Australian Biography

Inga Clendinnen - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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Having received this liver that you felt that you were really not quite as worthy of as a younger person might have been, did you feel some sort of obligation to it, to the procedure, to the luck, that you should do something particularly useful with the rest of your life?

I felt a tremendous obligation to the Liver Transplant Unit, to the nurses. They had, the medicos and the nurses and the general staff, had all impressed me enormously. I developed a loyalty to an institution which I had never done before, I think, to the Austin Hospital because the intelligence and the compassion of their care was completely extraordinary. And I realised really for the first time, the spectacular self-discipline of nurses male and female, often quite young kids, who controlled their own responses immaculately to keep patients comfortable and psychologically secure. You know I was wowed by their talent and their inventiveness. You know it always - the whole experience in fact seemed to me a demonstration of what civil society ought to be like. It's strictly democratic. The states, each state in which the accident occurs will have the first call on any organs generated by that accident, but if they have no one on their lists it then moves in a regular movement to the next state and so on down the line. Strictly democratic, strictly public hospital. You can't buy your way into the queue. You can go to America, put your money down, your $500,000 and get yourself a liver transplant. All the corruptions which attend trade in human organs in other countries do not happen here and I'm profoundly impressed by that. It seems to me a demonstration of values which I hope and believe to be essential Australian values, and as I said, we were a motley lot, you know. All sorts of ethnic origins, all sorts of religions, ages, sexes and yet comrades after having gone through much the same experience. We know what it's like in there, you know, and all of us in love with our nurses, it's just a matter of course. So I had an obligation to them. I had an obligation to the donor family. I didn't know who they were but I was no longer a free agent at all. I had to stay alive. I couldn't do any damn fool things and yet at the same time, because this was a bonus put on to my life, I had a sense of recklessness that I could use it daringly. You see I'd had a sister who died at 53 of breast cancer and a brother who died very young, I think he was 40, of a second heart attack. He'd had a major heart attack earlier. My other brother who's still surviving has had cerebral malaria, cancer, and he's also haemorrhaged very badly after an operation so it's amazing he's still around. So I always had - and my family, my, you know, my parents and so on have, and brothers and sisters of theirs, have died cholerically, quite young. So I've got very bad genes for longevity and now I had produced this absolutely weird disease no one in my family had ever heard of, and I'd been saved from it. I'd been given a new lease of life, cliché and an absolutely accurate description. So the question was, what was I going to use it, it for? I'd resigned from my university job because I couldn't go on teaching. It was way back in '91 I'd resigned. It was just too - I was too sick, and I didn't have the transplant until '94. And I guess I remained fairly sick with it for another three or four years. I could write short pieces, essays, short stories. I was taken - brought by a friend made inadvertently out of a review of 'Aztecs', which was the best review I ever read, and this was a literary, absolutely non-academic person who from a standing start had understood exactly what I was trying to do. Helen Daniel. And Helen, who died recently, had lured me into the fringes of the world of literature because she had no time for academics. She thought that literature was the high art and that I should get into that and I didn't have any other way to go really, so I obediently toddled into the fringes of the literary world.

And then I began to feel much better, much more focused and because Helen had lured me into reviewing Robert Manne's book on Helen Demidenko's novel, 'The Hand That Signed The Paper', the very bad novel which had astonishingly been awarded the Miles Franklin Award and other literary awards in its year of publication. One of those moments of collective aberration that are hard to understand. Robert Manne wrote very movingly on his own sense of sudden isolation when he realised that his fellow academics, for example, discounted the Holocaust as a significant event or thought it should have no residue or no particular resonance. And it shocked me because I'd always been involved with reading Holocaust material. It had had an important role in my imaginative life since I was a little kid, as I've told you, when I was haunted by Nazis and the sheer malice of what they seemed to be doing although at that point of course none of us knew about what was being done to Jews and gypsies and Russian prisoners of war or any of the deliberate killing programs. And I also happened to have just purchased a book, because I was interested in problems of representation in different media, which happened to be focused on the Holocaust and written by a great bevy of the leading experts. And to my dismay they were all arguing that the Holocaust was too difficult to represent, that we had to put it in a too hard basket, either because it was too horrible, or you had to have been in there and suffered it, or because you might be contaminated if you involved yourself too far in what the Nazis were up to, and I was shocked. It seemed to me an absolute abdication of academic responsibility. I was also, I now realise, still pretty high on pregnisolone, which has an elevating and maniacal kind of effect on one, but I thought I was normal. So I decided I'd take on the problem of investigating the Holocaust, not as a scholar - I had none of the relevant languages. All I had was fairly solid reading in witness testimony, nothing much else. I didn't know what had happened in the East. I knew almost nothing about Nazi policy. So luckily I also had an accretion of a lot of energy so for 18 months or so I worked furiously, in a very strange state actually, and then I wrote 'Reading the Holocaust' which is a not a groovy, post-modernist title. It simply means that by reading these books you can arrive at this degree of understanding and that this is a respectable degree of understanding which makes the Holocaust a utilisable sequence of events by humans in their present dilemmas. And for a while at least that purged my sense of having an obligation but of course it also catapulted me into a completely new area of history. A new area of people known and talked with, specially down at the Holocaust Centre here in Elsternwick which is run by survivors. Yeah, into a whole - to the first area in which I have other academics working in the same field. You see there aren't, there are no other people working on Aztecs or Maya in this country - on 16th century Aztecs or Maya - so now I run the risk of being pulled in to academic discussions and I'm doubtful about that.

