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The Mervyn Thompson Affair: What a 32 year old controversy might tell us about the Chiefs scandal

All 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, and labelled him a rapist. Today: a modern take on the incident, and its wider implications, by former MP Holly Walker.

I think the six women who abducted Mervyn Thompson had a grand plan. As well as enacting vigilante justice on him for his alleged crime, I think they hoped to shock the country out of complacency about rape and sexism, and force a culture change. In light of a police and court system that responded inadequately to victims of sexual violence, and deeply ingrained sexism in New Zealand society, perhaps they convinced themselves that violence was the only rational response.

Thompson became a symbol, chosen because of his high-profile and respected status as a playwright and lecturer, to stand in for all men – or at least all rapists. It was a brutal invitation to see things from a victim’s perspective: men, imagine if this happened to you. It’s how many women feel, all the time.

As Renée wrote yesterday, it’s likely they got the idea from her 1982 play Setting the Table, in which a member of a feminist collective carries out a vigilante reprisal on an alleged rapist. “When he was down on the ground bleeding like a stuck pig I dragged him to the nearest fence, tied him to it, pulled his pants down – Jesus was he frightened – he actually shat – tied the ribbon round his spout and put the sign around his neck,” says Sheila, the perpetrator, and later, “I see it as a good thing that at least some men will feel those ripples of fear.”

And maybe it worked. Writing in Landfall in 2005, author and academic Patrick Evans called it “probably the most successful planned interruption of the status quo this country has ever seen, sending a shudder through New Zealand manhood that permanently transformed gender relations.” Most universities, for example, developed comprehensive sexual harassment policies in the fallout from the Thompson incident.

Some men took up the challenge. No doubt the women who attacked Thompson would have approved of Kai Jensen’s response, described in his book Whole Men: The Masculine Tradition in New Zealand Literature: “The Thompson affair had backed me into a corner with regard to feminism: I could no longer simply co-exist with it while thinking about it as little as possible… Within a few months I had helped to found a men’s group and was involved in ‘political action’: picketing strip-shows, consciousness-raising with groups of teenage boys, collecting for Dunedin Women’s Refuge and Rape Crisis, writing articles, pamphlets and letters to the newspaper.”

Perfect, right? Convert a few more good keen blokes like this and widespread culture change would be inevitable. Women would be safe, men would be allies, and rape would be rare. Any lasting damage to Thompson would be justified in light of these greater societal benefits, and besides, he deserved it.

But it didn’t happen. A national conversation of sorts did take place, mostly in the letters pages of the Listener. But generally correspondents divided into two camps – defenders of Thompson and defenders of his attackers – and talked loudly past each other.

When the ripples from the Thompson controversy finished washing up, general public attitudes towards rape and sexual violence were unchanged. Eventually even allies like Jensen became disillusioned: “Our documents and graphics were mostly fuzzy from repeated photocopying. Our protest marches or pickets shouted versions of the same, tired chants… It became increasingly apparent to me that our various critiques of society were not being heard by society itself – or not as we meant them to be heard.”

The impact on Thompson himself was extreme. In the extract from his memoir published earlier this week, it’s extraordinary how closely his emotions mirror those of female victims of sexual assault, from feeling as though he was treated like a piece of meat at the police station to intense phobia and fear of further attack months later. Yet having a taste of the experience of victim didn’t make him reflect on his conduct differently – in fact it made him more belligerent in his assertions of innocence. Any solidarity he had previously felt with feminist causes evaporated.

Many others were hurt by the fall-out, directly or indirectly. Reading the reflections of Renee and novelist Stephanie Johnson this week, I was struck by how angry the attack left them both, for different reasons. The ripples from one act of violence spread a long way. Not to mention, of course, that we know nothing of the impact on the young woman who accused Thompson.

I was 15 months old in February 1984. My take on all this is not a direct one like Renee and Johnson’s. But here’s one thing I do know: shock tactics are no way to start a productive conversation about rape. In 2005, I was editor of the Otago University student magazine Critic. For each of the previous two years, my male predecessors had devoted a week to producing a so-called “Offensive Issue” of the magazine, designed to shock readers and prompt conversations about the limits of free speech, and other such lofty ideals. Neither of their efforts had been particularly offensive. I was determined to do better.

