Anthropology and institutional sex abuse

During the week I discovered that one of my Melbourne University lecturers, Chicago-born Donna Merwick, died a few months ago.

She taught me American History, I think in 1983. Then - in my honours year in 1985 - I did History and Anthropology, the course she taught with her husband Greg Dening.

Being a Jesuit student at the time, what interested me most was that Donna had been a nun and Greg a Jesuit priest. While they never mentioned it in the class, I learned from Donna's obituary that they had remained lifelong Catholics.

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My first memory of Greg was when he would visit my school to research his 1978 book Xavier A Centenary Portrait. I remember him operating out of a store room in the boarding house in the South Wing, and it was an education in itself to witness a historian at work with the various papers he'd gathered.

He died in 2008, two years after the publication of Church Alive, his history of the North Sydney Jesuit parish. I recall him writing to me after I reviewed the book in Eureka Street, congratulating me on how well my review had grasped his anthropological method. I suspect he hadn't realised I'd been in his class years earlier, after which I was strongly influenced by his teaching that institutions were essentially cultures.

This shaped my view that institutions are often more culpable for child sexual abuse than the individuals who committed the abuses. I think many of these people have been made to carry total blame for actions that accorded with the profoundly evil cultures of the institutions, which can appear to carry on as if they and their leaders have nothing to atone for.

Cultures prevail on us, telling us how to act and behave. There are particular and often unspoken ways of thinking, feeling and believing that are either OK or not OK.

The anthropologist ascribes deeper meaning to everyday aspects of a culture. I remember Donna and Greg introducing us to Clifford Geertz's idea of 'thick description' and his book The Interpretation of Cultures, perhaps the most famous text of ethnography from the 20th century. I found it dense and hard going but its teaching, and that of Donna and Greg has endured.

Chasing the post-lockdown dream

On Friday I attended the 'Writers Picnic' organised by a friend, in Sydney's Domain. It was my first social event since 'Freedom Day' ended our 106 day lockdown a few weeks ago.

The most memorable conversation concerned how a person knows if he or she is 'a writer'. The consensus was that we are writers if we experience composing text in any form as a source of pleasure and not a chore. This includes reports and other functional writing. We don't have to be any good at it, though practice makes perfect, as it does with most pursuits.

During lockdown, most of us were out of practice with many of our regular activities. Strangely this often included things that give us pleasure and don't require social distancing (writing, for example). Our wings were clipped by the need to do our bit to avoid the spread of the virus, and we lacked a sense of pursuit in our life generally.

With lockdown over for now, we can at least contemplate a return to life as we knew it. However tentatively, we can once again chase our dreams.

That was the subject of the other conversation I most remember from the Writers Picnic. Most of those present were travel writers, a dream occupation that was among those most frustrated by the lockdown. We talked about travel that was possible but also responsible.

Responsible travel can be about stimulating the economy, which is why the NSW and other state governments are encouraging us to travel in our own backyard. But there's also the challenge to consider whether local and overseas travel is something we need to do. Something that is beyond a consumer want.

Do we have loved ones to visit, or mental health or other life issues to address? Or are we just bored and footloose? That's a question for each of us to think about.

The good news is that we're beginning to have options, which is something we lacked during lockdown. A few weeks ago I purchased a flexible ticked that allows me to travel to Paris in March, or any time within the next two years. I am prepared to chase my travel dreams and visit family on the other side of the world, but I am also ready to put my life plans on hold once again.

How do I know I'm still a Catholic?

On Sunday I went to Canberra and enjoyed a semi-regular walk with a friend from my days training to be a Jesuit priest.

We both left the Jesuits a little more than 30 years ago, and I think it's true to say that each of us walked away from the practice but not the positive humanitarian values of Catholicism.

I won't hesitate to identify as 'Catholic' when I complete the Census form later this year. But I studiously avoid participation in the life of the Church because it triggers a form of PTSD related to obedience.

So how do I know I'm still a Catholic?

For a long time I wasn't sure how to answer that question. But some time last year I stumbled across the English Catholic weekly publication The Tablet in the Readly electronic newsstand.

The Tablet

As I did many years ago, I now read it from cover to cover and can find interest in almost every article. I'm able to identify with the concerns and the lines of enquiry and particular curiosities of many of the writers. That's what tells me I am still a Catholic.

The Tablet has been published for 180 years and is part of a genre of news and culture reviews that also includes the New Statesman and The Spectator. It is proudly independent and is tolerated by many church leaders even though it does not hesitate to criticise the Church.

