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The Mervyn Thompson Affair: ‘The women who made the attack must have believed they were doing a brave thing’

All week this week we revisit the Mervyn Thompson Affair – the strange, powerful 1984 incident when six women abducted an Auckland university lecturer, chained him to a tree in Western Springs, burnt his flesh with lit cigarettes, threatened to castrate him, and labelled him a rapist.

Today: an essay by Thompson’s friend, novelist Stephanie Johnson.

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

When Gloria Steinem appeared at the Auckland Writers Festival this year, 2100 tickets were sold. This proves two things – that feminism is not dead and that many people, women and men, are curious to see and hear one of the most famous revolutionary figures of our time. When the floor was opened for questions, allowing for longer than usual, it was young women who thronged to the microphone.

As she answered their questions, Gloria – beautiful, gracious, kind and 82– made it clear that feminism in its purest form is activism. Any and all ideas, plans and schemes that will make the world a better place are a great thing. She gently deflected some of the more earnest questions with “It’s your turn now. You have to make those decisions.” She talked about the Consciousness Raising groups of the 1960s and ‘70s and said, “We still have them today, except they’re called Book Clubs.” Twice she asked the attentive crowd to announce any activism in which they were involved, and the last few minutes were taken up with enthusiastic, brilliant young women who are working with refugees, disadvantaged kids, the homeless – young women who are getting out there and doing it. Gloria’s central message was that all activism must spring from love, community, and to use a term I have long resisted, connectedness.

Strangely enough, looking down the long tunnel of 32 years to the night Mervyn Thompson suffered a vicious assault, love was one of the ingredients. Among the vigilantes, or so I heard at the time, was a sister of the woman who had apparently been raped by him. The assailant must have been fuelled by love for her wronged sister. But she was also, perhaps, seized by the purest and most vengeful hatred. The women who made the attack must have believed that they were doing a brave thing, avenging a brutal crime.

The first I knew of what had happened was from a phone call I received, a couple of mornings after the attack, from writer and friend Rosie Scott, who in 1984 had not yet left for Australia and was living in Grey Lynn. She and I had been students of Mervyn’s two years before, studying for the post-graduate Diploma in Drama at the University of Auckland. Mervyn was an inspired, beloved teacher, who loved his predominantly female students in return. “We’re kind of his friends for the year, aren’t we?” remarked a course-mate. We wrote, rehearsed, performed and partied.

Mervyn, famous playwright from a West Coast mining family, strongly concerned for the working-class, theatre enthusiast and self-proclaimed feminist, loved women. You often heard it then, men saying, “I love women,” and they were chastised for it because it seemed as banal and objectifying as if they were saying, “I love cake.” An exponent of the full-body hug at a time when most Pākehā were physically reticent – the kiss on greeting was not yet a cultural norm – Mervyn would clasp you to him and, if he could, put his hands on your bottom. This happened often enough for us to compare notes. At best we regarded it as a joke, worst as annoying and tragic.

We were also aware, savvy as we were, that Mervyn’s other attention seeking device was to play lost little boy, tearing our hearts with stories of the wreckage of his personal life. The year we were his students he was struggling with a family situation, the details of which are irrelevant here, but which was alarming and difficult. He was also involved in long-running, tumultuous affair with a married woman who showed no sign of leaving her husband.

In some ways, even though Mervyn was 25 years my senior, I felt maternal towards him. He had an appealing innocence in his blue eyes, an open willingness to be delighted by words and music, and a total engagement with his students that would possibly be regarded today as not only old-fashioned but dangerous.

Broadsheet, May 1984. From the collection at Auckland Library.

Broadsheet, May 1984. From the collection at Auckland Library.

The morning of Rosie’s phone call an article had appeared in the New Zealand Herald about an unnamed Auckland University lecturer who had been abducted and assaulted.

“It was Mervyn,” said Rosie.

Later that morning we went to visit him in his Herne Bay flat, where he mostly lived alone apart from sleepovers by his autistic son. He was by himself when we arrived.

Aside from bloodshed witnessed at a distance during the ‘81 Tour, I had until then had the great luck of never seeing a victim of extreme physical violence. Mervyn was bruised, ashen, traumatised, glazed with sweat. He wore pyjama pants, which he apologised for, and could hardly walk because his assailants had kicked him repeatedly in the balls. He showed us the letters R, A, and a partly formed P, from where they had tried to brand the word “rapist” into his arm with a burning cigarette. He wept and we did too as we comforted him, both of us awash with confusion – women had done this – yes, they were all women, Mervyn kept saying – because they believed Mervyn was a rapist.

