When her father died in 1983, Germaine Greer realized how little she knew about him. What had happened during World War II to make this charming but distant man draw a “curtain of silence” around himself? Why had he never spoken of his family? Why had he never shown her the love she craved? In this deeply moving book, Greer tells of the impassioned search she made for the truth about her father—a search that led her to a new understanding of herself as well.
Her quest lasted three years and took her from England to Australia to Tasmania, India, and Malta; through scores of genealogical, civil, and military archives; and into the memories of the men and women who may—or may not—have known Reg Greer.
Yet the heart of Greer’s narrative is her own emotional journey, as the startling facts behind the façade her father had constructed force her painfully to examine her own notions of truth and loyalty, family and obligation.
Praise for Daddy, We Hardly Knew You
“A big, bold book . . . Ferocious psychic need and volcanic energy drive this combined memoir, detective story and travelogue from first to last.”—The New Yorker
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|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
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Your dangers are many. I Cannot look much but your form suffers Some strange injury
And seems to die: so vapours Ravel to clearness on the dawn sea.
SYLVIA PLATH, 'FULL FATHOM FIVE'
It is silly of me, a middle-aged woman, to call my dead father Daddy. It's not as if I were some giddy heiress anticipating the next instalment of my allowance or Little Orphan Annie learning to get what she wants out of Daddy Warbucks, or yet some southern belle refusing to be her age. My brother and sister called my father Reg, but they knew him better than I did and could permit themselves such familiarity. I always called him Daddy, and much mockery did I take from Mother for doing it. Daddy is a baby's palatal word; the word mother on the other hand is admirably adapted for saying through clenched teeth.
When it would have been appropriate for me to have called my father Daddy, I didn't have the chance. Just when he should have been dandling me on his knee while I searched through his pockets for surprises he went away. He wasn't there to see me turn from being a baby into Daddy's little girl. It was the war he left me for — I knew that much. There was no war in Melbourne. I saw no tanks, no planes, no marching, yet the war was more real to me than many things I had seen. I knew it was there, just out of sight, round a corner, behind the house fronts, ready to burst deafeningly out. I was taken to the movies once but I screamed in such terror at the cartoon that showed aeroplanes with teeth like sharks tearing at each other in the sky that Mother was forced to take me outside. Then I wept so unconsolably that I was never taken to a cinema again. I felt the war had engulfed the whole world, leaving us on a tiny promontory that would soon go under. Daddy was on the other side of the world somewhere trying to hold back the tide. I knew he could never come home on leave, and I wasn't angry or resentful, but I was worried as only children can be. I didn't dare to wish him home. Instead I wished with all my might for the war to end.
This is what I remember. Or rather, this is what I remembered until I found out the truth. Nobody told me any of this, you understand. I was told nothing. I made this all up myself when I was too young to remember that I had made it up. They call it confabulation, when people who are brain-damaged fill the vacancy in their minds with plausible matter, believable but unrelated to the truth. What is written above, dear reader, is such a confabulation. I do not remember the calamity that befell the little girl who made up this stuff; most victims of severe strokes do not remember the precise moment that they were struck down. I could be hypnotised into remembering every snapping strand in my four-year-old heart-break, but there is a limit. I am exhausted now. I can go no further. Some of the keloid must be left in place or my entire personality, gnarled and misshapen as it is, will collapse.
I should have listened when my good friend Jeffrey said, 'You mustn't face up to facts too much. Make little excuses for yourself, for your father.' Not I, I thought stoutly. Now that I see that life is too hard for most people, I regret my thoughtless cruelty. I have been a cow in a china shop, and the result is ruin.
In the last months of his life, when Daddy's anxiety threatened to overwhelm him, he would grow quiet if my little niece was set on his knee. He would sit quite still as she chirped and babbled and dribbled on him, as far as anyone could tell, happy. I like to think that he took her for the me he missed out on, his lost baby girl rescued from the maw of time, come to fill up the blank years that yawn between us.
Daddy did come home of course, But, during the years and years that we lived in the same small house, Daddy never once hugged me. If I put my arms around him he would grimace and pretend to shudder and put me from him. It was a joke, of course, a tiresome, hurtful, relentless, stupid joke. I told myself it was a ritual that Daddy needed to bridge some chasm of anxiety. I clung to the faith that he was not genuinely indifferent to me and did not really find me repulsive, although I never quite succeeded in banishing the fear of such a thing. When I was twelve I read Dombey and Son and cried myself blind every night for a week, but I cried for Florence Dombey and not for myself. I knew Daddy's strangeness was different, to be expected of a man who was forced to abandon a cuddlesome toddler and allowed to come back only when she had become a sharp-faced skinny little girl who scrutinised him intently with his own longsighted eyes. If he had let me under his guard, I should have crept into his heart and found the wound there.