This week's cover story looks at Boris Johnson's recent Catholic marriage, which was 'conducted after due process and entirely within the laws of the land and of the Catholic Church'. It argues that Catholic teaching on marriage is full of anomalies and inconsistencies, and that those who were angered because they felt the Church gave the British PM special treatment denied them, are sadly mistaken.

Another article sees a path for the affirmation of transgender women through an analogy with transubstantiation, which is the Catholic teaching that bread and wine are changed into Christ's body and blood substantially - not symbolically - during the eucharistic part of the Mass.

It asks: 'Could we think of transgender as in some sense analogical to transubstantiation - not capable of scientific proof, but constituting a real presence which is different from the material appearance?'

It seems The Tablet can always find a sweet spot that is captive neither to ideology hostile to religion nor the entrenched obstinacy of many religious leaders.

Wingham remains strong after fires and floods

Often on a Saturday morning I'll walk to the nearby Carriageworks farmers market. I will usually buy meat from Linga Longa Farm, which is located about 350km north of Sydney in the Manning River Valley just outside Wingham.

I am always impressed with their commitment to the seven hour round trip that enables city dwellers to enjoy fresh unprocessed meat direct from the farm. It is a pleasure to support them.

I hope that their business model makes them profitable because they've had to face a lot of adversity in recent times. They could not come to Carriageworks for more than a month because they were restocking and rebuilding fences after the destruction caused by the floods earlier this year. That was after the horror bushfires they suffered in late 2019.

Old Butcher Shop

I'd hardly heard of Wingham until I started buying meat from Linga Longa. But I became curious about the town and decided to make it the destination of my day trip by train from Sydney yesterday. I spent ten hours in the train and two and a half hours roaming the town on foot.

The highlight was the Wingham Museum, which friends had told me about. It is recognised as one of the finest museums in regional Australia, a fitting counterpart to Sydney's Powerhouse and other museums of applied arts and sciences. It was opened in 1968 in an old commercial building by the renowned aviatrix Nancy Bird-Walton.

Dairying

There are many stories of pioneers of the district. Painted on the side of the museum's building is a portrait of the Irish-born pastoralist Isabella Mary Kelly, who purchased her property in 1838 and ran it with the help of eight convicts.

She was a noted horse woman who 'often stayed overnight in the bush with her loaded gun and brandy flask'. But she was disliked by some of the men of the district, who resented a woman who was unmarried and did 'men's work'. She was known to have a temper and would not allow men to stand over her.

Isabella Mary Kelly

So in 1851 her house was mysteriously burned down while she was away on business. Later forged documents saw her falsely imprisoned in Sydney's Darlinghurst Gaol. But, according to the display notes at the museum, she overcame the humiliation and adversity to remain strong.

Present moment mysticism

I'm writing this from the Palace Hotel in the declining but always fascinating far west NSW mining town of Broken Hill, which is subject to extreme temperatures because of its location in semi-desert country. I was here in January 2019 when it was in the mid 40s. This morning the mercury got down to 2.2 degrees.

Palace Hotel Broken Hill

Tomorrow I will appreciate the many transitions in the landscape during my 13 hour trip back to Sydney on the Outback Explorer train, after being away for ten days.

My first stop was Melbourne, before taking the 130 year old Overland train journey to Adelaide, where I stayed for six nights before boarding the NSW railway bus to Broken Hill through the mostly arid countryside of South Australia's mid-north.

Adelaide to Broken Hill Bus

I had a few important reasons to visit Adelaide. I wished to spend a day with a cousin whose existence I discovered only about 15 years ago. I also wanted to catch up with a work colleague from 30 years ago. But what was most pressing was the landmark Clarice Beckett exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia, as it was due to close yesterday.

Beckett, who lived from 1887 to 1935, is one of Australia's most important modernist painters. Like most Australians I'd never heard of her. But my attention was drawn to her work when I read a review of the show by the Sydney Morning Herald's famously grumpy art critic John McDonald.

Clarice Beckett Sunset from Black Rock

He said: 'It’s not often I feel the urge to visit the same show on three successive days, but Clarice Beckett: The Present Moment at the Art Gallery of South Australia, is one of those rare, inexhaustible exhibitions.'

I saw it twice, and I've joined the waiting list for the catalogue, which is being reprinted after selling out. It turns out that they've postponed its closing by a week and extended the daily opening times.

Viewing her paintings, what resonated with me in particular was the setting of the majority of them not far from her longtime residence in the beachside Melbourne suburb of Beaumaris. I grew up in country Victoria but my family went to the neighbouring beach suburb of Black Rock several times, for seaside summer holidays.

Clarice Beckett Summer Fields

I was also interested in the spirituality that underlies the paintings. The exhibition notes describe Beckett as a 'visionary mystic' who was 'receptive to international trends in science, literature, philosophy and spiritualism'.

