Author fired up by childhoodHELEN CROMPTON, The West AustralianSeptember 11, 2012, 1:44 pm
When We Remember They Call Us Liars.
To find an author who wholly captures the ephemeral state of childhood is rare. It is only the ability to recall and articulate embodied memory with utter clarity that can create wormholes down which the reader falls to experience those fractured childhood moments that brim with feeling. It's a bit like stumbling upon a diamond lying in a paddock. Laurie Lee's Cider With Rosie was one such gem. When We Remember They Call Us Liars by Suzanne Covich is another.
With undiluted courage and bright detail Covich describes her childhood years growing up in a small Australian rural community through the 1960s. The disjointed vernacular of the child narrator makes the reading immediate - and the understated arrival of violence shocking:
"We never died from tasting the corbies we scooped from small holes in the paddocks with thin wire hooks. On our hands and knees, we'd gently poke and move the hooks around and around until we squished them, hooked them and hauled them up to toss in a jar for fishing. Fat grubs, brown heads, alive and wriggling. We never died from smacks on the arse, or the mad cow that swished her one-horned head around and around the apple we flicked through the fence at the end of a stick to send her half crazy. Once, she gored Peter in the guts when he fell from the toilet roof, tossing him this way and that in the paddocks as he screamed. Ella and me watched with our words caught in our throats. We tried to stop Peter from getting on the roof but he wanted no bar of that, just as we wanted no bar of what the cow was doing to him. Maybe that's why Dad ran that old cow down with his ute and broke her hind legs, then shot her in the head in front of Pretty Sister."
It is evident from the beginning that the greatest threat on the child's horizon in "the valley" is her parents. We are quickly aware of the black presence of her father - the man she knew as Old Jock, The Old Man, or The Old Bastard. A violent drunk who would bash his wife and children, the old bastard raped his girls, role-modelling abuse to others. Always on the look out for when his pathological rage would be unleashed, Suzanne's constant underlying fear leaches away childhood happiness and all sense of safety. Meanwhile her mother was unable to take action in the face of this menacing bully.
"We saw Dad punch Mum's face . . . break her nose, smash into her ribs and kick the bulging veins she'd got from the weight of carrying six kids. As Mum tried to curl up to protect herself, he continued to punch and kick and she screamed for him to stop." But then there are times when the abused mother crosses the line to become perpetrator.
A girl with unusual intelligence and imagination (she won her primary school's dux award every year from Year 1 to 6), the young Covich adopts the persona of her fictional hero Huckleberry Finn to help her survive, presenting a bold, fearless face to the world. In private, however, she describes how she would mentally cut herself from the pain because "you just had to".
Today Covich is an English teacher in Fremantle's John Curtin College of the Arts and is the first Australian to be awarded a National Excellence in Teaching Award twice. This is all the more remarkable since she was forced to leave school at 13 to work and support her mother and younger siblings. In her mid-30s she returned to education, recently earning a PhD in creative writing from Edith Cowan University.
Besides being an author, Covich is a public speaker and child rights activist. She has always been driven, she says, by the need to understand child abuse and her desire to use education to prevent it. Silence, she adds, is a conscious and unconscious collusion with abuse. The confronting truth is that thousands of children are abused in their homes across Australia today so the need for ongoing education in schools is urgent.
In her journey of understanding Covich was alone: neither of her parents, even in later years, could give her an explanation as to why they abused her. Even on his deathbed her father could not bring himself to a place of remorse. The lack of a mother was worse.
"I think the saddest thing that I was left with, was to never, ever, be able to cross a bridge and come to a point where I actually felt I had a mother, or felt loved by her as a child," Covich says from her Perth home. "I think that with Mum losing her own mother when she was young, she didn't know how to love."
Regarding the adults around her - neighbours and teachers who "must have known" - Covich says she has only lately come to understand how difficult it is for "normal" people to countenance child rape. She herself, she says, took years to look at her past for long enough to tell her story. When she did, it was a story that took shape in verse.
"I wrote a poetry collection which basically forms the chapters of my book," she says. "Poetry for me was like standing back looking at a gallery of pictures about my childhood." She says it gave her some needed distance.
When We Remember They Call Us Liars was launched on Covich's 63rd birthday. "It was the best birthday present of my entire life," she says. "Fremantle Press has been wonderful about this book and has made it a lovely honouring of who I am."
At this stage of her life, says Covich, her past feeds rather than erodes her creative energies.
"My childhood is the fire in my belly."
When We Remember They Call Us Liars is published by Fremantle Press ($24.95).