By Mary-Rose MacCollNon-fiction Allen & Unwin
For a Girl: A True Story of Secrets, Motherhood and Hope
Emerging from an unconventional, boisterously happy childhood, Mary-Rose MacColl was a rebellious teenager. And when, at the age of 15, her high-school teacher and her husband started inviting Mary-Rose to spend time with them, her parents were pleased that she now had the guidance she needed to take her safely into young adulthood.
It wasn't too long, though, before the teacher and her husband changed the nature of the relationship with overwhelming consequences for Mary-Rose. Consequences that kept her silent and ashamed through much of her adult life. Many years later, safe within a loving relationship, all of the long-hidden secrets and betrayals crashed down upon her and she came close to losing everything.
In this poignant and brave true story, Mary-Rose brings these secrets to the surface and, in doing so, is finally able to watch them float away.
Mary-Rose MacColl’s For a Girl is a lyrical and profound meditation on the secrets we keep, a particular kind of hell that lives just under the surface of suburban Australia, and the ways that children can (and do) change everything.
Australia’s history of adoption practices is a dark one, and MacColl does an incredible job of tracing her own experience inside a system that has little to no empathy for young women who are pregnant and unmarried (we say this in present tense, because the stigma remains). Alongside this narrative, MacColl interrogates the ways that abusive power relations play into sexual assault, while moving constantly back into the present to describe a life of love and struggle lived with her child and her partner.
This is a book that has the power to make a reader weep, and its poetic sensibilities and flickering narratives are beautifully fluent. Moving, readable, this is a book that stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page.
When our son Otis was tiny we lived in the gentle university neighbourhood of St Lucia in Brisbane, in a seventies town- house with soaring ceilings and a balcony that overlooked a bushland park. A butcherbird perched on our railing and sang most mornings, mournful or joyful, depending more on the listener than the bird. Two frogmouths, mother and baby, spent their days in the tree outside Otis’s bedroom in his first months in the world. Frogmouths are nightjars, related to owls, wise. I thought they could keep him safe.
On weekends we’d put Otis in his all-terrain stroller and walk along Hawken Drive to the university for gelati from the Pizza Caffe above the Schonell Theatre. One Sunday, when Otis was not quite two, we met up with my husband David’s sister Lisa who was off to London to live. We’d had our gelati and Otis had coated his shirt in chocolate and mango. Now he was running around on the grass.
When it was time to go home, I called Otis and then, when he didn’t come, chased after him. I picked him up under the arms, his little legs still running through air in the way of busy toddlers. I sat him in his stroller and rolled up his shirt, the gelati now melted and cold on his tummy. I strapped him into his stroller and he screamed.
At first I thought he was objecting to the restraint and I started to be stern. I wanted Lisa, who’d just finished a PhD in psych, to think well of me, to see me as a mother who set limits. Then I saw I had pinched his belly in the stroller clip. I undid the strap and picked him up and held him. He cried for half an hour. It left a claret-coloured bruise that lasted two weeks.
When we arrived home, I went upstairs to the bathroom and shut myself in. My right leg was shaking, the long thigh muscle in painful spasm. I slumped against the door to keep myself upright. The shaking spread to my pelvis, belly, left leg. I fell to the floor. Noises came from me, a low moan, a louder cry. My teeth were chattering, making the cries come out in an odd staccato. If it weren’t so terrifying, it might have been funny.
David knocked on the bathroom door to ask what was wrong. I had been quiet on the way home. I told him to leave me alone. I screamed at him to leave me alone.
After some time—I don’t know how long—I came out of the bathroom. I had no idea what had happened. The next day, I felt as if I’d run a marathon. Every muscle in my body ached.
In the weeks that followed, I told myself I’d been upset because I hurt my little boy. Any mother would feel bad about hurting her child. I told David. I told friends. You know what it’s like being a mother? I said. They didn’t quite understand, I could tell. They had felt bad for accidentally hurting their children but not like this.
When Otis came into my life, I understood abundance. His birth: I have never felt so powerful and exposed and exultant. David was there, my friend Louise. Afterwards I was buoyed by a community of friends and relatives who shared in our joy of new life; even people we hardly knew looked upon us with joy in their own eyes. Otis was perfect and he made me feel perfect. Nothing of the drudgery of the weeks and months that followed could extinguish that light of joy, and whatever I have faced since cannot touch it. In Otis’s first months in the world there was enough joy for a lifetime.
At the hospital where I gave birth, I heard one midwife call to another that the woman in Room 2, me, was an elderly primip. Elderly is used to describe any woman over thirty-five—the obstetricians who make up these terms being noted for their sensitivity—and primip is short for primipara, from the Latin primus, first, and para, to bring forth. To those midwives, to most people I knew, I was a forty-one-year-old woman giving birth for the first time.
Gail Sher says that writers, by doubt, enter the way of writing. I wouldn’t have described myself as elderly at forty- one, and I wasn’t primiparous when Otis was about to be born. I had given birth twenty-three years before, to a baby I named Ruth. No one knew. Baby Ruth was a secret because of other secrets, much darker than the birth of an unplanned child in those disco days of the 1980s. When I pinched Otis in the stroller clip, baby Ruth came back, demanding to be grieved, and with her came the secrets I had kept for so long.
I am by nature a private person. Secrets are different from privacy. They are things you are forced to keep to yourself, by family, friends, by your own shame. Secrets like these come to the surface one day and demand an airing. If you don’t allow them air, you will not go on. They will drag you back down with them. You will die, slowly or quickly.
If you allow them the air, bring them up into the light, they float away.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist