Australian Biography

Thomas Keneally - full interview transcript

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When you were in secondary school at St Pat's, Strathfield, what impression did you get from the Brothers about what your attitude to women should be?

Well, I remember one quite nice Brother speaking, probably out of depth of his own ignorance of women, saying that, um, if we ever got a girl in trouble, ah, it was our fault, because women weren't interested in sexuality and they only went along, out of generosity. In a way, it was a very flattering picture of this generous girl who would do what she hated just to be nice to a fella, but of course, it was inaccurate information, and not a good preparation for the world.

And did they ever do anything to try and assist this group of adolescent boys to have relationships with girls that were a little bit more natural?

Yes. Well, of course, there was a local convent school and a number of very, ah, er, very good schools that were of Protestant denomination, and state schools. And it was remarkable how many, ah, good looking heretics there were, also. But there was a tendency to - for us to do everything with the Santa Sabina girls, who were generally a better class of girls than we were of boys.

And, for example, we would go to benediction with the girls from Santa Sabina, and what adolescent boys liked best was that incense on a hot day was known - and all this cramped movement in the pews, of, you know, standing up, kneeling down, was likely to make adolescent girls, um, er, faint - at least one.

And so all the St Pat's boys waited for some gorgeous 14 year old to faint in the pews. At that stage, the Brothers would - from the impact of heat, incense and cramped movement - and, ah, at that stage the Brothers would leap from their pews and go along and the - our rows and make sure that no one was taking improper delight in this spectacle, and similarly, the nuns got up and helped the poor kid out.

Why was it exciting to see a girl faint?

Look, I don't know why. It was sort of a combination of male camp supremacy, "ha, ha, ha, girls faint at incense", and it was partly, you know, in a way, maybe it made femininity seem closer. Ah, more - I think a lot of us were scared of girls, and this, this confessed their vulnerability.

And they became quite passive once they'd fainted.

Yes, indeed. I, I don't know what it was, but it was a favourite event for boys. And I don't know why and whether it was healthy or not, but it was.

And was there ever a school dance?

Oh, absolutely. We used to have dances with the Santa Sabina girls, and the Santa Sabina girls used to come and watch our football games and so on. And I remember a glorious day, when, um, there was a girl I quite liked who was watching a football game we were playing against De La Salle Ashfield, and for some reason - I was no great player - but I um, ah, hammered her or sidestepped her brother and scored a try.

And I felt so delighted, I, again had this naive belief that this was - had somehow demonstrated my, my fibre. But a dance at Santa Sabina, when we were in fifth year, we were beginning to get - some of the boys were starting to get ah, quite, um, ah, you know, advanced sexual feelings, and, um, ah, there were - it was overheard that one short boy had said that it was wonderful to dance with one of the Santa Sabina tall basketballers because you could fit your head in exactly under her breasts.

And this was considered an outrageous statement from a Catholic boy and it led to an inquisition into our behaviour throughout the dance, which had been largely - you know, I doubt if there was one carnal act that derived from that dance and yet, of course, these feelings, these exploitations of women were to be stamped out at base.

And it wasn't so much because they didn't want women objectified - because the ethos of the church was an ethos of suspicion of women, particularly in the seminary. The only safe women to a seminarian were the Virgin Mary, your mother and any sisters you had. And sadly, I didn't have sisters so, um, um, the, ah ...

The inquisition, the inquisition that was held at school. Who conducted it and what were you asked to do?

We were asked under pain of, um, conscience, to write a full and frank account of what we and others did at the dance. So um ...

What did you write?

Typically, my account would have been very dull reading, because I - Paddy and I went to that dance, and, you know, we spent all night trying to line up dances for ourselves. And, ah, I took a girl that I particularly liked and even bought a - at my mother's insistence, my first time in a florist shop - since then, florist shops have become one of my favourite places - bought a little corsage and presented it, and that was about the most exciting thing that happened all night.

I wish I could say other - otherwise.

