A creative essay about sisters.
“If Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have had hers cut off too.”
- Jane Austen’s mother
I was fifteen. It was year eleven of high school and I confessed to my extension English teacher that I had never read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In retrospect, this was nothing for a normal teenage girl to be ashamed of, but then, I did not attend a normal school. My English teacher, slightly horrified by my admission, promptly lent me a copy. It was a cliché – faded cover, worn pages, a name inscribed in illegible cursive. It was well-loved.
A decade into the twenty-first century, Pride and Prejudice is beginning to read more like fantasy than the realist fiction it was written to be. And yet, Austen is more popular now than when she was first published. There are many theories as to why (and many essays on the topic, I am sure), ranging from its social significance to the appeal of the strong and silent hero. For me, however, it is not the romanticized Mr Darcy that holds my interest, nor the almost-feminist protagonist. It is the relationship between sisters.
Sisterhood is a strange phenomenon. A close friend will be affectionately called our “sister” and yet for many people, blood relations are not close at all. Throughout my childhood I recall the coveted position was that of the only child. Siblings meant fights, sharing cars, teasing, embarrassing secrets revealed to all. The only child had the full attention of his or her parents and the full weight of their wallet. Friends with siblings celebrated the day that they were given their own bedroom. I, however, celebrated the day my bedroom became a study and my sister and I shared. We were teenagers, supposed to be fighting over stealing each other’s clothes (not that any of my sister’s petite clothes could ever fit me). Instead, we went to bed at the same time so that we could talk deep into the night like ten-year-olds at their first sleepover party. “Gute nacht,” I would say, when I was tired enough for sleep. “Bonne nuit,” she would reply.
As adults, few sisters remain rivals. The expectation is that a sister is a friend, someone to respect and indeed love. There is an obligation to have her as bridesmaid, to see each other at major holidays, to share responsibility for an ageing generation of parents. I recognise these obligations and find myself resenting them; they seem to degrade our friendship, as though it, too, exists simply because it has to. When I asked my sister to be my Maid of Honour, I did not see it as a question for my sibling, sparked by custom and etiquette. I was asking my best friend. I wanted her to sit with me in the same living room we had watched The Little Mermaid in as children and to glue ribbon onto invitations, eating M&Ms. She assured me I would be beautiful despite a terrible make-up trial and she helped me to laugh when the bridesmaid’s dresses finally arrived at 10am the morning of the event. I wanted her to be the last person I saw before I walked down the aisle with our father, the last person to hug me as a single woman.
My elder sister is my favourite person in the world. Perhaps that is unfair to my other family and friends – but it is true. There are no words that can adequately describe the complexities of our relationship, a fusion of lives, a shared history, a library of advice and dreams. She is my opposite and my complement, the one I protect like a mother and turn to like a daughter. When I read Pride and Prejudice, or indeed any book that contains sisters, I cannot help but judge their relationship against ours.
The Bennet family of Pride and Prejudice contains five sisters with varying levels of closeness. It is perhaps a model for family life, a promise that friendships like Jane and Elizabeth’s exist, but a reminder that they are uncommon. The three younger sisters almost seem superfluous, there only to highlight the rare closeness between Elizabeth and Jane (and to drive the storyline involving Mr Wickham). Austen herself had six brothers, all of whom she was friendly with, but not exceptionally so. Cassandra Austen was the only other girl in the family and she and Jane adored each other. She was perhaps the inspiration for the eldest Bennet sisters, and certainly for some of Jane’s earlier works.
Jane and Cassandra Austen lived together for most of their adult life. Following the premature death of Cassandra’s fiancé, both remained unmarried and they shared not only a house but a bedroom, until Jane’s death in 1817. It has been suggested that this is the reason for their closeness, but as anybody with a best friend knows, distance is no obstacle. My sister and I attended different schools and different universities. She moved out of home when I was nineteen. We now live 300km from each other and visits are not nearly frequent enough. And yet – it is she who travelled Europe with me, choosing two days at Disneyland Paris over the more cultural experience of the Louvre. It is she who keeps me up to date with the life of my kindergarten friend and she who buys me gifts so well-suited that I am pleasantly reminded of the shared DNA we must have. To remain in the same bedroom, forever sending each other to sleep in foreign languages, would have been special, there is no doubt. But there is also no doubt in my mind that Jane and Cassandra Austen did not need the same address to remain confidantes and best friends.
