Within those 94-year-old walls of Wesley College at the University of Sydney, 200 students gathered to commence the semester in the waning days of summer 2011. We jostled in from Brisbane, Narrandera, Orange, the Northern Beaches and Melbourne, bringing with us our daddy issues and eating disorders, our addictions and attention deficits. My peers slung questions such as ‘what was your ATAR?’ and ‘what school did you go to?’ along the dining table. We freshers were assigned to the table closest to the double doors, further from the stage and the ‘high table’.
Wesley College was established in 1910 as a Methodist institution. It opened in 1917, became co-ed in 1969 and then avowed Uniting in 1977 (Wesley College). In 1962 Germaine Greer, then an undergraduate at the University of Sydney, dined at the high table upon invitation from a fellow student. She was the first woman to do so and after she left, all the men eating their lunch hissed at her. The then master, Wyllie, wrote a note to the resident who invited Greer: ‘It would be wise not to repeat the invitation to women guests in the hall’ (Brown).
In my time at the college I was not aware of the cultural values that ran through the boiler’s pipes, heating every room. My sister, who had attended a girls-only college at the same university, told me stories she’d heard about women wearing bathers in the unisex showers at Wesley, because some guys were prone to peeking. This was the only hint I had of dysfunction, and I brushed it off, thinking I was strong enough to handle any stunt.
I’d come because four out of five of my older siblings had lived at college. My father was footing the bill. My room was spectacular; two windows overlooking the front gardens, framed by camellias. The hallway that led to my room was softened with carpet, vomit thrice removed. People often left the heavy wooden doors to their rooms shut, so no matter the time of day, the dim lighting in the recesses of Wesley College gave the impression of night. Orientation week commenced and, intimidated by all the blonde hair and soft tans, I called my brother and cried. I was 17, anticipating adulthood to commence in spring, and in that lovely room were all my belongings in the world.
It didn’t take long for the culture of the place to become clear to me. On my way to the bathroom one day, I noticed a photo-copied flyer of a fellow student’s face, the image taken at a party. Handwritten underneath was ‘You have to slay the dragon to get to the princess.’ It was posted on the wall with sticky-tape. I took it down. There were ‘blow the bottle’ and ‘root the boot’ impromptu performances in the dining hall or lounge room. An older male student would demand these. One day at breakfast during O-Week a girl whose assigned nickname was ‘Moist’ was given a wine bottle. We all sat there, mid-toast and OJ, watching her shove a bottle in and out of her mouth and then pretend to shower herself with cum. This sparked a whooping cheer. I panicked momentarily. What would I have done if singled out?
• • •
Wesley College rose to prominence in fringe media in May 2016. All colleges seem to take their turn in the spotlight. Slut-shaming, the circulation of documents that mock students based on their ‘private’ sexual encounters and appearance, unreported sexual assault, and demanding, demeaning and destructive orientation week activities that extend well into the academic year were brought to light in response to some female ex-residents leaking the contents of a college yearbook. Everyday attitudes towards women are intensified in a proximate, alcohol-saturated, high-pressure and youthful environment. Young women’s sexuality—a point of intense focus in this highly ritualistic and traditional setting—is ‘marked along a continuum … ranging from virtuous (virgins) to licentious (sluts)’ (Bay-Cheng 279). Despite increases in value placed on the demonstration of agency in young women, the onus is still placed on the female to account for her behaviour, even when ‘violated by a partner or hamstrung by inadequate and unjust social and material conditions’ (288).
In hindsight, the path to and from my room characterises my time there. I started out extroverted and bright. Following the hallway to my room, I became more introverted and constrained as the light dimmed. It was as if those walls were pressing down on me, the brown paint and the mahogany door frames shortening my breath.
Throughout nineteenth-century literature written by women, inner unrest is reflected in the dimensions of inhabited space. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar taught a Women in Literature course in the early 1970s and found that ‘Images of enclosure and escape … metaphors of physical discomfort manifested in frozen landscapes and fiery interiors’ were recurring patterns in the texts explored (xi). Riddled with ‘fantasies with maddened doubles functioned as asocial surrogates for docile selves’, the literature firmly establishes its own tradition (xi). A classic example is the Madwoman in the Attic of Jane Eyre. Bertha dramatically represents a lineage of women who, in a historical, male-dominated space (which can also be likened to literature itself) are captive, wreaking havoc in their dark corner, until their temperament imposed by the walls ignites destruction and/or escape. Enclosure, as inflicted by a male overbalance, catalyses change.
