The Making of Dark Places

A talk given at the Literature and Psychiatry Conference in Sydney, 1995

When I was asked to talk to you today about Dark Places I was honoured. However when I sat down to assemble a few thoughts I had misgivings. I kept hearing the raven-like tones of Patrick White: he poured scorn on the idea of writers talking about their work. He called it "All that yack about How I Write."

Just the same, I think he might be wrong. A novel isn't an object presented to a writer in one huge revelation. It's just the end result of a long tortuous process. That process, rather than the end-product, is in many ways where the book is really alive. The actual book is just the point you'd reached when you couldn't go any further.

So I'm going to talk to you about writing Dark Places. It was a book that took ten years to write and underwent a 180 degree shift in the process, and that shift is what I'm going to discuss today.

Ten years ago I wrote a book called Lilian's Story, in which a young girl is sexually abused by her father.
 On and off for the next ten years I worked at a book for which the working title was "Father's Book" - this was the story of the father who'd done the abusing in the earlier book. In many ways it's a very violent book. I'm going to talk about what I came to see, as I worked on this book, as the logic of violence.

There is almost no physical violence in Dark Places. The violence of the book comes from the fact that the point of view is that of the rapist father, Albion Gidley Singer. This is a book in which the whole of the surface is a lie. The reader is forced to enter this lie of the surface, to collude with Albion. That can feel like a terrible violence.

So why did I write it, and why did I write it in a claustrophobic first-person narrative form? In Lilian's Story I'd written about what happened: now I felt a deep need to come to grips with why it happened.

I didn't do any research into incest at the start - that came later - but from general reading I had an idea that abusers probably don't think of themselves as monsters. So I began with the premise that Albion had a story he was telling himself, which made his actions okay. The question was, what was that story?

While I was pondering this, some of us at my place of work had a fierce argument about pedophiles. We discussed the famous seductiveness of little girls and the theory that children might welcome sexual initiation by someone they knew and loved. I heard the case for pedophilia put with great eloquence. It was a plausible-sounding case. And yet to me it was simply a grotesque rationalisation, the plausible story of a mad person.

So that was where my story started: Albion is so deeply crazy he has concocted this fantasy world in which his daughter is lusting after him, in which she becomes the seducer. In his mind, he is the innocent party.

After a draft or two of this, I came up against two impenetrable problems. First, I could see how difficult it was going to be to show that I didn't agree with Albion. How to indicate to a reader that I thought Albion was wrong, when the point of view was his? The other problem was more serious. This was all a terrible cop-out. It was no good having Albion crazy. If the book was to have any point at all, it was that Albion was entirely sane. The mystery and the horror about incest isn't that crazy men do it, but that sane men do.

I struggled for months at this point, turned myself inside out trying to imagine what it might feel like to think your daughter was seducing you. I did a little reading about father-daughter incest. I even toyed with the idea of trying to find and talk to actual incestuous fathers, safely in prison I hoped, to try to get at it that way. But I couldn't get anywhere near anything that rang true. It became a huge opaque thing "out there", this mystery of Why They Did It. The more I thought about it, the less I could imagine any answers.

If I had gone to talk to sexual abusers, this book would be very different.

But I didn't do that. Life presented me with an opportunity to write a different book, in time for the Bicentennial, and it was a great excuse to abandon Albion. After the Bicentennial book was finished, I didn't really plan to go back to Albion. I felt I'd done my best, tried conscientiously, but failed. It was beyond my powers of understanding.

So I went about my daily business and was taken by surprise when Albion started to return to me. The first time I heard him, he was singing an aria in Rossini's Stabat Mater. He was a counter-tenor and he was singing sad, stately, mellifluous music - dramatic, elaborate, melancholy.

Without really meaning to, without really intending anything, in a state of suspended cerebration, I started to write some sentences. I wasn't writing Father's Book, I was just writing a few sentences.

They were long and winding, full of colons and semi-colons, streaming on like the music. They weren't about anything in particular. I more or less looked away, mentally, and let them wind on wherever they took me. I knew that no editor would let me have that many colons and semi colons, but it was all right because no editor was ever going to read this. This wasn't a book, it was just sentences.

The next time I heard Albion was when I picked up the autobiography of Charles Darwin. I opened it, and this is the voice I heard: a man putting the case for and against marriage. On the "for" side: "constant companion, who will feel interest in one, object to be beloved and played with - better than a dog anyhow . . . Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa. . . these things are good for one's health." On the "against" side: "loss of time every day - how should I manage all my business if I were obliged to go every day walking with my wife . . . I should never know French, or see the Continent, or go to America, or go up in a balloon."

Well, this was great stuff. I loved the way Darwin condemns himself out of his own mouth and never realises it. I loved the way you could have a person saying one kind of thing and a reader hearing quite a different sort of thing - how the same words could actually contain two contradictory texts within themselves.

I was still sure I wasn't writing "Father's Book", but I had some fun writing a few more sentences, playing with how to make that double vision work - how to turn a sentence so its ironic possibilities could stand out, how to choose the words that would cue in a reader to listen for something between the lines rather than on them.

The next time I heard Albion was while I was having tennis lessons. I'm a hopeless tennis player, and Albion was there on the court watching me, sneering and scorning. What a dill she is, he was saying. What a silly bitch. What a stupid cow.

When I got home I sat down and very quickly, very fluently, wrote a scene in which Albion is watching two people play tennis, his daughter and her boyfriend. The boyfriend is playing the kind of tennis I play, and Albion's sneering voice, describing it, is the voice I heard on the court.

