All week we’ve revisited 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, and labelled him a rapist. We conclude the series with a personal essay by Talia Marshall.
A while ago Steve Braunias at The Spinoff emailed me and asked if I might happen to know who tied Mervyn Thompson to a tree. Even though I was only six in 1984 I thought I might know, in fact, and replied that if I wasn’t sure I could ask my mother. She liked being asked about it, but told me that even if she did know for certain – who the women were that night – she wouldn’t be telling Steve Braunias. She said she was a peripheral figure, and besides, what made me think that it was only dykes that did it?
I thought I might know who did it or could at least find out, because growing up that larger gaggle of dykes were my whānau. So the email about Thompson triggered some familiar talk from my childhood of “all men being rapists”. I was one of those annoying kids who sits under the table desperate to take everything in, while the women drink tea and coffee and talk the world to death.
Except there were no other kids, just me and the lesbians. My mum got me a children’s book, I’ve Got Lots of Mummies from the Women’s Bookshop to help me not-be-like anyone else at school. Unfortunately reality has never coincided much with my love of books and their promise of escape.
I’d also come across Thompson’s plays while studying theatre at university in the late 90s and I remember my feminist lecturer’s genuine sadness at what had happened to her friend, Mervyn. That this was one of the only times she expressed anything in class approximating emotion, albeit complicated by her political beliefs.
The events of The Mervyn Thompson Affair also occurred within a larger political context, post-1981 Springbok Tour and pre-Homosexual Law Reform. A period in Aotearoa marked by dramatic social, economic and cultural upheaval.
Because it was a different time then, wasn’t it? The 80s? Different music and different clothes; characterised by greed, MTV, AIDS, nuclear anxieties and a less complicated Michael Jackson. The wholesome Huxtable family at large on the television. An age with fewer layers to the identity politics and more obvious villains. David Cameron is nothing compared to Margaret Thatcher.
The reluctance of the student that accused Mervyn to go to the police may have stemmed from the contemporary female experience of being disbelieved, but also the more generalised outrage and distrust of the zeitgeist that was directed at so much of what was WRONG WITH EVERTHING. The butting against police at Springbok protests, the nuclear-free evangelists and the flowering of the Maori renaissance/resistance. The first name I ever heard for the police was PIGS screamed at them.
I went on all those protest marches with my mother and watched how she changed from a fey, Kate Bush-like presence, who drew princess after princess for me when I asked her to, into a radical who’d chopped her long hair off so the mullet matched her boiler suit.
She was part of a larger emergent iwi of women who didn’t just burn their bras and refuse to wear pantyhose in favour of batik, but also threatened to cut your dick off.
As a child I didn’t appreciate the anarchy of my many mothers. I wanted normality, barbecues and lacy white socks. I thought the punks of Cuba St were frightening and I coveted a Barbie more than anything in the world. Barbie did not look anything like the women I grew up with, who looked like Tom Cruise in Top Gun.
A mostly Pākehā lesbian gang, whose iwi softball team was called the Amazons. Mum played first base for the B team. She never dropped a catch! Too terrified to! She is also at pains to point out her bat never connected with the ball.
I was a slightly suspect presence at those games because I was proof Mum had been with a man. As an adult I’d like to point out we all have to come from somewhere, even Amazons. But as a child I was oblivious to the hostility in the air – because the neatest woman alive in 1984, Jane Cool, let me walk her miniature collie round and around the softball diamonds of Wellington and delighted at everything I did with her wonderful, gravelly chuckle. Jane who let me sit on her knee while I gazed longingly at the hairstyles of their opponents from Johnsonville, admiring their femininity.
And of course I got Lego for my fifth birthday instead of a Malibu Barbie. It was part of my cultural re-assignment in the one-girl kibbutz. GIRLS CAN DO ANYTHING! the sticker read. This girl built lonesome Lego doll houses for the Barbie I wasn’t allowed, though my mother did sneak off to a ballet-wear sale to buy me a tutu. I wore that tutu every day until it was covered in finger-paint and busting at the seams. As Foucault said, making sense for once, where there is power there is also resistance.
But trying to make sense of what happened to Mervyn, it’s the north-facing moral compass of my mother I keep returning to, her often infuriating and intractable sense of right and wrong, how at 38 years old I still run all my ethical dilemmas through her no-nonsense filter. My own Atticus Finch.
What they did to Mervyn made her and some of the other women inside the movement more than uncomfortable. It stunk of the same kind of witch hunt they’d been subject to their whole lives, of the injustice dispensed by mobs, and worse than that, the same intolerance stitched insidiously into the very fabric of society, into small town rituals, sports clubs, schools and churches.
Growing up in communities where they felt like they didn’t belong, often most hurtfully to their own families. The places they had to leave to become themselves, the places where who you wanted to love or fuck in private made you a sinner and an outcast.
I remember my mother dancing to Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” in the lounge of one of the many flats we lived in Wellington, how Jimmy Somerville crying like an angel for the boy running away to the city spoke to her story too.