How was your book received?

Well, by the people who mattered most, the survivors, brilliantly. I was astonished at their readiness to say "Yes, it was as if you were there. It was like that. You understand." How can you understand? But you do. And that was, you know, my friends at the Holocaust Centre. And then Premier Carr gave it his history award - General History Award - and then it was awarded the prize for Holocaust studies by the National Jewish Council in the United States which is going well for a rank outsider. And it's being translated into Hebrew right now, it'll be published in Israel. And I've had a huge number of letters from people who have shared my frozen, rabid terror of it. The metaphor I use throughout is of the Gorgon Medusa, whose glance turns humans into stone, and that's the way the Holocaust can seem looked at, it is so shocking. But in fact the Medusa was half human and Perseus managed to slay her by looking at her reflection in the bronze shield and cut off her head. So that the steadiness of human determination and the readiness to look long and hard on the face of horror seems to me the way to take away it's magic power and to make it amenable to human uses.

It was a foray into an area in which scholarship was deeply involved but where you saw yourself more in terms of your new literary career. You were writing a book that you wanted to have judged as a book?

No, I don't think that's true. I wrote it as an historian but as an historian who'd never worked in this field but who believed that the systematic study of history according to the rules of the discipline equips you to make intelligible any situation. It's a large claim and I believe it. And it was reviewed, it was one of the New York Times 11 best books - they obviously had a big fight, they wanted to have ten and someone wouldn't yield on one - best book, fiction and non-fiction for 1999 or 8, 8, 9, I don't know - which meant that it's got very big sales in America. So it's, of course it speaks to people who aren't historians, most of us aren't historians, but nearly all of us need to read history, so I don't see it as literary. It's written according to the rules of the discipline.

I want to take you back now to fill in some of the things we didn't talk about, about your illness - because we sort of leapt ahead, and I let us leap - but if we go back now, I wanted to ask you, you had mentioned that during the period that you were very ill, before you had the transplant, there was, you found social interaction difficult. I wanted to ask you, how did people treat you when they realised how ill you were?

They were scared of me, I think, essentially. It's very difficult to deal with someone who's transformed. They look different, you know, they're dead-eyed, yellow-skinned, bloated, because the pregnisolone blows you up. I got very thin but, you know, wasted limbs but huge belly and this great big face. I was a terrifying sight I can tell you. My voice was a little tiny really whisper and I disquieted them. I shook them up. Very few people could cope with it, terribly few. You know, some good friends couldn't cope with it at all.

How did they react? Did they not come to see you?

They didn't come to see me. They, well, if they did, they were so rigid with embarrassment and fear, both things, they were embarrassed. I didn't feel bad about that because I'd seen exactly the same thing in my own family. When my mother was dying, the rest of the family insisted on standing out in the car park. They couldn't be with her in the room. And when my father was dying, I lived in Melbourne, my brother, the beloved brother lived in Geelong, he rang me to say the nursing home had rung him, that Dad was sinking and I leapt in the car and I got there ten minutes too late and my brother who was ten minutes away, couldn't go. Didn't go. He loved my father, but he was so frightened at the thought of death that he couldn't do it.

Inga, how did you want to be treated when you were so very ill? What did you want?

On the whole I wanted to be left alone. It was too much effort to deal with people and to cope with their disquiet. To try to make them feel better. You know [laughs] you really were fairly exhausted and - but it was a huge relief with the very few people who just treated you the same way. They did the physical things for you that needed to be done, John was marvellous, but he got depressed, which was very annoying. I wanted cheerful chat and he'd be sitting there looking glum because I was so sick. It was a natural response. My sons were terrific. When I was recovering they used to take me out in a wheelchair. Freemasons is right near, fringes onto the Fitzroy Gardens, and they'd dump me on the bench and they'd have wheelchair races with each other which I thought was very mean of them but it was fun to watch. They remained unfazed and confident with me, but most people are frightened of very sick people.

Did you ever have any episodes in public where you needed help from strangers?