Gilbert and Gubar observed that ‘not only did a nineteenth-century woman writer have to inhabit ancestral mansions (or cottages) owned and built by men, she was also constricted and restricted by Palaces of Art and Houses of Fiction male writers authored’ (xi). They look at how the female writer has worked, oscillating between a desire to escape and the persistence required to write. This relates to the act of writing and to the challenges of contributing to a body of literature with a male gatekeeper.
The young men in second and third year patrolled those dark brown halls in little footy shorts and striped jerseys. Maybe they thought they were like the lion at the top of the Wesley crest.
• • •
I took Australian literature as an elective. This was the traditional learning style of overflowing lectures in theatres, weekly presentations, scholarly essays drained of the ‘I’. We read Christina Stead and focused on how the story of the Pollit family is shaped by the father’s dialect. Made-up phrases such as ‘Little-Womey’ build a miniature kingdom domineered by the father. When Miss Aiden visits, the narration switches from the eldest daughter Louisa’s subjective view to her teacher’s. For the first time the squalor of the family’s environment is exposed. In the bathroom she perceives ‘a shanty with wooden walls and a roughly cemented floor. One end of this was filled with a cement tub about five feet long by three deep; but the cement had a surface as rough as a coconut cake’ (Stead 422). The fabricated safety that is engendered by the subjective narration of an insider is deconstructed the moment an outsider steps inside the house.
The overwhelming control that the father exercises is further destabilised by the production and performance of a play dedicated to Mr Pollit that Louisa has written in a made-up language (Boone 526). In it, a father hugs his daughter, causing her death. Language plays a prominent role in this narrative, where father and daughter wage war with words for the authorship of the family story. A crossing of desires occurs; one, the father’s for control and two, the daughter’s for autonomy.
And as with any community, that of Wesley College abided by a set of colloquial terms that was instigated by ‘the boys’ upstairs and perpetuated by everyone else. Spooning was an in-house practice that replaced clapping. The mob would bang silver-coloured spoons on the wooden table to imitate applause. The table was impressed with these battle scars. Spooning was used to welcome the Wesley College leaders, such as the chaplain, master and senior student at the beginning of a formal dinner. It was also to distinguish a pair of students if it was generally known that they had recently slept together.
The yearbook that was leaked to the media featured a ‘rackweb’, which is a diagram of who had slept with whom that year. Also published was a dictionary of terms. Rack: ‘if in doubt to what a rack is ask a senior student’ (Meddows). Freshers: ‘found within these sacrosanct walls, known primarily for its drunken debaucherous behaviour, whose only redeeming assets include their enthusiasm, obedience and steadfast determination to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors and willingness to put out for their seniors’ (Balakumar). The conformity here with biblical language is remarkable. There is a deep sense of hierarchy, transmitted in the passing down of terms and practices, which allows the indefinite mixture of shaming and praising to be allocated. A contained world is built, not with materials but with language. In this world the distribution of power is for both isolating and ensnaring women.
This is not to say that I did not participate in this culture. I attended the parties, played soccer. I was part of the Bible study group that stripped down to our undies and posed with Bibles over our breasts, kneeling at the altar for a picture in the nude college calendar. I drank plenty of the classic college goon and juice mix at the barn dance in O-Week. During that party, one of the prominent freshers, a frizzy-haired country girl, said to the senior student, ‘I want you to dominate me.’ I remember the senior student as a tall, red-haired boy with muscly thighs who had said ‘Thank you’ after reading a Bible passage during a token chapel service a few days earlier. ‘Thank you,’ he said, as if he’d written the thing, as if it were of his sole creation.
I met a fellow first year at the barn dance and we rolled around in the hay together. He visited me after I twisted my ankle playing netball. He slept over a few times and we only ever kissed—I had no interest in sex at this time. He would invite me swimming and if I complained about being hungry he offered me sandwiches. During ‘proposal week’, a competition for the most entertaining proposal, he organised for my friends to take me to Coles. Over the loudspeaker I was called to the checkout and there he was, in a suit, getting down on one knee with a duct-tape ring in his palms. I accepted, and shoppers congratulated us.
Ultimately I felt incapable of returning this young man’s affections and asked him not to visit my room again. Little did I know then how hard it is to come by someone like that, gentle and caring.
