Australian Biography

Zelda D'Aprano - full interview transcript

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So what did you do for a living?

At that stage I wasn't doing anything, I was too ill. And depressed. And I, of course, had to go to the doctors and all that business— in the end the doctors said, 'Well, you can't go back there to work.' I was fearful of going back there to work because there were people there of certain nationalities that hated Jews, hated women, hated anyone left-wing, and being a shiftworker I had to park my car two blocks away from where I was working which was in Spencer Street, and it was very dark. And I'd knock off about 11 o'clock at night and have to walk alone, back those two blocks to the car, and I was really fearful because I knew these men were full of hatred, really full of hatred. And I was scared, and I knew that with the ASIO document being leaked that they would say that I was a spy. I mean that sounds fanciful, but one of the women who worked there told me that was precisely what they were saying. And it was all just too much for me to go back and face that situation. I mean it was — someone said you can laugh it off, but it was something you couldn't laugh off, not with these people so full of hatred. And so the doctors just said I wasn't suitable to go back to work there. And eventually I was superannuated. So they got rid of me, they got rid of me.

And so you were superannuated, and did that mean that you devoted a lot more of your time to the women's movement?

Well, to start with I couldn't.

What was wrong with you physically?

I had a condition called adenomyosis , and if you want me to go into detail, I can explain.

Not detail, but just roughly what — it was a gynaecological problem?

It was a gynaecological problem, yes.

You'd had a history of some really quite, what seems to people now, extraordinarily unpleasant gynaecological encounters in the course of your life, and yet they were fairly typical of working-class women at the time, it's now emerged. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about the history of that for you, the abortions and the problems that you'd had in trying to get proper gynaecological advice and help for your whole reproductive history.

Well, that's a thing that women had to endure, all women had to endure. The whole system was very unsatisfactory, possibly a mixture of the attitudes of the men doctors, the lack of research and knowledge, and a dismissal of women as being neurotic, which was the trend in those times. And when women did have problems, they were sort of shunted aside until situations got very serious. I had several abortions, which were all illegal, which were all carried out under terrible circumstances, all by doctors. I wouldn't go to any backyard people, but even the fact that they were carried out by doctors, they were really dreadful.

In what way?

Well, the first one was when I was 18. I was put on a table, I had a towel put over my head, so I wouldn't even see the doctor. He spoke to me but I never saw his face. And there was no general anaesthetic and the whole D & C [dilation and curette], as they referred to it, and the whole scraping of the uterus was done without any anaesthetic whatsoever. And that was when I was 18 years of age.

Did they tie you down?

No, I just endured it. Just endured it. I must say that in each instance, when I conceived, they were all contraceptive failures. It wasn't as if I wasn't doing anything. We were trying and I was trying to prevent conception, but what we were using failed us. And the next one was what was referred to at the time as a Dutch Cap. I think they have some other name for it these days. And I used the Orthogynol cream on it and did all the right things and I know I had it in the right position. And it didn't work and I conceived again. And that abortion was done by a communist doctor and his method of doing that for me was to insert a catheter into the cervix and leave it there for — I can't remember exactly now how long it was — and then take it away and say to me, 'Well you can go home now and everything will be right.' And of course I went through labour — it aborted — and I was infected. So then I had to get a doctor to come in and give me antibiotics and I couldn't say what happened, I just said that I had douched, and unfortunately I caused a miscarriage.

And you couldn't say what had happened for fear of prosecution, both for yourself and the doctor. But you were protecting the doctor who'd infected you?

That's right.

And used this very primitive and unscientific method of causing the abortion?

