Category Archives: abuse

alan jones, bullies, and my dead grandad

My grandfather was not a good man. I realise it is generally considered uncouth to say such things about one’s relatives, especially the dead ones, but, the truth is, my grandfather lived almost 91 years and yet died virtually friendless. At his funeral only the scantest sprinkling of immediate family and close family friends – ours not his – were present. What I remember most was that the Presbyterian minister – a Masonic ‘brother’ from my grandfather’s lodge – recited a most ridiculous little speech about the grief he imagined the deceased’s loved ones to be enduring. In truth, few of us were sorry to see Grandad go. One of his nearest and dearest, in fact, had requested an open coffin viewing in order, she told me, ‘to be sure the bastard was dead’. Such was the affection with which my grandfather was remembered by those who knew him best. Grandad’s is the only funeral I can remember leaving dry eyed.

One of nine children born into grinding poverty in Glasgow in 1906, my grandfather shared a bed with two of his brothers. The family cottage was tiny; my grandfather’s bed was hidden inside a hallway cupboard during the day, and folded out for the boys to sleep in each night. My great-grandfather, who died before I was born, was, by all accounts, a cruel and violent man with a terrifyingly volatile temper. He would beat his children – and in particular, his sons – on a whim, with whatever weapon came to hand. Whispered family stories tell of brutal bashings with cricket bats and iron bars. In the end, Great-grandad finally died of an infection subsequent to presenting at a hospital emergency room with a slit throat. The official story was that his injury was the result of a botched suicide attempt. According to my mother’s cousin, John, who has an interest in genealogy and so conducted interviews with family members of that generation before they died, my forebears’ dirty little secret is that, in fact, after a lifetime of violent abuse, one of Great-grandad’s sons finally did for him.

It’s little wonder then that my grandfather grew up tough – and mean. He didn’t marry until his late-thirties and so was quite old by the time he and my grandmother emigrated to Australia, following my mother who had married an Australian lad and begun a family here. Grandad was bald as an egg – he had been since his 20s – but sported a tenacious half ring of grey bristle that prickled from ear to ear above his collar. He was physically imposing – tall, barrel chested and strong, even in old age. But it was his invisible yet quite tangible presence that I remember most. Grandad possessed a power to impose his mood on a household that was breathtaking in efficacy. Even as a small child, I wondered how it was he was able to do it. When he and my grandmother were spending a holiday with us, I could wake in the morning and know before I left my room whether Grandad’s mood du jour had turned dangerous yet or not.

When he was feeling chipper, Grandad could be jovial and generous. He had a repertoire of silly jokes and delighted to make us children laugh. When the mood took him, he would empty his pockets of change and with a kindly wink, tell us to ‘pop it in yer moneyboxes’. And then, ‘…to buy books!’ he would call after us as we scampered away. Grandad was entirely obsessed with self-education. He had left school at 11 and had never quite recovered from the sting of failing to make better than Captain during his Second World War posting in Italy. He was always after us kids to read the classics. We ignored him at the time, of course, but years later, having uncovered a love great literature in myself, I often smile to think he’d have been pleased in his way.

But life with Grandad was lived on a knife edge. His mood would change without warning or obvious provocation, and a profound, threatening blackness would descend on the house. It was as though rage were seeping from Grandad’s pores, or flashing from his eyes and fingertips like lightning. We all were acutely aware of his every twitch and tone for the duration of the darkness. My mother, though not herself a victim of the violence of Grandad’s younger years, had many times heard him beating her mother and brothers behind closed doors. When Grandad’s moods were upon him – and we seldom went a whole day without one during a visit – my mother would enter a state of brittle, wild-eyed terror and, drag me and my two sisters along with her. We girls would have to fly about getting Grandad cups of tea and anticipating imminent requests for other treats, turning down the television, speaking way more politely that was usual for us, and generally not-upsetting-your-grandfather. I cannot recall that Grandad’s aggression was ever more visible than power pouting but I do remember the gut-wrenching fear of the possibility that Something Much Worse could happen that held me in its grip on those days.

