A Non-Compliant Woman

Our lives are full of shoulds. For women, these shoulds act as the hands that form and shape a lump of clay. Like clay being formed into something suddenly respected as art, we are pressed into behaviours that see us recognised as ladies. This pressing begins so young, and is so omnipresent, that it becomes an intuitive and unthinking framework for every interaction. Like how we’re so used to stepping out of others’ ways, deferring space. Like when we’re told to smile, deferring our faces.

When we start challenging these shoulds, it’s uncomfortable, it’s shocking and it’s scary – for us, and for others. These shoulds are in fact, compliance. Compliance with a world that wants to bind and conscribe our behaviours, voices, bodies and ambitions, veil them beneath manners, politeness and contentedness with the progress we have made from being the chattel of fathers and husbands.

‘You should write happier things,’ says my mother, worried about the emotional and societal implications of my ‘complaining’ all the time.

I have started watching for acts of everyday compliance – instances where I subsume my preferences or comfort for another’s. They’re everywhere. But this has become much more than proving that if I don’t move from the path of oncoming pedestrian traffic I’ll get shoulder-checked five times a day.

I understand now the myriad ways I have complied my entire life. I understand why a barely known middle-aged man rested his hand high on my seven year old thigh. Why a guy refused to wear a condom when he had sex with a friend of a friend. Why so many of us yield to accepting what is done to us even though it makes our blood chill. I understand that we have been moulded and pressed and shaped so that we are compliant and cannot resist. I need to push against the hands that want to form us into something prettier and nicer and quieter. I am trying harder and more consciously to be a non-compliant woman.

Since I started my micro-movement of non-compliance, I have been terrified of the consequences of pushing back. ‘You’re going to get punched in the face one day,’ my mother has oft said following a small act of perceived surliness or, as I like to call it, standing up for myself. I’ve been screamed at. Ridiculed. Glared at. But what I take these reactions to show is the genuine and deep-seated fear that men have when we challenge the expectation that we’ll comply.

Some examples:

1.

I hadn’t seen him for a decade, yet every few years he’d crop up on messenger and just check in and say hi. Somehow, I would fold into myself and become 16 year old Naomi, on the cusp of her first heartbreak. Anxious to do everything right lest I made something go wrong. I was so eager for his approval. I was so eager to keep him happy and not upset him.

As each conversation ended and I morphed back into 30 year old Naomi, I’d feel sick afterwards. So unaccustomed to this role of subservience, of ego-stroking. Is this what it feels like, really, underneath all the superficial male-awarded affirmation, to be a cool girl? To comply?

So it went until he caught me on a day when I was grumpy, busy and NOT in the mood to listen to white boys playing four chords on the guitar and expecting me to swoon.

‘You’re still into music aren’t you,’ he asked. ‘Wanna listen to a song I recorded?’

‘No thank you,’ I said. ‘I would find it awkward. You know I’ve taken music seriously my entire life. I’ve performed professionally. For a brief moment it was going to be my career. I tend to want to offer constructive criticism. If you enjoy playing that’s great. You don’t need to know what I think to enjoy music and I’m worried that what I think won’t be what you want to hear.’

This honest response unleashed a flood of comments that I was a stuck up bitch with massive tickets on myself and that I was incredibly rude and by the way I was really unattractive.

I just really didn’t want to listen to him play the guitar.

 

2.

‘You should get a job here!’ A smartly-dressed older man beamed at me.

I broke from the conversation I had been maintaining in my head while I waited in the queue to return his comments with an expression that said, ‘Huh?’

‘Here, at Priceline! You’d look gorgeous in their pink uniform.’

I looked down at my orange, undoubtedly food-splattered shirt and to the woman behind the counter wearing a pink blouse and a humiliated expression.

‘Pretty in pink! You should get a job here because you’d be pretty in pink!’

‘I have three degrees and an important government job. But I’ll throw all that away for the chance to be pretty in the uniform of your choosing.’

‘It was just a compliment! You don’t need to be sarcastic.’

I’m guessing the correct reaction was to laugh merrily and accept his gaze.

 

3.

I was at a wedding, a handful of friends and I taking a break in the fresh air from the furious dancing.

‘Do you guys have a lighter?’ An unknown wedding guest approached our group.

‘Sorry, none of us smoke,’ I said. ‘But those guys over there were just smoking so perhaps they can help out?’

‘Are you trying to get me to fuck off?’ My new acquaintance demanded aggressively.

‘No, I was trying to be helpful. But now you’ve spoken to me like that you can certainly fuck off.’

The atmosphere suddenly shifted. His body language morphed into something larger, squarer, and stronger. His eyes narrowed on me. I saw his hand tighten around the beer bottle he was holding. Women are very, very finely tuned into these atmospheric changes.

Just as it seemed he would explode, my partner calmly said, ‘Mate, she was trying to help and you blew up at her.’

Suddenly, our friend was on more familiar footing: how two white guys sort out a little problem.

‘Oh yeah no worries mate.’ He shook my partner’s hand.

‘No hard feelings love,’ he said to me, ‘give me a hug.’

‘No thank you,’ I said, offering my hand instead.

‘I just want a fucking hug what the fuck is wrong with you.’

It was a friend’s wedding, I was already weakened by one small round of resistance. I listened to the damn guitar and gave him a hug so he would go away, so I didn’t get hit and so I wasn’t rude. It was easier.

