Helen Garner: ‘Is there hope for women and men?’

·8-min read


“What do you write in your diary?”

“Everything. I try to write all the worst things. That’s the hardest. The temptation to gloss it up. I force myself to put down the bad and stupid things I do, the idiotic fantasies I have.”

“And do you read back over it?”

“All the time.”


Lunch. The company of women. This is what I need. Light and silly conversation about how to keep canvas shoes white. “People think the world is full of couples,” says E. “In fact it is made up of triangles.”


V’s quite a frumpy bloke, really. His body is neglected, his hair is going grey. The pale skin of his arms and shoulders is thickly freckled, those childish freckles you see on boys in primary school, a starry sky of freckles, densely packed.

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Being in love makes me selfish and mean, puts blinkers on me. I get tunnel vision. I want, I want, I want. That’s all that happens, when you’re in love. OK, I’ve said it. I’m in love.


A turn around the park with O after dinner. Laughing and fooling. A moon, some faint stars. In a second-hand shop window I saw a pretty nightie I wanted to buy. Always, under whatever else is happening, a level of thought and fantasy about V and what is possible. I try out the idea of a mistress, some long-term thing running parallel to his marriage. I know my ego wouldn’t accept this. When I’ve been with him I feel fed, and anxiety dies a little. Like a junkie after a hit, I am able to contemplate giving him up.


On the ferry V has brought a yellow plastic bag. He pretends it contains sandwiches but actually it’s his bathers and a book on Wagner by Thomas Mann. “I’ve got very strong ideas on individuality,” he says. “I reckon the further you get from that, the less you are yourself, the more you blur.” I say nothing, but think, “How does that sit with being married?” “Course,” he says, “that means anyone can do anything,” and gives a short, dismissive laugh.


Dinner with the retired academics. I made a big effort and stayed with the conversation. Spare me from old men’s calm assumption that anything they say, no matter how dull, slow or perfunctory, deserves and will have an audience. Their wives are still real, warm people, compared with these old blokes frozen in their own importance. The jerky little tales of eccentrics and their drinking. Sly innuendo about famous women they have known, one of whom was said to have had “64 lovers”. I sat quietly, thinking, “You call that a lot?” Is this what V means when he says women never understand that men want to be with other men? Dread: he too will turn out to be manly in that way – looked after by a woman, no longer alive to her yet still drawing full benefits from her love and sacrifice … Is there hope for women and men?


I called home. M’s lovely bright voice. Thank God I had a daughter. She tells me she’s got a job as a cleaner in an office building. “I started on Friday. $9.50 an hour. It’s hard but I’ll get used to it.” I was pleased it was a rough job and she had got it through her own contacts and not mine. She’ll learn the connection between work and money.


These two men. I could say “I love you” to each of them. To L in the most direct, old-fashioned and simple way: I know him, I like him, he is like me, we know each other without effort, two greedy, cheerful, sexy, sociable people, takers of foolish risks. To the other, how? A thinker, intellectual, contained, cautious, measured, hard-working, private. And married. This will have to be lived. It can’t be walked away from.


Awful evening at L’s kitchen table. His attacks on me, the truth in them, but the way he strengthened their force, and ultimately weakened and undermined their truth, by the use of irony, or rather sarcasm. “You’re silent,” he says. “I’m not like that. It’s a powerful position, the silent one.” I put my head down on the table and cried with shame. Sadness, soreness, regret; relief.


Today I own a house. Got the key and rushed over. Hated it of course. No sun to show its many light sources. Phone went bung after one call. All windows seem to look on to brick walls. Plants in the garden ugly and neglected and worthy of euthanasia. I began to panic till I stood in the backyard and felt its space. Went again in the early evening, to water. Extreme quietness of the street, darkness beginning to cluster under the plane trees. In the backyard I stood holding the hose on yellowing grass. Sky in the west a paling orange. Above, a colourless clarity.


Moving house. One carload at a time. My room looks on to thousands of leaves. I lie on my bed and rest, looking up into the foliage. The dog lies in the hall and gazes out the front door. Back at the old house M’s three friends are moving in. Their different types of bed. Nobody there looks at me. I have ceased to exist.


I feel, and have to force myself to write, that for the first time in my life I am able to stand up to, or with, a man of my own age whose strength of purpose and self-discipline are at least as great as mine. I’m prepared to behave with respect and patience.


Boy, can he write! Can he sling verbs around!


Paralysis, since I no longer live with M. Everyone I tell has a different analysis. “It’s a lack of structure! What you people all need,” says J, the Christian, “is original sin. That gives you form and structure! You won’t be happy, but at least you’ll know there’s shape.”

“It’s the abyss,” says R, the Jungian. “A brand-new abyss. I envy you. Don’t fill it up with old things.”


Sorted books for hours. At first I was ruthless, and culled, but as fatigue took over, all my decisions acquired a tone of angst, until I had to stop. Found an old literary magazine containing an interview with V. His sentences were so dry as to be starchy, perfectly constructed in a way that made me feel exhausted and slightly panicky. He is married. He is an intellectual. He is only messing with me. And I have dropped my guard. Reading at random in Canetti: “It seems that one cannot be severe all of a lifetime. It seems that something takes vengeance in one, and one becomes like everyone else.” Is this the sort of stuff V would write? Painful speculations, sometimes grinding, always trying to tackle the worst, the least attractive, what cannot be made beautiful?


At least I am not bound to anyone, hurting him with my obsession. Examination of fantasy state: it is not a series of clear pictures. Really it is more a stupefaction, a state of suspension.


Lunch in Fitzroy. The way friends, men and women, sit around a table, eating, drinking, telling little stories, making each other laugh. I dislike, and am shocked by, the spiteful sallies of one of the older men. I’d forgotten it. I’m used to living with teenagers. They have no bitterness.


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My sister calls, the counsellor. “How is it, living without M?”

“Awful. I’m paralysed.”

“Classic,” she says. “Classic symptoms.”

“What of?”

“Grief. Starts with blankness, then that clears and it hurts more. It gets worse.”

“And guilt?”

“Yep. Huge discharge of guilt. Also – idealisation.”

“Have you heard her HSC results?”

We almost laugh.

“Crying helps,’ she says, ‘if you can do it.”

“But what should I do? My friend R says, ‘Go into it. Don’t be busy. Use it.’”

“She’s right. The sacrament of whatever’s necessary.”

“Who said that?”



A Tchaikovsky piano concerto, on my own. The idea of it made me yawn but soon my skin began to crawl and various thoughts came to me with the music as background. If I go ahead with this, I will be spending a lot of time alone. That’s something I am already good at, and often prefer. I will spend a lot of time waiting. And when I’m old I will be alone. How strange these thoughts are. They are serious thoughts. I am contemplating a course of action which at my age will have certain repercussions, important ones. Have I got, can I find in myself, the courage and strength to live like that? Would I want to be “married”? I am notoriously bad at it. It does not suit me. The wife envies the passion her husband feels for the mistress. The mistress envies the steady companionship … “The world is made up of triangles.”

This is an edited extract from One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries 1987–1995 by Helen Garner (Text Publishing, $29.99)

Helen Garner will be answering your questions at Guardian Australia’s book club in partnership with the Sydney writers’ festival on Friday 6 November at 1pm AEDT, on Zoom. Register here

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