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It all began with Peggy and Reg.
It was the mid-1930s, when the pall of the Depression still lingered. Peggy Lafrank was making her way down the tree-lined boulevard of Collins Street, Melbourne, when a tall, well-dressed man standing with a group caught her eye. She was an apprentice milliner, just eighteen years old, long-legged, lively and smart; he was an urbane thirty-year-old who sold newspaper advertising space for a living in the city. Trying his luck, he tipped his hat and invited her for a coffee. Boldly, she accepted. They made an attractive couple as they strolled off down Collins Street to get better acquainted.
Australia's newspaper advertising men, smooth of patter and media patois, led mobile lives. Reg Greer had sold advertising space in Perth and Adelaide before moving to Melbourne, where he eventually became the local representative for the Adelaide Advertiser, a job he would hold for most of his working life. When Reg visited Peggy at home, he seemed a plausible suitor, despite the age gap. With his well-cut clothes and winning, worldly ways, he was apparently a man on the way up, and most solicitous of the Lafrank family's affairs. Reg charmed Peggy's mother, Alida `Liddy' Lafrank, nee Jensen. Reg Greer could be just the man to rein in her tall, attractive, headstrong daughter. Peggy was full of life, determined to be herself, her own person, and Reg appeared to be a moderating influence.
Reg escaped the spanners and screwdrivers that Peggy's father Albert had thrown at her previous boyfriends. Albert Lafrank, a salesman of Swiss-Italian heritage, had been cast off by Liddy and the children, who had packed up and left him a few months earlier. His son Bernard left first, sick of his father's strict ways; Liddy and the two younger siblings followed weeks later. But Peggy had not forgotten her father's lectures in the wake of the flying hand-tools. `You think I'm hard, but if you knew how men talked about women and girls, boasting ...' he would begin.
Years later after the marriage had gone awry, Liddy would tell Peggy to stop complaining about Reg. `He just sits in front of telly, or talks about sport,' Peggy protested.
`He takes good care of you, settled you down,' Liddy would reply. `I don't know what would have become of you if it hadn't been for Reg!'
Peggy resented the implication: `Fancy saying to your daughter your husband sort of settled you down!' Liddy did not even object to the fact that Reg was not Catholic; she insisted only that the children of the marriage be educated in Catholic schools.
While Liddy saw Reg as a restraining influence on her young daughter, Peggy saw him as a suave and knowing guide to the bigger, more adventurous life to which she aspired. In the conservative, Anglophile, stultifyingly predictable Melbourne of the 1930s, this tall, worldly beau from the faintly glossy fringe of the fourth estate seemed to offer Peggy an escape from suburban mediocrity to excitement and sophistication.
Margaret Mary Lafrank and Eric Reginald Greer married in March 1937 at St. Columba's, a small Catholic church in the bayside suburb of Elwood. Peggy gave up her millinery job. Reg rented a modest flat in an improving middle-class area not far from St. Columba's, in Docker Street, near the beach. Peggy swam, sunbaked and did calisthenics on the sand; Reg came home from the office, poured himself cold beers and settled back to enjoy married life. The new Mrs. Greer's style would increasingly tend to the idiosyncratic, but at the outset she wore lashings of make-up, very much to her husband's taste. Before her marriage she modelled commercially once in a biscuit advertisement organized by Reg. The image — a winsome Peggy offering a biscuit to an appreciative older man — lived on as an icon in the Greer household, reminding the children of their mother's momentary public glamor.
In the autumn of 1938 came the first conception. Peggy's pregnancy was easy, with little more than queasiness. But the labor was long and difficult. The baby, a girl, was bruised around the head from the traumatic delivery and arrived in floods of blood as Peggy hemorrhaged from a retained placenta. The baby was named Germaine, with no middle initial to interrupt the elegant alliteration with Greer. According to Peggy, it was the name of a minor British actress she found in an English magazine Reg had brought home from work. In Germaine's version, her mother was reading George Sand's The Countess of Rudolstadt when she fell pregnant, and drew the name from one of its characters, the Comte de Saint-Germain — `because she liked the sound of it, I reckon.' It was the height of the last Australian summer before the war: 29 January 1939.
Peggy, exhausted by the experience, decided one confinement was enough. Germaine compensated for the horror of the birth by being a good baby, sleeping soundly and breastfeeding peacefully. When other tenants objected to Germaine's nappies occupying the clothesline, the landlady offered an alternative flat, upstairs in a block around the corner on the Esplanade, directly overlooking the beach. Peggy, Reg and Germaine moved, taking the wet nappies with them.
After a year of contented breastfeeding, Germaine was reluctant to be weaned. `It took ages to get her off the breast,' according to her mother. Nor was she quick to speak. `I remember saying to our doctor when she was thirteen or fourteen months old, "When is she going to talk to me?" He said: "Just wait till she starts!"' If the words were slow to come, the drawings were not. While Peggy tidied the flat, Germaine would sit strapped in the high chair, with butcher's paper and crayons set in reach, or sometimes a plate of food would be set out to occupy her. One day a suspicious silence tweaked Peggy's concern. Germaine had fallen fast asleep, face flat in her plate of mush.
Germaine would remember nothing of this, nothing before Reg, `Daddy,' went away to war. Her earliest memory of her father was that he was not there. Reg joined the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) in January 1942, just before his daughter's third birthday, and moved away from home to train in the city with other volunteers for the Royal Australian Air Force. Three months later he was on a ship to Cairo, attached to Britain's Royal Air Force for classified cipher work. In the Esplanade flat, Peggy Greer got on with her young Elwood mother's life, consisting mainly of baby, beach and the bountiful attention of visiting American soldiers. `I had a good time with the Yanks,' says Peggy. `They were nice to Germaine too. They'd go into her nursery with their cigars and tell her bedtime stories.' Liddy, who lived not far away and doted on her grandchild, minded the baby while Peggy socialized with the young Americans. `Perhaps I shouldn't have done that,' Peggy Greer ponders now.
