Success, David wrote, is the best revenge and I have been successful.

She’d never been entirely sure what the cliché meant or what its relationship might be to that other cliché: revenge is a dish best eaten cold. But what she did see, as she sat across from him at lunch at an outdoor table in a Canberra restaurant on a chilly winter’s day, was that he either hadn’t had enough success or the cliché was rubbish, because he’d just finished telling her he didn’t believe in forgiveness and there were two people who’d done him wrong fifteen years ago and if he saw any opportunity to return the harm now, today, he would.

Who? she wanted to know, of course she wanted to know.

He hesitated. Then he muttered, lowering his head so his words were lost in his sweater. Like a humiliated schoolboy, she thought. Angry. Shamed. Wanting to hide himself from her gaze.

Who? she asked again.

He spoke two names she knew well, though she’d never met either of them.

Why? she asked

He muttered again, something about office space at work and how he’d been resented for taking up too much with a project and that had caused a feud.

Really? she asked, surprised that a dispute over office space could cause a depth and longevity of animosity such that fifteen years later, one of its participants harboured desires for revenge, and could not conceive of forgiveness, even as a generality.

Later, someone told her there was a whole lot more to it he wouldn’t want her to know, but by then they were no longer speaking and she didn’t much care.

On the way to lunch he’d shown her where he used to work. He’d taken her hand as they walked down the street and shown her, because he wanted her to know about him, to know his history and when later she’d remarked how awed she was by the human capacity for forgiveness he’d scoffed at her, and said he didn’t believe in it.

You don’t know my story, he told her indignantly when she looked at him, surprised by the vehemence with which he repudiated the notion. The aspects of himself he’d displayed for her thus far were gentle, caring, self-deprecating, tender, worshipful of her. This was a new turn.

If I could be inside you, he said, taking her hand across the table, I know it would take away all of the last seven years, which have been terrible.

She said nothing. There was nothing to say. She understood the yearning behind his words, but she recognised as well the false hope he harboured of release from his misery, amelioration of his hurts through losing himself in her body.

She didn’t tell him, but she knew it wasn’t like that. She didn’t tell him because she knew he wasn’t able to hear. She didn’t say, it’s not in me, what you long for. If you find it in yourself we can share it, but I can’t just give it to you.

Forgiveness, she thinks, is when you arrive at that point of neutrality in which there are no more emotions powerful enough to make you desire either love or revenge. Forgiveness is the dying of the energy of dark desire. Forgiveness is when you are at peace with a past situation, finally immune to its clamours and chaos.

In this sense, she thinks, forgiveness and revenge have much in common. Is there any greater revenge than disengagement from emotions previously aroused by another, whether love or hate? Is there any greater revenge than becoming impervious to another?

She knows she can’t tell him this. He’s closed to such notions, trapped in his grievances, his sense of injustice, his anger at wrong having been done to him. She sees discontent in his face, the way his lower lip juts out like that of a sulking child and she knows that now, were she to suggest his life might improve if he consider the possibility of forgiveness as revenge, he’d remove his hand from hers, close down, tell her she was being too philosophical, and that she didn’t understand.

So she says, nothing.

Later, she marvels at David’s capacity to bear grudges against others whilst simultaneously, and with focused intent, engaging in and plotting acts of betrayal that are almost inconceivable in their complexity, and the damage they will bring.

He tells her, when she says she doesn’t wish to begin a sexual relationship with a married man, that there is no sex in his life, and should his wife express a desire to resume that intimacy, though he doubts that will ever be the case, he will tell her he is no longer capable. That way, he says to his proposed lover, she will never have to share him or concern herself about his fidelity to her. He is hers, he says. His body is hers alone. His desire is only for her.

Do you realise, she says, that you are telling me more about your intimate life than you are telling your wife, and do you realise, she says, what that means?

He shrugs. Looks away. Says nothing for quite some time. Then he says, I have to fuck you. We have to fuck. I’ll regret it all my life if we don’t.

It’s a normal human impulse, is revenge. There’s nothing pathological about imaging a punishment commensurate with the crime committed against you. The problem is, in inflicting commensurate punishment you become an equal perpetrator. So what is to be done?

She doesn’t want to emulate him. Cart around bad feelings for years, primed to do harm if the opportunity arises. There’s got to be a better way.

She sees revenge as a creature of the moment, an urge, an emotion, a desire that once acknowledged, once permitted to fully experience its life, subsides. It may return, again and again and with every return demand acknowledgement, but it does not necessarily require action. This is the ideal. But who can always live up to the ideal?

