When I turned 13 it seemed that, for my mother, Kay, and my father, Karl, I had become simply “another woman” in the house. He joked and flirted, annoying Kay, and behaved as if we were not a family but a group of individuals: one man, three women including my sister (flatterers, rivals for his attention) and a son whom he tended to overlook. Oliver either refused to participate, or wasn’t invited to the fanclub.
All the language and behaviour changed; they stopped behaving like parents. He liked the idea I could write, and she, already stung, hurt and excluded by the disloyalty of his infidelities, grew so hostile towards me that daily life turned toxic.
Perhaps his ego had got tangled up in his regard for me; he was asserting it, putting Kay in the role of “boring wife”. I was competent at school, set to get more educated than Kay. I was very bookish. It was said I had inherited his literary genes.
Aged 13, I was still a child, needing reassurance and security, but I was stuck in an atmosphere of intense adult warfare involving subtleties I didn’t understand, and, along with that, blame from both of them for the stress (the “chaos”) it created.
I can see how this happened, how a man all fresh and bristling from his latest affair, flexing his frustrated machismo (because here he is, trapped at home) could create an atmosphere where his wife was “the handbrake” and his daughter the one who, for example, “made him laugh”. I can also see Kay couldn’t manage the situation. She put him first and always would. And equally, in the end, he wouldn’t put any of his children first. They would come second to the image, his and hers, the front and face.
Yet it was all undercover, overlaid with the rules of order that wouldn’t admit, even in the face of glaring evidence, that we ever as a family went in for too many or too much. We were tidily chaotic, respectably anarchic, stably unstable.
At some stage when I was a child I made up a story for Kay. I invented an imaginary boyfriend for her. He was smooth and very hot, and his name was Shibboleth. She and I didn’t play games in the way Karl and I did, but Shibboleth was a running comic story. I felt for her. She always confided in me in detail about Karl’s affairs and her rage over them, because I was willing to listen and sympathise.
The Shibboleth story was a tacit expression of solidarity, an acknowledgment she needed more.
In the Eighties, second-wave feminism and “political correctness” billowed up around us. Kay and Karl regarded radical feminists at the university as repressive and doctrinaire. “The wimmin”, Kay called them ironically. “The feminists.” There were some unpleasant aspects and bad incidents, including the violent feminist attack on the playwright Mervyn Thompson, but in general a dose of feminism would have been good for our family, even if it was nothing more radical than Kay getting a university degree. She characterised her resistance to feminism, and later the Me Too movement, as “rebellion” (meaning she was resisting the current intellectual fashion), but I wonder whether she would have been less resistant if she’d gone to university.
Karl didn’t tolerate opposition well, so she had to operate obliquely. If she’d been able to confront him it would have been good for him, and we would have been better off. Instead he ruled, and the only person who directly challenged him was me.
At Tohunga Crescent, the insult Kay hurled at me most often was “You’re just like him.” Like Karl, she meant. I can’t specifically remember the insults I threw at her, but I know they would have been terrible. I do remember loudly wishing she’d die, and having no understanding that those words in themselves were violent.
Like him, I could tell a story. Like him, I could argue a point. But my ability to remain articulate under fire was described as harsh, tough and abnormal. It was also, in contradictory fashion, called raving and madness. To be told by your parents, with their all-powerful authority, that you are not wrong or unreasonable but “mad” (i.e. insane) is deeply shaming.
I didn’t tend to give in, but years of arguing with Karl and Kay took its toll. I ended up with a low level of confidence, so low that during a conversation I’d sometimes find myself checking data I should have taken for granted. I was talking to X, whom I didn’t know well. Could I be sure it was X? My ability to distinguish faces was shaky.
In that gap caused by lack of confidence I’d lose the thread, and grow more unsure. Sometimes I’d spend so much energy pretending to be listening that I lost focus on what was being said. A partner at the law firm where I eventually found my first job told me, with a lilt of mockery, that I was the only law clerk who apologised when I hovered at the door of his office. I winced with shame as he imitated my deferential tiptoe and trembling hands, my musical excuse mes. It was a law firm; brashness and assertiveness were prized, and here I was, creeping around like a doormat who’d grown up in …
What had I grown up in? All those times I’d told the media: lovely childhood, a house full of books. Karl and I had got on brilliantly: we had the jokes, the shared literary sensibility, the conversations about literature …
Until my year of questioning, of lapse, I thought my upbringing had been mundane, my parents not unusual, it was just that there were a few things wrong with me. It took me a long time to free my mind, and, when I did, I found I was alone. The whole family – parents, sister, a cousin, various friends of my parents – reproached me for wondering, for writing, for cautiously trying to answer the question asked of one sibling by another in my novel Mazarine:
Once I asked him experimentally, “Do you ever wonder why we’re so fucked up?” I’d had a few glasses of wine, and got carried away with the idea that he and I could help each other. His reply was eerie. “But we’re not fucked up at all, Frankie,” he said. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Karl was charming, intellectually fearless and witty. He could be warm and funny, and he could be as volatile and unrestrained as his stereotype of the female hysteric. If opposed in an argument he went all-in, he wanted verbally to dominate and overpower. He was a force of Nature. Opposing him was a lesson in total war. He had a radar for detecting weakness. Wavering, I learned, would produce a sudden focusing, a moving in, a patronising tone; were you going to cave, give in, apologise? Standing up to him required a very solid wall.
The prevailing family narrative, enforced by him and by Kay’s reverence, excused his anger, honoured it as part of his forceful male brilliance, and so we dealt with it, year after year, and had to participate in defending and admiring it.
This is an edited extract from The Mirror Book by Charlotte Grimshaw (Penguin Random House, $NZ38)