Reg was still away when Germaine started at St. Columba's, the little school attached to the church where he and Peggy had married. In neat cursive script the St. Columba's ledger notes the arrival in February 1943 of student number 1664: `Greer, Germaine. 57 Ormond Rd. Born 29.1.39. Religion: Catholic. Parent's name in full: Reginald. Parent's Occupation: A. I. F.' The entry was sandwiched between Marion Titheradge, also of Ormond Road, whose father Noel was a clerk, and Noel Olarenshaw of Byron Street, whose father John was in the Royal Australian Air Force. Of the thirty-six names listed under `Parent's Name in Full' on that page in the register, only three were women: two engaged in `Home Duties' and the other listing `Library.' Many fathers were at the war; a few were manual workers — `Railway Employee,' `Factory,' `Postal' and `Engine Fitter.' Most were typical of the rising middle class that made up the bulk of the area's residents: draughtsmen, woolclassers, a builder, a doctor, a couple of journalists, a hotel-keeper, clerks. Only one Christian name stands out from the sea of Johns, Williams, Malcolms and Geralds: Verruccio, shopkeeper, of Glenhuntly Road. The town planners had added a little literary tone to the area, playing up to the residents' middle-class pretensions. Greer's classmates lived not only in Byron Street, but in Poets Grove, Dickens Street and Scott Street as well.
Germaine was bright, and people remarked on it to Peggy: `The nuns told me I ought to be proud. I wasn't unproud. My response was that I ought to give her into the nuns' care because the Japanese were going to come down and get us.' The suggestion was half-serious, reflecting the Australians' real fear of Japanese invasion during the Pacific War. Like Reg, thousands of Australian troops were fighting on behalf of the British in Europe and the Middle East; reciprocal support in Asia and the Pacific from the overstretched British was barely forthcoming. Australia struggled to redirect war resources and personnel to the Asia-Pacific theater as the Japanese assault moved south through Indo-China, Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Papua and New Guinea to the northern fringes of Australia. Darwin in the Northern Territory was bombed in February 1942; in May, three Japanese midget submarines sneaked into Sydney Harbour and sank a ferry. The Greers' home in Victoria was far from the danger, but Melburnians like Peggy were anxious nevertheless. Illness added to Peggy's concern about her daughter. `Germaine was kind of sickly,' her mother recalls. `She was injected against diphtheria, which was rife then, and you had to be careful of infantile paralysis — I was always worried about that.' Germaine had attacks of croup: `She'd sit up there, pale. Mum and I would make a fuss.'
Reg was invalided out of the forces long before the war ended, less than two years after he joined the AlF. Peggy and Germaine met him at Melbourne's main railway station. He returned a haggard, anorexic shell of the man he had been when he departed.
The Greers had to struggle to re-establish married life as Reg battled with the debilitating effects of war-induced neurosis and Peggy came to terms with the damaged man who had returned in place of her pre-war husband. Reg was no carefree, cigar-wielding American serviceman enjoying rest and recreation leave; he was not even the smooth newspaper advertising sales rep with whom she had linked arms in Collins Street. Peggy found the situation difficult to deal with, but as a Catholic she was committed to the marriage for the long haul.
There was an accommodation between the Greers, but not an easy one. Like many wives of the era, Peggy never knew the size of Reg's pay-packet, though she says he provided for the family adequately. There was no emotional, spiritual or material balm to melt Peggy's diffidence toward Reg. `Reg and I weren't really good friends,' she recalls. `He was always polite.' Germaine's desperate desire for love from her hitherto missing father provided a peculiar symmetry to Peggy's distance from him. Reg's return intensified rather than assuaged Germaine's paternal longing. `He was in a bad state when he got home from the war,' Peggy says. `He ignored her.' Germaine was resentful. `Daddy' never hugged her. When she put her skinny arms around him he would grimace, shudder and push her away — ostensibly as a joke, but it was one he played each time she sought fatherly comfort and affection. Germaine tried to rationalize his hurtful ploy as an anxiety-relieving ritual: `I clung to the faith that he was not genuinely indifferent to me and did not really find me repulsive, although I never quite succeeded in banishing the fear of such a thing.'
An added complication was Germaine's memory of Peggy's association with a particular American soldier when Germaine was a toddler. The Americans on rest and recreation leave produced a deep, competitive anger among Australian men fighting overseas who had left wives and girlfriends behind at home. According to Germaine, Peggy felt threatened because she thought her daughter might have witnessed an infidelity. `And she's right,' Germaine reflected more than forty years later, in an interview with the psychiatrist Dr. Anthony Clare. `I was a witness, and I could remember that relationship if I wanted to. I can remember one episode from it which was nearly fatal ... I was given a knockout drop.' On that occasion she was fed some lobster thermidor, the smell of which makes her sick even now. `People don't forget, you know,' Germaine continued. `Mum thought she'd got away with it, and she still thinks she got away with it, I guess.'
Nobody wanted to know what she knew, this dynamite secret with the potential to blow the whole family apart. `I'm sure that I was connected in his mind with the peak of his anxiety condition,' she said of her distant, sometimes tortured father, `when he found that his marriage was extremely shaky and that things had gone on that he'd rather not think about — and in the middle of all of this is this brat. This knowing brat! God knows what I said to him! I'm sure I made the situation worse. And that's when the holding me off business began. No confrontations with this child, because this child will make the catastrophe happen.'
Not only did Reg deny Germaine attention and affection, but he was also absorbing her mother's energy, on which she had previously had first claim. In Peggy's view, `She thought of me as her personal property. She was rather a clinging child, to both of us. She liked to know what was going on, including between us.' Her possessiveness spilled over into reluctance to go to school. `She liked to stay home.... She'd hang back rather than go to school. One morning she was dressed, and had on a straw hat. I said: "Go on, you've got to go." She banged the hat down on her head and put her neck out, and was in bed for a week.'
The rejection was sometimes reciprocated. In the local Elwood milk bar, the young Germaine picked out her mixed bag of lollies then looked to her mother for money. `You'd better ask your father,' Peggy said. `He's not my father,' retorted Germaine. `God in heaven's my father.' To which a grim-faced Reg responded: `Well, you'd better get him to pay, then, hadn't you.'
