Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
George Orwell 1984
I read on social media that my Uncle had just died. Another ‘good bloke’ gone to meet his maker. What tales would they tell about him at his wake? Not the beatings and the rapes, not the abandonment of a young mother and child in a country he occupied. He is like all the other ‘good blokes’ in my extended family; the pedophile with a plaque dedicating a park and playground to him for his ‘good works,’ the murderer who killed his wife and three children before shooting himself, the football hero who imprisoned and beat his wife for two days, the arsonist who burnt down a house out of spite, all ‘good blokes,’ or so the stories that are told about them claim.
I imagine the mourners at my Uncle’s wake will regale each other with tales of mateship and bravado. We do not speak ill of the dead, so no one will challenge his ‘good bloke’ status by speaking of the horrors endured by his victims. Even if some are present, they will not tell their story for fear of ridicule, disbelief or accusations of madness. The stories of the victims continue to be buried with the perpetrators, unless we make a safe space for their telling.
My mother was who women in my family told their stories too. Over the years she told me many of those stories. But even she didn’t know them all; some stories never find a listener.
As a child she would say to her visiting woman friends, ‘little pigs have big ears,’ and my sisters and I would be sent outside to play, so we couldn’t overhear the Womantalk; the secret, sad and shocking stories of their lives.
As teenagers many of us were the subject of Womantalk, but telling our own stories was rarely an option. Victims were shamed into silence, suppressed by the threat of violence or sent away. In the 1970’s the time for advocacy was well overdue. The second wave of feminism had risen in the form of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and feminists were not only telling their stories publicly, they were acting on them, demanding law reform, the provision of Women’s health and information services and equal rights. Their stories had been kept secret long enough. Breaking the silence around issues of violence against women was a political act, a catalyst for achieving justice for women.
I became privy to many women’s stories while working in Australia’s newly created Rape Crisis Centres and Women’s Refuges in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It was here I learnt that every woman who came through the door had a story to tell, and often it was similar to the stories of the women who worked in the centres. I read Germaine Greer and Anne Summers seminal books, The Female Eunuch and Damned Whores and God’s Police, to gain a framework in understanding the oppression of Women as a class. With my feminist sisters I sang American song writer, Holly Near’s song Fight Back, at demonstrations:
‘Women all around the world,
every colour religion or age,
one thing we got in common,
we can all be battered and raped,
We can all be battered and raped.
And so we gotta fight back,
In large numbers,
I can’t make it alone,
In large numbers,
Together we can make a safe home.
Together we can make a safe home.’
My belief in the power of women as a force for political change emboldened me to tell my own story and advocate for the right of others to tell theirs. However it would be many years before I understood how best to advocate for myself.
While the foundation of my belief system is grounded in Feminism, I discovered that the oral telling of traditional folktales was a creative and exciting medium for expressing those beliefs. It did not take me long to find tales of wily women and clever girls. Sheroes. These were the stories I needed to hear, and thereby reasoned that others did too. Storyteller, Gill Di Stefano became my friend and mentor, and together we worked on stories of empowerment.
For the past thirty years I have told folktales, not the personal stories of women from my work in Women’s Services. Aside from the ethics of sharing another’s story in a context they are not aware of, I choose to tell folktales because they are the stories of the people, all people. They are our global inheritance. The joy of working with traditional stories is that there is a story for every purpose. They are a mirror reflecting our humanity, or lack of it. My task is to find the right story to tell at the right time to the right audience!
I am often asked why I became a storyteller, and for many years I gave explanations about the application of oral storytelling in the promotion of cultural diversity, literacy, oral traditions, education and communication. All valid reasons that I still subscribe too. However, one day I answered without thinking; because I want to be heard.
The most important validation any storyteller can receive is to be listened to. A story does not live without a listener. For centuries folktales have travelled from from tongue to ear and in recent times been written down, only to leap off the page and continue their journey with a new generation of tellers. Some stories have died with the tellers, and others have been resurrected and given new meaning.
Storytellers, Bettina Nissen and Harriet Mason said respectively, ‘ All stories are personal,’ and ‘If you want to be heard you will be.’ I have taken these words to heart, allowing them to guide me on my storytelling path. This is why I tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood.
This ‘protection’ story is a metaphorical tool for understanding power within society. It is also a story of empowerment with active agency by the girl. Unlike the reality for many victims of violence, a folktale has clear delineation of good and evil, goodness prevails and justice is dispensed. Little Red Riding Hood is not blamed for the wolf’s attack and the wolf is not free to attack again. End of story.
Given that so many women have loosed their stories upon the world, how is it that there is not an end to violence, in all its forms? Have they not been listened to? Have their stories been twisted into fantasies, buried or ignored?
While I have breath in my body, fire in my belly and a song in my heart, I am beholden to tell the stories of ‘the poor mother,’ ‘the hungry girl,’ ‘the foolish boy,’ ‘the abandoned baby,’ so that they may rise to the surface of our consciousness and be a torch to light our humanity and promote civil and compassionate societies.
Photo by Roman W. Schatz