Success, David wrote, is the best revenge. No, she thinks, you are quite wrong. Forgiveness is the best revenge. The end of all desire for another, good and bad. Gently leaving them to their fate, because their fate is no longer joined with yours. This is forgiveness. This is the best revenge. When you no longer need to flaunt even your success at them. This is the punishment commensurate with the crime. Freedom.

TWELVE: The feeling of not feeling



The trauma expert says: Perhaps the most difficult thing to deal with in post traumatic stress is the reaction of freezing at the time of the trauma.

She elaborates on the brain’s processes, but I’m not listening. What she’s just said explains much: why it is taking me so long to deal with this illness. Why I recall events through a shroud of fog that I’ve concluded is protective in its purpose, but that leaves me with the sense of not quite getting there, of not quite owning the experience as mine. That abdication of ownership leaves me unable to bring home to me the child and woman, frozen in traumatic time.

The fog has been dense enough to entirely conceal them. Daily it thins.

I think, it isn’t possible to discard parts of the self as if they never were, and feel anything but uncertainty and fragmentation. The power of the lost and silenced over a life far outweighs what is present and evident.

Bring them home. Yes.


In a meditation I am the constant blue sky: clouds and rain and thunder and lightning pass across me and I witness their progress but I remain the constant blue sky, allowing the ructions, but not part of them.

Then I see a drama unfold. A child, a man. Something swoops in, a being filled with quiet purpose. This being lifts the child from the ground where she lies frozen, while other beings, equally purposeful, hold the man back by his arms. The being faces the man, the child in its arms. You will not do this harm, it says.

I have never before seen such incontestable authority. There’s no threat, no violence, no struggle. There is only: You will not do this harm.


The feeling of not feeling is desolation. It is beyond sorrow, beyond all that we know as human. It’s the barren smoking landscape of a rainforest destroyed by man. It’s the coral reef leached of all its colour. It’s the bombed, skeletal city, the splayed body of the slaughtered woman, the heartbreaking pose of the drowned child.

The feeling of not feeling is that of death while you’re still living. This is what it does, the freezing. There is no fight. There is no flight. There is only a paralysis worse than physical death.

Here is the heart of it: the coming back.

The indisputable authority: You will not continue to do this harm.

ELEVEN: Days of words


There are days when strings of words trail repetitively across the consciousness in an infinite loop, like tickers scrolling headline text at the bottom of the television screen. I hate those days.

Today there are two word strings. They run on endlessly beneath images of our family’s new baby girl, her head no bigger than the palm of my hand. Her brothers, her father, her mother, our large extended family gather in the maternity suite drinking pink champagne while she sleeps, our baby girl, named after her great-grandmother. I worry about her future, and if the world will be a better place for women by the time she’s ready to find her feet in it, and fear that it will not.

These are the word strings that unwind themselves at the bottom of a screen only I can see, beneath our girl’s tiny tender head, beneath the vision of our family, busy making new memories.

One. It wouldn’t have happened if I’d been able to find a parking spot. 

When I first told J. he’d written this as an explanation, excuse, rationalisation, justification, she laughed in disbelief.

For myself, today, I have been wrestling with the notion that my fate that day hung on the availability of a parking spot. I’m having trouble getting my head around this much insult, on top of sexual assault.

I am so glad he wrote it. Because I doubt anyone would believe me if he’d only said it. But there it is.

Two. Said not by him but by his wife. I’m glad he came to you and not a prostitute. 

I don’t know if, when she said that to me, she knew what he had done. It doesn’t bear thinking about, really. The possibility that a woman might say to another woman, I’m glad he came to you and not a prostitute, if she knew what he had done.

To think such people exist in a world I thought I knew.


When I settle the four-year-old in his bed beside mine he says, Giddy, you have to keep me safe. I will keep you safe, I tell him, a vow made in a heartbeat. I’ll spill blood to keep him safe. Giddy, he says, you have to tickle my tummy and my back so I can go to sleep.

He’s full of instructions tonight. Later I will be woken from my uneasy sleep by him sitting upright in his bed, singing songs he’s learned at day care. He’s sound asleep. Gently, I lay him back on his pillow. Hello, he says. I go to the bathroom, sit on the toilet lid and laugh till I cry, and cry. And cry.

I’m glad he came to you and not a prostitute. The banner unwound itself across the screen as I lay beside the child, tickling his tummy. It wouldn’t have happened if I’d been able to find a parking spot. I can see why J laughed. It’s a line from Seinfeld. It’s Homer Simpson. It’s all the hatred and fear and contempt and disregard and loathing and resentment and grievance that some men feel for women, but never admit, even to themselves.

