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The Mervyn Thompson Affair: Revisiting the strange case of a playwright chained by vigilantes to a tree in Western Springs

This week we revisit the Mervyn Thompson Affair – the strange, powerful and polarising 1984 incident in which six unknown women abducted an Auckland University lecturer, chained him to a tree in Western Springs, burnt his flesh with cigarettes, threatened to castrate him, and labelled him a rapist. Today, Steve Braunias introduces an extract from Thompson’s memoirs.

Trigger warning: this piece includes references to rape and sexual violence.

Hearsay rumour around the University of Auckland campus in 1984 was that drama teacher Mervyn Thompson, a well-known playwright and performer, had sex with a student without her consent. He was kidnapped and made to suffer for his alleged crime; his abductors claimed, with worrying imprecision,  that he’d actually raped “three or four” women. But no one laid a police complaint. As for the six women who attacked him, they were never caught, and their identities remain a mystery to this day.

The Western Springs Six, to coin a term, boasted about their assault to the media. One rang the Auckland Star, and said they’d overpowered Thompson in his car, gagged him, and drove away. Her exciting account continued, “We went to a spot on the roadside opposite the Zoo gates in Motions Rd, then  dragged him from the car and chained him to a tree. He was quite a big man and was struggling all the time, but we had the enthusiasm to handle him. He was pleading with us – saying he’d never harmed any of us, but we definitely know of three or four rapes he has committed. We used a spray can to paint the word RAPIST on the side of his car, then left when we saw two people coming.”

The front page of the Auckland Star, 2nd February, 1984.

The front page of the Auckland Star, 2nd February, 1984.

The media were unwilling to publish Thompson’s name. Thompson chose to name himself in a story he wrote for the April 14 issue of the Listener. According to the Auckland Star story, his abductors waited in the shadows of his Herne Bay home, and nabbed him when he parked in the driveway; in Thompson’s version, he described how a student wanted to meet him, so he drove along Garnet Rd to her house near the zoo. He found the address. He stopped the car, and opened the door. “Then it happens. A woman leaps at me, all claws and fangs, grabbing me by the shirt. Before I know where I am the car seems to be full of people of murderous intent …” He reflected on the attack in the three-page article, and rather feverishly talked of Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

(In a curious footnote, nine Listener employees put their name to a letter published in the magazine: “We, the undersigned members of the Listener staff, wish to protest at the Listener‘s decision to publish the article by Mervyn Thompson without checking the story for factual accuracy or presenting it in a balanced way.”)

The incident was deeply divisive. Those on Thompson’s side were appalled at the vigilante stunt; those on the side of the women who attacked him were very pleased that someone “finally got angry enough to frighten and humiliate one man”, as an anonymous writer put it in a five-page discussion in feminist magazine Broadsheet. “What he [Thompson] is suffering is a smaller version of the suffering endured in women who are raped.”

What to make of it now? How to place it in today’s discussions around feminism, rape culture and public shaming? Was it a kind of terrorist activity, neatly defined in the latest London Review of Books as “employing violent means to pursue definite political ends”? Was it a necessary last resort, a way of sending a message to women to fight back? Was it crazy, weird, random, daring, brilliant, extreme, militant, fucked in the head?

Author Stephanie Johnson, playwright Renée, former MP Holly Walker and writer Talia Marshall will write about The Mervyn Thompson Affair at the Spinoff this week. We begin the series with Thompson’s own words, in an excerpt from a memoir he published the year before he died in 1992.

– SB


Mervyn Thompson. Photo: Playmarket

Mervyn Thompson. Photo: Playmarket

June 12, 1984, Auckland

Outside the theatre there has been a protest. For four months now I have been accused, anonymously, of being a “rapist”. But the zealots who have organised the protest are much too astute to repeat the allegation directly. The media are here and the protesters can no longer take refuge in anonymity. Legal advice has been taken; the leaflets handed out to the few people who have dared to attend the play are carefully worded; the singing and chanting could not be more polite. In this public relations exercise any mud that can be made to stick will do so only by association. The daughters of privilege know exactly how far they can go.

In the foyer of the Maidment Theatre the woman I love is confronting the protesters. Just before the show began she has kissed every man working on the production. Except me. Shaking, I am compelled to take this confused, double message on stage. I’m no saint and I’ve never pretended to be, but nothing can persuade me I deserve this. It hurts more than anything the zealots can devise.

I’ve never been a good first-nighter but this has got to be the worst. I can’t feel the characters or see the images. All I can see is those upturned faces. The laughs still aren’t coming. I’m in a cold sweat.

June 18

The season is over. An official boycott has been operating and audiences have not been good. Why is it not being seen?

My mind travels back over the unthinkable terrain of the past five months.

To February 1, when I am assaulted in my car by six strangers in the night, chained to a tree and by way of smeared slogans and anonymous statements to the media, accused of being a “rapist”.

To the photographs and questions and depersonalising acts that follow at the police station, where I am treated like a piece of meat. To the gloating accounts of assault in the media, filled with lies and distortions and representations of my attackers as “female avenging angels”. To endless meetings with the police and lawyers, as attempts are made to track down the attackers, put names to faces, and stop the garbage spewing forth from Craccum, the Auckland Star, and other publications.

To my decision to publish, in the Listener, an article telling the truth about the assault and the events leading up to it. To the media avalanche that follows, and in particular to a disastrous interview with Genevieve Westcott on Eyewitness News, a cynical concoction lit and edited to produce maximum sensation.

To the smear campaign at the University of Auckland, where every lavatory seemed to carry an anti-Thompson slogan, and every wall a bill of falsehood.

I think, too, of the destruction of my personal life. Nearly six years ago I was persuaded to leave my marriage for a woman who then contrived to remain in her own. Now that my star is low, she will end the relationship; nothing is more certain. Not that I can blame her. I have lost a stone in weight, look terrible, cry during sex, and can’t keep my mouth shut. Day in, day out, I make the most alarming errors in judgment, taking the fight to my tormentors when every wise counsel, including hers, advises retreat. I have only one subject of conversation, the assault of my mind and my work. I am an obsessive and, probably, a bore.

I am also in hell.

I want to be a good father to my son, but apart from not seeing him, which would break his heart, there seems to be no way to spare him this pain. Matthew is autistic and cannot speak, but he is alert to the smallest vibrations. And the vibrations emanating from my body are not small. Most of my past five months I have been in what my counsellor calls a “phobic” state. Fearful of further attack, at the slightest provocation jumping with fright. In the streets the approaching faces seem to belong to an alien species, intent, behind the masks and smiles, on violence and mischief. There seems to be nothing I can do. Having failed correctly to identify even one of my attackers I have no redress against any of them in law.

Yet I’m now pretty certain I know who one of them is. Tall, foul-mouthed, she lives in Freemans Bay, and drives around with a whole lot of other women in a luridly decorated car.

A cartoon in the May 1984 issue of the feminist magazine Broadsheet.

A cartoon in the May 1984 issue of the feminist magazine Broadsheet.

June 19

Every now and then the woman I love accuses me of lack of commitment and retreats behind the barricade of her marriage of 16 years. Twice during those times I have had sex with other women. It’s hardly rape, even if the most recent of those women happens to be a former student. But such is my capacity for accepting other people’s projections that I am overcome by paroxysms of guilt. In that lunatic television interview, and again with the police, I volunteered the information that I had had sex with a “young woman” and that subsequently there’d been a “misunderstanding”. Food for vultures. I hope that that young woman, who may have talked to the wrong “friend” and set in motion the whole nightmare, is sleeping well. She certainly didn’t when she sat on top of me last December. Either time.

And now the whole university – if not the whole country – is buzzing. By some curious process my name has become synonymous with rape (newly defined to mean anything that is done or said by any Pākehā male), sexual harassment and all the evils of the patriarchal society. Mythmaking is rife: I am the devil incarnate, the infidel who has to be exposed and destroyed. All over the country polite dinner parties, to which I am never invited, degenerate into shouting matches the moment my name is mentioned. Say the word “Thompson” and passion burst into flame all over the cabernet sauvignon. It’s a peculiarly middle-class phenomenon.

I’d be inclined to laugh off the whole thing as one of those periodic outbreaks of madness to which New Zealand society seems peculiarly prone – if it were not for two things.

The first is the heartbreak attending my closest relationship.

The second is the attack on my work.

In Auckland the target has been Coaltown Blues. Again my mind travels back. A production is set down for late March at Theatre Corporate. But in February, 10 days or so after the assault, I am called into the theatre. The directors are Roger McGill and Paul Minifie.

McGill greets me jovially and asks about my health. “I’m surviving, thank you,” I say. He clears his throat and draws himself up. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but owing to recent circumstances your season of Coaltown Blues will have to be postponed until further notice.”

My heart is pounding but I ask the question quietly: “Am I permitted to know why?”

McGill tells me that my health isn’t good.

“I’ve lost a little weight,” I reply, “but you can see for yourselves that I’m quite capable of performing.” (Even as I say this I’m aware how strained my face is — and of inquisitorial eyes searching it for clues and confirmations.)

Minifie speaks for the first time. He’s of the opinion that I am not in the physical or mental shape to present a solo piece. If it’s really my health you’re concerned about, I insist, then stopping my play won’t improve it; it will only make it worse. But Minifie is adamant. He refuses point-blank to direct me. The play is to be postponed and that is that.

McGill brings the real issue out into the open. There’s also the matter of the backlash of opinion that now operates against you, he says. We don’t want our theatre to be subject to the wrong kind of publicity – or to political pressure. If it comes – and it will – it will be from the very groups that Corporate depends upon for its audience. “It’ll be better for everyone,” he says carefully, “if you wait.”

