REALITY TV: A phenomenon whose lure I had resisted until late last year when, in my search for shows to write about for the TV guide, I came across Wife Swap USA. In fact, I was already curious about it – a show dumped in the summer non-ratings period because of its limited and unglamorous appeal. Reviewers called the participants ‘idiots'. They all used that word, their tone so ferocious and exasperated that I imagined they had wanted to smash the television. Despite the reaction, the premise ofWife Swap USA intrigued me. The producers take two families with opposing views on all things, swap the wives, and pass on to viewers edited highlights of the ensuing chaos. The first episode I watched was fun, but it was the second that really got to me. When asked about her reason for going on the show, one of the wives said, ‘I want my family to know there are people out there worse than me'. I was hooked.
The families live under new management for two weeks. In the first week, each wife has to do things the way her counterpart does them. She has provided the other with an operating manual which includes information on how the household is run, but also the wife's philosophy – for example, ‘I believe a wife serves her husband; he is the head of the household; his opinions are her opinions'. In the second week, the wife gets to impose her own idea of domestic congeniality.
During the first episode, I kept wondering what spoke to me about it. I felt a tug I rarely feel with TV. Most television presents a world that doesn't speak to my imagination. Soap operas, reality shows like Australian Idol and Big Brother, and the liposuctioned prime-time sitcoms that come out of the United States don't engage me. They appeal to a part of the collective psyche I seem to have been born without. This is a handicap for someone who earns part of her living writing about TV. So I was curious to understand why this show, of all shows, with its grating voiceover and its working-class vulgarity, should attract me. The next episode I watched not only hooked me in, it answered all my questions. One of the wives was a domestic monster. I recognised this woman the way I recognise faces in my photo albums; she conjured up memories. Some of the situations were so familiar, all I could do was laugh. I wished my brothers were there to watch it with me. But I had abandoned my family twenty years earlier. I enjoy my freedom too much to give any serious thought to going back.
The mother who wanted her family to know she wasn't that bad didn't do housework and didn't spend much time with her two children. On the surface, this seemed fair enough; she was the breadwinner; her unemployed husband ran the home. She went to work at a call centre in the afternoon and, after knocking off, she visited a casino where she proceeded to plug the poker machines until 5am, then returned home to sleep off the night's activity. Her husband hadn't seen the marital bed in three years.
In some ways, this woman was unlike my mother; she didn't impose rules on her children (aged nine and four) or structure their day; she let them do whatever they liked as long as they didn't bother her. Often they didn't go to bed until midnight. My mother had a rule for everything. My life was hedged about by all the things I was not allowed to do: I was not allowed to have friends; I had to come straight home after school and not get sidetracked at the shops; I was not allowed to play outside unless she specifically said I could; I was not to talk to my father or play with my brothers; I was not to wear the clothes I liked, I must wear only the clothes she had approved for me. And yet these two women – one dictatorial, the other anti-authoritarian – struck me as similar. They were both women who did not engage with their families in any but the most circumscribed ways. The Wife Swap mother's hours in the casino reminded me of my mother's long weekends in bed curled up with a stack of Mills and Boon romances.
The Wife Swap mother had switched households with a woman who was as strict and traditional as the first wife was lax. The traditional wife cleaned her house with the zeal of caustic soda, waited on her husband hand and foot, and rang her sons, aged nineteen and fifteen, several times a day to see where they were and to remind them of their curfew.
As I write, I note that it was the lax, withdrawn wife who reminded me of my own mother, not the one who imposed rules. The reason comes to me in an image of the lax wife trying to put her son to bed when he doesn't want to go. She tries and tries – probably for the sake of the camera. The look on her face reminds me of the look on my own mother's face when I acted up. Her rules were real, they were rigid; she had a violent, unpredictable temper that threatened to flare when she was opposed. Yet there were moments when my own rebellion overwhelmed her. If instead of saying, ‘No!' I evaded her rules by pretending to misunderstand them, she retreated in confusion. At these times, she was a helpless child, not a parent. The rule-setting wife on the show was a parent par excellence, the mother to end all mothers, a woman whose reason for being was to nurture and instruct – the very antithesis of my own mother.