Back in year eleven, first reading Pride and Prejudice, my sister would have played the role of Jane Bennet. She was always the quietest at the dinner table, overpowered by myself and our elder brother. She was gentle, the sole ballerina in a family of footballers. She was eternally caring and would visit my school at lunchtimes, bringing tiny teddies and the unconditional love that was lacking from my schoolgirl friendships. She always saw the best in people, forever giving me the benefit of the doubt when I acted like a Lydia. I recall one day I skipped school, waiting at the train station for my family to empty our house. On my return home, I ran into my sister. She did not chastise me, or ask why I was there. She did not threaten to tell our parents. Neither did she celebrate my minor act of rebelliousness and offer to forge their signature on a note. Instead, she greeted me with a customary hug and invited me to university with her. I spent that day in her psychology lecture theatres, side by side with the one person who understood me.
My sister is still all of those things. She still has Jane’s quiet demeanour, her ability to offend nobody. She graduated university with first class honours and took her Advanced II ballet exam. When we get the chance to go swimming together, she still brings tiny teddies. And yet it is not the Jane Bennet side of her character that clings to my mind when I think of her. Instead, I am inspired by her youthfulness and spirit. She has all seven stuffed toy dwarves from Snow White lined up on her windowsill and can quote every line from Aladdin. We drive to the local swimming pool with Under the Sea in the CD player and her voice singing backup. She loves roller coasters and Cadbury chocolate and thinks there should be no limit to either. She calls our cat “kitty” and sleeps with her arm around the same doll she had as a child. I, who was so determined to grow up ahead of my time, admire her refusal to.
We live apart now, adults with different lives. I did the traditional thing: married at twenty-one and moved to the country, a salute, perhaps, to the Austensian era or the Emma for which I am named. She rents with two friends in the city. She is a full-time dancer, working as a waitress in the evenings to pay the bills. She still calls me “Smee” and writes me a letter daily, a consolation for our inability to see each other as often as we’d both like. My sister’s letters are filled with the music of her character; they make me laugh and mourn simultaneously.
Cassandra and Jane Austen wrote each other, it is estimated, up to three thousand letters. One would go on visits without the other, usually to one of their brothers, and they would write daily. Austen’s letters to Cassandra form the basis of much of what is known about her life. Sections are quoted in biographies, alongside the regretful comment that Cassandra had burned all but one hundred and sixty.
I cannot help but wonder why Cassandra would destroy those letters. Were they too painful to re-read, after losing her closest friend? Were they too personal to share with anybody else, should Cassandra die unexpectedly? Was it simply that nobody else could understand the words within, nobody else could do Jane justice? My sister’s letters contain words and phrases that make my chest ache with laughter, but my husband is merely confused by them. To explain in detail those references and memories is to erase a portion of their magic. Perhaps, for Cassandra, it was a choice: have the letters destroyed by fire, or have them destroyed by someone else’s feeble attempt to understand.
I must confess I am not as vigilant as my sister at letter-writing. I set her the challenge but failed to rise to it myself. We try to make up for it when I visit; I spend more time with her than with my husband. There are days when we speak only in questions, days when we speak in the Yorkshire accents of a mostly-forgotten youth, days when we skip everywhere instead of walking. She is two and a half years my senior, but my sister keeps me young.
One of Austen’s earliest writings, published in Juvenilia, was entitled The Beautifull Cassandra [sic] and dedicated to her sister. The dedication itself is more than enough evidence of the sisters’ devotion to each other:
You are a Phoenix. Your taste is refined, your Sentiments are noble, and your Virtues innumerable. Your Person is lovely, your Figure, elegant, and your Form, magestic. Your Manners are polished, your Conversation is rational and your appearance singular. If therefore the following Tale will afford one moment’s amusement to you, every wish will be gratified of
Your most obedient
The adulation in those short words is overwhelming, and perhaps a little amusing. Personally, I could not write such a piece for my sister (unless it was a joke). It is not that we are incapable of genuine flattery rather that our goal in life is to make each other laugh as much as possible. The achievements that we celebrate in each other go far beyond “virtues” and “manners”, even beyond high distinctions at university – although we do compete academically, too. For us, there is value in the silly things. “I listened to the same song on repeat for twenty-four hours, including in the shower and when I was asleep” deserves a high-five. “I get to play Geppetto in the kids’ end-of-year dance concert” leads to an impromptu sing-along of Pinocchio and every other Disney movie soundtrack we can find. “I gave up chocolate for a whole month” warrants some kind of hero worship, followed by a trip to Max Brenner’s chocolate café.
Jane Austen’s love for Cassandra was matched only by Cassandra’s to her – of her sister’s death, Cassandra said:
I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself
I cannot imagine Cassandra’s pain. There could be no comfort, no replacement for such a loss. Cassandra, unfortunately, was destined to live on 28 years beyond her sister. I don’t doubt that for her, this was the worst kind of punishment. As Winnie the Pooh said to Christopher Robin, “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so that I never have to live without you.” My sister and I used to repeat that to one another all the time, its truth hiding behind the cuteness of such a sentiment.