Beckett would often rise at 4:00 am and walk up to five kilometres from her home to capture the effect of the early morning sea mists. The creator of the musical soundtrack to the exhibition writes of solitude as the central inspiration for her track choices, as she sought to contribute to the creation of 'an intimate space for viewers to contemplate The Present Moment.'

Beckett never travelled beyond Victoria, though she did some of her most renowned paintings during the six months she spent at Naringal Station in the state's Western District. As I sat in the bus travelling through arid regions of South Australia's mid-north yesterday, I wondered what she would have made of them.

The film festival that never ends

Last weekend saw my Mubi film previewing job come to an end. The streaming company had paid me a small amount of money to look for technical imperfections in a total of 358 films over the past four years.

At one stage I had a larger role with Mubi, creating English subtitles for English language films. But for the most part I was a member of a community of around 30 amateur previewers. Last week my contact notified me that they'd decided to move the preview tasks inhouse.

Diva

Mubi offers a variety of arthouse, classic and experimental films. You may have seen the Mubi icon on the menu of your smart TV or Apple or other streaming box. I have been a subscriber since 2011, when I owned an early streaming device called Boxee.

What I like most about Mubi is the way they curate and present one film each day and give subscribers a month to watch it. In this way they school their subscribers in film appreciation and provide the perfect antidote to many people's experience of Netflix - thousands of films available but nothing worth watching.

This Boys Life

Mubi is like a film festival that never ends. I've been a subscriber to the Sydney Film Festival since 2004, and I deliberately opt for the 'set menu' of about 33 films chosen by curators. I make a point of seeing them all and have not missed one since 2008.

Labyrinth of Cinema

I was first introduced to arthouse films back in the 1980s by a friend who was a graduate of the directors course at the Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS). He'd also trained as a sculptor at the Sydney School of Art and was much inspired by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's philosophy of film as 'sculpting in time'.

For many viewers, the problem with Tarkovsky is that they could not understand what was going on in his films. For me, understanding a film is always a work in progress.

Honouring infamy

Yesterday I enjoyed a day trip to Bathurst, three and a half hours west of Sydney across the Blue Mountains. It is an old gold mining town that is currently experiencing rapid population growth.

Like Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria, the wealth from gold mining gave Bathurst a legacy of impressive buildings, and today there is no shortage of cultural institutions.

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I visited the Regional Art Gallery, the Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum, and the Bathurst Rail Museum, which was opened only last year. The city once had a railway workforce of 500, including former prime minister Ben Chifley, who was an engine driver.

But because it was Anzac Day, the focal point was the Bathurst Town Square, where the war memorials are situated. There was the main memorial tower, which is famous for its bells. Yesterday they were peeling with identifiable tunes in an extended concert performance.

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But of more immediate interest to me was the Boer War Memorial. That is because, while on the train from Sydney, I had read a Peter FitzSimons opinion article in the Sun-Herald newspaper. It concerned local war criminal Peter Handcock, who is disgraced but controversially honoured there.

Strangely it reminded me of my 2018 trip to Stalin's home town of Gori in Georgia, where they honour his infamy.

Handcock was executed with Anglo-Australian Lieutenant Harry 'Breaker' Morant, after being court-martialled and convicted of committing murder while on active duty in 1902. Lord Kitchener unveiled the memorial in 1910, but apparently agreed to do so only after Handcock's name was removed from the list of heroes.

Disgraced lieutenant deserves no honour - The Sun-Herald 25 Apr 21

However Handcock's name was restored in 1964 after lobbying from his son. Yesterday the memorial was adorned with flowers, perhaps put there by his great grandson, who maintains a website to tell the family's side of the story.

Breaker Morant was brought to prominence a few years later by Bruce Beresford's 1980 Australian war drama film Breaker Morant. Beresford told film critic Father Peter Malone in 1999 that he had 'never pretended for a moment that they weren't guilty'. He expressed dismay and said he was 'amazed' that so many people mistakenly thought the film was about 'poor Australians who were framed by the Brits'.

FitzSimons has attempted to demythologise Breaker Morant through his 2020 book Breaker Morant. I hope that Bathurst locals can quietly lay aside attempts to lionise Handcock and instead focus their energies on paying tribute to their real hero Ben Chifley.

Photographs out of focus

At the weekend I visited two exhibitions of blurry photographs. On Saturday it was Stuart Spence's 'Truro' at Nanda\Hobbs gallery in inner-Sydney Chippendale (first photo), and on Sunday I saw Bill Henson's travelling exhibition 'The light fades but the gods remain' at the Newcastle Regional Gallery (second).