It seems obvious that in order to gain the most conflict out of the wife swap, the show's producers find pairs of opposites. In one episode, a vegan animal rights activist who imposed raw food on her family and banished the stove from the house, along with the furniture (even the beds and chairs), was swapped with a carnivore mum whose husband went hunting in the nearby forest several times a week and, on returning, presented the furry corpses to his wife for skinning, gutting, butchering and cooking. Week after week, it worked. I enjoyed seeing these women dismantled by the conditions of the swap, their cherished beliefs challenged, their habits overturned, their domination of their families exposed in all its many varieties.
At the same time, I kept thinking, my mother would never have accepted this kind of reproach. I was surprised a show like this had been made, one built around censure of bad mothers. I wondered how it was possible. These days, despite the high public profile given to child abuse in families, there is still an idea that mothers are loving and nurturing, that they are above certain kinds of bad acts. The stereotypical child sex abuser, for example, is still a man; children are warned to beware of male strangers; one unwary therapist, when learning that I had been sexually abused by a family member, assumed the culprit had been my father. In the 1970s and '80s when I was in my teens and early stages of womanhood, it was difficult to tell people how oppressive my mother was. They talked over me, or ignored what I had said, or told me flatly that I was lying. One of my mother's sisters said I was wrong to criticise: ‘Your mother's a very good mother.' For me, seeing a therapist every week was a relief from the pressure to keep quiet and pretend everything was all right. I still meet people who are perturbed by my satirical way of speaking of ‘Mother'. I don't have to mention abuse; I just have to talk disrespectfully. Mother was a woman with many lamentable failings, not someone who deserved esteem and kindly indulgence.
WIFE SWAP USA can get away with criticising mothers because the show's producers position the participating women as stepmothers in temporary families. Stepmothers and mothers-in-law, as feminism has long known, are the faces of motherhood which we are allowed to fear and insult while keeping the biological ‘Mother' free of criticism. Fairytales are filled with birth mothers who die, to be replaced by wicked stepmothers. Mother-in-law jokes abound. I attended a St John's Ambulance course where the tutor made just this kind of joke. He didn't seem to notice that a quarter of the class was made up of women with married children. Once I understood the way Wife Swap USA positioned women as stepmothers in order to make criticism acceptable, the show revealed even more subtle complexity beneath its brash exterior.
At the end of each episode, the two wives and their husbands meet to discuss the fortnight they have endured and to reveal what, if anything, they have learned. This is the camera as therapist. The camera has been watching their every move. The proximity of the scrutinising lens must inhibit them somewhat, the way any camera does. At the same time, it would have directed some of their behaviours, reminding them of the producers' instructions to foster disputes and not to hold back. All the same, it was surprising to me what kinds of reactions, conflicts and attempted resolutions got through. In the episode in question, one family was white and racist, the other black and ambitious. It was the second family that was run on strict rules. The black wife was genuinely upset by her temporary white husband's contempt for anyone who was not white. She could barely contain her agitation. One could almost see her internal efforts to work through her anger and use her intelligence to persuade him to see his racist remarks from her point of view. And yet, I couldn't help but wonder how much the strained moderation in her response had been dictated by the presence of a camera.
Occasionally, deep-seated resentments got out of hand. In the final segment, when the couples described what they had learned, the white, withdrawn mother told her authoritarian counterpart she was fat. The authoritarian mother leapt across the table intent on pulling hair and scratching eyes. It was the kind of moment I feel guilty about enjoying – the single most entertaining instant in a show full of pleasing aperçusinto the lives of extreme people. I love a good sticky-beak. At the same time, it smacked of the Colosseum. The camera is not only the therapist, there to ensure the participants make an effort to work through their conflicts; it is also the occasion for those very conflicts. It is sanctimonious on the one hand and provocative on the other, inciting women to throw punches for the good of the ratings.
WIFE SWAP USA and the situations it sets up and attempts to resolve are so facile it would be easy to forget that extreme people, as these women always are, impose extreme lives on their families. As I watched each week, I kept looking for signs of stress and unhappiness in the children. These were few and moderate. The authoritarian mother's sons hooted with joy when their new mother-for-a-fortnight said curfew was over; they were young men and could decide for themselves when they came home. The nine-year-old daughter of the lax, withdrawn wife said she wished her mother would spend more time doing things with her. The authoritarian mother talked to the child, taught her the domestic arts and listened to her accounts of difficulties at school. I asked myself whether there were few signs of stress because, despite appearances, these women were not abusive mothers, even if they were not the best mothers in the world – or perhaps the editor had cut anything that was too uncomfortable to screen, anything that resisted the camera's therapeutic gaze, any problems that could not be modified in the course of a forty-five-minute show plus ads. Watching the authoritarian mother with the lonely daughter of her counterpart, I realised how much thought and planning had gone into the selection of these women. They were opposites. They offered their temporary families a healthy alternative to the old regime. I wondered what it must have been like for that little girl when her birth mother returned.
In the final segment of the show, when the two couples discuss what they have learned, the husbands are usually more ready to admit that they got something out of the experience. There's no surprise in that; they are not under the same degree of scrutiny as the women, which often allows them some leeway to compromise. Perhaps the presence of the camera urges them to appear to be dispassionate and reasonable. The wives remain the focus of viewer attention. It is more interesting to know what they will say. The lax, withdrawn mother said she had learned the need to get more involved with her family.
A month later, as planned, the camera crew returns to see whether the wives have put their lessons into practice. The lax wife's husband is smiling from ear to ear; after three years in the wilderness, he is back in the conjugal bed. The contrast illustrated how sombre and depressed the household had been in the earlier segments because of the wife's cold, withdrawn behaviour. Do people change that easily? What would the camera reveal if it were switched on in secret six moths later? I wonder this about all makeover shows. Wife Swap USA offers to change lives by altering the external conditions of a life – in this case, the wife's method of controlling her husband and family. And because all makeover shows are essentially superficial, I wonder what kind of harm they do along the way. It seems unkind to show the lonely daughter what a loving, attentive mother can be like and then take her away.
I AM A WRITER of fiction. It is my nature to imagine alternative scenarios. So it is natural for me to imagine a camera crew coming to my family during my childhood in Wellington, New Zealand. It would never have happened, of course, even if there had been reality TV in the 1970s. For one thing, my mother clung to routine – her security blanket. She wouldn't have agreed to swap houses and live according to another mother's rules and customs, not for one hour, much less one week. She also didn't trust anyone not related to her by blood. Her relatives, sadly enough, put up with her, keeping her on the margins of family get-togethers, falling silent when she spoke and resuming their conversations as if she had not said a word. If my brothers brought their friends over (my father preferred to see his friends at the pub), she spent the visit in her room or doing something that kept her away from them. She wasn't actively hostile to visitors; she was withdrawn.
Still, I want to imagine a camera crew entering my family home and roaming the rooms; I want to see what the footage would reveal. Since I am breaking Mother's rules, I have given the crew instructions to be discreet. Let's make it a Saturday in the summer of my sixteenth year. All these incidents happened. I have condensed them into one day to shape a connected narrative; I have also added some details to accommodate the visiting lens.
My father gets out of bed first. On weekdays, he usually gets up at two or three o'clock in the morning to drive to the butcher's shop where he makes sausages, cures hams and serves behind the counter. Staying in bed until seven is a luxury. He walks on silent, slippered feet through the house, smoking his first cigarette for the day. A cigarette is rarely out of his mouth; an ashtray sits on the window ledge in the bathroom. He carries a cup of tea upstairs to my mother just before he leaves the house to run errands and visit friends.
Over the next two hours, the rest of the household gets up, all except Mother who remains in bed reading a Mills and Boon. Breakfast dishes pile up in the sink. Mother shouts at me to wash them; she knows they are there even if she can't see them. I am in my own bedroom, reading Jane Eyre, one of my favourite novels, while eating a plate of toast with apricot jam.
Like my father, my brothers spend as much time away from the house as they can. I am alone with Mother. After breakfast, I wander into her room even though I don't like being there: the smell of her unwashed flesh, hair and stale makeup gives me a headache. At the same time, I am anxious if I don't see her, checking to make sure she is where I think she is forms part of my daily routine. I turn to the camera: ‘I wish I could act like other girls. I want to wear nice clothes and have a weekend job like other girls. But Mummy says I can't. She doesn't let me do anything.' I don't mention that, much as I want to do as other girls do, the thought of being away from Mother for a day often makes me feel sick. I am ashamed of my dependence.
Mother is a mountainous shape in the bed. Her head rests against the pillows, her brown eyes skimming back and forth across the page, a half-smile on her face as if she is reading a light comedy. However, this is her usual expression no matter what she is doing; it doesn't mean anything. Her fat breasts have sagged against her arms under the flowered cloth of her sleeveless nightie. Her obesity fascinates me. Everything is fat, just everything. I push back the covers to peer at her feet. Even her toes are plump. They smell of dirty nylon stockings. She has almost no arches, as if her heavy weight has flattened her feet. Mother ignores what I am doing; she seems to be absorbed in her book. I wonder how absorbed she really is. To check, I run my finger up the hairs growing from her shin. Scowling briefly, she grunts and shakes her leg to make me stop. Mother hates being touched, yet I find it hard to resist riling her sometimes. Her face settles back into its habitual half-smile.
On the cover of the romance she is reading, a man and woman are locked in a hot embrace of passion and hostility. I know the book is full of sex, the kind of sex that humiliates the heroine and makes her gasp with pleasure. This is the only kind of story Mother likes; she spends over an hour at the lending library every Friday night, leafing through novels for those tell-tale scenes of sexual punishment. I sneak Mother's romances into my room and read them. She has never forbidden me to do so, but I know she will if I ask. I have already told the camera, ‘Mummy's favourite words are "no" and "don't".' Despite my age, I have no experience with boys. I see them talking to other girls my age like I'm watching a foreign film, one I will never take part in. I imagine sex is all about humiliation and, though it occupies my mind to an embarrassing degree, I am also determined I will never allow such a horrible thing to happen to me. Mother sends me away to do the housework. ‘You should've started washing the clothes by now. When you've finished, you can dust and vacuum.'
I dawdle over the chores. I resent having to do them when everyone in the family makes the mess. I argue with her when I have the courage, cringing because I expect her to answer me with blows, ‘Why don't the boys do any housework?' ‘The boys take care of the garden,' she says as if parroting a commandment. This is extravagantly untrue. The backyard is a jungle of overgrown weeds which rustle and murmur against my legs as I carry the laundry out to the clothes line. My mother mows the front lawn once a month, not my father or brothers, who vanish every weekend. Our neighbours complain if we let it grow. It is dotted with dog droppings, some fresh, some dry, some white as bones. They get mown once a month too.
On this particular afternoon, while I am dawdling with a duster in front of the trophy cabinet which my eldest brother has filled with his many awards as a middle-distance runner, Mother gets dressed and goes outside. On her way, she stops with an irritated grunt, stoops and takes a sock off the floor. She is wearing a short skirt. She bends at the hip, showing me the crotch of her knickers and the discoloured skin around it. I close my eyes, at the same time putting my hand over the lens. After she has left, I tell the camera crew, ‘She's probably gone out to make sure I've hung the clothes in the right order.' I spend the morning at the twin tub. An unpleasant duty. My father changes his underwear on Sundays, which means his old underpants have been mouldering at the bottom of the basket all week. Even if he did change them daily, I would still hate this job. I want to be free to roam the world the way my brothers are.
