A One-Sided Story

The third volume of Helen Garner’s diaries, How to End a Story: Diaries Volume III 1995–1998, said to be the last in the series, purports to chronicle the breakdown of Garner’s third marriage. In Australia we have something called no-fault divorce; here Garner is serving up instead a score-settling hatchet job on an ex that is without precedent in Australian letters.

It has things in common with Monkey Grip—Garner’s first book, ostensibly fiction—which was based on a diary and is now indistinguishable from the series of diary volumes that this latest book concludes. I was going to say that the only formal difference—apart from the chapter headings, of course—is that Garner changed the people’s names in Monkey Grip, but she changes their names in these diary volumes as well. For some reason she calls her third husband, Murray Bail, “V” in this one; in the earlier volumes she called him “V”, “Murray Bail”, “the other one”, “the other” and “the married man”.

This volume also has things in common with The First Stone, which was itself based on a diary. Volume three in fact begins shortly after the publication of The First Stone. I know that some conservatives admire Garner because of that book; personally I think they are mistaken as conservatives to take that position, but that is an argument for another time. For now I will say that in my opinion The First Stone was not so much a book as simply an appalling thing to do to people, after they’d all been through hell, to put them back into a second hell entirely of Garner’s making and turn their lives into cheap and nasty entertainment like some form of non-consensual reality television. Bad as The First Stone was, this book is arguably worse, possibly because as ego gratification it’s even more unmediated.

In another sense, though, this book is in sui generis, as it takes us inside Garner’s head like nothing else she has written. That prospect may appeal to some; I found it a disturbing experience and occasionally had to close the book to recover from it, because this is Garner at her self-entitled, unprofessional worst. This is Garner’s worst book to date and, like The First Stone, it should not have been published.

Something I would single out for comment is the copying out by Garner from Murray Bail’s papers and waste paper, in his absence, into her diary (pages 181, 200, 208-209). That was a prima facie copy­right breach right there, even before Garner published any of that material in this book. (Whether she has permission to publish it in this book is an open question, so I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt on that one for now.) I would say copying out someone else’s papers into your diary domestically is a fairly shabby thing to do, regardless of the circumstances, that it’s worse when done to a writer and that, done by another writer, it arguably constitutes professional misconduct.

One can imagine, of course, how Garner would react if it were done to her. In fact, we don’t need to imagine, because something comparable did happen to her around the time of these diaries (even though it doesn’t appear in this book) when an old university friend of Garner’s copied a letter by her that the friend had possession of and circulated the copies privately with a view to its being published in what eventually appeared as The Oxford Book of Australian Letters. This got back to Garner and, in her words, she “went berserk” at the editors of the anthology and her former friend on the grounds of violation of privacy, breach of copyright and, yes, unprofessional conduct. (The editors apologised to her and the letter was not included in their book.) Sauce for the goose is apparently not sauce for the Garner.

Also noteworthy in these diaries is that when bodyjamming, a one-off feminist anthology that included several essays critiquing Garner, was published in 1997, Garner described one of its items (to which I will return) as “character-assassinating”. Coming as it does from the author of The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation—and, indeed, appearing as it does in this very book—that complaint put me in mind of Arthur Koestler’s definition of the mimophant:

a hybrid species: a cross between a mimosa and an elephant. A member of this species is sensitive like a mimosa where his own feelings are concerned and thick-skinned like an elephant trampling over the feelings of others.

But in volume three we also read this, which goes way beyond mimophantism and was one of the moments (on a second reading) at which I had to close the book briefly: “whenever someone does something that causes me pain, I instantly think, ‘But I’ve done that to him/her/somebody else. I’ve got no right to object’.”

Note that Garner says she always thinks that way (“whenever”); that is, that she never applies double standards to those who cause her pain. That’s an admirable-sounding principle, but this book doesn’t show Garner practising it. In this book when anyone causes Garner real pain she instantly objects.

When another woman has an affair with Garner’s husband in this book and Garner learns of it, even though Garner herself had an affair with the very same man while he was married to his first wife in volumes one and two (an inconvenient fact that you could read the whole of this volume without learning), Garner doesn’t “instantly think” anything, she instantly goes on the rampage (pages 163 to 168). That reaction—she trashes the marital abode and cuts up a hat belonging to the other woman—is understandable, although extreme and slightly childish, but even when Garner has had time to calm down she still clearly thinks that she had the “right to object” that her statement of principle would logically deny her. And then (only one page later) Garner faults the other woman, on a separate point, for her supposed lack of “female solidarity”. And so with Garner in this book we have double standards, triple standards, quadruple standards—as many standards as she needs from one moment to the next.