Was he? I had never accepted the feminist maxim of the time, “All Men Are Rapists”. I couldn’t believe he was capable of it, just as I believed women were not capable of this kind of violence. I was 22-years-old, had lived away from home for five years and considered myself a woman of the world. Recently I had moved into a new flat, the flatmates of which had been advised against accepting me. “She lives in the fast lane,” someone had told them. I could think of no higher praise.

I remember Mervyn trying to make us a cup of tea, standing in his low-ceilinged, tiny flat, and seeming broken and lost. I remembered my childhood teaching of two wrongs don’t make a right. I wondered, as we all did for a long time afterwards, why the woman had not gone to the police and sought recompense through the courts.

Even now, it takes a brave woman to bring a man to trial for rape. The victim may still be put on the stand. Evidence, no matter how prurient and damaging, must be gone over again and again. In the 1980s, DNA testing was in its infancy. The “damaged goods” stigma was lessening, but still there. Perhaps the woman assumed that because of his privileged position as a professional white male, Mervyn would be untouchable. Is that why she arranged for him to be punished this way? And did he do it, in the first place?

Rosie and I went back to her place, shaken and bewildered. In her mid-30s, a long time social worker and counsellor, Rosie was just as baffled and distressed as I was. After we left him, Mervyn went to stay for a few days with writer Greg McGee and his wife Mary, because he was terrified of being in the flat alone.

The author as Adela in The House of Bernarda Alba by Garcia Lorca, directed by Thomoson for the Diploma in Drama students in 1982 (Image: Supplied)

Stephanie Johnson as Adela in The House of Bernarda Alba by Garcia Lorca, directed by Thompson in 1982 (Image supplied by Stephanie )

In the months that followed, Mervyn was on the radio, television and in the press. His play Songs to Uncle Scrim, due to go on at New Depot in Wellington, was cancelled. Another play, Coal Town Blues, was postponed at the Maidment. A group of writers and theatrical people, including me, signed a letter to the Herald which pleaded for separation between the man and his work, and for the persecution to stop. I remember Greg telling me how vigilante punishment can go on and on whereas court administered justice has a beginning and an end. If you’re guilty you go inside and serve your time.

The problem was that Mervyn himself kept blowing on the flames, which leapt ever higher as he writhed at his public stake. As often happens in our media, one subject overwhelmed the rest, and New Zealanders were sick to death of hearing about it.

The division endured – those that believed he was guilty of rape and had it coming, those that held him innocent, and the majority who had no idea and couldn’t care less. The women who carried out the attack were never identified, caught or prosecuted. I heard that two of them had skipped the country.

In 1985 I went to live in Australia and some time after that renewed my acquaintance with a man who not only knew Mervyn at the time of the assault, but also knew the woman. He told me, in all sincerity, a version of events that he believed to be true. It is this scenario that I exploited in my 2001 novel The Shag Incident: After going out for dinner, a man and a woman begin to have sex. Perhaps she feels coerced to begin with; perhaps she is drunk or out of it. Whatever, she is unhappy with the situation and changes her mind. He doesn’t and carries on. She feels violated and used. He is unrepentant. By anybody’s standards, the man has not behaved like a gentleman. According to the law, he has raped.

It is presumptuous of me this many years afterwards to make assumptions about what may have happened. Some might think it even cruel. The fact remains that we do not know the details of what happened that night, as we may have done from a court trial. In his trial by media, Mervyn was open about the fact that he and the woman were having an affair and stated often that he believed the sex was consensual.

By the time I came home after almost five years away, Mervyn was still a controversial figure. The last time we spoke was after an Auckland performance of his successful one man show Passing Through. He was thin and ill and my heart ached for him. Post-performance, he was in high spirits and despite my worries for his health, it was good to see him again. He had been a much-loved mentor and friend. He died not long after, in 1992, of throat cancer.

The only one truth in it all, I suppose, is that good people can do bad things. It is an idea that has fascinated me – my 2008 novel Swimmers’ Rope spins around the notion, as do several short stories and plays. I do believe Mervyn was a good man – misguided and badly behaved sometimes, but then, aren’t we all?

As I walked out into the night after the festival’s Gloria Steinem event I was surrounded by women, excited and encouraged by the great feminist’s wise words. Mothers and daughters, sisters and friends, we moved out of Aotea Square and down Queen Street in such numbers that we may have been the vanguard of one of the many protest marches that have taken place there. My first march was at 17, to repeal the Abortion Law, a cause which we could say was truly feminist. More recently, Aucklanders marched the street in response to the murder of little Moko. That is feminism as it is now: humane, encompassing, universal in its concerns. Many of our battles are won but the major ones – the protection of our children and the environment – are still raging.

Read part one of our Mervyn Thompson series here.

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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