[Laughs] Yes, quite often. The short answer is you don't get it. You get it from older people. I fell over in High Street, Kew one day. I was picking up a birthday cake which is one of the few things that would have got me out of the house but a birthday cake mattered and as you know I can't cook them, so I was picking it up. If I'd fallen - and I fell, I caught my sandal in a rough bit of pavement and I fell headlong - and I, your skin gets extremely fragile, it just rips or degloves, rolls back, very frightening and you bleed a lot. But I'd ripped my knee and I'd ripped both arms and there was blood everywhere and I couldn't get up. I was winded, I'd fallen so hard and it was hurting and the parcels were scattered, I had three or four other things piled on top of the cake and I'd fallen just by a tram stop and they were all young people round the tram stop and I was waiting, working out the brave reassuring things I'd say when someone came and helped me. No one came. They ignored me and I turned very vicious there on the ground, I wanted to sort of elbow, crawl over to the nearest bejeaned leg and bite it and hang on, but I had to collect myself, painfully lever myself upright, collect my packages and limp off bleeding heavily to the car. It was ridiculous, amazing. If I'd fallen over in East Kew I'm confident I'd have been picked up because there's lots of old people in East Kew, but I ran into the youngies. Another dreadful time before the transplant, it was, I thought I should try to get some exercise. John was going off to go swimming and I had a white tracksuit, big, which covered everything and I'd set off to go for a walk, and I was walking up Hartington Street and I'd just gone around the corner, so I was out of sight, and I tripped, managed to get a leg underneath me and then thought that was a bad idea because it meant that when I hit the fence and the ground I had much more momentum. It was as if I'd kicked off from this leg and I broke my shoulder and ripped my arm very badly, degloved it right down and both legs and the key I'd been holding in my hand flew out of hand and vanished and I was trying to look for it when I got on to my feet again and couldn't find it. So I thought, John has gone, I'll be locked out of the house, I'm bleeding hard. Someone went past on the other side of the road and scuttled along as fast as they could [laughs]. Didn't want to get involved with this crazy lady. So I limped back and John still hadn't gone and my poor cleaning lady had come, I'd forgotten she was due, so I fell into the house bleeding, you know, drenched and the white made it look worse and said to John, "I think I've broken my shoulder, you know, I've fallen. I think you need to take me to the doctor". And he said, "Oh Ingy, have you done another mad thing?" My poor cleaning lady really nearly fainted. I turn into Mrs Hitler when I'm injured, you know, I snap out orders. "Do this, do that." And then after my transplant, no after this, I still had my arm in a sling, I climbed up on to John's exercise bike when he hadn't got up, I thought I should - and of course I fell off it with the bike on top of me and I'd gauged more holes in myself. He really was cross that time because it was completely stupid.

What I'd like you to do now is the other bit that we missed out on, you were about to tell me about the hallucinations that you had after the transplant, when you were full of drugs and you came out of the operation, you had some very interesting hallucinations. Could you describe those?

They were like rather well made silent movies, precisely. In fact I had difficulty at first working out if it was a film I was watching or whether it was a film being projected onto the backs of my eyelids. Their matter: in the first one I was in the grip of the camera, the camera was controlling everything and I was looking at what the camera was showing me, trying to make sense of it. And it showed me rock paintings, like Altamira, and it - then I realised it was malevolent, the camera, and it was whizzing me along through undulating sand, over undulating sand in an undulating motion, very fast. We were going somewhere. And there was a hump up in the distance and we whizzed up to it, stopped, and the wind lifted away the veils on it of sand and it was a dead dog lying on its back, a yellow dog, with the black gums exposed and the teeth and just little bits of hide left on it. And it was clearly a dog I'd owned, a labrador called Simba, who we'd got when the children were little and who later had cancer, and I'd held her while the vet put her down, and I'd chosen her death. And I said to the camera, "It's only Simba, you know, I'm not ashamed of that. She was ill, she was suffering. Yes I killed her but, yes, I decided to, it's all right." And the camera whizzed me off again, very fast, very angry at me resisting the proper response and I was being taken through sand again with trenches dug in it and it took, took me a while to work out what it was but it was men coming up out of trenches, First World War stuff. And so I said to the camera, "Well, you can't do trenches in sand. You need mud." And then the mud came and I was deep in a very alarming hallucination which is, I don't know, detailed in 'Tiger's Eye', of men drowning in mud, of the classic horror footage from the First World War, being enacted. And then some, a line of stretcher bearers went trotting past at a little distance and the two last ones went past and the body had fallen off their stretcher and I could see it on the ground in the mud but they didn't know it had fallen because they were blind. When they turned their faces towards me, their sockets were empty and one of them was my father. And I continued with the theme of First World War hallucinations for rather too long, and learnt for the first time that my father's time in France - you know, it had cropped up in our relationship - but obviously it was a dominant theme in my imagination. And there followed another hallucination which seemed to me finally - I had to interpret it as well as I could because only by interpreting it would I control it's potentially devastating consequences, psychological consequences for me. Everything depended on my getting, first of all putting into words what I was looking at, and secondly analysing it. In other words, doing an historian's job on it. And it seemed to me to be an elaborate, and not particularly successful, metaphor for my body and the disease and the drugs, but it came in the form of a Chinese combat, very elaborate. Chinese movie. And there were other hallucinations I didn't use in the book because [laughs] they weren't as totally controlling and absorbing. They were more daylight. For example, when I could hear our extremely sweet natured and kind co-ordinator of the Liver Transplant Unit, who has the most delightful Irish accent, telling my favourite nurse, the nurse who I felt had saved my life, that I had to be killed because I was going to introduce the Aztec religion to Australia and the Pope had given her direct instructions that I was to be killed while in hospital so I couldn't do it. And the nurse was demurring a bit but on the whole thinking she'd better do it. Now I knew that that was crazy. You know I knew that Alice wouldn't do that [laughs] and I was somehow stringing it together. But the - I had a music sound in my ears which was, got very wearing. It was of German soldiers singing elaborate Germanic harmonies in a sort of Wagnerian phrase and they seemed to be stationed in the little bathroom off my infection control room and the trouble with hallucinations is you don't know if they're real or not, and you feel you have to take very discreet steps to ascertain if they are.

