Elisabeth Hanscombe


Two years ago, I found pictures of my mother, still in negative form, in an old yellow lunch box I had used to gather together the photos, developed and undeveloped, and left behind in my father’s collection after he had died.

I sent the negatives off to be developed in a specialist camera shop that still works with old technology.  My skin prickled at the sight of them.  My skin prickles now as I write about them.

I cannot look at these images without an awareness of my father behind the camera’s lens.  My father set my mother in this pose.  He told her how to sit, how to tilt her head, how to pull the thin dressing gown down around her shoulders so that all we can see are the lines of her arms above her body, her deep cleavage visible above the full corset she wore in those days.  The tags of her suspender belt that hold up her stockings peek out on top of her thighs.  The floral cotton of her gown covers her torso and flows in folds down to her knees.

In one of the photos my father must have instructed my mother to abandon the dressing gown altogether and she sits with her hands crossed one over the other on top of her thighs, the straps of her brassiere pulled down her shoulders, her belly covered by corset.  Hardly pornography by today’s standards, but by my childhood standards they still have the power to shock me.  Even now and my skin prickles afresh.

Behind my mother, the bed with its dark high backed mahogany headstand is rumpled.  The oval mirror in the middle of the bed head matches the mirror in the dressing table and from the photographs I can see the rounded back of a chair onto which my mother once sat to put on her make up, her compact powder and lipstick, nothing more.  My mother was never one for mascara, as these days I am not one for lipstick.  Lipstick has the feel of sticky tape on my lips.  It gags me.  The room is lined on every side with clothes laid out, one on top of the other: shirts, dresses trousers.  It is as if my mother were trying on outfits for a photo shoot, or is it possible that these clothes have accumulated over the week and wait now in piles for the weekly wash.

My mother does not look unhappy in these photographs.  I expect her to be unhappy behind her slight smile, but I cannot know.  I imagine my mother felt as I felt when I was eleven years old underneath the hot glare of my father’s photographic lights in the lounge room having to tilt my chin to expose my smile and my decaying teeth, but by then my mother had borne nine children to my father.  She must have known him well.  Perhaps he was not drunk when he took these photographs.  Perhaps he treated her kindly during these photo shoots, my mother the model, my father the photographer, the artist and his muse at work.

My mother has always fancied herself as a beauty.  I know this by the attention she pays to her image even now when she puts on lipstick at the mirror, or by the way she holds herself fixed in a particular pose, her head at a tilt, a small smile across her lips when she knows that someone wants to take her photograph, even now when she is over ninety years of age.

When I was little I saw my mother as a movie star, dark wavy hair, bright red lips glossy with colour, olive skin that tanned well in summer, despite her European origins.  My father was handsome, too, but in a bookish way.    He wore spectacles, round and horn rimmed.  His face was long.  His hair the colour of sand. Whenever  my  father  spoke  it was as if his  mouth  were  full  of  gravel,  his  accent  thick  with  heavy  Germanic  gutturals.  But I did not know my father then except as a drunk.  I resist the term alcoholic.  It has a diagnostic ring.  It is too inclusive.  It assumes we know things about the man, which we do not.

I was eleven years old when my mother first told me that my father was an alcoholic, as if that explained everything; as if that made up for everything; as if that might help her and us to account for the man who pissed into empty wine bottles at night while everyone was asleep; as if that might make up for the man who at the height of summer sat in his chair in the lounge room and one by one removed every item of his clothing, until he sat naked in front of the television in the middle of the day.  People who walked by along the street outside, alongside the roaring traffic of Canterbury Road, might peer in through the curtains, but my father showed no shame, as he sat there in his nakedness.

To my eleven year old self this seemed all wrong.  Other fathers did not take off their clothes in the middle of the day.  Other fathers did not take out their camera and photograph themselves naked, seated on the edge of their beds, as my did mine.  My mother called it his hobby, my father’s passion for photography.  He bought all the necessary equipment and set up lights in the lounge room, bright lights on metal stalks that reflected back every stain in the carpet, every dust mote in the air.  Not only did he photograph himself.  We were his subjects, too, we children and we lined up along the corridor outside the lounge room waiting for our turn.

