From a lost notebook: encounters with dangerous men
He: This isn’t going to turn into one of your rants, is it?
She: The need to rant comes from the feeling of not being heard.
In 2007, Germaine Greer published the spirited Shakespeare’s Wife, a book about Ann Hathaway and the life she might have led. The word ‘might’ is important in this context, because next to nothing is known about her. There are a few documents that offer a detail or two about her family. There are Mr Shakespeare’s poems and plays, of course, which must not be read as being too heavily autobiographical. And there are the successive, generally negative views of scholars and historians. That’s all.
Greer wades though everything. Everything. At the heart of her investigation is the simplest question: Why, when so little is known, should nearly every reference to this woman be negative?
For example, for four centuries Ann Hathaway has been considered an illiterate, unattractive older woman who slyly set about to lead astray and then entrap the naïve, teenage Will, future Bard of England. And yet, only a badly preserved pencil sketch remains to hint at whether she was lovely or plain or downright ugly, hardly enough to inspire such vitriol.
The only thing known for certain is that Ann Hathaway was 26 to his 18 years. That’s it. Nothing about their courtship is known, though Greer draws context from songs and ballads of the time as well as some of Shakespeare’s early poems, which are surprisingly positive about relationships between slightly older women and younger men. Greer makes a case for the Hathaways being better established in the world than the Shakespeares, who were heavily in debt. Indeed, it might even be surmised that Ann was a good catch for the talented young man without an income, whose skills as a poet and playwright remained largely untested. No one could possibly have imagined at the time they were married that Will Shakespeare would go on to be the most celebrated writer in the English language.
What, then, have these scholars to gain by being unceasingly unkind to someone they know nothing about? Greer invokes the long line of so-called “rhapsodists of bardolatry”, of whom Thomas De Quincey was first of many. Shakespeare had become a national treasure and, as such, the facts of his life as the basis of an ‘image’ were considered public property.
Greer intends to set the record straight, questioning each document, every reference, and each individual assumption at a breakneck pace, exposing in the process a long tradition of scholarly chauvinism and misogyny. “The Shakespeare wallahs,” she writes, “have succeeded in creating a Bard in their own likeness, that is to say, incapable of relating to women.” Ann Hathaway has existed too long as another silenced woman: Greer seeks to restore her reputation, the barest facts of her life, her face, her voice.
Reading Germaine Greer has always had the effect of opening the floodgates of suppressed indignation in me. I’ve traveled the world and know for certain that sexism may be encountered— overtly, covertly, or otherwise—on every street corner. But to have it documented so thoroughly and by one so unblinking has got me thinking.
Soon after I arrived in Australia, I needed to get an Australian drivers license. With opposite-side drive, roundabouts, and unfamiliar road rules, it was a prospect that filled me with anxiety. On he appointed day, however, I never had the chance to get behind the wheel. The examiner determined that the car—less than a year old—was “unroadworthy”. Without another word, he failed me.
“Hold on,” I confronted him. “Please explain how the car could be unroadworthy today when it was perfectly roadworthy only two days ago during my husband’s driving test?”
The man answered my question by turning his back and returning to the building. I was effectively silenced and dismissed.
Later that day, I expressed my indignation about this to one of my first Australian friends, an intelligent, well-educated woman.
“That’d be right.” She shrugged. No protest, no outrage, no need to rant. She discouraged me from writing a letter of complaint. “They’ll just laugh at the letter over a pint at the pub.”
Apparently, I had a few things against me: I was an American and a woman; I scored 100% on the written exam and all my documents were in order, which made me a ‘tall poppy‘ (another new concept). In the end, I did write a letter, not to his boss but to the head of Queensland Transport. They eventually investigated the matter and added my complaint to thirty others in the file of this particular examiner. Twenty-nine women and one gay man had already spoken up.
Anticipating justice would be served, I asked the investigator what they were going to do.
“There isn’t much we can do,” she replied. “We aren’t allowed to fire him or demote him.”
“But he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this!” I cried. “It’s egregious! It’s unconscionable! It’s obviously sexist! With so many complaints on record, that man shouldn’t be allowed to deal with the public.”
“I’m sorry. The only way we can get him out of his position is to promote him.”
“In what kind or world is that okay?” I asked pointedly.
The investigator shrugged. This was my first encounter with sexism as it is manifested in some Australian institutions.
