family, he'd ask me to give it to him (I always refused). I did let him take my drawings. He covered the walls of his apartment with my charcoal sketches of nude life studies. He told me that he told his girlfriend he'd found them at the markets.
One time, he took me to meet a friend of his at a café.The friend showed us all these sketches he'd done of pre-pubsecent girls at the beach. He tried to impress me:'So, P's introduced you to café society,' he said. I just scowled at him and the condescending conversation ground to a halt.
Sometimes, I liked the times we spent together. We read and ate chocolate or swam in the sea or he'd brush my hair. I didn't like him to hold my hand, so I walked with our arms linked, like I sometimes did with my platonic friends at school. I thought that I must have loved him but if that was love then I hated it. I didn't know how to end it. He was just always there. I think I already had a glimmer of just how much this relationship was fucking me up.
When school stopped, I saw him less. I started doing drugs and working to save money. I liked LSD because it was distracting and I was too tired and wrecked from the comedown to think of much at all. I got into university, but my score wasn't high enough to do the course I wanted, so I deferred. I was furious with P for distracting me during my final year. Apart from the drama of his obsession, he interrupted me constantly at school when I was studying or doing assignments, mouthing that he loved me and demanding my attention.
When I had saved enough money, I booked a one-way ticket to London via Japan because I felt it was the only way to stop everything, to get away. I met him in a café and told him I was leaving. He said that he'd left his girlfriend so that we could be together. I said I didn't believe him, and I didn't want to be with him anyway. I flew to Osaka, then London. I spoke to him once more when I called him, drunk, a few months later. I don't remember what I said but I was angry and crying. I wanted never to return to Brisbane. But in London I was broke and my once-robust health deteriorated badly. I ended up in hospital for a week with an illness that made my face swell hideously. I shaved my head with a razor blade. I called my mother and she paid for a plane ticket for me to go home. She looked after me while I recovered.
I applied for a degree at a university two states away and planned to leave again as soon as the next semester began. In all, my relationship with P lasted nine months. I thought that once it was over, it would just be gone. But the effects of it have stayed with me for half a lifetime, distorting the way I feel about sex, men, family and even expressing myself. I wasn't raped but I had vivid nightmares of it happening for several years afterwards. In each, I would be going through the routines of my day and P would be having sex with me: I wasn't able to stop him so I just continued whatever I was doing until he had finished. I always woke up crying.
I grew more depressed and started eating less, often throwing up what I did eat. I didn't want anything inside me. I wanted to wear the same sized clothing I did as a child. I took harder drugs. I stopped reading and developed a phobia of writing anything other than what was necessary for university assignments. It was many years before I wrote anything personal. I didn't like to be touched.
AFTER P, I didn't date anyone else for two or three years. I moved back to Brisbane to study art and be closer to my family. I was happier but I still had problems. I got into brief, unwanted sexual entanglements with older men. Each time, I'd let it happen because I felt it was too late to say no. I ended the few 'good' relationships I did have suddenly and without any particular cause. It made me feel in control. I developed the habit of keeping my distance from both men and women.
I only heard from P once more. He sent flowers to my first exhibition, with a note signed 'P', underscored with a kiss. I gave the flowers away and tossed the note. I was angry: everything he'd done was fucked up and I was still recovering from the damage he'd wrought. But he felt no shame, no responsibility. I hated him for my own shame and my sense of powerlessness. Many of my first paintings were of young women with guns. They held them wrongly, without a sense of threat. The guns symbolised my sexuality: a weapon I didn't know how to wield, and which, too early in my life, had been turned against me.
In my early twenties, after a few solo exhibitions, I dated a guy who, it turned out, knew P. I told him about my experience and his response was, 'Well, I understand why he wanted you all to himself.' I told him I hoped that, for his eight-year-old daughter's sake, he'd see the situation differently by the time she was a teenager. 'Look,' he told me, 'you weren't the only one.' As if that somehow made it all better.
I might have been a callow, naive kid but I wasn't stupid. I'd figured out that P had slept with other students before me and, perhaps, at the same time. He even told me about one who was, co-incidentally, the daughter of a family friend. 'She was obsessed with me,' he'd said.'She used to bring a Cherry Ripe every week and tell me about how her boyfriend didn't satisfy her. I slept with her once. Then she got upset that I wouldn't see her again. But you're different. I'm in love with you.'
It bothered me that all of P's friends had known of his 'thing' for young girls. His brothers knew as well. P had introduced me to them, with a kind of sleazy, callous pride. They had also met other female students of his, and P's long-term girlfriend. But they said and did nothing.
THIS IS THE first time I've told this story in its entirety. For a decade and a half, I have been too ashamed to. I just wanted to forget it ever happened. But being back in Brisbane has reminded me of it again and again. I recognise now that a lot of who I have become has been moulded by what happened with this man. And not any of it was good.
The story is not an uncommon one. It's probably not dissimilar to many other women's coming-of-age stories. We just don't talk about them much because they exist in a grey area that, even if it's not illegal, is morally corrosive, as well as manipulative and exploitative of us. But maybe if we were willing to acknowledge this more openly – if we spilled the beans on the bastards who took advantage of us in the most malleable years of our youth – others might be better prepared when they find themselves being groomed. And maybe those of us who've gone through the experience might not feel so personally responsible and ashamed.
I never wanted to acknowledge that P had been in my life because I felt that it gave him some kind of ownership of me, in the same way that the sick fuck bragged he 'owned' my virginity. So why am I writing about this now? I never thought that I would. But then I came across the photo of sixteen-year-old me in an old album my mother has. When I looked at it, all I wanted was to reach back into the past to protect her, to keep her safe from the slimy, opportunistic bastard who robbed her not just of her innocence but her sense of hope. My silence has protected him: he has never had to face the consequences of others finding out about his serial, predatory behaviour. He probably still gets away with it.
I'm not looking for pity or understanding. I loathe the idea of being a victim (think Tracey Emin, wallowing in her tales of sexual mistreatment). I can't help but regard the experiences I've described as an embarrassing cliché. But I had, at last, to get this story out of me, to thrust it into the light so it might finally wither and die. It has constrained my psyche and driven me to try to erase my memories, my self, for too long.
None of us can really escape who we are, what we've done or what we've been through. I've tried to use my work to do so but as I get older, I realise that it diminishes the strength of the work: it is so much more powerful to use art to confront the worst of others, the worst of us. If looking at an experience in the context of art enables us to see it differently and at a remove, then we can transform even the darkest nightmares into something that, ultimately, has value.