Did you try at any stage to 'make a move' as they used to call it in those days?

Yes, indeed. I tried to hold hands on the way home, the long walk home. Ah, and no dice. Fleeting contact, I suppose you could call it. But there was something enormously exciting about, um, ah, un - what would you call it, ah, unresolved, unre- not unrequited, but, ah, this suppressed fantasy side of, ah, of, um, infatuation. There was something very, ah ...

Unfulfilled longing.

Yes, that's right. It is the stuff of, um, ah, of literature, indeed, and I remember a time I was in Eritrea, and ah, the - there was a, an afternoon shelling going on above us. We were in an eight foot bunker and the shelling was intermittent because shells are expensive, you know, and third world countries can't afford quite the barrages that first world countries can.

Anyhow, the Eritreans in this deep bunker were listening to the BBC African News, and then, ah, to Anita Brookner's 'Hotel Du Lac', which is all about unfulfilled desire. And an Eritrean came up to me after the reading was over, ah, in this bunker eight feet down into the earth, and he said, "If that English woman likes that English man, why doesn't she just tell him?"

And, ah, I said, "Well, you know, maybe Africans operate in a different way from the English". And so - that's the, ah - I remember the ah, inquis- ... sorry I've lost it. Um, my ah, reply to the inquisition, my, ah, my report would have made very dull reading.

It was a very romantic view of women, though, that you had, and there was this longing and you had to do heroic acts to attract their attention.

Yes. I think that's coded in our genes, though, that you've got to kill the mastodon.

Did that - you said that at the seminary it was even more strongly, um, represented to you, that relationships with women were a disturbing and really unwanted thing in your life. How did that come out in the seminary?

Well, ah, the celibacy was all-important, and thus, ah, there was a terrible shift in celibacy which was supposed to be a devotion of the self to Christ and so on. It was supposed to be a thing of love, but it became, um, a thing of denial for most ordinary humans.

And so there was, ah, an attitude that there were very few, ah, safe relationships with women. Older women were probably safe. Ah, um, a fellow seminarian of mine was reminding me the other day that the canon law said that a housekeeper should be a women of over 40 years, of - a practical Catholic of impeccable character, you know.

So even in the choice of a housekeeper, there was a, an edginess about women, particularly in the northern European church and particularly in the, um, Irish and Australian and American church, um, and Canadian and New Zealand of course. Um, and, ah, women thus became something of ah, an enemy, because they were the ones who would take advantage of the strong susceptibilities that heterosexual priests had.

Um, and, ah, the extent of the denial of the value of 51 percent of the population could only be achieved by ultimately unhealthy attitudes, and, ah, a sort of suppression, which would then express itself in various quirks of character, and various strangenesses and obsessions. And I remember even when the um, statuesque Baroness von Trapp, who was a far more sumptuous figure than the rather, ah, ah, rather slim, um, Julie Andrews, in 'Sound of Music', she came with her strapping daughters to the, to the seminary and because of her good standing with the church, she had her own chaplain, etcetera.

She was allowed to sing on the high altar, and of course I think that day you could feel infatuation breaking out amongst, for these lovely girls in dirndls, breaking out amongst the, the pews of seminarians, and afterwards there was a kind of mass infatuation with these young women. And a number of fellas left and interestingly, we pitied them as having failed.

We didn't see that they were responding to something basically healthy in their, in their natures. Ah, so even in the case of the Baroness von Trapp and her saintly daughters, with their own chaplain, there was suspicion. No woman had eaten in the refectory. It was a men's business place.

Um, no women had eaten there since 1894, when it was opened. So that even after they had sung angelically on the high altar, the rector set up a special room for them to dine in with their chaplain. But I remember the Baroness saying, "Oh no, I want to eat with the young men". And so for the first time in history, the devil in a dirndl entered the refectory, and, um, and ate and of course, no silence at table that day.

