A Reluctant Memoir
When I was eleven years old, my mother gave me a pair of gold sandals. These were for best, and not at all suitable for school. In all my life so far—that dreamy undifferentiated time of childhood—I had worn socks and sensible lace-ups to school. Other children were allowed to run around barefoot—there was cowshit between their toes, and their feet splayed out like thick t-bone steaks. But they were common and the Davidsons were not.
What could it have been about that morning in particular, that gave me the courage to end my mother’s dominion over me, to dress not only in the gold sandals but in a gathered green poplin skirt with rope petticoat, rather than the pleated tartan that was customary? Children mocking at first breasts perhaps. Or a boy sending love notes across the classroom. Loyalty to a future self conflicted with loyalty to my mother’s realm. The old bindings had to be cut.
I am coming down the wrought-iron staircase inside our house. My mother is standing below me, more a force than a person. She is holding my blue lunch box; I am clutching my school portfolio. We are arguing and I seem never to have fought with her before. I know that I will wear these clothes, these sandals. I have already won the battle inside my own will. I see now that such confidence could exist only because I felt sure of her love for me. I could make my bid for autonomy for the very reason that she has been a good mother—a mother who can contain the grief of this primal rejection, in order to give her child, again, life.
Aren’t you even going to kiss me goodbye? she says. Not guilt or love or sadness must be allowed to weaken the momentum of victory. Without turning around, I flounce through the kitchen and out the front door. ‘No, I won’t.’
When I came home that afternoon, my mother was dead.
This could be the beginning of a memoir—a curtain drawn aside to reveal the whole landscape of life as it exists inside my mind and no one else’s. But although I know the gold sandals were real, that I wore them on a particular day and this led to an altercation with my mother on the stairs, these facts exist as no more than an instant of sense perceptions filed in memory and encased as a kind of seed. The other details in the picture—the skirt, portfolio, lunchbox; the duration in which the scene unfolds; the walk through the kitchen; the inference that I understood, at the time, the import of my actions—these have been furnished by imagination. If I continued with the story, it would unfurl out of that seed, that moment, and its relationship to what-really-happened would become increasingly obscure.
But factual truth is the least of my worries here. What I have written is inauthentic in a much more profound sense. The fight over the gold sandals had nothing to do with my mother’s death, either in reality or in the depths of my own conscience. Or rather, it may have had something to do with it, perhaps even a lot to do with it, but not in the way I have intimated here. A mea culpa voiced through a little girl. An example of the temptations of sentiment, nostalgia, manipulativeness and self concern that make memoir, surely, the most difficult of literary forms.
I have been trying to write about my mother for over two years. Many beginnings have been produced, some of which reached as far as thirty-thousand words, others didn’t struggle beyond ten pages.
I picture the false starts sometimes as fraying cattle pads, spreading out before me. (Cattle pads, for those who don’t know, are grooves in the dust, made by cattle coming in to water at a bore tank. Some grooves are shallow and some deep. Theoretically, the shallow ones should converge into deeper ones, like tributaries into rivers, and those deeper ones converge until they become a single furrow. But of course it is not like that in reality. In reality, it is difficult to know which way these paths lead—in to the tank, or out to desolation). I am alone in the desert, wondering which cattle pad to follow, paralyzed by the dread of choosing the wrong one. But I must choose soon, or perish where I stand.
Each beginning has been different in style from every other beginning. Some were completely fictionalized—a mother sitting in the buggy next to a father, driving up the dirt track to Stanley Park, the cattle station where I’ve decided I should be born. I have no idea whether my real mother ever sat in a buggy, or even if the memory of the Stanley Park buggy belongs to me or originated in someone else and was handed on. Perhaps I’ve entirely imagined a buggy, and planted it into the ground of memory. But the mother in my story was undeniably in that buggy, pregnant with me, and I felt closer to my imaginary mother than I can recall feeling to the real one.
Then there was that awkward attempt to write short meditations each precipitated out of an object from the past. (One of which is sitting on my desk right now.) If I were to run out of real objects, imagination contained an infinite supply. My mother would emerge from these meditations as a whole piece of music created from the individual strikes of a gamalan. It wasn’t long before I admitted to myself that this was too contrived. Clever in a self-conscious literary way, but not true.
