Feeling good, or bad, in a cloud of anxiety

Psychologist Michael Kyrios has just seen his first patient with an anthrax phobia. “It’s someone who has obsessive-compulsive disorder and a lot of fears about contamination,” he says. “I was waiting for it.

“When AIDS became a big thing, a lot of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder would appear with AIDS-related phobias. They feared that they might catch it, or that they might be responsible for making someone else ill.”

The result in both cases is the same: patients obsess about safety with compulsive hand washing, repetitive checking or total avoidance of situations seen as risky. A Sydney GP reports that one patient blithely claimed she had no fear of anthrax because she was washing her hands 20 times a day. Australia is thousands of kilometres from the “Ground Zero” of the New York World Trade Centre attack, and all its anthrax scares have so far proved to be hoaxes. But the level of anxiety in the community has risen from the background hum of white noise to something louder and more insistent since September 11. We have been enveloped not in a cloud of bacteria but a cloud of emotion.

Doctors, psychologists and telephone counsellors say many people who were already struggling to cope have sought help because the news about terrorism pushed them into anxiety or depression. People are ringing Lifeline with sudden fears of tall buildings or enclosed spaces; Kids Helpline had a 400 per cent increase in calls following the twin towers attack; GPs report an average of five patients a day asking – mostly jokingly, they think
– about the risks of anthrax. Sales of emergency gear and gas masks have rocketed. Both the professionals and the retailers agree there have been twin peaks of the anxiety: the first few days after the towers crashed, followed by the days after Prime Minister John Howard’s announcement that Australia would send troops overseas for the war against terror.

But increased fearfulness is not the full story. There are at least two other elements in the nation’s emotional response to international terror, according to a wellbeing survey of 2000 Australians that asked them about their reactions to the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. It found people were deeply saddened by the destruction and death, but that they had also become more satisfied with their own lives and with life in Australia generally.

Researcher Richard Eckersley helped produce Australian Unity’s National Wellbeing Index, released this week. He says disasters and the saturation media coverage given to them can lead to more psychological disturbance “but also to a national rallying and a greater sense of community and comradeship”.

He speculates that Australians feel better about themselves because the attacks have jolted people “out of the rut of everyday life – making them more aware of what they have and the preciousness of life”.

Ninety per cent of people surveyed said they had been saddened and 25per cent rated their sadness at 10 on a scale of one to 10: “That’s equivalent to the loss of a child or a partner, not usually something as general as this. It does suggest that quite a few people were very, very worried or distressed by what happened. And yet at the broad popular level, there has been this lift in satisfaction levels.”

The national wellbeing index rose 3.3 percentage points to 60.4 per cent and the personal wellbeing index rose 1.2 points to 74.7 per cent. The research echoes similar US findings: Americans are reporting higher rates of depression, insomnia and difficulty with concentration, along with higher satisfaction with their own lives and with their nation.

This is not as contradictory as it seems: “It makes sense in that people are responding to different questions. You can be saddened by the event, which is an emotional response, but still judge yourself to be slightly more satisfied with your own life, which is a cognitive evaluation.”

Dr Kyrios suggests Australians’ increased satisfaction might be a “post-hoc rationalisation”: “We need (to think) this in order to cope with that; we need to find meaning in order to cope with these horrible things happening around us.” It had been many years since the Me Generation questioned life: “This is something that wars tend to do, trigger a resurgence in the search for meaningful values.”

They also help detonate a resurgence of symptoms in people who have already suffered emotional trauma. Dr Bill Pring, psychiatry representative for the Australian Medical Association, says: “The terrorist event in the US has been a partial cause of a relapse or an actual episode of illness in some people.”
He says those at risk include people who have experienced warfare first-hand, such as soldiers and civilians who remember the World War II bombing of Europe, and anyone with lingering after-effects of peacetime traumas such as car accidents or domestic violence.

Many war veterans being treated for post-traumatic stress have become even more stressed, confirms psychologist David Forbes of the Australian Centre for Post-Traumatic Mental Health. “They’ve had more frequent nightmares and increased vigilance; they’re more conscious when they’re out of maintaining awareness about who is around them and what activities are happening around them, watching out for anyone that might look suspicious or have an intention to carry out harm. They wouldn’t want anyone standing behind them.”

Even children are not immune. The professional consensus is that children will take their cue from the responses of the adults around them. They did, says Kids Helpline’s Felicity Sloman. Callers in the week after the attack were worried because their parents had become so distressed – “If my parents need to be worried, then I need to be worried.” Calls are now back to normal levels, and anthrax is not a theme.

But most of the callers to Kids Helpline are teenagers. Primary school students are still anxious, according to Professor Erica Frydenberg, a psychologist in the faculty of education at Melbourne University. She says a class of teachers this week told her children are scared because they misunderstand. “They’re transferring the knowledge about what happened overseas to the possibility of it happening here. They think they are personally endangered.” Dr Kyrios adds: “Anything happening on TV could be happening outside as far as children are concerned.”

He says the ordinary person’s helplessness in the face of world events is freeing for some people; they just get on with their lives, realising there is little they can do. But others are comforted by taking action, however illogical, to protect against what they feel are their risk factors.

