Magic circle of female friendship



I HAVE a friend who goes back far enough to remember my worst sartorial excesses. She mortifies me with reminders of the lime-green hotpants and white plastic boots (Abba ruled, OK?) that made such a fetching combo with my metal-rimmed glasses and the steel braces on my teeth (at least something matched).I retaliate with her own history as a fashion tragic: also hotpants, this time electric blue velvet, with lurid matching eyeshadow. Romeo’s Juliet might have been a romantic heroine at 14, but we were more like extras from Muriel’s Wedding.

Now when we get together we often end up singing – badly, mockingly, wistfully – to the exuberant, romantic music we used to dance to in her chenilled teenage bedroom. Those were the days, my friend.

A shared history can be a big ingredient of friendship because old friends know you in a way new friends cannot. It’s like the difference between the war correspondent and the historian – one shares in the immediacy of the moment, while the other can only glimpse its outline through the haze of time.

Sydney journalist Suzy Baldwin has written a book of interviews, Best of Friends, in which she asks a dozen women about female friendship. Baldwin asks whether intimate friendships are more important to women than to men, or is it just that women are better at them? What are friendship’s limits? And what happens when intense friendships collapse?
Women friends occupy a different place in the heart to husbands or lovers, and friendship’s freedom from sexual entanglement leads to hope that it will be more enduring. As the artist Mirka Mora says, “A lover is like a flying bird – in and out – but a friend is forever.”

But Mora is ambivalent about friends and in another part of the interview announces that her only friend is her work. Baldwin asks whether she had friends as a little girl. Mora stops to think and realises, “They were all burnt in Auschwitz … Maybe that has something to do with it. When the war came I lost all my little children friends.” Her aloneness contrasts painfully with the optimism of women like art lecturer Elizabeth Elliott, who is confident she will make new friendships right into old age.

Female friendships are like the little girl with the little curl: when they are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad they are horrid. Little girls’ cruel magic-circle games – embracing someone as best friend one day, ejecting her as social leper the next – make parliamentary politics look stable and beneficent. Big girls’ emotional intensity can make for a sense of loss and betrayal when the tide goes out on a close relationship, as sometimes it must.

There is no consensus, in this book or in life, on crucial questions such as whether a friend has a duty to tell unpalatable truths. Would you tell your best friend if her partner was cheating on her?

Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith wavers about how best to deal with a friend in trouble: “I’m not sure which is more important: for one person in her life to sit down and gently, gently, try to make her see what the problem is, or for her to have one friend who, through thick and thin, lets her be deluded when she needs to be deluded.”

Mary Vallentine, managing director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, made a hard call on that one. When her friend, the conductor Stuart Challender, became so weak with AIDS that his performances became dirge-like, she told him it was time to stop. “Oh, how hard it was to say that, because to him it meant, `Stop conducting and you will die.’ Which is, effectively, what happened.”

I once helped nurse a dying friend whom I had long thought of as my other mother. She invited me into her death the way she had invited me into her life, with confidence that this, too, would be better done together. At the time I thought it was something I was doing for her. It was not until afterwards that I realised she had offered me a blessing. There is nothing like a deathbed watch to make you face the truth about your own life, including the fact that not even the most treasured friendships can last forever.

Best of Friends, by Suzy Baldwin, Penguin, $19.95.

First published in The Age.

An accidental author

Word of mouth has made Rosalie Ham’s first book a best seller. She talks to Karen Kissane.

THE TOWN policeman is a cross-dresser with a sense of theatre; Priscilla meets Blue Heelers. The local madwoman’s false teeth are green with neglect. The puritanical chemist puts White Lily into vaginal cream destined for an adulterous itch. Welcome to Dungatar, Rosalie Ham’s warm and nasty vision of rural Australia.

Ham’s book The Dressmaker is a kind of Lord of the Flies in frocks. Blurbed as “an Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute-couture”, it has become a slow-burn best seller since its release last year.

Its fame has spread not through marketing campaigns but by word of mouth. Readers love its eccentric mix of pathos and black humor, potboiler plot and writerly insight, cruelty and compassion. So do movie makers, and Ham’s publishers are now choosing between five offers to convert the book to a film.