We all talked and were rather grateful to the, ah, ah, to the Baroness. But you see, even a woman in such good standing was an object of suspicion and, you know, we've got to save the boys from some of the things that her presence implies. Um, and her daughter's presence, in particular.

So afterwards, you - that - I'm sorry, I messed that up. I think that terror of women, ah, that hysteria about the presence of women, is characteristic of, um, the male clergy and ah, it hasn't changed because a friend of mine in America who's a priest tells me about the sterility of, of presbyteries.

And often the acute loneliness of um, of priests. Um, and the methods of denial of the value of women by which um, they keep um, the possibility of falling at bay. Of course, the truth is that many, um, are, are not - the church in Australia and elsewhere identifies celibacy with total virginity or total abstinence. Even that is - has fallen - falling by the wayside in an unofficial sort of way.

And of course, there are practising or non-practising homosexuals in the church, but all this is denied in the interests of maintaining the practice, in many cases, and in some cases the myth, of celibacy. But whether it is, um - whatever form 'celibacy' in inverted commas now takes, it is based on denial, and, I suppose, the ultimate expression is the denial of, ah, the priesthood to women.

Now why a woman would want to be a priest, I don't know, but some of them do, and of course, they get nowhere.

Your description of the seminary and how it worked -it strikes me that not only were you having to deny sexual feelings, but that there was also an absence in a way of other forms of love, that all the many different forms of love were not really properly available to you.

That's true. Um, even um, I'm not the only one, I might have been the first, but many former seminarians including Judge - Justice Chris Geraghty has written about the fact that you were not to 'PF'. PF stood for particular friendship. Now you went for a walk every day, and had a chat with another seminarian.

But you were not to go - if you went more than four or five times with the same man, you were considered to be PFing, and the peer pressure tended to make you then choose someone else, even someone, as a penance, that you didn't particularly like. And, um, the ah, whole PF rule, which existed in convents and in um, and in seminaries and ah, to an extent in monasteries, it was based of course on a terror of the other great sin, homosexuality.

And, um, I mean how can you - if you're a liberal democrat who believes in the liberal democratic tradition - how can you say that the homosexual is damned? And um, how can you really say that the homosexual has chosen his bed, you know? I mean it's a great thing to do, to come out in schools. Archbishop Pell says there's homosexual propaganda in schools. Well what a wonderful thing for a kid to do, to say, "Look, guys, I really like boys", you know.

So then the whole first fifteen beat you up, your head is put down the toilet and flushed, you are ostracised, you know. All this is the glamour of being a homosexual at school. So the idea that someone would choose this hard road, or have it promoted to him and thus become one, is, is a fantasy of certain church men, and it's a sad fantasy.

Um, Archbishop Pell says that most - there are very few cases in which homosexual tendencies are not reversible. Now ah, that's a sad view, and of course, it's a view which disenfranchises, um, a great part of the population, amongst whom there are some wonderful souls. And I, ah, er - you know how can you believe in liberal democracy and the dignity of the individual, and then make an underclass in religion?

And this is precisely the problem. This is why there are fewer priests than there used to be. These are the sorts of problems. It's not only celibacy, it is um, it is the, the fact that the authoritarianism of the church is in conflict with the liberal democratic tradition.

But it was also in conflict with someone of your kind of spirit, because you obviously had already developed as a boy, as a very warm, loving, outgoing, connecting sort of a human being, and you were placed in an environment where this was punished. And so at what point did you become clear in your mind that this was having a damaging effect on your personality?

Only when I virtually cracked up. Because the thing about ah, mental sickness that's so dangerous is that people in it, it's dangerous to this day, the people in it think that they're thinking normally. And it was only when I couldn't function any more that, um, I, um, er, my failure, as I saw it, but then combined with the scandals that I'd seen, um, this matter of the ah, kids with depression or psychiatric illnesses and the kids with ...

The lack of care.