I don't speak of the crotch incident; it is something I try not to think about. Mother often shows me her crotch. Once I said to her, ‘You should bend at the knees.' Her face flushed and her eyes grew hot, which made her look like the man on the cover of a Mills and Boon romance. She answered, ‘Then you'll see everything.'
It gradually occurs to me that Mother has not returned from checking the clothes on the line. I go outside. She isn't in the backyard at all. I hurry inside and run upstairs. She isn't in her room, or in the bathroom, or in my bedroom or my brothers' bedroom. I run downstairs and search the rooms, then go outside again. She isn't anywhere to be found. I burst into tears in front of the camera. ‘Where's Mummy?' The camera crew follow as I hurry from room to room in a fruitless search. I know she isn't in the house, but I can't think of anywhere else she can be. ‘She's always here,' I say. ‘She never goes out.' I notice a neighbourhood kid walking past. I open the window and call out, ‘Have you seen my mother?' She shakes her head. The neighbourhood kids don't like Mother; they say she's a witch. Whenever they say this, I know I am a witch's daughter.
Two hours after she disappeared, Mother returns.
‘Where have you been?' I cry, drenched in tears of anguish.
Cackling at my distress, she says, ‘I went for a walk.'
I sob even harder because I realise that, while I must be a permanent fixture for her, while I must maintain a narrow, undeviating orbit, she is not a fixture for me. I have always known this, though I have not acknowledged it until now. I understand that Mother can't be trusted, that she will always betray me, and that I can never be at ease in the world as long as she is treacherous.
THE FOLLOWING SUNDAY evening, we watch The World of Disney while eating dinner from plates poised on our knees. My brothers are stretched out on the couch. I am on the floor, in my usual spot. I am short-sighted and, despite my glasses, I can't see properly from any of the chairs. We are watching a wildlife documentary when the show is interrupted by a special broadcast which I realise is for my family alone. The camera crew has been busily editing footage to create our own bit of real-life TV. The special broadcast opens with my father and brothers gulping down their breakfast and leaving the house. At first my brothers are puzzled to see themselves on TV, but they keep watching. Mother, perched on her armchair, appears tense, suspicious. Father is snoring. The show reel cuts to yesterday afternoon's upset. My brothers watch with scornful impatience as I run from room to room, trying to find Mother. Mother laughs – she points at the screen and laughs. The screen goes black. My brothers shift with sighs of irritation. I know what they're thinking – the question is palpable: Why can't she be normal? I clench my fists, I grip my mouth shut, my whole body is coiled tight with the effort of controlling my anger and trying to pretend nothing terrible has been revealed. It isn't enough. It never is. The harder I try, the more savagely the anger comes when it breaks out.
I run upstairs. The ferocity of my rage can't be contained. I want to run into Mother's room and destroy something. I want blood to spurt. I want a knife to make it spurt. But I'm afraid to show my anger to Mother. So I strip the sheets and blankets from my brothers' beds and fling them on to the floor, trampling them, imagining they're a head and breakable limbs under my feet. I smash their black vinyl records that smell pungently of the outside world. Then, horrified at what I have done, I run into my bedroom and dive under the covers, where I remain until the morning. I hear my brothers come upstairs to bed. I bury my face in my knees, waiting for them to come and beat me up. They don't. They don't mention the state of their room to anyone, not even to Mother.
I haven't attempted to put a therapeutic spin on my version of reality TV. I know too well it would have taken more than a special broadcast to shake my brothers out of their habit of pretending nothing was wrong. They used that pretence to defend themselves from Mother, and they wouldn't have given up the false safety it offered – not for anything.