My sister plans to audition for a role at Disneyland Tokyo soon, her dream job. She could play Jasmine, our favourite Disney Princess. Or Sleeping Beauty, the one we always joked was “her” role because she slept all the time. Regardless, to me she will still be Ariel, part of another world. The thought that she might be dancing in Japan for the remainder of her twenties excites and inspires me, but it also leaves me feeling a little lost. Still, I am certain that the ocean will not separate us any more than space between our childhood beds. In year eleven, I confessed to my English teacher that I had not read Pride and Prejudice, and my eyes were opened to Austen’s perception of sisterhood. Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, Jane and Cassandra Austen remind me that what we have is not unique – but it is perfect.
“It would be easier if You were just a thought in my head, simply something that I once read, a belief needing my defence.” – Tenth Avenue North
I love apologetics. I love expanding my knowledge and challenging my beliefs, finding answers and reassuring myself that I do not have “blind faith” (aka wilful ignorance), but faith that faces questioning head on. I love delving in to science, history and philosophy to find both the challenges and the answers. The trouble is, for every former-atheist who has had come to Christ through apologetics, there’s a former-Christian who has fallen away through doubt. If Richard Dawkins were to sit in a room with Josh McDowell for 3 days straight, I doubt either of them would have changed their mind at the end of it. Because faith is not an abstract concept. It’s not merely the absence of doubt. Faith is not an historical phenomenon, a social construct or an outdated scientific method of explaining things. Faith is not a series of answers to life’s big questions.
If I could ask Richard Dawkins just one question, it wouldn’t be about science. It wouldn’t even be about God. It would be this: “if you could convince just one person in the world, just one, to believe what you do, who would it be?” I want to know what his approach is to relationships, to community and to society. I want to know which kinds of people motivate him to try to change their views: is it someone he loves most, someone with the most influence, someone who hurt him (or others) badly in the name of religion? I don’t want to know about his theories or his evidence, I want to know about him.
You can say all you like about which parts of my husband’s brain fire up when he’s kissing me, what hormones are released into his bloodstream, the etymology of the phrase “I love you” and the social context that leads to marriages. Understanding the nitty gritty of a relationship doesn’t make it less beautiful – but nor does it somehow ‘prove’ the existence of that relationship to someone who isn’t living it. If anything, it might make them more cynical towards love and relationships as a whole.
Now this is not to diminish the importance of the field of apologetics. For me, I needed to tackle the doubts I had about God before I would be open to the story of Jesus. A few well-chosen books of apologetics helped me to get through those barriers and sent me on my way. But they weren’t what changed me or what made me “Christian”. I needed to understand what marriage was before I could enter in to the contract, but that understanding wasn’t what made me “married”. My husband did that.
I appreciate knowing more about how the world works, how it came to exist as it does now, what influenced Hebrew laws and what psychological and chemical factors contribute to a person’s desire to be part of a religion. But those things don’t prove or disprove God. Because faith is not a theory; it’s an experience. Faith is lived.
I know this article is over a year old now, but the issue is still current and I wasn’t blogging when it was written. Anne Summers writes that it is not possible to be a pro-life feminist.
Now, I should preface all of this by saying that technically, I’m pro-choice. That is, from a political standpoint I believe that it is important that abortions be legally accessible, safe and affordable. Yet I am also about as pro-life sympathetic as a pro-choicer can get. For me the compelling factor is that there are certain circumstances where I think a termination is warranted – if pregnancy and childbirth threatens the life of the mother or baby, for example, or if she is taking medication that cannot be taken while pregnant. So then we have to start adding caveats and loopholes. Doctors have differing opinions. We get into questions of rape. Of whether threatening the life of the mother includes a mother with severe ante-natal depression contemplating suicide. Whether threatening the life of the baby depends on its ability to survive without medical treatment, or its ability to survive with decades of intervention. Questions of which non-pregnancy-friendly medications are necessary and which aren’t. As someone who has never experienced those situations, who has not cried out to God for guidance about how to proceed and agonised about it night after night, I don’t believe that I am the right person to start making hard and fast rules about all of those possible circumstances. I don’t believe that a politician is the right person either. So I think that we have to trust women, and while morally I don’t necessarily agree with every circumstance in which a termination occurs, I do think that it needs to be the woman’s right to make her own moral decisions. She is, after all, the one who will be living with the consequences of her decision.