Ham, of course, is pleased. Few first-time novelists find themselves sitting so pretty. But success has come late -she is 46 – and has not yet brought with it enough money to transform her life. She is still in her simple weatherboard house, still squeezing her writing into three or four days a week, still making a living nursing old people.

“I’ve always done aged-care work, on and off, since I left school,” she says comfortably, sitting at her kitchen table. (We briefly canvassed sitting on the couch but she’s a kitchen-table kind of person, she says.) “I’ve done a lot of things, and a bit of travelling, but that kind of work’s always kept me alive and paid the bills. I really like it.”

It isn’t depressing? “No. The old people are lovely. They’re incontinent or they might be demented or whatever but they still have personalities. If I give them a shower and make them happy and comfortable and comb their hair and pop in with a cup of tea and a biscuit, it makes their day. I just like old people. And it also feels incredibly normal to me now to have conversations with people with dementia.”

One of the most vividly drawn characters in Ham’s book, Molly, is a neglected old woman with dementia who is shunned partly because of her craziness. Her paranoia makes her hilariously vicious but another side of her appears after her daughter, a dressmaker, returns to Dungatar to care for her. All of that came from Ham’s day job.

“As hydration and nutrition seeped into Molly’s body her faculties came back. That happens,” she says.

“Often people come into a nursing home and they’ve been eating bread and jam and a cup of tea for years and years so they’re malnourished and dehydrated and confused. After a while they improve because they’re forcefed love and attention and kindness and people around them care for them and take them to singing … They’re not cured, but they are better.”
Ham has a nurse’s brisk cheeriness and an understated, dry humor. She has a short, easy-care haircut, a direct manner, and an equally pragmatic approach to life’s big questions.

When her heroine Tilly, distraught with grief, can find no consolation in a Bible, Ham has her stab it. “I’m a bit dubious about religion,” Ham acknowledges cautiously. “Having a country upbringing, the cycle of life and death becomes somewhat matter of fact, as it does being an aged-care nurse.

“I don’t believe in an afterlife. And I’m fairly brutal about that. You were born, you live for a certain amount of time, and then you die. That’s just the way it is. There’s no point to suffering at all. Terrible things just happen to people.”

But she denies that any have ever happened to her. Ham, who was born and raised in the southern New South Wales town of Jerilderie, lays claim to a happy childhood in a caring community that functioned like an extended family for her.

“My experience in my home town was the absolute contrary (to Dungatar),” she says firmly. “I never felt any kind of animosity about anything I’d ever done. Small country towns are enormously supportive and very protective. That’s wherein lies the irony, because if you do the wrong thing, really the wrong thing, you can be ostracised by a country town and (their disapproval) will bind them together.” She grins. “So you just don’t do anything wrong.”
There are some hints that country life was not quite as uncomplicated as all that. When she was 10, her farmer parents divorced. When she was a young woman, she came back from an interstate holiday to false rumors that she had left town because she was pregnant. Perhaps neither event scarred her, but they did help sow in her imagination the seeds for the book that one reviewer called “a feral Seachange”.

The book was an accident; the product of serendipity. Ham had written three plays (“which not a lot of people outside my friends and family came to see, I must say”) and decided she wanted to learn more about performance writing. She enrolled in the appropriate course at RMIT but arrived on the day to find that subject was already full.

As she was leaving, she was waylaid by novelist Antoni Jach, a part-time teacher in fiction in the course, who insisted she try the novel unit instead. Ham reluctantly agreed. She expected to study great literature but was appalled in the first lesson to be asked for a 500-word synopsis of her book. She had landed in a novel-writing course.

She recovered quickly. “I had an idea and started writing it. Then you had to hand in 3000 words, and then you had to hand in 10,000 words, and I had 30,000 words. It was only three weeks before I realised that this was the best `accident’ that had ever occurred to me.”

Says Jach, “Rosalie’s a very talented writer and very hard-working. She went through a long process of finding her voice as a novelist.

“A lot of apprentice writers start writing in a very formal way … and it’s when they use their own voice the writing comes to life. Rosalie’s got a terrific command of the vernacular and she’s very lively as a person. She was one of those people who is very, very funny in the cafeteria. I said, `Put that energy and creativeness into your writing; put that touch of blackness in the novel’.”

Three years after she began the course, Ham had a book. It was refused by several publishers before she sent it to Duffy and Snellgrove, where its first 60 pages hit the desk of editor Gail MacCallum. “I started when I got home and got to the end of it without even having noticed,” MacCallum recalls. “I had to wait in this lather for 12 hours before I could ring her and say `Is there any more of it?”‘

MacCallum was struck by the strength of the characters and the narrative pace, “which is unusual, I think, sadly. In Australia there seems to be this gap between high literature and the more general mass market, and I think this book fills it”.

MacCallum was also struck by the book’s startling mix of kindness and venom. Ham is gentle with the broken or fragile parts of her characters, the pathetic, tawdry tragedies of the everyday. But she has a penetrating and pitiless eye for human cruelties.

The dressmaker offers the town’s small-minded women the chance to transform themselves externally but they are unable to transform their mean and petty internal selves. As a result, the book ends on a note of apocalyptic vengefulness.

It is hard to know whether Ham is exceptionally compassionate or exceptionally unforgiving. “Both,” she says without hesitation. “I do know that I am capable of great compassion and I know that I can be unforgiving; people have told me that. When I was much younger, I was a lot more caustic and sarcasm was a big thing and I had to learn to squash it down. And now I’m very good at holding my tongue.”
Her current project is a novel set in country Victoria in 1895. “My main character is in a confined, oppressive sort of environment, being rural Victoria at that time, which is a couple of years behind everybody else. But, at the same time, things are moving. Women are not wanting to wear corsets any more and they’re wanting to ride bicycles and she’s in the middle and she’s torn … And it’s all laced with humor.

“I thought I might see if I could write a more `literary’ novel, but if it doesn’t work I’ll just go back and write what I’ve always written, and that’s a cross between black comedy and something macabre and something sad. Good ingredients for a good read.”

The Dressmaker, by Rosalie Ham, Duffy and Snellgrove, $18.95.

Rosalie Ham, author and aged care nurse

Born: Jerilderie, NSW, 1955.

Educated: Rusden, Bachelor of Education in drama and literature; currently completing advanced diploma in professional writing and editing at RMIT.

Career: Three plays performed; first novel, The Dressmaker, published last year. Currently short listed for the booksellers’ choice for best book for 2000. Works part-time as an aged care nurse.

Lives: Brunswick, with her husband (set and props facilitator Ian McLay) and stepson (Morgan).

First published in The Age.

A gamble with life

Jie Hua Yu looked blank when the police first asked her about playing the pokies. “Pokies?” she asked, in her uncertain English. “What – what do you mean?” It seemed she had been in Australia long enough to have discovered this consolation of the lonely, but not long enough to know its name in the local lingo.

It was midnight in a homicide squad interview room. Yu hadn’t slept for 36 hours. She was there because her son, 19-month-old Brian Yao, was in intensive care. The previous day, February 16, 2000, she had left him in a hot car for two-and-a-half hours while she played poker machines at a local hotel.

On the police video tape of that interview, played in court last week, Yu looked weary but relaxed. She even laughed a couple of times. It was if she didn’t yet understand the gravity of the situation: her son’s, or her own.

On February 22 last year, five days after that interview, doctors at the Royal Children’s Hospital pronounced Brian dead. Yu was charged with having killed him.

It seemed to be a different woman who appeared on a charge of manslaughter in the Supreme Court dock last week. This woman wept; not noisily, but often. Whenever the events surrounding her child’s death were raised, she cried, her face crumpling like a child’s. Then she would rub at her eyes with a handkerchief, fiercely, as if trying to scour away the grief.

The gambling problem that was to take her son’s life began long before he was born, a psychiatrist told the court. Yu, now 40, arrived in Australia from China in 1988 and married her husband, waiter Benny Yao, the following year. The psychiatrist said her “very significant” gambling difficulties began after she left work to have children.

The eldest of her three children was seven when Brian died; the youngest, three months.

Ruth Vine, deputy chief psychiatrist for the state of Victoria, said: “There was certainly an element of loneliness and lack of socialisation in Mrs Yu’s life, in that she had very little contact with non-Chinese-speaking people, particularly following the birth of her children and her removal from the workforce … the setting in which this initiated.”

