I know what you’re thinking. “Hannah, what’s with all the non fiction?” Fair call, because for the most part non fiction is a bit tedious, but in my defence I’m not studying this year, and fear that my brain may stop working if I don’t read anything factual. Secondly, I was able to actually meet the legendary (in my eyes at least) Helen Garner, who wrote The First Stone over twenty years ago. Still not convinced? The First Stone is still bang-on in 2013 as it was in 1992.
The First Stone follows two sexual harassment cases brought against the Master of Ormond College – who was being charged for essentially groping and hitting on two young women who were living at the college at the time. Ormond College, considered one of the most prestigious colleges in Melbourne, helped fuel the fire that led to the cases being heavily reported by the media. Although the Master was judged as not guilty, he eventually lost his role at Ormond College and subsequently was unable to find a job thereafter.
What was the major controversy of the case was that it created a divide in opinions. Many women, self-appointed as feminists, believed that the women had every right to go to the police and regain the position of power. However, many others, including Helen Garner, believed that not only was the Master treated unfairly, but that the girls grossly over-reacted – after all, it was just a grope, right?
To add more to the mix, the two women refused to be interviewed or to even get in contact with Helen Garner while she was writing The First Stone, and thus critics argued that the book was unfairly bias and anti-feminism. Needless to say, it caused quite a stir.
What I liked about The First Stone is that it raised a series of questions and arguments that are still as relevant and under scrutiny today as they were 20 years ago. Amongst those were power, what feminism truly is, and what should be constituted as sexual assault, and what is simply bad behaviour.
One interesting point that Garner refers to numerous times is the lack of power that most women feel when they are faced with unwanted sexual advances. For any woman reading this book, I’m sure you know what it is like to be hit on by a sleaze, to feel unwelcome advances, to feel degraded or just, quite simply, to be annoyed by something who doesn’t know when to stop. And yet how often have you told someone to just back the hell off? Almost never? So why? Is it fear of looking self-centred or stupid? Is it an ingrained sense of grace and manners?
In regards to the case in The First Stone, the barrister asks one of the girls ‘Why didn’t you just slap ‘im?” Why indeed. I’m sure if more of us had the nerve to tell someone that what they’re doing is unacceptable, less unacceptable behaviour would be going on. But at the same time, why is it our responsibility to control other people’s anti-social behaviour?
On the other hand, Garner also brings up the right of responsibility, that to have freedom we have to be responsible for ourselves. This really struck me as relevant, particularly in regards to the Jill Meagher case that occurred around 12 months ago here in Melbourne. The case (Jill was walking home late one evening when she was horrifically raped and then murdered) sparked a fiery debate of what women deserve throughout the country. While some women argued that anyone, regardless of sex, age or looks, should be able to walk down the street at any time of night unafraid, others argued that we all have our responsibilities – including that of protecting ourselves. So, in turn, should these girls have stood up for themselves, or is this just an example of victim blaming?
Finally, possibly the biggest theme that Garner discusses in The First Stone is that of feminism, and what it means ‘to be a feminist’. For something that seems quite straight forward, it has amassed a number of arguments, points of views and positions in the past twenty years. Throughout the process of writing The First Stone, Garner was continually being attacked for not automatically siding with the women – and in fact, actually wanting to know both sides of the stories (including that of the accused).
Personally, I view feminism as something that is pretty black and white. It’s the viewpoint that everyone, regardless or gender, should be treated equally in aspects that don’t have anything to do with their sex. Education, money, occupations etc. It does not mean viewing men as evil or terrible human beings. There ARE men that are terrible human beings, sure, but I’m pretty sure that goes for women as well. Remember Cruella De Vil? Would you REALLY want to side with her in an argument solely because she has a vagina?
In short, I hope I haven’t ruined The First Stone for you by going too much into the different themes and ideas that Garner brings up, because it’s a really great book that I recommend everyone reads – particularly someone who views themselves as a feminist. As always, Garner’s writing is flawless and enthralling, and I swear I’m not just saying that because when I met her she asked me (and this is a quote), “are you a writer?”
Have you read The First Stone or any other works by Helen Garner? What is your view on feminism? Let me know!