The First Stone
Wow. The world has certainly changed a lot in the last twenty-five or so years. After the earthquake of Harvey Weinstein and the aftershocks of #MeToo, it's evident that the landscape of sexual harassment has seismically altered. It no longer seems 'disproportionate', 'ferocious', 'priggish' or 'punitive' to accuse the head of a residential college of sexual assault for groping female students.* Instead, it's Garner's claim that the young women should have 'handled' the incidents in the moment that seems naive and unrealistic.
Again and again, Garner's own personal history and sympathies lead her into collision with a new brand of young feminists. They don't understand her, and she doesn't understand them. They are supposed to be on the same side, but they are speaking utterly different languages. And Garner's early, impulsive letter of support to the accused man at the centre of the controversy brands her as being irrevocably on his side; the two young women and their supporters refuse to talk to her. Why would they?
And yet bewilderingly, Garner observes and sharply describes the structures of patriarchal power all around her. Two 'Ormond men' stand over her impassively as she scrambles out of their way in a court room, ignoring her. The photographs in the college entranceway are dominated by male figures. She recalls incidents of harassment and violence from her own life and those of her friends. But stubbornly she insists on discrimination between 'real violence' and 'a boorish pass.' Repeatedly Garner refuses the idea that it might be more helpful to see these events on a single sliding scale, of men objectifying women, refusing to see them as fully human -- not the same thing, but part of a single pattern of thought and behaviour.
The book ends with a bitter line: 'If only they hadn't been so afraid of life.' (They being the young women.) She grapples with the 'passivity', the freezing of so many women when men transgress, just closing our eyes and hoping it will stop. She guesses that we are conditioned to be afraid of denting male egos. I don't know about that. Maybe it's more simple; maybe, on some deep primal level, we are afraid of male anger, of the very real possibility of male violence. A friend of mine was murdered by her partner. Who was it who said, 'Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them'? Garner tries to argue that women have their own power to command in these situations -- the power of Eros. Hm. Maybe that's true, sometimes, but Mars can overcome Eros in a heartbeat.
I would love to know what Helen Garner thinks of this book now, so many years on. I doubt we'll ever know. She copped so much criticism for what is, in the end, a searching, thoughtful book (even if I disagree with its conclusions) that she probably never wants to discuss it again.
*Likewise, the idea that the college should acknowledge the Aboriginal owners of its lands no longer seems astonishing, but reasonable.