That’s all it hinged on for him. A place to park the car.

I’m glad he came to you and not a prostitute.


The two-and-a-half year old is nursing his new baby sister, assisted by their dad. The infant opens her mouth in a series of enormous yawns. Help me! cries her brother. Help me, she’s going to bite me! He pulls his arms from under her and we all scream but her father’s hands are there to catch her, to keep her safe.

He gives the baby to me. For a while the strings of words vanish and I know only the mysterious contentment of holding a brand new life in my arms. I came out of Mummy’s tummy first, the four-year-old breathes in my ear, as he hangs off my arm. So you are my Giddy. But I’ll share, he says and nods, sage-like.


There are the words. And there is what lies beneath them. People think it’s words that hurt, but it’s what lies beneath them that hurts the worst. It’s the thoughts beneath them, unspoken. It’s the intentions beneath them, unacknowledged. Each word has behind it a force that we fully hear not with our ears, but with our hearts.

I understand the tickers won’t cease their infinite scrolling until I’ve stripped the words they contain of their significance. I don’t know how to proceed. I can only hope it will eventually become clear to me. Someday. Some time. While I’m busy. Keeping him safe. In a world I know.

Love: the struggle between the familiar and the unknowable


Quint Buccholz

A, my late husband, decided in his early seventies that he wanted to learn how to play the cello. In his sixties he’d decided to learn Hebrew, the language of his tribe. While he was at it, he took up the ukulele, and he started teaching Shakespeare’s comedies in classes run by the University of the Third Age.

All the years we were together and before them, A. took himself to a variety of therapists and psychiatrists in his pursuit of self-knowledge and what is popularly known as personal growth, a term he loathed. I did the same. Sometimes we went together, united in our curiosity about the mysteries of the self, our mutual desire to make sense of being here, our longing to deeply understand our family stories and the story of us, and to learn how we might assuage past griefs, and so free ourselves for present pleasures.

I never felt I would run out of discoveries about A. I loved his vision of other people: he unfailingly recognised their complexities, and that, wondrously, included mine. I was, he told me, the “richest” woman he’d ever known, and while to myself I seemed boringly ordinary, he never found me so.

I was used to being described as “difficult” “intense” “volatile” to which descriptions I would respond by donning a suit of chain mail and brandishing my lance. But when A. revealed me to myself as “rich” I lost my defensiveness, and my shame at apparently being outside the parameters of normal. This is what the sustained loving vision of another can assist into being: love and acceptance of the self.

We also fought, furiously. We shouted, and wept and threw things. I don’t know how it could have been any other way between us as our progression wasn’t always synchronised, and one would inevitably, if temporarily, leave the other behind. The left-behind-one felt anguished rejection, while the forging-ahead-one grew impatient and felt shackled. These roles never entirely belonged to either one of us: we shared them. It was his turn to feel left behind, or it was mine. This exchange took place quite without the conscious knowledge of either party: we were, on a level inaccessible to our everyday awareness, committed to fairness and equality of experience.

Both writers and academics with considerable expertise in the spoken and written word, both with a high degree of psychological savvy, our fights were fierce and wounding. We knew how and where to strike.

We also struggled, as every couple must, to find a balance between the familiar, and the ultimate unknowableness of another human being. The familiar can indeed breed contempt, the contempt of taking for granted, of being unable or unwilling to see the complexities of the other, of being afraid of any change in the other that threatens the comforting familiarity.  The fear of this loss can compel one to subdue the other’s struggle to  change and develop. It’s a terrible thing that humans can do: hold another back, because we fear what their advancement might do to the familiarity that is our security.

It’s possible, I think,  to be familiar with another and not know him or her very well at all, because familiarity is not the same as knowledge.

To settle for familiarity is lazy, and demeaning to both parties, is the conclusion I’ve reached. Love is dynamic, love is an action, a practice, love refuses familiarity and its seductive comforts. Love sings self and other into becoming and when I’m engaged in becoming, I never arrive at a final destination.

A. is gone now, though he always said he believed we become energy in the universe and in that sense, never die. But he is gone from me in his human form. I consult him, in my imagination, on all kinds of subjects, just as I did in our life together. He isn’t always helpful.

After his death, a mutual friend told me he had once confided in her that he’d had the best sexual experiences of his life with me: I was immensely embarrassed, and momentarily pissed off with him. He’d tell people anything, he really would.