“How long? How long do I have to wait?”

McGill doesn’t know.

September 12, Palmerston North

It’s happening again. Vicious attacks from total strangers. The further down the island I travel the worse they become. There’s another lunatic pamphlet of course. Most of it seems to have been lifted wholesale from Jenny Rankine’s article in Broadsheet. But this time they’ve upped the factual errors from five to ten. Hatred, it appears, has an inbuilt system of inflation.

I don’t know what to do. Maybe it’s a case of burying my head, but I wasn’t expecting this. I want very much to go out there and confront the picketers, but the Centrepoint Theatre management thinks that will make matters worse. It’s terrible. I’ve driven all the way down here with a ton of mining equipment moving about in the van like a rampaging rhinoceros. Now I feel like packing the whole load up again.

September 18

The picket continues. At least two women I know were so afraid of confronting the picketers (and being labelled backsliders or worse) they crept in the back way! But at least they came. The effect on the box office continues to be disastrous. I feel as if I am under siege.

September 27

Peter Beatson put my head on the block last night. And also his own. A senior lecturer in sociology, he invited me to Massey University. The title of my talk was “Art and Politics”. There was apparently a lot of dark muttering about disruption, but it didn’t eventuate. The hostility, however, was palpable. My talk went down like a cup of cold sick.

And suddenly I realised. Not content with labelling me “rapist” — and boycotting my play — many of the people in that room had also cast me as a pornographer. They actually thought I made pornographic movies!

My intuition arrived too late. The bells rang and staff and students moved off to more compelling engagements.

So what about my reputation as a pornographer? Apparently it dates back to events in Wellington earlier this year, and in particular to the axing of Songs to Uncle Scrim.

It’s March 27, 1984. I’m in Wellington, at an Arts Council meeting, the last I’ll ever be invited to attend. Three people apart (Ruth Harley, George Webby, Genevieve Orr), my reception there has been chilly. Several people snub me, so I’m pathetically grateful when Rachel Lang invites me to the Depot Theatre, ostensibly to see a play.

After the performance, the shock. The dialogue is approximate but this is its gist:

LANG: I have to tell you that owing to recent circumstances Songs to Uncle Scrim has been cancelled.

THOMPSON, after a pause: I see. On what grounds?

LANG: There was a meeting last night – of all the interested parties. It wasn’t just radical feminists, you know Mervyn: the unemployed workers were also there to support them over this issue.

THOMPSON, loudly: What issue? (And more loudly still as a sudden silence falls over the adjoining dressing room.) I haven’t raped anyone. I’ve been assaulted and vilified. Save your talk about issues. Know the facts!

LANG, looking down: I’m sorry, but that’s what’s been decided.

THOMPSON: Well it’s a pretty gutless decision. But thank you, Rachel, for letting me know. At least you had the guts to meet me face to face.

LANG: Don’t thank me. It’s a pretty awful thing to have to tell you.

THOMPSON, heading downstairs: Yes. It is.

LANG, calling out after him: I’m sorry, Mervyn.

THOMPSON, calling back: So am I, Rachel. So am I.

A few days later I learn, through the columns of the New Zealand Times, that my play has been replaced by a new work by Simon Wilson, written over the weekend and entitled Down the Hall on Saturday Night. In this play a respected “peace-movement musician” is discovered to be a maker of pornographic videos! There’s a lot of shock and horror, but this wolf in sheep’s clothing is ousted from the movement as an enemy of women. They do it with great reluctance of course. They’re decent people, after all. Mr Wilson is decent, too, and never more so than when, in the New Zealand Times, he justifies the cancellation of my play and the performance of his own. “The Depot is meeting its responsibilities to New Zealand theatre and writers in a way nowhere else in the country is attempting to do. To allow something like this to be put on and to let it go ahead with confidence, is principled.”

Apparently one actor in the Scrim Collective opposed the general tide – Danny Mulheron. The others, it appears, caved in. What really stuns and amazes is the nature of the groups which applied the pressure before and during the meeting. What were the Women Against Pornography doing there, for instance? Insofar as my work deals with sexual matters at all, it is anti-pornographic.

As for the rest of the list, it reads like one of those nightmares in which all the people in the world you had thought to be on your side stand in a derisive circle, chanting at you. The Women’s Sub-Committee of the Trades Council were there, and so were the Women Against Rape, Women Against the Sexual Abuse of Children, the Feminist Librarians, the Porirua Women’s Refuge, the Victoria University Women’s Action Group and, staggeringly, the Wellington Unemployed Workers’ Union.

The world has obviously gone mad.

Permission to reproduce the excerpt from Singing The Blues (Blacktown Press, 1991) by Mervyn Thompson is courtesy of Playmarket New Zealand.

If the events depicted in this story have been triggering in any way, please consider contacting any of the following organisations:

Rape Crisis

Women’s Refuge

Lifeline

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