Germaine's distress about the cold, nervous man who returned instead of the distinguished stranger whose photograph stood on the sideboard was complicated by the baby sister his arrival set in train. Reg's physical and mental deterioration had not extinguished his sexual being. Jane Greer was born on 5 February 1945, just after her father-hungry sister had turned six. `I did it for him really, and Germaine and me,' Peggy says. `[We] needed something to settle us down.' Again the labor was long and complicated by another retained placenta which caused a major hemorrhage. After a further five-year interval, Barry Greer was born.
Peggy's reproductive travails did not deter Germaine from traditional girlish pursuits. `Germaine liked dolls. She wasn't a tomboy,' Peggy remembers, although there was plenty of time outdoors too. `I used to live at the beach with the kids. They had the best of everything. We'd clear up and then go to the beach all day. Meet your friends, play with canoes.'
At school, however, Germaine showed little interest in sport but displayed great aptitude for her lessons. She was powerfully influenced by Liddy Lafrank, who strongly favored a good education. `A respect for school, learning, would've come from my mother,' according to Peggy. `She used to say, "It's no load to carry."' Discord at home did not stop Germaine from taking Liddy's cue and excelling at school, even if it made her less likely to develop a placid temperament. `She was nearly always top of the class,' says Peggy, `very good at spelling and writing. She would listen.' At the same time she would regularly misbehave. `She was disrespectful of the nuns at primary school,' Peggy recalls. `I wasn't the sort of mother to go down to the school. They have to fight their own battles — if they got the cane, tough.' Liddy was softer with her clever grandchild. She bought Germaine expensive toys, including a prized tricycle which Germaine, in a moment of childish generosity, redistributed to a needy friend. `I said one day: "I haven't seen your trike,"' Peggy says. `She said: "I gave it to Pammy, she doesn't have a good one."' Germaine remembered being smacked for her early altruism.
Corporal punishment and emotional conflict stud Germaine Greer's accounts of her childhood. She feared her mother and has said that she suffered intensely because of Peggy's personality: `I'm supposed to be grown up and have forgotten about it but it's very difficult to forget being terrorized when you were only two feet high! It's not even that you remember it a lot: it's just unforgettable.' She compared the situation to the plot of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: `A monstrous birth is the most terrifying thing a woman can confront and I was it.' The relationship was not made any easier by her mother's readiness to use corporal punishment, according to Germaine, `because my mother did physically abuse me as a child. She didn't do it very badly — I haven't got a cracked skull, I'm not burnt, I haven't got scars. But she did use weapons. She used a stick. And she used to hurt me pretty badly ... I don't think she did it all that often, but it was always totally unexpected.'
As late as 1992 Greer said she was unable to speak to her mother without anxiety setting in, her palms sweating and heart pounding; she claimed in print that her mother later even attempted to undermine Germaine's confidence in Reg Greer's paternity itself. By contrast, Germaine portrayed herself as placid and agreeable. `Was I a bad girl?' she queried. `Huh! Do you know, the first time I heard a child say "no" to its mother I felt as if the world had come to an end. I never said no to my mother; perhaps I should have. I mean, my theory used to be that when my mother belted me, I should have turned around and dropped her, and the fact that I didn't has been something that has affected my whole development. I've got one punch that I pulled that I should have let fly.'
Peggy does not dispute that she used to smack Germaine when she believed she was being naughty. She considered the smack an indispensable part of any mother's child-rearing kit, particularly with headstrong children like Germaine: `I can't see how you can get along without giving kids a whack. If they defy you, you'd have to be a saint not to give them a whack sometimes.'
A singular episode illustrates why Greer remembered her punishments as arbitrary. Germaine was late home one day from primary school, Peggy recalls:
She'd walked home round the beach. Reg was sitting at the kitchen window. Germaine was hand-in-hand with this man ... He was carrying her books. I said: `My God, what'll I do?' Reg said: `I'm going to call the cops.'
The cop came on a bike. They'd disappeared [into the bushes]. Reg went down and found the cop. The cop said to Reg: `He's just a simple chap, always around.' I was angry with Germaine. She knew she shouldn't have come round that way! She would've been about ten. I can't help it — I belted her. Reg said to the cop: `You should've let him get on with it. You shouldn't have stopped him. Then he could've been charged.' I wondered about what Reg had turned into that he took that attitude.
For her to have walked the wrong way home! She didn't say much. I pulled the cord out of the toaster and hit her across the legs. I was far more upset than her. I had to make her understand there were other people in the world apart from her. There's a streak in her of incomprehension about other people's feelings. I don't think you should betray your family.
Peggy `couldn't help it,' she said, of hitting her daughter with the toaster cord. But to Germaine, unlikely at that age to have learnt any concept of vulnerability to sexual assault, her mother's furious anxiety would have seemed mystifying.
Germaine loved her father for not hitting her but his failure to protect her from Peggy lost him her respect. He sat in the next room, where the thud of blows was clearly audible,' without intervening. To his daughter he was revealed as weak, craven, feeble: `"It takes two to quarrel," he would say, apparently unaware that I could not go off to my club until the mad dog in the kitchen had stopped foaming at the mouth.... Nevertheless I could not forgive my mother for calling him "a senile old goat," as she often did.' Germaine remained unconvinced that her father loved her. Where were the demonstrations of pride and affection from him, let alone love?
Germaine's early passivity toward her parents extended to her quest for knowledge about her father's family, a mysterious entity lacking the usual cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles — or, indeed, anybody at all. Reg had `forbidden' Germaine to ask questions. That there was some dark secret about him was, in retrospect, an unavoidable conclusion. `You had to know there was,' she says, `because you'd say to him: "Why don't I have any grandparents on your side of the family? Where are they?" And sometimes he'd say they were in England and sometimes he'd say they were dead.' Fantasy fathers lived on in her mind until Germaine was nearly fifty years old. There was the idealized Daddy who lovingly dandled her on his knee before departing for the war; there was the war hero who had been away on top-secret cipher work, returning shattered by the harshness of his military debriefing; and there was the elegant, conservative, rather snobbish newspaper advertising executive who was dismissive of her intellectual achievements — by implication, because of his own superior education.
