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Book DetailsISBN: 9781760784881
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Book Review: The First Stone: 25th Anniversary Edition by Helen Garner - Reviewed by CloggieA (08 May 2020)
4 stars The First Stone: 25th Anniversary Edition is a non-fiction book by award-winning Australian journalist and author, Helen Garner. It includes a foreword by Leigh Sales and an afterword by Garner’s biographer, Bernadette Brennan. It also reprints David Leser’s original 1995 Good Weekend interview with Helen Garner, and her own 1995 address ‘The Fate of The First Stone’. These extras are by nature quite analytical and quote the original work so there is some repetition.
Initially published well before the #metoo era, it was Garner’s reaction to a case of indecent assault that was brought in 1992 against the Master of Ormond College, a co-ed residential college, by two young women, and it sparked a raging debate about sexual harassment in Australia.
In her foreward, Leigh Sales related her own #metoo incident: “I made the split-second decision that even confident adult women make all the time in response to this never- ending bullshit: to smile and play along rather than make a fuss and be seen as priggish or rude.” This, and many other incidents related in the book will strike a chord with most women: we have all been subject to such things to a greater or lesser degree.
Garner’s initial reaction, like that of many of her colleagues of her own vintage was one of disbelief that it had gone to the police and “I had thought of myself as a feminist, and had tried to act like one, for most of my adult life. It shocked me that now, though my experience of the world would usually have disposed me otherwise, I felt so much sympathy for the man in this story and so little for the women. I had a horrible feeling that my feminism and my ethics were speeding towards a head-on smash. I tried to turn on this gut reaction what they call ‘a searching and fearless moral inventory.”
What follow, in the form of transcripts of court proceedings, interviews, a series of vignettes, portraits, and meditations, are Garner’s attempts to make sense of the whole affair, which she believes could have been maturely and quickly resolved but for certain confidentiality requirements.
Garner, despite numerous approaches, was never able to interview the women, and acknowledges it “leaves a ragged hole which I am unable to fill” but some of those she spoke to stated, with respect to the accused “The Master’s a victim, but a powerful victim” and “Oh, I don’t believe he deserved what’s happened to him. He may be “innocent”–but he’s paying for many, many other men who have not been caught. It’s the irony of things, that sometimes the innocent or nearly-innocent pay for what the guilty have done.”
Garner explores the grey areas: flirting, the power dynamic between men and women, degrees of assault and taking responsibility for one’s effect on the opposite sex, to name just a few of the many issues.
She freely acknowledges what might be her own bias: “I thought too that, at 50, I might have forgotten what it was like to be a young woman out in the world, constantly the focus of men’s sexual attention. Or maybe I was cranky that my friends and sisters and I had got ourselves through decades of being wolf-whistled, propositioned, pestered, insulted, touched, attacked and worse, without the big guns of sexual harassment legislation to back us up. I thought that I might be mad at these girls for not having ‘taken it like a woman’, for being wimps who ran to the law to whinge about a minor unpleasantness, instead of standing up and fighting back with their own weapons of youth and quick wits. I tried to remember the mysterious passivity that can incapacitate a woman at a moment of unexpected, unwanted sexual pressure. Worst of all, I wondered whether I had become like one of those emotionally scarred men who boast to their sons, ‘I got the strap at school, and it didn’t do me any harm.” Twenty-five years on, still a very powerful read. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Pan Macmillan Australia.
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