Although I understand now that she could do no better, I remain capable of flashes of anger that my mother taught me the most important thing to do when confronted with a bully is to avoid any possibility that you might irritate them further, whatever the cost to yourself. I learned to fear the anger of others, and to internalise blame whether or not their feelings had anything to do with me. I have come a very long journey learning to overcome a pathological dread of conflict. In part, I attribute to that phobia my teenage attraction to Christianity, and my staying so many years subject to the manipulation and control that was a central feature of my church experience.

By the end of his life, Grandad hated everyone. He was road raging waaaay before it became a thing. I remember shrinking down in the back of his car while he shook his fist at drivers who had dared to irritate him, shouting ‘Swine!’ and ‘Bastard!’ out of the window, even, perhaps especially, at women. He spent the last decade of his life in a bedsit at a War Veterans home in Sydney; meal times in the communal dining room were an abiding misery for him. Every time we visited it wouldn’t take him long to get around to complaining about the other residents: ‘That bloody fat-arsed bitch Annie MacDonald with her fucking whining….’ Annie seemed often to be the focus of Grandad’s ire. I often wondered at her boldness in continuing so to brazenly piss him off. I used to like to imagine she was a strong woman who enjoyed the game, and to wish that I’d been able to do the same.

***

I had cause to think of my grandfather this week as a furor erupted over the words of another nasty and powerful man. I live in Queensland so don’t listen to Alan Jones’ 2GB program, and only get to hear of his exploits when he’s crossed another line, as he so often does. The public outcry since the vile content of his recent speech was made public has been astonishingly loud. In response to what is probably unprecedented public pressure, so far over 60 companies who formerly advertised during Jones’ immensely popular radio program have withdrawn their support. A petition to sack Alan Jones has managed to attract over 107, 000 signatures to date. I have signed the petition myself, and sent numerous emails to advertisers suggesting they rethink their advertising policy in light of Jones’ long history of bigoted, racist, and misogynistic hate-speech.

Alan Jones (AAP).

There has, though, been some criticism of the social-media-driven campaign against Jones. Jones made what I think was a ludicrous attempt at an apology-thingy on Sunday and some have suggested that ought to be the end of it. But, rather than contrition, Jones used his ‘apology’ press conference to further express his contempt for his detractors. Not surprisingly, this riled more than a few of us up even further. Some have suggested that the anti-Jones backlash is an ALP stunt. While I have no doubt the ALP won’t miss an opportunity to gain political ground wherever it can, I can’t see 100, 000 signatures appearing on a petition almost overnight unless most of those people were just really, really annoyed. Mumbrella editor Tim Burrowes commented that the action will make little difference in the long term. That could be true, but, in my view, that’s not what’s really important.

Paul Sheehan argues that the public backlash against Jones is disproportionate to his crimes, that it is an abuse of power, an act of bullying in itself. While I couldn’t care less whether Alan Jones actually loses his job over this, and while I acknowledge his right to free speech, the point is, a significant number of Australians, including some of Jones’ former fans and toadying political pals, have stood up and said, ‘We don’t like what you did. We want you to stop.’ That’s precisely the way to handle bullies. Ask any Year 2 teacher. It’s what I did in response to my grandfather phoning to abuse me when I was the 20-something mother of toddlers. ‘Grandad,’ I said, ‘I’m a grown woman. I don’t have to take this any more.’ And I hung up.

Jones is acting like a bully who has gotten away with his behaviours for far too long. To me, it looks as though Australia has risen to its feet and said in a loud voice, and without trembling, that we’re not going to put up with his nonsense any more. That is our right and our responsibility, and I’m proud to have participated. It’s likely Jones will go on to offend again, bullying is how he makes his living after all, and plenty of people don’t seem to mind that he does. But my hope is that when Jones once more goes too far, a whole lot of us will rise up and shout a little bit louder. And the time after that, louder again.