Yes, that's right. Ah, the old, ah, Latin tag, ah, caritus christie orgednes [sic] which is the charity of Christ, or the love of Christ is what drives us. Ah, these - at the institutional level, at the level of the church apparatchik, the charity of Christ didn't drive us.

So it was a bit like - I mean it wasn't as bad as Stalinism - but it was a bit like Stalinism which was meant to be for the people, and, ah, and was not. Ah, and, um, that um, combined - I, I - all this coalesced with me only late, because, you know, you - in life, you react and react and react, and you start to get doubts and so on, but ultimately the doubts coalesce, and, um, and come into focus.

Um, I don't like dramatic moves in life, but there's something in me that when I make them, it is, um, ah, I, I have the determination to, to do that.

And this happens with your fictional characters too.

Ah, yes indeed. Most of my fictional characters are fairly ... ah, confused by some authority. The state, the international community. And then some demand is made of them, which is enormously extreme and yet they have to adapt to it.

Either it's a demand of conscience - well, it's generally a demand of conscience, actually, such as the man who goes to Eritrea and would rather not be there, and is increasingly drawn in by responsibility to others. I'm ah, writing a book now, which may never be published, but it's set, it is inspired by the refugees out in Villawood.

And I set it in a fictional Iraq, where a man is asked to write a masterpiece in a month. He's given this task. He's a writer, and he's given the task of writing a masterpiece in a month. And he says - his wife has just died - so he says, "It's, it's a perfectly simple arrangement. I will suicide, you know, rather than, ah, accommodate the tyrant". But then he discovers that his friend, who is a cultural commissioner, the equivalent of one of the apparatchiks at the Australia Council, who are, who are much nicer apparatchiks than the ones in Iraq ...

Um, his friend's life is dependent upon this. His friend, who is in charge of the project, will be definitely executed. These sorts of things happen in Iraq. I don't know if it's a basis for invading Iraq, but they - ah, responsibility claims him, and he has to do this impossible task of writing a masterpiece in a month.

And, ah, that is typical of the tests that are set the people I write about.

And you, at the Manly Seminary, experienced a situation where you'd been placed with a test that you felt you were failing at.

Oh yes, and I still ...

And then there was another test, which was what would you do about it? How would you handle it? Now whose idea was it that you would take that time out?

It was mine, and the - once I started talking to the professors, they could tell I was as mad as a cut snake, or certainly as - a burnt out case would be more accurate. As much as I would like to claim lunacy, I think it was more a case ...

It was a severe depression.

Yes, that's right.

An anxiety depression, would you say?

Mm, I don't know what you'd call it in exact psychiatric terms, but ah, it had - when I've heard people talk on ah, in radio interviews about how suddenly they can't do anything, then it was like that. A total ineffectuality, and a great need of relaxation, a great need of going away and doing something stupid, you know.

Something fatuous like building a model aeroplane or, ah, or reading really, ah - not, ah, not, ah, Graeme Greene, he's always good - but, ah, but reading, you know, a thriller or the stuff I didn't normally read. And, ah, so, ah, I was very grateful for this job in the bush or this ...

But you came back with the intention of ordination, and you'd had a break.

Yes.

Was it a more considered decision that you made to leave ... then?

Yes. Then I knew for a couple of months that I couldn't, ah, continue, but I kept praying and hoping it'd work. But I fell exactly [sic] into the same hole, where I was totally ineffectual. Then I went to the rector of the seminary, a Monsignor Madden, and told him that I couldn't in, you know, in conscience proceed.

What did he say? This was two weeks before your ordination.

Ah, this, this time it was some time before the ordination. The year before it'd been two weeks before. And he, ah, um, well, his attitude was a mixture of sympathetic and high dudgeon. He told me that I had shown a lot of irresponsibility in the past year, you know. Ah, he cited a football match in which I'd played, in which, ah, he, you know, he - if you were going to be ordained, you shouldn't play football and get injured.

