All my life I have been me. I didn’t realise it at first. Presumably, as we say of infants, I was an extension of the everything, was my mother, I was the flitting shadows of the leaves that made up the sky overhead. I was as wide as the ends of the world, as far as I could hear and see: I extended that far, from my drowsy solid wakeful little base in this body, a foot-long version of this body. I was the basis of everything that is. I was its essence.
Now, they say, presumably, still I am all that; only I might need LSD or enlightenment, meditation to tell me.
Childhood grew out of infancy. Adolescence sprouted – helped along, in my case, by the pills my mother gave me through a doctor on Wickham Terrace. The steep, repressive residency of illness in Brisbane was lined with psychiatrists. Specialists there had known my grandmother, a widow since birth. They would cock their heads and say wistfully, “You must be Audrey Jorss’s granddaughter.” We had just landed from Jakarta and were reeling in the grassy dry suburbs.
When people say a hothouse flower they mean protected. Spoilt, and preserved from spoiling, because beauty makes girls more deserving. A hothouse shields flowers from wind, and the rain, but affords all of the sun: through glass. I was hothoused in the sense of force-ripened, and pushed into bloom. Artificial puberty was supposed to mature the body so I would at last stop from growing. They don’t talk about that theory anymore. And though it made no sense I felt for years afterwards because it had been sudden, that my figure was formed on the progesterone and oestrogen the doctor gave me in little white pills and which I swallowed every morning, only because it did not occur to me to flush them.
Bus drivers wouldn’t believe I wasn’t sixteen, but I was twelve. I was far too tall already, a fact strangers never tired of pointing out to me. Beauty sprang. I didn’t know about this. Every week my mother brought home news of some comment, to impress it on me. People remarked on my appearance not just to note but to interpret it, and to impose. The principal of the infants’ school, outside Sydney, when I was four, had told my mother: “That girl will be Prime Minister one day. Just look at that determined chin.” So many people asked Are you a model that after the year of rapes ended I had a badge printed: Yes. I’m a model. The pills hadn’t worked, I’d unwound to the same height predicted by the doctor who had measured my wrist bone by X-ray, at 12: I was, I am six foot two. I was trying to become harder, tougher. Obscurity was forever out of my reach, I was public property, and the shyness was savage.
Newly adolescent, I was beautiful in a way that had long made men lean over fences towards me, call after me yearningly, insult me in the street. To Indonesian men when I was ten, eleven, twelve, I looked adult, because of my height. And because I was white I looked American, and American girls were easy: I was getting explicit and frightening suggestions long before I’d begun to bleed. I used to feel like some property of theirs that was being passed from hand to hand, the chiefest hand my father’s, his was nearest and he liked to make fun of the budding breasts commissioned by his wife; and when the music stopped like pass-the-parcel I would be unwrapped, slowly I hoped and perhaps even lovingly, I would be discovered, I’d be naked, I would be safe.
It didn’t happen that way. Not in any way at all.
I can’t always say it. The R word. I say “there’s a word? that rhymes with… cassette tape?” I say, “attacked.” If I need to be sure to be absolutely clear I’ll say, “When I say attacked: I mean in my own body, by a man.” I wrote teenaged poems after this happened which featured sex as a kind of horror film. I was the white-bellied fish gasping on the spear, the vessel of sacred fluids with its cork yanked out who now slowly bled out her essence all over the filthy seamed pavement. Trying to accustom myself, I described the rapist as “my lover”. He was my first lover, though he never loved me.
I’ve had other women hide behind me when a neighbouring junkie approached us with a knife. I’ve had men hide behind me, more than once. Many people imagine a tall, strong woman does not need protection, or comfort, or support. But I know the sword slides just as easy, and just as hard, between my ribs as any other woman’s here.
What happened was this. I spoke Indonesian and French. We lived on Java, where the suffusing sense of engagement with the beckoning world, the community of trees thrusting at our windows and the red volcanic soil were overpowering and intensely near. My natural spiritual landscape. I began to bloom, and to explore. I taught myself to play the gamelan instrument angklung and composed long, complex pieces which I would memorise and perform, roping in my brothers to play keys and drums. We made a film. I invented a language. At our international school we were allowed to go barefoot and lounge on cushions. “Write me a story,” the teacher said, when I finished the term’s work in Maths and in English in the first weeks of term, every term. “A book of stories.” I was floating in my own world, truly mine. I owned myself, I loved my days. Then we moved ‘back’ to Brisbane, a sprawling sub-tropical town where only my father had ever lived; we knew our cousins, our angry grandmother, and her terrifying companion, a woman impossible to please.
In our new life we went to a new school. A religious school, Lutheran, Germanic. It was like Catholicism, the terror, the guilt, but without any female influence. Rinsed clean of us: no Mary, no saints. They taught no Bahasa Indonesia and no French. I caught up on the German class. We learned the difference between Sie and du, and our teacher looked pitying when I asked, which you would you use for grandparents: the familiar? or the formal. In my final year at school our parents went travelling round Europe. They left us in the care of some woman who had had an affair with a friend of my dad’s. Having helped him to break up his home, she now had no place to stay. This qualified her to look after my parents’ three teenagers. We came home from school on our first afternoon. She had set out glasses of juice. From now on, no afternoon tea, she said: you must wait until dinner. We clashed. My brothers are growing boys, I said. Mummy always feeds us when we come home from school; the boys need to eat. She was so incensed by my colossal nerve and by the ensuing argument that she threw me out of the house. I spent a couple of weeks in boarding school. At the end of the year I won a scholarship to the Goethe Institut in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. On a train platform in Munich I felt faint and fell over, and crawled on my hands and knees endlessly to the cold locker room. I sat crouched on some concrete steps woozy and thinking: they’re going to assume I’m on drugs. I wasn’t sure what ‘on drugs’ meant, but mistrusted my pallor and sweaty, sudden weakness. A lady came up to me at length in her kindness and offered to fetch the Red Cross. I couldn’t stand, and a cheerful man in uniform wheeled me across the station. I’d become vegetarian in boarding school when a country student told me how animals were killed, after a class trip to the abattoir. “I think maybe I need some iron or protein,” I explained, earnestly. “We’ll fix you up with a good meal,” he said, “and then send you on your way,” before wrapping the blood pressure cuff round my arm and I pitched forward and blacked out into roaring space. His colleague rushed in from outside. She was as white as that wall! “Sie war blass, wie die Wand!” They took me to hospital in an ambulance. I lived in intensive care five weeks and was given sixteen bags of good Germans’ blood. Had the Red Cross nurses sent me on my way, the doctors told me, I’d have finished my bleeding to death within a couple more hours.
I was released into the care of a family in Mainz my parents tracked down through the school. They’d been teachers there. Within a week I had started bleeding again, internally. No one ever established why, and for a long time I feared a recurrence. Another round of intensive care, and learning medical German, and swelling very slowly on bags of others’ blood, like a tick.
Should I begin to bleed again, the eight hour legs of a flight home to Brisbane were too long, I could die on the flight. The airports with decent hospitals – said the German doctors – in those days were too far apart. My father came over to take charge of me, like an artwork. He signed a waiver for the airline. We got back to Brisbane out of snowy January into the blaring humidity of high summer. University was about to start. My friends had scattered. I was sixteen. On our first day we filed into the great hall that’s now a gallery and sat in rigid alphabetical. I imagine it’s now a gallery because students are kept up to date by text message, there’s no student body at all. In my student body I sat in the J row, right behind the Fs. Behind this boy. This man. His eyes hidden behind a fringe. He was my age but seemed like a king. His mask for the terrors of late adolescence was so much darker than mine.
I fell in love and we dated. I had the hope, the fantasy, that one day he might kiss me. No one ever had. I was a year or two younger than other students and the clique I fell in with, this boy’s friends, liked to tell smutty jokes whose punchline was: she doesn’t get it. The pressure chamber of Lutheran school, where we had to be a metre from the nearest boy, exploded into terrorising open slather in the courtyard. There was the boy, his hair hiding his face. Like my mother, he was fascinatingly hard to please. And I loved him. I kept telling myself so. He was so much cooler than I would ever be. One afternoon when my mother wasn’t home I invited him, like a twelve year old girl, to come study at our place. We sat on my bed side by side. I fetched juice. I had lured him there, wanting him to kiss me. He did. Then he pushed me over. Such weight, such pain.
I have lived all my life in this body, my only home. I learn from babyhood: this is me. Other people, no matter how horrible or cruel, are outside me – I can move away from them, I can leave. That’s them. I learn to define myself, choosing what I want to be close to and what I need to avoid. Now someone I have chosen has invaded me. They’re here in my borders, inside. To pass out from the pain is like nothing compared with the psychic rage and flailing that is left to me when the world looks so different. A rape, let alone very many rapes, brings the cruelty and injustice of the world into my body, where I live.
Rape entangles the self and the other. I said, You’re hurting me. Enmeshed with the enemy, you become one creature. You’re sharing my body. You are not you. Not sovereign. You are one beast with the beast. Pronouns blur and boundaries slide. You’re interlocked. This hurts, and it’s happening from within, like an eerie prank call from inside your own house.
The first assault was thirty years ago this month. Why was I so filled with tears and why was I not sleeping. I only slowly recognised the month, the year. An anniversary. I am older than I ever imagined I’d be: I always thought I’d die young, and I have. Part of me has stayed trapped in the unraped state which was my dreaming, sovereign and benign in my body and in my own mind, the soul of the stars that looked down on me, arranging all my days to be filled with what I needed: to work hard and study; to write; and keep writing; to knuckle down learning to make music, make art, swimming endless laps up and down the pool that my brothers and I had started to dig, in our ambitious impatience, as soon as the spot had been marked out.
Once I realised, so slowly, that three decades had passed and I was still grieving my lost self, my freedom, I decided to talk to an analyst. Did you have some part in what happened, he said. I felt my heart narrow and close. If only the vaginal canal could squeeze like that, had those trapdoors. Defensively I began to theorise, or perhaps to lecture. People tell us it’s our fault, because we’re female, I said, or wore this, or went there or drank that. He said, blandly, it’s not fair to blame women for whatever they were wearing. His response felt to me vague, and far too allowing. I felt myself filling up with fury: with might. In a steely rage I spoke out, between my teeth, I spoke with great certainty and an incorruptible distaste: I felt my deep deep power, I felt myself rising up. Only later did I realise the delicacy and the skill in this release. Nuns get raped, I said, tiny babies get raped. Women get raped in uniforms, in hospital gowns. My voice broke with furious pride. There is no outfit you can choose, I told him, that is rape-proofing. If there was, we would all be wearing it, every single fucking day, and that’s how you would know. As though reflecting on something I’d taught him, he said: yes… it is very unfair to blame women. For being attacked. And I started to wonder for the first time: how can I stop being so unjust to myself.
In German my heart travels in a basket, breast basket they call it: der Brustkorb. In English it is carried not like lilies before a bicycle but like some wild animal trapped who now cannot escape, nor be reached. The rib cage. Peeled away from Adam’s white bone.
If you’ve never experienced rape it is impossible to imagine the rupture. I’ve never heard a person who’s lived through rape use the word metaphorically. It is literal. We do not rape landscapes, forests, communities, the ocean. It’s an ugly word for a vicious and profound theft. Theft of self. A colonising, on the point of the gun that’s a knife.
You’re not being hit, but stabbed. This is an assault from within. Have you checked the children yet? You’re connected, psychically, physically, to your attacker in an overwhelming helplessness that alone defines the piercing hot word overwhelm, the word overpower. This with someone who has claimed to love me and care about me, or at least to long for me and want me – they are now of me, they’re inside my borders, they’re inside my skin. The boyfriend who is now a violent stranger is now my lover. I fight to fight him off. He is stronger. That makes me weak. However I plead and rage, my words are nothing. My strength is nothing. I am overcome, frightened, weakened, dismayed. My ferocity is drowned by shock. I cannot catch what’s happening. It happens so fast, happens so many times. Every thrust is a fresh rape. Wait, I haven’t caught up, stop, wait. He is stronger than me and does not doubt himself. He has occupied another whole person, king of the world, shitting in their nest. He is willing to vanquish them – vanquish me – for a fleeting pleasure when I will pay the cost of this occupancy all my life. I pay for his orgasm with my life and carry its echoes in my red walls. Pay with my freedom and sleep. Decades later I jump out of a deep sleep suddenly and slam into the wall, a stone wall in a stone house in another state, in the south, and carry the stain on my bruised nose for weeks as though some man has walloped me. This boy is at this moment at his cruelest and he is in my citadel with me, he’s tunnelled in under my walls. And I did this with him, this to myself, like my brother who used to take my other brother’s hand and punch him in the head with it, saying Stop hitting yourself. When I look out from myself from now on it seems the whole world has changed. I am filling up with someone else’s blood, a stranger’s capital. Crouched on the steps I am in danger today of bleeding to death from within. I’m a long way from home and I’m white as the wall. Strap me down.