Alen Saynte is manager of Mitchell King disposals in Sydney, where gas mask sales have rocketed from two a month to 400. Customers have told him, “It’s OK for me, but my husband works in the city,” or “My husband works for an American company”.

The loss of trust in the environment makes people cling to the familiar. The tourism industry reports that more Victorians are booking holidays close to home. But the urge to circle the wagons has its downside. Ray Fritz, manager of Lifeline, says callers have been preoccupied not just with anxiety about the safety of themselves and their loved ones but with concerns about the future of community. The walls between in-groups and out-groups have been reinforced by fear.

“People who are on the edges of society – people who are homeless, who have some sort of disability or a mental illness or carers for those sorts of people – they’re expressing concerns that their links in the community are disappearing,” Mr Fritz says. “There seems to be a sense that people are caring less about those people who are on the edge and focusing more on the mainstream. One response of people who are fearful is to affiliate with those people they know best, so people who have trouble connecting anyway find it even more difficult.”

The political focus on “boats and borders” has made asylum seekers a clear “out” group, he says, and Lifeline workers have had to try to encourage some callers to be more tolerant. There has also been a rise in the number of employers requesting help with counselling staff who have been racially abused in the workplace, he says.

If politicians had wanted to link asylum seekers with terrorism, “(They) have succeeded. The issues are interlinked in people’s minds.”
Welcome to the not-so-brave new world.

First published in The Age.

Taking tea with Julia



JULIA BLAKE sits gracefully in her armchair, legs crossed demurely at the ankle, hands fluttering around her expressive face, recalling how she first learnt about orgasm. She says she was such an innocent, even after leaving university, that when the word cropped up in conversation she had to ask what it meant.“People fell about when I asked. I remember flushing and somebody saying, `You can’t be for real!’ But this bloke said, `You don’t know, do you?’ And he put on a scats vocal of Ella Fitzgerald and he said, `That is a musical orgasm.’

“And once I discovered what an orgasm was,” she says with amusement, “I then understood. It’s an incredible thing, where Ella almost goes into a sort of moaning” – the actress in her takes over, and Blake moves into soft, sensual cries of “aah, aaah, AAAH …”
Then she snaps back to herself. “It’s an incredible piece of music,” she says crisply. “I’m sure it’s still available, but at my time of life it would be more than I could bear to hear it, probably.” And she throws back her head and laughs.

Most actors are charming – they live by their ability to cast a spell – but Blake is utterly beguiling. Artlessly open, she lays her life out for this interview like a generous but distracted hostess preparing a sumptuous tea tray for a guest. The preparation may not be orderly, as she flits from one story to the next, but the result is a feast.

Blake, 64, grew up and trained as an actress in Britain but came to live in Australia in 1963 after marrying the then actor (and later state MP) Terry Norris. She arrived knowing little of the country but what she had learnt in Chips Rafferty films and Patrick White novels.

Now she is to play four roles in the world premiere of a play based on the The Aunt’s Story, White’s favorite among his own works. The tale of a spinster’s emotionally deprived life and slide into madness will star Helen Morse as Theodora Goodman (the aunt) and has been adapted and directed for the stage by Adam Cook for this year’s Melbourne Festival.

Blake met White once, under circumstances that still cause her to rail at her ability to fumble a big moment. It was 1988 and she was acting in a play called Ghosts in Sydney. White, who was just out of hospital and very frail, asked to see her after the show to congratulate her on her performance.

An awed Blake found herself stranded in the dressing room part in and part out of a corset, unable to free her arm from its strings and with no one to help untangle her. “So I grabbed something and flung it round my shoulders and ran through in my underclothing with my breasts hanging out and he was walking out and I called `Mr White! Please Mr White!’

“And he stopped and he turned around and he looked me up and down and he just got this little twinkle. And I said, `I’m so sorry, as you can see I’m sort of …’ And he said, `Excellent work.’ And walked off. He died not terribly long after, but he had this incredible face, with piercing eyes, blazing intelligence and the look of a disapproving eagle.

“I felt terrible, and I still do now. I thought, `What is it about me that always messes things up? What is it about me that always has an accident?’ My great moment, and this writer whom I’d admired for years and years and of whom I was terrified, and I’d got my bloody arms in the strings of a corset!”

This view of herself as a tragi-comic incompetent is not shared by others. In Australian film and theatre, she is seen as highly professional and accomplished: director Richard Franklin dubbed her “One-take Blake”, and her cultured British accents and luminous delivery keep her in steady demand.

Paul Cox has directed her in several movies including Man of Flowers and his latest film, Innocence, the tale of two elderly lovers who meet again after many years apart and resume their affair. He says: “She’s one of our finest actresses. She’s always played minor parts in the past but now she’s finally being seen in the light she deserves.”

Her strengths? “She’s real. She feels what she says, she breathes it, it becomes part of her skin. She’s like a very delicate Stradivarius violin, something so deep and perfect, it’s a delight to work with her. She has dignity and pride. She really carries (Innocence); without her it wouldn’t have had the same impact.”

