Portrait

Ruth Clare on her haunted Vietnam veteran father. By Chris Flynn.

‘Enemy’ author Ruth Clare

At a certain point in Ruth Clare’s memoir Enemy, I thought, “She’s not going to make it.” Then I remembered that I’d been introduced to her a few weeks prior and she appeared to be breathing, though I couldn’t swear to it. I was distracted at the time by the sudden appearance in the bar of the Workaholics cast, an American comedy show. I had just binge-watched four seasons.

Our second meeting is in the Wesley Anne, a pub built in Melbourne’s Northcote in 1854 as a Methodist church. She sits by the door in the afternoon sun, cradling a cider and a collection of short stories, still very much alive. The first thing I ask is if she ever thought she would die at the hands of her father.

“No,” she says, somewhat taken aback, “things were never that bad.”

“You don’t think what happened to you was that bad?”

“Not really. Sometimes I felt guilty writing about it at all because so many people have had it much worse.”

Given the difficulties Clare faced as a child, a teenager and a young adult, such modesty is admirable. Enemy is the harrowing story of her mental and physical torture at the hands, and sometimes fists, of her haunted Vietnam veteran father. The cascading effect of war on the children of returning servicemen has been little documented, and the recent release of Clare’s book has opened a Pandora’s box of similar stories.

“I’ve been approached by many children of veterans, not just from Vietnam, but other conflicts, too, going back as far as World War I. They all found similarities with my experience, especially the camping story.”

When Clare’s father takes his wife and three kids on their annual Easter camping trip to Emu Park, 45 kilometres north-east of the family home in Rockhampton, the first two hours upon arrival are spent erecting a massive ex-army tent. This operation is conducted with military precision, as if the Callums have just been dropped by helicopter into a war zone. Clare recounts how readers have confessed their own brand of PTSD-induced family manias, ranging from strict silence maintained at night to mealtime rules and being shouted at, drill sergeant-style.

Throughout the book, Clare anguishes over how much her father’s aggression and unresolved issues have affected her not only as an adult but as a mother. She has two children, now aged eight and five, and one of the most disturbing incidents in the book is when her young son begins to strike his mother during tantrums, instantly bringing back memories of her father’s blows. Even more galling is when, after years of therapy, she confronts her father about his abuse and he cannot remember any of it.

“It was so frustrating, but what could I do? I wasn’t going to let him define me, so I had to move on.”

Clare has a degree in biochemistry minoring in journalism, which she has never used. On the day we meet, she is wearing an emerald cardigan and a wonderful flowing white skirt, splashed with impressionistic daubs of colour. Her gait, poise and flawless skin hint at her former career, as an actress.

The showreel on Clare’s website is informative and self-mocking. Among the bit parts in film and on stage she had a 13-episode stint on Neighbours, and appeared in a slew of commercials, most hilariously as the front woman on a GlaxoSmithKline STD advertisement. Like one in eight Australian men and women, she has genital herpes ... See your doctor, get this facts pack.

Acting jobs were few and far between, so eventually she changed tack. She now runs a successful graphic design business with her husband, Matt, and does not hesitate in speaking her mind. “There’s a bit of one-upmanship that can go on when people tell stories from their childhood,” she rolls her eyes. “ ‘My story is worse than yours’ sort of thing. Beware, though. Writing a memoir is not necessarily the solution to your problems.”

The challenges and pitfalls of documenting one’s own life in a book may be a topic for our age, but any further discussion is drowned out by an earnest young man and his guitar, who has set up next to us at the entrance to the pub. Unable to hear each other speak over his plaintive wailing, we part company to the sounds of a mournful, irritating cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”. Daylight saving has just ended, and night has fallen early.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 18, 2016 as "War wounds". Subscribe here.

Chris Flynn
is an author. His most recent novel is The Glass Kingdom.

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