Why not just be nice to people instead of assuming the worst? Is what I want not valid? Especially when my niceness is exploited by intentions that are clearly not the best? Why is it so much more horrible to be truthful and honest, to be a non-compliant woman, than to allow myself to be formed into something quieter, meeker, smaller and unhappier? So what if the guy told you to smile where you were in your head about a serious issue? Well, raising a defiant eyebrow might be the first step to having a framework for saying what you really want, what you really feel, when it really matters. I send a question back: why is the scrutiny not directed at those who uphold the shoulds, who react angrily to non-compliance, who exploit the expectation that someone will acquiesce to their wants, who assume we won’t ask for more than we were given. Are not they the ones who should be doing things differently?

For many women, facing the condemnation of non-compliance is too terrifying because our social worth is bound in the approval our every action is given (or not) from men. Not complying will get you yelled at or dumped or hit or raped. So they just listen to the damn guitar. It’s easier. It makes them go away. But it hurts our souls and binds the fabric of compliance even tighter. I imagine that non-compliance allows us to stretch fully, to be radiant and brilliant and powerful without limit. And to imagine the true possibility of a womanhood without shoulds is terrifying in the most beautiful way.

To look into the eyes of someone who has asked me to submit to their expectations of my femininity, and refuse, is the most powerful act of womanhood. I feel adrenaline and power and strength race through my blood. Then afterwards, the shaking, rage filled tears of doing what I know is right despite criticism to calm down and not overreact; despite snarling, warm, drunk breath spewing insults at me; despite the fear of being hit – or worse. Non-compliance is more anguishing the more intimate the hands that press my compliance are, because it is shattering a relationship that was built upon my compliance, and I see that, to some people, I am not loveable when I say no.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

Why Taylor Swift disappoints in Trump’s Dystopia

I don’t like Taylor Swift.

Her music isn’t relevant to this assessment. I don’t like her. The person. Or, allowing that she is an extremely clever performer adept at constructing a version of herself for public consumption, I don’t like the Taylor Swift that Taylor Swift chooses to have us see.

I’m not alone in this weird revulsion of someone I don’t know. As an avid reader of absolute trash (I’m not a natural blonde: I spend a lot of time in hairdressers and my hairdresser has an excellent supply of tabloid magazines), I’ve noted the sneering coverage of her relationships. But last year, around the time of the ill-fated and weirdly eager Hiddleswift display, I noted mainstream media and feminist sites joining the derisive chorus. People, it seemed, had reached peak Swift. Her all-American goodness was now making us nauseous. I shrugged. After her last album release in 2014 followed by the saturation of a world tour in 2015 followed by endless pictures of perfect days with perfect friends in perfect outfits, we’d had a lot of Swift. But the coverage was starting to seem a little cruel, a little too gleeful in celebrating any slips. I didn’t like seeing a young woman torn down for her success but I shrugged again. She’d go away, tweak her brand a little, and comeback to dominate the music that gets stuck in our heads once we’d forgotten we had been so sick of her.

She went away so completely that she wasn’t publicly seen for months. Her normally active and candid social media accounts were quiet, sharing simply the odd promotional shot or birthday shout-out. She didn’t even host her annual Independence Day party (usually replete with all her famous friends). What a master media manipulator, I mused.

And then, last month, she was back. With new music, a new style and a new boyfriend. But this time, the press was instantly savage. As was I. And it was nothing to do with her music. Editorials seemed to clutch at wild and flimsy justifications for this dislike: her music video rips off Beyoncé! She’s playing the victim card! She’s perpetuating the angry, black man stereotype by positioning herself as an innocent ingénue in her rift with Kanye! She’s an evil capitalist mastermind for telling her fans to buy, buy, buy merchandise to ensure privileged access to tour tickets! There is legitimacy in these criticisms, but, to me, they didn’t seem to explain the whirlwind of bitterness. It’s not Swift, that has changed, really. It’s society.

The world Taylor Swift has emerged from her latest chrysalis into is deeply changed from the one she ‘left’ in 2016. This is a world that brooks no ambiguity in one’s position regarding the political battlelines drawn. And yet in this most politically charged environment, Swift is silent. Swift’s is a career built on mass appeal, on statements of personal empowerment that can be interpreted to ensure they offend no one. She hails from a red state, and her mainstream domination owes much to her early success in the famously conservative country music industry. Many of her fans would have voted Trump. In this context, her silence starts to look if not self-interested at least self-protective. And why not? She’s an entertainer. Why wade into the mess that is American politics?

Except that in 2017, it seems that everything has been lit with a torch of social passion, and much of the energy of this moment is coming from young people, women, and members of the arts community. This is an age where Teen Vogue is providing some of the best political analysis of the year. This is an age where eviscerating critiques of social inequality are happening not in our parliaments but on our stages. This is a moment where to be silent is to be incredibly out of touch. Silence, in 2017, seems to be a luxury of immense privilege.

It is a weak argument to simply compare Swift to other more politically active musicians and we should not necessarily expect political leadership from pop stars – except that Taylor Swift is an avowed feminist, uses female empowerment as an extensive motif in her music and personal branding, and has invoked feminism in her criticism of others’ behaviour, including Kanye WestNicki Minaj, and Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. So it is reasonable to be disappointed by her curious silence amidst the electrifying Women’s March movement, and her lack of engagement on the myriad social issues specifically targeting her fan base – particularly young women and the LGBTIQ community – in a Trump presidency.

Until we look more critically at Swiftian feminism that is. Taylor Swift’s is a personal empowerment brand of feminism: aspirational, mercantilist, neo-liberal. It is focussed on the achievements of the individual. It tells a story of individual talent triumphing over the odds, not of the structure that creates and protects those odds. It is ignorant of – or reluctant to examine – its own privilege: white, tall, thin, straight and conventionally beautiful and wealthy. In Taylor’s performance of female friendship, there are some brown bodies and some bigger bodies, but these are by far the exception. And all of them seem merely to be superficial accessories. Another thing to aspire to, to collect, to spend money on obtaining.

