For a Girl
In her memoir For a Girl, Mary-Rose MacColl quotes the American poet Louise Bogan. “No woman should be shamefaced in attempting to give back to the world, through her art, a portion of its lost heart.” It’s apt, because throughout her harrowing story, MacColl is conscious of the “why’” of this book. Why is she telling complete strangers these most intimate and awful things? “I am by nature a private person,” she says, and later, “I am struggling here for I want most of all to be truthful.” She is hesitant to write about some things, she admits. “How can I hope to make someone else understand?”
For much of the story, though, it’s MacColl herself who doesn’t understand much of what has happened to her. When she was 15, she was groomed and abused by her teacher and by her teacher’s husband. It starts with small gifts and visiting the teacher at home and sophisticated dinners, and soon escalates. In a terrible act – though she’s pointedly reluctant to call it rape – at 18 she becomes pregnant to the husband and gives up the baby for adoption without a thought for the girl’s welfare. For a Girl is about the ripples of this act throughout her life, and how it affects the way she mothers her son some two decades later.
MacColl is an award-winning novelist yet she doesn’t seek to soften her story with deathless prose, and she doesn’t spare herself either. The book is simple in style and confessional in tone and, in parts, seems like penance. It’s this lack of self-pity that makes For a Girl so compelling, but it’s the glimpse into a mind striving to be objective that makes it important. MacColl’s rationalisations capture the way abuse twists one’s sense of self in a way that no random act of violence ever could. “I will not call myself a victim,” she says, as if she’s lived a different story entirely from the one she’s telling. She admits, “I wanted desperately to believe I had agency, choice.”
She had neither, of course. She was hopelessly betrayed.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is due to report this year but it’s stories such as MacColl’s that show the real cost, both to individuals and across generations. If readers truly fail to understand the psychological damage that abuse causes, it won’t be the fault of MacColl or this heartbreaking book. LS
Allen & Unwin, 280pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 22, 2017 as "Mary-Rose MacColl, For a Girl". Subscribe here.