June 2018

Essays

Erik Jensen

Hotel Golf

Photograph by Mia Mala McDonald

Helen Garner on life, anger and judgement

The first anger is domestic. She calls it “the insane rage of the person who does all the housework”.

Helen says this anger was forbidden. She says, “in those days, in our circles, judgemental was a dirty word”.

She says the trouble with anger is that it has to go somewhere. If it doesn’t, it will devastate everything around it.

“I’ve had moments of intense, wild, violent rage and I’ve destroyed things,” she says. “I’ve never attacked a person. I’ve thrown crockery but missed. I’ve had moments of rage where I was walking around my house with a carving knife in my hand, looking for things to destroy and destroying them, alone, having discovered an incriminating letter. I once cut up a hat from Emporio Armani with a pair of big, sharp scissors. Gee, I enjoyed that. And I threw a Le Creuset saucepan of red soup at the kitchen wall.”

The scene is familiar, from the opening of her book Cosmo Cosmolino. “Yeah, it’s in Cosmo,” she says. “Yeah.” She pauses to check the dates, does a sum in the space just beyond the limit of her eyes. She realises they don’t match. “No,” she says. “That can’t be the same one. No, it’s a different soup …”

Later, she explains that she found a love letter open on a table. It began with an endearment her partner used for her. She was halfway down the first page before she realised he had written it for someone else.

“And I sort of went berserk. And I’d never gone berserk before, really. Yeah, well, there was a hat and I jumped on it and this hat actually belonged to my rival, who I didn’t know then was my rival: I thought she was just a friend. And somehow it was in our flat, and I jumped on it with both feet, and it was a very expensive hat from Emporio Armani. It was a little straw hat, dark blue, and I jumped on it and it just kept going ba-doing up into a perfect round shape. And I thought, This won’t do. So I got the big shears and I just cut it with great strokes with the blades. God, it was wonderful.”

Helen mimes the pull of the shears up through the hat. The pleasure at it is obvious in her telling. She catches on the memory: it wasn’t a carving knife; it was a breadknife with a heavy blade and a serrated edge, a Wüsthof her mother had given her. She remembers calling a friend who told her to get out of the apartment. She took a toothbrush and her nightie and the knife.

“I was walking down the street, holding this huge knife,” she says. “But, interestingly, nobody remarked on it. I was probably crying and cursing and everything as well, and carrying this big knife. This was – I’m not telling you where it was. Well, you’ve probably guessed, but I’m not telling you.”

I ask Helen Garner how old she was when this happened. “Oh, let me think,” she says. “Fifty-six.”


The napkin Helen is holding is brown and made of soft paper. She has scrunched it into a ball and is in the process of ironing it with the flat of her hand, fussing at the creases. It is as if she is trying to make it whole again, to fix it. She is always trying to undo mess. As she talks, her eyes rest on the napkin. She seems untroubled by the hopelessness of the task.

“We’re getting back to the judgement stuff I couldn’t think of before,” she says. “I remember thinking when I was a teenager that I always seemed to be in the wrong but nobody ever told me what was right. I didn’t know what was the right way to behave. Because if you behaved rightly you weren’t praised or anything: there was just an absence of punishment. Not punishment, but disapproval.”

Helen says her mother was probably puritanical if she thought about it. She says her father was roaring and censorious. He was stern, by which she means he was impatient and short-tempered.

Later, Helen describes herself both ways, a kind of unconscious sharing of traits. “I always thought of myself as being a rather stern, puritanical person, even when I was living a stupid life with a lot of sex and a few drugs and crashing around the world.”

As evidence, she mentions a house in Prahran where a boyfriend lived in the 1970s. She remembers her own house in North Fitzroy. Her house had rules – it was well run in the sense that the people living there had a feminist consciousness, that they knew how they wanted to live. The men weren’t fathers but they did a lot of the work.

She says that at her boyfriend’s house only one of the women was a single mother. Life was disorderly and unequal. “There was this chaos and her boys running around and she was trying to keep things on an even keel. She was a terrific woman, without a father for the kids. She bore a lot of loneliness with patience and generosity. But unlike our house they didn’t have rosters, so the women did all the housework. It was the absence of structure I disapproved of. I used to feel quite prim­lipped with disapproval. I thought, Gee, they’re kind of drifting here.”

She remembers another house, another group of children. “They were wild kids compared with ours, because we kept ours on a fairly short leash, and it got to the point that when they came around some of us would get furious, which we weren’t supposed to.”

A house meeting was called to resolve this. Helen can’t remember if she was the one who called it. She probably was. She remembers that she was the first to speak. She described the problem as she saw it, which was that the children needed to be controlled. She says everyone sat back and their faces closed. She mimes this with one hand, like a beak shutting.

“I realised that I’d somehow crossed a line of what was sayable. I wasn’t shouting angrily, I was just laying down points. I thought that when your kids come over, this is what happens, and we don’t like it. And maybe it was because I was saying ‘we’ without permission – but we had all talked about it beforehand, this is my memory of it anyway – and there was a very bad feeling and somehow it was not well seen that I’d made these critical comments. I can’t remember the outcome, but I remember the feeling that I had been excessively judgemental, I suppose. I don’t know what they thought they were going to say. They hadn’t said anything.”

Helen has a way of considering something, then agreeing with emphatic reluctance. I ask whether Monkey Grip is in part about desperately wanting someone to yell out in judgement, if perhaps this urge is the spine of all her writing, and she says, “Yes, yes, okay, all right, yeah.”

Helen moves on to family. Looking back, she thinks her father married the wrong person. Marriage is everywhere in the conversation. “I think if he married a different sort of woman he probably would have been a much more fun guy,” she says, “because he loved dancing and he could really tell a story and he loved to laugh and really loved music and Mum was more timid and she came from a big family and Dad kind of dragged her away from them down to Geelong and I think she was homesick for her family, and he didn’t get on well with them, and I think a lot of the time Mum was kind of resentful towards Dad.”