According to family myth, Reg was born to an English colonial family in Durban, South Africa, and raised in Launceston, Tasmania. His gloves, tailored suits, affability and well-modulated voice seemed to corroborate the story. Greer accepted her father's veto on inquiry into the wider family relations, and put off the search until after his death. As a result, it was not until middle age that she discovered her father had withheld the truth about his personal history. Meanwhile her perceptions of Reg continued to be based more on wish-fulfilment than on fact.
Writing later about her childhood home, Greer painted a picture of relative cultural deprivation. There were only twenty books in the bird's-eye maple bookcase of her parents' sitting room, she wrote, all of them aids to her father's alleged seduction of other women. `Because of my infant reading of my father's books, literature and voluptuousness are inextricably entangled in my mind.' Reg's selection included Theophile Gautier's erotic classic Mademoiselle de Maupin, which provided Greer with `my first, and will probably provide me with my last, masturbation fantasy'; Negley Farson's The Way of a Transgressor, where she read that `whores make the best wives'; and Liam O'Flaherty's Famine, where she read how `the parish priest used to nuzzle his housekeeper's ebullient breasts.' At eleven years of age she asked her father what a whore was, one of the other twenty books — a Shakespeare collection — propped in her lap in self-defence against the inevitable barked inquiry about what she had been reading.
The passivity that characterized Germaine's relationship with her parents was reversed at school. She came up through the scholarship ranks, moving on from St. Columba's to Sacred Heart in Sandringham and Holy Redeemer in Ripponlea, a hot-house where talented young Catholics were prepared for scholarship exams. Germaine was successful, and in 1952 she enrolled as a scholarship student at Star of the Sea College, Gardenvale — motto Facta Non Verba, `deeds not words' — a college of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Presentation Sisters, an Irish order, date from the eighteenth century. The founder, Honora `Nano' Nagle, was educated at a French convent during a time of intense Catholic persecution in Ireland. In 1754 she opened a school for thirty girls, reputedly in a mud cabin in a back street of Cork, at a time when opening a Catholic school of any sort was an invitation to official persecution. Drawing on a small inheritance, she expanded her program of good works, opening more schools, arranging for Irish women to be trained as nuns by the Ursulines in France, and eventually establishing her own order in the 1770s. After the death of Nagle, who was by then known as Sister John of God, the Presentation Sisters were formally recognized by the Holy See.
The order was established in Australia a century later, in 1883, and the Australian wing immediately distinguished itself as one of strong women prepared to confront male authority. The two founding sisters, Mother Paul Fay and Mother John Byrne, were initially invited to establish a school in the New South Wales country town of Wagga Wagga, but they decamped to Melbourne after the local bishop appropriated the deeds to the school. They established their new college in Gardenvale, a leafy affluent suburb close to Melbourne's Brighton Beach. In Melbourne they enjoyed better relations with the clergy; as a welcoming gesture, the local parish priest gave the school a bell which still rang the Angelus three times a day during Germaine's student years.
The school bore no resemblance to any mud cabin in an Irish back street. It rose confidently in stone, two storeys high, surrounded by small, decorative gardens and later fronted by an asphalt playground. A tinge of the social conscience that drove Nano Nagle survived. Independent thought was encouraged among the girls to an extent unusual in a convent school, with a thread of compassion and sense of social justice woven through the teaching; `strong Star women' became a catch phrase. The nuns were well educated and full of the love of their job, teaching and even administering discipline quietly. Greer recalled: `The worse trouble you were in, the softer the voice. They'd deliver this rabbit-killer punch in a soft, soft voice.'
The principal, Mother Eymard Temby, was a Star girl herself, and exerted a major influence on the philosophical tone of the school. A significant figure in Australian Catholic education, she was forty-one when Germaine arrived. Mother Eymard believed that `all people are precious in their very existence, and that everything possible should be done by individuals, churches and governments to draw out their potential as human beings — and to resist all manner of oppression.' She was explicitly interested in the status of women and advocated an active role for women in the Catholic laity. At the time of Vatican II in the 1960s, a pivotal, liberalizing period of Catholic philosophical development, she urged women to examine the new concepts and embrace change. She would instruct Catholic women's groups that change could be a force for growth; it was something to be desired, something exciting, dynamic and challenging. `Now the Holy Spirit is revealing some very significant truths here,' she told one group of women in the conservative rural Victorian region of Gippsland in 1967, during a discussion of Vatican II. `Most importantly, that we are Christians every minute of the day, that for the laity their way to God lies in their family life, social life and work life. These measure the extent of our Christianity — not the number of novenas we make or the fervour with which we sing the Benediction.'
The teaching at Star in the 1950s was built on the same intense moral conservatism that imbued Catholicism in the rest of Australia at the time, but Mother Eymard's activist influence subtly pervaded the school culture. While she was no raging feminist in the modern, secular sense, Mother Eymard ardently hoped that Star would produce girls who would become strong women, able to make an impact for good. Shortly after Greer's first book, The Female Eunuch, was published, for example, Mother Eymard publicly defended Star's controversial graduate against the criticisms of a male doctor who had attacked the book's sexual orientation. Mother Eymard thanked the doctor for his comment, but continued that, while she didn't at all agree with everything Germaine had written, she acknowledged her intelligence, courage, ability and her strength to change the world.
Star of the Sea would be the tall, precocious thirteen-year-old's savior from unhappiness and sparse cultural stimulus at home. School archive records describe an adventurous, articulate, creative girl of keen intelligence and a great love of fine music and art. Germaine was well liked, according to one nun's report, but she was `a bit of a mad-cap and somewhat erratic in her studies and in her personal responses.'