When the “Offensive Issue” rolled around in 2005, I commissioned a fictionalised diary of a drug rapist. To the extent that I thought about why I was publishing it, which was not much, I told myself we would shock readers into action about drink spiking. The response was predictably outraged. The article was labelled a “how-to rape guide” and held up in the mainstream media as an example of student media gone too far. I defended the decision to publish the article staunchly, arguing that we were trying to raise awareness in an attention-grabbing way and encourage young women to keep themselves safe.

It took me several years to get down from my high horse and see the issue from the perspective of my detractors, who were right. Publishing that piece achieved nothing in terms of productive conversation or culture change. All I did was traumatise victims who picked up the magazine (we didn’t publish trigger warnings in those days), entrench unhelpful stereotypes about the student press, and perpetuate the myth that it’s up to women to keep themselves safe from rape. A complaint was laid with the Office of Film and Literature Classification, which was upheld. It remains an offence to possess a copy of that issue of Critic.

Are we capable of a more nuanced conversation about rape and sexual violence these days? In the social media age, we certainly have more public conversations about these topics, but for the most part I think we still have them past each other, not with each other.

Take the recent Chiefs scandal. Either you can’t understand how a young woman would voluntarily earn a living taking her clothes off – what did she expect anyway, putting herself in that position? – or you see stripping as a job like any other, and agree that someone working in that job is entitled to be safe at work and treated with respect. Yes, there’s been a welcome outcry about what happened to Scarlette, and disdain at the New Zealand Rugby Union’s lacklustre response.

But I’m not convinced that anyone who was firmly in the former camp has yet been swayed by the coverage to see things from a different perspective. It’s easy for me, in my liberal bubble, to be reassured by the stories in my Facebook feed reinforcing my views that the norms are shifting, but I just have to switch on RadioSport or read the comments on a Stuff story to be swiftly disabused of this notion.

While pondering all of this this week, I happened to meet sexual violence campaigner and survivor advocate Louise Nicholas. While I was already familiar with her case, hearing her speak was extraordinary. She held everyone in the room in thrall.

As Nicholas spoke, plainly and with controlled emotion and even humour about her experiences, I was struck by how disarming it is when someone tells their story in their own words. How once empathy is established, you can move onto much more complex and productive conversations. Afterwards, we flocked around her at the afternoon tea table like moths to a flame, full of questions.

This is what she has done with the New Zealand Police, despite having battled through seven court cases over several decades in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to secure convictions against the former police officers she says raped her when she was a teenager. Remarkably, she now works with the Police, telling her story and training recruits to take a victim-centred approach. She believes she has seen tangible culture change in the organisation as a result. Having seen her speak, I believe it. Encouragingly, she will now work with the New Zealand Rugby Union in the wake of the Chiefs debacle to help with culture change there too.

Deeply ingrained attitudes and beliefs can start to slide away when people really see each other as fellow human beings. Turns out inviting others to see things from your perspective can change the prevailing culture, but not in the brutal “see how you like it” way that was meted out to Mervyn Thompson. More “this is what happened to me and this is how it felt.” Of course, to say this takes a bravery that few of us possess.

Mervyn Thompson died in 1992, from throat cancer. He was 56. Friends said he never recovered from the attack in 1984. He did write more plays though. His final work was a solo performance called Passing Through, part autobiography, part revue. It contained this passage:

“The people I thought were allies… They’re not allies at all. They’re separate groups with separate agendas, screaming for each others’ blood. There is no popular front. And without that popular front, that community of interest, there’ll never be any justice either.”

He was bitter, angry, broken, and quite possibly a rapist. But I think he might also have been right.


Read previous coverage of the Mervyn Thompson case:

– An extract from his bitter, furious memoir

– An essay by Thompson’s colleague and friend, revisiting the moment

– An essay by the playwright Renee, whose work allegedly inspired the attack

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