Helen didn’t want to sit for this interview. When I asked, she tried to avoid it. “I imagine people opening the magazine and groaning: ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake. Not her again.’”

She reasoned that she has been doing this for 40 years, writing books and answering questions about herself. “Seriously. Isn’t everyone fed up with hearing me or about me?”

This wasn’t the first time I had asked. In 2015 I sent Helen a letter, hoping she would let me write her biography. I had given her a copy of the Jennifer Clement book Widow Basquiat as a model. She sent back a postcard from the New England Regional Art Museum in Armidale. It was of a painting by Joshua Smith, of an old woman peeling vegetables into an enamel basin. She was wearing a jacket over an apron, her face pressed down by diligence. “Widow Basquiat is a wonderful book, quite stunning. But there’s no way I would ever make my life available to a writer as she did. Also – see over for an image of me. Lacking in wild self-destructive drama, zany clothes and splendid beauty, you must agree. Thanks for giving me the book, though. I loved it. Affectionately, Helen.”

A decade and a half ago, my grandmother saw Helen coming out of a cafe in Thirroul, outside Wollongong. “I’ve never,” she told me, “seen a woman look more unhappy.”

As I pay for our coffees, a lady asks if that’s Helen Garner I am sitting with. “I’ll definitely read the article,” she says. “I’m a big fan.”

This is an essay about judgement. It is also an essay about anger and writing.


Helen has torn the napkin into pieces. She gathers them up into a little pile, her hands cupped gently around them, as if inside she is holding a small bird.

She is remembering a radio interview she did, seven or eight years after she moved out of the Monkey Grip house. She can’t remember the topic or the program but she remembers one of the panellists was a psychologist.

She remembers saying something like, “Oh, well, I think jealousy is just terrible, I think it’s a useless emotion.”

She says this would have been a line she was running back then, consciously or unconsciously.

“The psychologist looked at me and said, ‘Oh, no, I completely disagree.’ And I looked up with shock, and he said, ‘You can’t say jealousy is useless; it makes it clear to us that life is not under our control.’ And I was rocked by this. And it was a moment of liberation for me. I thought, He’s absolutely right, and why have I been torturing myself all these years? I mean, the worst thing you could say to someone was ‘jealousy and possessiveness’. Those were the two things that went together. So in a sense it was kind of a Marxist forbidding. Not that I would know Marx from a hole in the ground, but there you are. Because it was bourgeois. Because it was about possession.”

Helen takes the straw out of her drink and holds it as she would a pen. She uses it to test parts of the table. She puts the middle of it between her teeth and bites down, leaving a tidemark of lipstick either side of what is now the broken section of straw. Having done this, she threads the straw through two holes in the tabletop and reaches under to twist it off like a pipe-cleaner. She does this without thinking, talking as she goes.

“See, in those days,” she says, then takes a long pause. “In those days we were completely ignorant of psychology. None of us – well, I would think among the people I particularly knew – nobody knew anything about it. We were hostile to it. We thought it was – we thought that anybody who would need to go and see a psychologist or ask for help in the mess they were in – it was unthinkable for us to do that. We didn’t even know anything about them, but it was considered to be sort of wimpy and self-indulgent.”

Helen remembers the big houses in which she lived and the mute struggle that would go on between two people, not talking for months until one left or the house broke up. She says the people in these houses were ignorant of the dynamic of groups. They had nothing to fall back on except what she calls naive and anarchistic ideas. She says jealousy was forbidden, especially between women. She never thought of jealousy as only a female emotion but that if men felt it they would hit you or smash the car headlights or something. Later, she says she didn’t know anyone who did that, except maybe one bloke but that was a different story. She says the point is that men act out their jealousy and women tend to swallow it.

She says the anger was “dumb and silent and inarticulate and very, very powerful”. When something didn’t work out, she says, it was “extremely frightening, and households broke up over that sort of thing”.

I ask if jealousy is a kind of judgement. “No,” she says. “Jealousy is a scream of pain, I think. I got off the track of judgement further back.”


Helen reasons that her father was jealous. She says her mother was jealous, too, but only of Helen’s relationship with her father. Helen was 60 before she realised this. She says she heard the mocking in her mother’s voice and was rocked by it. “I suddenly thought, She’s jealous of me and Dad.

Helen says her father’s jealousy destroyed her first marriage. He couldn’t let her go. He told one of Helen’s sisters that if she went to the wedding she would not be allowed to attend university. Helen calls it “crazy shit”. She says he was driven by rancour. He would burst into houses, hoping to catch her with a boy. He read her mail and confiscated her birth control.

It wasn’t until her mother died that she got close to him. “Mum died and that triangle between us broke, and that was when I started to get on with him, and in the last few years of his life we got on really well. We were always laughing and driving round the countryside and going for a coffee and everything.”

Helen remembers reading her grandmother’s obituary in The Hopetoun Courier, a paper from the Mallee district in the north of Victoria. Her father showed it to her when she was in her 40s. “Let me get this straight,” she says, which she says a lot when she is remembering. “It was the death notice of his mother. ‘Mrs Elizabeth Ford died on Friday night, blah, blah, blah, loved by everyone, blah, blah, blah’ … My eye just went down the column. Underneath the death notice there was a little news item and it said, ‘Little Bruce Ford was taken to hospital on Friday evening with convulsions. He was treated with strychnine and was allowed to go home on Saturday afternoon.’

“That’s Dad: his mother died and he went into convulsions that were so violent that they had to inject him with strychnine to calm him down.”

The page was marked August 11, 1916. It described Bruce Ford’s seizures as the “veriest of bad luck”. It described his mother as a champion player of tennis and golf, “a bonny lassie in every way”. She was 33 when she died. Bruce was not yet five.

