July 15, 2022

Family and relationships

The herbs and the bees

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Illustration of a tree
How does a new parent avoid passing on the conspiracy of silence about the big things in life?

From a young age, my father warned me of the various deaths that could befall the guileless child. These included, in no particular order: 

  • Swimming pool filters: An unforgivable design flaw meant that after their lid was removed by a curious child, the exposed hole would enticingly resemble a potty – once occupied, the pump would mercilessly suck my bowels from my arsehole.
  • Tomato tins: Should I ever thoughtlessly rummage in the bin, their razor-sharp lids could slice my wrist open. If I was home alone, I would likely bleed out on the kitchen floor.
  • Automatic sprinklers: Their plastic stems, my father warned, often failed to retract, meaning that if I was ever running delightedly across our front lawn, I could trip and be launched head-first into one of our garden’s boulders – fatally crushing my skull.
  • Shitting: It was well known, my father said, that some folks had strained too hard and catastrophically ruptured their guts. Never force it, son. Take your time.
  • Cans of soft drink: When enjoyed outdoors, a straw should always be used on account of bees being covert killers with a heavy sugar lust. In this scenario, the unworldly child, perhaps enjoying a picnic, would fail to see the sly assassin crawl inside their can. Perhaps the child has been distracted by a bouncing ball or a beautiful sunset, and now the bee rests unseen on the can’s inner lip, ready to fatally sting the child’s tongue on their next sip. Dad passionately emphasised how quickly the swelling would occur. 
  • The sun: This one was eminently sensible, especially given Dad had very nearly died from melanoma. He bought us giant floppy hats, large pump-packs of sunscreen, and never tired of graphically warning us about what happens when melanocytes begin rapidly multiplying. The hat severely embarrassed me, and whenever I was out of his sight, I’d remove it. My defiance was periodically discovered, and Dad was compelled to repeat his dictum: Baseball caps might be fashionable, mate, but they offer scant protection. Your choice is humiliation or death. At the time, the distinction wasn’t obvious to me.

The result? From a tender age, I thought that running, drinking, shitting and putting my hands in bins could kill me. But Dad’s big lesson, the unifying theme of these warnings, was that nothing was worse than a lack of vigilance. Obliviousness to any physical danger was almost a moral failure.

Looking back, a more salient danger might have been the sowing of neurotic unrest in his children, but what I thought about this week – after reading a profile of author and children’s sex educator Cory Silverberg – is how quiet my parents were on the things that would really confound me.


In late high-school, my anxiety extended to the twin pillars of young masculinity – sex and cars. Among my peers, nothing was so earnestly sought as a driver’s licence and the loss of virginity. To get by, I made insincere gestures to these passions. But I knew the truth: sex and cars were lawless, destructive powers.

I lost three friends in two wrecks in one year. One was a colleague from McDonald’s, a sweet young man who seemed vaguely exotic in his unerring politeness, unashamed Christian faith, and, most of all, his sincere commitment to a job that I considered a profound indignity.

One evening, I was lying on the lounge-room floor watching the news bulletin. A speeding car had lost control in the rain; its three teen occupants were all dead. Images of the crash site were shown, then a photo of Adam. He was smiling, and wearing a tuxedo – it was his high-school ball picture.

I lay rigid for a long time, not yet convinced that I wasn’t dreaming, then stood on uncertain legs that took me on a long walk through the neighbourhood. Watch this. That’s what I imagined the driver said just before it happened. Watch this. Then he punches the accelerator in a spasm of machismo, annihilating them all.

I never got my licence. Driving terrified me. For a while after, I was terrified of merely being a passenger, at least in the cars driven by friends.

Then there was sex. It so frightened me, that to avoid losing my virginity I once agreed to accompany friends on a drug heist. Well, a drug rip – the midnight theft of a backyard crop of weed, reputedly guarded by dogs and an armed and vigilant owner. The rip seemed the less frightening option.