Stuart Spence Dancer

The aesthetic which refers to deliberately out-of-focus images is known as 'bokeh'. I don't know much about the theory but I do know that I have a deeper response to a photo that is off focus or off colour or imperfect in some other way.

Perhaps we relate better to imperfect photos than perfect photos if we are aware that we are imperfect ourselves. Or it could be that the blurriness represents a state of unconsciousness in which our own unconscious feels at home. Whatever it is, I find imperfect images more deeply satisfying than those that are perfect.

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While I was at Nanda\Hobbs, Spence was giving a talk to a group of architecture students. He quoted Miles Davis' answer when he was asked how long it had taken him to learn the trumpet. 'Thirty years to learn it, and the rest of my life to forget it'.

For Spence, photos are 'acts of forgetting, of shutting down the monkey mind and allowing whatever the hell looks after this stuff, do what it needs to do'.

I find that as I walk around a city or some other location, the photos take themselves. Without much effort, I make images that have a deep resonance which either I can't or don't want to explain.

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On my walk after seeing the Henson exhibition, I took a photo of Wal Young House, the headquarters of the Newcastle District Bowling Association. Obviously I experienced beauty and significance in what for many would be an unremarkable 1960s building.

I think I also had an unconscious fear that it would be demolished before too long, and taking the photo was an act of love or solidarity. Sure enough, when I got home I googled Wal Young House and found a Newcastle Herald report of a proposal to put a modern indoor sports complex in its place.

vietnam woman

It takes a lot of work to achieve the artistry of a Stuart Spence or Jim Henson photograph. If I had the patience, I would probably exaggerate the colours rather than blur my Wal Young House photo. But I rarely have the commitment to give myself to such a task.

But I did about ten years ago, when I was bored on a flight back from Vietnam. The result was an image that has endured, of my fleeting acquaintance with an old woman carrying a load on her shoulders.

The joy of abstract art

Yesterday I took another trip to Canberra and found myself in the National Gallery of Australia (NGA).

For a third time I visited 'Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now', one of my favourite exhibitions for some time. But I gave most of my attention to the NGA's current blockbuster 'Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London'.

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I don't enjoy the crowds - and often predictability - of blockbusters. But I saw it yesterday because I was there, and nobody passes up an easy opportunity to witness such a big event.

The Italian Renaissance painting was beautiful but didn't speak to me. The Grand Tour - the right of passage where wealthy young Englishmen would tour Continental Europe - seemed grotesque. But I very much liked some of the other parts of the exhibition including 'France and the rise of modern art'.

This section took me back to the Saturday morning art classes I did as a child at what is now the Albury TAFE. I have retained much of what I learned about this period from the teacher Mrs Smith, including the characteristics of the works of painters featured here, such as Monet, Gauguin and Cézanne (above).

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These painters departed from realistic depiction of landscapes and other objects in favour of more abstract forms, including broad brushstrokes and geometric shapes. I was fascinated by cacti as a child and Mrs Smith guided me to use broad brushstrokes to paint a Mexican desert landscape that currently hangs behind my bed (pictured).

The progression from realism to abstract in that show provided a good background for the Australian Women Artists' work in the next room (including Dorrit Black's cubist painting The Bridge from 1930, below).

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The works here held particular meaning for me, articulated here in a section of the exhibition notes:

'Abstract work is a great joy... If you can empty your mind of chatter, and just live with the work for a few minutes, you find this enormous release into a mode of thought that is beyond speech.'

Sexual empathy

Recently I was asked what I thought about consent, in light of the rape allegations that the Federal Government is being forced to confront.

It is difficult to answer this without preaching, and preachers on this subject often fall into hypocrisy.

But having said this, I have strong views about consent in sexual relations that I don't mind sharing.

Specifically I believe that the most important aspect of having sex is our reading of how the other person is feeling - at every moment of the encounter - and our physical and emotional response to this.

Indeed this sense of the other is integral to the pleasure we get from sex. If that's not the case for you, my advice is that it could be better to use a sex robot or a sex toy instead of a real person.

You may wonder where I get this from. It's straight from the moral teaching of the Catholic Church, which gives priority to respecting the person.

My view is that if we don't do this, we become utilitarian and start to think pragmatically about the sex act. We might consider that society is going to be better off if we lay aside that isolated consent transgression and hope that the other person gets over it. That is perhaps how the Government is playing the current allegations.

But while I believe the Catholic Church gets it right on uncompromising respect for the person, I think its leaders got catastrophically lost along the way when they decided that human reproduction had to be the basis of the Church's sexual ethics. That is, you can't have sex unless you're making babies.

To my mind, this does not sit easily with their more important principle of respect for the person, which has made its own contribution towards western society's valuing of sexual consent.