Splintering from the same hallway were the rooms of two young women whose stories paralleled mine. As we shared a wall, I could hear one engaging in distressing phone calls to her father, who’d recently been discovered to have had another affair. She would only ever drink Diet Coke and eat Vegemite, egg whites and tomatoes. The other was highly intelligent and scarcely appeared in class. She drank and drank. We were all the youngest of large families, studying international and global studies. I drifted between extreme closeness with these peers and sheer distance. From gathering on a single bed and laughing to blinking at each other across the table. For a time I catalogued every single thing I’d eaten, convinced I was laying on a ‘fresher spread’. Fresher Spread: ‘Not spreading a fresher… known to infect fresher chicks and the occasional bloke. Involves arses, expanding hips’ (Balakumar). The extremes in consumption, from excessive to highly restrained, were rife in Wesley’s passages. Extreme food and drink intake and lack thereof were versions of escape from the twenty-first century, upper-class, grotesque expressions of misogyny surrounding us. Subjected to ridicule about her physicality, the young woman moves to psychological extremes to express her agency. This occurred so silently as to go unnoticed, and a woman might whittle down to a waif in that tremendous building and people might brush past her in the hallway.
Do these institutions ever feel the effects of the culture that they perpetuate? Wesley College, and others, may not preach the patriarchy from the pulpits of their neglected chapels, but they act as a petri dish for these beliefs and attitudes. Debasing acts hang in the air and their perceived normality festers—it is all political. The college is far from grooming the next crop of future leaders to be agents of real change. In response to a letter of concern I wrote in 2012, Deborah Page, chairman of council wrote, ‘We are committed to the eradication of sexist and demeaning behaviours,’ attaching the college’s Vision, Mission and Values Statement in the envelope. Page pointed out that two people in the last two academic years had been expelled due to ‘unacceptable’ behaviour. One of these behaviours was the alleged sexual assault of a female resident. I often wonder, why aren’t criminals, if they are found to be in a court of law, convicted? Why are residents afforded an in-house tribunal?
In class we read The Ham Funeral by Patrick White. In this play the characters’ relation to the buildings they inhabit is also representative of their consciousness. White locates the tale ‘not in Australia but in the mind’, where ‘the boardinghouse is a model of the human psyche’ (Taylor 278, 274). In the basement live a couple, the Landlady and the Landlord. They are lewd, engage in horrid arguments, dance in a torrid symphony of grubbiness: food, death and sex and marriage. Their tenant, the Young Man, lives upstairs. He is anxious, dissatisfied, philosophical, frustrated. And above him, peeking in and out, is an angelic figure, the Girl, who whispers wisdoms and provides guidance. After the Landlady’s attempted rape of him, the Young Man realises that ‘flesh, unfortunately, isn’t the final answer’. Only once he engages and battles with these characters does he consolidate them into his existence, and is then set free from the confines of his lodgings. He must descend into the muddle of the basement in order to transcend it (Taylor, 274). Similarly, he is rejected by the Girl in the upper level, and is denied the fast-track to wholeness that would excuse him from engaging with the messiness of the basement:
Young Man: … If you remain on the other side of that door, we can never complete each other.
Young Man: A comfortable, smug, even ugly word … but desirable.
Girl: For you, death in two syllables.
Young Man: Then tell me what is the most I can expect? How am I to discover?
Girl: It is in the air, it is in the wall … (White 32)
Nearing Easter break I auditioned a monologue to be considered for performance in an inter-college competition. My attempt allowed room for improvement. The director, a second-year, decided to perform his own monologue in preference to coaching me. On the night of the show, he demonstrated a psycho-clown drama, turning up the dial on method acting and on-stage spitting. It pained me to see that there was no room for beginners, only ready-made success.
The longer I lived there, the more difficult I found it to interact with others. I would take long naps after class, becoming less involved in college activities and more confined to my room. One evening I excused myself from choir practice and went to the cinema alone, realising that it was the first time in my life I could do whatever I wanted. I saw Jane Eyre. Somewhere around that time I felt I had entered a warped version of reality that was far removed from what my prior or later self would sanction. I went through a phase of drunkenly reading aloud old diaries in my room to anyone who would listen. I advertised my self-pity.
The Ham Funeral and Jane Eyre were written 101 years apart. They both conceptualise the architecture of the innermost self. Whereas White’s protagonist is consolidating the intellectual and the instinctive into one self, the Madwoman has already displeased her ‘master’, who is not to be pleased, and is left to her own devices, spiralling into a performed and experienced madness to cope with her thraldom. She can only ever unlock her room through destruction. I’m not sure if I identify more with the Young Man or the Madwoman in my decision to leave Wesley. Perhaps the reason that I was highly stressed was because I was trying to incorporate my lights and shadows into a fully fledged human being while living in an environment whose comedic currency was the hatred, fear, categorisation and demeaning of women.