It might seem plausible to assume that I and other victims of abusive parents would find Wife Swap USA, with its overtly therapeutic angle, insulting. Oddly enough, I don't. Despite its complex and resonant subtext, the show is facile, using the therapeutic angle to excuse its own vulgarity, to make ‘good' out of an experience that could easily be degrading. But something about it engages me beyond mere recognition of neglectful or overbearing mothers, even beyond the understanding that some of these women are clearly victims of abusive parents too. I wonder if it engages me because the participants, in understanding what they have got themselves into, escape the degradation by revealing only what they choose to reveal. This is a tricky point. The viewer only gets to see what the show's producers choose to display. Still, given its primary aim, it is hard to believe they would choose not to reveal humiliating incidents if they have the potential to amuse the viewer. The participants know that the wife swap is just a game, and play along with it with that mix of sincerity and disingenuousness that characterises TV. Or perhaps I am being too subtle. It might be that I watch these extreme mothers because they remind me of the freedom I have attained from that kind of life.
DURING MANY YEARS of therapy, I did not read books on abusive parents. I was unwilling to follow that particular route to health. I wanted to find my own language for what had happened to me, not borrow someone else's – even if it was invented by learned observers of mental sickness and suffering. Then, rather late in the day, my last therapist recommended I read a book called Toxic Parents, by Susan Forward (Bantam, 1990). I read the cases in search of my experience with Mother, and didn't find it. I was only a little disappointed. It reassured me I had been right to keep away.
The author included a list of twenty-seven possible indicators of abuse: my mother met sixteen of them. I was disappointed that she came up to scratch on only sixteen counts. My therapist said this was a high rating, which pleased me. Yet the book's measure of her harmfulness continued to fall short of my sense of having been occupied by a hostile foreign force throughout my childhood and young womanhood, a force that clamped down on every thought and action of my own.
‘You don't belong to yourself,' Mother told me. ‘You belong to me. You're like my arm. You don't have thoughts of your own. You don't do anything I haven't said you can do.' By the time she voiced her statement of ownership, I was moving away from her. It had always been there under the surface, unspoken, like so much that bound us to each other. Voicing her authority was a sign of desperation. I understood that and felt a thrill of frightening power, then a spasm of disgust and pity. She did everything she could to keep me. Her statement of ownership was only one tactic. Another was to shrink before me, to stammer and appear too scared to leave the house – to act, in other words, the way I had acted during my childhood and adolescence. By doing so, she invited me to be her abuser. Our relationship would still be going on if I had accepted her invitation.
Here is the paradox: I knew she had been bad for me, yet she didn't seem that bad – she hadn't broken my bones, she hadn't burned me with cigarettes, she hadn't invited my father and brothers to rape me. Towards the end, she seemed pathetic and lonely. She had tried to protect me in the way she understood and I repaid her with abandonment and rejection. I knew she had been extremely abusive, and no external measures could adequately gauge how terrible it had been. I didn't see her in Toxic Parents, a book designed specifically to help people like me. I saw her in a cheap reality show on TV.
I use the word ‘abuse' just as my therapists have used it; it doesn't match my experience, though, or my understanding. It has been bandied around too often and, in being passed from therapist to victim in thousands of consulting rooms across the world, it has lost its jet-black brilliance and potency, becoming smudged, limp and weary.
Many years ago, I wrote a story called ‘Another Name for Orange'. In this story, a young girl has to suck her grandfather's penis. He paints it vermilion so that, if she describes what he makes her do, nobody will believe she sucked an orange penis. The other word for orange, the word she doesn't know though she has experienced it many times, is incest.
I propose to rename abuse as I felt it. This label will have marvellous powers to describe not only what happened to me but my recovery. It will stand for my unique relationship with my mother; it will stand for her inability to relax her grip and for my own resilience; it will stand for the Tasman Sea that stretches between us – a sea she can never cross, not by ship or plane – and it will stand as my tribute to her from the frightened child who could never grow up. It will be my phrase alone, not a word I must share with the many thousands of other victims of harmful adults. The phrase will be Wife Swap USA.