So I was back with Albion, but now on a different footing. I could see now that there were triggers out in the real world that I could use in order to get into Albion's voice. Research - thinking - was not the way to go. I played the Rossini record until I wore it out. I dipped into the Darwin autobiography until the spine broke. And I went on through life blissfully failing, seeing how I could turn all my real-life failures to use in the book, as I had hijacked the tennis failure.

The person that began to emerge was a fierce misogynist. The person I was writing, more and more fluently, and with more and more enjoyment, loathed and feared the physical fact of women, despised our weakness, ridiculed our intellects, considered that our only purpose in life was the bearing of children.

After a while, it began to dawn on me the terrible thing that was happening. Here I was, a nice girl and a good feminist, having the time of my life speaking in the voice of man who loathed what his creator actually was: a woman.

At this point I had to face a certain awful fact: if Albion was a misogynist, then I must be one too. After all, it hadn't actually been Albion Gidley Singer out there on the tennis court. The only other person out there had been Don Rocavert, Wimbledon Champ in 1953, and that voice certainly hadn't been Don Rocavert's. I had to face the fact that it was a voice of my own.

This was a horrifying thing to discover, and I nearly burnt the whole thing then and there. But on pondering it, it seemed not so unnatural after all, and perhaps not a sign that I myself, personally, was a dangerous lunatic. It began to feel to me that, as a woman in a culture which in many ways is deeply misogynistic, I had split myself conveniently in two. Part of me had learned the misogynism of my culture, and found women repugnant. The other part of me had to own, although reluctantly, all those repugnant female qualities.

Two things now became apparent. First, to write about the misogynist Albion, all I had to do was to tap into the misogynist within. Now my relationship with Albion took on quite a different quality. Albion was no longer a problem to think about, something Out There that you went and did some research about, applied your intellect to. Albion was something within me, and that was the way forward: to go on allowing that voice to be heard.

Second, I began to feel that this whole thing might have as much to do with culture, learned behaviour, as with any personal neurosis. At last I could begin to glimpse a way in which Albion could behave like this and yet not be just "mad".

I began to think about male culture, male ideas about women. I remembered a man who'd told me that until he'd had his first sexual experience, he'd believed that vaginas had teeth. In fact, he spoke as if he still wasn't a hundred percent sure. I remembered a certain event behind a bush when I was little, I'll show you mine if you show me yours, and the shocked look on that little boy's face. I overheard a little boy tell another one that he always stomped on ladybirds when he saw one, because they were ladies.

All these were things I'd known for years, and just took them as another example of misogyny. Now I had a mechanism for looking at them differently, looking at them with Albion's eyes.

I began to sense, dimly, and with a great confusion of spirit, what it might be like to see women like that . . . as a completely foreign country, another very frightening species you had no hope of understanding.

And yet it was a species you were bound up with by ties of sexual attraction, even love. Your own earliest, most loving relationship had been with a woman, your mother. You needed this species, needed it badly.

I felt my way further into this - women were foreign and frightening, but perhaps there might be things to envy in the foreign and the frightening. Again I remembered things from childhood. I'd longed to be a boy, because boys had all the fun. I hadn't been allowed, for example, to play the drums in the kindergarten band because I was a girl. But now I could remember that there'd been another child who hadn't been allowed to play in the dolls house because he was a boy. Missing-out might go both ways. I'd felt for many years, growing up, that it was a rotten deal to be born a woman. Now I began to glimpse how it might also seem a rotten deal to be born a man. All the things you couldn't do, the feelings you weren't allowed to feel, the kinds of behaviour that had to be denied in yourself.

This now began to make sense of the misogyny. The loathing of women and all they represented was perhaps a kind of desperate longing, a kind of envy. Not of wanting to be a woman, but of being allowed to express those things in yourself which only women were allowed to express. Of being allowed to cry at sad stories, to cuddle things, to be weak, be wrong. Of not having to be always the strongest, the best, the biggest, the winner.

Now I circled back to the situation of a father and a daughter. What a horrendous muddle of feeling there might be. There she was, bearing his own face, his own turns of speech, yet at the same time the loathed other, a woman, full of dimly-glimpsed horrible physical realities. I could sense that a daughter might seem like the split made manifest: for a father, a daughter might appear the physical, literal embodiment of all the put-away parts of himself.

In such a situation, it seemed entirely logical to complete the literalisation, to turn the metaphor into physical reality. Now it seemed not just logical but necessary for him to possess his other self, possess his daughter, to literally make himself one, to be made whole in her.

"Oh, epiphany of flesh! I surrendered myself to myself, and now, as never before, my skin separated me from nothing at all, I and myself were blissfully joined, and for once there was no voice judging, chiding, doubting, fearing: only this warm blank darkness like the inside of a soul, and the sounds of something labouring and panting. I heard a groan forced up from the depths of my self, and felt sweat break out on my skin like tears. I burst with the heat of bliss, and in a blaze of cells like the creation of life from mud, I gave birth to myself." (p344.

I found the experience of writing Dark Places an extremely frightening one. I felt as if I was entering many dark places, dark places in our world where incest really happens, dark places in our culture where misogyny runs like an invisible underground stream, dark places in myself to which I had to give voice and words.

When the publisher sent me the first advance copy it sat, still in its Post Office Preferred wrapping, for over a week before I was game to open it. I was surprised when I finally did. I held it in my hand, it didn't bite, it didn't explode, the sky didn't fall down on me, I didn't turn into a pillar of salt. It wasn't a bomb after all, it was just a book.

Kate Grenville
, April 1995