March 2008

The Nation Reviewed

The other Teresa Brennan

By Amanda Lohrey
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

On 8 January 2006, in the Sydney suburb of Mosman, a silver Lexus belonging to the retired Federal Court judge and Living National Treasure Marcus Einfeld was clocked above the speed limit. Einfeld, facing a fine of $77, denied that he was in the car at the time, claiming he had loaned it to an old friend, the visiting American professor Teresa Brennan. The only problem with this story was that Teresa Brennan was three years dead.

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald late last year, one of Brennan's cousins had rung Marcus Einfeld in 2003 to inform him of his friend's death. Soon after, Einfeld's car was caught speeding in Rushcutters Bay, and in a statutory declaration the judge named Brennan as the driver. It was her first posthumous offence, not to be repeated until the now-infamous incident of January 2006. On both occasions, Einfeld was excused the fine.

Some things are all too easy to google and, after Einfeld was cleared of the Mosman offence, the Daily Telegraph journalist Viva Goldner ran a search on Teresa Brennan, discovering several in-memoriam notices for a respected academic of that name. When confronted with the demise of his alibi, Einfeld declared that he had been referring to another Teresa Brennan - also, coincidentally, an American academic and also, coincidentally, dead. Later, in response to a police review of the evidence, the judge modified his story yet again, saying that he was "uncertain as to who was driving the car at the time but I did authorise an old acquaintance to use it while I was out of town".

Marcus Einfeld's Teresa Brennan has yet to be traced, but the other Teresa Brennan has an intriguing history, and the unhappy fate of being linked to scandal in life, as in death. I first heard of her in 1986, when I was living in Berkeley, California, and she came to national prominence at the centre of a political stoush between two candidates in the state of Maryland. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat running for the Senate, was accused by her Republican opponent of being in a lesbian relationship with a young Australian, Teresa Mary Brennan.

Mikulski was 50 at the time and unmarried. She was short, stocky and loud, described in the Washington Post as "shrill and abrasive" and a "regular motormouth". I monitored her candidacy with growing fascination; in Australian politics there was no one remotely like her. The word ‘feisty' might have been invented to describe this 4' 11" powerhouse, with her no-frills frizzy perm, sensible walking shoes and the kind of suits that recalled those of a tram conductress. All in all, she looked like a cheerful suburban Gertrude Stein. Her campaigning style was to wisecrack with road workers about her weight and with an assembly of businessmen about her efforts to get a date (they gave her a standing ovation). For ten years she had represented her district in the lower house of Congress and her popularity was such that she once polled 76% of the vote.

For the 1986 election the Republicans decided that their best hope against Mikulski was to put up another woman, Linda Chavez. When the polls showed her trailing badly, Chavez dug into the dirt. In the second of two televised debates she charged that no single episode raised more questions about Mikulski than her employment, in 1981, of the "radical Australian feminist" Teresa Brennan as her Congressional Aide.

Mikulski had reportedly met the 29-year-old Brennan at an international women's conference in Copenhagen and invited her not only to join her staff but to live in her house. Chavez told the TV audience that Brennan promoted philosophies in the office that one staff member had described as "fascist feminism", "Marxist" and "anti-male"; that she lectured Milkulski's staff on the inequities of capitalism; and that staff members were directed to write essays on Brennan's treatises, ‘The Age of Megalomania' and ‘Women Want the Right to Life'. (The idea of go-getting apparatchiks having to do homework set by an upstart young Australian caused a good deal of mirth in the Washington media.)

A number of Mikulski's aides subsequently resigned, reportedly after arguments over Brennan's influence, and the contretemps was only resolved when Brennan left after several months to "study and tour in Central America", at the time a maelstrom of covert US intervention. When questioned on Brennan's role in her life, Mikulski said simply: "Teresa had a lot of very good ideas, particularly on the economic empowerment of women through small-business initiatives," but her theories were "more appropriate to think-tanks and foundations than to Congressional legislation".

Mikulski rode out the Chavez accusations, campaigning with energy, wit and bravado. Adroitly she managed to turn her marital status to advantage, referring to herself as the ‘Aunt Babbs' of her political constituency, a modern version of the maiden aunt or uncle who once served as the anchor in close-knit ethnic families. It was canny image-building and Mikulski defeated Chavez comfortably in the election, receiving 61% of the vote and - as she was not the widow of a former senator - becoming the first woman to be elected to the Senate in her own right.

Now in her fourth term, Mikulski, 71, is the most senior female senator and the Dean of the Women, notable for her liberal voting record on issues of poverty, public schools and health, and for her stance against the 1991 and 2002 resolutions authorising the use of force in Iraq. According to online sources her sexuality has been an "open secret" for years; despite equivocating on the matter during her 2004 campaign, she voted against a 2006 proposal to alter the constitution to ensure that marriage could only be between a man and a woman. Her commitment to feminism remains unwavering and she is a strong supporter of Hilary Clinton in the presidential race.

As for Linda Chavez, after working as a right-wing political columnist she was ultimately rewarded when nominated by George W Bush as his Secretary of Labor. A future in the first Bush administration looked promising until Chavez was forced to withdraw when it was revealed that she had been colluding in tax evasion by paying her housekeeper off the books. As a chapter in the human comedy it seemed almost too neat.

Teresa Brennan went on to a respected academic career, first at Massachusetts' Brandeis University and later as the Schmidt Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Florida Atlantic University. Among her publications are The Interpretation of the Flesh, The Age of Paranoia, Exhausting Modernity, Globalization and its Terrors and The Transmission of Affect. This last and groundbreaking contribution to social theory was published posthumously. In the early morning of 10 December 2002 Brennan was knocked down while crossing a road near her home in Broward County, Florida. After nearly two months in a coma she died, leaving behind an adopted daughter. She was 51.

In December 2007 Marcus Einfeld was the subject of a four-day committal hearing in Sydney. Also facing committal proceedings was Angela Liati, described in the media as "a shoplifter and bankrupt", who had come forward earlier in the year to offer a statement to Einfeld's lawyers to the effect that she was a friend of Teresa Brennan, and that she and Brennan had been driving the judge's car on the day of the speeding offence. The Age reported Liati as saying that she had first met Brennan in 2005 at a meditation retreat. On 8 January 2006 they had met for a day out and had driven in Einfeld's car to Mosman, where they discussed the "power of the mind" and shopped for "cute shoes". This engaging glimpse into the Sydney demimonde was soon negated by Einfeld's lover, the former Mark Latham staffer Vivian Schenker, who confessed to police that it was she and Einfeld who had been driving the Lexus at the time of the offence. Liati was committed on a charge of perverting the course of justice.

Australia remains obsessed with Germaine Greer but as feminist warrior-queens go, Teresa Brennan was a more engaged activist and a more interesting thinker. Like Greer, she seems to have been personally and intellectually fearless. It's a pity, then, that she has become known here only through a tawdry legal fracas in which she has been summoned up as a kind of errant ghost. And there's more to come: on 13 December 2007 Marcus Einfeld was sent to trial on 13 charges of dishonesty, including perjury.

Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is the author of The Reading Group, Camille’s BreadA Short History of Richard Kline, and the Quarterly Essays Groundswell and Voting for Jesus.

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