Australian Biography

Thomas Keneally - full interview transcript

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When it came to the point, what was it really that made you decide to go into the priesthood?

I don't know. It was a general - these decisions are not always made on the basis of "I am making the step because ...". Even if you say because, you can't be sure that that's the reason. One of the attractions was the dramatic character of the church. Another attraction was that Sister Beningus who had been an Irish teacher of mine when I was a little kid, she was dying and she asked a girl I was very interested in to become a Dominican name [sic], nun and take her name. These nuns were very obsessed with who would take the, their name on for the next generation.

And ah, my friend - we used to - in the group I used to knock around with, was head prefect of Santa Sabina and a very splendid olive-skinned Australia girl and she said yes. And she became a Dominican. So there are all these asexual relationships in the history of the church. The supposedly asexual - Mary and Joseph, Christ and Magdalene, Francis - St Francis and St Clare.

Heloise and Abelard.

Heloise and Abelard although they actually brought the relationship down to a too earthier level in the view of the church. So they are not saints. And so I thought, well, you know, this is destiny. This girl for whom I'd lost the 400 metres is going and you know, I had this sixteen year old's - particularly then, had ridiculous concepts in their brain. They do even now. And then there was the idea of the sacraments, of administering the sacraments. Of administering confession and saying mass. Mass seemed an incredibly dramatic thing to me.

And I really believed that I could change the substance, by my word, divine forces would change the substance of the bread and wine. The substance in the strictest philosophic sense of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Heavy, heavy - I won't - I use the word in a non-pejorative sense - heavy magic for a kid from Homebush. And um, they were kind enough to take me into the seminary. I don't think the screening was very good. I think they intended - they tended to get a lot of um, a certain number of kids like me, rather innocent, rather unrealistically idealistic.

But with, with the - those came a certain number of robust kids from the bush with earthy sense of humours [sic] and people from tough neighbourhoods and so on. So it was basically a - what you got in there - a spectrum of Australian society. It was the same sort of crowd you get in a police academy or maybe in first year Arts or Agriculture at Sydney Uni. And um, I - my parents were very disappointed but they went along with it and the most remarkable thing about my parents, and my mother to this day, is that they will go with any shift. They've had a son who becomes a Gerard Manley Hopkins fanatic and then becomes a seminarian and then ultimately, then ultimately leaves and becomes a misfit and then starts publishing novels.

And that's all okay with them. Of course you can publish a novel. You know, they don't say, "Oh do you think you ought to get a safe job in, in the state bureaucracy?" They put up with all my weirdness and I admire them in that because my father was in one sense a very complex human being. But on one level he was your average sceptical Aussie rugby league playing, politician running down, sort of a bloke, you know. And I admire the flexibility he showed over the years. He showed perhaps more flexibility with me than he did with his wife.

Because he was the sort of bloke who wanted - thought dinner should be served at six. And if dinner was served at quarter to seven he'd say, "Why are we having bloody breakfast?", you know. So he was an old-fashioned boy and he had hoped that I'd go to university and become one of those whom he thought of as unassailable - a doctor or a lawyer.

But wasn't a priest also highly desirable?

Ah it was. But it was hard for him to accept that everything he'd put in, you know, there were - he would not drink, he loved a party but he would not drink to pay our school fees. And he would not drink for months, except at Christmas, to pay our school fees. And um, that um, you know he did that with an earthly triumph in mind. Not a heavenly one. Ah, but they - again, they accepted it and I think the screening process, as I say, should have involved an independent psychiatrist or counsellor but I looked like a good bat because I was biddable, had a certain level of intelligence and um, you know, looked as if I could handle the studies and go on.

You were going in to embrace these things, these mysteries, this magic, the potency ...

Yes.

... and the power of the priesthood. But you were also giving things up for it. And um, were you very conscious of that? Were you aware of the fact that - and what had been your relationship with girls up until that point?

It was totally virginal. I had tried to take it in certain directions but had not ...

In what directions had you tried to take it Tom?

Well to hand holding and beyond. Um, but um, I - girls are very hard-headed and they thought I was rather eccentric, you know. All these intelligent - they were very affectionate towards me but they thought I was a bit of a weird bloke and how right they were. And ah, I didn't realise what I was giving up. I also didn't realise that what is suppressed will one day come out and to have all this suppressed will one day come out and do its best to kill you, you know to destroy you. Ah, I um - so the price seemed light for what I was getting.