My Mormon Nana came to our house off Cuba St once and found a transvestite wearing one of the dresses she’d sent for my mother, a dress that was so Little House On The Prairie naff he/she got mercilessly teased by the others for wearing it under Vivian St’s red lights. A funhouse simulacra of the life my Nana had been trying to imagine for her daughter when she sent those parcels from Dunedin.
At six I was firmly on Nana’s team and could never understand why the women around me dressed like men if they hated them so much. But I was applying a child’s logic to adults, and they were responding radically to the general psychosis of the age and its insane attitudes towards women. Their point being that life was easier in pants.
The sometimes uneasy solidarities involved for them when they agitated for homosexual law reform in the 80s. The way my mother and her friends marched to repeal a law that didn’t even bother to include them in the Crimes Act along with sodomy, that their sexuality was so void it was a lacuna in the law.
Extreme, radical movements are often a response to extreme injustice, but they also tend to self-cannibalise, to implode on the same ideological grounds and slippery power structures they were fighting to topple.
They also mutate, when I first read Mervyn’s extract I was struck by how much it sounded like some of the talk of Twitter and other social media, what he called “the daughters of privilege”. Imagine if he wrote that on Twitter now. He’d be eaten alive by women smarter than him insisting they weren’t privileged.
The strident beliefs held by all, the way ideas don’t change that much but grow new protrusions, and however hard we fight for them, these causes, or rather, our heated arguments in their defence, the discourse becomes even more malignant and futile when you tell people what to think and how to feel.
But actually those women they remind me of really did change the world. It was a war, and Mervyn and his loose zipper and his socialist sympathies was the collateral damage of that struggle, that moment when whatever-happened-that-night with the student collided with the rage and grief of those women. Personally I think what they did to him was horrific, but I’ve bullied too. All through this coverage of The Mervyn Thompson Affair people have been at pains to point out the frailty of human nature.
But still. It is men that get to go to war and women that get to have their impotent rage ridiculed. An angry woman is a cultural archetype, one that attracts limited fear and much loathing. One of the compelling things to me about this story is how frightened Mervyn sounds in Monday’s extract. Throughout history the story has been the other way round.
Because what happened to him can never be measured properly against how much hate there still is for women, the relationship between his and their narrative is dialectical and emerges from the same unresolved place.
Even Thompson’s response to the attack in Monday’s extract, the trophy-like description of what she looked like on top of him, seems to me, as a daughter of the privilege he ridicules, to be a further rape of her privacy. Whatever her accusations, she didn’t actually tie him to the tree.
But Mervyn loved pinching bottoms, Mervyn “loved women” as much as John Updike liked writing about muff in Couples. From a distance those details seem lecherous and sad, but punishable by vigilante squad?
Questionable in terms of someone who won’t take no for an answer and the inherent power discrepancy that exists between a male teacher and female student?
Nor is it my job as a privileged daughter of the revolution to tell Steve Braunias who tied Mervyn Thompson to a tree – besides, I’m probably as wrong as all the gossips. But I do know from under that table, nowhere near the tree in Western Springs, that the demonic vein in society those bitches were scraping and clawing at when they put out cigarettes on Mervyn is actually real.
But so is the love and the sisterhood. My friend held my other friend in bed the night after she was raped by a man she trusted. She then managed to coax her into going to the police. Neither of them were brought up in feminist homes like I was but one showed the other the tautoko the movement has been fighting to get embedded into the justice system for years.
There is no evolutionary reason for women to be as kind to other women as they can be, which, to me, is what makes such everyday acts a miracle. Kindness and forgiveness is expected of women. Lady Macbeth goes crazy when the milk of it runs dry in her. But that’s a man’s version, isn’t it? Mervyn probably had a lot to say about Shakespeare.
At the end of Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke, Harvey Keitel spells out BE KIND to Kate Winslet in the desert after her character shreds his aging masculinity. Why should being kind to men have be in our default settings, be talked into our DNA, and our supposed nature when basic respect isn’t wired into theirs?
Because the burden of proof persists at a legislative level on the victim rather than the perpetrator, and my friend ended up one of the countless women the alabaster woman holding the scales of justice stays blind to.
Those fierce lesbians in their militant dress indoctrinated me into how wrong that is on a personal and political level, and how you should always fight for what you believe in, especially if you are witness to injustice maiming the people you love. It’s also why when I read Renée’s account of being let down by her sisters I felt whakamā on their behalf.
I do feel lucky to have been raised by them, that larger coven, out there on the periphery with my softer mother, made to feel my specialness as a girl in my bones. But I’ve also come to my own conclusions about what liberty could mean for a woman, mitigated by my life-long love of glitter and girlish tat, and how thwarted that love was, for so long.
Shouldn’t a woman be able to turn cartwheels at a party in a gold mini-dress with no undies on and not be punished for it? Or be made subject to, and accountable for, the sexual violence and predatory hatred of some, but not all men? Or the toxic envy of another woman?
It’s not Barbie that’s the problem, it’s how much we still seem to hate her.
Can I have one now, please?
Read previous coverage of the Mervyn Thompson case:
– An essay by Thompson’s colleague and friend, revisiting the moment
– An essay by the playwright Renee, whose work allegedly inspired the attack
– An essay by former MP Holly Walker on the modern implications of the case