I see now that was a most extraordinary thing for a man to say about his marriage, and his partner of thirty years, and that while our bodies and minds and hearts were inevitably familiar to one another, their fundamental unknowableness remained to the last.

Respect the unknowableness, is the only advice I’d give. Of everyone. Of everything. Then you will truly be alive.


A. talks about poetry shortly before his stroke.



TEN: Songs of innocence and experience


At the end of our first physical meeting, after almost two years of public conversations, he said, I’m worried you’ll think I’m an internet predator.

I laughed. Affable, intelligent, thoughtful, humorous, protective, affectionate,  encouraging and gently critical, none of these traits caused ripples in my reservoir of wariness. Of course, a predator isn’t going to get far if they present themselves in a manner that announces their intentions, but that is the kind of realisation one usually attains only after the fact.

We’ve been done a disservice with the cultural emphasis on stranger danger. It’s the ones under your nose you have to watch.

It’s our own fault. We don’t want to think about it. Far easier to believe the predator is an aberration.


At our first meeting, when his wife rings to ask if he’s ready to be picked up, he says, Yes, I think Jennifer has had enough of me now. I laugh. He’s endearingly self-deprecating. Reassuring me (and her?) there is no cause for concern in this encounter while unknown to both of us he is thinking (as he later confesses to me) shit, she is lovely I will never see her again, shit, shit, what can I do? How can I touch her?

Months later his wife shouts at me, I knew I should never have let him meet you on his own! I knew I should have gone with him!

I still don’t know what this outburst means. I still don’t know what knowledge she possesses that led her to this alarming conclusion. What had he done?

I laughed that day because his concern seemed so engagingly fanciful. I laughed because I was confident I’d know a predator when I saw one.


In the dream I was in an unknown street with a boy child of six or seven by my side. I turned from him for a moment to talk to a woman friend, and when I turned back, he was gone.

I searched the streets, my fear and desolation increasing with every dead-end. I’d lost him.  I would never find him. I would never know his fate. There was nothing left to do. He was gone.

The implacable nature of finality. That’s what I was up against.


When I was studying these things I learned that everything in a dream, animate and inanimate, is an aspect of the dreamer. To understand the dream or to attain some insight, it’s helpful to imagine oneself as the boy child, as the street, as the friend, and take note of the emotions that accompany each imagining.


There exists in most of us, to some degree, a certain innocence, a certain trustfulness, without which society could not function, without which we would be uncivilised, feral, murderous. In the child, that innocent trustfulness can be undiscriminating. Maturity teaches us the necessity to temper those qualities with judgement. Yet, for all kinds of reasons, in certain situations that judgement can desert us and we regress to childlike faith, blind trust, abandonment. And then we see the foolishness of it, and then we see that innocence is no longer a part of us and then we see that trustingness has no place in an adult world and suddenly the child is gone, lost to us, we will never find him, we will never know his fate, we are facing the implacable nature of finality.

Innocence trumped by experience. Paradise lost. The getting of wisdom.


I am saying to the doctor I visit each week, this is what he took from me. This is what my dream is about. That trustingness. That innocence. I told my lover once, I say to the doctor, I told him I will never trust anyone after this and my lover replied, you are strong. You have survived so much more than I ever could. You will be all right.

Do not, I snarled at my lover in a voice I did not recognise, do not dare to use my strength against me. Do not dare to use my life’s story as a comfort for yourself, to make what you have done to me less because you think I have withstood more. How dare you.

Who says such things, I ask the doctor. If I see someone who has suffered do I think, no matter what I do it can’t be worse than what has already happened so I can be sure that whatever I do, she will survive? Who thinks in such ways, I demand, and the doctor has no answer.


I sang the six-year-old back home. I sang and sang until he peeped out at me from around a corner and I said, come back, I will take care of you, I will never let such things happen to you again, come back because without you I am fractured and without me, who knows what strife you will encounter, ill-equipped as you are to recognise the true from the false, indiscriminately as you love.

Innocence nestles with experience. Paradise is regained, enriched. The lessons are learned. The woman ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge and when she had recovered from its poison she cried out in her new and full-found voice :

Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.

I leapt
to freedom. †

† Ansel Elkins Autobiography of Eve

NINE: Power

Leonora Carrington Crow Catcher

Power is not a thing but a relation

Power is not simply repressive but it is productive

Power is not simply a property of the State.

Power is not something that is exclusively localized in government and the State (which is not a universal essence). Rather, power is exercised throughout the social body.

Power operates at the most micro levels of social relations.

Power is omnipresent at every level of the social body.

The exercise of power is strategic and war-like

Michel Foucault.