I learned something I didn’t know about Alan Jones while reading an article by David Penberthy this week. Penberthy says that, when he isn’t inciting thugs to racial violence, denigrating women, or suggesting our Prime Minister ought to be subjected to a violent death, Alan Jones ‘busies himself with generous acts for put-upon individuals and families, doing unpaid charity work, [and] writing letters to ministers on behalf of people who are illiterate or uneducated’. Who knew? If that’s true, perhaps Jones isn’t rotten to the core, and perhaps he has managed to earn the respect of one or two healthy, emotionally functional adults who have no reason to fear him. Jones is not a young man. Perhaps these good deeds will lead to a more impressive turn out at Jones’ funeral than my grandfather was able to garner.

But if I had Alan Jones’ ear for 5 minutes, this is what I’d say:

Fame is not the same thing as respect, Alan Jones, and fear is not the same as love. Who loves you, Alan? Who knows you – really knows you – and loves you still? Who will weep for you when you are gone? And what will your legacy to the Australian people be? How will the rest of us remember you, Alan? With your power, your platform, your gift of the gab, what did you do to make Australia a better, fairer, safer, kinder place for our children and grandchildren to inherit? What has been your most noble contribution, Mr Jones? And if you’re struggling to think, consider this: My grandfather lived a good deal longer than many men do. Every morning for more than 90 years he rose to a day full of possibilities, a bright instant in which to leave his mark on the world. And every day, almost without exception, he chose to do harm and not good. If that doesn’t strike you as horribly sobering and dreadfully sad, then I feel very, very sorry for you indeed.

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ah, max the mennonite, we meet again

An odd thing occurred while I was writing my last blog post. A ute pulled up at my front gate and a peculiar looking man stepped out. He was wearing a homemade, collarless shirt, long canvas trousers, and sporting a crew cut and Abraham Lincoln beard. He looked very much like those angry young Muslim men who have been all over the news in the past week. Only he wasn’t a Muslim.

I recognised Max* when he was about three steps from my open front door – too late to pretend I wasn’t home. It was one of those awful moments when your past catches up with you just as you were in the very act of wiping your arse with it in a blog post. We all know how that feels, I’m sure.

Ever since my children and I had moved back into the family home post-divorce-and post-2011-flood, I’d known there was a possibility that some blast-from-the-past Christian who hadn’t heard how eminently dumpable my family had become might wander innocently in hoping for a friendly reunion. This was it and here he was. Poor Max.

Max would hate me to say this, but he’s kind of a Mennonite. The epithet is offensive because, to Max, the Mennonites are a worldly, wishy-washy bunch of compromising slackers unworthy of the name ‘Christian’. Obviously. I mean, just look at their women. Those head-coverings hardly reach to their ears and what’s the go with the visible ankles?

Max’s wife Abbie** knew how to dress. (You can see a photo of a similarly clad woman here.) Winter or scorching Queensland summer she’d be shrouded in a calf-length cape dress of thick homespun with an extra layer of fabric extending from neck to waist (to conceal any errant boobishness), and long sleeves, elasticised at the wrist (so as to prevent passing men from being provoked to lustful imaginings by unscheduled glimpses of elbow). Abbie also wore a white, past-the-shoulder, nun-like veil; opaque black tights; and black, lace-up, nurses’ shoes. Young, blonde, slim and pretty, Abbie was a walking lust averter.

Headless woman models a Mennonite cape dress.
Source: http://www.candleonthehill.net

Max and Abbie had turned judgementalism into a fine art. On the surface, you’d be hard-pressed to imagine a couple more kindly, hospitable or warm. But behind their have-another-hot-buttered-wholemeal-zucchini-muffin smiles, they wuz judging on yo ass. I never measured up. I had hair that fell almost to my knees, wore dowdy, ankle-length skirts, homebirthed and then homeschooled a hoard of ostensibly sweet, Scripture-quoting offspring, but my refusal to wear a head-covering kept me firmly in the not-too-sure-about-that-one’s-commitment-to-Jesus box as far as Max and Abbie were concerned.