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I would say the unexamined life is not worth reading about, either. It may seem perverse to call unexamined a life that Garner has used up so much ink, paper and time documenting, but there’s a difference between writing down everything that happens in your life, and even everything that passes through your mind while awake and asleep, and possessing the degree of self-insight that could make such diaries worthwhile. A diarist who can’t see self-contradictions as glaring as Garner’s is in my opinion not worth reading.

And this will be wasted on drinkers of the Garner Kool-Aid, but there are good reasons for not taking everything one reads in volume three at face value.

The book is a diary, so it is necessarily one-sided. It’s usually best to withhold judgment where one doesn’t know all the facts and has heard only one side of the story. (I have drawn some conclusions from that one-sided story myself, but I’m using Garner’s own book to draw conclusions about Garner. I can’t be sure what this book tells us about Murray Bail, but I’m reasonably confident that Helen Garner wrote it and that we can safely draw conclusions about her from it for that reason and, indeed, from that fact itself.)

Moreover, these books are edited selections from Garner’s diaries. We don’t know what’s being left out and to what effect. So many details are erased, even from the entries that do appear, that there’s a blurring of the material that they present. None of the entries has a date on it; few people are given their actual names. And with every detail lost in Garner’s editing of the material its reliability is diminished, as we move further away from the original source that a scholar always wants and needs to be at.

When Garner says that “There’s to be an eclipse of the moon” one night, it turns out that there was no eclipse of the moon that night in Australia, because there was no eclipse of the moon visible from Australia in the relevant period. Garner doesn’t say she observed any eclipse; she wakes up the next morning wondering if she missed it—“Was the moon eclipsed while I slept?” The short answer to that question is no, but what exactly was going on here is a bit of a mystery. There was what’s called a partial penumbral lunar eclipse around about the right time, which was technically observable, perhaps (you wouldn’t really see anything happen in such an eclipse—the full moon would stay full and dim slightly, that’s all), from North and South America, Europe and Africa, all of which are a long way from Garner’s last reported location at the time of Busselton, Western Australia. She doesn’t even tell us how she heard about this supposed eclipse, so the explanation of this little puzzle could be anything at all. It could be that she heard a garbled account of that overseas quasi-non-event eclipse from one of her sisters, or it could be that someone was playing a mean-spirited joke on her, or it could be something else entirely. I note this as an example of the confusion that Garner’s editing of the material has the potential to cause, and an example of how even a simple story in these diaries has to be read with caution.

Another reason to read these diaries with caution is that Garner does not have an impeccable record of factual accuracy, something I documented more than ten years ago in an article titled “The Incredible Helen Garner” (Sydney Institute Quarterly, Issue 37, July 2010, pp 20–24,

Still another reason is that there are entries that are obviously misleading when one does know the facts behind them. “‘When I read your book,’ said the journalist, ‘I thought what bitches these women must be’”. In response to which Garner editorialises (in her diary, not to the journalist): “What on earth was she talking about? A true believer, me? Believer in what? In ‘what bitches these women must be’? Where in the book did I say any such thing?”

Where indeed. It is true that nowhere in The First Stone does Garner call anyone a “bitch” directly, but she dog whistles it throughout. I would have thought that the negativity expressed in that book towards women at the University of Melbourne was so well known that by now it didn’t need to be documented, and so I will give only one example out of many available. Garner in her encounter in The First Stone with the Women’s Officer at the Student Union remarks variously upon how humourless, frosty, impatient, “icy”, “cold-faced” and “punitive” (among other things) the young woman supposedly is. Mutatis mutandis, it’s a bit like “Cassandra’s” defamatory article about Liberace in the 1950s. Garner hints at a meaning so clearly, so many times, that she doesn’t actually need to use the “B” word. We get the message—and we get it whether Garner meant it or not.

And so if a professional newspaperwoman (Jenna Price) on a late-night phone call summed up all of the negativity in The First Stone as Garner portraying Melbourne University women as “bitches”, I’d say that was a justifiable piece of shorthand from a grown woman in a private conversation with someone she was assuming to be another grown-up, however bewildering Garner claims to have found it and claims it to be in her diary.

