Under the skin

Home, history and love in patriarchy

Everyone forgets that the real force behind the feminist movement was individual women’s disappointment with men. Even though equal pay for equal work and reproductive rights soon took centre stage, the rage that had welled up began in male–female relationships.

bell hooks, Communion: The Female Search For Love
(William Morrow, 2002)


THEY MET IN a journalism lecture at the sandstone-and-jacaranda University of Queensland, set high on a bend of the Brisbane River. Dad was the guest lecturer with no tertiary qualifications, and Mum was the student who, at the age of thirty-one, had worked through night school to fulfil her dream of going to university. The very first time she saw him she knew she’d marry him. It was, I’m afraid to say, love at first sight. She knocked on his door with an armful of lemons when he was sick one day, and six months later they were pregnant with me. There was a wedding and they bought a small old Queenslander at the top of a Rainworth hill.

Their second unplanned child arrived, a boy, and then their third, a baby girl with a full head of Dad’s dark-brown hair. They landscaped the garden with foxtail palms and sandstone boulders; they wrapped a hardwood veranda around the cottage; they dug out the earth beneath the stilted floor and built an understorey to fit the family that had appeared all around them. In the summer the air was thick and hot, and one Christmas evening, when all five of us were still together, we watched from the new veranda as the silky black clouds rolled in and surged with lightning. The rain came down and the edges of everything blurred, as if we were suspended under the sea. The flashes lit up the valley below us, and – one, two, three – the thunder boomed and bounced around, a call and response repeatedly marking out the hillsides. The landforms drawn by the flicker, clap and rumble were traced inside us somehow, marking that moment and that place somewhere deep. Over and over – the crack, the growl, the hillsides, the hollows.


SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I read an opinion piece that likened feminism to a constant process of actively noticing patriarchal ideology in your interior and exterior worlds and, once located, removing it piece by piece like tiny splinters of glass. I found the analogy profoundly useful at that time, in my late twenties, just as I was coming to feminism. As I sifted back through memories – the kind every woman has – armed with new words to illuminate unnamed injuries, as I rearranged meaning in light of my developing understanding of the ubiquitous patriarchy, I could feel the shards of glass working their way out of the centre of my body towards my skin; I imagined with satisfaction squeezing them from the surface like a pimple. There was a methodical rhythm to this removal for a time. A breakout. A growth spurt.

But recently, having begun a home with a male partner, I’ve felt the luminosity of the analogy dim. I had framed its central image – clear and solid – with the assumption that I would recognise a piece of glass when I came upon one, and indeed that I would know where to look. I suppose I believed that I implicitly possessed the capacity for this task of reconnaissance and recognition. Or at least that it was not beyond my potential, armed as I now was with the feminist ideas I consumed hungrily from the page and other media, and developed in conversation with like minds. I felt prepared. And perhaps, up to a certain point, I was. But as it is with any learning: the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know.

I had been superficial in my interpretation of the task at hand. After all, the author of that metaphor had not invoked the image of a splinter of wood or steel, but rather something clear, something invisible. The stuff of windows and lenses. The stuff forged of minerals from the earth. And furthermore I had not bargained for how dreamlike and obscure my self-awareness and memory would become as I dug past the epidermal layer, as I worked past those memories called easily to mind, the ones frozen in photographs, scribbled in diaries, deeper into the unknown places where the absorbed fragments of experience live inside us.


WHEN DAD FIRST left, he crashed at a friend’s – a good mate whose partner had just left with the kids. It makes me uneasy to think of what was on their minds during the kitchen-table moments at the end of the day when they came home to each other. I have them sitting across from each other under a low-hung lampshade, drinking beer from the bottle, staring at their hands. And I don’t even know if it’s better or worse to imagine that perhaps they were not so solemn, that they might in fact have been having fun. When us kids visited we all slept on the slate floor of the rumpus room downstairs – Dad and his new girlfriend, E, together on a futon mattress, and me, my toddler brother and baby sister on our newly purchased army cots.