Mostly, Max and Abbie used my house as a convenient, central location to meet with Christians they did like. My best friend Louise and her husband Frederick passed muster, or very nearly. They had become Amish several years earlier, and dressed almost as nicely as Max and Abbie. There remained only a few details yet to be perfected, and Max and Abbie, I think, felt confident they’d bring Louise and Frederick around to God’s way of thinking in time. The fact that Frederick was a narcissistic sociopath impinged on his Godly Head of Household status not at all, although, to be fair, none of us realised the severity of the abuse he was inflicting on Louise and their ten children. Not then.

Max and Abbie hadn’t been able to find anyone sufficiently holy with whom to spend their Sundays, so had to organise weekly church meetings via Skype with a handful of like-minded Better-than-Mennonites who were scattered – lonely and unappreciated – across North America. Abbie was US-born so eventually, they decided to move to Wisconsin in order to be closer to some of ‘the brethren’. Evidently, that hadn’t gone as well as they’d hoped so, some three years later, here they were back again with plans, Max told me, to buy some acreage in a rural area near my home, and take another crack at establishing a Christian community with some imported Americans who, he said, were soon to fly in.

As I looked at Max’s smiling face, a dozen small indignities I had endured during the years of our relationship flooded back. I remembered that I couldn’t say grace at my own table when they were visiting because, as a bare-headed woman, my prayers were deemed an affront to God. I remembered how, on two occasions they brought young Mennonite-ish men with them to visit. We showed those boys warm hospitality and thought we’d become quite friendly, but when one of them phoned from the US while we were all sitting to dinner in my home another night, Max passed the phone to Louise and Frederick, but not to us. It was then I realised they didn’t consider us friends or even believers. We were their mission field, their strategies: winsome example-setting and tacit disapproval.

Suddenly, I wanted Max gone. I considered terrifying him by stating plainly my current godless status, dropping a casual f-bomb for emphasis. I attended to an threatening attack of the giggles as I imagined a range of Mennonite-frightening subjects I could broach, and then realised none would be necessary. Max asked after my husband and I told him we were no longer married. I saw the judgement flash behind his eyes and knew I wouldn’t be hearing from Max again. Too easy.

That’s the great thing about Christians like Max and Abbie: so easily discouraged. I’m very glad they aren’t that pesky sort who care whether or not folk fry in hell. I hear those are out there.

* Not his real name.

** Or hers either.

an open letter to catherine deveny

Dear Catherine,

I realise you don’t know me but I feel compelled to write. I’m a close friend of Chrys Stevenson and, because I follow Chrys’ writing, I’ve been aware of some of the furore that has erupted since your appearance on Q&A on Monday night (10 September, 2012).

In a previous incarnation, I was a fundamentalist Christian and pastor’s wife. That’s not the relatively bland statement it may appear. I, and my children, were profoundly damaged by Christianity and, some years after leaving, we are still recovering. In any case, I thought you might like to know how that particular Q&A program looked to someone like me.

I understand, I think, what you mean when you describe Archbishop Peter Jensen as pure evil. His conduct on Q&A reminded me very much of how my ex-husband used to drive me to the point of blind rage, and then try to get me to believe I was the one at fault for losing my rag. It’s part of a clever technique I now know is called gaslighting.

Ingrid Bergman in ‘Gaslight’ (MGM, 1944)

Gaslighting is a term coined (from the movie ‘Gaslight‘) to describe a particular form of psychological or emotional abuse. The object is to cause the target to question themselves and their perception of reality. At its most extreme, the aim is to make a sane person appear demented (sometimes even to the point where they believe themselves to be going mad). The technique often works by contrasting the calm, reasonableness of the abuser against the increasingly emotional demeanour of the target. Gaslighting is often, but by no means exclusively, perpetrated by men against women; societal prejudices that position women as nervous, hysterical and less prone to logical reasoning work in the abuser’s favour. The abuser adopts the role of ‘smiling assassin’ and exploits the victim’s emotional response in order to discredit them. That abuse has, in fact, occurred is routinely denied.