That's right. So the infection was cleared up and then — I can't recall how long it was, but I think it might have been about 12 or 18 months later — I found myself pregnant again. And this time it was through a broken condom. And got out of bed immediately and douched. And felt so secure that everything was fine but, no, I was pregnant again. And this time I went to a good doctor but he refused to do it because of the previous infection and he said it could recur. So I had no choice and I went to another doctor and I was put on a table and while the instruments were boiling in an open tray on the gas stove — and it was the sleaziest looking place I'd ever seen — they conducted an abortion with what they call an open-face mask, very primitive. Put the mask on and spray the ether on you, which is considered to be very dangerous these days. But at least I did go to sleep — oh, when I went to him originally, what I had tried to do first was induce an abortion, a miscarriage, and I was told to insert a sponge that had dissolved Life Buoy soap on it. And I did all this and I put it all inside and of course when I went to this doctor to do the abortion he said he wouldn't touch me with a 40-foot pole; that was his very words. He said, 'You are all inflamed inside. What on earth have you done?' So I told him. And he said, 'I couldn't possibly touch you.' So I went and got that treated and then went back to him after about two or three weeks and then he did it. But he knew exactly what he was dealing with and of course, when I woke up, I was just on fire, absolutely on fire. I was just burning, my whole inside was burning. And he told me that because of the infection he had used iodine to make sure that I didn't become infected again. And the iodine — if you've had iodine on a raw cut you'll know what it was like — and he had used this inside my body and it was just one big flame. And they were the conditions that I had my abortions. And from what I've heard from other women, they even had worse to put up with. And this is what poor women had to endure, I must say, because the wealthy women could afford to go to the gynaecologists and have abortions done under proper conditions; what I put up with was what poor women had to put up with.

Zelda, you were an intelligent woman and yet you put a Life Buoy-soaped sponge inside yourself. Why did you listen to those sorts of stories?

Desperation, absolute desperation. I jumped off tables, I did everything, all the stories. I had lain in hot baths and I had to be lifted out because I was so weak I couldn't get out. Because we had no money, see, we had no money to go to the gynaecologists that the rich women went to. And so we endeavoured to induce an abortion whichever way we could. And any story that you heard you hoped that this would work and so you were willing to try.

Why were you so desperate not to have more children?

I suppose there was several reasons. One, I knew that for working-class people, every child they had puts them further into the bog of poverty. And so that was one reason. Another reason was that I, temperamentally, realised that I wasn't suited to being a housewife/mother. And that with one child, and I loved her dearly, I was fine. But any more children I would have lost patience and the children would have suffered. It wouldn't be fair to the children. And so all in all, I just didn't want to have them. I didn't think it was fair to have them. And so I made that decision and I was determined that that was the way it was going to be.

Did Charlie agree with this?

Yes, he did.

So he wasn't an Italian man who wanted a big family?

No, no, oh no. Well, I mean it was what I wanted and as long as I was happy not having more children, then he was happy too. I mean, he didn't particularly want a large family, no.

And in relation to this life, you know, as a woman, another aspect of it that a lot of people these days perhaps need to be reminded of, was the whole relationship with men. Zelda, I wonder if you could go back to when you were a child and put in perspective how you'd seen men and what your relationships were with them in the sexual sense, through the course of your life.

Well, when I was a little girl, I remember I played with my brother's peer group and we all went out to the park one day, in Princes Park. And you know children give what we call lip, in those times, a bit of cheek. And there was a young man there with a pushbike, teenager. And of course the kids say, 'Have you got a penny? Got a penny mister?' All that sort of nonsense. And so he gave the boys pennies and told them to go away and buy an ice-cream, and I had to stay there and wait. And I instinctively felt — I can remember, I'll never forget it — that I didn't want to be left alone. Don't know why, but I didn't want to be left alone with him. And I didn't want the boys to run away, and I didn't know what to say to them, not to run away and leave me. And they went off. And of course, he undid his fly and tried to put my hand inside. And I just took off, and ran and ran and ran all the way home. And [laughs] by the time Morrie and the boys got home, Morrie said, 'What happened to you? We ate your ice-cream. It was all melting.' And I never told him why.

Did you tell your parents?