Star's great, gray Gothic building and asphalt exercise yard at first seemed forbidding to Germaine, but the vigorous life of Star's community of women, the singing and drama, the motivated teachers ready to forgive the talented student her foibles quickly cemented its place in her affections, in contrast to home. She was always hanging around school, and rode her bicycle home by indirect routes to stave off going back to Peggy and Reg for as long as possible. Over her years at Star she spent longer and longer hours at the school, making up various extra-curricular activities to fill the period between four o'clock when school finished and meal time at home. School offered a wealth of culture and thought that put Germaine and her faith in a wider context, and she absorbed it eagerly.
At home the only relief from tedium was mischief-making. None of the elements of the good life that she later came to appreciate — wine, good food, good music, a decent library, beautiful furniture, flowers, parties, paintings — was evident at the Greer house; but then such things were not to be found in most modest suburban middle-class homes in 1950s Melbourne. Reg used home chiefly as a place for basic maintenance and ablutions — food, laundry, bed and bathing. He would bring home the foreign language editions of Reader's Digest for his daughter but rarely if ever attended school speech nights. Reg did not applaud Germaine's prizes in public and barely registered them in private.
While Germaine's own recollections have emphasized the passive stance she remembered adopting toward her parents, there are conflicting memories of her verbal jousts with Reg. Germaine and her father could not have a discussion; it had to be a debate, with Germaine challenging Reg's definitive pronouncements, questioning, pushing, probing. Particularly in the years immediately after his return from the war, he lacked the psychological strength to deal with Germaine's power-charged onslaught. His strategy was to avoid engagement. Held at arm's length emotionally, Germaine carried through her teenage years the added burden of believing she was the only reason her mother had stayed with Reg — a revelation Peggy had made to her daughter when Germaine was twelve, on the threshold of adolescence. For Germaine: `That was a really tough one to take, because their relationship to me seemed to be appalling.'
Peggy Greer's own memories of the children's school years, by contrast, are happy ones: `We'd sing over the washing up at home — hymns, Latin mass, cantatas. We'd dance to the radio. We enjoyed ourselves.' Germaine and her mother both liked reading Georgette Heyer's period romances, with their dashing heroes and swooning lace-clad heroines. Germaine took up fencing, a sport in which she could deploy her height and reach to advantage. Only menstruation seemed to flatten her energies. `She was a complete wreck at period time,' Peggy recalls, `great pain, lying about.' But the older Germaine grew, the more she felt the family happiness centered on Jane and baby Barry.
The younger children benefited from having a father whose psychological wounds were better healed, or at least better held together, than they had been immediately after his return from the war. As Peggy admits, `Reg was more affectionate with Barry than the other two.' Reg's support for his son was unequivocal. `He helped me identify that I was worthwhile,' Barry recalls, `which is pretty good stuff for parents to do.'
Germaine thought Barry adorable too, and Barry worshipped her in return, but she felt a burning sense of unfairness at the contrast with Reg's attitude toward her. She did not have a dog as a child. Barry did, `but then my brother had everything. My brother got into Daddy's bed every morning of his life until he was at least twelve years old. Daddy mightn't have been able to hug me, but he had no difficulty doting on my brother.'
To Germaine her sister and particularly her brother were clearly loved, while she was criticized, attacked and literally spurned by her father. The more Germaine strove to win her parents' praise through her efforts at school, the less her academic achievements seemed to impress them: `When my brother was expected my father tried out names, "Dr. Gideon Greer," "Dr. John Greer." He never tried out "Dr. Germaine Greer."'
Peggy's relationship with the younger children was totally different from her attitude to her first-born, according to Germaine, `because I was a disaster.' She came to believe that Peggy had not wanted a baby so early in her marriage. Combined with a terrible labor and the subsequent vicissitudes of an unexpected war — not least its impact on Peggy's marriage — this profoundly impaired their bonding. `What she wanted to do was dance on the deck of an ocean liner under the stars to the strains of Nelson Riddle,' Greer commented drily in her interview with Anthony Clare. `She really did not want to be on her back, in pain, in a dreary rented apartment.' Germaine simply could not shake off the feeling that she was unwanted. The affection of the most important woman in her life was apparently unwinnable.
While the most important man in her life, her father, also continued to wound and mystify her, Germaine was engaging ever more deeply with his spiritual rival. The passion and mystery of the nuns' love affair with Christ, `the archetypal lover,' touched her too. She had been confirmed `Germaine Frances' in the church before arriving at Star, and had a new simple, white dress with a veil for her first communion. `She was jealous of the kids with orange-blossom embroidery on their veils,' Peggy recalls. In adolescence the intensity of her religious belief rose to a new plane. At fourteen she fasted and was gathered up, unconscious, from the floor of the church `because I'd go there and kneel with my arms stretched out for hours on end, making love to this image ... this person really.'
The one thing the nuns don't do is take sex for granted, or trivialise it or turn it into a sport. For all convent girls sex is hugely attractive, dark, mysterious and very powerful.... It's been an ongoing disappointment in my life to discover that other people don't give it that much importance. I really expected the stars to shoot from their spheres when I finally undid more than one button. We were all sex-struck and that's the nuns' fault entirely.
By the time Germaine was fifteen her religious belief was weakening, though she did not completely abandon her faith until the year after she left school. She blamed the nuns. `The wanting to be a saint has to do with adolescent passion,' she said later. `You're thinking you're going to love God, you're going to love him hard. I mean to death! He has to have your whole life, because anything else in your whole life is not worth giving.' For Germaine, however, the central premise collapsed after one of the nuns tried to teach the philosophical proofs of the existence of God. She found the case unconvincing, intellectually deficient: `If my Church had any brains, children like me would be taught by Jesuits — not by nuns at all. We require much higher educational levels. The nuns were not smart enough. If I'd been taught by Jesuits I would still be Catholic.'
Lanky and clever, Germaine stood out in class from the beginning. One of her first teachers, Sister Phillip, who taught her German in Year 9, recalls an obviously able though not outstanding student who could deliver pat answers even when not apparently paying attention: `She didn't really shine, but at the same time you knew she was doing well.' Thirty years later Sister Phillip recalls the acclaim Germaine earned by passing intermediate Italian without any formal instruction in the subject.