Gaslighting is generally a very slow process, but while there was nothing gradual about what Jensen did, and, although I can’t imagine a whole cathedral of Archbishops being sufficient to convince you that you were the one at fault, Catherine, Jensen’s behaviour had all the hallmarks of a contrived strategy to make you look unattractive at best, and crazy at worst.

And both of those desired outcomes are tied to your being a woman. Making you seem ugly and mad is achieved through Jensen appearing the precise personification of elegant rationality and educated white maleness, all the while making vile and even outrageous statements, the import of which slide past the audience because of the persona and relational dynamic Jensen has crafted. It’s clever, and Jensen appears to be an expert. I imagine he’s been doing it for most of his professional life – and has been lauded for it. Without ever launching a personal attack, Jensen was able to make those watching join him in criticising you for being passionate, articulate, intelligent and a woman. Confronted with a communication style that should have raised little comment, viewers became embarrassed that you even existed, and most of them probably weren’t even aware of the sleight of hand being practiced.

Having spent many years in the church (where I found life as an intelligent woman who has trouble with submission fraught with difficulty) I noticed while I was watching Q&A, that two conversations were taking place in my living room. One was audible: like many viewers, I surprised myself by frequently shouting at the television in response to Jensen’s comments and demeanor; I was enraged on your behalf. The other conversation was internal, the vestigial voice of the church as I knew it – of male pastors, of God: “You are woman. Sit still! Be prettier! Take up less space! Be less powerful! Make less noise! Be nicer! We like you better when you are nicer.”

Women in the church are, in fact, largely controlled through what I call ‘the Cult of Nice’. That you – a woman – were passionate and disagreeably vocal on national television broke more seldom-spoken Christian rules than I can count. But the worst of your crimes was that you were proud and unafraid. A less practiced player may have shown himself to be overtly angry about that. But Jensen’s strategy, I think, was not to oppose you, but to destroy you – by making the rest of us ashamed of your strengths.

You, Catherine, violated the biblical doctrine of women’s ‘shamefacedness’, which, while almost invisible in contemporary Australia retains, I believe, the power to influence even many of the secular and liberal among us.

1 Timothy 2:8-10 (KJV)

I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.

In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;

But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.

and

1 Corinthians 14:34 (KJV)

Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.

and again

1 Timothy 5:14 (KJV)

I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully.

As, no doubt, you know, there are more where those came from.

On Monday night, Catherine, you embodied everything that certain forms of Christianity despise about women. I know how disgusted many of the Christians I once knew would have been to see you in action. Still, I have found it astonishing that with scarcely a word, Jensen was able to make even his enemies and many of your supporters believe that you were guilty of some great transgression. Such is the power of the practiced gaslighter.

There will be Christian women – and perhaps secular women too – all over Australia this week who, whether traditionally feminine women or not, will be doing their darndest to show that they are Not Like Catherine Deveny. They will want others to know that they are good women. I imagine there once were black Americans provoked to similar attitudes in response to public criticisms of that most troublesome black American, Martin Luther King Jr, and for very similar reasons.

I am not proud to admit it but I also felt the power of Jensen’s pull on my own mind. I felt it first, in fact, when I watched you engage with former Howard government minister Peter Reith on Go Back to Where You Came From: a desire to side with Nice, a sense that I ought to feel embarrassed and repelled at your bold talk, your making yourself unpleasant to those who remained ‘better controlled’. I felt instructed to be silent, smaller, more pleasant to see and hear, more submissive, less trouble. Nicer. So this is me saying, “Fuck that!”

I am deeply sorry that you have found yourself the target of so many ludicrous and vicious attacks this week. I am not suggesting that others have no right to take issue with your views, or your delivery of them. I’m not suggesting that you conducted yourself perfectly, nor am I suggesting you should aspire to do so. I’m not suggesting that you should care whether you please me, or anyone else, or that you need, or even want, my support or appreciation. But I am suggesting that the deeply personal vitriol you have encountered may be explained by the strategies I have described.

And I want to put my hand up as one woman who values your contribution, and who, because of my own experience as a Christian woman, can see Jensen’s game plan for what it was. Perhaps, in some small way, that matters.

Very sincerely,

Jane