This arrangement was only ever meant to be temporary, and soon Dad moved into E’s house, which she shared with her separated husband, his boyfriend and a young backpacker called Omar. The two couples had a bedroom each, Omar had the study downstairs, and we slept on the living room floor. As a child I perceived the mood of the house as mysterious, adult and sophisticated – there was black bed linen; the furniture was of silky, dark-lacquered wood; Sade played on the stereo and it seemed as though the adults spent a lot of time in kimonos.

Dad and E got their own place soon enough: a long, thin, light-filled house perched on a Paddington ridge. During those years, whenever Dad shifted to a new house with new rooms and new people, he took with him the rolled-up dark-green canvas army cots, and when we arrived in the evening every Thursday and every second Friday, we shared the ritual of pulling them from their sacks, stretching them over their frames and arranging the three of them in a row wherever there was room.


AT THE AGE of thirty-two – the age my mother was when she gave birth to me – I move in with the only steady boyfriend I’ve had since I was twenty-three. Just over a year into our relationship, we rent a small, mid-century Melbourne apartment that backs onto Merri Creek. The apartment is neat, the area is middle-class and liberal, and some mornings when I walk outside, the air smells like water.

Less than a week after S and I move in, I lie down on the couch for a 7.30 am session of psychoanalysis, weave my fingers together and take a deep breath – as it goes every time.

‘Yes,’ she says.

‘So…’ I say.


Another deep breath. Waiting to see what comes out of my mouth.

‘So S and I were just having a bit of an argument about housework.’

‘It’s a bit early for that isn’t it?’ A soothing joke often feels heaven-sent in that raw, wrenched-open setting. I don’t know if she means early in the morning or early in the living arrangement, but either way she’s right. I haven’t been able to see my own gun-jumping until she points it out though, because it’s just another episode in an argument I’ve been having with men for years.

Most of the twenty or so men I’ve shared a house with in the fifteen years since I left home – bar a few self-identifying ‘clean freaks’ – have had a pretty traditional approach to housework. It’s well documented that women do more of the housework in heterosexual partnerships, and this is no different in my experience of house sharing. This will not be a controversial statement to non-male readers.

At times I am hesitant to talk or indeed write about how troubled I am by the pervasive default sexist allocation of responsibilities in the running of a house. I’m hesitant not only because I’m conditioned to not be disruptive, but also because my position in the dynamic of this conversation is often unimaginatively located somewhere near to the role of mother; instinctively I anticipate and avoid the stalemate of the Madonna–whore dichotomy. At other times I’m unashamed to say that I think casually drawn relationships between women, home and work constitute a synecdoche for marriage as ownership and women as property. They are rooted in the same earth as the belief in the subhuman status of women, a belief that makes it easy to physically and emotionally abuse them.

As it happens, S takes equally as much, if not more, responsibility for housework than I do. And I try not to live in anticipation of the moment he fulfils my expectations, and falters.


MY PARENTS’ DIVORCE was not harmonious. They fought. They didn’t quarrel, they didn’t bicker; they fought. Their voices boomed and sliced and broke with wetness. They threw and hunched and pointed their bodies, which, thankfully, never collided. Still, there was a physicality to their fighting. It caused the atmosphere to change, to thicken, and my guts to churn and flash with electricity as I looked on, trying to work out how I could stop it.

By 1993, our life together as a family had been upturned, scattered to the wind, some parts carried off forever and others still falling to earth in strange patterns. This was the year Mum upped stumps, turned her back on it all and left for the country with her three children, all under eight, in tow. She’d grown up in the rural suburbs of Brisbane with horses and trees and open space, and she thought that these were the sorts of things that would make us feel better. It made sense in a way, they were the sorts of things that had made her feel better as a child when her dad was drunk on scotch and hitting her mum.

She packed our things into the 1964 sky-blue Ford Zephyr and made for a cottage she’d rented on the outskirts of the granite-belt township of Stanthorpe, chosen because she had friends on land nearby. We lasted there for three months. It was too cold, the educational opportunities substandard and the three-hour drive to Brisbane and back in the Zephyr every second weekend, made so we could visit our father, was too much. An arrangement couldn’t be reached for Dad to meet her half way.