Blake lives in just the kind of house one imagines she would have; a pretty timber home that has a verandah complete with pots of lacy flowers, an old cane couch and a snoozing cat.

Terry Norris, tall and gravelly-voiced, appears briefly with an offer of tea. “You’re a darling,” Blake tells him. Then she explains: “I gave up my career for years and looked after the (three) kids and just as I was about to come back to the industry, in 1980, he was preselected for Parliament. So that was quite difficult, but he’s made up for it since.

“In the last few years, he does most of the cooking and a lot of the cleaning. I just swan around and read” – she giggles with delight – “and I’ve taken to handpainting little boxes and things.”

There are stories behind those little boxes; the first about her childhood, and the second – perhaps linked to the first – about the nervous breakdown that kept Blake out of the industry for three years from 1991 and almost saw her permanently retired.

“I started (painting boxes) as therapy because of depression. My father died. He was an artist and I wanted to be an artist when I was young, but because my father used to pick holes in my work the whole time, I swore that I would not paint any more. So at the age of 14, I stopped.

“I had this urge to do it in the last couple of years of my father’s life and bought paints and just could not do anything. It was an absolute block. I was even nervous about unscrewing the tops off the paint tubes. I would hyperventilate.”

Then her father died in England, and a week later she found herself smearing ultramarine paint with her fingers, like a child, along the side of a box that was to hold a present for a friend.

“I thought, `Oh, that’s lovely, the color itself is so pleasurable!’ And then I thought it was a bit Matissey so I did a little mock Matisse on it. Then I did a Japanese hiroshiga thing and then I did a Van Gogh self-portrait on the other side, and so on.”

And now she has bright stacks of small hand-painted boxes sitting on shelves in her living room.

This happened as she dropped out of the theatre, unable to cope emotionally partly, she thinks, as a result of the stress of rarely having Norris home during his years in Parliament (he finally retired in 1992). “It was a combination of things,” says Blake, looking back. “I’d done so much work I was burnt out.

“Also … I didn’t like being so well known. I would go to work and see my photograph in the theatre in Sydney and – I dunno, it was my own stupid fault. I’d allowed myself to get trapped by worrying about people’s expectations.

“I worried that I wasn’t going to give them value for money or that I wasn’t going to be able to do the performance. I just felt exposed.

“I became very unhealthy. It was all totally negative thinking, all the hangovers from my childhood of my father being a perfectionist and wanting me to come top of the class.”

She says she had been feeling for a long time before this that she was on the edge of a precipice, “And in fact I was: the precipice was the breakdown. And when I was ill, I think my body was saying, `Rest’. But I made the fatal mistake of thinking I didn’t want to act any more.

“I didn’t want the exposure, I didn’t want to be up there in front of people. But when I dropped out, it actually got worse because I had nothing to channel my energies into … and I suppose I started to think of myself as filling in time before the grave, `Well, these are my final years, and there aren’t going to be many roles anyway.”‘

She was pulled out of it by a canny Scotsman, Alan Madden, who was determined to cast her in his first film, Mushrooms. “He was Scottish enough to be entirely obdurate,” she says fondly.

When she insisted she had left the industry, he insisted on sending her the script for critique. She thought the role wonderful and hasn’t looked back since.

Blake, the oldest of three children, has been acting in one form or another since she was three. Her parents were church-minded and she remembers being given the chance to preach a sermon when she was so small that she had to stand on a box to reach the lectern. “I loved it,” she says. “I think what I liked most was the sense of power it gave you.

“I used to sing sometimes and I used to register myself for talent competitions and win books. And I would organise – God help me, I must have been a terrible child – performances in the backyard and force my brothers to sit and listen.”

Her mother died last year, “still struggling with mental health problems; chronic depression, manic depressive, although I don’t know what her formal diagnosis was”.

“She would swing from one extreme to the other; she either wouldn’t go anywhere, or we’d hear her running up the street with heavy shopping, everything in a rush. And I have that in me as well, so I understand her; just exuberant, then exhausted. A lot of actors are like that.”

Blake would skive off from school to catch French movies at the local cinema and later studied drama at university, but says she never would have become an actor had the Bristol Old Vic theatre and its troupers, not been a big part of the city’s life.

“The Bristol Old Vic theatre was the best theatre outside London, so people from the theatre would come up and see me. Peter O’Toole came up to see me, though he wasn’t a star then.” Did he hit on her? “He did, he did! And I said no,” she says with amused regret. “I was so nervous of him. I was really conditioned by my religious background at the time.”

Theatre is still her first love; she has a more ambivalent relationship with film. “I’m passionately addicted to theatre, and I don’t care if I never do another screen thing. (It’s) the lack of creative control. People cut your performance to ribbons, and once it’s there it can never be altered. “In theatre, it’s re-lived every night, and you still have that … relationship with a given audience.”

BUT she is full of excitement about her roles in The Aunt’s Story and brings out the exercise books in which she has scrawled notes from White’s novel to help her characterisations. She will play Theodora’s mother, “that dreadful, damaging mother”; the schoolteacher, Miss Spofforth – “She’s intellectual, she’s astute”; an American country woman; and a vulgar American tourist called Elsie Rapallo.