Another beginning described my surroundings at the time—a small room in India. Through the window I can see boulders and jungle. A langur sits on the verandah parapet, swinging its leg. The sounds of unfamiliar birds, and a far off truck grinding its way down the mountain accent the silence. This sense of placement might, I reasoned, root the book, give it (and me) a feeling of safe territory from which to explore the past. But I wasn’t actually in India when I wrote it, I was in Alice Springs. (I am now in London by the way, and there is no mnemonic object on my desk. I made it up.)
The most recent attempt, the one which causes me most embarrassment, was one in which I place myself at a London literary high table, and pull the scene to bits—its pretentions, its mediocrity, its envy, its insecurities. I, of course, am the alienated outsider, burdened by unwelcome insights and disappointments. I use this scene as a turning point, at which I, the author/narrator, realize that my life has run out of future, leaving nowhere left to explore but the past. A what am I doing here how did I get here? device. I also use it to revile the whole industry of words—those who produce them and those who market them. While this distaste is real enough, I should not have taken it out on the imaginary people sitting at that dinner table. An author’s job is not to judge her characters but to understand them. Which is the same as saying, to love them.
All of these beginnings could no doubt have gone on to become publishable books. But not THE book. Not the RIGHT book.
Every writer knows that the process of creation is something like drilling through surface rock in an effort to reach the lode-bearing stratum beneath. You work down through layers of banality and cliché until, with any luck, you see the gleam of something pure. Something simple and true. According to this metaphor, all my beginnings are tailings.
But why only tailings, after all this time? Not even a speck of gold? Why should I be so terrified of reaching the stratum, that the moment I think I might be anywhere near it, I shoot back up to the surface.
My mother hanged herself from the rafters of our garage, using the cord of our electrical kettle.
Where can I go with a sentence like that? How do I unfurl the story of her life (a life rendered retrospectively tragic by that sentence) without descending into melodrama? Without seeming to beg for pity?
Most people assume that my problem is an emotional one. That if I could only get past the emotional block, I would have all the ingredients necessary for a successful contemporary memoir: exotic childhood, tragic event, mummy and daddy, boo-hoo, triumphant overcoming of wretched beginning, perpetrators exposed, victim (me, naturally) sanctified.
But my problem is not so much emotional as it is technical. The right tone must be found to fit the material—restrained yet frank, personal yet transcending the merely personal, revealing yet reserved.
The tone will be established not just by what is divulged or withheld, but by how Robyn Davidson comes across on the page. What kind of character I make of myself.
My first book, Tracks, was an account of a journey I made, alone, across the Australian deserts. The person who made that journey—myself—became the central character in the book. This character/narrator/self did nothing factually different from what I did in reality. That is to say, the account contains no lies.
Yet it is deceiving. That Robyn Davidson may have a greater authenticity than the flux of contradictions, mental disappearances, worries, joys, memories and trivial self-talk that must have constituted my inner life at the time. Nevertheless, she is a fiction. I feel I know this fictionalized self very well. In Tracks she is cocky and arrogant, but so full of youthful chutzpah that you forgive her. She emerges, ten years on, in Desert Places—a chronicle of two years I spent living with nomads in India—less appealing, but with more gravitas. Life has beaten the cockiness out of her, but what remains constant is her passion for truth, for getting behind her own, and others’, acts.
I can see that she might be a difficult person to be around, but she has never been difficult to conjure. I have relied on her to fly to me, Ariel-like, from that other part of my consciousness where she dwells, and she has never failed me until now.
When I wrote Tracks I did not doubt that I had a right to speak. I did not know that what I was doing was extremely difficult. I was not aware of a vast audience out there in the dark. The fictionalizing of myself was instinctive, guileless and completely candid. But I now know that writing is the most difficult thing on earth to do; that published words are powerful; that most of the print-noise these days is nothing but tailings and it is better to chuck in the shovel than add to that vast pile; that while one has a sacred responsibility to try to get at the truth, one has also to remember that truth is relative, and one person’s version of it can bury another’s.
In short, I cannot write innocently any more. My Ariel is chained to the wall of some psychic dungeon by a policing self-consciousness.
The belief that memoirists simply describe people who were (or are) already there is as naive as the belief that we are transcribing events as they actually occurred. As if we need only pull back a curtain to reveal the scene as it was, the people as they were. Of course this is nonsense.