So we moved on. Mum traded in her vision of country life for the comatose suburbia of Queensland’s biggest inland rural centre, Toowoomba – significantly closer to Brisbane and slightly less wary of a single mother with three children (but not by much). After months of pleading with bank managers, one kind man – whose name I still remember and who unsuccessfully pursued a romantic relationship with Mum for years – agreed to lend us money for a house, even though her only income, steady and reliable yet out of her control in the eyes of the lender, was child support paid by her ex-husband.

Not having a job is not to be confused with not working though, and as soon as we were in that cottage mum started transforming it. Once she had fed, dressed and wrangled us out of the house to school and kindergarten, she returned home to her project. She tore the cladding from the façade of the house. She climbed a ladder in full view of the neighbours and slapped colour from Dulux tester tins onto the weatherboard (tuna blue, galaxy, lime white). She painted strips of colour on most of the inside walls, too, making decisions only once she had seen how the changing light of the day altered the hues. She lined the laundry with sheets of black plastic to create a darkroom in which to develop her photographs. She painted patterns on the concrete path that led from the back door to the Hills Hoist. She held a mattock high above her head, brought it down to turn the red dirt and grew creamy jonquils, blueberry ash and gordonia.

In that new place I found myself truncated in a way I still don’t entirely understand. But Mum found wholeness and freedom in her solitude, having made a decision to live outside of the physically and emotionally violent power dynamic she understood male–female relationships to enforce. She’d learnt what was required of a wife, and she had decided she would not live in servitude.


ONE SATURDAY MORNING, S and I are on our way someplace in my car with the radio on. The Melbourne winter sky is low and steely but we’re feeling light, singing along to all the sheened hits eternally rotated on this FM station. A synthetic beat starts, like a robot clicking its fingers, and a woman’s voice ohs and ahs – sexy, anguished. And although I haven’t even thought of the song for years, those ohs and ahs tumble – sharply timed, perfectly intonated – from my mouth. It’s a sensation something like forgetting your PIN only to find your fingers keying it in to the wall before your eyes. I guess I first heard this song when it was released in 1994, and, like a password, it’s imagery must have made its way deep into my psyche. Although it is far from prominent in my conscious memory, I know every lyric by heart.

I pretend I can always leave
Free to go whenever I please
But then the sound of my desperate calls
Echo off these dungeon walls
I’ve crossed the line from mad to sane
A thousand times and back again
I love you baby, I’m in chains, I’m in chains
I’m in chains, I’m in chains


AT SOME POINT, Mum met a man. D was married and his kids went to school with me and my brother and sister. He was tall and olive skinned and rode horses, and when Mum spoke to him she would run her fine fingers through her hair and the scent of her would float around him as though he had walked briskly past a flowering rosebush. I hated him terribly.

They were careless. They would organise pizza and movie nights for us kids – his and hers, all six of us – and while the younger ones were glued to the screen eating Hawaiian and meatlovers’ on a tablecloth spread out on the living room floor, I’d spy on the two of them in the backyard in the moonlight, behind the corrugated iron water tank, pulling each other near by their belts. She was happy in a way I’d never seen before. She was happy because she was in love and at no risk of becoming this man’s wife.

I kept that secret for her, as I was asked to do. Just as she kept secrets as a child, as her mother asked her to do. And so on and so forth.


S AND I play a game as he rifles through the basket of washing at the end of the bed looking for a sock and I lie in the sheets scrolling through my feed.

‘My husband actually lived in Scotland for a while,’ I say.

‘Oh my wife loves this song,’ he says.

‘My husband won’t really go to parks; he was attacked by a goose once.’

‘My wife can’t eat prawns; she’s allergic.’

‘As a matter of fact my husband just read that book.’

‘No, my wife couldn’t make it, sorry.’

We laugh like little kids at the absurd banality of it until we can’t go on.


ONE LUNCHTIME AT my new Toowoomba school, a girl approached me as I ate my jam sandwich and, hands clasped seriously, recited a question she’d been sent with that day: ‘Do you and your brother and sister have the same dad?’