No. I never said a word. And on another occasion, there used to be — because Mum and Dad were kind to people — a lot of people were hungry in those days and there was always a cup of tea and bread and butter and jam, if not a bowl of soup. And this man who had left his family in Poland and migrated here like a lot did, with the intention of working and bringing their families over, used to come in and Mum would give him a bowl of soup. And there was no-one around this day and I was running through the dining room on the way out. And he called me over and he tried to put my hand on his fly, but on top of his trousers down there, and I ran away. And I never told my parents about that either. And yet somehow or other you know from a very early age that if you want peace and you don't want troubles, then you have to keep quiet, because you're going to cause trouble. I knew there'd be trouble. I don't know why, but I knew because I suppose I reacted to that because my parents were extremely strict and we never, ever, saw a naked body, let alone touch someone else's body in any way. We never saw each other sort of get undressed. I mean, everything was absolutely hidden. But that was my first encounter in that regard. In the peer group, never had any problems whatsoever, none whatsoever. When we were out playing together there was no problems there. I mean, that's where I learnt how babies came, from one of the little boys in the peer group who informed us.

Was it a bit of a shock?

[laughs] It was quite funny because we made a pact that we weren't allowed to go and ask our parents and, of course, Mum would never answer these types of questions and she'd always have a little giggle and always say, 'Look if I tell you everything now, you'll have nothing left to learn when you grow up.' That was her way of dismissing us. And when we made this pact, Morrie and I raced in and asked Mum, and Mum just laughed and fobbed us off and I knew it wouldn't be any good. But anyway, this little boy, Don his name was, let us know that he knew. So we all gathered at the special time and he just said, 'Women have got a hole underneath and men put their dick in it. And that's how babies come.' And that was the sum total of the important lesson in your life. [laughs] And Morrie and I just walked off, because he was — I suppose at the time, it's hard to judge, I don't know how old I was at the time, about nine perhaps, not sure, maybe a little older — and Morrie said, 'Do you believe that?' I said, 'I don't know.' And he said, 'Oh, I don't.' And he sort of walked off. But of course, I was two years older than him and I started to think, you know, well, why is it that men and women are allowed to sleep in bed together and we're not even allowed to undress or see each other's bodies, anything, nothing, you know. And I thought, maybe. But that's as far as it got, maybe.

So when you got married, did you feel prepared for that?

When I look back, no, not really. I think the thing that worried me more than anything else was … and I asked Mum, the only question I ever asked her, was should you let your husband see your naked body. [laughs]

This was just before you got married?

Yes, yes. That was the thing that worried me more than anything. Should you let your husband see your naked body.

And what did she say?

She just — Mum just laughed and said, 'Oh, that all depends on your husband. If he's a gentleman sort of thing, it's all right, and if he's not, well it's up to you.' But you know, poor Mum, she had three of us, she had a twin that died, and she'd had two abortions. And yet she was totally ignorant about how women's bodies functioned.

And in your adult life, did you have any more encounters that disturbed you, or made you think about the relationships between men and women?

Well, being married at 16, I didn't have much experience. As I said — when I first started going with boys it all finished up in wrestling matches. And that, you know, I was very displeased about that. But most of all was the lack of seeing any future before you. I mean, you had these rotten jobs that you hated. And I can fully understand why girls — some girls today — go ahead and just have babies. Because they feel it's — they're producing something. It's something of theirs. And they feel that that is an achievement. I mean it's terrible to think that that's the only way that they feel that they can achieve anything, produce anything, do something. And when I look at them I think about my own situation, you know, I got married. I got married. Luckily I married a man who wasn't cruel to me, wasn't physically cruel or a drunkard or anything like that. And we sort of grew up together and struggled along as best we could.

And during your married life it was a period, too, where people started experimenting with having affairs outside marriage and so on. How did that all come to you in the course of your life?