“I’m just so excited. What a lovely thing to be able to do. It’s sort of a mystery, theatre. People will pay a lot of money to go along and see a group of grown-up people dressing up, pretending to be somebody else. “It’s an ancient ritual that appears to be necessary for society.”

It is clearly necessary to Blake. “The work sort of eats me up and I give myself up to it willingly and I get burnt out and I worry over it and I will sometimes fling myself on the floor and weep because I think I’m not getting it right. But I love the sort of pain/pleasure of the artistic process. I really do.”
The Aunt’s Story is at the Playhouse from October 25 to November 10.


Julia Blake, actor

Born: England, 1937

Educated: Bristol University and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Career Highlights: “(The film) Innocence, because it broke down all those perceptions about age and love affairs. In the theatre, Ghosts for Neil Armfield, and Hannie Rayson’s Life After George.”

Lives: Kensington, with husband Terry Norris.

First published in The Age.

Ya gotta laugh, it’s such a funny business: Elections 2001

Bad novelists write of hearty guffaws, a phenomenon rarely encountered in everyday life. But they seem to have their uses on the campaign trail, at least for Treasurer Peter Costello, who finds them a useful filler for awkward conversational spaces.

There is the terminating guffaw, a big laugh that is code for “I must move on to shake the next line of hands, but haven’t we both enjoyed this little chat?” There is the whoops guffaw, to smooth over any minor lapse in savvy. And there is the “Look – a joke!” guffaw, released at the merest glimpse of humor in an unpromising round of small talk.

The Treasurer was shaking hands yesterday in Rowville in the marginal seat of Aston, held by Liberal Chris Pearce.

Aston “has more home buyers than any other electorate in Australia”, Mr Costello told a gathering in the community centre. It appeared to be a hand-picked crowd of Liberal supporters, mostly small-business people and self-funded retirees.

There was the local hairdresser (“What do you think you could do for me?” asked Mr Costello); the IT consultant with the Marvin the Martian cartoon character tie (“the Bugs Bunny Show had Donald Duck and Minnie Mouse, didn’t it?” asked the Treasurer, scrambling for common ground); and the patisserie owner who used to be a policeman (“It’s a hard life,” Mr Costello sympathised, “a lot of late shifts and overtime.”)

Several exchanges were either serendipitous or dorothy dixers: a toy shop owner praised the GST and said small business now understood it and did not want it changed. Mr Costello had no trouble concurring.

If there was a lapse in the etiquette of positive-speak – a building supplier who said he had “survived three Labor governments” raised the unfortunate topic of the collapse of insurer HIH – Mr Costello deftly sidestepped the potential morass by introducing another topic: “What do you reckon the average price of a new home would be?”

Rita Otterwell and Kate McLaren wanted to know whether the government would introduce national service or conscription for the war against terrorism. “No,” he said firmly. “We’re using the SAS. We don’t need masses of people for a land war. There’s no chance of that at all.”

Would the government raise the GST, they asked? “No. Never,” he promised. “To change it in Australia we have got to have the agreement of all the states, and five of them are Labor states. One of the risks would be, if a federal Labor government got elected, they might win the agreement of the Labor states.”

Once the cameras had their shots of him cuddling the obligatory baby (seven-week-old Zoe Walsh, who slept soundly through her brush with fame), Mr Costello moved smoothly into a speech. Without notes, and without the mine host bonhomie of the reception line, he talked straight to the cameras with the skill and assurance of a seasoned television performer.

He was equally in charge at the next stop, a tour of a truck parts factory, where he responded to media inquiries about the latest job figures with a measured but determined focus on the good news and a disinclination to discuss the bad news.

And how does he feel about the latest Labor advertising campaign, which features a smirking Treasurer and suggests he would end up prime minister if the coalition won the next election?

“I went right through the ad, and there was no punchline,” he said, chuckling. Funny he missed it; he is the ad’s punchline.

First published in The Age.

Bishop comes charmed to the teeth ELECTION 2001

Campaign Notebook
She has been called bulletproof Bronwyn and an Exocet of a woman. It has been said that she is the sort of person who could crack macadamia nuts with her teeth; it has also been said that the softest thing about her is her teeth.

But yesterday the teeth were in evidence only for neon smiles.

And while she was a vision in (hot) pink, the famous high-top hair was pulled back into an unremarkable, if still carefully coiffed, ponytail.

Aged Care Minister Bronwyn Bishop is also renowned for her ability to work a room, and yesterday was no exception.

She was in Moonee Ponds (Dame Edna country – what were her minders thinking of?) to launch a national strategy on ageing. She also launched a charm offensive on the 200 or so members of the Association of Self-funded Retirees who made up her audience.

“Your national conference is one of enormous importance,” she told them earnestly, before congratulating the president on her drive and dynamism.

Ageing is not all doom and gloom, she went on brightly. Ageing accounts for only a fifth of the increase in the nation’s medical costs, and 80 per cent of Australians will live and die without ever needing residential care.