‘Yes,’ I told her, which was true, but which also, once I had said it, revealed itself as the right answer. Why this was right and the other was wrong, I did not yet fully understand, but I was piecing some things together. It had begun already, and over the next few years as I grew towards puberty, more and more little lessons like these – constant and innumerable, subtle and overt – would be received and lodged deeply. Incorporated.

In 1970, Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch (Harper Perennial): ‘The vagina is obliterated from the imagery of femininity in the same way that the signs of independence and vigour in the rest of her body are suppressed.’ Twenty-four years later, the year after I arrived in Toowoomba, the Spice Girls formed, and also my three best girlfriends and I were banned from playing lunchtime soccer with or near the boys in our grade. Confused, bitterly upset, humiliated and obedient, we moped to the areas deemed appropriate for us by our teachers and sang songs about girl power into our fists.

But we were careful not to get too carried away – after all, at my school the Spice Girls were called ‘lesbians’ and if you liked them then you might be a lesbian too, which was possibly a worse thing to be called than a slut. The third worst thing to be called was ‘frigid’.

The framework was clearly defined and brutally enforced: to express your physicality in the presence of males was a crime. To find power in friendships with other women was a crime. To physically express your sexual desire (hetero, of course – no other type was acceptable) was a crime. And to withhold sexually from a man when he made an uninvited sexual advance was also a crime. This school-world schema did not correspond with the world inside my homes, where relationships were rule-breaking and complex and unconventional and sometimes shameful, as is the case inside most homes, I imagine.

And fragments were forced inward from both directions, sculpting the schism of interior and exterior in my heart, shaping knowledge, coding my understanding of the terms of my contract with the world around me.


19th AUGUST, 1998

Rules for being a Teenager


  1. No
  2. No eating around boys
  3. No stealing boyfriends
  4. Friendship before boyfriends (?)
  5. You have to be as responsible as an adult, but you are treated like a baby.

I don’t know why I wrote this, but I’m really bored.
My right hand is more scruffy than my left because I do more stuff with my right hand. I have disgusting hands!! I wish I had beautiful hands. Oh well maybe I make up for it in other areas. Definitely not my boobs!!


IT WAS A warm summer night, I was fifteen and my best friend L’s parents had gone away for the weekend. L’s family was close to a few other families with kids similar in age to us, and they were allowed to come around for pizza and movies. The group of us, maybe ten kids in total, were stir crazy and geed up, a mess of new stubble and new breasts and oil-slick T-zones. We were seething and electrified and we bottled it up and let it out clumsily in fits and starts.

We decided to go for a walk through the dark, empty streets of Toowoomba. We needed to spend our energy, we needed space. The road shone like a swollen river and we walked in the middle of it. We whooped and giggled and skipped and the only other sound was the singing of cicadas. One boy in particular was paying me attention, walking near me, letting his hand brush mine. When we got back to the house and everyone settled in to watch the movie, H asked me if I wanted to go for a walk with him. I nodded and sprang to my feet faster than I meant to.

We stood on the veranda and sooner or later, after a static moment stiff and faced away from each other, we were kissing. My spit and his braces and the warm air and the fragrant wisteria flowers draped above us. It had never happened to me before, but when he opened my pants and his cool fingers found the warmth and wetness there, it felt as right and complete as anything ever had. The meeting of a desire that had not been met before, perhaps not even fully realised, seemed to suspend gravity and dissolve the boundaries within which I thought my body was contained. My existence was a flowing, reaching thing. This must be love, I thought.

We walked inside and rejoined the others who barely contained their smiles and whose heads remained directed at the television as their eyes darted about. H and I slumped next to each other on the couch, my body floaty and warm, my eyes dopey and half shut, my capacity for speech evaporated. I could not recapture the expansiveness I’d just experienced and stuff it back into my skin.

Slowly things solidified again, and the kids from the other families had to get home. I don’t think the boy did more than look in my general direction as he walked out the door.

About fifteen minutes later the phone rang. L picked up and listened. She laughed, but not really, not truly. Her laugh was pretend, forced. She looked at me and slowly offered me the receiver. She smiled but there was apology in her eyes. I put the phone to my ear.

I was shocked by the shouts of adolescent boys. You let H finger you! Over and again, laughing, howling.

I struggled to understand what was happening. These things did not fit together – bliss and humiliation, freedom and embarrassment, togetherness and blame. But in that moment they became entangled. I vaguely recognised this feeling – I’d felt something similar when I’d spied on my mother and her lover – but it crash-landed inside me now. It began to dawn on me that I had done something very stupid. I had made myself vulnerable to ridicule and derision. I was ashamed to have been so trusting, so open, such a sitting duck.


S AND I lie in bed on our tummies facing one another.

‘It’s sort of like a sleepover every night,’ I say.

‘Yeah, a sleepover every night with my best friend,’ he says, which, even though I had instigated the cutesy exchange, lands in my chest heavy and dull. I want to roll over, but even more than that I want to know how to enjoy that moment. I want to catch and hold his gift – the gift of risking the line between loving and coddling, sweet and sickly – but I just don’t quite know how.

I keep that cool feeling secret because I think I’m guilty of something. I know how to desire a happy moment, but when I find myself in the middle of what might well be one, I become conscious of the fact that it’s playing out and as such I’m removed from it. It feels like I’m on stage under the spotlight and I realise I never knew my lines and also I’m not an actor.

But with time, as I push on and on, privately looking for those glass fragments – which represent not only patriarchy but also white supremacy, heteronormativity, gender normativity and other internalised fictions – it becomes OK to trust S with those secret feelings. As we settle into our home life together, I write about it, and we discuss what my work means. We ask each other questions about the past and the future: how do we fit into the idea of ‘family’ as it is defined by the texts around us – advertisement as text, film as text, Instagram feed as text, local organic shop as text – and what of that is to be taken and what is to be left, and why? In the creation of a home and a relationship, what do we strive for willingly and consciously because we believe in it, and what impulses are dictated by that which has been absorbed from the world over time unknowingly and involuntarily? How can we, both independently and in partnership, locate the sources of these impulses, work them to the surface and understand them for what they are.


FOR THE EIGHT years we lived in Toowoomba, every second weekend my parents exchanged me and my brother and sister in the car park at Rusty’s Roadhouse, half way between Brisbane and Toowoomba on the Warrego Highway. Or perhaps ‘exchanged’ isn’t the right word, seeing as one parent always left with nothing. There was a picnic table and a jacaranda tree we’d climb while we waited for the other parent to come. The sky was big and forlorn. The low hills around were mostly cleared of trees. A little way back from the road there was a small cemetery of shining white headstones sheltered by a pine windbreak. The grass had bindii and there were mashed cigarette butts on the asphalt. It was hard to be there, to be leaving all the time. It was hard to be left.

In the still, shapeless hours of Sunday afternoons I still get that feeling sometimes, the feeling of the hours before our weekend with Dad ended. I get sucked backwards into that window of time that was too short for anything to begin, but for that reason was intensely noticed and therefore lasted and lasted. A dull, quiet and sad moment strung out, blanketing things. In that time before we packed our bags and got into the car, the missing had already begun, and it was hard to work out which parent you missed more: the one you were about to leave, or the one you had been without for the last few days. You were always somewhere in between.

Eventually we’d pack the boot and pull out into the road with the football game on the radio. A nasal, elastic, Queensland accent called the play and Dad often accused the commentator of being drunk. The crowd’s cheer was a soft hum.

We’d drive through the outer suburbs of Brisbane and onto the highway. Past used-car lots and used-house lots. I loved those shells of houses, perched on top of Jenga-stacked wooden beams. I dreamt of being able to wander through the field of empty houses and choose one – the perfect one. The one painted with the nicest colours, the one with the right number of bedrooms for us all, the one with lots and lots of windows that let the light in. The one that felt the coziest. The one where we were together, the one where no one fought. The one where we felt good and whole and ourselves. The one with plenty of nooks to hide in – little spaces just the right size for our things, for our bodies. The one we wouldn’t have to leave. The one. It would have a veranda where we could sit and watch the storms.

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