And I'd been heavily tackled and I wasn't in great health, and I'd been heavily tackled and I landed on my hip, and it was so sickening that I was sick on the side of the paddock. And he'd seen this, and he thought it was very irresponsible of me to have put myself in the way of such tackles. So of course, since I was irresponsible, I was probably not fit.

And, ah, he said it would be very difficult to get a dispensation, because you acquire, when you become a deacon, you acquire the obligation of celibacy and so on, so I was still under that obligation, and was conscious in the past year, out in the bush, of being - and elsewhere - of being conscious of that obligation.

And he, ah, sent, um, to, to Rome and got a dispensation, which dispensed me from having to say the Daily Office, and from celibacy, and, um, I went forth. Now you'd think that the first thing you'd do is, um, go to some great orgiastic party, but in fact, that's not what happens. You, you are so demoralised that, ah, there's going to be a few years of readjustment.

How did you get over it? Did you get any sort of psychiatric help, or did you just recover?

Well, the seminary didn't, ah, ah, approve of, of psychiatric help, but they did ultimately, ah, send me, ah, at my expense, to a, um, Catholic psychiatrist. And I had a few sessions with him. And he, he was a bloke who'd been through all the conflicts that I'd been through, so he gave me a little booklet, written by some sane theologian, and it was about the ultimate ineffectuality of the will, you know, the - there's great stress on will-power in overcoming everything.

Will-power plus grace equals omnipotence, you know. Um, and, ah, it, it was a revelation, because it showed me that, ah, my whole approach had been based on an undue belief in the will, which is a kind of, um, of arrogance. It, it is, of course, the will is enormously important in writing fiction no less than any other occupation on earth.

But, um, it's good for getting jobs like a book written, but it's not necessarily the way to recover from um, the, the scrupulous obsession, or from alcoholism, which I didn't have, but obviously will-power doesn't work with ah, alcoholism and so it ...

Or what sounds like a total existential crisis that you'd been through.

Oh, abs- ... yes, I suppose it was. It's a very flash way of describing my problem, but I suppose it was, yes. And, ah, so ah, I, I felt that I'd - however that I'd failed the church, and I felt that I'd failed my parents, and I pretended to be a full believer for longer than I actually was, because the tides of belief ran out, too. Um, the belief in, um, the sacraments and so on, because they came, in my view, they - at that stage, they came from ah, merely functional hands, not from the hands of people who, um, ah, well, not from loving hands, you know.

So I, um, I, I became ...

Disillusioned. You were thoroughly disillusioned.

Mm, yeah. And of course, indulgent, as all - self-indulgent, as all people with obsessive tendencies are. But, ah, I remember what - I was both guilty and enraged and what made me enraged was that when I was leaving with no resources and no money after more than six years, I asked the rector for a reference, to say that I'd, you know, hadn't created mayhem, had been a good student, etcetera, etcetera.

And he said, "Oh, the church doesn't give references". And at that stage, that Jack Lang Labor tradition in me surged forth, and secretly I said, "Well, bugger you. You know, you are an unjust man". And, um, that ah, was a source of possibly too much rage in me. Um, and of course, the rage may have been self-indulgent too, because it might have, um, it might have masked my own ah, failures of temperament and of, you know, mind.

But, ah, in any case, um, I, I felt pretty much, ah, more than at any time in my life a fringe dweller when I left, and, and, you know, you were a bit - and the big question is, do you get a job immediately - and it was important psychologically for me to get a job immediately - or do you study? Do you go to university as a - you know, six years behind everyone else?

And I'd - at that stage, didn't have the resources to go to university. I went on reading, and, ah, I started writing and, um, I got a couple of short stories published by ah, John O'Grady ah, it's the, it's the O'Grady who now lives in Italy and, ah, in The Bulletin -

Under a pseudonym.

Under a pseudonym, and this made me very - this really gave me ideas above my station. This gave me hope.

That you could be a writer?

Yes, that I could find a place on a fairly, at that stage, uninhabitable earth.

[end of tape]

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