You mustn't betray yourself because if it becomes clear, what you think you're seeing and what you think is going on, presumably you'll be carted off, you know, who knows what will happen? It's a dark secret. John was a little hurt afterwards when he read them to say, "You never said any of this to me". I said, "Of course not, you know, I". I don't quite know why the inhibition is so huge but you have to deceive the world around you to try to keep them out of all this, so I did.

You had some visitors too, hallucinations, didn't you? Soldiers?

Oh, yes, but they belonged I think to the German soldiers singing away in the bathroom. You see what was disquieting about the German soldiers singing was that they came home with me. They were singing away in that bathroom and I knew it was just this weird thing in my ear but it's a curious thing and very slowly they faded. How that physiologically happens, I cannot imagine. Yes, one of the, one of the most distressing hallucinations was, I was just in my room, in my bed, and a nurse had just been in and out again and I was feeling normal and then I saw that there was a very young German soldier slumped in the corner, First World War uniform. Hee'd had - the wool of the uniform was wet and I could smell the wet wool, and he was a bit yellow. I couldn't see if he was bleeding and he was exhausted and he was gazing at me with absolute appeal, as if our eyes were stuck together, it was so intense. You know, "Don't betray me, don't say I'm here. Leave me alone. Let me stay." He didn't say anything but this was a - and I knew he was there and I thought the nurses couldn't see him but there's paranoia in this too. Did they see him and were they pretending he wasn't there? And he stayed for a while and then there was a burst of noise from the German soldiers in the bathroom, who nobody but me knew about, and then he vanished. So it's very complicated, you know, elaborated hallucinations. The early ones I'd had, way back, before the transplant, which were presumably more a result of natural toxins and debility than drugs I suspect, I didn't know that. I could make sense of them from books I'd read about, they're called phosphenes, they're sort of flashes of light that occur in the retina and which humans are able to organise into meaningful patterns - because I'd done some work on some South American Indians who ingested drugs in measured amounts which induced these physiological phenomena which were then interpreted as a quest narrative back to the ancestors. And you know, there were forms that the anthropologist who'd been all through this absent-mindedly would draw because he'd seen them, he didn't know what they meant, he'd seen them on his drug-assisted journey where he'd taken the measured amount at the right time with the group. And one of the locals looked over his shoulder and said, "Oh, oh, you've got the grass serpent there". He said, "What?" You know, instantly set them to drawing these forms which were formalised shapes of what he'd seen but had been given a group interpretation. So I knew about phosphenes, which was a comfort, but that was no help when I got into the silent movie territory.

What's your theory about why those particular images, that strange collection of images, were thrown up at that time?

I don't know. I don't really have a theory except to realise that the First World War was very important to me. That - and simultaneously I was trying to retrieve childhood. You are alone a lot of the time when you're ill. There are great acres of time and sociability is out, reading is out because you don't have the concentration, so introversion is the only way to go. So you're examining memory and how memory works and how you can elaborate memories, pull one out of another like a magician's silk handkerchiefs. You know, they can keep on going. And by doing that I had remembered aspects of my childhood that I'd forgotten, like for example, the stay in the household and the importance to the household of the American marines who then went to Guadalcanal. And I knew that the phenomenon of young men going to war had been a very important component of my childhood.

[end of tape]

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