A psychologist told Helen that people who lose their mothers at a young age can never really trust again. She thinks that is what was wrong with her father: he was always suspicious, always thought you were doing something that you shouldn’t be doing and you never knew what it was you were supposed to be doing.

“I think there are markers in your life that deeply, deeply shape the way you enter into relationships with people and most of them are unconscious, and that’s where the trouble starts,” Helen says. “And that’s why therapy and analysis are so interesting, because those things can be discovered and articulated, and lit by the light of day, and you can see the patterns according to which you’ve lived your life and wrecked your life, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are free of those patterns or those shapes that your early experience imposed on you, but at least you can see it coming down the pike.”

Helen remembers being 25, standing beside the kitchen table. She remembers a flash of anger at something her father said to her, the specifics of which she can no longer grasp. “Before I knew what I was doing I grabbed the back of a chair as if I was going to pick it up and hit him across the head with it,” she says. “And I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing it, I wouldn’t have done it. I was shocked to see that I’d gripped the chair in rage. I was mad with rage. I don’t think he even noticed. He was in the act of turning. He’d made a character-destroying remark and he made to turn to walk out of the room. I didn’t even pick it up off the floor, but I’d gripped it with murderous intent.”

The remarkable thing about Helen’s anger is how unafraid of it she is.


I start keeping notes after drinks with Helen. I am in a period of writing down everything, wondering what my next book will be. We meet every month or so and have one martini. Sometimes, we have two. “This is the first time I’ve had two martinis in 16 years,” Helen says one afternoon. “But they’re quite small. And I feel like a drink.”

I contend with myself that Helen’s books are shaped by the people who won’t speak to her. The First Stone is like that. Joe Cinque’s Consolation is like that. She writes the asymmetries of access.

I set down my notes in a rush after she leaves and think that I might still write the book. I put it that all writing is a kind of betrayal. I am writing down other encounters, too. My notes have conversations with my boss in them, odd moments I have seen in the street, conversations I’ve overheard, and my drinks with Helen. I hold that notes are just notes: no one is going to read them.

After one session, I write:

We talk about a film starring Harrison Ford. She says it was called Random Hearts. She saw it after her third marriage failed. She plots it out with her hands. She has a black nail on her wedding finger. We are at the Gin Palace. We moved because the light was bad. Helen usually sits in the booth at the back. She says, “I’ll write them a letter about that.”

 

She says there are two characters. No, four characters. And two of them are dead. They were meeting to have an affair, and they died in a plane crash. And that brings together the other characters, who are the surviving partners of the characters having the affair. One of them is Harrison Ford, who is a cop. Helen likes him.

 

She says, “That was me. I was the cop. I wanted to read the letters and see the room and kill everyone.”

 

She says, “I’d probably roll my eyes if I saw it now.”

 

She had three rings made, one for each of her marriages. “They weren’t connected. Except by my finger. There was a gold one and another one and a black one.”

 

She says who the black one was for. “If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you.”

 


The first therapist was Jungian. He was big on dreams, Helen says. She found him very useful. That’s the term she uses: useful.

In therapy, she learnt that everything was not everyone else’s fault. “That’s the first great lesson in therapy, isn’t it? Stop whingeing. So you have to turn judgement on yourself, in other words.”

Helen mentions Freud here and there. She says she hasn’t read him. “I’ve skipped in and out.”

She tells a story about her grandson coaxing another child out from under a desk at school. The girl missed her parents. “I’ve had those feelings,” Helen’s grandson told the girl. “They’re terrible, but they’ll go away soon, so come out and sit at the desk and we’ll do our work.” Helen clasps her hands together when she gets to this part of the story. She says she cried when she first heard about it. “That’s what Freud says: ‘Love and work.’”

Later, she is talking about the shame that accompanied feelings of anger or jealousy when she was young. “There were undercurrents of really quite violent, I mean powerful, dark emotions, that people had and couldn’t express. If you’re not allowed to express things, you don’t devise any ways of articulating them, even to yourself. If you become possessed by a certain emotion, which you know would be frowned upon by everybody around you, you think, I’ll just shut up about that, I’ll just swallow it, and I’ll just bite the bullet and I won’t say anything. But things like that tend to – you know, what Freud calls the return of the repressed – come back in worse ways.”

Helen doesn’t know what her second therapist’s bent was. She wasn’t a Jungian and nor was she into Freud. Helen says the therapist was tough. She says she will love and respect her forever. “She was the sort of person I couldn’t charm, and I couldn’t make her laugh,” Helen says. “She wouldn’t laugh unless something was really funny.”


Helen no longer gets jealous. “I would say that in the last years I’ve suffered from envy, but not from jealousy, I think. I think it helps not to be in love. Helps not to be in a couple. There’s nobody in my life now who, if they got involved with someone else, would cause me to suffer. So this is a time of great blessing in my life.”

She says envy is different because it is about what you want rather than what you have. “I read somewhere envy is wanting something that someone else has got and jealousy is the feeling you get when something you have got has been taken from you. I think that was a pretty clear distinction. I have suffered from envy, shameful envy about prizes. Prizes that I thought I should have won. And the shame of those feelings was worse than the feeling itself. Because it’s not like I’ve never won a prize. But, yeah, I did suffer from that. I have suffered from that, but I don’t anymore.”

A while back, she finished one of Knausgaard’s memoirs. “I realised for the first time that in that silence after you sleep with a man he really is thinking about nothing at all.”


Helen was at university when she first started going to church. Her parents were irreligious but she felt a kind of obligation from the college where she was living. In first year, or perhaps second year, she was baptised and confirmed.

Her first husband used to sleep in on Sundays, and she would get up and sneak out to communion. He was a rationalist, unsympathetic to Helen’s interest in church. “Sometimes, when he was sleeping in with a hangover, I would just sneak out and go to church and he wouldn’t even know. I’d go at eight o’clock in the morning and when I got back he’d still be asleep. It was a private thing that I liked.”