Culturally determined ‘mates’
This was also my first look at the idea of ‘mateship’ and the stoicism with which Australian women respond to it. Mateship is a concept of friendship endemic to Australian identity, so powerful that, in 1999, Prime Minister John Howard pushed to have the term enshrined in the Australian constitution. There have also been attempts to have it part of the Australian citizenship test.
The only problem is that it can and often does exclude half the population, something even more apparent lately as the shadow of Tony Abbott and his cocky opinions loom ever larger in the political sphere.
In fact, it’s been my observation that women are frequently accused of coming between ‘mates’, something I believe has conditioned their silence about it.
As the Australian poet Judith Wright observed in 1965:
The ‘mateship’ ingredient of the Australian tradition … left out of account the whole relationship with women.
There are many good things to be said about strong bonds between men. However, while such bonds are crucial perhaps in establishing a colony, on the battlefield, and even on the playing field, there is a shadow side to mateship. It can be both predatory and bullying, a state of being in which women are excluded, not respected and, in essence, stripped of humanity.
Men behaving badly on the town…
On my daughter’s 18th birthday, we celebrated with a small dinner party, after which she planned to go out ‘clubbing’, something that has become a rite of passage among young Australians.
That day there was a news item about Dianne Brimble, the Brisbane woman who had died aboard a P&O cruise ship. I remember thinking with some alarm, “Hasn’t that been resolved yet? It was so many years ago already.”
For anyone who doesn’t know, Dianne Brimble embarked on a nine-day cruise in 2002. On the second day, her lifeless body was found naked on the floor of a cabin occupied by four unknown men. The coroner’s investigation, which shockingly began only four years after the event, uncovered a number of dreadful circumstances surrounding her death. She died of an overdose of the date-rape drug GHB. She had been sexually abused. Awful, disrespectful photographs surfaced. At least four and possibly as many as eight men were involved.
Sadly, in all these years, there has been no justice for Brimble. Despite the inquest and the investigation of eight men considered to be implicated in her death, the criminal trial that followed almost eight years after the 42-year-old’s death resulted in a hung jury. The plea deal entered into with Mark Wilhelm, the man who supplied the GHB, was subsequently dropped. None of the men involved has been punished or expressed remorse for what happened to this woman. They seem to believe they were entitled to behave the way they did that tragic night and the way they’ve behaved since. In fact, as recently as September 2010, investigators caught them on tape discussing how the case could make them millionaires.
With this story fresh in my mind, I kissed my daughter goodbye as she left with her friends, Eddo, the designated driver and self-appointed body guard, and Julie, an exchange student from France. They met up with others they knew, danced, shouted to each other over the noise, shared jokes. Then something happened.
As my daughter related to me when she returned home, Julie had gone out to the courtyard for a cigarette. She was joined by a group of four young men who flirted with her and offered to buy her a drink. She demurred. One of the men handed her a bottle of water, and she took a sip. That’s the last thing she remembers.
Luckily, at that moment my daughter and Eddo were looking for her and happened to see her fall. They rushed toward her, shouted for security. Julie was limp, in some kind of twilight state, speaking nonsense, eyes opened but not really ‘there’. Eddo left with security to look for the men she’d been speaking with, but they had already fled the club.
…and at home
It’s after dinner with the dishes cleared away and the last glass of wine poured. As frequently happens, one of my husband’s friends is over, a man I consider to be my dear friend too.
We’re on the patio, surrounded by the lime trees, the palms and the lillypillys I’ve lovingly planted. There’s a cool breeze, the buzz of cicadas, a rising moon. If there is any place and any moment I should feel safe, this is it.
I mention my daughter’s experience at the nightclub. At first, we’re in agreement that it’s complicated, terrifying, harrowing, full of peril to raise a daughter nowadays. Before I’m aware of it happening, the conversation shifts. We’re now discussing all the ways women have hurt men – abandonment, deceit, betrayal.
“Wait a minute,” I protest. “It’s not at all the same. We’re talking about two different things here. Men do those same things to women, but there’s the risk of this other crime too.”
They don’t listen, insist the playing field is level, declare men and women are equal in the world, in Australia, in their minds. They assert that women have the same opportunities that men do and, in many cases, are even given preferential treatment, suggest that it’s men who are discriminated against.
Whatever I say remains unheard. The vapour of mateship has rolled down the hill and over the garden wall, enveloping these two men in an atmosphere from which I’m not only excluded but erased.
My only options: to ‘rant’ or to leave.