What Garner says about the book bodyjamming is also, in my opinion, liable to mislead the under-informed and over-trusting reader. Garner zeroes in on one of bodyjamming’s essays in particular, that of Professor Rosi Braidotti (unnamed in the diaries but unmistakably identified) on what it was like to be a student at Fitzroy High School at the time of Garner’s much celebrated (by Garner and her fans) sex discussions at that school which led to Garner being sacked towards the end of 1972. (Although bodyjamming was eventually pulped for reasons of no relevance to this review, Braidotti’s contribution is available online via her university as a PDF to this day. So you don’t have to take my word or Garner’s for what it is; you can read it for yourself:

Garner makes multiple claims about Braidotti’s article in a single sentence, one of which (based on no legal advice noted in the diaries) is that it was defamatory of her. I will not pretend to be a defamation lawyer, but I took media law in law school and I can see obstacles to that opinion. Braidotti’s article is mainly an opinion piece about Garner as a schoolteacher in 1972 and opinion is never as actionable in defamation as are assertions of fact. What’s more, Garner was no longer a schoolteacher when it appeared, had not been one for twenty-four years, was never going to return to schoolteaching and had been sacked from schoolteaching for unprofessional conduct, so she didn’t have much reputation as a schoolteacher left to lose in 1997. Factual assertions that the article makes about the events of 1972—even if erroneous!—would not, generally speaking, it seems to me, have had the capacity to harm Garner’s 1997 reputation. For all of these reasons (and more) it’s nowhere near as clear that the article was defamatory as Garner believes and flatly asserts it to be in this book.

On the other hand, in ironic contrast, Garner herself makes an assertion (on page 134) about Braidotti’s article that strikes me as so obviously defamatory that I consider it remarkable that Text Publishing let it go through. Garner could never prove in court what she asserts there; it’s just a defamatory smear.

When I see Garner in her diaries misrepresenting these two other arguments that she was a party to—The First Stone generally and bodyjamming in particular—that are on the public record and we can check, I’m even less inclined to believe that we’re getting a fair account of the private disputes she had with her husband that this third volume of the diaries purports to be documenting.

I have said already that we don’t know all the facts of what happened in Garner’s third marriage. But in a book such as this, which is so reliant on the author’s word and that is obsessed with questions of truthfulness, to catch the author out even once is to wonder if we know any of the facts. And there is certainly one passage in the book (on page 16) that is highly misleading, to put it mildly:

Night after night I wake up at two or three and fight through a fit of anxiety about republishing in True Stories the piece about the high-school lesson I was sacked for. I tried to cut out a couple of sentences, in the edit, but without them of course the whole thing collapsed; and I felt dishonest and cowardly.

It goes on, but that’s all we need for now. Garner felt that cutting that article for True Stories would have been dishonest and cowardly. Which is interesting, because what she doesn’t tell you is that she did it.

Garner made numerous cuts to that piece for its inclusion in her non-fiction collection True Stories in 1996, including several entire sentences—more than two. She cut words and phrases, she rewrote, she changed and embellished things, she added entirely new details to the account after a gap of twenty-three-plus years; and then she added in True Stories a self-serving postscript about how hard it was for her to read the article again and “to republish it”—with nothing said about cutting and changing it. I detailed several of Garner’s changes to the piece in my article “The Incredible Helen Garner” already noted; it would require an article to itself to detail them all. But again you don’t need to take my word for it, because you can now download Garner’s original 1972 text thanks to the University of Wollongong (“The Digger No 6 November 1972”, Research Online and compare it with the doctored version in True Stories yourself.

And now, a further twenty-five years later, here is Garner publishing a diary account in which she again claims (by implication) to have made no cuts to the article in True Stories because that would have been cowardly and dishonest. So Garner is again parading her supposed virtue in the very act of providing evidence that undermines her claim to it, evidence that undermines the credibility of the entire book in which it appears.

As to what books Garner (currently aged seventy-nine) will go on to produce after this, we will have to wait and see. If any more books by her do follow this one it is my hope that I will not be reviewing them.

How to End a Story: Diaries Volume III 1995–1998
by Helen Garner

Text, 2021, 256 pages, $29.99

Peter Hayes lives in Melbourne


2 thoughts on “A One-Sided Story

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    “Mimophant”. What a useful word for such a widespread phenomenon . For some reason Malcolm Turnbull instantly came to mind. I can’t imagine why.

  • dolcej says:

    Sometimes a negative review can make you want to read the book. This one did. For about 5 seconds. Then I snapped out of, passed on the Kool Aid, and remembered that the only piece I ever liked of Garner’s was a short story, I think, a description of an autopsy. This review has more dynamics, passion, honesty and explosive energy in it than any of her novels. So if you’re considering reading the book, take my advice: save your money and stop while you’re ahead!

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