But you were also going to be involved in entering something where you had to be obedient and that didn't sound like the adolescent boy you'd been?

Ah, this indeed was a problem. And it was a big problem for those who were a little bit obsessive in the seminary. Australian society was a very sceptical and anti-authoritarian one. In a very conservative way it was anti-authoritarian. It was not reflexly anti-authoritarian but it was - we were taught to be sceptical and not to take dumb orders from people like NCOs in the army or whoever.

And ah, you were supposed to take an absolutely fascist level to go from that value of scepticism and disobedience and take on obedience to an utterly fascist level, where okay if your superior tells you to do something stupid you'll do it because your superior is the voice of God. A very handy, a very handy belief for the church, you know. A lot of such beliefs are based on organisational convenience rather than on any doctrinal basis. But in any case that was ultimately a problem. And it was a problem for a lot of young men who ultimately left. And it remained a lifelong problem for many who stayed.

Um, and various of them came to various options um, in dealing with, or distancing themselves from, the sometimes crazy directives of bishops. And indeed one who has perhaps done that with some success and is still a priest was the man who had perhaps the greatest influence on me in the seminary and that was Father Eddy Campion, the historian and bon vivant and critic etcetera, etcetera.

Eddy had had more experience of the world than us and he was, he'd even been a journalist on The Sun and ah, he brought Graham Greene books into the seminary and - which was considered the height of worldliness even though they were confiscated. You know, it was a gesture those of us who were interested in Graham Greene approved of. And of course people like Eddy had the capacity to deal with this divide between being a citizen of the profane and pluralist Commonwealth of Australia and then being a citizen of the church. But if you believed us with the sort of naïve thoroughness that I did, then you had to - this was God's test to you.

If your, if your superior told you that something was necessary and it made, it added up to craziness on a rational level, you were told that of course the directives of superiors make no sense in terms of worldly reason, but they were to be embraced as a test from God to see if you could be obedient enough. And ultimately I couldn't do that. Ultimately, in various ways I'll talk about, um, this was a problem. And this indeed maybe a bigger problem for some seminarians than the question of celibacy.

Could I go back though and ask you about the time that you actually entered, we got into talking about this because I was asking you about your motivation at that time and whether you were conscious of what you were giving up. And you've explained that you weren't. Could you now just tell me the sort of narrative of how you went in and what happened to you once you'd made that decision?

Well there was a um, a meeting with the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Gilroy and the seminary superiors in the presbytery at the - or the chancellery at St Mary's Cathedral. And I went in there by train of course, by red rattler. If you came from Homebush all your meetings were destiny, with destiny were via the electric train. And love, reunion, cosmic events and episodes of destiny were all mediated via the electric train.

And I did an interview and was accepted. I received a letter saying that I was accepted for seminary training. The chancellery was full of great, boofy, half pimply Aussie kids of that sort of freckly Celtic tradition. From all the schools - Marist Brothers schools and Christian Brothers schools, blokes you'd played football against and so on. And um, each one of them was interviewed for suitability. And you had to have various references from the Brothers and from priests and so on.

And I had done nothing, I had not been given the opportunity to do anything that would bring a scowl to the face of a parish priest. And um, I think they made - actually some reference was made to my involvement with being Paddy's mate, Paddy Downey's mate. So that seemed to kind of prove a certain suitability in their minds. Whereas I think a independent psychiatrist would have said, "Listen, go away and find out and then if you want to come back". But we were specifically warned against this of course. "You'll go to university and you'll hear that terrible Professor Anderson telling you that Thomism is the philosophy underpinning Catholic theology. It's all nonsense."

And you'll hear about existentialism and you'll meet good looking Protestant girls and you'll you know, things will follow that course. And suddenly you'll give it all up. You will have lost your vocation and you will be damned of course.

They might have been right.

[laughs] And I think a psychiatrist would have said you need a bit more world experience than you've had. And that would have been good for both the church and me to have that. Um, that opinion enforced upon us. But in any case, then at the beginning of 1953 I went to the minor seminary in Springwood and ah - a big population of seminarians in those days.

It's interesting so many of my friends have been through this including the great Australian director Fred Schepisi, who trained to be a Brother as a young man, until the Sicilian hedonist kicked in in Fred. The Sicilian hedonist mode that made him a great director and stays with him to this day. And so it was probably a peak of um, Australian Catholic political influence through the Labor party and a peak of vocations. Australia was still protected enough not to have - the new post-World War comers from Poland and um, Spain and Holland and so on and from the Baltic had not made their presence, and of course from Poland, had not made their presence felt yet.

And so um, there was um, again a very Irish feel to the minor seminary. I found the minor seminary very hard. An Australian judge who was in there with me called Chris Geraghty has written a book on his experience in which he mentions a number of us. And um, what I found most difficult was this obedience thing, which I nonetheless followed. And the fact that men who lived without women become pernickety in a particularly neurotic and self-centred way and there was an old monsignor ran the seminary and he was, had obsessions with boys who blew their nose, young men who blew their noses.

And so I was in trouble immediately. The bell at mass had to be rung in a particular way. If the bell slewed round the inside of the steel then - and made a sort of slewing sound - then you were in big trouble. You know, this was um, a very Stalinist place. And um, one was aware very early of the peculiarity and gradually you worked out it was due to psychiatric problems. But the idea that priests needed psychiatry was not - it was taken for granted they didn't.

I mean after all Freud was a filthy, Jewish - actually they never mentioned his Jewishness. I never encountered anti, explicit anti-Semitism in the seminary except for one instance and that was important informatively upon - formatively upon my life and writing. But one of the professors had a nervous crack-up in there. A very brilliant philosopher. A man who would have been an academic in the outside world. He had a doctorate from Leuven in Belgium. And um, we began to notice that he was, had lost it because he was looking at a picture of St Jerome in the hallway. And when we'd troop in to breakfast, have breakfast in silence he'd be there. When we'd troop out he'd be there.

When we went to class he'd still be there staring at minute details of this painting of St Jerome. And um, so one realised that some of these blokes were very strange. I mean I loved the man. He was the most - the one who was looking at the painting of St Jerome, he had a most subtle mind and he was the exciting teacher in the place. But um, it was the early indications that there's something unnatural about an all-male cast. Um, something you know, Monsignor Dunne needed a wife to say, "Stop being such a silly old bugger", you know. And many of them did.

Um, and I found it hard, again still, you know, my sexuality was well-suppressed and I found it hard in terms of obeying Charlie Dunne and of the capacity of Charlie Dunne to humiliate people. And ah, the um - the sort of choices that people were made [sic]. I was very shocked when a boy from the bush was late getting back from a relative's funeral. He gave him time off to go to the funeral and he - the rector was very angry with the boy for being late back. When I say boy I mean men of 17, 18, 19.

And um, he said to the boy a quote from the Bible, "Let the dead bury the dead". Everyone out there is dead except us. Let them look after all that. You have a higher calling. And yet though they, we believed absolutely that we had a higher calling, again um, there was the problem of the weirdness of some of the people, who had achieved this great boon of the um, of the priesthood. And yet who didn't seem to have been transformed by it.

What was the incidence of anti-Semitism that you saw?

In the seminary I have to say, as in Australian Catholicism, there wasn't the strong classic um, European style anti-Semitism. There had been some historically in Irish Catholicism. And indeed one, a priest who instigated or incited an attack on Jews in Limerick um, Frank McCourt said he was sent to Western Australia as a punishment and lived apparently a quite saintly life in Western Australia.

But I had, we had a scripture scholar called Professor Davis. And Dr Davis had studied at the Ecole Biblique and he had a very strong sense of Christianity being continuant with Judaism. He'd been excited by the Red Sea Scrolls that seemed to indicate the area of Judaism from which Christ came. And so I, my only memory of explicit anti-Semitism in the seminary was on Good Friday when in the litany we had to recite this um, this Latin litany response, "Dear God deliver us, or dear God help us".

One of the um, canticles said, "Let us pray for the conversion of the perfidious and heretical Jews". And we're all supposed to say, "Lord hear our prayer", at that. And I always thought, "Wonder why that's in there?" You know given that it was contrary to - it didn't seem a big - the conversion of Jews didn't seem a big issue, you know, in Australia. And I really didn't know why they got such a special mention. Except I knew about the - his blood be upon us and upon our people.