This feel good ‘feminism’ was fine for entertainment before Trump, before Brexit, before white extremists felt the world was safe for them to start publically burning things again, before Australia decided to rip itself open as it mused on whether human rights were indeed rights for all. In 2017, white and blonde and tall and thin and silent is the ultimate goal according to the new regime. Taylor Swift could be another Ivanka Trump, her individual success apparently refuting any suggestion of discrimination or inequality. Her obedience is what ensures acceptance. But for those not accepted by the establishment, to merely champion individual success, to not acknowledge and challenge systems of oppression, to be silent, is to seem complicit. In neo-liberal Swiftian feminism, it is Taylor Swift that profits, not we along with her.

There is an important and laudable exception to Swift’s attempt to stay silently uncontroversial, and a disappointing example of the feminist and mainstream media showing a reluctance to accord credit where it was due. In August this year, jurors in a civil trial agreed with Swift that she had been assaulted by a DJ during a public appearance. Swift used this decision to advocate that victims of sexual assault be believed and heard, and to defend a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. Acknowledging that her wealth gave her an opportunity to pursue the case, a privilege often out of reach for assault victims, she pledged to donate money to organisations supporting victims of sexual violence. In this moment, Swift challenged the system that dismisses women’s experiences, offered courage and precedent to young women, gave a voice to those without her platform, and sought to identify and rectify the inequalities of money and legal power that protect male perpetrators. It was a rare moment of politics, of noise, and it was powerful. Perhaps we should be hopeful this experience will empower Swift to continue to engage with social issues. Perhaps we should be disappointed that a high profile victim of sexual assault chose not to link her experience with the cultural impact of a President who boasts that he can commit sexual assault with impunity.

It’s not just Taylor Swift, of course, that has fallen foul of our new expectation for socially conscious engagement. Three years ago the tall, white, thin, conventionally beautiful and straight Iggy Azalea’s first two singles achieved the kind of success that had until then only been reached by the Beatles. In 2017, Izzy’s reputation is as tattered as a post-party piñata. Any attempt to engage with Azalea’s appropriation of and profit from black culture has been met by her rebuttal that this criticism is sexist. Azalea’s failure to think with nuance about her privileges as a white woman shows that, like Swift, she grasps the feminist tenets that are most self-serving: the bits that protect the individual and the system – a system that likes female celebrities when they’re compliant, white and beautiful.

I have a sense that we’re readying for battle. If entertainers want to simply entertain, fine. But if they want to profit from engagement with the issues that are tearing Western societies apart, we expect them to have done their homework. We expect them to have an understanding of how issues of race and gender intersect to affect equality – that is, intersectional feminism. We expect that their understanding of feminism is sophisticated enough to listen to legitimate critiques of their behaviour and get better. We’re expecting a lot of our women in 2017: we want the call for equality to be for us all.

Women are taught not to make waves. And Taylor Swift has reaped great success from negotiating a fine line between celebrating women and not challenging the status-quo. And this was fine. But, as is evident from a sudden zeitgeist of criticism of Swift, this approach is becoming out of date. A violently fractured Western world has turned ‘Taylor Swift’ into a battleground, and her silent intersection with this cultural moment seems to make her complicit in our political projections onto her body. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect political leadership from pop stars, but culture and music has always been at its best when it serves as society’s truthful mirror. And in this shit show of a world, we want – we need – our heroes to be wave makers, and not just hit makers.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

Living at college in ignorance and bliss

In Latin, alma mater means nurturing mother. In so many ways, the residential college I attended was my nurturing mother. It was also the sexy older sister: seemingly confident and knowing, yet knowing so little. I started to become who I am today at college and those three years in the early Noughties are the crucible of my longest, strongest friendships, of my identity as a powerful and unapologetic professional woman.

But, ten years later, the shadows that lurk uncomfortably in my memories are hard to ignore. And it is this underbelly that has been exposed in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) report into sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities: students who lived at college are at higher risk of being sexually assaulted or sexually harassed. And my personal experience suggests that a pernicious and resilient culture of insularity, socially constructed behavioural norms, socially encouraged high-risk behaviour and secret traditions must be addressed before colleges can truly be safe places for young people.

Released in August 2017, the AHRC report presented damning findings: around half of all university students (51%) were sexually harassed on at least one occasion in 2016, and 6.9% of students were sexually assaulted on at least one occasion in 2015 or 2016. Overwhelmingly, men were the perpetrators. Overwhelmingly, the perpetrator was known to the victim, likely a fellow student.

The survey also uncovered attitudinal and structural barriers to reporting assault and harassment, victim dissatisfaction with institutional responses when reports were made, and very low confidence amongst the survey set that enough was being done to protect students and support victims.

A particular area of concern highlighted by the AHRC report was that college students (that is, students who live on campus in residential settings owned by or affiliated with the university) represented a disproportionate number of victims: seven per cent of the survey respondents identified as living on campus, but they represented 34 per cent of students who had been assaulted.

I was not surprised. I knew those insular halls would hold the worst secrets. And I was sickened: not by the figures, but by the memories that immediately attached themselves to these figures, tugging at my conscience. Daring to be remembered beneath those happy images of friendship, and debauch parties, and sunny antics. Daring me to remember my complicity. My role as victim. My role as bystander. So here are the things that I think combine to create a more high-risk environment for sexual assault and harassment in Australian colleges.

Insularity created a permissive environment both for crimes occurring and perpetrators being protected. It created an over-confidence in our safety. I moved 700km away from home to attend university and my parents insisted I stay at college. They thought it was safest. There were about 1000 collegians all together and there was a sense we all knew each other if not personally, then we certainly knew people in common. At the very least, we knew what ‘type’ everyone was based on the college that had become their family.

From across a crowded first day lecture theatre, the ruggers and jersey that we always wore (often without shoes), the single book and pen carried (as we were so close to home), marked us out as instant allies. You’re a Jabba? I go to Women’s!  A friendship was instantly established based on mutual friends, upcoming parities and legendary rivalries. From the lecture theatre to parties and bars: what did it matter if you went home with a random guy you’d never met before? You probably knew a few guys in the hallway and you were only 200 m from home anyway. I rarely socialised with non-collegians. They thought we were weird.

The AHRC report highlights something I knew to be true: organisational contexts can play a role in increasing violence – especially sexual violence – against women. The report points to ‘all male residential colleges’ as being of particular concern. In my experience, the all male colleges were able to amplify the behavioural norms of hyper-masculinity. In the social microcosm that is the college community, we absorbed mutually created social roles and rules. We played them up and we perpetuated them. I knew of one young man allegedly sexually assaulted by his supposed brothers because it was rumoured he was gay.

Reference to his assault became a popular chant at inter-college sporting events. These colleges, so steeped in a regressive and binary view of gender, remain incredibly out of step with progressive society. While plenty of evidence exists for the ongoing importance of women’s only spaces (both for safety and ensuring opportunity), all male colleges should be abandoned by society, for in some dark and forgotten corners of these residences, a musty, out-dated and violent form of patriarchy flourishes like a fungus.

These college-constructed gender norms dictated our relationship experiences. We knew what consent safe sex were in theory. But in practice we didn’t know how to own our bodies. There was a hazy area between having fun and things going too far that none of us really knew how to negotiate. I was once pressed to do something I didn’t want to do. My demurs were couched in that faintly Victorian language that marks one as a lady not wishing to seem easy, not wishing to offend. Now it would be clear: this isn’t something I’m into so you need to stop and back the hell up. Right now.

At the time, I thought, ‘what an incredible compliment that he wants me so badly! I mustn’t ruin this and embarrass myself by coming across as frigid’.

I escaped because of a distraction. This is why – with their captured audience of young people at risk of sexual harassment and assault – colleges must teach consent beyond getting a yes out of someone eventually. That’s not consent, that’s acquiescence. Consent must be be vocal, ongoing and enthusiastic. For the latter to happen, colleges need to encourage embodied sex positivity: for all genders, for all sexualities. In that environment, I couldn’t be enthusiastic any more than I could forcefully say no. Enthusiastic is as bad as frigid in a patriarchal world.

As the AHRC report notes, college life is drenched in booze – tickets to parties where endless home-mixed drinks were served out of garbage bins; free busses to bars that offered $2 spirits.  We were in our homes with our families though, so we felt safe despite our high-risk behaviours. So many times we rescued each other and laughed about how crazy we’d been.

In hindsight things were not right. The whispers when one girl didn’t return for a second year. I heard something about her passing out in a room with a bunch of guys, about her waking up saying she hadn’t wanted that to happen. No more questions were asked. It seemed shameful and undignified. We were collegians – leading lights of the future. We didn’t get into messes like that. Now, I see clearly what really happened ­– a culture of secrecy, an expectation that we would drink to excess, boys trying to prove their masculinity with sexual conquests, girls not knowing how to say no.

In these socially pressuring environments, it is easy to see how consent would be distorted by an expectation to participate in tradition. Mascots were a symbol of these ‘hallowed rites’. My college had a doll as its mascot. Each college would try to steal mascots. If successful, that mascot would be subject to some mildly humiliating photo shoot.

A few years ago, my friends and I reunited our college’s centenary ball, the old and the new smooshed together in a grand ballroom. We were shown footage of our mascot’s recent demise. Mary – our mascot, – was strung by the neck and dangled out of a window. Residents of the men’s college were screaming sexual obscenities at her. She was dropped to the ground and a ute drove over her repeatedly. She was set alight and the assembled crowd jeered with college pride.

I shook uncontrollably and tears of rage filled my eyes. This was nothing to do with college pride and all to do with sexual assault. Yet, important person after important person (all quite famous) rose to the stage for speeches, promising vengeance on this apparently light-hearted prank. That’s the final thing wrong with the colleges: they’re self-perpetuating. Each generation goes further than the last in the pursuit of holding up the traditions, the rules and the roles we were sworn into. Colleges need to step back and critique these traditions and games. After eight years away from the college environment, I could see this problematic behaviour for what it was.

At college, I learned that women could be celebrated for their wisdom and professional success. Ambition was championed. Opportunity seemed limitless. I loved college. But. To look back on these years is difficult. With maturity, self-confidence and a better grasp of feminism, I see how toxic many ingrained behaviours and traditions were. Colleges derive their cultural strength and endurance from insularity, privilege, money, elitism and deference to accepted behaviours. Colleges spit people into society who believe this is ok.

Colleges must take responsibility for ensuring ongoing sex positive consent education, disavowing lingering sexism and privilege, critiquing and reviewing traditions, and creating a culture of belief and support for victims. My instincts are that the situation is much worse than the AHRC report tells: the college community has a way of protecting itself, of creating and sustaining culture. Those close to the problem may not realise the truth of what is going on for some years, if indeed they ever do. It took me ten years after all.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

Gefilte fish for whom? Remembering and forgetting in Eastern Europe

I joked that my recent holiday itinerary read like Hitler’s ‘To Do’ list. Poland. Ukraine. Germany. I didn’t intend to spend half my holiday kneeling at sites of tragedy, but when you find yourself in the vicinity of places that echo notoriously through history it seems impossible not to join the procession of modern-day mourners. But as much as I was confronted by sombre monuments of grief, in other places I found myself searching for evidence that anything had happened at all. Eastern Europe, it seemed, is locked in a macabre waltz of remembering and forgetting. Who is remembered and who is forgotten, what events are enshrined in human memory and which have turned to dust, seem to have everything to do with building a story we – the victors, the bystanders, the inheritors – can live with.

Remembering

The day before our scheduled visit to Auschwitz I said, ‘I’m worried about going to Auschwitz.’

My husband replied, ‘I’m worried about you going to Auschwitz’.

‘Why?’ I asked, expecting a beautiful desire to protect me from the pain of being in such a place.

‘Because you’re going to get angry at people and I’m going to spend the day trying to ensure you don’t get angry at people and then trying to calm you down after you get angry at people.’

‘Ok,’ I said. ‘That’s why I’m worried about going to Auschwitz.’

But compelled by my Jewish family history and the insistence of Polish tourism, I disembarked at Auschwitz. I cutaway here to a scene from the film, The Reader – based on Bernard Schlink’s brilliant meditation on the culpability of every day Germans, the tension between generations, and Germany’s efforts to come to terms with its crimes.

Ilana

[Auschwitz survivor, speaking forty years after her liberation]

People ask all the time what I learned in the camps. But the camps weren’t therapy. What do you think these places were? Universities? We didn’t go there to learn. One becomes very clear about these things. What are you asking for? Forgiveness…? Or do you just want to feel better yourself? My advice, go to the theatre, if you want catharsis. Please. Go to literature. Don’t go to the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps. Nothing.

My notes from this day, which I thought might form the basis of this piece, were a torrent of misdirected anger. Frustration with tourists who scuttled to take photos of piles of shoes that belonged to people who burnt in Auschwitz’s ovens, with those who took sombre selfies no doubt hash-tagged ‘#neverforget’, with the hungover group of guys in personalised buck’s trip shirts. I wanted to force these people’s faces to the light and scream, ‘you just don’t get it, do you?’

Then I had a drunken conversation in the pub with a guy who listened to my rant and admitted he had taken photos in Auschwitz because he simply didn’t know what else to do. He was so shocked that the robotic motion of raising his camera was his way of engaging with the unimaginable and controlling his grief. As I reflected upon this, days later, I realised my furious, lashing temper was my own reaction to not knowing what to do. I turned my bile upon those around me for there were no Nazis upon which I could unleash my grief.

Forgetting

The next day I went to Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish district, the area Jews had been permitted to live from the 1500s until they were interred in an overcrowded, policed ghetto in 1941. Poland’s Jewish culture had been the world’s most significant for many centuries, before being destroyed during the Holocaust. From a pre-war population of 3.5 million, today the entire Polish Jewish community is thought to be around 20 000. Or, as the ever-informed Krakow cab driver told me, ‘there are very, very few Jews who live in Krakow today.’ So I was surprised to turn a corner into the heart of the Jewish district and find Little Israel: lively stalls hawking menorahs and fridge magnets of Rabbis, and cafes trumpeting kosher menus and Krakow’s best gefilte fish – a Passover staple of cold, ground fish balls.

This wasn’t a sign of a local Jewish revival – this was a cynical play to the thousands of foreign Jews who come searching for their families. This was a performance. The creation of a sellable culture that barely exists in Poland’s reality and is still struggling for acceptance in a country with lingering anti-Semitic prejudices.

A week later I was lost in Warsaw. Google was trying to send me into a very secure apartment building. The map the concierge had frowned over before marking, tentatively, with a question mark, matched my location exactly.

‘Want ghetto?’ a shabbily-dressed man barked at me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to respond.

‘Want ghetto!’ he repeated, more insistently. I nodded. He set off quickly. I trotted behind him, I guessed I was meant to. We crossed a few car parks, and turned a few corners. We came through a back gate of the apartment building Google had sent me to. ‘Ghetto’ he said, pointing into a very private looking courtyard. Then he left.

And there it was. A small sign pointing to an ominous and incongruous hunk of wall, enclosed entirely by an apartment building. ‘Remnant of Warsaw Ghetto Wall’. This wall had violently deprived the liberties of nearly half a million Polish Jews. It had starved them of their freedom, dignity, work and living essentials. It was enormous –nearly double the height of the Berlin Wall. And it was so hidden, so forgotten. I couldn’t believe how lost it was.

Author with the Warsaw ghetto wall

The author at the Warsaw ghetto wall

Nothing comes out of the camps. I worry that museums of death – Auschwitz, Chernobyl, the Killing Fields ­– with their overwhelming statistics, overshadow the personal and the individual. They create a giant mass of ‘victims’ distinguishable only for their mass suffering.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Auschwitz survivor Victor E. Frankl writes of the consumption of prisoners as a literal human resource. Stripped of dignity and humanness, prisoners were used until their bodies were no longer useful, stripped of any bodily items (hair, for instance) of enduring material value, disposed of, and replaced. I could not participate however remotely in allowing people to become numbers and resources.

I followed Ilana’s advice and went to literature. In every country I visited, I read the testimonies of survivors – not just Holocaust survivors, but victims of Communist repression too. I wanted to remember the people and not the regime. They had names, not just shoes left in a pile in a concentration camp. I want to remember these people not by their deaths, but by their lives. Where their memory burns is not in the monuments of their deaths built by their murderers but in their stories, if we care to listen.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program. 

Finding My Family In Europe’s Least-Visited Country

We’ve pulled up at a church sandwiched amongst houses. This part of the city, with its winding, incredibly narrow, cobbled streets, feels like a village. There’s no trace of the belching Ladas (the ubiquitous Soviet-era car) and noisy trams that jostled along the wide street we turned off a few minutes ago. A few people have stuck their heads out of their windows to watch with interest as our van awkwardly negotiates the hills and tight corners. Taxis don’t come here apparently.

My non-English speaking driver has offered entreaties to my non-Romanian speaking self before rushing into the church. Are we in need of salvation? My driver and I are certainly searching. A woman clad in the bright floral headscarf typical of the region accompanies the driver from the church, gesticulating in all directions. We take off, but have to stop again for directions through this labyrinth. The driver exclaims and I see what has given him reason for confidence and relief. A wall, probably eight foot high, is ahead of us and on it is painted a large Star of David. With a big tip he leaves me, and I’m alone. It is completely still and silent. I guess this is what I was looking for.

**

Kishinev, Bessarabia, 1905. A part of the Russian Empire. Jews are permitted to live here. Permitted. It is an uneasy existence as a Jew in Kishinev: newspapers are openly anti-Semitic, restrictions bind Jewish life directing the whats and wheres and hows. Then, the tenuous permission is suspended.

**

I’ve had this madcap impulse to return to my family’s zero hour – where it all began – and say ‘thank you for leaving’ for as long as I’ve known their story. I realise the dodgy logic of this: “thanks for getting out of here. I just came back to say that”. To go there and say, yep, this is pretty grim. You made the right call, even if that call led to a life of dislocation, tragedy, otherness, hard, hard, hard work. If you hadn’t left, your descendants almost certainly would not exist.

So here I am. I’m in my grandfather’s birthplace. A city that has passed through Russian, then Soviet rule since his departure – the history noted in the change of its name from the Russian Kishinev to the Romanian Chisinau. But what seemed like a noble quest when I set off to visit Europe’s least visited country has now lost its romanticism. I feel a little bit daft, awaiting my emotional epiphany here in the silence on a beautiful summer’s day.

**

The Russian Empire in 1905 is a volatile place. 1905 is the beginning of the end. It could have been a sudden collapse, but the Tsar’s reforms assuaged the ferment enough for the end to drag on another twelve years. But in 1905 people are angry and uncertain and they turn upon the Jews. Violently. These attacks are called pogroms. There are many of them across the Russian Empire. But some of the very worst are in Kishinev. The attacks are ferocious. They are described as savage, as slaughter. The bodies pile in the streets. A family by the name of Barenboim decide that now might be a good time to leave.

**

I used to like to drink milk with my dinner. I was eating sausages at my father’s cousin’s house. I wanted milk with my dinner like I was used to, so Mum scooped me up with my plate and deposited me outside, in the furthest corner of the yard. Well this is odd, I thought, as I enjoyed my sausage and milk picnic, oblivious to the meaning behind my mother’s pragmatic solution of how to serve milk and meat together in a Kosher household.

I knew it was odd that I had a Zeda, not a Poppy or a Nonno or a Grandad. He was Russian, I’d say, proud of the exoticism. I was 9 when Zeda died. I was alone standing under a tree in a cemetery on a hot Brisbane day when over came the kind of family who say “you were just a baby when I last saw you! I bet you don’t remember me”. Sorry, my baby memory was pretty poor. Then: “Have you had your Bat Mitzvah yet?” Umm what? I mumbled that I didn’t know and they left me alone. I began panicking, am I not allowed here if I haven’t had a Bat Mitzvah? I remember seeing my brothers and father gripping their rarely-worn yarmulkes to their heads; eventually they borrowed hair pins from me. Tiny hats and bobby pins. Stones instead of flowers. Unfamiliar writing that apparently bore my name. Even decades later, I remember the tension I felt that someone so familiar to me was being farewelled in a way I did not understand, for if this was a part of him, it must be a part of me. And it was a part that I needed to know better. It was the reason us Barnbaums were here after all.

**

They fled, Yitzhak and Rivkah and their brood of small Barenboims. They fled from Kishinev to Harbin, China. How far. How impossibly far. They waited for certainty. They waited two years until some family were accepted by Argentina. They were accepted by Australia. How impossibly far. They boarded a boat for the bottom of the world, hoping that distance from home meant distance from persecution. They disembarked at Brisbane where their name was recorded as Barnbaum. How impossibly far.

**

How do you pay tribute to people who have been all but eradicated in a country that has no desire to remember they even existed? That’s what has brought us to the gate of Chisinau’s Jewish cemetery: a place so forgotten that one must be looking for it to even see it. In a city that once had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, this is nearly all that is left of Jewish culture.

I knew it would be overgrown and in ruins – after all, the community that mourned those buried here exists in too small numbers to tend these graves – but this is like Jumanji. Vines clutch every tombstone. Wildflowers and trees grow unchecked. Paths are impossible to make out. I am in complete silence and completely alone. I am frozen by fear, by the surge of panic I feel facing how determinedly forgotten these people – my people? – are; of how scary and precarious the place looks. In a terrible way, it is incredibly beautiful. My earlier cynicism gives way to agonising sadness that all these people are so forgotten; that a community as large as this could disappear.

The day I left Australia I scuffed around in the garden looking for a rock worthy of travelling so many miles to be laid as tribute. A star rock, if you will. But, as it transpired, my garden was mysteriously bereft of stones with a certain je ne sais quoi so to Moldova I have carried a rather uninspiring collection of pebbles. Stones in Jewish culture represent the permanence of memory and I look for somewhere to place them (I’m awaiting the sort of divine intervention I don’t actually believe in to tell me where). By the rear wall of the caved in synagogue, I raise my camera. Through the view-finder I see something my eye couldn’t: a grave scarred by a swastika. I can see the graffiti has been scrubbed, but the paint clings to the engraved Hebrew words. It is on this grave that I leave my stones. I will not forget. You are not forgotten. This place is not forgotten.

**

This strange little family from a strange little country lived, as refugee families often do, a life of extremely hard work, sadness and a fair bit of confusion: like when their first enterprise was to grow pineapples, not knowing that the first crop takes some time to yield – more time than they had money to wait.

My Zeda lived until 92. I knew him as an elderly man who emanated kindness, patience and wisdom, and who was never without a book in his hands. A gentleness and intellectualism that belied a hard life doing hard manual labour. I know him through the beautiful furniture he made, that filled my grandparents’ house and now fills mine and my brother’s. All beautifully hand-tooled. All with secret compartments for hiding money for that next emergency. I feel a stab of pain for what horrific memories or fears he must have had to build those safe places. When we emptied the house after his death, we found thousands of dollars hidden over an entire lifetime. He just wanted to protect us, I guess. To know we’d be ok. So that’s what I said, kneeling with my hand on the cold, stone of a ruined synagogue in the middle of a forgotten Jewish cemetery in Europe’s least-visited country: it was worth it. We’re ok. We exist. And we remember.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program. 

Massage Nightmares: Why I can’t be naked and silent

Massages are meant to be a wonderfully relaxing experience, but not if you’re me. Unfortunately, the promise of luxury causes me to forget my regular propensity to forget how to human. At first, a massage sounds like a fabulous idea. I trot eagerly into the spa at the appointed hour and am shown to a room. But suddenly, the imminence of nudity and proneness and silence renders me completely incapable of remaining in control of my mind and body and my usual high risk of awkwardness suddenly sky rockets, creating certainty that I will do something unusual, unexpected and uncomfortable.

The trigger is the instruction to disrobe and lie face down on the bed. The resultant capitulation into complete clown can be broken down into three distinct dilemmas (that in reality are whirling and colliding in my head as I panic, exacerbating the difficulty in any attempt to ‘act normal’). Let us observe these dilemmas in turn.

Internal Narrative of Dilemma 1: Shit, I’m being asked to disrobe. How ‘nakey’ do I get? Do they want bra off or do they want to do the modest unclip of bra so when I roll over there’s less ‘flashage’? I could ask but that might sound like I’m anxious and/or can’t undress myself and now they’ve left the room anyway. OH GOD THERE’S A PAIR OF DISPOSABLE KNICKERS. These never fit. It’s so dark in here I can’t get them out of the tiny packet. Surely it’s a fire hazard to attempt to disrobe and apply unfamiliar undergarments by candle light? “Are you done in there?” “Not quite!” Shit shit shit I’ve been in here too long, they’ll be wondering if I’m stuck (this has happened before). Ok, knickers are out of tiny packet and a rough assessment indicates they’ll possibly cover the good bits. Not like that time that I nearly had them in a respectable position and then tore them. Like, literally ripped them a new one. I had no idea what to do with a torn pair of disposable panties so I panicked and put my jocks back on and the torn pair over the top. I can’t explain this decision. And all I could then think about for the entire massage was how the therapist would be spending the entire massage wondering what the hell was wrong with me. Ok. Ridiculous pants on. Now to mount this table….

Internal Narrative of Dilemma 2: Now I’m naked in ridiculous pants and I’m looking at a very neatly towel-wrapped massage table. I can never work out exactly what they want me to do. I have ruled out just getting on up sans modesty throw: my naked self, shining like a moon through the candle-lit darkness would be far too alarming for the already perplexed therapist. So I have to do something with the towel. Early on, I tried to loosely wrap it around my body before climbing onto the table but, no matter how loosely I wrapped myself, by the time the therapist tried to access flesh it had turned into a tightly wrapped kebab and their attempt to remove my wrap would necessitate my raising and lowering my shoulders, torso and legs so that it looked like I was performing a particularly disjointed attempt at a nude worm. And then there was that time that this failed and I just had to get up, unwrap, and clamber back up under the disappointed and confused gaze of the therapist. Either way, soon will cometh the half-time roll, where I am expected to somehow demurely and modestly rotate my nude (again let me remind you that nudity sets me to auto-awkward) heft in the manner of an animal – perhaps a walrus? – on a spit, without undue flashing, without falling off a narrow bench and whilst covered in a slippery slick of massage oil. For now, I do the superhero – swirling the towel around my shoulders like a cape so that it covers only my back. One does have to hold this at the neck so that makes clambering up that touch harder…

Internal Narrative of Dilemma 3: Why oh why is the bed always too high! I acknowledge I am somewhat shorter than the average bear (in fact, I am close to the average height of the shortest bear) but the table always seems to be set to (my) chest height. It is so hard to clamber when nude (I feel the knowledge of being naked limits me physically) and towels have such little purchase. I should have checked the brakes were on first. One time they weren’t and the thrust of my mount caused me to sail – elegantly and spectacularly ­– across the room on my table, and crash into a counter of beauty accoutrements, the inertia of my impact causing crashing, rattling, flying hot wax and the great distress, alarm and – once again – disappointment of my therapist.