So, I’m pro-choice. However. I do believe that a foetus is a person. I do have sympathy for others who have reached different conclusions through different reasoning. I count myself a feminist, and even as a feminist I don’t have a significant issue with those who feel strongly about giving the unborn a chance to be born. What I do have a problem with is the pro-life movement.
The pro-life movement grows out of a very politically conservative, strongly religious branch of society. In America they’re known as the “Christian right” but believe me, they exist in other countries too. This is the same branch that wants to cut welfare programs, teach abstinence-only in schools, limit the freedoms of religions beside Christianity and reinforce “traditional gender roles”. Often, they’re also against contraceptives such as the birth control pill. These are the kinds of people who reduce the issue of abortion to “Most of them are killed simply because their birth causes someone inconvenience”* as if a shattering lifelong change to your future can be described as an “inconvenience”. The result of this, of course, is that the pro-life movement is associated with things loosely termed “slut shaming”, whereby unwanted pregnancies are generally seen as the woman’s fault for being promiscuous. Hence, the enormous personal cost and social stigma of single parenthood is just a consequence of having sex outside of marriage.
I have seen many a pro-lifer struggle to disassociate themselves from that movement. There are plenty of more moderate Christians out there with a strong moral opposition to abortion, which they recognise as a complex issue. There are plenty of people of different religions, or no religion at all, who take a pro-life position without wanting to punish women.
This is what I think a pro-life feminist could look like: She (or he) campaigns for free antenatal and postnatal care, including mental health care. She wants better support for single mothers, so that it doesn’t look like their life will be over. She wants more childcare places for women who want to finish study or need to work. She wants more accountability for fathers in terms of both financial concerns and custody – she thinks every other weekend doesn’t cut it when he was 50% responsible for the conception. She wants adoption to be a more viable option, including free or affordable counselling for all involved. She wants good, affordable, reliable and easily available contraceptives that are well-promoted and no stigma to use, to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place. She wants sex education in schools. She wants children to grow up knowing that all kinds of family structures are valid and “normal”. In short, she wants abortion to be as unnecessary as it possibly can be.
These things are often associated with those who are pro-choice, because they are politically left-wing. But that doesn’t mean that such policies are in themselves pro-choice. The same policies can grow out of two different motivations (dissuading a woman from making a certain choice vs supporting them after the fact) and be held by people with two different ultimatums (if all this fails, termination is still an option vs this serves to soften the blow of making abortion illegal).
But according to Anne Summers, such a woman would not be a real feminist. She defines feminism in this way:
“Feminism might be blandly defined as the support for women’s political, economic and social equality, and a feminist as someone who advocates such equality, but these general principles need practical elaboration and application. What does economic equality actually mean? How can women in practice achieve social equality? As far as I am concerned, feminism boils down to one fundamental principle and that is women’s ability to be independent.
There are two fundamental preconditions to such independence: ability to support oneself financially and the right to control one’s fertility. To achieve the first, women need the education and training to be able to undertake work that pays well. To guarantee the second, women need safe and effective contraception and the back-up of safe and affordable abortion.”
I disagree with this definition. First, how did we get from equality to independence? Are all men always independent (or, as she goes on to say, always given the choice to be independent or dependent)? Are they independent of the needs of others, the rights of others, or the law? Someone who is pro-life takes the view that a woman is no more independent of her baby’s rights than a man is of his wife’s rights when he beats her. Equality and independence are not the same thing. Equality is about fairness, justice, each person being treated as just as valuable as the next. Where pro-lifers and pro-choicers differ is whether an unborn, not-completely-developed foetus unable to express coherent thought should be given equality too.
Secondly, if we accept “the right to control one’s fertility [through contraception and abortion]” as a precursor for independence, we walk on shaky ground when it comes to men’s fertility. A man has equal right to contraception, but he does not have equal right to the “back-up”. He can’t force an abortion on his partner, nor should he ever be able to. He loses the final measure to control his fertility when it impedes on another person’s right to bodily autonomy. Hence, according to Summers, he does not have the ability to be independent. Obviously, I have a lot more sympathy for the pregnant woman losing her independence to the government, than I do for the man losing his independence to the woman who will carry and birth the child and be equally (or considerably more) responsible for its upbringing. Nonetheless, if abortion is necessary for independence then it’s not only women who are failing to achieve independence.
Finally, I reject the notion that the ability to support oneself financially and the ability to control one’s fertility are the essence of feminism which had been prior defined as “support for women’s political, economic and social equality”. Political equality, for example, includes the right to vote, yet suffrage does not affect my ability to support myself financially or control my fertility (unless too many people vote coalition and Abbott becomes our PM…).