‘You,’ he said to me, ‘sit up straight.  Tilt your chin to the right.’  I wanted to tilt it to the left.  ‘Smile,’ he said.  ‘Show us your teeth.’  I wanted to hide them.  I did not want history to record the colour of my teeth, of my two front incisors, which were turning grey from the holes behind them.  My father did not see, or if he did, he did not care.  ‘Smile wide now.’

At the end of the day my father took the rolls of film into his dark room, which had once been the pantry in our Camberwell house and now served as a hidden place that smelled of chemicals and secrets.  The first proofs he lined up in strips of negatives from pegs on the shower screen holder above the bath.  From these he selected the best shots for further development.  Shots that moved out of their tiny frames and into full sized pictures, in black and white, my sisters, my brothers and me, spread eagled along the sides of the bathtub as our images began to dry.

There are those who might consider my efforts at writing my story here obscene and even more so than my father’s photographic exploits.  At least he kept them to himself.  He was both voyeur and exhibitionist.  Am I the same?  I think about this often.  This need as a writer to find an audience.  This need to show off my wares, rather like my mother displaying her body for the camera’s eye.  Or am I like my father, peeling off one item after another of clothing to sit naked on my seat in the middle of the room, for all to see?

Have I no modesty, no shame? If I were to hide under a fiction writer’s label then at least I could say I made it all up, but I am an avowed autobiographer.  I use my own life experience, not only as fodder for my stories; my life experience is the stuff of my stories.  I probe it to find its centre.  I niggle at it again and again trying to tease out some sort of essence.  I cannot call it the absolute truth, but some sort of essence, some sort of emotional truth that lies within.

More than this, my curiosity about human nature led me as a fourteen-year-old to the idea of pursuing social work as a career.  I had wanted to rescue people like me from families like mine.  After I succeeded in this aim – a social worker at the Prince Henry’s Hospital in St Kilda Road Melbourne – I discovered after four years at university that my view of social work had been inflated.  At least, the social workers employed in hospitals in the 1970s were considered little more than form-fillers and handmaidens to the doctors.  So I shifted into psychotherapy training along psychoanalytic lines.  I wanted to work directly with people; to have an impact on their lives.  It is a long story but my aim by then was to follow my fantasy of Sigmund Freud and his follower’s.  To this end, I trained for another four years and became a psychoanalytic psychologist, hoping again to help people from families like mine.  People like me who are struggling to make sense of themselves and their place in the world.  Over the years my aspirations have developed just as psychoanalytic practice has evolved, just as my perspective on my parent’s sexuality has changed.

Yet to this day I am troubled by my mother’s demeanor in these photographs.  I think of her as abused, threatened by my father to conform to his wishes, the way I felt when I was a child on Saturday afternoons after my mother had taken herself off to their bedroom with my father.  I believed then she did so to spare us her children from him.

When I step back as an adult and reflect on my memories I want to challenge my child’s view.  It was not like that perhaps, that is just my reading of it.  How can I separate my adult perspective from that of my child?  I must also respect my child’s view.  To this day the idea of sex in the middle of the day troubles me, not for the sex, but for the timing.  It has an indecent ring as if my father were committing indecent acts on my mother behind closed doors and I cannot stop it.

Freud might have put it down to Oedipal desires, but as an adult now I know better.  I know that Sandor Ferenzci, Freud’s disciple, fell foul of his father-like mentor, because he refused to deny the high incidence of child sexual abuse as a factor in the difficulties of those troubled souls who frequented their Viennese consulting rooms.

The epistemological instinct, a term that used to send shudders through me until I learned to get my tongue around it, the urge to understand, the urge to know things, the basis of curiosity.  How much is it linked to my position as a psychotherapist? How much is it linked to my need to understand more now as an adult about the ways my parents lived their lives?