My sister’s version of my mother’s story is so different from mine that it is as if we emerged from different wombs. I would like to be able to leave my sister entirely out of my version. But whatever curtain I pull back, there she is, vast and unavoidable, centre stage, larger than my mother, larger than my father, and much, much larger than me. Even when I leave her completely out of the plot, her presence lurks behind the curtain. Up to now my sister has owned the copyright on my mother’s story. Our story. If I tell it another way, if I presume even to have a story, she will be very upset. And I have always been intimidated by my sister’s anger.
I don’t feel anything when I think of my mother’s death. I have imagined the act, what it required to do it, but I imagine it as one sees a scene in a film. It holds no special significance for me. I suppose by the time she killed herself I was already quite far away. In any case, when I touch the area around that day now, I can feel only callus.
The day opens for me at about 3.30 p.m. This must be the time, because I have just left the school grounds and am looking down the street towards our house. The portfolio is in my right hand. We have only lived here for a year or two, having moved from the country. All of us, in our different ways, struggle against suburban life like trapped birds. I loathe the Moreton Bay beaches just a half mile from our house. The water is waveless and opaque and it contains jellyfish. There are mangrove swamps and moaning casuarina forests. The beaches are narrow and lonely. I hate swimming in the shark enclosure with the kids from school because my mother has bought me transparent Speedos, and you can see my bottom through them when they are wet.
Summer afternoon. Cotton frock. (No rope petticoat or gold sandals.) Right hand clasping handle of school portfolio. I am standing still, looking down the street to our house, which is different from all the other houses. Our house is two-storey with patios. Built by an Italian. My mother says it’s vulgar. Inside the house, every room is filled with a thick dark misery, even though there is plenty of suburban light pouring through the venetians. My mother, unable to get out of bed one day, told me God had come to her through the venetians and held her hand. Greg Hamilton, who passes me notes in school, reckons the house is unlucky.
It’s as if I am on an escalator from which it is impossible to get off. Dread. I can feel it now. A swooning in the head, and the stomach revolving. Occasionally in my life I have wondered about the intensity of this dread. This wish to fall down where I stand, for some miracle to intervene and cancel the inevitability of that journey to our house. I have wondered if perhaps I already knew my mother was dead, if perhaps I had snuck home at lunchtime and found her dangling there. But there was no psychic foreseeing, no blocked memory to be tweezered out later by some crank shrink. The more appalling truth is that this was how I must have felt every day, when I looked down the street towards our house.
As I approach I see that there is a police car outside our house. My father is standing at the front of our house in his khakis. It appears someone has thrown a bucket of water over him. Next to him is our neighbour, Mrs. Wallace. My father is trembling all over, and weeping. As I walk towards him he bends down to take me in his arms, something he has never done before. He says, Mummy’s dead darling. I reject him and allow myself to be held by the neighbour. I cry but only because this is expected. Later my mother’s mother is leading me through the kitchen. Her bony hand is gripping mine but she doesn’t seem all that aware of me. She shows me the electrical kettle and says something about my mother and the cord. I did not understand her because her voice was odd and high. I thought that my mother had tried to electrocute herself, and failed, so had to choose another method. I seem already to know that she has hanged herself, but I don’t remember who told me. There are no details at that time. The garage rafters, the torn fingernails, my father giving her mouth to mouth resuscitation, these embellishment came years later, from my sister.
The next memory is being out on the golf-course behind the house with Mrs. Wallace. She tries to say comforting things and I humour her. My dog, Goldie, is there. I feel I should be with someone else, not the neighbour. I still don’t feel as I believe I should feel, I don’t feel sad or grief-stricken, for example. But there is still that dread in my body. Not pain pain, but numb pain. Cold am. It’s not pain being done to you, it’s pain that is you. The sort of pain that cannot be relieved.
Later, I am in the back of a taxi with my sister, who is eighteen. Or perhaps it’s the police car. She looks as if someone has just slapped her in the face. She has taken control of things. I am to go and live with my father’s twin sister on Tamborine Mountain. This is to save me from the worse fate of living with our grandmother in the pigeon box house she shares with Grandy. But I won’t be able to take my dog.
