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First Stone: Some Questions about Sex and Power

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In this gripping non-fiction narrative, Helen Garner delves into the causes and effects of police charges pressed against the Master of Ormond College by two female students who claimed he fondled them at a school function. Two overriding questions trouble Ms. Garner throughout her investigations: why did these students choose to go to the police instead of having the matter settled through the school's private arbitration process, and why, when the Master was found innocent of these charges, was he terminated ...
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The First Stone

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Overview

In this gripping non-fiction narrative, Helen Garner delves into the causes and effects of police charges pressed against the Master of Ormond College by two female students who claimed he fondled them at a school function. Two overriding questions trouble Ms. Garner throughout her investigations: why did these students choose to go to the police instead of having the matter settled through the school's private arbitration process, and why, when the Master was found innocent of these charges, was he terminated from his position? The boldness of this searing piece of literary journalism and the resulting furor over its publication in her native Australia forced Garner to rethink her stance on the feminism she had fought so hard and so long to support. The obscured distinction between "sexual harassment" and "violence against women" is at the heart of this story, and we are drawn into it as Garner re-examines her own attitudes and experiences in the light of a powerful drama about men and women today. Eventually, Garner is forced to admit that feminism has become another kind of political fundamentalism, often without a thoughtful and responsible examination of the facts behind media-driven stories. Why, she asks, do both feelings and compassion for the involved parties need to be sacrificed for a doctrinaire political agenda? Does searching for a more mature and ethical framework than was laid down in the rebellious excitement of the '60s mean betraying the "Cause"? Garner asserts that women are not always victims, and the orthodoxy of what feminism has become stands in the way of real political and personal progress. Ultimately, The First Stone is a call for hard-line feminists to grow up and get conscious. It asks for a new kind of feminism based on the cultivation of an individual's power of self-expression, responsibility, and, indeed, exactly the kind of self-discovery her insightful narrative represents.

This bold, beautifully wrought piece of investigative journalism presents the gripping story of a celebrated sexual harassment case brought by two female students against their college schoolmaster. Compelling and intimate, The First Stone challenges the blind orthodoxy of today's new breed of feminists and tells of the cost of party-line politics over the more complex matters of human relations. 256 pp. National print ads. 15,000 print.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1992, Australian journalist and novelist Garner read an account of a college master (a "principal executive officer of a residential college") being charged with indecent assault on two college women. For reasons not immediately clear even to herself, she sympathized with the man and slowly began to write a journalistic account of the case. The result is a marvelous, tension-filled, nonfiction novel, a sort of In Cold Blood of sex and power relations. She recounts, in tough, taut prose, a strenuous journey to determine the master's guilt or innocence that ends with finding, as one respondent put it, that "The truth was at the bottom of the well." But the author is actually peeling away layers covering another question, namely, whether men and women are parts of the same humanity. "Our culture at large is obsessed, at the moment, with matters of sex and power in the relations between women and men," she observes. As a feminist, she recoils from "a certain kind of modern feminism: priggish, disingenuous, unforgiving." As a woman, she writes to men in a voice that other feminists rarely ever try and that compels male self-examination. The book's title, unfortunately, is almost a biblical clich. An afterword, analyzing Australian reaction to the book, which has already been published in that country, concludes a vivid, dramatic story on a pale note. These are two minor quibbles with a major book. (Apr.)
Library Journal
This 1995 Australian best seller is the story of a celebrated sexual harassment case. In investigating it, journalist Garner (Sisters, HarperCollins, 1994) concluded that the accusers shattered an innocent man's life. Two female students at a college in Melbourne reported that their schoolmaster had put a hand on one woman's breast and had made a lewd proposition to the other at a party. The courts exonerated the schoolmaster on the grounds of insufficient evidence, but he was forced to resign his position. The publication of this work in Australia resulted in a bitter controversy. Garner's search for the truth is presented in a series of vignettes, meditations, and interviews. The result is a plodding narrative written in Australian English that will sometimes confuse readers. A marginal choice for American readers.Eva Lautemann, DeKalb Coll. Lib., Clarkston, Ga.
Kirkus Reviews
A circuitous, speculative essay about an infamous sexual harassment case at an Australian university.

Garner, a novelist, essayist, screenwriter of films directed by Jane Campion and Gillian Armstrong, and occasional journalist for Time Australia, was drawn into her obsession with this case by a 1992 newspaper report: A woman law student filed an indecent assault complaint with local police against the master of Ormond College at Melbourne Univesity. The student alleged that the man had put his hand on her breast while they danced at an end-of-the-school-year social. Garner, a self-described "feminist pushing fifty," impulsively writes to the accused academic, deploring that "our ideals of so many years [should be] distorted into this ghastly punitiveness." She seems surprised that these words come back to haunt her later attempts to probe the case as a journalist and effectively block her constructing a straightforward investigative account. Indeed, her unsuccessful efforts to arrange a single conversation with either of two women students who bring charges against the master is the slender thread on which she hangs her narrative. We follow Garner through a series of awkward interviews, from the hapless master (who is forced from his job, though Garner comes to believe he is innocent) to many others peripherally involved in the case. None of the informants speak to Garner on the record, and her own reliability as an observer is far from clear. She comes across as a self-absorbed woman who is admittedly overinvested in her identity as a rebel and a seeker during the '70s. The mother of a grown daughter, she remains both skeptical of men's ability to negotiate subtle sexual currents and vaguely contemptuous of young women in denial about the power of their own beauty and sexual magnetism.

Though not without occasional insights about the inadequacies of the adversarial processes of law in resolving conflicts about sex and power, this is ultimately more frustrating than illuminating to read.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684835068
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/1997
  • Pages: 237
  • Product dimensions: 5.84 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.95 (d)

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