The First Stone – Helen Garner

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I am a long-time fan of Helen Garner so it is perhaps surprising that it has taken me so long to read The First Stone, published in 1995. But the truth is I’ve been avoiding it.

The First Stone explores a sexual harassment case brought by two undergraduate law students against the Master of Ormond College, one of the on-campus residential colleges at Melbourne university. The alleged indecent assaults happened at a college party in 1992.

At that time, I had only recently graduated from Melbourne university myself and had not long been out of the campus college environment so the time and experience were very close to the bone for me. I also know that Garner copped a huge amount of criticism from many people, particularly feminists, some of whom she says have never forgiven her.

So it was interesting to finally sit down and see what all the fuss was about. The basics of the case are that one of the women had, during a party, been invited back to the office of Colin Shepherd, the Ormond master, where he had touched her and tried to kiss her. The other girl said that Shepherd had touched her breasts on the dance floor.

Unlike her other notable real crime books, Garner unfortunately shot herself in the foot with this one by writing to Shepherd when his case was made public, telling him how sorry she was that he had been dragged through the court for such a trivial matter. Her words to him were:

“What I want to say is that it’s heartbreaking, for a feminist of nearly fifty like me, to see our ideals of so many years distorted into this ghastly punitiveness.”

With these words she was given full access to Dr Shepherd and his story, and almost no access at all to the girls’ side of the story. So this account is necessarily a one-sided view. Initially reading this, it is not hard to see what so riled the younger generation of feminists. She is dismissive of the charges against Shepherd, not that they happened but that they went to court. Garner believed that the matter could have been managed, if not without police input, at least the involvement of the courts. The answer is of course that the girls did try to get resolution via the college, but failed. Garner also could not understand why one of the girls said Mr Shepherd’s actions made her feel like a ‘worthless’ sex object. She questioned whether the woman would have felt less worthless if Shepherd had been a younger man:

“Or is worthless sexual object just a rhetorical flourish, a bit of feminist sabre-rattling on behalf of a young woman who has not taken the responsibility of learning to handle the effects, on men, of her beauty and her erotic style of self-presentation?”

These words, which angered feminists at the time, seem positively from the dark ages now. But it did remind me of how times have changed and that at the time, the attitude of women bringing unwanted attention on themselves was certainly prevalent, if not among the radical feminists on the Melbourne uni campus at that time, then at least among the rest of the population.

But one of the key issues in this case for me was the power balance – Shepherd was the Master of the college and therefore had the power to expel both girls if he chose. He had discussed the application to the college of one girl’s sister, and the other had been in trouble with him more than once. So for me the power he had over them completely changes the filter on this story. Its surprising Garner didn’t make more of this – the subtitle of the book is ‘some questions of sex and power’.

But before casting the book aside in disgust, I kept reading and was glad I did, because there were no winners in this story. Shepherd’s career was destroyed as the establishment turned on one of its own. The girls reputedly suffered health problems for a long time afterwards. But Garner also explores the bind that women find themselves in, the enduring question of, ‘well, why didn’t you just slap him?’, a question in my experience mainly directed at women by ‘well-meaning’ men. Garner answers that one herself, with her own disturbing anecdote, ‘We all know why,’ she writes. ‘Because as Nicole’s friend said angrily in court, all we want to do when a man makes a sleazy cloddish pass is ‘to be polite and get away’. I think that response is something most women will relate to. It is only later, when the shock has subsided, that women wish they had acted differently.

Garner argues that women, especially those of her age, grew used to handling sleazy men, that they felt sorry for them, but would never have reported them, even had there been someone who would have listened. She dislikes the ‘victim’ mentality of the feminism that had developed around the early 90s. She says there’s a path that might be followed here ‘but puritan feminists prefer to ignore it.’ Garner believes that the freedom women demand to be able to walk around at any time of day, wearing whatever clothes they like, also brings with it a responsibility, as do all freedoms. Its a hard line and one I really struggle to accept, but it is a question still being debated today.

Much of what Garner said in this book made me angry but she is so thought-provoking and writes with such honesty that the questions she raises really made me think about feminism.  And she’s also grindingly honest about her own emotions and actions, even the bad ones. Or perhaps I am more open to this because many years have passed since those days and I can view them with less emotion.  But I do wonder where we would be now if some women had not taken the hard road and dragged their cases into the courts. Perhaps it is because of these women, we are in a better place now than we were 25 years ago. Hardliners will still hate and reject what Garner has got to say, but she firmly believes that airing these questions is better than trying to silence them in the name of feminism.