I took a first look at the secrets of my body during a family camping trip to the Delatite, where we had pitched our tents at the edge of the river down by the willows. Against a pristine landscape, cows grazed on the other bank, the hard grass prickled underfoot and a mangy one-horned goat roamed wild. The goat gave off a pungent stink whenever it passed nearby. Otherwise, we were alone.
One morning my husband took our two small children for a walk downstream to check whether his yabby traps had worked overnight. I stayed behind to read a book. In the ensuing solitude, the hills bore down like giants throwing their shadows across our tents. The gurgles of the river and the chatter of magpies fed my curiosity about the landscape of my own body.
Not for the first time had I wanted to know how it ticked, that place below, which others had talked about, and of which I had read in books. Other women took it for granted, seemingly, though I had read about the fake orgasm and wondered whether mine was fake, and why I could not reach that fever pitch of ecstasy others wrote about. I had given birth to babies. They had grown inside me, come out through my stretched vagina and sucked on my nipples for sustenance. I knew the struggles of a woman’s body but not yet its pleasures.
As the mountains watched on, I took a small mirror from my toilet bag and crawled into my tent, where I sat bow legged on top of my sleeping bag. I held the mirror between my fingers and reached down between my legs to take a look at what I might find there.
Something of the sight of those pink flabby flesh bits surrounded by a swathe of wiry pubic hair made my fingers itch to touch, to crawl over those forbidden parts and in doing so I sensed an excitement I had attached to the blood rush I felt when I first kissed a man many years ago.
On the banks of the Delatite River at the foot of Mount Buller, where I could smell the goat outside my tent, I discovered a new world of smells and of my body, and had access for the first time to bliss. At my hands only. The nuns and my father need never know.
• • •
When I was a child, the nuns at my school covered themselves top to toe—black in summer and white in winter—and I imagined underneath those folds of fabric were machines that operated the nuns’ heads, legs and arms, and with no alimentary canal whatsoever. I had never seen a nun eat until one day in my final year at primary school when my teacher asked me to take a message to the staff room. I knocked on the door as quietly as I could, to be heard and at the same time not sound too demanding.
Sister Beatrice answered the door. She looked down at my hands with their white folded note, which I was about to hand over to her, while I looked across the room to the head nun who was seated at my eye height. The nun held a fork in her hand and was about to pitch strands of spaghetti, the tinned variety, into her mouth. I handed over the note to Sister Beatrice in a state of shock at the sight of those pale red tendrils. It made me question my notion of the nuns and their mechanical bodies but the idea had already cemented itself in my brain and with it the belief that I too should treat my body in a mechanical way, as if its twitches and twinges were of no consequence.
In the 1980s when Delys Sergeant took students for sex education at the University of Melbourne she showed short images first of a man masturbating himself, and then when it came to the woman’s turn, another man worked on the woman’s sexual pleasure, as if she could not do it for herself.
These attitudes run deep. The idea of women as the weaker sex, the smaller sex, the less enthusiastic sex for all things sexual. And we haven’t even begun to touch on the notion of sexuality in its multiplicity. Gender and sexuality not as a polarised aspect of human behaviour, the masculine and the feminine but on a continuum, shaped as we are not only by our biology, but also by whatever experiences befall us, especially when we are young. What hope for me raised in the 1960s under the weight of all that religion?
‘Your soul is more important than your body,’ Sister Beatrice said during religious instruction. ‘Your soul is your connection to God. Like a tidy house you must keep it clean.’ It was the word ‘clean’ that led me then to locate my soul down low, below my stomach and just above the place between my legs from which I peed and shat. I’d have preferred to put my soul closer to my head, to my brain and mind, but Sister Beatrice told us our souls existed deep inside and I couldn’t shift it around at my whim.
I learned about my soul as a six-year-old in preparation for my first Holy Communion, when the priest put the round white host onto the tip of my stuck-out tongue and I drew it into my mouth and held it there, careful to let saliva pool so as to stop the host from sticking to the roof of my mouth. If it stuck to my teeth or gums, I might need to slip in a finger to dislodge it. This was unthinkable, given we were not to touch the host with our human hands. Only the priest, as God’s representative, could touch the host, which we learned was God’s body turned into bread.
The host looked nothing like bread and tasted like the Farex flakes my mother mixed with water and served spoon by spoon to my baby sister. The host melted as you sucked on it and was mostly easy to swallow even without chewing. Chewing was also forbidden. ‘Hold the host on your tongue for a moment. Think of Jesus, then swallow, like you swallow an aspirin. One big gulp,’ Sister Beatrice said. She told us we must bow our heads while the host travelled through to our stomachs and away to our souls, lodged down below, I thought. Close to our bottoms.
A series of paintings illustrating the mysteries of the rosary was lined up in order along the four walls of the church. I sat closest to the sorrowful mysteries: the agony in the garden; the scourging at the pillar; the crowning with thorns; the carrying of the cross and the crucifixion. The titles rolled off my tongue. Once a month on Fridays each person in my class of eight year olds took turns to enter one of the two confessionals situated in a back corner of the church below the sorrowful mysteries to confess their sins to the priest.
Although I preferred the younger of the two priests from our church, Father Walsh, for his Irish voice and his friendly manner, it suited me better to go to the older, Father Godwin, as he gave the impression of indifference. He never questioned but simply let me rattle off my list of safe sins before he offered his absolution. Father Walsh was more likely to go into details, as if he had all the time in the world. He was more likely to unearth my real sins, the ones I tried hard to keep hidden, and the ones that happened in my head.
I studied one image after the other of Christ in the garden at Gethsemane, drops of sweat on his face, his hands clutching his forehead, his sorrow at what was to come, and then in the next picture, Christ dragging his cross through the streets of Jerusalem as the crowds jeered him on. I scratched at a scab on my knee from the last time I had fallen over and worried I might make it bleed. I took a hanky from inside my pocket and dabbed at the scab to blot up any drips of blood.
In this second picture, Veronica bent over to wipe the sweat and blood from Christ’s face underneath the crown of thorns that pressed into his forehead. I liked the blood from my own wound as long as I could keep it hidden. Trying to keep other thoughts hidden was harder. Those hot thoughts, the ones that made my underarms prickle, the ones connected with the games I played with my sister on the weekends when the others were outside or away from home and the house was quiet, when we would lie side by side on the bed and touch one another in the same way as we saw people touch one another in the movies; only we were careful to avoid our bottoms and had to pretend to have breasts. I had to pretend to have a penis as well because I was older and needed to take on the man’s job.
Hot, exciting and wicked as these games were, we could not stop playing them and then afterwards came the torment of knowing we had sinned.
The nuns never spelled out the nature of impure thoughts but told us often enough we must avoid them. Not only was I guilty then of impure thoughts, I was guilty of impure actions, of touching my sister’s body and later my own, for the pleasures of such sinful arousal. Was this any different from what my father did with my older sister at night in the dark, again when no-one was around except for me in the bed over the way pretending to be asleep?
Some nights when he did not visit and my older sister slept, I crawled under the blankets and imagined myself as Maid Marion with her long hair and breasts as big as my mother’s, the cleavage visible under her velvet gown. In my fantasy, the Sheriff of Nottingham came to take Maid Marion to his bedroom where he would do things to her that she did not want, and then Robin Hood raced in and fought the Sheriff until he ran away. Then Robin Hood and Maid Marion were left free to do things to one another that made me feel juicy inside, that made my legs tremble, that left me hot and excited enough to go to sleep until the morning when I woke in another welter of guilt.
To confess my impure thoughts and deeds to Father Walsh or even Father Godwin would have meant talking about parts of grown-up bodies for which I did not even have names. But if I kept the impure thoughts secret and did not find a way of relieving myself of them, I would be in trouble with God. God knew everything. He knew what I had been up to in the night. He watched me and was unhappy. I looked at his face in the pictures on the wall, the grimace, the sweat, the blood, and walked into the coffin-shaped confessional ready to rattle off my safe sins so as not to attract the priest’s attention.
In the year we made our first confessions, Sister Beatrice told us about novenas and how I could wash my soul clean simply by going to Mass on the first Friday of every month for nine months. She told us in the nick of time. Just when I thought my head would burst with the pressure of all those impure sins. Confessions were easier after that. Confessions became a way station en route to total cleansing once I had completed that first novena and could start again with an unblemished soul.
‘We have to stop doing this,’ I said to my sister one Saturday after she gave me the look. ‘No,’ I said, as proper as a nun. ‘These things are sinful and we must never sin again.’ My sister was sad but I was not. Not any more. I had found a way around the problem of my body. One novena was enough to set me free, at least for a while.
• • •
She was long, thin and angular with arms that tilted at an angle to give her a look that suggested movement. I had borrowed her from a girl at my primary school with more Barbies than she could manage and although the girl insisted it was only a loan, it was okay for me to take Barbie home for the night.
I could not let my brothers and sisters see this doll, which I tucked into the bottom of my school bag. All the way home I felt I was carrying dynamite. Barbie’s breasts meant she was no ordinary doll, round and cuddly, baby-like or small girl in appearance. Barbie’s breasts jutted out even more than her elbows and they were smooth, without nipples but suggestive enough to leave me excited as when I had played with my sister’s body.
I took Barbie down the laneway behind our house where a neighbour had hollowed out an entrance way to their garage door, a space secluded from view and safe from passers-by. That afternoon I spent the hours alone before dinner disrobing and re-dressing Barbie in the two outfits that came with her, an evening gown in gold material that bunched in at the waist and floated halfway down between Barbie’s calves and ankles. Barbie could not walk far in such a dress and I worked hard at pushing her feet in small steps to give the illusion of movement. The other outfit, her casual day dress, was easier to manoeuvre and so in my games Barbie alternated as a secretary by day and a glamorous movie star at night.
Barbie’s nakedness propelled me into shivers of pleasure and guilt. I needed to dress her quickly so that I would not feel too exposed, as if someone had taken off all my clothes. For one night only. The next day I took Barbie back to school and my rendezvous with the glamorous world of beautiful women was over. Somehow games with Barbie felt less sinful than games with my sister, although I was careful to hide her from others, as if they would see through my actions and into my desires.
I cannot ascribe such sexual confusions and inhibitions to the nuns and priests who educated me in the ways of the world alone. I must include happenings at home. My father and my mother, the chalk and cheese of them—my mother a devout Catholic who avoided all things sexual, at least on the surface, and my father who oozed sexuality, whenever he was drunk, which was much of the time. A sexuality of sorts, the type that left us feeling invaded, not only my sisters but my brothers too.
In summertime when the temperature rose, my father took off his clothes piece by piece until he was naked in his lounge-room chair, apart from his socks. It might not sound much but to my 16-year-old self who could not bear to get near my father, even in his clothes, the sight of his pink and ageing body, naked to his ankles, repulsed me.
My memory takes me back to my tenth year when a sliver of moonlight seeped into the room I then shared with my older sister. Otherwise we were in darkness. I had tried to fall asleep fast to block out my father’s arrival, to sleep through the noise beside my bed, the noise of blankets and the soft hum of voices.
On this night my father’s movements had a different quality as if he was as much a hunted animal as hunter. The way he hesitated at the hallway, the way he looked behind him, not once but twice before he moved towards my sister, a narrow walkway from the window, her bed open on all sides, unlike mine which was propped against the wall.
I faced this wall my eyes shut and ears open listening, when the light went on. I looked towards the door to my mother in her pink dressing gown, the one she held together at her belly with a safety pin, looked across at my father. Her eyes first on him and then on my sister. My sister clutched the sheet in her hands. She looked as frightened as a trapped bird.
‘Get out of here,’ my mother told my father. ‘If I ever catch you here again, I’ll kill you.’ A fire beamed from her eyes. This was the end of my father’s visits in the night, or so we thought.
My father never touched me. I learned to skulk past his room, my eyes to the ground as if I were not there. But in my imagination I could not escape the fingers on his long hands, the sandpaper scrape of his stubble face up close to mine, his nicotine-coloured fingers, yellow in my memory as they peeled back the bed clothes and slipped under my nightgown and onto my skin.
I came to hate the language of the body. The immensity of the words for certain parts of the body, for penis and vagina, even the word ‘genital’ ushered such unspeakable feelings I decided these words were not part of my known or spoken vocabulary. These words were private.
In our family album someone had stuck a slip of paper over the tiny penis of my youngest brother as a baby in his bath. On that slip of paper that same someone had also drawn a question mark in grey lead, similar to the question mark on a similar strip of paper across the photo of my mother’s stomach, taken during her last pregnancy. Another secret word, the word ‘pregnant’. My parents talked of my mother expecting and not once did they tell us the link between penises and pregnancies, but I soon understood.
One day I walked with my brothers and sisters along a narrow walkway that runs alongside the railway tracks to Camberwell Station when the thought entered my head, what if I had a penis? I tried to imagine it there between my legs scrunched up inside my underpants and safe from view underneath my shorts. And then the thought arrived, also unannounced, that someone took a knife to my imaginary penis and chopped it off right there at the base where it joined my pubic bone. The thing fell off no longer safely ensconced in my underpants but down on the ground like a limp finger and blood poured everywhere.
This thought came to me before I had my first period. The blood part of it might have been a precursor to the day when my periods started or it might simply have been a daydream to accompany my actual dreams, in which, despite being female, I was the possessor of a penis.
Even today, touch frightens me. It bespeaks the possibility of invasion, of fingers poking around where they do not belong, and I am once again a little girl, fearful of my father’s visits in the night, when he climbs into bed with my sister, a bed away from mine and I am fearful that my turn will be next.
‘If he touches you, scream,’ my older sister said to me many years later when she had finally managed to escape the house, but she had never screamed, not until it was too late.
• • •
The experience of being exposed to adult sexuality too soon can fracture a child’s mind. It leads her to believe she should understand matters she cannot possibly understand, and because she cannot understand them, she begins to think she is stupid. And in the process, her ability to learn can become further stunted in mind and body.
My sense of my own body growing up was that of a commodity. My body was an object that I needed to prune and pamper if it was to be of any value to anyone. My body was not so much sacred, as the nuns had taught at school, as it was a source of pleasure to men. As long as I tended to it. As long as I kept it small, smell-free and smooth, like a Barbie.
My father was intelligent enough to beat Barry Jones on Pick a Box, not that he’d have tried. He’d have had to front up on the screen before all those viewers. Not for my father the public performance. He preferred his own company but then from time to time when he grew lonely he took off in search of one of his daughters; one would do, preferably the oldest but if she was not available and our mother was nowhere to be seen he’d go after me or one of my younger sisters.
But I was smart. I knew how to avoid him. I knew how to make myself invisible, as thin as a sheet of paper. I knew how to slip from room to room on tiptoes, silent as a beetle and just as small, and he did not see me as I slid down the hallway past those double glass doors that led into his bedroom, whenever he called out my name.
He called and the more he called the more I plugged my ears and hid from view. Out back to the laundry toilet with the door closed tight even without a lock. My father refused locks in our house. He wanted access at all times but he could never access me. He could never get to me, inside my body, under my skin or into my brain. I held firm. I held him at arm’s length and now I have to suffer the consequences, the fear that slides like treacle down my back and sticks to every pore of my skin, making it hard to breathe. Imagining is worse than the reality.
My father still appears in my dreams, although not as often as before. I can still feel his presence at night in the dark when I tread over cold tiles to the toilet and hold my breath fearful of his touch. Always his touch, the touch I avoided throughout my childhood, the touch I feared made me into a woman afraid of closeness, afraid of penetration, a woman who sealed herself off from too much bodily connection.
And I could not reclaim my body long after he had left. No body, no chance of penetration, no chance of invasion, no chance of the burning touch that drives even stronger people mad. Not until that day on the banks of the Delatite River at the foot of Mount Buller, when I discovered my body, and for the first time had access to bliss. At my hands only.
Far from the banks of the Delatite I went for a walk alone. Up over the hill and beyond the curve of the river where wide sloping fields were intersected by electrified fence wire to keep the cattle in place. I walked for some time before the sound of my daughters’ chiacking in the distance died down and I found myself face to face with a group of cows, big brown heifers with eyes as bright as the moon. They stirred as I approached but otherwise seemed uninterested in my arrival. I did not grow up around animals, other than the domesticated variety of cats and dogs, and something of the cows’ bulk and smell unsettled me.
The smell of new-mown hay, the smell of sour milk all in one left me back in my body, but not the pleasurable sensations I had discovered alone in my tent days earlier. This time ones of fear, and somehow those two feelings merged in a way that left me mesmerised by the eyes of the largest cow, her head bent towards the grass as she chewed but she seemed to look my way with malicious intent.
A strange madness erupted inside me then. They tell you about fight or flight as a response to fear but I felt both these sensations at once, glued to the spot but already the adrenalin pumping inside set my feet off in the direction of our campsite. The cows did not follow but continued to graze, and by the time I had slipped down the hill whose base slid into the river and the cows were out of sight, I realised this fear of bodies human or animal would always be with me, whenever it involved more than one body. Thereafter I could only go it alone.
In the 1970s when Alex Comfort published his Joy of Sex and consciousness-raising groups swung into fashion, with bodies and gender inequalities at their centre, I began to explore the possibilities of a different kind of relationship to my body. I began to consider the possibility that my fears were unfounded, linked as they were to my father and the nuns.
They need not apply to every man I met. I knew this to be true in the core of my brain, but even then my body could not forget the fear and the impulse to hide, the sensation of walking into a room as if I was made of stuff lighter than air, as if I consisted of mind and brain matter only, as if my only armour was my face and the smile I wore to keep others at bay my only protection. The arms and legs and my torso in between were not of me but of the Barbie doll I played with as a child, all angles and smoothness but made of plastic.
No matter how hard I tried I could not be rid of this need for protection in the presence of others, especially men, but alone in my imagination, my body could soar to fresh unknown heights and no-one could take this away from me, not the nuns or my father.