That night, I was at a house party hosted by one of the female players of the state’s junior football squad. Her parents were out, and we’d arrived with cartons of beer after watching the boys’ side play Brazil. It was also my birthday. One of the state players was a young woman of intimidating sexual confidence, a year younger than myself and, by dazzling coincidence, celebrating her birthday too.

I’ll call her Samantha and her attention was like a thousand suns. We made out on the couch while the speakers played The Verve. Then someone threw a blanket over us. I conveniently interpreted this as meaning our amorous clinch was thought anti-social, and said as much to Samantha. She laughed. “They’re just joking,” she said, the semi-privacy offered by the blanket only encouraging her to take greater liberties with my trembling body.

Then a friend of mine stuck his hand into our tiny cave and dropped a condom on my lap. Presumably most boys would’ve been grateful, but I wanted to kill him. Samantha saw this and immediately said: “Let’s go to the bedroom.”

I panicked, and improvised an alibi. “Okay,” I said, and she smiled.

“But…” And she stopped smiling. “My friends have… some business.”

What?”

“My friends have some business I said I’d help them with.”

“Some business?”

“A rip.”

“Oh.”

In my circles, a “rip” was never thought dumb or dubious, but a noble adventure that accentuated its participants’ masculinity. So maybe Samantha was upset, but understanding. Her outlaw had a job to do, and who was she to stand in the way?

Two friends at the party were talented footballers with professional prospects, but for whom sport sometimes seemed like just a side hustle to their delinquency. While they had a deft first touch on the pitch, they also astutely trafficked intelligence about suburban crop locations. And one was nearby.

“There might be dogs,” Pete said.

“Okay,” I said.

“And a baseball bat.”

“Hmm.”

“Maybe a sword.”

“A sword?”

“What I’ve heard.” He thrust something at me.

“What are these?”

“Gloves.”

“Why?”

“Barbed wire.”

“On the fence?”

“And in the plants.”

Oh, boy. This was madness. Plus, I barely smoked weed and had no interest in selling the stuff. Still, the danger was at this point slightly more abstract than Samantha, whose attentions had become very real indeed, and so I got in the car and put the gloves on.

Then Pete fed Cypress Hill into the car’s CD player, and jacked the volume. I was never an astute criminal strategist, but it seemed to me that driving to a midnight drug heist while playing rap devotions to ganja so loudly that the car’s frame rattled, was, you know, rash. But the unformed frontal lobes of the teenage male are strangers to discretion and the mitigation of risk.

So we drove off, and I sat terrified in the back. Sweat beaded my gloved fingers. I began reconsidering my options. A few blocks away came an opportunity for escape. “Samantha really seems into you, dude.”

“Yeah, I guess.” I was feigning uncertainty, as to lay the foundation for my being persuaded that I could get laid – and thus justifying my bailing from this bizarre kamikaze mission. 

“Yeah, man. Like, she’s into you.”

“You think so?”

“Fuck, yes.”

“Shit. Maybe I should go back.”

“If you wanna fuck, then yeah.”

“Okay, pull over.”

He pulled over. I left the gloves on the back seat, and walked back to the party. When I arrived, Samantha made a beeline for me. I’d hoped she might’ve left, or found another paramour – but instead, my surprise return suggested that I couldn’t stay away from her.

This was a period of intense faith in my own agency, yet also a time when my agency was almost entirely surrendered to the vicissitudes of the crowd. I was a cork tossed in rapids, incapable of steering a path. If I was capable of navigation, it was a desperate and reactionary kind: swept towards rocks, I could improvise a late dodge.

Samantha and I went to bed. When she asked where the condom was, I searched my pockets with exaggerated desperation. “I don’t know where it is,” I said apologetically. But I did. It was under the bed, where I’d covertly thrown it.

These were exhausting years. Great energy was spent on manufacturing the appearance of interests, and then more energy was spent on elaborately sabotaging the commitments that flowed from them.