I asked my mother once what went on between her and my father on those Saturday afternoons.  ‘The things he did to me…’ She would not elaborate and I had not the heart to push her on the point.  Yet her answer has left me only more curious.  My little girl self baulks at the thought; my adult self wants to know more.  Bear in mind my mother was a religious woman, somewhat inhibited as far as I could see in all things sexual.  Did my father go to sexual extremes or was he merely asking her to offer favours that my mother found abhorrent?  One woman’s sexual pleasure might be another’s horror.  Perversions can take many forms, including exhibiting ourselves or getting sexual pleasure out of looking.

One night when I was young I had taken myself off to bed.  I can see myself still lying there, the blankets pulled up to my chin.  I waited then for my other sisters to come to bed.  The lights were on in the room, or perhaps I had turned them off.  I must have turned them off for I remember looking across to the window on one wall in our room and there in the darkness I saw the white orb of a face, a man’s face, I was sure.  I froze and although I stared at this face, the eyes scanned the room, not me, not then, but I wondered what he was looking for.

The face disappeared and I leapt from my bed into the lounge room where my mother sat with my older brothers watching television.  My father was asleep in his bedroom.

‘There’s a man looking through my window,’ I said and my brothers fled out the back door of our house down the side laneway and up Alexandra Avenue in his  pursuit.  They did not find the man, though they insisted to me later they had seen him in the distance.

A peeping Tom, one brother said.  At the time I had no doubt that I had seen him, too.  A peeping Tom, a voyeur, a man I now recognise as one who gets sexual pleasure out of looking, a man who is too fearful of intimacy to commit himself to close and real encounters.  Writing about it here I am left curious about my memory.  Did I create such a man in my fantasy to help me to cope with my father’s curiosity about sexuality, which he directed not only towards his wife but also towards his older daughter?  Could this have been my way of externalising the danger?

It was not the first time I experienced the world as a place filled with strange and sexually disturbed and disturbing men.  There was also the man I met down at the rubbish tip, a cutting under the Canterbury Road bridge into which people threw their unwanted stuff.  It was once the site of an abandoned railway line now filled with junk that we as children combed through in search of useful things.  On this day I had gone with a younger sister and an older brother.  Every time my brother went off over a hill or behind a clump of bushes to explore I noticed this man in the distance.  He had been fossicking nearby, or so I imagined until he flashed a silver coin at me and alternated the waving of this coin with a shaking of his penis.  My sister urged me to stay away but I assumed the man was offering me money and I wanted it.  Eight years old, and I walked over to the man.

‘Hold this and watch the cream come out,’ he said.  I do not remember the sensation of holding this man’s erect penis, then, or my thoughts as I watched him ejaculate into an empty paint tin, but afterwards, when he had handed me the money, I sensed my wrong doing such that I refused to tell my brother where the money had come from.

Days later when I told my mother about the man and the money she told me to take it to confession, and thereby confirmed my sinfulness.  My curiosity had won the better of me.

What would my brothers have done had they caught up with my peeping Tom?  The world seems safer far from the vantage point of time, however exhibitionist or voyeuristic it might seem.  After all these are only words on the page, or even photographs of bodies that no longer exist beyond their photographed form.  They might offend.  They might incite, but in themselves they can do no harm.

Time catches up with me.  My mother at ninety-two is slowly fading from heart failure.  I visit her in her retirement village room and make her a small cup of tea, which she may or may not drink, and then I rub down her legs with Sorbolene cream, a practice I took up several months ago after my mother’s legs began to break down into ulcers that at first would not heal.  ‘Keep her legs moisturised,’ one of the nurses had said and so we began this at first daily practice of rubbing the smooth white moisturiser into the old woman’s legs.

I sit with my mother in her room and listen yet again as she boasts about her age.  ‘I’m 92 years old.  I don’t get sick.  It’s amazing.  But other people here, all the other people here are coughing and spluttering.  So many have the flu, but me, not a sniffle.’

‘That’s good’ I say.  ‘But if you get so much as a sniffle, or a tickle in your throat you must tell the doctor straight away.’  It feels like a threat.  My mother towards the end of her life refuses to recognise her heart failure and the possibility of her death any day now, and I am not far behind reluctant to acknowledge the same.

In my family we boast about our good health, our genes, our immunity.  I spread the Sorbolene cream over my mother’s legs and pull back once again at the stale smell that wafts out whenever I take off her slippers.  They are all she wears on her feet these days, special slippers, with Velcro strips that adhere together to make for easy wearing.  She cannot otherwise get her slippers on and off.  They smell of the vinegar of old age and dead skin.  She knows it, I suspect.  My mother knows that her feet let off this sad stale stench but she says nothing.  I say nothing but spread the cream up and down her ankles and calves as if they were my own.

There is a dark spot like a blood blister that I had not noticed before.  I rub it with the tip of my finger.  It is smooth to touch.

‘I noticed that too,’ my mother says.  ‘It wasn’t there before.’

‘The mark of death,’ I want to say.  ‘Your skin is breaking down.’  But no.  ‘It’s probably just a blood blister,’ I say.  ‘I get them all the time, ever since I had babies.’

‘Nothing to worry about then,’ my mother says.

‘Maybe mention it to the doctor next time you see him.’

All this emphasis on our bodies.  All this effort to reduce our skin and bones into efficient machines that might go on forever, if only to keep out the cold.  These days once a week the Sorbolene cream on my mother’s legs is enough.  It is the ritual we enjoy.  The laying on of the hands, as a physiotherapist friend calls it, the gentleness of touch.  When you are 92 and both your husbands are long dead and your many children live far away and visit occasionally and will offer only a peremptory kiss on the cheek, there is not much on offer by way of touch.

Yet touch frightens me.  It bespeaks the possibility of invasion, of fingers poking around where they do not belong, and I am once again a little girl, fearful of my father’s visits in the night, my father’s visits when he climbs into bed with my older sister, a bed away from mine and I am fearful that my turn will be next.

‘If he touches you scream,’ my older sister said to me many years later when she had finally managed to escape the house but she had never screamed herself not until it was too late.  Nor did I scream and nor did he touch me, not really I believe, only in my imagination, but I avoided him.

I come back to these memories often when I write as if I am worrying at a sore that will not heal.  I know that I should leave it alone, but it becomes the source of so much of my wish to make sense of my life and to turn the damage around.

My father’s words rattle across the room like bullets from a machine gun.  In my imagination, I am still inside the room.  I am the fly on the wall, the recorder of events, the Hansard reporter.  Can I hear my father calling to me?  I cannot remember the sound of his voice, only as an idea, not an experience.  What am I doing back here again, always back here?  My father/myself.  Why?

I sit at the kitchen table in Camberwell in the evening after school taking notes from my textbook, taking notes on tiny sheets of pink paper that I hide within the pages of my book.  On these pink slips of paper I transcribe my father’s words.  My father’s words are the words of a mad man, but my father is not unhinged by psychopathy, he is unhinged by drink and by grief.  The grief that comes from a troubled childhood in a family filled with secrets and lies, the grief that comes from fighting in a war that he can never speak about afterwards.  And no one else will speak to him about what it was like.

He was not always mad, my mother says.  He was not always like that.  He did not always drink.  But there were times, just a few, when she said something or did something that seemed to upset him in ways she could not understand and for days on end he refused to speak to her.  He would leave for work in the morning without saying goodbye.  He would lie in bed beside her in the nighttime without saying a word.  He would sit at the breakfast table behind his newspaper and ignore her.  She had become invisible and she learned to stop pleading with him at these times to speak to her because she knew somehow in time it would pass.

Secrets, lies and silence are the daily nourishment of families.  We speak on the surface, say words that feel safe and protect each other and ourselves from the explosive force of what we really think and feel.  The secrets get under my skin while the memories hold fast beneath the surface.