Oh, well, this was a worrying thing because I found I got attracted to others and so did my husband. And — but you never said anything about it. But it always worried you because you felt this shouldn't be. So, I mean, you never talked about relationships. No-one spoke, no-one knew anything. And so you felt you were being treacherous, even if it was only in your thoughts, that someone else could touch you, sort of, you know, and you'd get that feeling. And so you dismissed it. And it was something you were always afraid of. And both of us struggled through this sort of thing, without having discussions with each other about it of course. And then when Charlie went overseas for several months, we discussed this possibility of what may happen, and because he was going away with a group of people, and men and women, we knew there was always that possibility. I didn't think so much that it would happen to me. But it did. And when he returned, both of us — it wasn't long before both of us talked and admitted sort of that we'd both had an affair outside of our marriage relationship. And mine was traumatic because I really became strongly attracted to this man. And I was very hurt by it. And somehow or other, later, looking back, I felt that this experience somehow or other turned me into a woman, rather than a girl. I felt I was no longer a girl. It was as if it took this experience to destroy my innocence and trust.

What was it about his attitude to you that made you feel that your innocence and trust had been destroyed?

Well, I believed he felt towards me like I felt towards him. And it wasn't long after that I found that he'd been away to Sydney with another woman, who wasn't his wife. And that really shattered me. So then I realised I was just one more of his conquests.

Did you ever have any violent encounters with men?

Oh yes, I endured rape on two occasions, yes. And one was while I was married. And that was an interesting — looking back — experience, because my husband — I was always very friendly to everyone and this fellow was in the Communist Party. And my husband didn't like him. And was quite obvious in his behaviour of his dislike towards this person. And I was taking a day off from work for some reason or other, I can't remember what, and I bumped into him down in the street. And he came back to my place. And so I just let him in, cup of tea, he was a comrade. And of course, the next thing I was raped. And I could never really understand this until the women's movement. Why? And then I realised it was to get back at my husband, because he knew by my husband's whole attitude that he disliked him. So he took it out on me.

And did you tell Charlie, did you go to the police?

No, I didn't do anything because my friendship could have been seen as that I'd encouraged him, you see. I was very trusting and friendly. And my husband used to say to me, 'Zelda, you're too friendly to people.' But I used to say, 'But how else do you behave with other human beings?' I mean, I don't make friends of everybody, but I'm friendly to people.

You're afraid Charlie would blame you?

Yes, I thought he might think that I had encouraged it.

Were you very badly affected by that rape?

I felt a total infringement of my body. This is an interesting thing because in my book that I wrote, my autobiography, the most difficult thing to write about with all the pain that I've gone through in my life, the most difficult things to write about were my, the, rapes. And I put that off right to the very end, and I knew that I was going to have to put them in. They were very traumatic experiences that I had. So I had to put them in. But I couldn't write about them until the very end and that was really difficult, really difficult, to write about. And I've asked myself why. And basically it's because of this terrible invasion of your very inner self. And it's having this outside thing being put into your body and it's a total infringement.

And you fought hard, but lost?

Oh, yes, I just didn't have the strength that he had.

The other time, was that with someone you knew too?

Yes. Both situations, and that was again a strange occurrence because at this time I was involved in the women's movement, earlier in the piece when I had a lot of publicity. And a group of us were out and finished up coming back to my home. And this man and his wife stayed overnight, and he'd been drinking. And during the night when I was asleep, he came into my bed and I wasn't able to scream. His wife, this was her second marriage, and I knew if I screamed it would be breaking up her second marriage. When I look back now, I could say, well, I should have done it anyway because she was only married to a monster. But somehow I just couldn't do it to her. And I fought him but I was silent fighting him, because I didn't want to wake her and let her know what was happening.

And what did you think of his motivation, when you looked back later?

That I was Zelda, the great feminist, great liberationist, and this was his way of getting at me. This was his way. They didn't stay in Australia very long after that, they left. I don't think he could face me, but I think that's what it was. I can't think of anything else. [INTERRUPTION]

[end of tape]

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