Meanwhile, my mates were both right and wrong: there was a crop there alright, but it wasn’t fortified as dangerously as they thought. They made out with a decent amount of bud – to which, of course, I had no claim.  


So why tell you all this? Let me breach a cardinal rule of writing, and confess that it’s not for you. Not really. I’ve cast you, dear reader, as an eavesdropper. An interloper. This is for me and my daughter. I’ll explain.

My parents’ advice was silent on the matters above, and while my father warned of the various ways I could die, he was quiet about death itself. I never came close to being disembowelled by a pool filter or bleeding out on the kitchen floor. I was once stung by a bee – but harmlessly, on my hand – and shitting hasn’t yet mortally threatened me. The advice, it turned out, wasn’t terribly useful.  

I want greater rapport and candour with my daughter – and to be able to provide grittier and more relevant advice – but I know that wanting it is not the same thing as ensuring it. I fear a future marked by my own embarrassed reticence. I fear a future where I stand mutely on the other side of a generational and emotional divide.


I’m thinking about the lyrics to “I Am the Walrus”, and, assuming my love for The Beatles is infectious, wondering how they might compel my daughter to one day inquire about my drug use. For example:

“Were the Beatles on drugs, Daddy?”

“It’s simplistic to reduce their artistry to drugs, honey.”

“But were they on drugs, Daddy?”

“Sometimes.”

“Really?”

“Off their chops.”

“And were you ever on drugs, Daddy?”

And I think about Paul McCartney’s exasperated response to a TV reporter in 1967:

REPORTER: Don’t you believe that [your use of LSD] is a matter which should have been kept private?

PAUL: The thing is, I was asked a question by a newspaper, and the decision was whether to tell a lie or tell him the truth. I decided to tell the truth, but I really didn’t want to say anything, you know, because if I had my way I wouldn’t have told anyone. I’m not trying to spread the word about this […]

REPORTER: Do you think that you have now encouraged your fans to take drugs? […] As a public figure, surely you’ve got the responsibility to—

PAUL: No, it’s you who’ve got the responsibility. You’ve got the responsibility not to spread this now. You know, I’m quite prepared to keep it as a very personal thing if you will too.

My daughter’s only three now, but inevitably she’ll play the role of that reporter, and I’ll face the same blunt choice that McCartney faced between truth and bullshit. She’ll also have some good material, should she seek it out. As a writer and a fool, I’ve made public some things that would normally remain private – meaning that my older, future daughter can consult the public record for her father’s various confessions, and rhetorically arm herself in ways I never could against my parents.

Lucky for you, my darling. But also know that I’m doing this deliberately, sabotaging the possibility of future reticence with pre-emptive candour. I’m gifting you a modest catalogue of my historic vulnerabilities, idiocies and intimate injuries, all conveniently searchable online, and which, once found, will make it difficult for me to hide behind a façade of blank-faced authority. I’m painting myself into a corner, baby.

Of course, the idea that my teenage daughter might either seek out my writing, or wish to have it elaborated upon, is grandiose and pathetically wishful. I also know that teenagers need some secrecy – some spaces that are entirely their own – and that the boundaries of their parents’ authority should not be entirely dissolved by a craven need to be your child’s friend.

And I also know that, for all my desire to establish a meaningful rapport with my future daughter, that teenagers – if my experience is instructive – often have painfully fluid and ultra-provisional identities (I contained a chaotic factory of self-doubt and shame). If I accept this, it means there’s probably a limit to how much I can mollify my daughter’s own pained consolidations of identity, regardless of my empathy or candour.

For now, I’m left offering my own anxious warnings to my toddler daughter: don’t take such large bites, don’t spin so furiously near those shelves, don’t run in those comically oversized gumboots. Don’t choke, don’t faint, don’t fall and split your head open.

And painfully, I concede that I’m starting to anticipate a future where my anxious warnings only increase in urgency and eccentricity – untouched by my awareness of the past.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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