Those are the seeds embedded from that day. I can go back to them, just as I went back to that memory of the gold sandals, crack them all open, and from each one I could fashion a deluge, an infinitude of memoirs.
But would they be true? Would they be fair. As dispassionately as I’ve tried to describe the residue of that day, the whole passage is still hopelessly skewed by the first-person pronoun. Especially the bit about the dog. The dog was, indeed, destroyed, but the problem with including this fact is that it appears that I am asking the reader for special dispensation. I don’t deny that to kill the pet of a child whose mother has just hanged herself is a strange thing to do. But the interesting thing about it is precisely that—that it is a strange thing to do. Not that it happened to ME. But if I leave out the dog, where does the leaving-out end? Whom do I erase from the scene of that day?
My sister, unlike my parents, is still alive. Her story is still unfolding. How can I assume the power of writing her into my version? Fixing her, like a fly, into my amber. And how could I be sure, while writing her lines, that I was doing my authorial duty to understand her and never judge her? To love her with the detachment necessary for saints and fictionalists?
What do we owe to the living? And what to the dead? What is the morality of memoir?
My mother died when she was forty-six. It never crossed my mind to write about her until I approached the same age. Then that forgotten, safely buried woman came back with, quite literally, a vengeance. It was as if she were begging me to release her from the prison of other peoples’ stories. It was my duty to do so. There was no one else who could or would. I was her favourite. There had always been a pact between us. Now I must honour that pact and be her witness, her voice. She had been misrepresented, dishonoured, murdered.
My mother always overestimated my talents. The job she has given me is beyond them. I fail her as consistently as Hamlet fails his ghost.
How, I ask you—with her behind one shoulder and my sister behind the other, with all those readers sitting out there in front of me, their faces full of scepticism, or worse, the desire to see me fail, with that policeman on patrol down in the psychic dungeons—how am I expected to come up with the truth when I know that no such thing exists. When I cannot even find a way past that imaginary woman dangling from the cord of our electrical kettle. Or that monolithic and terrifying imaginary sister. Or my imaginary self.
But what if I forget about them for a while, and imagine instead that most important character in any memoir—Time.
Were I to write again about the day of my mother’s death, I might not mention the walk home from school, or the dog, or my poor father, or my sister. I might leave out entirely that impassable sentence—my mother hanged herself… I might try, instead, to focus on the kettle. It was one of those yellow, chunky kettles with a black, flip-up lid. Bakelite I should think. A fifties kettle. From that kettle, which sits on the laminex counter next to our new electric fry-pan, I might describe 1961 as it was in a kitchen in a suburb outside Brisbane. And from that year might unfurl previous years—Mooloolah siding on the North Coast line, where my sister rode her horse to school and sometimes let me double behind her, where my dad sheared sheep by hand while my sister and I stamped the wool in the wool press and the big green carpet snake stared down from the rafters above us, where I got stomach ache after stealing mad Valerie’s peaches, where my mother and father flicked each other with tea towels in the kitchen and laughed till the tears ran, where the kids at school had cowshit between their toes, where I couldn’t bear to see my sister teased, where I saw my father punishing the horse with his stock whip, where I was frightened of my sister’s anger, where the Gripskie’s bull chased Grandy and me up a tree. And before Mooloolah there was Stanley Park, the cattle station where I was born, and my mother’s terror of snakes and loneliness, and the buggy by the barbed wire fence, and picking bluebells along the dirt track to the house, and sing-songs around the piano. And before that there was a war during which my mother and father fell in love, and before that war there was a depression, and before that there was another war, and my parents’ worlds contained the seeds of these events, so that although the kettle is the only seed common to all of us, nevertheless coded in it are all these other memories that existed before I was born and that I have inherited.
The past is not sealed, not immutable, and it does not belong to any one. It is an impression left by the telling of stories. I want to invent a world for my mother in which she is free to speak for herself and for her time, to fictionalize her own life. It is what we all do, incessantly, in an effort to find a personal truth (that glint of gold) to make sense of ourselves and of history, to keep the past open.
My mother is as close to me, and as hidden from me, as my own face…
Robyn Davidson is the author of Tracks, Ancestors, Desert Places, and the Picador Book of Journeys. She lives in London, Australia, and India.