Germaine was taught art by the large, loud and popular Sister Raymonde — nicknamed `Bomb' by some of the girls because she always arrived in a rush, and `Metho' by others for her custom of awarding better marks for spirit. Sister Attracta took Special Choir, an activity for which one had to audition and give up recreational time for practice and performance. The repertoire ranged from High Mass to Latin motets. `Germaine had a nice voice — not outstanding, but nice,' says Sister Attracta. `She was a very lovable girl and used to get on with the others well. She never gave me any trouble at all.' Others found her more difficult: Greer recalled being sent to stand in the corridor outside class for disagreeing with the proposition that communism was the work of the devil. Inevitably, Reverend Mother walked by: `And she'd say, "Oh, Germaine, you could be a great saint or a great sinner. The choice is entirely up to you." I'd be thinking: "great sinner, great sinner!"'
Germaine's attempts to be friendly and caring were sometimes bizarre according to Moira Curtain, a younger student who met her through school drama productions. The school library was housed in a classroom with locked glass-fronted cupboards which Germaine used to raid: `I don't know whether she forced the lock or whether perhaps some things like the Bible were left open. She'd say: "If you want to come up to the library, I'll show you the dirty bits in the Bible." I used to go staggering up, absolutely intrigued by this. I'd never heard of Onan and his seed, but Germaine showed it to me, and onanism — every time I hear it, I think of Germaine.'
It was in art and drama that Germaine made her reputation at school. Although she was accident-prone, her cultural passions led teachers to place special trust in her. Sister Raymonde, for example, allowed her to take the school's prized art book home overnight — the only copy, worth a mighty £70 in the currency of the day. In pelting rain Germaine drifted out of the school ground with her hair sticking out, her hat perched on top and her gloves full of holes, the precious book sitting just inside the top of her school bag. It fell out of her bag into the gutter, and down through the gutter grate. Germaine lay flat on her stomach in the middle of the running drain trying to fish out the sodden book. It was months before the Greers could afford to replace it.
Germaine was a gangly and awkward teenager, six feet tall by her matriculation year. As one fellow student put it, in her later years at school `she looked all wrong, like a woman dressed up as a twelve-year-old.' Greer describes herself at fourteen as `so grey and drawn with adolescent misery' that she could easily have been taken for someone nearing thirty.
In theatrical productions, however, she transcended her physical awkwardness. She was a brilliant Duke of Plaza-Toro in the school's production of The Gondoliers. In her final year at Star she was responsible for a student production of the medieval play Everyman — quite an accomplishment at a time when unsupervised student action was unusual, and a vote of confidence from her teachers, which was rewarded by success.
Though she was known even then for a quick, sharp tongue that militated against easy friendship, younger students such as Moira Curtain were struck by abruptly and awkwardly delivered small kindnesses. `She took me aside and said: "You've got a big nose." Now, I was so relieved to hear this because I did have a big nose but everybody pretended I didn't. And I knew I did. She said: "So when you leave school you've got to do something about it." I knew I had to do something about it. And she said: "Make-up's your best bet." It was that theatrical background. She said: "Now, you've got to put darker make-up down here, and lighter make-up on the side, and you've got to watch how you have your hair." ... And to me it was so liberating to have somebody say this, acknowledge something that everyone else pretended wasn't happening, and be constructive about it.'
By the middle of Germaine's high-school years, her resentment against Peggy and Reg was hardening and she became determined to leave home at the earliest opportunity. School friends were never invited home. Only a few had ever seen Peggy, usually when she was exercising at the beach. `When all the other mothers were at school making cakes, and at the tuck shop, and in their nice polyester dresses with their white cardigans,' one former student recalls, `Germaine's mother was in her leotards at the beach — and we couldn't believe that a mother would act like that. She stood out from the crowd. She didn't want to be like all the other mothers, and you can pass that on. It's obvious that Germaine doesn't feel like she needs to be like anybody else, either.' Another student remembered Peggy as rather elegant. Germaine saw her mother as eccentric, creating an `unbourgeois and unworldly' lifestyle for the family. Peggy dressed by choice in second-hand clothes and her own highly individual home-sewn ones. She did not play bridge or chatter over a hot cuppa with women friends: to Germaine, most of her mother's effort seemed to go into developing her tan.
Despite her adolescent longing for conventional parents, like Peggy, Germaine was already going her own way with little concern for the views of others; and, as was the case with Reg, fantasy and role-playing were already a key part of her persona. She found a kindred spirit in a fellow student, Jennifer Midgley, now better known as the writer Jennifer Dabbs. Germaine and Jennifer were competitors at Holy Redeemer, the scholarship hothouse they attended before Star. They became close friends at their new school, where the scholarship girls tended to mix with each other. Four months older than Germaine and similarly sassy, Jennifer found her `more interesting than the other girls there. She was eccentric, different.' There was much striking of attitudes from Germaine: `She frightened a lot of people — they weren't game to extend friendship. She wasn't really aware of it, but she didn't care all that much anyway. She had this actor thing in her. She had to be noticed.'
Germaine had overtaken Jennifer academically at Holy Redeemer, but Jennifer was clearly the superior in one area her friend valued highly: music. A gifted singer and pianist, popular with other students, Jennifer shone at Star, and the nuns encouraged her musical talents with additional lessons and practice time. Germaine's voice was sweet and natural, but Jennifer's was brilliant; her exceptional ability was one of the attractions for her new friend. They were also drawn together by mutual mystification over the young Star girls' crushes on the senior students. `It seemed odd to us,' Dabbs says in retrospect. `We'd wonder, what's so wonderful about so-and-so? It turned us toward each other.'
Jennifer and Germaine were enthusiastic members of Star's choir. They held hands discreetly during rehearsals and performances, and sometimes even during Mass. They enjoyed student theater together too, Jennifer playing Marco Palmieri to Greer's Duke of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers. Germaine autographed Jennifer's copy of the program in precociously adult handwriting, `Germaine Greer who belongs to JM.' After the operetta's performance at Caulfield Town Hall, Jennifer watched Germaine standing with Peggy and Reg Greer, `all tall and rather striking.' Reg looked very proud of his daughter.