But I was more fascinated by Judaism than I was even then repelled by it. And I think part of the credit goes to this fellow who was Maurice Byers' brother-in-law, Sir Maurice Byers the great jurist, Charlie Davis, who also had a - sorry - this brother-in-law of Sir Maurice Byers, Dr Davis, I'm not sure if his name was Charlie. He also had a wonderful automatic capacity for spoonerisms. He was like a spiritual son of Dr Spooner. Instead of speaking about the biblical cities of Tyre and Sidon, he'd call them Syre and Tidon, which would bring some gales of laughter in the class. But that was the only instance of explicit anti-Semitism. Now in the general community I was aware of the occasional Ikey joke, you know.

Why did that incident influence you? You said it had an influence on you later, that it worried you.

That ah, the prayer.

Yes.

Yes the prayer worried me. I thought it was demeaning to Catholicism. But ultimately the Pope did cut it out. A couple of thousand years late, but [laughs] ultimately I think this Pope abolished it from the Good Friday liturgy.

Now you were living in this community that was closed and where people were able to exercise a sort of absolute, certainly uncontested power. And this had an effect on them which you observed. What effect did that observation have on your psychology, on what was happening to you in that situation?

Well over time I began to resent this absolute authority which did seem to an extent to corrupt them. I don't mean that they were vicious men, but some of them were narrow men who did inhuman things. You see I always thought that priests were full of charity. Well one of the indications they weren't was their capacity to send to hell anyone who wasn't a Catholic. And half the Catholics anyhow who happened not to go to mass or looked at someone's breasts. They went to hell too.

So um, the second - but the practical issues that worried me were the blokes, the young men who had breakdowns in there and when you have a lot of silence and a lot of obsessiveness and the boys who kept the rule best, the rules of silence, the young men who kept the rules of silence and the rules of everything best were most likely to um, to crack up. And when they did they were looked upon as having somewhat failed and were sent into the community. And their parents were left to carry the bill, their families carried the bill of what had happened to them.

Both the damage that had been done to them, ah, psychiatrically and - mind you they were - probably had tendencies towards melancholia, but the seminary almost encouraged these um, crack-ups. And similarly I had friends who caught tuberculosis in Australia in the 1950s. And um, every time the X-ray van visited someone would fall in love with one of the nurses or become reminded of the opportunities for congress that lay on the other side of the wall. And there'd be a number who'd leave after every X-ray machine visit, compulsory chest X-ray.

And tuberculosis incredibly was a problem in that drafty old gothic pile on the hill. And we were not allowed to have too many visits from the X-ray truck. But when these men - some of whom were wrecked for their whole lives - when they contracted tuberculosis, again they were considered under the text, "Let the dead bury their dead". They were out there, they were not to be distractions to the rest of us, they were - and their parents picked up again the medical bill and the further bill of um, of um, trauma that came from their often - in some cases operations to remove part of their lung wall.

So in a community that was supposed to be based on the love of Christ, I was by about two or three years into Manly - that is four or five years into the whole process ...

How long were you at Springwood ...?

Ah, two years there followed by five at Manly. That was the normal course. And I was quite genuinely scandalised and shocked by it. But I began to become obsessive myself and get that remarkably neurotic Catholic disease scruples, where you feel responsible for everyone. Now I'm a bit like that anyhow temperamentally. So the seminary just increased that tendency. So I was talking to another seminarian who understands these things - Chris Geraghty - the other day, and I said that at one stage, obviously off my nut but still a practising seminarian, I um, saw that many of the cups from which we drank were cracked.

I knew from my upbringing that cracks harboured germs. And therefore I felt bound to go to the bursar - the bloke who bought the cups, who was a priest - and urge him to change them. I felt a moral responsibility to take this burden upon myself to get new cups in. I felt responsible for everyone that got sick. So by then I was in a dangerous, to myself, psychiatric state. And of course I began, I can remember the sort of thing that must happen to many a seminarian. I had one day, not an explicitly or narrowly sexual feeling, but sexual in the broader sense of feeling suddenly that there was someone out there who was - and I could feel it was definitely a she - I could feel her presence um, I could not visualise her.

But that she was the other side of my soul, which is very - I mean, pardon me - that's a very shoddy image, and that there was an impulse in me to um, to find that person. And actually my sexuality was so suppressed that I imagined us walking on the beach together. I didn't imagine any more intimate connection. And that was, that's an experience I remember very strongly.

So as I went madder and madder - well I don't think that's fair to say madder and madder - as I became more and more depressed and neurotic and scandalised by this lack of social justice - you see I, as I said I grew up in a family with a strong sense of social justice. He thought - a family that thought Mr Chifley's light on the hill, which really came from Rerum Novarum, was the way to go. That Mr Lang's compassion had been thwarted, but his compassion was the way to go.

