Life

A foundering relationship between the author and her sister prompts a painful reflection on upbringing, British colonialism and the patriarchy, and examines how their entrenched structures can become the ties that divide. By Alison Croggon.

Into the breach

Alison Croggon in Cornwall, aged about five.
Credit: Supplied

Here we are, raised in a tiny pocket of this gigantic project, the genocidal con job that was the British Empire. The connections aren’t simple to trace, even though they are pervasive. They’re invisible but palpable, like the air that is insensibly filling with carbon dioxide, slowly at first, but now faster and faster, turning up the heat on the tiny, fragile bell jar that is our planet. I can step back and see the effects; I can see the damage that is written on us. But cause and effect? They are skewed, slant, indirect, multiple.

The logic of it. I feel it in my being, this habit of mind we were raised with, the thoughts that close and direct perception, that keep us from the real. It’s the double bind that proves to women that they are inferior to men, that proves to brown and Black people that they are inferior to white people. It’s the logic of colonialism, a kind of deadly algorithm in which the larger patterns are reproduced in ever smaller iterations ad infinitum.

I stare at the beautiful, hypnotic images of Mandelbrot fractals, images generated by algorithms in sequences that I don’t understand. Some animations continually increase the magnification, leading the eye into a dizzying abyss, down into the same, and then the same again and the same again. All the way in, from Clive of India through newspaper reports to taunts at school to the primordial quarrels of our splintered, alienated middle-class British Australian family.

But we aren’t mathematics; or if we are, our relationships are ruled by variables that are beyond any present computation. a doesn’t equal x. The debacle that is our sisterhood isn’t a simple mirror of what our family did to the people they brutalised. It’s not that I’m enlightened and decolonised and she is endarkened and still colonised. Always, those binaries.

Who I am is so deeply conditioned by the culture in which I was raised that I don’t believe that I will ever escape it: I am a painful work in progress, apt to failure. I can only, as I once heard said kindly of an acquaintance, do my best. And the truth is that often my best isn’t very good.

 

When I think of the breach that happened between me and my sister, it all seems – it all is – so irredeemably trivial. There’s no totalising trauma that explains everything, no single catastrophe or series of events that might give this narrative a shocking centre from which can radiate the desired paths of sorrow and expiation. Compared with most people, we have been so very fortunate: there are the ordinary tragedies of a middle-class, white family, but they are not reinforced by the racism and classism that are the sorting tools of the empire. (Sexism, sure: I’ve encountered that, sometimes in ways that make me shake with rage. I recognise my own scars in those of other women. I recognise them in all my sisters, in my daughter, my mother, my friends, in contemporary accounts and histories. But those other structural injuries? No. They do not belong to us.)

I don’t know how to explain the relentless, exhausting, traumatic tedium that was the bare ground of our relationship. It continues to be a continual low-grade disaster that just keeps happening, over and over again. I have simply absented myself from the arena, but that hasn’t stopped any of it happening.

 

We are both the product of a machine that has spent centuries concealing its violence, that pours countless resources into disguising its greed for resources and power as an exercise in human progress. And I don’t doubt that we both find ourselves bewildered in its aftermath. The question we both have to face is whether we will continue the lie that divides the world along binary axes — good/bad, men/women, white/black, right/wrong, guilty/innocent. To protect those binaries, we do violence to ourselves and to each other. It’s profoundly infected our relationship: in order for her to be good, I have to be bad; in order for her to be right, I have to be wrong.

For so many years I thought there was a middle way. For so many years I thought that we merely misunderstood each other, that if we could only speak clearly then we would begin to understand, to negotiate each other’s complexities. When she hurt or embarrassed me, we all laughed it off as her famous tactlessness. And maybe, once upon a time, it was no more than carelessness.

We were careless, of ourselves and of each other. We didn’t know how to care; we just assumed that we did. We were siblings fighting each other for attention, and there was never enough attention, because parents are only human, because parents are sometimes absent, because parents sometimes let us down. Sisters together, negotiating ideas of womanhood that we barely understood. Sisters who only knew each other and ourselves as the people we assumed we were, unthinkingly suspended in the cosmos that we were born into, that was already broken, that we thought was the shape of the whole world because it was the only world we knew.

There was a time when our relationship wasn’t beyond repair. I’m sure this is true. Or maybe I’m unwilling to accept that this was determined from the beginning, that once the pattern was set (and the pattern was there before we were born) and once the damage occurred (and the damage happened when we were too young to do anything about it) everything else was inevitable.

She knows so little about me. She barely knows me at all. But I have listened to her for years, all those decades until I stopped pretending that we had a conversation. It’s so hard to trace when it tipped. Change happens so insensibly, so slowly, and suddenly you are standing on a burning planet, watching the birds fall dead out of the sky.

I have words. From the forums, the pop-psychology articles. I’ve used some already. It helps a little, but also it doesn’t. It explains nothing. It just gives me a few words that, in the way of words, are as imprisoning as they are illuminating. They don’t explain things in the ways I need them to be explained. I need to comprehend how I too am part of this pattern, I need to understand the shapes of our common brutalisation, I need to see how our differences are enmeshed in much wider social pathologies.

I need to understand in this larger way so I can unpick the minutiae of my own psyche. I need to understand my own unhappiness and culpability. I need to know how not to reproduce this pattern, how to break it. I know that if I don’t learn how to see these things, I can’t properly perceive my own joy.

There is much in my life that is joyous, so many people and things that bring grace and beauty and delight. This writing isn’t about joy, but joy comprehends everything that matters. Everything.

Edited extract from Monsters: a reckoning by Alison Croggon (Scribe).

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 20, 2021 as "Into the breach".

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Alison Croggon is The Saturday Paper’s arts editor.