Michèle A’Court reviews Barbara Else’s memoir of motherhood, writing and shucking off the legacy of the ‘good girl’.
Near the end of Barbara Else’s beautifully crafted memoir, Laughing at the Dark, the writer and editor tells of being asked in 2017 to write Go Girls, a collection of stories about New Zealand women who have done extraordinary things.
It’s a huge ask, the deadline is tight, she’s more used to fiction than non-fiction, but she says yes because she cannot bear to not write it. It is to be a book filled with true tales of independence and grit – girls who have found out how to be good at doing things, rather than “good girls”. This is the book Barbara wished she could have read in her childhood because it would have “bolstered what I thought about being female even before I could find the words for the feeling … In this book is my certainty that women’s stories are important”.
I realise in the first few pages that, in my own way, Laughing at the Dark is the book I have wanted to read for a long time. For a kid growing up in the 1960s and 70s, it chronicles a life I hoped was unfolding for women – a true tale of independence and grit which could just as easily (though less lyrically) have been titled “Escape from the Patriarchy”.
Born in 1947, Else is half-way in age between my mother and me. She would have been the right age to be one of the teenage girls in Levin who came to babysit, sometimes with boyfriends in tow. One of those boyfriends could have been (unlikely but possible) Else’s first husband, Jim Neale, whose father was a GP in our small town.
When Else’s first novel, Warrior Queen, was published in 1995, my mother recommended it to me. She called it “funny and sharp” (two of my mother’s favourite things) and, knowing something of the Levin connection, intimated that perhaps Barbara, then aged 48, had been able to spread her writerly wings after the divorce, and that she was pleased for her.
And it is true – there is a liberation at the centre of this book. Else deftly describes the many ways this first marriage boxes her in, taking care to attribute this to the era rather than the man. In telling her own story, she is chronicling a moment in social history – a shift from the kind of life women had been expected to live to something new.
Else and Neale meet at Otago University, and by the time Else sits her final exams for her MA at the end of 1968 they are married and she’s eight months pregnant with the first of their two children.
Jim is a high-flyer, an academic physician – ambitious, an anxious over-achiever desperate for his father’s approval. A small story illustrates the dynamics – a visit to Levin when an appointment is made for Else to see another local GP for mother and baby’s six week check-up. The doctor recommends an oral contraceptive. Barbara senses this is a put-up job by Jim’s father to make sure Jim’s medical career isn’t derailed by having another baby too soon. “I’m amused. And of course I agree. I am a good daughter-in-law. I am a good wife.” Weeks later, a Plunket nurse notices baby Emma is floppy and taking too long to feed. The Levin GP has not told Barbara that going on the pill will dry up her breastmilk.
This story – and all the stories, in fact – is told sparingly, presented to us without comment. We are not told what to think or feel: Else simply tells us what happens, and what it meant to her. Some of the pieces are only a hundred words long. All are told in the present tense, so we feel they are happening right now.
Many stories – like Else never knowing how much her husband earned, he just put money into a joint account for housekeeping and the rest was a mystery – will either sound shocking or familiar to readers, depending. Half-a-generation younger, I knew this was often how things were arranged, and it enraged me then as much as it would now. Which is why it delights me so much that, eventually, she escapes.
Occasionally Else will berate herself for her own acquiescence, for not arguing, being too much of a pushover. She finds traces of this well before the marriage with the way girls were taught early and often to be polite and amenable and “good” to the point of pretending an uncomfortable thing is not happening. Our mothers bottled fruit, and their feelings, and we were encouraged to do the same.
This story both shocks and illuminates: She is riding the bus home from intermediate one day and is accosted by what we called then “a dirty old man”. At home, she waits ages to get her mother alone to tell her, but her mother’s only response is to pretend she hasn’t heard, and to leave the room. The lesson for this 11-year-old is that men are not to be challenged about their bad behaviour, and that being “good” is a complex business. It’s a story which has an echo years later when Else tells Jim about being sexually harassed by a well-known writer and Jim’s response is not to show horror or offer support, but to tell her he assumes she can handle it, and turn away.
We are never asked to think of Jim as a monster – there are kind and loving stories of a man who wanted to be a good husband and father. As much as anyone, he is a victim of the times, of family and societal expectations, of the patriarchy – a word Jim would likely have not allowed in his house, along with any copies of feminist magazine Broadsheet.
Instead, Else lives a kind of double life as a writer. Short stories, then writing courses, then writing plays for a local theatre group, a first try at a novel… This is why we love her: because she never gives up. Then the revelation when she signs up for creative writing with Fiona Kidman that she could write about women’s lives. She is thrilled. But this is not something she can tell her husband who believes the topic of women is a second-rate choice. If you can point at one thing that ends this marriage, it is this. This, and also meeting the man who becomes her second husband, novelist and poet Chris Else.
The second half, then, is the blossoming of her life and of her writing. There are excellent instructions here on how you arrange two writers living and working in the same space – separate offices, separate printers, separate coffee pots. We enjoy the organic process of her and Chris becoming literary agents and manuscript assessors, alongside the organic process of growing families and gardens. There are hilarities about writers festivals, and frequent guest appearances from many of Aotearoa’s best writers.
It is as perfect a thing as you might expect from a writer who is also an editor. She tells us she does not approve of the adverb (I am now terrified of them) and by god she does a good simile. “I feel like a crumpled thing that you find behind the clothes-drier, so crusty with dust that even if you wash it and find out what it is you might not want it.”
This perfect sentence is reference to the treatment she has had for cancer, a diagnosis which spurred on the writing of this memoir, though a rough draft had been already underway. Chemotherapy didn’t do the trick, but Else has been on a drug trial since 2020 which has been very successful and latest news is that she is well.
Else says this is her story about what has been important, her way of tracing the journey from being a good girl to a girl who does good things. I can’t entirely explain why I weep my way through the last twenty pages. Relief and joy, I guess, for Barbara Else and all the other women who get to live their lives the way they want to live them now, and to tell each other our stories.
And if we think of Jim not as one person, but as an agent of the patriarchy, it won’t seem mean-spirited of me to say I cheered when I read this: “Now and then I imagine the tch Jim used to make when women’s stories were mentioned, and think Fuck off to his ghost.”