Prior to the day of it, an agreement had been reached. There would be lunch and talk in a public place, that was what I insisted because I did not want to continue the intimacy on his terms, which was my right. I had, up to that point, accommodated his wishes. Now I was done with that.

It was, for me, the end of the affair, and it was my intention to gently tell him this over lunch in the public place, without rancour as my feelings for him remained strong, though I knew I didn’t want to maintain our situation.

There is that point one can arrive at, when it becomes undeniably clear that something is finished as it is, and must either change its form, or end. I had reached that point. All that remained was for me to speak it, and for us to say goodbye.

He would have sensed this, the counsellor said. Your insistence that the meeting take place in public. The first time you’d exerted that kind of control, up till then he’d set the conditions. You took the control away from him and he must have known it was the end.

Sexual assault is about power. He’d lost control of you. He had to get it back.

No one has set the conditions for my life since I was fifteen.

I think about this. I think about the many and varied ways in which power can be exerted, some difficult to detect. Ignoring a woman’s expressed wishes. Pretending helplessness in the face of her “irresistibility.” Driving her without permission to an unknown destination. Telling her you know you both want it, even though she has spent at least a month telling you she doesn’t.

Altering the terms of engagement without consultation and negotiation, as one would never do with someone considered an equal.

The projection of desire. She must want it just as much. He knows better than she does what she wants, and how, and where, and when.

Later, he said, scoffing, You weren’t really going to leave. You know you weren’t.

You are wrong, I told him. You don’t know how wrong.

I’m not, as an adult woman, used to my decisions being the subject of mockery, used as an expression of triumph over me. I’m not used to telling a man, I do not want to do that, and being ignored.  It took me completely by surprise, that particular type of disempowerment, that specific variation of male entitlement, that denial of my humanity, and my right to be heard when I said I do not want.

It has nothing at all to do with love. That much I do know.

No man will do those things to me, and walk away without accounting for himself, keeping them hidden. That’s my power. I won’t keep his secrets.

And when he’s named, I will not care.

I wonder sometimes, what of his wife, his adult daughters, what will they make of this?

It’s possible to spend a lifetime with another, and never really know him.

I think, you don’t know anyone until you’ve seen them at their worst, their dark side, the desires they conceal, sometimes even from themselves. There’s no deep intimacy without knowledge of the dark side. There’s no real choice either.

All I can think of with regard to his family, is that I’m eternally glad I am not one of them. Predators don’t only groom their victims, the counsellor told me. They groom everyone around them to see them in a particular way. This is their cover and if they’re caught, everyone exclaims, I can’t believe that of him, he seemed so honourable, so kind, so community-minded, so unlikely to behave in those ways!

Of course she’s right. I hadn’t thought of that.

And yet…I knew I should never have let him meet you without me, shouted his wife.

Why? What did she know about him that made her think that, then shout it at me as if her lack of vigilance was somehow my responsibility? As if I should have known what she knew? As if it is an ordinary thing, that grown men may not meet women without the supervision of their wives?

This was not a custom with which I was familiar. Or one I would have chosen in my married life.

My anger remains white-hot. My eyes will burn holes in both their hearts.

Power is not a thing, but a relation




Leonora Carrington

Since it happened, I’ve been encased in armour. I could detonate any bomb. I could walk through fire. I could leap from forty stories and not break as much as a bone in my little finger. I feel nothing. I feel no one. Try me.

I said, I don’t believe I will trust anyone again. He said, Oh, I’ve destroyed your trust in everyone, have I? I knew from his tone he knew well what he had done but more, he resented that I had been there for him to do it.

It was not meant to happen, he later wrote, as if it was an abstract in the control of some other agency in the face of which he was entirely helpless. It was not meant by whom to happen? Who did not mean it to happen? What it, which who?  

Another thing that troubles. He knew my childhood. Asked questions.

After it I wrote, Did you sense something does my past reveal itself, unknown to me, as a point of vulnerability? It can’t be a coincidence that you knew my childhood, and then it that was not meant by whom just happened.

They don’t usually take ownership of what they’ve done, said the counsellor. They usually do everything but acknowledge it. 

You will trust again, she said, but you will likely be more wary.

You are angry, she said, I’m glad you’re angry.

She rings the detective. J is ready to make a statement, she tells him. It will be beneficial for her. She wants me there.

They organise a mutually convenient date. I nod my agreement.

I am angry. I am white-hot angry. This bullshit. This it wasn’t meant to happen bullshit. How does a man accidentally violate a woman? Let’s see how the smartest man in any room explains that, shall we?