Women are always ready to believe that men love them, despite all appearances to the contrary. I had no grounds for supposing that I was anything but deluded about my father's affection for me, until the last months of Daddy's life. My sister Jane telephoned and told me that he wanted to see me. The call was unexpected and it took me a little time to get my affairs in order and myself to Australia. When I arrived I found that Mother had turned Daddy out of his own house and committed him to a hostel, a shabby weatherboard house where derelicts of one sort or another could be fed and housed two or three to a room in return for their pension cheques, out of which the management would take its profit. When Jane and I arrived the proprietor opened the door in singlet and shorts, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. We found Daddy along with all the other inmates of the hostel, in the 'lounge-room'.
Daddy was sitting in a chair backed up against the wall. A huge television set boomed from a corner, but no one was watching it. They were all too busy cackling, raving, mouthing obscenities, scratching themselves or cursing. Over all hung a miasma of frying fat and the scent of tinned baked beans.
'Daddy!' I croaked. Jane wheeled and fled. In the musty depths of the house I heard a screen door bang as she raced outside and flung herself full-length under a lemon tree to bawl aloud. She didn't see Daddy get courteously to his feet and take my arm as if he had been expecting me all along. We walked out of the cacophony and into the room he had been assigned, which he shared with the occupational therapy equipment. He had with him no possessions whatever except some shabby clothing which seemed to have come from an opportunity shop somewhere. His chequebook lay on top of the nightstand. The last stub showed that he had paid $2,500 to my brother and the balance was nil. He had been stripped and dumped in that awful place for me to find. A smart move, and in every subtle and crazy detail the work of my mother.
Jane and I went into action immediately to see that Daddy was rescued from squalor and humiliation. The Returned Servicemen's League (of which Daddy was not a member) made a place available for him at once at RSL Park. I was given a form to fill in for him with details of his service 'overseas', a mere formality, but for me a challenge that made my heart knock. Ever since I could remember I had wondered what had happened to Daddy during those years he had been away but I had never dared to question him. He had never collected his medals, didn't go to reunions, didn't keep up with his old comrades, didn't spin yarns about his adventures. We children had always known that he was not to be badgered on the point. Now I was obliged to ask and he obliged to answer.
He answered quietly and simply, with a faintly abstracted air, until I came to the two years I thought he had spent in India. 'What about India?' I asked. He turned his eyes to me, those eyes which had been tired ever since I could remember; in them I could read something dreadful. His composure was completely gone. 'Not India,' he said in a voice that had risen to a wail, 'not active service, not India.' His mouth was working and the breath had come harsh into his throat. I threw down the papers and took him into my arms.
The RSL waived the formalities. Somewhere in the files there was an official diagnosis, 'Anxiety neurosis'. 'We've got more old soldiers suffer from anxiety than heart disease,' said Bruce Ruxton, Victorian president of the RSL. 'There's no need to distress the old man any more'.
I could have gone further. I could have kept on at him, taking advantage of his helplessness, to find out what I had always wanted to know. What did they do to him? Why was he in such anguish? What was the unnameable emotion I could see in his eyes? Panic? Shame? To grill him would have been to go against the habit of a lifetime. We children knew next to nothing at all about Daddy and we knew too that we had no right to find out. He knew that he could function adequately only within strict limits and he imposed those limits on us, by what seems to me now an extraordinary exercise of will. If we had breached those limits out of idle curiosity, Pandora's box would have opened and confusion engulfed us all.
In the months of Daddy's rapid journey towards death, the anxiety rose up towering in the gathering darkness of his brain, and terrorised him, but, although he roamed endlessly around the hospital at night, he bore his anguish stoically. The more he suffered, the gentler and more courteous he became. Jeffrey went to see him for me, and told me that the nurses adored him. I was jealous of them, for they gave him all the hugging and kissing he had never been able to accept from me. The whole family except me was with him on the day he died, but he waited patiently until they had gone to get something to eat and then, typically, quietly snuffed it.
Now that Daddy's need to have us not know is at an end, my need to know can be satisfied. The leads I have are few. I know that he was stationed in Malta and then sent to Deolali, nowadays Devlali, in India. British army slang for 'mad' is 'Doolally tap'. I don't know when I first started noticing that Daddy was continually sedated or when I learned to interpret the names on bottles of Tropinal and Triptophen that I found on his bedside table. There is one appalling memory which I cannot date. I am sitting on the carpet in front of the full-length mirror in my parents' bedroom. In the mirror I can see my father who is abjectly pleading with my mother, 'Don't do that to me, Peg. Please. Don't do it.' And his face breaks up the way it did when I had to interrogate him in the hostel thirty-five years later. His mouth twists and opens and terrible gasping sobs are torn out of him. That's all I can remember, but I remember it with appalling vividness. It is about my first memory and it was the worst thing I had ever seen or ever saw. I probably began to scream and got myself flung out of the room.
