I have two poems in the wonderfully long-running Australian web journal foam:e this month:
This is nearly the end of my oeuvre of poems about my estranged mother. I’ve never spoken publicly about them aside from the bare announcement of publication. Realising I’d almost published them all now – and I don’t think I’ll write any more – I thought I’d write this post.
This post discusses childhood sexual assault non-explicitly.
Last year the police closed their three-year investigation into my stepfather without laying charges. It was a disappointment but also a letting off the hook. Being the victim-witness in a sex crime trial would have been horrific, and the odds were not with me for a conviction anyway. After that I felt: I give up. I give up sadly but also with relief. Things are unacceptable but I have reached the end of my power.
I feel a similar spirit about the mother poems: I have explored what there is to explore, for now.
To throw off the yoke of taboo about talking outside the family was a work of years of agony. It healed something to see poems about the family dirty laundry appear in the pages of established literary journals, or be indexed by the National Library of Australia. When the first ones came out I felt I had installed a bronze plaque on the wall of the universe: I will not be silenced.
Or perhaps a billboard across the street from my mother’s house.
No – maybe down an obscure street on the other side of her town. Who reads literary journals, after all.
It may seem strange that I have never written directly about the crime itself. I hesitated for legal reasons, but also because I’m not sure of the value of doing so. Often when we first disclose sexual assault, we overcorrect against the previous taboo and start disclosing indiscriminately, which we later regret. In retrospect, I’m grateful my overdisclosure phase happened at a time in my young life when I was in such acute psychiatric distress that I couldn’t write. Now I’ve been in therapy so long, there’s no further catharsis in disclosure. And what is its value for the reader? Such material is acutely distressing for the reader who has survived similar trauma, moderately distressing for the empathetic general reader, and prurient – even pornographic – for the unempathetic.
I would rather burn myself with a hot iron than provide material of pornographic interest, especially.
(Did you know, in the course of writing this, I became aware I was writing turgidly, cautiously, with many qualifiers and modifiers, so I began to hack and slash, trying to be zippy and journalistic and entertaining. But a terrible anger rose! So I stopped.)
Erin Stewart on ‘Masochism and Memoir’ in Overland recently helped me crystallise my doubts about the genre of women’s trauma-disclosure memoir. One should take this field only with clear-eyed ethical purpose – the ethics in question being directed toward culture at large, other survivors of similar trauma, but also one’s past and present selves. How would my twelve-year-old self feel about the details of what happened to her being made public? Even worse than I would, I think.
Ultimately, not writing about the crime, but writing repeatedly, even obsessively, about being abandoned by my mother, actually reflects my experience of the relative impact of these things. The offender was just some guy; she’s my mother.
It’s goodbye, for now, to the mother poems. Since I stopped writing them I have been in a fallow period with poetry, though not with fiction. I don’t know if I have another enduring preoccupation waiting to emerge, or all will be miscellany now. I look forward to finding out.
Resources for those who may want them: