Trauma is a strange bedfellow. In its company you binge on adrenaline and will anyone to have a go. Don’t push in front of me. Don’t mess with me. Go on, mess with me.
I hate the mothers at school who don’t have to work and have time to go to the gym and hang around at the gate and talk and talk and laugh and I hate the wives who have wonderful husbands and I hate the students at uni who think they are busy and just want to pass and I hate feeling the need to check my bank account every morning when I wake up and that when I need no-one, people keep calling and texting and knocking so I won’t be alone.
I am told I am amazing. I’m an amazing mother. I’m an amazing friend. I’m an amazing sister. I’m an amazing student. I’m amazingly strong. I’m an amazing cook. It’s amazing I hold it all together. It’s amazing how much I can do. My ex-boyfriend said I was too amazing for him, that to be with me he’d have to change, and he could never be that amazing.
You have no idea what it is like to be this amazing.
My ex-husband has my son cornered
Pinned up against the wall by his
words. My son’s eyes plead for release, glassy, vacant, looking
He has been here before. He knows what’s expected.
Who was there for you when your mother kicked you out?
Who was there for you when your mother kicked you out?
She didn’t kick me out.
Yes she did. Who was there for you when your mother kicked you out?
Who was there for you when your mother kicked you out?
Who was there for you when your mother kicked you out?
I never kicked him out.
I arrive. I see his eyes. I am pushed and blocked three times. I touch no-one. I can’t get to my son.
My son flinches and he is pinned up against the wall by his
around his throat.
So I turn up to class the next day ready
for a fight and there’s this new guy in the front row
the same guy I heard
above the nonchalant murmur of students
before and after he passed me in the corridor.
And we read this tale about a rich widower whose past wives
all mysteriously disappeared, then married his next
virgin, tempted and tested her like he had the right,
and tried to murder her for the sin of curiosity
like he was God. And the first comment comes from
the guy in the front who says
he thinks the man loved his wife,
in his own way, and the wife shouldn’t have been so
curious and I’ve a lot to say so I’m a feminist
and after class he brushes past me
as he cuts me off and I hear his voice again
above the nonchalant murmur of students.
My 15-year-old son
told his 12-year-old sister
that she should shave her legs
and pluck her eyebrows. I reacted
swiftly and passionately
telling my daughter not to let the opinions of men
determine how she looks. My son reacted
swiftly and passionately
with a filthy look
‘Mum you just hate all men, you’re such a feminist.’
I have this friend who has a friend who she suspected was in a domestic violence relationship. This friend of my friend fell pregnant. Worrying about the baby, my friend texted her friend one night, hinting of her suspicions, suggesting she try to leave the relationship now, before the baby arrives. The partner saw the text and beat the pregnant woman up. My friend’s friend’s family blamed my friend for this incident, because she sent the text.
My colleague’s marriage is ending. There is some domestic violence, years of neglect and another woman. My colleague’s husband has bought a one-way ticket to his home country where his girlfriend is waiting. She knows about the affair because the girlfriend friended my colleague’s daughter on Facebook and writes posts about the love affair they had when he last bought a one-way ticket. Recently a former neighbour visited my colleague, having heard she was separated. He proposed that the two of them start dating. She reminded him about the time when he lived next door and the night he tied a rope around his wife’s neck, doused her in petrol and pretended to light a match.
My ex-husband has three people on his back.
I am one of them. My keys are clenched in my hand, close
to his neck.
I contemplate using them.
My son’s father is pinned to the ground by my son’s friends’
hands, but his hands are still struggling
to reach my son.
All hands on deck.
I yell for my son to run inside and lock the door.
Later, my son’s friends say it wouldn’t have gotten messy
if I hadn’t arrived.
They say I looked aggressive.
They have to testify.
They want to remain neutral.
They don’t understand that it always ends messy.
As a child I loved to look at the faces of Olivia Newton John and Julie Andrews. When I was a teenager it was the Afghan girl on the cover of my dad’s National Geographic magazine that lived in the bathroom. We stared at each other for hours. As a young adult I thought Audrey Hepburn was the most beautiful creature ever captured. Part of me still thinks so, though I refuse to buy her image on a clock, handbag or umbrella. As a grown woman I was drawn to women’s faces in classical art: Leonardo Da Vinci’s La Scapigliata (1508) and Mona Lisa (1503–06), Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665), Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1486), John Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shallot (1888); all unashamedly cliché. Then I became all hipster and collected unique sketches and impressions of women’s faces in all forms of abstract art by obscure local and international artists, and found beauty in places I hadn’t looked before.
In my thirties I did an art course at university and looked a naked woman in the eye during life drawing. The morning of class I was overcome with nerves, which became a thrill of excitement moments before the model let drop her blue satin kimono. As the kimono swished to the floor, a wave of childhood embarrassment flowed through me; I hadn’t seen a naked woman full frontal since the change rooms in my early-morning-squad swimming days. Most of those were saggy old women who pushed themselves into a shower cubicle with you, then took too long to get dressed. Or teenage girls doing a nudie run.
I was envious of the kimonoed woman when I saw her. Not of her body, but of her audacity. It wasn’t her sexuality that wowed me, it was her womanhood. I quickly got over myself, supressed a desire to giggle, and immersed myself in the experience. As my pencil became acquainted with her curves, she morphed into segments, each contour joining the next. She was a unique art form and no longer a naked body. My frustration at not capturing her womanliness was acute; my artistic abilities fell far short of my appreciation. I now understood why artists have always been drawn to the female figure.
Although my appreciation hasn’t waned, my talent proved inadequate and my studies now lie in early modern women’s writing, which has piqued my curiosity towards another artist, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653), an Italian Baroque painter of special significance. It is not Artemisia’s women’s faces or figures that I am drawn to, but another part of their body I find far more intriguing: their hands.
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593. Her father was an established artist who taught his children his profession. Artemisia was the most talented, out-painting her brothers and eventually, it can be argued, her father. This in itself is worth writing about; a seventeenth-century woman who was commissioned to paint for a living and lived by her painting. Artemisia’s paintings are arresting, not just because they are painted with exceptional skill and expression, but also because of her subject matter and the way she went against the status quo in her representation of women as subjects of power—and in the way she painted their hands.
Unlike the majority of masculine depictions, the hands of Artemisia’s women were always doing something. They were active with purpose and sometimes violent. Usually positioned towards the centre of the painting, there was no shade or cloth to conceal them, with light and the line of vision drawing attention towards them. It is no secret that hands are artistically challenging to ‘get right’, and a close look at many of Artemisia’s contemporaries’ works confirm this. A commonality among male artists was to paint women’s hands as pudgy, fleshy, without defined definitions in the joints or knuckles, usually limp with no muscle tone, decorative with no obvious pressure applied and tapering at the ends to unnatural pointed fingertips. Male-portrayed hands embodied cushioned softness, were delicate and weak-looking, almost naked-womanly compared to Artemisia’s large, hard-working and deliberately articulated hands.
Instead of glossing over her hand artistry with conveniently positioning shadow, clothes or objects to obscure them, Artemisia women’s hands were the main subject matter of her paintings, the hands becoming characters in their own right. In her interpretation of Susanna and the Elders (1610), an image that has been depicted frequently over several centuries, Artemisia’s Susanna is one of the few whose head is turning away from her accosters, her hands lifted to shield her from the salacious attempts of the lecherous elders. Unlike other interpretations, Susanna is not using her hands to cover her nakedness; her hands are in mid action, fully exposed and evidently the centrepiece of the image.
The story of Susanna offered the opportunity for artists to portray a conspicuous naked female in the name of historical and cultural appreciation, and it is interesting to note that Artemisia is the only historical woman artist to attempt an adaptation. The abundant interpretations of this contested tale range from Susanna inviting the attention of the elders, Susanna being indecently groped, Susanna unaware she is being watched, Susanna looking to the heavens for release and, more often than not, Susanna using her hands to cover her naked body. Artemisia’s Susanna signifies a repulsed and independent resistance, whose superbly painted hands embody defiance, strength and power in an assumingly powerless situation. Women as beings of power are what define Artemisia’s artistry, using her protagonist’s hands to reinforce this position.
An image that is as recognisable and oft portrayed as her Susanna is another apocryphal biblical classic, Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612–20). Artemisia’s representation is the only historical version that depicts both Judith and her maidservant working together to slaughter Holofernes, and satisfyingly has ample gore and blood, markedly more than any other portrayal. This painting is violent and energetic, yet naturally depicted, with both women’s hands in the very act of murder, overpowering Holofernes entirely, even as he struggles to defend himself from their assault. The darkness is consuming and the light provocative. It is deliberate, bold and defiant, daring and outright. The women are real. Both Judith and Abra are focused on their victim and their purpose, displaying their powerful arms and firm grips, which have absolute power over Holofernes.
At least three additional representations of this story are attributed to Artemisia, none of which are as intense. Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1625) is notably less ferocious, but nonetheless the hands of both Judith and Abra are again visually prominent and assiduously engaged in their purpose. Light is again used dramatically to draw attention to both women’s hands, with the free hand of Judith outstretched, palm up, in a symbolic halting gesture that casts a darkened shadow over her face, while the other hand continues to grip her sword; Abra’s are busily disposing of Holofernes’ decapitated head. Artemisia paints hands that are the hands of real women: active, capable and deliberate, which command power and attention of both the situation and those who now view it.
Interestingly, three other Italian early modern women artists portrayed this classic biblical scene: Fede Galizia (c. 1574–c. 1630), Lavinia Fontan (1552–1614) and Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665). Each of these paintings are positioned conveniently ‘after the fact’, with Judith classically carrying Holofernes’ severed head. In each painting Judith is elaborately dressed, showing no sign of blood, gore or struggle, her head characteristically turning away from her spoil as if to disconnect herself from the act and draw attention to her feminine beauty. Fede Galizia’s painting is the only other that shows four strong hands, Lavinia Fontan’s and Elisabetta Sirani’s hands being wholly inconsequential, yet still Fede’s hands are chiefly ornamental, not proactive. All three paintings position the women’s hands, like the maidservant Abra, as more or less background noise, inadvertently emphasising Artemisia’s characterisation and dominance of her women’s hands as courageous and defiant subjects.
and I don’t know / if we’re keeping each other / afloat / or drowning hand in / hand
(Kat, ‘hand in hand’, 18 June 2014)1
Bruising random shapes
On my bare thighs.
Leaving me covered
In rainbow lies.
(Eleanor Rigby, ‘Wooden Hands’, 27 October 2014)
and when you look at me
i swear i can’t breathe
because your eyes are like hands
which choke me while i dream
(Marta Rampini, ‘hands’, 28 October 2014)
Life is so sad.
When I fall asleep,
with my own hands
(Steph Arcadia, ‘Hands’, 6 September 2014)
But the real problem is,
That hands never hold enough hands.
we are too busy,
holding them in fists.
(Fuji Bear, ‘Hands’, 11 April 2014)
On my first visit to a police station I was told that December is the busiest month for domestic violence incidents. It was the first week of December. I was expected. Five years on and a lifetime of habits still linger. We will never be completely free; it has moulded me and formed part of who I am. Not the mentor I would have chosen. It is inbred in my children’s psyche; a consciousness they were conceived into, even when memories evade them. I see it imprinted on their thoughts and hear it echo in their personalities. I have days rife with regret where I would forsake all I love as I stomach the awareness that I chose this life for my children. Other days I trust this journey was our path and that we chose to trek it together, with the conviction that we will overcome and thrive. A bipolarised altering, depending on what’s happening in and outside my head.
In 2014 in Australia it was reported that domestic violence was one of the leading causes of death and injury in women under the age of 45. More than one woman is murdered every week by a partner or ex-partner. In the continuing rise of domestic-violence deaths, the public face appears to be on the improve, providing space also for domestic violence against men. Some men’s sports have taken an active stance and promote a zero tolerance policy towards domestic violence. Recently the federal government committed $30 million to raise awareness and encourage people to speak out against domestic violence, with a national plan to counteract the statistics. White Ribbon, a national initiative instigated by men, educates other men about domestic violence, encouraging men to work together to reduce violence against women. There is a recent spate of confronting television advertisements that question normalised attitudes concerning violent behaviour and attitudes towards women and girls. It’s an impressive line-up.
With the improved publicity, conversation and recognition it would be easy to assume all was well or on the mend, but that is not what the statistics are showing. The public facade of ‘taking care of business’ is counteracted by another rising statistic: the phenomenon of the online petition, ‘people power’, some might call it. This has arisen because the policies designed to protect women and children are not working, and those directly affected by the loopholes are bringing that to public attention and public consciousness. The simple act of typing an email address and a line of text is making a significant difference to those who make the laws, and to those who break them (providing enough signatures can be generated). On change.org alone, several petitions involving violence against women have made an impact in the last few years, when the cries from the victims and their families had been ignored.
Fact: The Gerard Baden-Clay murder conviction was downgraded to manslaughter after Baden-Clay appealed. Following a publicised online petition and angry backlash from the community, the murder conviction was reinstated.
Fact: A mother to an Australian child and victim of repeated serious family violence was threatened with deportation, as her partner visa was refused when she separated from her husband. A court order required her husband to be involved in her son’s life. She faced the prospect of leaving her child with carers and then leaving the country permanently. After social media launched a petition, she was granted a visa to stay in Australia with her child.
Fact: After public pressure from a petition that wouldn’t go away, the sexist Hotties of Melbourne University page was removed from Facebook. This page promoted rape culture and normalised predatory behaviour towards women, calling for male students to rate the sexual attractiveness of women they saw on campus, along with photographs, sexually explicit ratings and abusive content for those who ‘didn’t make the cut’.
Fact: The legal rape advocate, neo-masculinist and misogynist creator of Return of the Kings, Roosh V, was planning supporter meetings throughout Australia. After an online petition and several protests from the community, he was stopped from entering Australia.
Fact: Kate Malonyay was brutally murdered by ex-boyfriend Elliot Coulson, who then took Kate’s credit card, phone and persona to reassure family and friends she was safe. When police tried to apprehend him, he leapt from a balcony to his death. Days later, at tax payer expense, he was given a full military funeral. A petition called for the cost of the funeral to be donated to the Homicide Victims Support Group, a public denunciation of Coulson’s actions, a formal apology to Kate’s family, as well as a review of the navy’s funeral policies. An apology was given.
Fact: After news arrived that boxer Floyd Mayweather, a repeated and known domestic violence offender (some of which he served jail time for), was on his way to Australia, a petition was launched and he was denied a visa. Attempts had previously been made by domestic violence groups to stop his arrival. Only after the petition went viral was his visa denied.
Fact: Infamous Wicked Campers, artisans of the vulgar one-line graffiti on their hire vans, were forced to take down their slogans because of an online petition, but not without a fight. ‘In every princess there is a little slut who wants to try it just once’; ‘A wife: An attachment you screw on the bed to get the housework done’; and ‘I wouldn’t trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn’t die’ were some of the crass phrases spray-painted on their vehicles. Endorsing paedophilia and sexual assault, positioning women as only sexual beings who always ‘want it’ and arrogantly objectifying women was what you may have seen on display on a road trip before this petition was successful.
Fact: Paul McCuskey was serving jail time for viciously beating his former partner Jeannie Blackburn, whom he blinded in one eye and caused to miscarry, after dragging her out of a car and kicking her in the stomach. He had previously been granted a bravery award by the Royal Humane Society and ‘hero’ status for his firefighting efforts in the Black Saturday tragedy. The Humane Society had decided he should still keep his bravery award, even though on the day it was to be presented he was still in jail. They changed their mind when an online petition attracted television coverage.
Fact: Indigenous mother-of-seven Lynette Daley was brutally raped and mur-dered in January 2011 on an isolated camping trip at a northern NSW beach by her boyfriend Adrian Attwater and accomplice Paul Maris. Although police charged Attwater and Maris, the NSW director of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecu-tions (ODPP), Lloyd Babb, failed to prosecute either. After a 2014 inquest into the murder, the DPP declined to prosecute again. An online petition was then launched with more than 60,000 signatures, which then sparked an ongoing Four Corners investigation. This was eventually followed by an independent review of the evidence and charges were again laid against Attwater and Maris. In December 2017, Justice Elizabeth Fullerton pronounced a 19-year prison sentence for manslaughter and aggravated sexual assault for Attwater, and Maris received a nine-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault and hindering the collection of evidence. Both Attwater and Maris admitted to having sex with Lynette Daley, but claimed it was consensual. Lynette’s blood alcohol level of 0.35 disputes this, as does the fact that the blunt force genital tract trauma was ‘more severe than those which occur in even precipitous childbirth’. This violent sexual act, performed in the back of a vehicle with a blunt object, caused Lynette to lose 2 litres of blood and die from her injuries within hours. Her body was then taken by Attwater and Maris to be washed in the ocean and the blood-soaked mattress and her clothes were burned.
They lose control when their control is lost
as they sense the end
of their reign.
Two times when the police were called his hands were grasping
and keys and wedding rings
trying to take what was not his
what he no longer owns
what he never owned.
My backchat is my weapon that cannot be beaten
as my defiance sets off his
and all he has left are his hands
and we go down fighting.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that well-behaved women seldom make history.2 Artemisia Gentileschi has historically been a problematic artist. This is not only because she is a woman and as good as or better than her contemporaries, but also because for centuries her works have been scrutinised (if they were noticed at all), and given place mainly as a critique on her disturbing life events. Commentators have deduced that her works were all painted in response to her controversial and publicised relationships with men and deemed them autobiographical, instead of critiquing, acknowledging and praising her artistic prowess.
When Artemisia was 15 she was raped by her tutor, artist Agostina Tassi. Tassi was already a convicted rapist who had a missing wife, whom he was rumoured to have had murdered. One of Artemisia’s previous patrons had unsuccessfully attempted to rape Artemisia, and in his humiliation had engaged Tassi for the task. Tassi continued to demand sexual favours from Artemisia under the false promise of marriage, which was the only way Artemisia could repair her ruined reputation. Tassi openly bragged about his conquest and when Artemisia’s father heard the rumours, he took Tassi to court. A court case was an option only because Artemisia’s rapist had taken her virginity and was refusing to marry her. Tassi vehemently denied the charges and solicited several men to fabricate testimonies slandering Artemisia’s virtue, in order to damage her reputation further. The trial lasted seven months. Artemisia was first subjected to a humiliating gynaecological examination before being permitted to testify.
In order to ‘prove’ that Artemisia was telling the truth, she was interrogated while thumb screws were being used on her hands. She cried out over and over again, ‘It is true! It is true! It is true!’ as torturers inflicted serious injury upon her. Artemisia’s hands, the instruments that were the masterpiece behind her masterpieces, were being tortured in the name of virtue. Hands, which she had mastered the craft of creating and expressing better than so many others before and after her. Powerful, strong hands that were capable of so much, yet delicate enough to work so intricately, so precisely. Her hands were the only way she could gain independence, her only currency. And they were tortured. The hands of a woman. •
Kelly Peihopa is a PhD student at the University of Newcastle. Her thesis is on early modern women’s prison literature and she enjoys attempting poetry and nonfiction writing on the side.
- The poems can be found at <hellopoetry.com>
- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, Vintage, New York, 2008.