Germaine caused a panic at home by producing a copy of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness at the height of her liaison with Jennifer. The flowering of their friendship into grand passion was still playing on both women's minds well into adulthood. Fifteen years after the event, Greer guiltily recalled betraying the friend she considered her lover under pressure from her mother. In The Female Eunuch Greer describes a `scene' where Peggy screamingly accused her of being unnatural after discovering a letter from Jennifer: `[To] stem her flow, I repeated what I had read in the Sunday Supplements, that it was an adolescent homosexual phase, and I was through it anyway. I expiated that pusillanimous, lying betrayal of myself and my love for weeks. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?'
It also played on her schoolgirl lover's mind. Thirty years after their relationship ended, Dabbs told their story through the characters Kate Mitchell and Michaela Martin in Beyond Redemption, a roman à clef described by its publisher as a novel about rapturous love in the dark ages of the 1950s. The pen portrait of Michaela is beautiful and strikingly recognizable. After the resolution of a fight between the friends, `Immediately her face lost its severity and lit up with a beguiling smile. She wasn't what was considered to be "pretty"; there was far too much character in her face, and a vivacious intelligence shone out of her clear green eyes. Her hair was tawny and curlier than mine. It stood out around her head like a nimbus, complementing her clear creamy skin and contrasting with those startling eyes.'
Forty years later the romance was still on Peggy Greer's mind, too: `At Star of the Sea there was a girl, Jennifer.... They used to exchange love letters. They were always left around for me to read. ... [Germaine] used to bait me, leaving love letters in her pockets addressed "My darling lover," after I'd told her to clean them out. I just tried to forget.'
In Beyond Redemption Dabbs paints a mixed picture of life at Star, called Stella Maris in the book. On one hand the ferocious consequences of transgressing the sexual morality of 1950s Catholicism are sharply etched — for example, when Kate fears she is pregnant in her matriculation year, after taking up with a touring Italian baritone in the wake of Michaela's rejection of her. On the other hand, the book acknowledges Star's capacity to nurture talent. Discovering Kate has perfect pitch, Sister Cecilia — Star's Sister Attracta — responds by arranging twice-weekly piano lessons and assigning the school annex as a practice room for her use after school: `Then there was the singing, the wonderful high Masses, the Gregorian chant, the glorious songs of Pachelbel and Palestrina and standing in the choir loft looking down on the congregation and filling the church with music. We sang our hearts out....'
Neither girl was happy at home, though neither discussed it with the other. Instead they arrived at school as early as possible in order to be together, spent every break à deux and lingered for as long as possible after school, usually in the annex, a room crowded with abandoned furniture, ornaments and sideboards full of secrets, where Jennifer would practise the piano. `She was very sure of herself,' Jennifer says of Germaine. `She seemed to know how to get what she wanted. But there was this constant need for attention which I didn't have. I got attention, but I didn't seek it.'
There is a revealing moment in Beyond Redemption when Kate attracts the attention of an older, sophisticated student, Jude — in real life, the Star student Judy Richardson. Michaela, as usual, is with Kate while she practices piano in the annex. Jude admires Kate's playing and outshines Michaela's repartee, prompting Michaela to brag to Jude about her intellectual ability: `Actually I came top of the state. It was in the papers. But then, I always come top. I have an IQ of genius level, you see.'
When they were alone in the practice room, Germaine would pretend to be George Sand, writing slushy poetry in the back of her English book, while Jennifer, assuming the part of Chopin, played wistful nocturnes. They fantasized about an endlessly romantic, candle-lit life. At one stage they even planned to write an opera together, with Germaine responsible for the libretto.
The relationship was passionate, spiritual and romantic rather than genital, according to Jennifer. `Germaine was the first person outside my family who loved me, and I realized: I love you. It was unconditional, heady, unlike parental love, which was conditional. The sexual thing came later. It seemed very natural, the limited amount of sexual contact we had.'
Girls received mixed messages about the merits of achievement at Star, in Dabbs's view. The nuns relished their girls' success at matriculation and were proud of the school's high academic standards, but ambition had implicit limits. Dabbs was given special support and encouragement in music but not, she felt, with the aim of turning her into a top-flight soloist. She sensed that the nuns had more modest goals in mind: `You weren't really supposed to stand out.' Religious devotion was still valued above academic prowess. In the school's prize lists, for example, the top student in `Christian Doctrine' was listed ahead of the academic achiever of the year.
These conflicting signals concerning students' achievements were insignificant, however, compared to the teaching they received about relations between women and men. Dabbs's descriptions of the Christian Living classes given by `Mother Julian' at the fictional Stella Maris illustrate the bizarre instruction given to the girls at the time. At a Christian Living class on the male reproductive system, Michaela provokes Mother Julian over the impending canonization of a young Italian woman, Maria Goretti, who had been stabbed to death while trying to resist rape. If she had struggled less, Michaela asks, wouldn't she still be alive? `But wouldn't her soul still retain its purity and nobility even if she was raped and taken against her will, Mother? Why should she be considered impure when it was the man who was the aggressor. It was his crime. Not hers. And more to the point, why does the Church hold her up as an example to the rest of us? I think she was a fool.'
Mother Julian splutters angrily at Michaela to sit down and continues the lesson, explaining that when a man forces his `attentions' on a woman against her will, it is a grievous sin — one no decent Catholic man would contemplate. She goes on to inform the girls that, should they ever be overpowered and surrender to rape, it would be a most terrible sin for them, too, if they allowed themselves to enjoy it.
`We live in a civilized society and ... '
`I suppose Maria Goretti thought that she lived in a civilized society too,' Michaela said, not quite under her breath. And Mother Julian finally lost her temper.
`You! Michaela Martin! Leave the room. Immediately! Go to my office and wait for me there.'