I look now at a photograph of my father when he was a boy, maybe six, maybe seven.  He sits on the floor cross-legged, one in a row of seven children who sit in the first row in front of the adults at what looks to be a wedding shot.  My grandparents are there too, in the corner first row standing behind the seated adults, which include the wedding couple.  I guess they are a married couple because the woman in white carries a bouquet but she has no veil.  The photo could have been taken in Freud’s time though not in the Vienna of his fame but in Haarlem, Holland where my father lived during his childhood, and where he met my mother and from where he took her to Australia before I was born.

I do not know why there are tears behind my eyes when I look at these photographs, something about my inability to make sense of these times and these people, especially of my father and my father’s father and his mother.  The mystery of these people.  My father’s head is lowered but he lifts his eyes towards the camera as if he mistrusts the person taking the photo and his arms are folded.  Some of the other children in the photo fold their arms as well.  A technique of the photographer in those days to keep the children still perhaps.  No one smiles as is the custom in these old photos, several are caught at that moment with eyes closed including my paternal grandfather, the one who looks to me as though he could not be a relative of mine.  My grandmother, on the other hand, looks familiar.  She looks like my father.  She looks like me, the same long face, the angular chin.

My great grandparents are in this photo, too.  They sit on the side of the bride and I can only assume that this photo was taken at the wedding of my father’s aunt.  Apart from my father I know none of these people unless I am to include my aunt Nell who might well be the baby in the photo seated on my great grandmother’s knee.  Nell I have met.  Nell who was named after my grandmother, Petronella and after whom by rights I should have been named  but by the time I was born my mother tells me, my grandmother Nell was ‘in disgrace’.

‘What did she do?’ I asked even as I knew the answer.  Asking my mother questions such as these plunges her into a fug of memory to which she does not want to return.  I can see it in her eyes.  That glazed look.  A look that says, must we go there again?  She cannot bear to think on it.  She only wants to think about the good times.

My mother is 92.  I should leave her in peace.  I should not trouble her about these things but I cannot stop myself.  I worry at these thoughts like a dog at a bone.  I worry at these thoughts as if I am scratching at a wound whose scab is dry and ready to shear off but I know I should leave it to scale off without help from me. And yet I persist.

‘We know your Oma was imprisoned for embezzlement but there was more to it than that.’  Your father had nothing to do with it, my mother says yet again as she has told me before.  An inspector came to their house.  An inspector with brass buttons on  his coat, brass buttons that my mother tells me were signs of his authority. He told my mother she had nothing to worry about.  My father had left home well before the events that led to his parents’ imprisonment took place.

‘But what did they do to wind up in jail?’

‘Something sexual,’ my mother said.  ‘Something with the children.  The girls I think.  Your father saw nothing.’

‘How can you be so sure?’ I ask my mother as I peel back another layer from her denial.  How can you be so sure given what he did to us?  To my sister?  Even as I write this now I agonize over the name I might offer my older sister.  It is against the law in courts of law to name the victims of incest in the public domain.  It has something to do with protecting the innocence of victims.  I have never understood this.  How can victims be held responsible for what was done to them as children and yet in concealing their names it is as if we blame them in some way?

Perhaps it comes down to shame.  To be sexually abused is to be publicly shamed.  I do not want to shame my sister.  She has told me many times that I must write as I see fit, but she asks that I not identify her by name.

Years later we buried my father in the Cheltenham cemetery in a long rectangular grave covered in white pebbles from Healesville.  For his twenty years in Australia, his Dutch accent had clogged his communications, his many business ventures failed, he had nine children and turned to drink.  The graveyard slopes down into a valley and runs alongside a golf course.  My father’s name is inscribed in gold letters on a shiny piece of granite.

I still cannot make sense of my father or of his desires, of my mother and hers.  Their pictures, freeze dried in time, offer hints only of what these desires might have been.  And for the rest, for my desires, my curiosity, I can only rely on old photographs and on my ever-evolving memories.