Groping in the dark

Why didn't she slap 'im, asks Amanda Mitchison; The First Stone by Helen Garner, Bloomsbury, pounds 6.99

This brave, thoughtful and politically incorrect book about sexual harassment has stirred considerable debate in Australia and looks set to annoy as many people in Britain. It should be required reading on every women's studies course, not only because the case it investigates took place in a university, but also since the book examines the relatively uncharted conflict between the Nineties version of feminism and the older, Sixties outlook. Also, the method Garner uses to argue her case is innovative, introspective and intensely "feminine".

In August 1992, the master of Ormond College, an old and distinguished residential college in Melbourne, is charged in court with indecently assaulting a female student. The young woman says he put his hand on her breast at a college dance. Later, a second charge of indecent assault is brought after another student claims that she too had been propositioned by the master in his room on the same night. The master, although eventually acquitted, has to resign. His family are devastated, his character assassinated; he becomes virtually unemployable. The women are also traumatised by the experience, and feelings start to run high in the college.

Helen Garner, a 51-year-old novelist, and part of the Sixties old guard of Australian feminism, reads of the case and is shocked. All this over some accusations of nerdish behaviour by a middle-aged man in his cups at a party. It seems so out of proportion.

She starts to investigate. The two young women refuse to speak to her, and their absence is a major flaw. But Garner brings other skills to the work, and broadens the scope of her inquiry. She isn't all that interested in whether the unwelcome passes were in fact made or not, and, although she portrays the master sympathetically, her working assumption is that something untoward upset the two women. The event itself diminishes into the background. What concerns Garner is why the women were so very, very angry, well beyond the scale of the injury they had allegedly received. Why couldn't they deal with it themselves? Why did they have to resort to such a blunt instrument as the law?

The case turns out to be a quagmire. People behave fallibly and are quickly embroiled in rigid proceduralism and dogma. Garner also sets about describing the college: its patrician self-confidence, its male fraternity atmosphere, the web of intermediaries and counsellors, the authority figures who, before the women resorted to the police, had spent six months in a private internal investigation before absolving the master.

Her writing is highly personal, including snippets of conversation with friends as well as formal interviews and memories from her own youth. It is a reportorial style that allows for what couldn't be said in court, or during the college investigation. Garner refers to body language and tone of voice, hidden assumptions and atmospheric shifts. This is the territory on which so much of the conflict between women and men is played out, and where our attention focuses, now that debates in feminism have moved from overt discrimination into knottier areas such as sex and power at work.

In the courtroom, the QC asks one of the young women "why didn't you slap 'im?" Garner explores at length this "strange passivity" that overcomes so many women in similar circumstances, due partly to disbelief, partly to fear, and perhaps above all to a desire for things to run smoothly at any cost.

Of course, in an ideal world, if the two women had not reacted at the time, they would have either simply shrugged the whole matter off or waited until the following day, visited the master and demanded an apology. But this, as Garner points out, "demands a fundamental generosity, a self- confidence, an absence of fear". In Ormond this never happened.

Of the mass of circumstances that led to the trial in Melbourne, some were particular to Ormond. The underlying factors, though, have recurred in other cases. The young women's anger was perhaps caused by their feeling of powerlessness, their own extraordinary passivity at the time, or their belief that this time someone should make a stand. The general climate of modern feminism also contributes its bit. As Garner observes: "The daily papers are full of outrages against women ... to draw ethical conclusions, to point out gradations of offence, to suggest that women were in possession of untapped power is now an act of treachery."

At Ormond, there has been talk now of making sexual relations between staff and students illegal. Of course no one wants to encourage lecturers to sleep with their students, but this type of stern talk is hardly helpful. We cannot, as Garner argues so evocatively, allow feminism to become such a joyless and fearful affair. We cannot disallow flirtation. We cannot banish the little god Eros, which she describes as "flickering and flashing through the plod of our ordinary working lives". We have lost something, Garner concludes: our sense of play, of perspective and - yes, what we were always warned of - our sense of humour.

Arts and Entertainment
James Hewitt has firmly denied being Harry’s father

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?