The doctor said Yu was an intelligent woman whose problem had reached the point where she was almost constantly preoccupied by the thought of poker machines: “Although she probably only actually attended such venues two or three times a week, nonetheless the thought and the preoccupation, and a sense of anxiety and guilt and apprehension, was with her on a far more frequent basis.”
Dr Vine said problem gambling was classified medically as an impulse-control disorder, such as shoplifting. People suffering from it used gambling “as self-treatment for depression, looking for excitement, to calm down – it has all sorts of different (causes)”.

(For legal reasons, Dr Vine’s evidence was ruled not relevant and was not presented to the jury. The comments reported here relate to a voir dire examination before the judge, the purpose of which was to help determine the legal relevance of her medical evidence as to Yu’s state of mind.)

Dr Vine said Yu’s husband had become concerned about her gambling to the point where he had got rid of her Visa card.

That fateful Wednesday morning, Benny Yao was asleep after having finished work at 2am. Jie Yu got up about seven, fed Brian and his school-aged brother, and pottered about until it was time to drop her older son at school.

Then she returned home to get money for shopping. She entered the house briefly and took $150. When she returned to the car, Brian was asleep. So she decided instead to go to the Ferntree Gully hotel, which has 90 gaming machines.

“I was going to go in there for 20 to 30 minutes,” she told police through an interpreter. “… I thought, `I will just play for a while and if I can win $8 or $10 or something, then I can shop for more things’.”

She parked her red Toyota Camry in an area of the car park that had no shade and wound up the windows so Brian would not be abducted. She left him asleep, in his polycotton pyjamas, strapped into his child harness.

Inside, she “did one round” to see which machine was “good”. “Then I played with one machine for some time and then I didn’t win and then … I go and do the same thing with the other one.” She sometimes looked through a window to check the car, “but I didn’t go into the car to check … I thought that I was lucky and he was still asleep”.

In fact, Brian was developing heatstroke, a condition to which children are far more vulnerable than adults. Children’s bodies are not as effective at regulating their temperature and they have a higher metabolic rate. And small children, as the prosecutor pointed out, cannot remove themselves from safety harnesses or locked cars.

Scientists later determined from tests that if the temperature outside is 24.7, the car’s interior will be 35.1 degrees; and if it is 28.8 outside, the inside can reach 59 degrees. But Yu was inside in air-conditioning, unaware of the rising temperature or even the passage of time. Dr Vine said: “Mrs Yu described a state of mind at that time that is very common in persons who have a preoccupation with gambling in that she was entirely – entirely – focused on the activity at hand … and I think it’s recognised that the (environment) in which many poker machines are kept tends to be one where there is an encouragement for that focus to develop …

“I am not going to say she had an altered state of consciousness, but an extremely focused attention that was only cognisant, really, of the machine in front of her.”
To that extent, the doctor said, she was “unaware of her son or the car or the day”.

Reality returned with the arrival some time after 11.30am of her husband. Hotel staff saw him talking to her angrily in the foyer. A gaming-room attendant, Val Miles, told the court Yu was “certainly cowering” as her husband upbraided her. Yu later told police through an interpreter: “He said that I was having fun by myself and leaving our son in the car.” Yu said she thought she had been in the gaming room for only 20 or 30 minutes.

Mrs Miles said she watched the couple leave. When they reached the car, “the gentleman hit the lady across the head. They seemed still to be arguing”.

When the parents found the child unconscious, they took him straight to the local Angliss Hospital. Doctors said he was cyanosed (blue) and convulsing, with a dangerously high temperature of 42.3 degrees (a normal temperature is between 36 and 37.5 degrees).

Pathologist Matthew Lynch, who performed the autopsy on Brian, said: “(Heatstroke) is the end stage of the temperature going up and the body losing the capacity to bring it down. When it gets to that end point, most of the important systems of the body start to malfunction.” Dr Lynch said this involved severe brain injury as well as problems with the heart, lungs and kidneys. “And these problems will compound each other. The situation often just gets worse and worse.”

In his summing up, the prosecutor, Paul Coghlan, QC, built a quiet but inexorable case against Yu. He pointed out that love and negligence are not mutually exclusive; that negligence arises because we have a duty of care to others; and that the duty of care of a parent for a small child is one of the greatest. He said that Brian’s death was an inevitable and foreseeable consequence of his mother’s conscious actions, and that two-and-half hours was an inexcusable length of time to have left him in the car. He asked the jury to set a community standard on the issue.

He spoke soberly, without aggression. “There’s no joy in this case. There’s no joy for me as a prosecutor, no joy to say that this is a case in relation to which a determination has to made about a mother in these circumstances. (But) it’s about the enforcement of law as we understand it in this community.”

The defence counsel, Brian Bourke, appealed for the jury’s sympathy with Rumpolesque eloquence. He quoted at length the British writer G.K. Chesterton on his experience as a juror, including his dismay at the way lawyers and judges and policemen lose perspective: “`This is the reason for the jury system. Strictly, they don’t see the prisoner in the dock … They only see their own workshop…”

Mr Bourke suggested it was the gambling industry that should be on trial. The jury should remember the accused as a good and caring mother, he said.

“Put yourself in her position for one minute. She will live with it to the end of her days. Regardless of what is said by this jury, what verdict you return, she will bear that, and she needs no verdict of yours to appreciate and realise the enormity of this sort of conduct.”

The jury took only two hours to find Yu guilty. She has yet to be sentenced. Justice Bernard Teague indicated that he would impose jail only if it were necessary to allow Yu to access the supportive supervision available to those on parole.

In the end, the law had viewed the child’s death with gravity and the mother’s life with compassion.

First published in The Age.

Also see The End of The Affair.

A mother is found guilty, but what to do?

The prosecutor said the case gave him no joy. The judge said he was pleased that the jury, and not he, had to make this hard call. The defence counsel said “gambling dens” were the real culprits.

And the accused stayed mute, but for her quiet weeping.

But when court adjourned after she was convicted of manslaughter, Jie Hua Yu, the mother whose toddler died of heatstroke after being left in a hot car while she played the pokies, sat sobbing, her head on her husband’s shoulder.

Her younger sister Yali, who had testified that Yu was a good and loving mother, wept in an alcove outside the courtroom.

It was the end of a long and, all parties acknowledged, tragic story.

It began on February 16 last year, when Yu, after dropping an older child at school, decided to stop off for 20 or 30 minutes’ play at a local gambling venue, the Ferntree Gully Hotel.

She left the second of her three children, 19-month-old Brian Yao, strapped in the car in an unshaded area of the hotel car park.

He was asleep, she later explained to police, and she thought she wasn’t going to be inside for long.

Two-and-a-half hours later, Yu’s husband, Benny Yao, woke at their home in Kelvin Drive, Ferntree Gully, and realised his wife and child were gone.

He arrived at the hotel looking for her. The couple found Brian unconscious and took him straight to a nearby hospital.

He arrived blue and convulsing.

Despite an emergency transfer to the Royal Children’s Hospital, he was later declared brain dead and was removed from life support on February 22.

Yu was charged with having killed him through criminal negligence.

This Supreme Court case was a quiet one. Barristers did not shout or bluster. Medical witnesses kept descriptions of distressing facts to a minimum. It was as if no one wished to add to the suffering that Yu had already endured.

Yu, a 40-year-old housewife, arrived each day dressed in unadorned suits with her face bare of makeup. She sat next to her Cantonese interpreter, her head bent to one side as she listened to the swift translation of legal exchanges. Had it not been for the misery etched on her face, they would have looked like girlfriends exchanging confidences.

Yesterday Yu’s defence counsel, Brian Burke, argued that this good and loving mother should not be branded a killer. He said her conduct did not deserve to be punished as a crime. He asked jurors to put themselves in her place.

He blamed the gambling industry for “wreaking havoc” on innocent people. “It’s a great pity it’s not the gambling dens on trial, isn’t it? They are not on trial; got the sanctity and blessing of governments from top to bottom.”

The prosecutor, Paul Coghlan, QC, told the jury that love and negligence were not mutually exclusive. He argued that leaving a small child locked in a hot car for two-and-a-half hours “so terrifically” breached Yu’s duty of care to her son that it called for the intervention of the criminal law.

“The question you will have to address is whether it can ever be said to be not unexcusable to leave a child in this sort of car, in this sort of car park, on this sort of day, for two-and-a-half hours. It’s just not on … for proper contemporary standards … Lines should be drawn.”

The jury took two hours to conclude that Mr Coghlan was right.

Justice Bernard Teague adjourned the sentence for a date to be fixed. He said he would consider punishments that did not involve prison.

First published in The Age.

Also see A Gamble With Life and Ending The Affair.