If someone is passionate about equal pay, having the right to apply for certain kinds of jobs or fight in combat positions, resisting sexual harassment, removing the victim-blaming crap that comes with rape culture etc, then they might identify with feminism, despite having a different perspective on the pro-life/pro-choice debate. I kind of see it like being a Labor party member while simultaneously opposing the Carbon tax. You haven’t taken the party line on that issue, but does that mean you can no longer identify yourself with a party that holds to many, many of your other political beliefs?
I think it is possible to be a pro-life feminist. It just so happens that I’m not one of them.
*Quoted from a comment made by Admin on the “policies” webpage of the Rise Up Australia Party.
I’m gutless. There, I put it out there. I’m a people-pleaser and I bite my tongue more than I should. Even now, I’m hiding behind a keyboard to say this way too late. But I’m telling you this because I don’t want to be gutless anymore, and I don’t want you to be gutless either. The world was never changed by people too afraid to try to change it.
I should be clear on what I’m talking about. I don’t know whether it’s because I’m gradually becoming that little bit more vocal about my faith, or if it’s because I’m spending time with different people, but I’m finding myself erroneously viewed as someone who might agree with racist, sexist or homophobic comments. There seems to be a perception that Christian = bigot. Or maybe it’s just straight, white, privileged person in a traditional marriage = bigot. And this perception isn’t coming from those who look down on me for my faith or lifestyle choices, quite the opposite. It’s coming from other straight, white, privileged people who want me to nod along when they feel like being offensive.
A woman at church recently implored me to travel in to the nation’s capital to attend our National Day of Prayer. She said that it was a big event, busloads of people go – “and they’ve all got slanty eyes or accents, but there are very few representatives of us white Australians”.
Here’s what I should have said:
“I realise you probably weren’t intentionally being racist, but I find that offensive. I object to the notion that I should attend a prayer day, not because I am Christian, but because I am a white Christian. God hears the prayers of those with a different ethnic background just as loud and with the same heart. I would be honoured to pray along with them.”
But I didn’t.
When critiquing a parenting “expert” with a different woman at church, she told me that if I was struggling with decisions about discipline and the like, I could talk to her about it because “I’ve got 5 God-loving children and I never dumped them in childcare or anything like that, we raised them all full-time”.
Here’s what I should have said:
“Thank you for the offer, but I do just want to flag that comment about childcare. I’m a stay at home mum to my son because I want to be and because I was blessed to be able to afford to be, not because I think there is anything inherently wrong about childcare. I would be just as inclined to turn towards a working mum for advice about parenting.”
But I didn’t.
Worst of all, a member of my own extended family has over several separate occasions made comments including a similar remark about childcare, objecting to my son having a toy doll, the use of slurs such as “chink” and “poofter”, and telling me that I needed to have more children to do my bit to populate the country with more white Australians. The best response I could muster to any of this to express my outrage was “Stop. Do not say that in front of me, in my car.”
Here’s what I should have said:
“I do not believe that I, a ‘white’ immigrant, have any more right to this country than the dozens of 2nd generation Asian-Australian women I went to school with who are intelligent and hard-working contributors to society. I find that word offensive. If you want my son to grow up respecting you at all, I’d suggest you keep those sorts of opinions to yourself, because I will be teaching him that it is wrong to value someone differently due to their race or sexuality. Your words are hurtful. Not just to me, but to your Muslim brother in law, your Asian 2nd-cousin and the lesbian family friend we had Christmas lunch with a couple of years ago. They can’t hear you speak them, but they are still hurt by them, every time you perpetuate the myth that I should look down on them. I don’t want to listen to this any more, but more importantly, I don’t want anyone to have to listen to this any more.”
But I didn’t.
Because I’m gutless.
I need to stop being gutless. I need to tell people when they’re speaking words of hate and intolerance. I need to set a better example to my son, because I don’t want him to stand by and watch when someone is being bullied, or worse. I don’t want to be a secret feminist or a secret egalitarian any more than I want to be a secret Christian.
If you’re gutless too, I am not writing this to make you feel guilty. I am writing this so that you understand that you’re not alone and you’re not a horrible person. But there is an opportunity to change. Change with me. Let’s find some guts.
Note: this is a “prose poem” I wrote for university, but it’s also non-fiction. If you’re struggling with depression, please reach out for help. I left it far too long the first time, and my experience of PND after having my son was much much more easily conquered due to me recognising the warning signs and talking to someone sooner. If I could go back and talk to that teenage girl who was drowning and burning, I’d tell her to write this sooner and share it with that counsellor I never really opened up to.
Walking on Water and Passing through Fire
Would you rather drown or be burned alive?
The waves at Australian beaches make me think of God. I had always heard Him described as powerful, but it is a different thing entirely to be lifted off your feet by that power and knocked into the sand. The sound of them crashing on a windy day leaves me in awe. And on a quiet beach, alone at the end of the day where the warmth of past sunlight lingers in the water, I allow the waves to wash over me, through me, past me. I am no barrier to them. It makes me want to sing. Somehow, in the role of the insignificant, I feel confident. I feel safe.
How different it is to be inspired by a wave’s power than to be crushed by it. A child, or even an adult, loses themself when dumped. Their chest tightens more quickly than necessary, the last air knocked out by the wave that sent them under. Panic rises in their throat as they kick upwards and grapple above their head, desperate for their fingertips to discover something other than water. To the friends that watched them dip beneath the surface, they were gone for a few short seconds. But those friends did not feel their soul caught and squeezed under the ocean.
When I was a teenager, my sister studied psychology. My mother worked in pathology. Me? I was pathological.
Depression is like living under water. Every movement is through pressure; the water drags behind you, is reluctant to part in front of you and covers your whole body. You are caught in it, fighting your way through it, just trying to make it to the end. You are told you have the control – with strength and determination you can move the water and go anywhere you want. But you do not decide the boundaries, the size and depth of the ocean. The tide carries you away from the beach and in a new direction until you are tired and cold. At any moment you could be tangled by seaweed, or come out of a dive and be thrown into a cliff. Your chest aches with the need to breathe where there is no air.
Depression does not just cloud your judgment; it clouds your whole vision of the world. Under water, light is distorted, hit by a mallet of ripples until it gives way. The images you “see” are not reality. Shapes are stretched and hope is shrunk, moving through the water as small and elusive as an earring. You can try to focus, but wavelets get in the way and salt stings your eyes. Depression takes over until you forget what land looks like.
I wanted nothing more than to break the surface, even if that meant being burned alive.
On the plane trip to Australia, my mother listened to reports of bushfire on the radio. At five years old, I still thought fires were for camping and marshmallows. Fires were for hot chocolates and Daddy reading stories. I asked my mother if our house would be burnt down. How strange it is to both love fire and be afraid of it.
It was almost a full decade before I walked through a world thick with smoke, and truly understood. The trucks and hoses came and went at all hours of the night, held by exhausted men in orange suits. Ash settled across rooftops, cars, boats and swimming pools. Bushfires taught me that my life is no stronger than the trees I climbed in. Both of us could be torn apart by flames.
Self-harm is like being lit on fire. It starts off warm and promising, a release from the cold and wet. This is something known, something comfortable; it is something that man mastered centuries ago. Then it consumes you. Your sweat is no match for the heat, your skin destroyed in a matter of seconds. You cannot run away from the flames; they are attached to you. The colours, reds and oranges, fill your eyes and your mind. Everything you once valued is destroyed and turned to ash. The smoke is suffocating. Your body is the fuel, your mind is the oxygen, your pain is the heat. And the fire burns on.
It is easy to reason away depression and the motivations for self-harm. I lied to counsellors and popped pills, listening to the doctors tell me about serotonin levels in my brain. I heard their words, but this is what I saw: a leader on camp telling me that he had stolen saliva from a sleeping dragon. The vial being passed around the circle and tasted. The “saliva” being poured onto leaves and smoke rising as the campfire was made. A chemical reaction was all it took to create a world too dangerous to touch.
The only reason I could walk on water was the hand that I held, a hand that had mastered the waves before. The only reason I could pass through fire was the hand that had guided three men through a furnace centuries ago. It belonged to a man who spoke of living water and baptisms of fire; it was the hand that holds the world.
I have a fear that I never talk about. That my children will grow up underwater, and I, in the lifeguard’s chair, will not know how to save them. That they will be eaten by flames and I will not be able to find the hose. That they will have only one choice: drown, or be burned alive.
Earlier today a friend of mine told me about a Christian radio show she had been listening to this morning. The show was discussing colleges (American) and suggested that parents should have a say in what college you attend as they have guided you this far and should help you to set up your life*. It then went on to suggest there was little point in getting a uni debt if you’re going to be a wife and stay at home mother.
Proverbs 31:26 (from the” wife of noble character”) She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
Proverbs 4:7-8 The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. Cherish her, and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honor you.
Ecclesiastes 7:11-12 Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun. Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: Wisdom preserves those who have it.
1 Timothy 2:11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. Putting aside all the feminist remarks that can start an argument about that verse, I’ll point out what was shattering to the culture of the day: it says a woman should be able to learn.
I want my children to value education, and I want to model that value to them. Right now, I’m a stay at home mum and if I’m blessed with more children I probably won’t be in paid employment for many more years yet. But in each of my degrees; in my Bachelor’s, my Diploma, my Master’s and the Certificate in Theology I’m 2 subjects from finishing, I have learnt something new that I think will help me to be a better parent. There are several reasons we wouldn’t homeschool, but even if we did, I like to believe that my actually having a teaching qualification and some understanding of educational psychology would be beneficial and reason enough to get a uni debt despite intending to be “just” a stay at home mum.
I take offense to the suggestions of that radio show. I take offense to the viewpoint that, as a Christian who has desired more strongly than anything else to be a godly mother and wife, those are the only dreams or goals I should have. More than that, I take offense to the deeper attitudes that these kinds of statements grow out of, and the particular social and political ideal they are promoting. There is a social structure here that has historical precedence, but not necessarily biblical precedence.
There is a difference between submitting to the authority of the husband, and being totally dependant on him.
There is a difference between believing that children are a blessing, and acting as though the care for this blessing is the only purpose of our lives.
There is a difference between valuing marriage, and ceasing to pursue our (non-sexual) passions or failing to utilise our God-given skills and gifts.
There is a difference between wanting to give your children a Christian education, and believing that it is not necessary or worthwhile to have more education yourself.
There is a difference between recognising different gender roles within the family, and thinking that there is never any overlap even in the pre-marital years.
There is a difference between being biblically conservative, and being politically conservative. You can be both, but please acknowledge that I am no less of a Christian for having different political views to you.
*By the way, I’m sure these people would be willing to make an exception to the “parents get a say” rule if they heard that my athiest parents would rather I studied philosophy than theology. And it’s not like my parents had done a bad job bringing me as far as university or helping me to set up my life with wisdom about money management and relationships.
There’s been a lot of media and social-media talk lately about rape. There are the ridiculously offensive comments from men about “respectable” women, how women dress, who women are out with. These are usually followed by (warranted) intense outcry about victim-blaming and repeats of the should-be-obvious-by-now statement that nobody deserves to be raped. There are the reports of how to stay safe, how to prevent or fight off an attack, the importance of talking to the police. These are sometimes followed by the same victim-blaming outcries, but more commonly by nodding heads and “thanks for the advice”. There are the voices of reason talking about how most victims know their attacker and you should be more alert about the ‘nice’ men (and women) in your life than about taking your groceries to your car in broad daylight. This is an important voice to be heard, but again, everybody is talking to the potential victims. Even if it’s just to tell them that’s it’s not their fault, they’re still talking to the victims. Or they’re talking about punishing the perpetrators. Why aren’t we, the parents, teachers and citizens, talking about stopping people from becoming perpetrators in the first place?
On one of the online communities I’m a member of, another woman pointed out to me that:
Ask a man, ‘Would you rape a woman?’ and you don’t find many who’ll say yes. Ask him, “Would you have sex with a woman so drunk she could barely stand?” and you suddenly find what guys will admit to.
Which is why I have written this, the list of ten things I hope to teach my son when he is older, ten things that I hope will help him to respect women and to be a member of a society that works from every angle to prevent rape and sexual assault.
1. No means no. It’s obvious, right? It’s the one we’ve all heard. Still, nothing wrong with getting back to basics. If they say no, that doesn’t mean “I’m playing hard to get” or “convince me”. That means no.
2. Give her** an opportunity to say yes. The absence of “no” does not equal “yes”. If a girl is too drunk to stand, she’s probably too drunk to clearly indicate to you that she doesn’t want you doing that. The night I lost my virginity, the words from my then-boyfriend’s mouth were “are you sure?” It’s a good line! Use it! Ask if she’s sure she wants to do it, because a) it gives her the chance to very clearly and definitively say yes or no and b) it shows her one more time that she’s making the choice to be with someone who respects her.
3. Hand stuff counts. It doesn’t matter if it’s a penis, a finger, a vagina or a mouth, there is no hierarchy of right and wrong here. It’s a violation of her body, it’s a sexual crime and it’s wrong. You want to do it, you need consent.
4. Refer to women by their names. If you don’t know their names, don’t talk about them. If you want to discuss my bum, my legs, my clothing or any other thing about me that happens to turn you on or off, you’d better know who I am first. Because I’m a person, and it will be a person telling you they don’t want to go any further, not a pair of breasts.
5. If you think you need help, ask for it. You hear it from the mouths of uncles convicted of raping their teenage nieces, of priests convicted of assaulting children, of serial rapists who attack strangers. “I’m sick. I needed help.” I hate to think about it and I really hope you’re not one of them, but some people in the world will be sick. They will need help. And nobody is going to give it to them, nobody is going to know that they need help unless they reach out and ask for it. Make an appointment and talk to a mental health professional. Admitting your thoughts out loud is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do, but it’s a lot less difficult than hurting somebody and later having everybody you know find out that you’ve done it.
6. Compliment her smile, her sense of humour, her intelligence. I’ve heard a lot of talk about how provocatively women dress and how it makes it difficult for men to control themselves. And you know what, I agree. Teen girls do have a nasty habit of wearing what I refer to as “denim underwear”. That still isn’t going to make it their fault, but I can appreciate that it’s not much fun for the guys who have to keep looking away and pushing down a hard-on. Here’s the thing: they’re dressing that way because they want to attract your attention (or, in this country, because it’s too stinking hot). That is not the same thing as wanting you to have sex with them. They might find you attractive. They might want to feel attractive. They might want to be your girlfriend. They might just want to know that someone else wants to be their boyfriend. The solution, for society as a whole, is to stop using sex as our commonest measuring stick of what makes a person attractive. This isn’t a task that falls solely on the guys, of course, but this list is about what you can do. So, my challenge to you is to show her that you think her worth is in more than her boobs or bum. Because I know you do and she needs to know it too.
7. Talk about the non-sexual stuff with your mates. As above, this isn’t a short-term “in the moment of temptation” thing, it’s a long-term attitude developing thing. We need to get rid of this societal idea that relationships are just about sex. Every time you sit there with your friends talking about the girl you like and how big her breasts are, you’re reinforcing this idea to yourself, to your friends and to the girl. Why is it any less masculine to talk about her shared interests (some of which you presumably share with your friends as well)? I’m not saying you have to go really sensitive and start telling all the stories of times she stood up for you or how she makes you feel gooey inside or whatever. But let’s say you’re both into horror movies. Talk about how cool it is that you’ve found a girl who can appreciate your favourite film. Or a joke that she told you. Something your friends can appreciate that doesn’t make it seem like all you do is make out and fondle each other.
8. Be realistic about yourself and your limits. It’s hard for a young guy (or girl) to have a lot of self-control when they get going. Don’t rely on your impeccable knowledge of when to stop, when a shove is playful and when it’s serious. Don’t rely on your date being ready to bring out a full-on scream for help to indicate that she meant it when she said “I think we should go” earlier. This might sound counter-intuivite, but privacy is not always your friend. I’m not saying go around having big public displays of affection in front of your friends or get them in to watch. I’m saying give yourselves an easy out. Plan your dates for somewhere others might walk past or hear you. If you’re both willing to take it further, you’ll both be able to move somewhere more appropriate.
9. Expect sex to be good. Expect it to be with someone who is getting involved in foreplay, who is kissing you back, who might whisper your name. Expect it to be with someone who undressed herself, or helped undress you and smiled at you or kissed you while she did it. Expect it to be with someone else who wants to have sex. It will never be exactly as you imagined or the movies show it, but don’t settle for sex with someone who isn’t engaging with it.
10. See sex as a gift. A few weeks ago, the pastor at my church said this of sex: “You can either see it as God, see it as gross, or see it as a gift.” Don’t worship sex like God. Don’t see it as something you deserve – no one ever owes you sex, not for buying them dinner, for helping them out of an awkward situation, for telling them that you love them, even for being married to them. Don’t treat it as a victory, an achievement, the meaning of life or the path to your self-worth. But don’t treat it as something gross, something taboo, something to never talk about. That’s plain unrealistic and you’re setting yourself up to fail. Treat sex as a gift. I believe it’s a gift from God to be had in certain circumstances (marriage) only, but even if you don’t share that view, at the very least believe it is a gift from your partner. It’s something they don’t have to give you, something they are using to display how they feel about you. Giving a gift to someone should feel good. Accept a gift that’s given to you with dignity and politeness. You can tear the paper off if that’s ok with them, but wait until it’s been given to you, don’t just snatch it from underneath the Christmas tree. Treat sex as a gift – one you both give and receive.
Parents, talk to your kids. By all means, teach them to travel safely, to watch what they’re drinking, to dress modestly. But make sure you also teach them to respect people, to know when things are getting out of hand, to see themselves and each other as deserving of better.
**For flow of writing style and because it’s a list “for my son” I’m just referring to the potential perpetrator as “he” and the potential victim as “her”. I’m aware that sometimes women rape men or other women and sometimes men rape men.