She says church is comforting and beautiful. She says judgement has nothing to do with it. “It’s sort of a feeling of surrender to the ritualised: the words that are always said, the prayers. I love that … I don’t think God is going to judge me. I don’t think there’s going to be …”

Helen leaves off before she gets to Revelation. She goes to different churches, Anglican and Catholic. She has never been to confession. “It’s hard to find one that’s bearable,” she says, “because there’s an awful lot of awfulness in them, boringness and lack of beauty.”

Helen likes to go early. The later the mass, the longer it takes. If the homily is stupid, she won’t go back. She says she does not want to be insulted and she doesn’t want people to be dreary. “I want them to cut to the chase. I want to get communion and have some prayers and get blessed.”


I start an early draft of the book about Helen, just to see what’s there. I decide it will be called Hotel Golf. I wonder at the impossibility of writing down another person. The first passage goes like this:

It begins as a game to organise drinks. She writes in the subject line, “Our delta alpha tango echo”. She answers questions, “Yankee echo sierra”. She swears: “Sierra hotel india tango”. For a kiss she writes “xray”.

The next section reads:

She says, “It’s in the delta india alpha romeo yankee”. She laughs, “Hotel alpha hotel alpha hotel alpha”. She wins the game with an unfurling acronym: “Bravo romeo alpha victor oscar”.

 

She signs this correspondence with her initials: “Hotel Golf.”

Looking at it now, I see how terrible it is.


Helen calls at the waiter. The falafel hasn’t come. He says he is sorry.

“Perhaps I could have judged him more harshly,” she says. “But I didn’t have an urge to. Did you?”

Helen says writing is a kind of self-analysis. She says it has to be. “I have to scoop out the things that are most unappealing about myself. And I feel I have a duty to do that because otherwise I’m not free to judge anyone else. I mean, it’s a bit of a cheat, really … I judge people all the time.”

A friend of Helen’s once complained that she would judge a person on the shoes they wore. She says he was right: she does. “It’s a really handy sign. There are people I despise because of the shoes they wear, and I judge them unfavourably. And it’s not just an aesthetic judgement: it’s a judgement of … It’s some kind of moral judgement, some kind of moral quality of theirs which is enacted in their choice of shoe.”

Helen makes a list of unacceptable shoes. The first are: “Cheap, ugly ones that give no support to the foot.” Then: “Ones made in China. Black, square high heels – that sort of thing. Grey shoes, the sort some men used to wear in the ’80s. Horrible shoes.” Later, she tells me about her friend’s shoes: “He wore heavy brown brogues. Good quality and well cared for but also a bit clunky.”

Helen wonders whether irritation comes before judgement. She is happy to feel both. “That piece perhaps you were thinking of, called ‘The Insults of Age’, where I pull that girl’s ponytail,” she says. “I suppose that’s an act of judgement, because she was behaving in a way that I think is completely despicable and reprehensible, and I wished to alert her to the fact that I completely disapproved of this. Is that judgement?”

I say it is, and also a kind of sentencing. “To sort of act on it, yeah,” she says. “And also there’s that poor waiter at the Gin Palace that I bit off when he patronised me, or I felt that he was patronising me and my friend. Anyway, I’ve noticed on the internet, every now and then, where I hardly ever go, but I do see that people have said, ‘Oh, Helen Garner, she pulls girls’ ponytails in the street and takes her bad temper out on poor innocent waiters.’ So when I read that, that makes me feel even more judgemental. Really, if people can’t call people out on disgraceful behaviour, I’m like, ‘Why? Why can’t you?’ I mean, what’s keeping us from it?”

I notice the shoes Helen is wearing. They are Birkenstocks.


We meet for drinks at the Everleigh in Fitzroy. Helen likes to meet early, so we are waiting at the door when it opens. The waitress walks silently between tables, her footfall masked like a dancer’s. She walks with one hand behind her back. Helen comments on this. Later, I read the scene in her published diaries: “In the cocktail bar the waitress, turning away from our table with her tray, placed her left hand, palm out, flat against the small of her back: a tiny gesture of professional composure. The first time she did it I was touched and wanted to laugh. The second time I felt more like crying, it was so delicate and graceful.”

In the same diary, she recalls tearing a page out of The Times Literary Supplement. She is on a plane and the woman beside her asks if she is a writer.

“How can you tell?”

“I’m a psychologist.”

When Helen leaves, I write:

She takes her granddaughter to buy a pair of Doc Martens for her 16th birthday. They get off at Flagstaff and her granddaughter asks if that’s where she goes for the trials. “I say, ‘Yes. We can go in if you like. We’ll sit in court 11. It might even be the same judge.’”

 

It’s the McDonald’s case, the one where a student was stomped to death on St Kilda Road. They are giving medical evidence. “I say, ‘You know, we can leave whenever you like. We can just get up.’ She says, ‘I’m not upset. It’s not emotional.’” Helen punches the air. “I thought, ‘Yes, she gets it.’ It was like an anatomy lesson, describing the parts of the skull.”

 

Helen talks about a man she knew who made little animal noises between sentences. She pulls down her mouth like a gargoyle carrying plumbing. Helen fidgets and opens her hands when she imitates the noises, but admits he made no movements. “I always think people who make noises when they’re not talking – they don’t want other people to talk. They’re filling in the silence while they think of something else to say.”

 

The station where Helen gets on is Newmarket. It’s close to her house, but she usually drives. “It’s only so I don’t have to go through the creepy underpass.”


The first murder trial Helen went to was in the 1980s. A friend’s stepdaughter had been killed while she slept in the back of a ute with her boyfriend. He was killed also.

The accused murderers were a couple, both drug addicts. They drove the ute to Kings Cross and went off to score. It was three days before the bodies were found, stinking in the heat.

Helen remembers being thunderstruck when the judge directed the jury to find the woman not guilty: the evidence against her did not support a conviction.

“Everyone stood up and bowed, and I thought, and I was going, ‘But … But … She was there, she must have done something.’ And then it hit: that this was what the law said. The law said you have to prove it. And it was a wonderful moment for me, of astonishment and illumination. That this charge had not been proved, therefore she couldn’t be found guilty.”

In Helen’s work, courts begin as a place of frustration, as a system unable to reconcile itself with her anger. In her later books, they become a source of reverence. Helen says this is because she understands them now. They fulfil her need for order and justice.

In the first case, she says, she wheeled out of the courthouse in a state somewhere between these two points. “Everyone in that room thinks, That fucking bitch should swing. But the law stood there and said, ‘No.’ I was thrilled by that.”

Helen describes that moment as owning to the reality of a system. She calls this restraint the earnestness of the courts.

“I had a mob feeling. I liked the girl, but I knew the girl that was dead.”


The second therapist was in a double-fronted bungalow up the hill in Bondi. Helen worried that people would see in through the window. It was the kind of therapist’s office with a couch for lying on, and Helen would take the little blanket at the end of the couch and pull it up over herself. She felt comforted.

She says this therapist freed her, that she connected Helen with the thoughts under her thoughts. “She sort of taught me to have the nerve to dig out that stuff,” she says. “I could blurt out these ugly thoughts that I had, or shameful things, things that didn’t accord with my idea of the person I wanted people to think I was. And then I found that when I did that, nothing bad happened. In fact, good things happened or enlightenment came.”

Helen talks about the expectations that accompany writing. She calls it “that leg-rope feeling”. It is the feeling that certain thoughts should not be written down, that they are too intimate or unkind or embarrassing.

Helen says she has never been to therapy to help with a book. She was partway through the Joe Cinque book when she started with the second therapist, but she was talking mostly about her marriage.

In the course of the therapy, however, she realised she could put down whatever weird or clumsy or amateurish thought came to mind while she was writing and no one was going to run into the room and steal the page. “What I’m talking about there is risk, really,” she says. “Risking revealing something unpleasant about myself, and risking being wrong, being seen to be wrong.”

Helen can’t remember the colour of the blanket at the end of the couch, the one she tucked over herself at the beginning of each session. It might have been tartan. It was not a soft blanket, more like a picnic rug made of brisk-looking wool. It was six months before Helen realised it was rolled up for patients to put their shoes on. The therapist hadn’t said anything. Every session, Helen lay there under the muck of other people’s feet. Life is choked with clumsy metaphor.

“She didn’t say anything but she was right not to, because I was being a child, you know?” Helen says. “She must have thought, Oh God, the poor girl. She obviously needs to feel treasured and cuddled and tucked in.


Helen doesn’t want to talk about her husbands. She says early on that she doesn’t want to read their names. I nod, anxious to keep the interview going.

Helen is holding her knife, as she was the straw, like a pen. She is testing it against the tabletop, making little circles on the metal. She asks if I am finding this interview frustrating. “I’m suddenly thinking, I’m not answering any of his questions.

I reassure her and she says, “Good.” I try another question, about her father. Suddenly, it comes out in a rush. “I never really thought ahead. I’m not really very good at that. I just rush into things and suddenly it’s not as good as it used to be and I don’t know why.”

She is talking about marriage, about being young and then not being young. “I’ve always been quite risky in this regard, and foolish. But I also think that I’m probably … I’m no good at being neat. I’m good at it for a while but then I … I’m probably not very … I don’t know. I was going to say ‘companionable’.”

I ask what she means when she says companionable. There is a long, careful pause, as if she is giving space for the first rush of thoughts to pass through the sluice.

“Well, I have seen people … I don’t think I’ve seen all that many good marriages in my life, or what I would consider to be good. I think that when people get married – I mean actually married as distinct from taking up with a person and being with them – I think that when you marry it triggers all sorts of unconscious archetypes or whatever you want to call them, behaviours and ways of being that we’ve inherited from our parents, or that you absorbed from your parents all those years ago. And you can sometimes find yourself acting in ways that you don’t understand because there are these things that you intellectually reject, but which are nestling in some unintellectual part of your psyche, and they just surface. For example, I see that my habit in being married was to …”

Helen halts and another pause opens. Then again: “I’m just suddenly flashing on something that a woman film director said to me once, a very famous one. She said to me, after a marriage of hers had broken down, she said, ‘I’m sick of making myself smaller so some bloke’ll love me.’

“And I think that’s what I had a tendency to do, to make myself smaller. And I think, especially if you’ve been married more than once, you’ll think, Well, I must have fucked it up the first time, I’ll try and be a better person the second time and then that person won’t stop loving me or it won’t all go to shit.

“But consciously or otherwise I just cut bits off myself, and bits off myself, and bits off myself, until there was nowhere for me to stand and it all went to shit. And it was quite painful. Awful. And either I didn’t cut enough bits off myself or …”

Helen wonders whether the self can really be cut away like this, parts chopped off and discarded. She says that’s a judgement call. She says “Yeah”, as if that answers the question, or at least settles it for a time.

“I think I was fun to be married to the first time,” she says. “I had a lot of fun with my first husband, until we had a baby and then our respective immaturities made themselves felt, and everything went to shit. As companions and friends, we had a ball. We were always laughing and dancing and we used to read plays out loud at night and put on funny accents and that sort of thing. We used to go to a park and throw a ball around. I suppose we were still being childish but in a good way. Okay, a baby comes along and you can’t do that anymore. It doesn’t work.”

She pauses again, and I ask if we can talk more about anger.


Helen is fond of court. It is where she feels whole. In court, she can trim the shadow between reason and emotion. “I feel that all the different parts of myself are integrated with all the other parts of myself, and that my mind and heart are functioning together, and not against each other, as they often are in ordinary life.”

She describes it as being in an expanded field. She is able to contemplate more things at once than she might in any other circumstance. The detail of it impresses her.

She sometimes feels intensely that a person should be punished. The feeling unsettles her. She felt it during the Joe Cinque trial, felt the anguish of his parents and the wrath they felt towards his killer. She shared their anger. She hates the way a good barrister can disappear a crime. “It surprises me when I look back on those trials … It shocks me when I look back at that book now, how little empathy or compassion I felt.”

Helen says that as she gets older she can see the shapes in things, not just in herself but in other people. She can see how selfish and narcissistic people often are. It has changed how she experiences anger.

“I don’t feel that the person in the dock should be strung up, though I’ve often thought that people should be strung up when I read about them in the paper,” she says. “Then when I go down to the court and see the actual person, my heart is, as the Methodists say, strangely warmed.”


Helen is good. She always pays her fare on trams. When she uses the self-service counter in supermarkets, it never occurs to her she could run through the eschalots as cheap brown onions. The suggestion fascinates her.

She is silly. She is the only person I know who uses the “blowing reeds” emoji in text messages. Sometimes, when she is talking about herself, she uses the “angel” emoji.

She puts her own books in street libraries, then goes back to check on them. “I just stick one in,” she says. “And I always look the next day to see if it’s still there and it never is. Otherwise I wouldn’t go back.”

She is constantly reading but the books never stay in her head. She is the member of two reading groups, one for classics and one for drinking. She is enthusiastic about Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. She has finished it twice. “It’s very good.”

When she listens, her face moves, as if she is taking the new pieces of information and trying to fit them down under her skin, twitching as they move from cheek to cheek, squinting as they pass behind her eyes.

Her muscles do the same thing as she talks, as if she is checking each phrase, squeezing it to see if it is ripe. She is anxious to be understood. Her head turns. She fidgets her hands, then fits one to the side of her face.

Helen likes to think about the way faces are transformed, how the features melt or swim under different emotions. She tells me how people “thrash around when they drown”. She has talked to police officers who have seen it, have pulled up the bodies. It is an enduring fascination. Very matter of fact, she says: “It distorts their faces.”

Helen walks extremely fast, with a backpack held high on her shoulders.


I grow anxious about the notes. Frequently Helen will say something, then add: “That’s in the cone.” I make sure not to note down these parts. I write another section:

If she wasn’t a writer, she says she would be a policewoman. She reads The New York Review of Books with a red pen in her hand and underlines the misplaced modifiers.

 

At a set of traffic lights she stops next to a police car and admires the officer’s forearm as it rests out the window. It is thick, with ginger hairs down its length. The lights change and she realises she is staring. “I thought, ‘Jeez. Get a hold of yourself, Hel.’”

 

She goes to a health spa where she sometimes rents a room to finish books. It is closing because it is not fancy. There are three men there, fasting. They have their bloods taken every day and cannot wander far in case they collapse. Helen says the food is very good.

 

Maria Venuti is there also. Helen says Venuti is a showgirl but concedes that she is not. She sings a little bit of “Big Spender”. She honks out the brass parts, lifting one shoulder and then the other.

 

She has a shirt with a panelled collar, like a sailor’s suit. “But nobody sees it because I always wear a backpack,” she says. “I’m no good at dressing up.”


Helen says she used to feel anger at people who would not talk to her for her books. She says she feels it less so now. She says it is still there, though, in varying ways. “I used to feel anger and frustration when I was a beginner at this sort of work,” she says. “Now I recognise the power struggle that it is, and have more understanding of the other person’s reluctance, anger or fear. And I’ve learnt how to build their refusal into what I write – to use their refusal as a form of freedom.”

She says sometimes it’s better when they don’t talk. Morally, it’s easier. “Without it I don’t find myself trapped in a sense of obligation,” she says. “An obligation that I might betray by brutal frankness about the situation in question. I’m freer if the person hasn’t drawn me or allowed me into a relationship with them that constrains me.”

Helen is uncomplicated about how she chooses subjects. She says it just happens. “Usually I’m just reading The Age in the morning and a story will jump out, something that makes me want to go down to the court and have a look at the actual person.”


Recently, a friend of Helen’s visited from Sydney and asked if she would go with her to church. “I was thrilled to bits because down here no one would ever say that to me.”

Helen chose an Anglican church where both her parents had their funerals. Helen and her friend went early and took communion. There was no music. Two people brought their dogs and they lay silently on the floor of the chapel. “The whole thing was quiet and friendly and pleasant.”

It doesn’t bother Helen that she doesn’t believe. She just likes going. She says it helps her to clean off, to get rid of things. “Even though I don’t have romantic messes or sexual messes anymore, I still act meanly sometimes or selfishly or vainly or enviously. I will just feel that I’ve behaved like a shit in certain circumstances. I don’t usually go along with any particular crime in mind, but just a general grubbiness. And I like the fact that they say, basically … there are the same words they use every time: ‘We acknowledge that we’ve behaved rather poorly, and we’re sorry about that, we regret, and we’d like to do better in future.’ And then they basically say to you, ‘Okay, well, now come up the front and we’ll give you some wine and some bread, something to eat and drink.’ And then, yeah: that’s the basics of it. I like that very much.”

Helen doubts if many in church believe. She thinks that is a myth maintained by non-religious people. “I think if you went around the church and asked everybody what they were there for a lot of people wouldn’t even be able to come up with an answer. It’s just something comforting about it or beautiful about it sometimes. Or maybe it’s quiet, and you know what it’s going to be, and you go back to hear it again. That’s what I think, anyway.”

I’ve seen Helen at a church only once. It was for a funeral. I remember thinking how comfortably ritual rested on her. At the graveside she looked peaceful and at home.


Helen has started books and abandoned them. Usually she will write 10 pages and then realise it isn’t going anywhere or she isn’t ready. “This has always happened so early in the process that it wasn’t a sacrifice to stop, more a relief,” she says. “If I go through old boxes of loose paper I come across opening pages of things that might have become short stories if I hadn’t lost my nerve, or got bored, or stopped feeling the pull of what I’d thought was an idea.”

She has never abandoned a work of nonfiction. With The First Stone or Joe Cinque’s Consolation or the book about Robert Farquharson she wished plenty of times she could. She wanted to quit when it got too painful to go on, but already the only way out was straight ahead and crawling.

“The stuff I abandoned, it hardly even knew what it was or wasn’t,” she says. “It hadn’t even become anything yet. It was all wandery and waffly, so I guessed it would have been fiction. Awful stuff, some of it: gothic, or whiny. Embarrassing.”

Writing is simple for Helen, which doesn’t mean it’s easy. She does it because she has to. “I write because it’s the thing I’m better at than any other activity I’ve tried,” she says. “It feels natural and right, to try to get sensations and thoughts into words so I can show them to other people.”

She jokes that she does this to check in on herself, to “find out if I’m nuts or not”.


Helen is always first to court. She likes to see the room before it fills, to feel the calm. “When you walk in in the morning, when the courts are all clean and nice, and the tipstaff puts everything where it belongs and there are always glasses of water and jugs – I loved it. I used to get there early in the morning, and I like to get there before anyone else. I want to be the first person in after the tippy because, just because there was this wonderful sense of order, and I remember walking in one day and the tipstaff was standing there and he was a really quite severe tipstaff and I said, ‘Oh, it’s lovely in here. It’s so peaceful.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s good, isn’t it? Before all this shit starts.’ And he made this gesture towards where all the action happened. It’s a bit like a fairytale, where the princess has to make a garment, and she sews and weaves and stitches all day, and when she comes back to do some more it’s all been undone in the night.”

Helen pauses and decides it’s the opposite of a fairytale: the work happens back to front, it isn’t undone, only reordered, the anger and ugliness repaired by formality, by water glasses refilled and chairs put back in place. “It’s just the sense that through the night all the chaos of the day was smoothed away and when you got back the next morning everything looked pale and orderly.”


Helen no longer goes to therapy, except when she has a specific question in mind. The enduring image of her analysis is of an unwatered geranium on her therapist’s front porch. The soil in its pot was dried and cracked, and looking at it Helen thought how terrible it was. She looked for a tap to water it but couldn’t find one.

“I felt really annoyed and disapproving because of this,” she says. “And when I got inside I learnt to say the first thing that came into my head so I said, ‘Your geranium is looking really dead out there but I couldn’t see any water to put on it.’ And she of course interpreted this as meaning ‘You aren’t watering me. I’m not getting what I need from you.’ And I can’t remember if we laughed but after that there was this theme between us of the so-called tough little geranium, and the tough little geranium was me, grumbling about not being cared for.”


Towards the end of writing this piece, I ask again why Helen doesn’t like interviews. She sends the same response: “Because I imagine people being completely fed up with me.”

I tell her that is not enough. There must be an answer that is about her, not other people. “Well, what I said is about me, really – in the sense that I don’t want to get the awful feeling that people are sick of me, that I’ve become tediously omnipresent and thus a bore, which would be painful for me.”

In her email, she underlines the words “for me” and sets them in italics. “But okay,” she writes. “I’ll think harder. I don’t have ‘a subject’ to speak about, or a lot of opinions about or positions on things. I feel I don’t really know anything, in the external sense of ‘know’.

“So I am obliged to talk from very close to my own experiences. And if I’m not in a particularly confident or extroverted mood, it starts to feel as if I’m hacking off pieces of myself to please or entertain or interest the interviewer.”

She sends another email, before I can respond. “Further thought: that allowing a stranger to interview me and go away in possession of what I’ve said with the intention of shaping it into a version of me is a staggering handing over of control.”

She says she hates having her picture taken even more than being interviewed. “I seem to myself, specially now, always ugly in photos. A strained face. My natural expression is not a smile and I can’t purposely put one on as most people seem to do on cue. This is something I noticed about my father too when he was old. He laughed naturally and spontaneously but his smile was always ironic or defensive.”

A minute later, she sends another message. “I never thought of myself as good looking and all my life photos have reinforced that gloomy belief.”


In the middle of 2016, I wrote the last paragraphs of the book that was going to be about Helen. I wrote two versions. The rest of it was still just notes.

In one version, the conversation ran to the bottom of a drink. Helen talked about her sister dying, about the people who came and blocked up the holes, how for two days there was no smell and then, slowly, the bedroom grew a kind of sweet quality. Helen considered how it took only a few hours for the skin to go like china. She said the change was “awesome”. She questioned the meaning of her own account. “What, like the soul has left?”

In that version, the book ended like this:

Helen finishes her drink. “When I die, I’d like to die in my sleep.”

In the other version, her drink has only just arrived. This one is the truest glimpse I’ve had of Helen. She is hopeful and specific and alive to a sense of whimsy:

Helen orders a drink of gin and lemon, not quite a gimlet, and admires the cut glass in which it comes. “If I end up with a man again, and I don’t think I will, he would have to be a dancer. He couldn’t be embarrassed about dancing.”


Helen agrees that there is a human need to judge. “Pretty much, yes.”

She says the problem is that people feel shame for doing it. “People must feel great anxiety about judging and being judged, or the word ‘judgemental’ wouldn’t have become as pejorative as it has in my lifetime.”

She says people feel anxious that making a judgement is the same as putting yourself above someone, the same as thinking you are better than them. She says that’s not it at all.

“If you can’t observe and analyse someone’s behaviour and decide whether you like it or not, or think it’s right or wrong, how can you live in the world, and make yourself a path through the mess of everything? Everyone does it all the time, don’t they?”

Helen says she feels all right calling someone a cheat or a manipulator or mean-spirited or devious or arrogant. She wonders whether judgement is only bad if you leave no room for a person to repent, if you just dump it on them like a block of concrete and walk away.

She was interested by how angry people were when the Farquharson book came out, angry that she didn’t deliver a final judgement on him. They wanted him to be a monster. They wanted her to say it. “That sort of judgement is awful, I think, because it denies a criminal – a sinner – the human right to be thought about. The purpose of an utter dismissal is to relieve the judging person from the pain and effort of bringing the full force of their imagination to the contemplation of the criminal and his behaviour and the reasons for it. And thus seeing what they share with a criminal. Which is more than many people want to acknowledge.”

I asked who Helen is to her readers, what she wants them to think of her. She says she writes in the voice of an average neighbour. The description she gives is so much her I feel the sense of happy sadness you keep for certain close friends, not that we are even that close: “A divorced grandmother who’s seen a bit of life, had some troubles and sadness, lost things that she should have figured out how to keep, caused pain to people through selfishness and carelessness, but who likes people and wants to understand them, is good with children, likes a drink and a laugh, and tries hard to be generous and to keep her word and not to be a pain in the arse – in short, someone through whose eyes a reader might be interested in looking at the story.”


Life writing is imperfect. The truth is too fine and there’s too much of it to gather up in one place. The best we can hope for is an assembly of facts.

Helen takes out a notebook. On the front, it reads June 2016. “Do you mind if I write that down?” she says. She draws a line and then begins to write in a neat, childish script. Her handwriting is blockish and learnt, innocent of her life and the writing she has done. “An assembly of facts. Erik.”

She draws another line, her book ready for another thought. She tucks it inside the backpack resting on the seat beside her and idly loops her arm through one of the straps, just in case. Helen writes with cheap fountain pens, maybe Pilots.

As soon as she leaves, I write this:

Helen says she likes policemen. She describes one with a moustache like a cigar. “He’d fill in his notebook neatly, all the way to the margins. He was a good bloke.”

 

She finds odd men interesting. She says Ben Mendelsohn is beautiful. “He looks like he’s been dug up.”

 

She goes to a 70th birthday party and is struck by stomach pain. She asks the host’s wife for a hot water bottle. There are two hot water bottles but they are both perished. The wife brings a towel rolled up in a pillowcase, warmed in the microwave. “I lay down on the bed and took my boots off and pulled my legs up. She put a little mohair blanket on me. There was a lamp and the new Oliver Sacks autobiography. It was wonderful.”

 

Helen says she doesn’t know what she will do when her grandchildren grow up. Occasionally, she calls them “my kids”. She corrects herself: “My grandkids.” She says: “They have a spark, children. The youngest is nine, so maybe I’ll die first. I don’t think so. I used to think I’d never die. But I had an ultrasound today and I’d had a hernia. The doctor asked me if I lifted anything heavy and I said, ‘A chair.’ Pathetic.”

 

Moments stick to her. She says Tim Winton saw a lady with greasy hair pushing a pram and when he looked in he saw she was pushing part of a car engine.

 

Helen is early and buys a pair of pants. They are houndstooth and soft. “Feel them. They’re like pyjamas.”

 

Helen says a French lady sold them to her. The store was so dark, she could only see her when she moved.

Erik Jensen

Erik Jensen is the editor of The Saturday Paper. His latest book is On Kate Jennings: Writers on Writers.

@ErikOJensen

June 2018

From the front page

Religious unfreedom

Discrimination is in the eye of the beholder

Image of ‘I Didn’t Talk’ by Beatriz Bracher

Shaping the senseless with stories: Beatriz Bracher’s ‘I Didn’t Talk’

An unreliable narrator reckons with the lasting impact of Brazil’s military regime

Image of a bushfire

Fair judgement without surrender: Chloe Hooper’s ‘The Arsonist’

The author of ‘The Tall Man’ tries to understand the motivations of a Black Saturday firebug

Image from ‘La Passion de Simone’

Performing philosophy: ‘La Passion de Simone’ at the Sydney Festival

The creatives behind this Sydney Chamber Opera production on the extreme empathy of Simone Weil


In This Issue

Illustration

A pack of bankers

The financial services royal commission has revealed more than anyone banked on

The elevated horror of Ari Aster’s ‘Hereditary’

This debut feature will test the mettle of even the most hardened genre fans

Illustration

When planetary catastrophe is your day job

Climate scientists are working hard to keep the apocalypse relevant

Cover of Axiomatic

‘Axiomatic’ by Maria Tumarkin

This collection of bracing essays interrogates how we view the past


More in The Monthly Essays

Image of Barack Obama voting in Chicago, Illinois

Losing the plot: the American midterms

Caravan conspiracies, dead candidates and a miasma of acrimony … welcome to the 2018 US campaign trail

Image of Peter Dutton’s mobile office, September 2004

Rebellion in Dutton country

Labor, the Greens and GetUp are preparing for battle in the Queensland electorate of Dickson

Image of David Eastman’s arrest, 1992

The retrial of David Eastman

AFP officer Colin Winchester was gunned down 30 years ago, and yet another twist in the case only just played out

Image of Rene Kulitja, The Man in the Log.

At the edge of comprehension

In Central Australia, the Anangu people and Western health professionals are working towards a common language


Read on

Image of ‘I Didn’t Talk’ by Beatriz Bracher

Shaping the senseless with stories: Beatriz Bracher’s ‘I Didn’t Talk’

An unreliable narrator reckons with the lasting impact of Brazil’s military regime

Image from ‘La Passion de Simone’

Performing philosophy: ‘La Passion de Simone’ at the Sydney Festival

The creatives behind this Sydney Chamber Opera production on the extreme empathy of Simone Weil

Image of Craig Kelly

Protecting Craig Kelly

Saving the MP from a preselection battle was another fine display of muppetry

Images from ‘Colette’ and ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

Fake it so real: ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ and ‘Colette’

Two new films examine female writers who masquerade for very different reasons


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