Two little girls, sisters, dare each other to touch tongues. I’ve done it, but always thought we were the only ones! The description of the act recalls vividly the singular weirdness of the Tongue Touch – the feeling of that very first soft, slippery slug of another tongue on your own and how you just knew at the time it was somehow wrong, even though no one had ever told you so. Only a few pages into Bite Your Tongue, you know it will be filled with similarly icky revelations. It doesn’t disappoint.
Occasionally, you come across a book written in your mother tongue – not just in the lingua franca of Australian Literature, but one that speaks to you in your very own voice, with its own dialectal idiosyncrasies. Until you see those particular rhythms and expressions on the page you forget how much memory and sense of place they can carry in the hands of a skilled writer. Bite Your Tongue is one such book. Readers from elsewhere won’t notice, except perhaps the use of specific words like ‘port’ and ‘togs’, but if you are from 1960s and 70s Brisbane, it’ll get you, page by page.
Bite Your Tongue is a remarkable coming-of-age story. Rendle-Short’s mother, Angel, was something of a local celebrity – the book-burning, bible-bashing organiser of STOP* and CARE** – and this is the memoir of mother’s and daughter’s fraught, confronting and painfully negotiated relationship. Back then, Brisbane was a small provincial centre with no glittering skyscrapers and only a few bridges over the river. The Town Hall was the tallest building before they put up the SGIO. It was the seat of power of a cabal of right-wing conservative hicks from the bush and mercantile greed-heads whose values pretty much reflected the citizens’ – God-fearing, hard-working and reactionary. That is, until the 60s started to seep into their sleepy self-assuredness.
Angel Rendle-Short had already reared four daughters to adulthood, and she would be damned if she was going to allow this new morally shoddy permissiveness to ruin the lives of her last two daughters. When Francesca, her fifth daughter, enters high school in 1972, Angel pits herself against the rising wave of moral turpitude and hapless Francesca has to bear the ignominy of being singled out.
Perhaps I hear the story so loudly because I am the same age and of the same place and social milieu as the author. That milieu didn’t go away with the author’s personal feelings of persecution. STOP and CARE gave way to Fred Nile and Rona Joiner. As a student activist I found myself shouting back at the wowsers during the right-to-march demos in the late 70s. It pitched us against our families and, to a certain extent, Angel was correct to want to shield hers from the destruction that such a major social rift could cause. Though she could have no idea of the details, she certainly sensed the pressure wave of change.
The experience was so painful that when the author began to write about it, the only way forward was in the third person. Inside the fictional Solider family, Rendle-Short constructs a home for her alter-ego, Glory. Motherjoy is that imaginary family’s matriarch and it is through Motherjoy that we come to understand the author’s hesitancy about revealing the real Angel. The kernel of the book lies in this space between the real and imagined mother. ‘Mother’ is a constructed fantasy about which we all agree to disagree. My sister remembers whole slabs of our childhood differently from me and has constructed elaborate psychological causes of personality traits I didn’t even know I had. Imagine how that kind of skewed remembering can blow out among six offspring.
There are actually three voices in the telling of this tale: the voice of the narrator, a mature woman on her way to nurse her mother who is ‘bound for glory’ through her final rite of passage; the voice of Glory, the fictionalised younger self who has to endure her own rite of passage through adolescence and through whose narrative we form our impression of the adult narrator, and then there is a third voice – the dispassionate scholar in the process of piecing together the facts that young Glory (and the author) couldn’t possibly know at the time.
At first I thought the different narrative levels too self-consciously literary, but the deeper into the book I got, the more I became convinced of their truth. There is no way that the author could have captured Glory’s (her own) innocent voice and remained consistent with the older voice with which she comments on the past. Both researcher and subject, Rendle-Short has written a memoir about writing a memoir, as much as she has told a story about her relationship with her mother.
There are always three characters in any memoir: the former self, the interactive self, and the self now – the retrospective writing self, trying to figure out who you were then, in the midst of all that innocence and misunderstanding. The author never tries to psychoanalyse Angel, because she could never possibly have understood such a thing at the time, and can now only guess at what might have been at work in her mother’s mind then. As a child, the world runs at you and you take it all on board as it hits you for the first time. You have to react to it unpractised and unknowing. That child self can only go on what it has to compare that world with – the fuzzy touchy-feely emotional bubble of love out of which it has only recently emerged.
When you’re twelve, you don’t know your family isn’t normal. It’s not until you engage with the larger universe that you find out you are an alien. Everyone else thinks this about themselves, too, but no one ever admits it at that age. The self-absorbed adolescent never even suspects that he or she might not be the only one. Normality is all about how long it takes you to crack under the weight of needing to be the same as everyone else.
I share Rendle-Short’s experience of outsiderness. I went to a school like the one where she was so mercilessly persecuted, a school so small that any deviation from the norm sticks out like dogs’ balls. I know how cruel girls can be, because I am from that Brisbane and travelled those after-school trains. I know the smell of Glory’s fear and the feeling of sweat-drenched terror and I know the horrible choking lump in the throat that replaces the love and fealty you think you are supposed (and want) to feel towards your family, but can’t, because they have transformed into monsters.
Eventually, when they might be reduced to bodily functions and drug regimes, you finally find your power over them but strangely, not your voice. Although they rely on you for the simplest of needs, somehow you still find it impossible to tell them the truth that would burst the bubble of their love for you. This part of the memoir, of the mother’s final weeks, is beautiful. The few inches separating Angel’s self-righteous, judgemental cheek from her daughter’s last kiss may as well be the abyss. It takes the entire book for Rendle-Short to close the distance that has grown between them.
On the subject of her memoir, the author makes the comment, ‘In writing about my mother and her “anti-smut” work, the challenge is to find softness, to find breath.’ I think she has done it. Bite Your Tongue is all softness and breath, achieved by the careful management of voice; finding it, demanding it, censoring it and best of all, controlling it. Silence is Golden, writes the nun on Glory’s report card, implying: Don’t rock the boat; Don’t speak out; Swallow your rage. By employing such a range of voices to tell her story, from the various points of view from which it was experienced – child, adult, academic – Rendle-Short has rendered a much more complete and emotionally wise portrait of mother-love than any singular voice could manage.
*STOP: Society to Outlaw Pornography **CARE: Campaign Against Regressive Education
Francesca Rendle-Short Bite Your Tongue, Spinifex Press, 2011, PB, 246pp, $29.95
Annette Hughes was once a bookseller specialising in art books and exhibition catalogues. Now she is an author, and published the memoir Art Life Chooks in 2008. She is also past director of the Reality Bites Literary Festival.
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