Reviewed: The First Stone, by Helen Garner (Picador).
Most readers will by now be saturated with debate, reprisals, recriminations and worse, cursing the day that sexual harassment became flavour of the month in the press and was promoted to literary appraisal. But one of the great strengths of Helen Garner’s new book The First Stone is the way it views the complex issue of harassment in an equally complex light, and calls implicitly for a more sophisticated paradigm of power to describe the interaction between men and women. Most importantly, it drags the subject of sexual harassment up from a level of discourse where it is still largely understood through the mythos of the worldly harridan or simpering virgin as developed by Disclosure and Oleanna.
As Melbourne University academic Jenna Mead comments in RePublica 2, ‘sexual harassment has not been the subject of critique by feminists … [and] because [it] is not being thought about as knowledge, as discourse, as politics, as a serious formation that needs to be theorised and critiqued, it’s very easily appropriated to serving conservative institutional ends’. It is here that the intersection between Garner’s text and the two best-known American academic critiques, by Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia, is most interesting. Rather than focusing on the problems of victim chic, each of these writers is working with, although not spelling out, a more subtle paradigm of sexual politics than can be gauged by legal and materialist models used to date. If they are read this way, we might avoid the damaging narrative of polarization (either in favour of legislation and against harassment, or critical of some of its excesses and too forgiving towards men) and begin to tease out some of the conceptual knots and snarls.
For example, Paglia’s insistence that women have more power than men makes no sense if measured in terms of wealth, autonomy and freedom from sexual violence. She is referring only to the domestic, elemental and libidinal dynamics wherein Western women live longer, emotionally richer lives and take to their graves what men purportedly crave: their sexual thrall and the power to reproduce. If we are to entertain this as at least provisionally true, as Garner does by asserting the relational powerlessness of Dr Shepherd (as Dr Gregory is called in The First Stone), then we need to develop a model of power that makes sense of this slippery, unlegislatable realm.
In the media storm following the release of The First Stone, one common statement glimmers through: the system has failed us. As Mead (who had been labelled anti-Garner to suit the narrative of polarization) is quoted in one of the many post-publication newspaper reports, ‘The important lesson here concerns the refusal of an institution to deal adequately with a complaint of sexual harassment within its own community … I think the college council failed both the young women students and Dr Gregory.’ It should be remembered that sexual harassment grievance procedures are relatively new, and that Ormond College was still in the process of setting up theirs. Yet effective procedures are now in place in most workplaces and teaching institutions, and most successful mediations are assured of confidentiality—it’s only the ones that fail that get publicity. Thus, attention could now more productively be angled towards a better understanding of harassment’s social cause and the development of preventive behaviour.
Mary Gaitskill provides a useful example of this approach in her Harper’s Magazine essay ‘On Not Being a Victim’ (March 1994) when she suggests teaching men and boys about sexual interaction in a way that appeals to their own self-interest. ‘To teach a boy that rape is “bad” is not as effective as making him see that rape is a violation of his own masculine dignity as well as a violation of the raped woman.’ Similarly, harassment is in many cases a malign lapse of manners, possibly more demeaning to the perpetrator than the victim, particularly if, like Garner, she tends to ‘be polite and get away’, and her appeal to the law does not impede her professional or educational progress.
Few would now suggest the legal safety net should not be there to protect the complainants from reprisals. But we should be warned against the excesses of legalism by the clumsiness of experiments at Antioch College in Ohio and other Leninist-style moves to oversee the language and behaviour of academics in Australia (such as those reported by Susan Mitchell at the University of South Australia in the Weekend Australian, 15-16 April 1995). Rather than developing more legislation to govern the minutiae of sexual interaction, it makes sense to develop social skills for heading off disaster, teaching both students and academics how to protect themselves and avoid compromising situations. This is not to take the blame from perpetrators, just as self-defence classes don’t excuse rapists—it just makes it easier to survive without costly and humiliating recourse to the law, which is invariably traumatic to both parties.
The First Stone is a reportorial detective narrative to the extent that it covers the events and motivations surrounding the Ormond College affair, in which two women residents of this Melbourne University college accused the college master of making indecent advances. More importantly—and since, as Garner acknowledges towards the end of the book, there are ‘no answers’—it is as analytic meditation that it gains its lasting power. The topical nature of the reportage might eventually date the text; its more leisurely, therapeutic voice, brings it closer to such histories of the self as Linda Gray Sexton’s Searching for Mercy Street or Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman. As a meditation on harassment and the various strategies for dealing with it, Garner grasps the historical moment when the system failed so as to look more closely at the psychodynamics of any harassing relationship—a kind of analytic intervention that seeks to understand the wider implications and causes of this social problem.
What her book has in common with Malcolm’s and Sexton’s is a search for clues to explain a relationship—between mother and daughter for Sexton, between biographer and subject for Malcolm, between the students and Gregory for Garner. While concluding there are no certain facts to go on, Garner maintains her desire to set things in order, principally to understand why the women took their case to the police and Gregory aka Shepherd was accused, then professionally ostracized. In the process another crucial relationship emerges: that between a feminist mother and her feminist daughter. As opposed to the cold-blooded, dramatic exercise of Mamet’s Oleanna, Garner not only has history on her side, she is also introducing the mother-daughter relationship into discussions of Second versus Third Wave feminism, and about time, too.
Underlying this is a wellspring of honesty that ruthlessly addresses the stance of the reporter-as-analysand in her work, a kind of Lois Lane on the couch. Just as Garner deftly decodes the behaviour of the college master and the response and silence of the women, so she interrogates her own behaviour: her obsessive need to know, her own silence in the face of harassment in her own life and the fear that she is no longer needed by the daughters of seventies feminism. The question is, if the analysis has a therapeutic function, whose recovery is at stake?