Ok I’m up. Head in hole. Now I wait in the darkness, and the relaxation can begin… while I worry about everything I can do to embarrass myself while lying here doing nothing.

 

The Power of Being ‘Not Like Other Girls’

Lately, it feels as though I am standing on the sun, so hot and furious the energy around me burns. It’s a positive energy. I am lit by it. I catch alight and pass the spark onwards. I have been set ablaze by realising the incredible power my friendships with women give me.

This championing of sisterly bonds is new. I was one of those girls who was not ‘one of those girls’. I would say this smugly. ‘Getting along with guys better’ was a lofty compliment – awarded only by the guys of course – that differentiated me from ‘most’ girls. Girls, said with a sneer. Girls, and their associations with vanity, bitchiness, vapidness. To not like other girls was to be not like other girls.

‘Getting along with guys better’ was code for being able to take a joke, being ‘chill’ – not getting emotional like ‘most’ girls who let menstruation get to their heads, being able to banter about cool music and sports results. I could be trusted to get close to the guys without swooning, unlike those ‘other’ needy, weak girls.

Starry-eyed that I’d been given the part I’d tried so hard for, I dutifully played the role through high-school: the girl who brushed misogyny away like crumbs. I think I did this because I subconsciously knew that being friends with the guys was one route to the safety and power that my gender deprived me of. I’d look across to the girls who were friends with girls and it all seemed precarious and dangerous. Difficult. So easy to be wrong-footed and punished with gossip and exile.

It seemed a strategic error, then, that I chose to move into a women’s residential college. Ahead of my move from a dry, isolated piece of Queensland to the overwhelming size and complexity of Brisbane, I inspected the various on-campus options. I was determined to live co-ed of course, I didn’t even get along with girls. But then I smelt the co-ed colleges – an unforgettable tang of stale sweat, unwashed clothes, cheap deodorant and stale beer – and compared the state of the bathrooms to those in the women’s college. It appeared that, for the sake of my comfort, I would have to start getting along with girls better.

By the time I’d finished at university, I’d forgotten about the infantile and simplistic divisions created by superficial assumptions of gender. I’d spent three years holed up in an incredible environment of women who nurtured and celebrated one another. I had moved to a new city, made friends with new people, built a wonderful, gender-diverse friendship group, but secretly still thought guys were a little less complicated than girls.

The truth hit me when I was watching Big Little Lies (the television drama adapted from Australian author Liane Moriaty’s book of the same name, with an incredible cast led by Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, where a death at a primary school trivia night ignites rumour and suspicion amongst a glittering yet competitive social set). I happened upon the first episode and stayed to roll my eyes at another depiction of the lengths to which women will apparently go to compete (secretly enjoying the all too familiar biting social commentary we will provide on one another). Well, that’s what I thought the show was about. I think it’s spoiler-safe to say I was incredibly wrong. The murder becomes a side show for the exploration of each woman’s relationship with themselves, with each other and with the men – portrayed as pale, petty or predatory – who encircle them. By the end of the series, I realised that the apparent pettiness of women (which I knew was a side-effect of the stupid expectations and contradictions of a patriarchal society) by which we are so often distracted was no match for the gravity and resilience of the bond between women.

From this moment of awakening, examples of these bonds exploded in all around me. I found myself drunkenly clutching two friends in my hallway, red wine slipping from my hand, as we each affirmed our gratitude for one another and revealed we didn’t know how we could survive without each other’s support. I knew I felt nothing but love for their strength, beauty and talent. I quieted with awe when a friend asked me for help of the most serious kind, so grateful for her vulnerability, honesty, trust and bravery. So grateful for her. I cradled a sobbing friend to my heart knowing I was barely scratching the debt I owed to her for the same support. I blossomed with pride when I nervously sketched out a dream to a friend who listened with compassion and encouragement and incredibly intelligent advice, again thinking, wow – the women around me are amazing.

The friends who celebrate my achievements as though they were their own. Who see me and believe in me more than I can myself. I look around and saw that the foundations of my happiness and my strength are my female friendships.

I also think of the automatic embrace women will provide a female stranger, so bonded by our shared but unspoken stories of survival, protecting our bodies, dealing with being a freaking woman.

Women’s bathrooms become back stage dressing rooms where we let the costumes and makeup slip, revealing the actor behind the character. We cease coolly comparing ourselves in front of scanning male eyes. Instead, we create a sanctity of warmth and protection. I know from so many experiences the instant help that will be offered if you meekly ask strangers in a ladies’ bathroom for a tampon (given with an understanding and sympathetic smile), help with a tricky item of clothing, help getting away from a creepy guy, help getting over a humiliation, help getting home safely. I’ve asked for it as often as I’ve given it.

I realise that what seemed difficult when I was a teenager was precisely what could become complexity and depth by the time we became adults. I see now that groups of women vibrate an incredible power that was terrifying in its promise – something realised by men through history who have feared the spells or gossip (which is worse?) that these women could cast upon them.

I thought I was rejecting something superficial when I said I got along with guys better, but in fact I was just blindly following the tropes set up for me, tropes designed to break down our power by teaching us to distrust, compete and judge.

And so it is now that, with the wisdom gleaned from experience and awareness, I am finding my women. Quietly, stealthily. A resistance group reforming ancient connections that we abandoned when we began to twist ourselves into something men were comfortable with. In these spaces we create, we spark the most wonderful electricity. I’ve stopped defining myself as a woman in terms of how I am seen by men. I’m definitely not that ‘cool girl’ anymore who gets along with guys better. And because of it, I’ve found my power: my warrior women.

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.