If the same contemporary reading of White’s play is applied to literature written by women in the nineteenth century, there may emerge a glimmer of hope for the Madwoman. In the case of Jane Eyre, this means shifting the focus to a popular reading of the work that perceives Bertha as an aspect of Jane. Just as the Landlady, Landlord and Girl are all aspects of the Young Man, Jane’s encounter with Bertha is ‘with her own “hunger, rebellion, and rage”, a secret dialogue of self and soul’, the outcome of which Jane’s coming-of-age depends (Gilbert and Gubar 339). In Bertha’s act of arson on the mansion, Jane is able to free the stitches of the tradition that she has been woven into. Rochester loses his sight and home. Afterwards, he and Jane can exist without an impossible power imbalance preventing their knowledge of each other as equals.
• • •
Before leaving, I was momentarily convinced to reconsider by the Master. I was crying in her office and she said, ‘You know the song? “Anywhere you go”…’
‘Yes,’ I responded, ‘“Always take the weather.”’
She was right. This was not a quick fix. My anxious disposition did not suddenly evaporate. But I took the books off the shelf and crammed boxes into my sister’s hatchback. Louisa Pollit broke out of her father’s pretend world and God complex. According to my sister, my father was ‘disappointed’ that I wanted to leave. He had dropped me off there, set me up. I felt guilty. Did my own disappointment count?
On the college website under the subheading ‘History’ is a high-quality photograph of two young men in academic gowns. In the background there is Blu-Tack on brick that no-one ever bothered to remove. Blue oil staining dehydrated red mud.
Soon after leaving I caught a ferocious stomach bug that caused me to regurgitate everything, cleansing my body of all the rich food, the insipid STI and sexual assault humour, the anfractuous misogyny. In the outside world there weren’t any sandstone gates to hide behind, necessitating the swell of an authentic sense of self.
‘What are you doing?’ people asked.
‘Not sure,’ I’d say.
At the time I wasn’t aware why I had turned my nose up at what appeared to be a very favourable post. Leaving, however, did allow me to live, work and travel in many places, from Robinvale to Paris, Condobolin to Kodaikanal, Salvador de Bahia to Vilnius. The weather was no longer stale surrounded by the walls of a ‘narcissistic desire for self-perpetuation’ similar to Mr Pollit’s (Boone 514). There was wriggle room; the weather could change.
When I expressed a feeling of being glued to the environment by various perceived obligations, my mother said, ‘nothing is set in stone’. This was tabula rasa, where I placed myself outside the walls of Wesley, unsticking from the adhesive attractions of prestige, academia and formulaic and patriarchal modes of becoming. Life was no longer full of airs and graces but, instead, graces and air. •
Aparna Balakumar, ‘ “Rackweb” slut-shames female students at Sydney University’s Wesley College’, SBS, 11 May 2016, <www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2016/05/11/rackweb-slut-shames-female-students-sydney-universitys-wesley-college>, accessed 13 September 2016.
Laina Y. Bay-Cheng, ‘The Agency Line: A Neoliberal Metric for Appraising Young Women’s Sexuality’, Sex Roles, vol. 73, no. 7, pp. 279–91.
Joseph A. Boone, ‘Of fathers, daughters, and theorists of narrative desire: At the crossroads of myth and psychoanalysis in “The Man who Loved Children”’, Contemporary Literature, vol. 31, no. 4 (1990), pp. 512–41.
Malcolm Brown, ‘Hissy Fits Are Over—a Woman’s in Charge Now’, Executive Style: Management, 25 August 2009, <www.executivestyle.com.au/hissy-fits-are-over–a-womans-in-charge-now-ewlg>, accessed 24 October 2016.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press, 1979.
David Meddows, ‘Sydney University “outraged” over slut-shaming journal from Wesley College Students’, Daily Telegraph, 13 May 2016, <www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/sydney-university-outraged-over-slutshaming-journal-from-wesley-college-students/news-story/2face0745bfd7d3d5b12259b24ee9112>, accessed 24 October 2016.
Wesley College, ‘Our History’, 2016, <www.wesleycollege-usyd.edu.au/about-wesley/our-history/>, accessed 24 October 2016.
Christina Stead, The Man who Loved Children, Penguin, 1985 .
Andrew Taylor, ‘Patrick White’s “The Ham Funeral”’, Meanjin Quarterly, September 1973, pp. 270–8.
Patrick White, The Ham Funeral, in Collected Plays Volume 1, Currency Press, Sydney, 1985 .