This can be answered by reading The First Stone as a kind of social issue novel which seeks to resolve current social problems in dramatic form. Popular in 1890s England, this form was a precursor to the twentieth century non-fiction novel, a narrative reverie using characters as ciphers to enact socially divisive issues such as the New Woman question. The issues justify Garner’s audience beyond the couch, bringing her story into a discussion of the nature of sexual harassment as defective social behaviour, the state of the women’s movement in the 1990s and how the two might be related. In other words, the sickness being subject to the talking cure belongs to a section of a social movement and the psychopathology of its membership.
One danger of the analytic view when applied to others and not just oneself, however, is that it takes the risk of appearing not to hear overt content in favour of a latent message. The expressed need of the complainant is translated by the listener into something else—a need which the complainant is unaware of and the listener cannot fulfil. Given that the basis of the women students’ dispute with the college is that their initial complaint was not treated with due seriousness and care, Garner runs the risk of adding to their sense of outrage: you’re not listening to us either. While Garner’s own interpretation of their latent agenda might aid a greater understanding of cause, it doesn’t do much good for the complainants in the short term.
Besides this, the dovetailing of reportage and narrative works only if the central character is convincing, and in this Garner is consummate, creating Dr Shepherd as a kind of Mayor of Casterbridge of the modem age. This makes it a humanist project (character is destiny), while retaining a post-structuralist grip on the relativity of perspectives, the provisionality of truth and the need to rely on local rather than universal evidence. And if Garner’s voice is inevitably privileged as narrator-protagonist, it is by no means unscrutinized or infallible.
Given Garner’s relativism, the title of her book fits uncomfortably with the text, by simultaneously avoiding attribution of blame and blaming everyone by reference to the biblical notion of universal guilt. Perhaps everyone is guilty of something, but in a case bounded by fairly precise incidents such as these it is crucial to attribute blame—to female passivity in the face of sexual harassment, to the college master for being less than vigilant in his behaviour, to the college and judge for not dealing with the case as they should have, to the media for over-reporting and misleading the public, to the mystery students who distributed defamatory leaflets. It should be emphasized that the women students did nothing wrong. The system failed all sides; and the absence of an adequately theorized understanding of both the particular events and the phenomenon of harassment left everybody floundering.
I would also have preferred a title which avoided implications of godlike impartiality or omniscience, since it is one of the strengths of the book that at no time does Garner pretend to either. This is a story filtered through a bemused, sophisticated and compassionately involved point of view. I would have liked a title that could suggest the very un-godlike, female nature of her achievement—to balance analysis in its deepest, associative sense with empathy and self-appraisal: in short, an example of écriture féminine in all its dialogical lyricism.
One final reservation I have concerns Garners use of the term ‘women’s supporters’ in her dealings with the Ormond College students and their advisers. Her feeling that there was a wall of sentinels guarding a cone of silence is understandable, as is her growing anger at the Melbourne University feminists’ dismissal of her project and their refusal to enter debate. But her blanket term contributes to a narrative of polarization that oversimplifies what she has already established as a complex affair with a multitude of contradictory positions and feelings.
Two important issues raised by The First Stone which may be of lasting interest are what Garner calls the ‘mysterious passivity’ that overcomes women when they are harassed, and the need to instil a sense of personal responsibility concerning social interaction (and not just outrage) in young women. This finds an echo in Wendy Kaminer’s statement in ‘Feminism’s Identity Crisis’ (Atlantic Monthly, October 1993) that ‘Feminism will not succeed … until it offers [women] a vision that reconciles the assertion of equal rights with the assumption of social responsibilities.’ Although the relationship between these two issues is not explicated by Garner, it becomes clear that they are related, for passivity is a curious form of denying responsibility by claiming one is merely ‘in the way’.
This too relates to the more complicated and highly sensitive civil liberties issue of women’s (and men’s) fashion, which Garner does mention at the end, writing ‘if only the women had developed a verbal style to match their sense of dress’. While obviously not an invitation to be molested, it is clear that clothing choices are an expression of identity that may inadvertently undermine women’s desire to be treated as professionals. This is another instance of individual freedom versus social responsibility, entangled with the need to raise men’s respect for women, which has not yet been adequately dealt with in feminist discourse.
The ultimate value of Garner’s book may be to remind readers that if feminism is to make lasting achievements for the rights of women, it must address its work without rancour toward men (particularly where the law is already established), and include them in the promotion of social change at the most intimate levels.
Rene Denfield’s book The New Victorians argues that Second Wave feminists are puritans scaring off younger (Third Wave) women from the movement Garner suggests it is younger women who are puritanical and have misread the intentions of her generation. It seems fairer to suppose that in both generations there is a dual strain of libertarian and puritan (or legalistic) approaches, and that even this is too simple a view, since there are many others, such as issue-based pragmatism and what might be called interpersonal versus bureaucratic feminisms in between, not to mention the 1970s divisiveness between marxists, separatists and reformists.
If there is a generational dynamic, perhaps it has more to do with the idealism of youth and its clear-eyed ability to tell black from white, a point at which libertarian and puritan might both, without giving up the cause, be more circumspect in defining ‘the enemy’. As Dorothy Parker put it:
When I was young and bold and strong,
Oh, right was right, and wrong was wrong!
My plume was high, my flag unfurled,
I rode away to right the world.
‘Come out, you dogs, and fight!’ said I,
And wept there was but once to die.
But I am old; and good and bad
Are woven in a crazy plaid.