Over-55s are revered for their wisdom, are active and attractive, are a valuable resource and hold 25per cent of the nation’s disposable income, the minister told her grey-haired audience. And older people are also dynamic (except perhaps for the bearded man, hands folded gently on his tummy, who catnapped part-way through her speech).

“My idea of middle age is Sean Connery,” she said. They laughed at that one.

Mrs Bishop’s minders knew what they were doing, all right. This was largely preaching to the converted. Giving the vote of thanks, Roger Valentine, a member of the association’s council, asked: “Isn’t it wonderful to find there’s a politician out there who knows what she’s talking about?”
Later, having a cup of tea with retiree activists and health-care managers, Mrs Bishop cried “My two favorite ladies!” and put her arms around the association’s current and past presidents, with whom she is on cheek-pecking terms.

Retirees who followed the minister out of the conference room for a chat after her talk gave up waiting as she conducted a doorstop interview with journalists, so it is hard to know whether all the rank and file were as enthusiastic about her speech,
which pushed the government’s policies on aged-care beds.

Outside the Moonee Valley Function Centre, however, 16 nurses and health-care workers and a relative of a patient in a nursing home held placards protesting against what they saw as deficiencies in the system, such as one nurse being responsible for 60 patients at night.

“Don’t forget, Bronwyn, you’ll be old one day,” one sign read.

She’s not planning on it soon. Over coffee, one questioner asked Mrs Bishop how she expected people who wanted to retire at 55 to respond to her plans to encourage them to stay at work longer.

“I intend to practise what I preach,” the 58-year-old minister told him. “I’m here for a long time, 70 at least. I have a long way to go.”

No doubt her colleagues will be interested to hear it.

First published in The Age.

The nuns’ story


Karen Kissane

Carol Hogan found the hardest thing about being a nun was the absence of beauty. She loved beautiful things – her degree had been in fine arts – but her spartan convent had nothing as worldly as paintings or flowers and few books. Hogan herself was no picture, in a shapeless black dress with her hair pulled back under a frilled mobcap. Her mother was appalled the first time she saw her this way. “Darling, you do look dreadful!” she cried, and burst into tears.It was 1953. Hogan, then 22, had been on a predictable path until that point, her twin goals being an education and a husband (“preferably a doctor!”). She was far from shy or retiring. “When we were at uni we didn’t count our marks. We counted our parties and boyfriends; I went to seven balls with seven different guys in seven different weeks.”

But then she realised that she felt the mysterious pull she defines only as “the call of God”. She decided not just to become a nun, but to withdraw from the world by entering the kind of order with the most severe regimen: an enclosed convent.

For the next 12 years, her every moment was dictated by the mediaeval rhythms of monastic life. She spent six hours a day in the convent chapel, praying and singing hymns and psalms in Latin. Much of the rest of the time she baked altar breads. She never went out except to the dentist.

She did not speak except for one hour in the evening, and even then: “We were not allowed to talk about ourselves; oh, my Lord, no. No intimacy at all, except with Jesus. At one stage we had chooks, and I think we had cats. I remember thinking to myself, ‘If we don’t stop talking about the chooks and the cats I’ll scream’.”

Life was so ordered that the search for sins to confess became the week’s creative challenge. In desperation, she laughs, “One of our sisters used to confess ‘vain and idle and useless thoughts’.”

Hogan is still a nun, but today she lives by herself, wears civvies, preaches feminism and is the chaplain for international students at Melbourne University. She has prepared a stream of students for baptism in the Catholic Church; she has also counselled several on how to accept their homosexuality.

To outsiders, says Perth theologian Jan Gray, it looks like nuns have bungee-jumped from mediaevalism into modernity. Has it been a good thing? “Yes!” says Hogan. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!”

The speed of the revolution in their lives, which saw seven centuries of tradition overturned in less than a generation, far outstrips the rapid workplace change the rest of the community finds so dizzying. But the world continues to change faster than they do and the social and theological changes that led to the sisters’ revolution also mitigate against their continuance.

These include the understanding that exploration rather than denial of the self is important for spiritual growth; the resistance to institutional authority calling the shots or mediating one’s relationships, including the relationship with God; and the growing independence and life choices of First World women.

Orders of nuns in Australia are in a decline that for many, verges on extinction.

This has implications for the religious, cultural and social mores of the 27 per cent of Australians who call themselves Catholic. It has implications for the huge network of schools and hospitals that nuns set up across the nation, which were formerly staffed and managed largely with their free labor.

And it has ramifications for nuns themselves. What is it like for those who continued as “brides of Christ” even after the turmoil of the 1960s that caused so many to leave?
What do they make of their legacy and the parts of it – involvement with stolen children, abuse of orphans in institutions – that do not survive moral scrutiny today? And has their devotion to a religious ideal and their celibacy been made less meaningful by the fact that either God has stopped calling, or young women have stopped answering?

The peak year for Australian nuns was 1966, when 14,620 women were in convents. By 1996, the figure had halved to 7360 and most of those were elderly. Today, the nation’s 120 or so female orders have only about 60 novices training for a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, according to Sister Mary Cresp, of the Australian Council of Leaders of Religious Institutes.

Hogan’s order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, has no novices, and only one nun is under 65. They had an applicant several years ago, but decided that in all conscience they had to turn her away. They sold their altar-bread business to Cistercian monks and used the money from the sale of their large convent to provide for themselves in old age. “There’s no point in asking someone to commit their life now,” says Hogan. “I even worry about (the youngest sister, who is 53); I said to her ‘What are you going to do?’”

A common view of women who entered convents was that they were running away from the world. In fact, for many, the opposite was true; becoming a nun opened them up to adventure in a way that would not otherwise have been possible given the restrictions on women’s lives in earlier times. Take the Sisters of St John of God; founded originally to help with poverty during the Irish potato famine, they came to Australia from Ireland in 1895 and worked in hessian tents nursing miners at Kalgoorlie.

CHRISSIE CONNOLLY grew up as the eldest of eight children in a farming family in the west of Ireland. Like Hogan, she describes herself as a party girl when young. “But in the back of my mind I was thinking, `What is life all about? Is this how I’m going to spend my life – having a good time, enjoying myself?”‘

In 1946, aged 17, she joined a St John of God nursing convent and became Sister Teresina. Four of her sisters later followed her into the convent and out to Australia.

She arrived in Western Australia knowing it would be hard. “In those days in Subiaco we had … no lay people; it was all sisters working in the hospital. You were going all day long, run, run, run, run. We never knew what it was to have a day off; we worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week. We got a holiday once a year for two weeks. We had to study as well as work; you’d come off duty in a broken shift, you’d have your dinner, have prayers then go back to the study hall and back down to duty at 5 o’clock.

“But we were looking after people and people were very grateful, and we were bonded together. We’d have our fun in between times, sorting the laundry and bringing patients to the theatre and back again.”

Back then, religion was a deeply felt part of people’s lives in Ireland in a way that seems unimaginable now, she says.

Perhaps also behind her decision was the knowledge that her mother had always wanted to be a nun. Connolly knows she took the adventurer’s course; she has travelled and studied in Asia and America and spent 10 years as chief executive officer of 500 staff at a large private hospital in Ballarat. In her day, becoming a nun “laid the world at your feet. They gave you no choice (about where you would go), but you knew you were going to be out in it”.

“When I go back to Ireland and see the girls that were my friends when I was going to school – there’s a friend up the road, she’s very happily married and she has about 10 or 11 children and she’s never moved away from there.”
Madeline Duckett joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1965. She used to sing Beatles’ songs in her head while hanging out the washing during silence and played tennis in ankle-length habits and starched veils. Duckett joined straight from a Mercy boarding school; convent life was not so different, she says dryly.

Her spontaneity “went underground” for some time after she entered. Like Maria in the The Sound of Music, “I was too scared to be spontaneous because I just seemed to always get into trouble when I did. I kissed the ground any number of times. Any infringement of (the order’s) Rule you were supposed to confess. Breaking the silence was one of the major ones”.

Duckett and her fellow novices did dress as brides and were bussed en masse to St Patrick’s cathedral in the city, to the amazed gaze of onlookers. Of more concern to Duckett was what happened after the bridal gown was exchanged for the habit, part-way through the ceremony. “In the habit we did the prostration (lying flat upon the ground to signify surrender to God). So we had to practise for nights beforehand so that it wasn’t bottoms up when you went down or got up.”

That was the world Duckett joined, but it was not to survive the tsunami that followed Vatican II (1962-1965), Pope John XXIII’s push to modernise the church. For Duckett, an immediate result was an eye-opening year of study of the new theology. “That was the most mind-blowing experience. None of us had studied moral theology as such; we’d simply been told what was right and what was wrong. And now we learned about some of the ways you come to decision-making and that for the law to be the law it has to fulfil certain criteria. It was very, very freeing.”

But after all this opening up came a sudden closing down. In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, his encyclical banning artificial contraception. Suddenly many priests and nuns were openly criticising church teaching and leaving.

In Hogan’s order, half the nuns left within 12 months in 1968-69. “That really shook me up because my best friend in the order left. And she said, `we’re not women of charity, maturity and prayer; it’s just not working here, this thing’. I thought, `you’re right’. What was going wrong in one sense was the (lack of) maturity. You just couldn’t grow and relate.”

Hogan now believes the 12 years she spent locked away from the world were dehumanising. “When I walked in the door of the convent and became Sister Mary Frances, `Carol’ died,” she says. “Total abnegation of the self was the centre of our spirituality. It required us to be like a candle that burnt before the Blessed Sacrament and left no trace.

“I think the structure (of that enclosed order) just dehumanised people. It took away intimacy; it took away development; it took away the possibility of being an independent thinker … I think perhaps one of the reasons I look younger than I am is because there was this arrested development for 12 years.”

Connolly was disturbed by the number of nuns leaving her order, but never had doubts herself. She remembers endless debate about every little aspect of change: what length should skirts be, how much hair should show? One of her four sisters left and later married. Connolly was sympathetic to her unhappiness and to her decision. “We just accepted it. Whatever was best for her.”