And so I had a strong sense of what is just and what isn't. And I felt these, some of these seminary professors had a very narrow view of it. Even the cracked cups was a sort of diseased way of realising that perhaps we were being undervalued. Um, and um, I remember climbing to the rickety top of that tower at Manly one evening to look down on the lights of Manly. We were not supposed to climb that tower but I was - you know, I wanted a break from study. And until now I'd been a perfect student. And I climbed the tower and looked out on Manly.

And Eddy Campion was up there. And the difference between Eddy's healthy attitude and my neurotic one was that I said, "I come up here because I feel um, you know I feel very shaky in my vocation". But Eddy had been held back a year and he was in a more rebellious mood and he said, "Oh I often come up here and piss on the place". And ah, so that was the - I think his attitude was a healthier one than mine.

So I was very close to ordination. I was delighted to be ordained a deacon, which is the last step between, before becoming a priest. But then it all fell apart. By early in the year I was supposed to be ordained I couldn't move. I couldn't go to mass, I couldn't get to the chapel, I couldn't study. Classic signs of a kind of crack-up, you know other people have described these symptoms to me as happening to them. Scholars and writers, you know. Can't answer an email, can't answer a letter, can't write a sentence. And I got to that stage and that's why I left so close to ordination.

And then I went out into the world for eight months and I was then to come back and go on with ordination. And I encountered pluralist Australia again. And I liked pluralist Australia. I got a taste for pluralist Australia. I like, I like Australians and I can't believe that they're going to go to hell because they tell a good dirty joke, you know. Anyhow one of the - an uncle of mine took me on as a kind of roustabout out in Hay. And he was a constructor and he would go out and knock down old soldier settlers' homes and build new homes on them. Often the station owner's son and daughter-in-law were going to live in the new home.

And he had a motley crew, one of whom I'll never forget, his name was Packy and he'd been a prison of war in northern Italy and he'd escaped and lived with a partisan woman. And then been liberated and come back to the centre of the universe, Hay, to work in the building industry. And Packy I remember - my uncle said to them, "My nephew is a seminarian so you blokes have to watch your language". Well that lasted with the best of intentions about 25 seconds, you know, until the first of them dropped a hammer or banged his thumb or whatever.

And Packy knelt in cement with this terrible leg gash, untreated leg gash he had, knee gash. And then suddenly he had this awful abscess of cement and pustulent matter. And he operated on it with a knife. And then after work we'd all go to the pub, you know, and it just seemed that the world, my world had been too narrow. I'd gone in as a 16, 17 year old. The seminary had spent all its time trying to keep me at that level of development um, and I had been willing to be left at that level of development. And now I was developing fast, you know.

And I definitely wanted to be a writer, but I felt a duty now, having used up those educational resources, I felt a duty to the church and my parents to become a priest. The local milk bar owners, two devout Catholics, had given me a beautiful chalice and that chalice still pains me to think of because you know it was, it would have cost them a bit and it was supposed to be used by me and ideas like that depress me hugely because I knew using it was beyond me. But I had to go back and try to become a priest.

And I went back and I was very severely unhappy and by then sexuality was really kicking in. Was less suppressed than it had been earlier. I suppose the experience of being out in Hay and other places. And so um, I knew that I really didn't want to be a priest and didn't want to be a celibate, though I could probably manage it. Um, and um, ultimately I left. I was very quickly back in the condition that I was in before.

And um, so to everyone's - I think everyone gained the day I left. But that problem made it difficult for me to be a Catholic. That I've never got over the contrast between the rhetoric of the mysteries of the church and the sacraments, which still attract me in a strange sort of way. But the fact that they claim the charity of Christ drives them but as soon as they're in trouble it's a PR company and a lawyer they go to. And this is totally - everything that's happening now is totally systematic of the way the church saw itself and ran itself then, and as a formalistic, legalistic, corporatist kind of organisation.

And all that has now gone close to destroying the church. All that. And yet one is aware ... there was a time I was travelling in a coastal area of Donegal called The Rosses and I came across one of these tokens [sic], totems that the Brothers had told me about when I was at school. They were, are mass stones with the hieroglyphic 'IHS' written on them, which I believe stands for Iasos Christos Soter, which is Greek for saviour. And it was these stones that the shoeless population ... [END OF TAPE]

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