Mother Julian goes on to explain to the girls — minus the disgraced Michaela — that while the act of intercourse gives `a certain amount of pleasure' to men, who have a strong urge to procreate, it affords no such pleasure to `women, good women.' A woman must never deny her husband's conjugal rights, says Mother Julian, but a well-brought-up Catholic man would be considerate of his wife's feelings in such matters.
Neither Germaine nor Jennifer doubted that they would later have relationships with men. They kept a booklet together into which they pasted pictures of their favorite film stars, and had a code word for their top six movie men — `ROTASTGRALLAMEFECOWIMABR' covering the first two letters of the names of Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Alan Ladd, Mel Ferrer, Cornel Wilde and Marlon Brando. Ferrer and Brando were Germaine's particular favorites; Jennifer preferred Ladd and Wilde, while both girls liked Taylor and Granger. `We imagined our long friendship could go on for ever at the same time as we pursued men,' says Dabbs. `It couldn't be.'
`I remember waking up with a very light heart one morning,' Jennifer recalls of the moment she knew she loved Germaine. `The realization was there. I couldn't wait to get to school and tell her. I did. She said: "I do, too." That's when the hand-holding started. Later we would kiss and caress, but that's all.' Neither had any concept of lesbianism at the time; Germaine, Dabbs says, was certainly sexually naive. Their first kiss took place on Jennifer's initiative after she had been on a date with the brother of another Star student. After seeing The Student Prince at the cinema, the young man had given her a big, wet, passionate kiss on the way home. Jennifer described the awful, sloppy kiss to Germaine and they wondered how either of them could ever do that with boys? Jennifer tried out an improved version on Germaine — warm, comforting, lips closed. `We always kissed like that,' she says. `For me, that was the first kiss. She was my first love.'
In The Female Eunuch Greer would write of schoolgirl love without naming Jennifer. Inseparable girls are often fascinated by each other, capable of deep spiritual and sexual, if not genital, relationships, she contended: `Learning to dissemble these feelings, among the strongest and the most elevated that she will ever feel, is a squalid but inevitable business.' Even the innocent caresses of such a love are necessarily furtive, Greer wrote, and the schoolgirl intuits from the beginning that the love will gradually come to be viewed in the light of prevailing social disapproval, ultimately to be ridiculed and disowned by the girl herself: `Such loss is enormous, and brings her much further on the way to the feminine pattern of shallow response combined with deep reserve. From the frank sharing of another's being she turns to the teasing and titillation of dating, which all the world condones. I can remember a scene with my mother when she discovered a letter written by me to my lover at school, a girl who introduced me to Beethoven by playing his sonatas to me in a dingy annexe where we retreated at every spare moment, who held my hand while we sang harmonies of Palestrina and Pachelbel in the crack school choir, and pretended I was George Sand and she was Chopin, and vice versa.'
Both women, writing as adults, recounted precisely the same details of their youthful affair — the annex setting, the songs they sang together, the role-playing as Chopin and Sand — and both explicitly acknowledged each other as lovers. The relationship was precious, making Germaine's retreat all the more dramatic a concession to conformity. According to Dabbs: `She capitulated to her mother, didn't she? It's a strange caving-in for someone so headstrong and forthright. If she was true to form she'd have told her mother to get stuffed.' Perhaps worst of all, it came without warning. Germaine simply announced it was all over in 1955 when school resumed after the Christmas holidays, and gave no reason. It was their matriculation year. Jennifer dropped out to work in the theater, and did not complete her matriculation until years later, as an adult.
The `squalid but inevitable business,' as Germaine referred to it, of dissembling over her feelings for Jennifer was done. Its `inevitability' was never explained. Germaine turned her eyes to the University of Melbourne and her plans for leaving home.
Although she had rejected her girlfriend, boys did not figure significantly until Star was behind her. The first memorable male date of Greer's school years was with a painter she had encountered on a wharf during one of her meandering bicycle rides. She was sixteen and had never met the man before. She watched him painting a seascape and, after a long conversation about art, he asked her out. They went to the theater; Germaine wore her mother's high-heeled shoes, a pencil skirt and a batwing jacket. On the tram ride home a risqué conversation ensued. `That struck me as strange,' recalls Greer. `That's been the pattern ever since, the virgin who speaks in a risqué fashion.' His mannered gesture of kissing her hand when they reached her home struck her as ridiculous. She nearly hit him, and refused his subsequent invitations, claiming she had to study.
Determined to be kissed properly by a man for the first time, Germaine went to a dance at the local town hall, dressed in white piqué and wearing a blue Coles bra underneath: `I was no belle ... I was the tall girl who played the men's parts in the school plays. I never got a date or a dance.' Except for the barn dance, when she attracted the attentions of a huge builder's laborer. They rode home in a cab, `and there I sat all aquiver in my little white gloves and waited.' He grabbed her breast, squeezing it like a lemon, and split her lip with a kiss. It bled profusely and, terrified, she managed to get away. `And when I stopped shaking I said to myself, "I won't muck about with that again." ... It taught me something. That all the world pets and nobody loves.'
She would, of course, muck about with that again — once she arrived at the University of Melbourne, her immediate goal. First Germaine had to sit her final exams in English, English Literature, History, French and German. She seems to have approached the year's study in a less than systematic way; her first-term result for English Literature was a poor 47 percent, for example, but she received first-class honors in the final exam. Germaine visited the university during her final year at Star: `I knew it was waiting for me, and I was waiting for it. I knew it was going to be mine.' But bound up with going there was her drive to get away from home, from her aggressive, frustrated mother and her distant, condescending father, away from her better-loved siblings to territory she could make her own. If the conflict at home had been mighty during her school years, it was nothing compared with the collision waiting to occur when Greer's rebelliousness and emerging sexuality crashed headlong into the parental sensibilities of Peggy and Reg.
|1 Collateral Damage||1|
|2 Getting Away||27|
|4 The Push||57|
|6 The Untamed Shrew||108|
|7 Catholicism and Counterculture||135|
|8 The Female Eunuch||155|
|9 Celebrity Circuits||175|
|11 Sex and Destiny||229|