While many nuns agonised over the changes, Duckett says that lay people also resisted nuns abandoning their habits and their convents. “It’s like you can’t be human and you can’t be imperfect because you have to hold on to the sense of the holy for the human race. Part of the whole transition is (that we are) no longer being set apart or stood on a pedestal so that the rest of humankind can get on with their lives (and ignore spiritual issues).”

There has always been a mystique about nuns as the brides of Christ, the eternal virgins who devote themselves to the sacred. The image is of piety and selflessness and of life on a higher plane than the rest of the mortal world. Yet most nuns also engaged intensely with the physical world through work such as nursing, teaching or welfare. In Hollywood scripts, the mystique was often reduced to the cliche of tension between the love of God and the love of a good man (such as Peter Finch, in Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of The Nun’s Story).

The reality is that the life of celibacy and devotion has always worked for some and embittered or exploited others. Says one Catholic observer, who did not wish to be named: “The `metaphorical marriage’ stuff sexualises their relationship with God, in a way; they use the language of love much like the mystics do. There is a long tradition of that in the church. But what it does to the ordinary person who isn’t a great mystical poet, trying to live their lives out in that language, I don’t know.”

Gray, a theology lecturer at Western Australia’s Notre Dame University, sharply dislikes the whole concept. In the early 1990s, she interviewed 80 nuns, aged from 26 to 83, for her book, Neither Escaping nor Exploiting Sex: Women’s Celibacy. “Most of them found (the bride of Christ image) intolerable or just unhelpful,” she says. Gray says her life as a nun is “a quest for the ultimate means of union with what’s good and what’s beautiful and what’s wonderful about being human … (But) I don’t want to be part of a harem, even God’s harem.”

Many nuns talk about celibacy as something that allows them to share themselves with everyone rather than just one person. Gray calls that “the prostitution interpretation – `I am available, I can move around, people can do with me what they want”‘.

“I think it’s dangerous in that it has led to abuse (of their goodwill). A lot of women who are religious have gone into situations and stayed in situations they should never have stayed in because of this notion that they have to be available. A lot of women have been kept working in institutions in the church where they have been treated like dross, given no thanks and just been used as pieces that could be moved around. The old religious life demanded that, that you have no attachment to any person or any place.”

For her research, Gray interviewed only nuns whom she felt coped well with their sexuality. “They were people who hadn’t been twisted by their celibacy,” she says. “They weren’t depressive and they weren’t asexual.” Because of this focus her sample was not random or necessarily representative, so its findings cannot be generalised to all nuns.

But Gray found that up to 25 of those interviewed “hinted at, if not explicitly described, significant sexual encounters” since taking their vows, although not all of these had been full sexual encounters. They had sought forgiveness and saw them as growth experiences. “Most have been able to incorporate any deviations from their vow as an important part of learning who they are.”

All nuns who stay nuns sacrifice partnerships and children. Duckett says leaving her first boyfriend behind when she entered was painful, but she has not missed children. While Hogan says: “People would say I’m not fulfilled because I haven’t got a child, but I don’t feel that way. I’ve got three little children I call my adopted grandchildren whom I’m very close to.”

Connolly admits to moments of regret at not having her own home and family.

“Oh Lord, yes. There’s no human being in any position, any vocation, who doesn’t have some regret, especially when they come to their 40s. There are pluses and minuses, though.

“This might sound selfish, but I can go to bed at night-time not worrying about where my kids are or what they might be doing.”

Men have never been an issue for her, although occasionally a surgeon, unaware that she was a nun, would try to ask her out. “We used to have great fun because all the staff knew, but some of the doctors didn’t know.” But forget Audrey Hepburn and the tragic romance of renunciation; passes were more likely to be dealt with summarily. One nun was washing a patient who tried to kiss her. “She put the soap in his mouth,” laughs Connolly.

That sturdy blend of idealism and pragmatism has left a large legacy in Australia. Many of the Catholic system’s 1700 schools were founded and run by nuns, as was much of its health system (at present 20 public hospitals, including St Vincent’s and the Mercy Hospital for Women in Melbourne, as well as 8300 beds in other kinds of hospitals and 16,500 aged-care beds).

But just as nuns are struggling with the future – lay people must be organised to run all this now, and big old convents must be sold or turned over to other uses – the past has come back to haunt them. There have been reports of physical and emotional abuse, such as beatings and cold baths, in orphanages and children’s homes in the 1950s and 1960s and at least one order has formally apologised for having accepted stolen Aboriginal children into care.

“In hindsight we should have questioned what, as a church, we were asked to do for the Government,” a leader of the Order of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart said in 1999.

Connolly and Duckett find it painful that such news has overshadowed so much good work. And Gray points out that there are different social mores now about the use of violence in education and family life and that nuns in earlier times often worked under appalling circumstances.

One nun told a 1998 inquiry into government and church welfare institutions of her time in a notorious orphanage in Queensland. “All those babies. They’d always be putting their arms up, and you didn’t have time to give them any individual love.” That inquiry found abuse “was allowed to happen” in both church and government institutions because of scant resources, a lack of support from society, overcrowding, isolation and the powerlessness of institutional inmates.

ONE Catholic observer says nuns are blamed for work that the church insisted the orders take on, such as dealing with the consequences of the forced migration of children from England after the war. “Many of these kids weren’t even toilet trained; they were seven or eight and were basically street kids abandoned or lost during the Blitz. There were such numbers, and such a degree of need, and of course these women weren’t trained. Most of the people in orphanages were neither teachers nor nurses. The whole story is a tragedy.”

There is also a less tangible legacy. Nuns ran large institutions and took on powerful roles in an era where women were largely invisible in public life; Catholic convent girls grew up seeing that women could work and lead. The bright ones took it as their ticket to life.

Through their teaching, nuns shaped Australian Catholicism and tried to inject generations of children with a sense of social justice. Public figures such as Labor Senator Rosemary Crowley and ex-Senator Susan Ryan have talked about the effect of nuns on their world views, as has that ferocious feminist and refugee from Catholicism, Germaine Greer.

Crowley remembers the nuns at her old convent school being divided between the sadistic and the wonderful. She has no doubt about their effect on her attitudes. Crowley, now with the Labor Party, still recalls learning in primary school about Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, which promoted the rights of workers to unionise and expect a fair wage.

And she remembers the nun who became her sports mistress. Upon learning that Crowley’s basketball team had never won a match, she asked crisply: “Didn’t we know it was to the greater glory of God to develop all of our talents?” (The following year they were undefeated champions.)

Connolly’s last job was as “mission sister” for St John of God’s Perth hospital, training 400 lay staff in the values, such as compassion and duty of care, that the nuns want to continue after they hand over the reins.

Connolly is philosophical about the collapse in vocations. She sees orders of nuns as having developed largely in response to social needs that are now being filled in other ways. “I don’t think that really matters because the religious orders were founded, a lot of them, for education and health. And look at the fine job the lay people are doing now. There will always be religious sisters, I believe, but in different numbers; smaller numbers.”

Duckett believes many orders are in a process of transformation and rejuvenation rather than utter decline. “It’s the cocoon thing. Maybe we won’t have the numbers in the same way in the future, but something else is happening that’s beyond what we can put words on at the moment. We’re moving into a new, radical way of being.”

Hogan went through a period of intense rage and review about her life when she first discovered feminism and thought through its implications for the position of women in the church. “I thought that for 2000 years women had been deceived and I had too.”

Now, she says, she knows that Jesus was a feminist – “Who was the first evangelist? Who got the news (of the resurrection) first? Mary Magdalen. Do we ever hear that in church?” And in her teaching and counselling she routinely employs what some feminist scholars call the “hermeneutics of suspicion”: “I call it smelling a dead rat – and holding it up!”

Having come to terms with all this, the realisation that her order was facing sunset “was very, very upsetting for me for a while. I thought, `I’ve given the best years of my life to something that just seems to be a failure”‘.

“The whole tribal thing of church has gone; it was the focal point, it was the St Patrick’s day march and the St Patrick’s night concert, it was the parish school, it was the local thing you walked to. Now everything’s changed and everything’s up for grabs in the post-modern world. I don’t quite know where the church will go, because it hasn’t even gotten into modernism, I don’t think, much less post-modernism.”

But she loves her work at the university and knows she continues to make a difference to people’s lives. “I have chosen to stay in my religious community because it has given me my vision and been the framework of my life; it’s been the sea in which I’ve swum. It has enabled me to live my dream.”

The nuns who remain are, as ever, at the forefront of social need; it was the Sisters of Charity in Sydney who tried to set up Australia’s first injecting room. But, with female ordination not even a blip on the Vatican’s radar, it is possible that the falling away of nuns will further weaken the limited power of women in the institutional church. Connolly acknowledges that all but one of the CEO positions for St John of God hospitals handed over to lay people in the past 15 years went to men.

DUCKETT is not convinced that it matters, given the declining relevance of institutional religion to many people’s lives. Formerly a secondary teacher and tertiary lecturer, she has also been on the board of the Jesuit magazine of public affairs, Eureka Street. Now she works at a small spirituality centre for women that uses myth, psychology and a broad sense of spirituality rather than dogma to help people explore their lives.

Nuns are “definitely beyond the cloister”, she says, but now they need “to rediscover the contemplative heart that exists at the centre of all the action.

“Younger people are also looking for meditation or that coming to a quiet place within themselves; it’s a real spiritual search today, but it’s not necessarily a religious one … I think God and the whole thing is beyond religion. Religions are ways of coming into that.”
People now want smaller groups and more personal ministry. “I think we’ve done the big churches and cathedrals. There are historical moments where that’s the way of expressing it and then there’s a need for it desperately to be balanced out by a more intimate kind of setting where people cannot just hear the word, but actually grapple with it and see where it integrates into their own lives.”

Duckett and the others interviewed here have never wanted to be priests and have no strong feelings about female ordination. She says: “If we look back on our lives, we can see a pattern, and within that pattern is the gift we each have to offer to the world around us.

“We are all ordained by life to do what it is our gift to do. It’s another kind of ordination – call it primordial – than just being ordained by oil. And any priest worth his salt is not just ordained once; he is ordained again and again through the lives he comes in contact with and what these people give to him.” Or to her.

First published in The Age.