Sunday, 30 March 2008

The First Stone, Helen Garner's 1995 look at a sexual harrassment case that took place following events at an elite Melbourne university college (Ormond), is, says Fiona Giles, "a map of ambivalence". However, its reception is best described as 'polarising' (and this happened along pretty predictable social lines).

Giles, who teaches journalism, also points out that the reception of the case, in the public sphere, was early predictable, especially to "the two young women".

Garner's book was "too complex" for journalism. This is astute, and Garner repeatedly signals her awareness of this (in terms of a failure of journalism, and especially the courts) in the book.

Garner's book is most interesting as a map of ambivalence, however inappropriate that might have been as a response to the two student's painful circumstances. Unfortunately, her ambivalence shifted into a simpler oppositional mode under the weight of its reception, and debate rapidly polarised. Her written response was too complex to survive translation into journalism, a danger that the two young women seem to have realised long before Garner when they chose not to speak out. The First Stone is an abjectly personal and painfully honest confessional narrative.

Possibly the details of the events described in the book are too well known to require adumbration here. It is the two words I've put in bold type (above) that interest me most.

The Ormond master (named by Giles, but referred to by Garner as Colin Shepherd) could not find work because of the press exposure. He was too tainted. In this light, the girls' unwillingness to come forward and talk with Garner, is easily understandable. At the start of their careers, things said in such a book could easily be 'misconstrued'.

Especially where the issue is so highly polarised. How could you know how a prospective employer, for example, would take the meaning of a comment casually made? As in the case of Garner's later book, Joe Cinque's Consolation, the main players refused to speak.

This is part of the nature of the public sphere. In the book, Garner often talks about a 'war' (rather than, for example, a 'public debate').

A Green Left article on the book (which is still online after ten years) criticises Garner for criticising the two young women for going to the police (in preference to a less forthright, internal step), saying they were just availing themselves of laws made for such purposes.

But Garner has a point. Up to a point. The 'fundamentalist' label she uses is to be expected, if we agree (as one reviewer states) that women are still "an oppressed people". It is necessary to ask 'what is the alternative?' when blaming committed feminists for their sharp views.

On the other hand, recent changes in fashion and the relentless 'democratisation' of culture demonstrate a greater ease, among young women, with responsibilities vis a vis their rights as equal citizens as well as sexual animals. In Garner's subtitle ('some questions about sex and power') lie avenues that recent adults could profitably explore.

In fact, Joe Cinque's Consolation can be held up as a sequel to The First Stone. (The weekend Spectrum includes an interview with Garner, on the occasion of the publication of a new book, The Spare Room - quite a different cause.)

While feminism continues to be an issue in the media, other ones (climate change, national security) are more prominent. Racism, too, could be addressed as an 'issue', in light of the Camden protests against the building of a Muslim school.

Garner may also be planning another book soon. Susan Wyndham notes that "Garner interrupted work on another nonfiction book about a murder case".

This may be the Diane Brimble case. If it is, then her main thread (how do women and men live together?) will continue into a third book.


Anonymous said...

It's almost certainly the Farquharson case.

Peter Hayes

Anonymous said...

Actually, the two women did seek internal means of resolution for six months before the court case, a fact of which Garner would have been well aware.

Lonur said...

i'm reading the book now; your review's been helpful to shed a little light on the background of the publication. cheers!

Matt da Silva said...

Lonur - you're welcome. Glad it was interesting.