Generally Daddy was droll. He was even droll about his anxiety state. When we met for the first time after I had been 'overseas' myself for seventeen years, he conducted himself with great suavity and aplomb, resplendent in a cream tussore suit. He told me later on the telephone that when lunch was over and the tension released, and he was walking back over Princes Bridge to where he had parked the car, he suffered a mass reflex and purged upwards and downwards all over his pale silk. I was aghast, but he chuckled ruefully and made light of my consternation. When I asked when I could come to see him again, though, he begged to be excused. There was no alternative. My presence was a source of stress and he had to avoid stress as rigorously as an alcoholic has to avoid drink.
To outsiders everything must have appeared quite normal. Daddy inhabited and functioned quite normally in a world of casual bonhomie. To silence the echoes he packed his brain with sports trivia and floated it in a sea of beers at the Commercial Travellers' Association. He dressed elegantly, even slightly foppishly, in a masculine sort of way: pigskin gloves for driving but not quite furled umbrella. And hats. At the dinner-table where we children were forbidden to speak, he occasionally held forth, but every opinion he expressed could have been traced to the leader pages of the two conservative newspapers he read every day. If I pounced on some statement that seemed to me to reflect however dimly upon the real world, he would stab his finger towards my plate, signifying that I should eat up and shut up. 'I've forgotten more than you're ever likely to know,' he would say. This fatuous hyperbole dismayed me even more than his shuddering routine, but perhaps after all it was literally true. Daddy's whole life was an exercise in forgetting. He never referred to any kin, neither father nor mother nor sisters nor brothers nor aunts nor uncles, not even in a chance anecdote. He was a man without a past.
What we knew about him could be summed up in a few words. We knew, or thought we knew, that he was born in Durban in 1905 or so. And came to Launceston where he went to school. He had mentioned being a boy soprano, perhaps even a choir scholar. We thought his parents had gone back to England and died, but the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe told me once that his grandfather in Launceston used to play draughts with an 'old Mr Greer'. It gave me a funny feeling to think that I had a grandfather just across Bass Strait who had no idea I existed. If I did, why would Daddy give us the impression that his family was lost without trace?
Somehow I gained the conviction that my paternal grandmother was named Rachel Weiss, but I'm afraid I probably made that up in my intense yearning to be Jewish. I wasn't deflected in my desire to make Daddy a Jew even by his own anti-Semitism, which I found only too easy to understand in a British Jew compelled to do business every day with central European Jews who could barely speak English and kept their working capital in paper bags under their beds. Besides, anti-Semitism was imposed on anyone who wanted to be reasonably popular in a society as chauvinistic as the one we lived in. For Daddy it was an occupational disease, and its symptoms were aggravated by the difficulty he had in dealing with the central European schmatte merchants, whose trading sechel and capacity for hard work left their Australian-born competitors gasping. Lots of sensitive children who came to the age of reason in the last years of the war and the first of the peace grew up longing to be Jewish, as the only way of escaping the collective guilt for what was done to the Jews.
As if there was any escaping the stain that lies across our world, for any of us. Like Tsvetayeva in 'The Poem of the End' we ask,
Isn't it more worthy to become an eternal Jew?
Anyone not a reptile suffers the same pogrom.
We war-time children are a strange generation. Our lives spin out of control in the wake of a sin that makes our first parents look no more vicious than puppies chewing up a slipper. Tsvetayeva killed herself; so did Sylvia Plath whose father was one of the 'men in black with a Meinkampf look and a love of the rack and the screw.' She too identified with the dead masks we saw piled in heaps in the open graves at Dachau and Belsen, and made of herself an honorary Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
Sylvia Plath did not speak like a Jew, but like a well-educated lady from New England; I learned Yiddish and joined the Habimah players. I did not know if I had any Jewish blood or not, but I felt Jewish and I went out with Jewish boys. My father said once, when Peter Sapir came to take me to a dance, 'Taking the princess out? You take good care of her.' 'He must be Jewish,' said Peter. Oy weh.
Another muddled notion that we children somehow got was that Daddy had gone jackerooing after he left school and wanted to go on the land, but his rich father refused him the nominal sum required to secure a lease, so Daddy severed relations with him and sold advertising space instead. Somehow he got himself to Adelaide, where he knew the young Robert Helpmann. And then to Melbourne where he met and married my mother. Then I was born, the war broke out and Daddy went away.
I was five when my mother and I went by train to Spencer Street Station to bring Daddy home. I was sure I would recognise him from the photograph on the maple sideboard. This ikon showed a collection of distinguished features, dark hair brushed back from a high forehead, a relaxed smile, and an ironic glint in the eyes. I knew the exact proportion of the ears to the head, the precise bend in the narrow nose, the set of the long head on its square shoulders. We trailed up and down the platform peering into every face. The heavy skirts of the men's greatcoats kept knocking me off my feet. The kissing, hugging knots of people began to gather up their belongings and disperse; the platform was emptying and still we hadn't found Daddy. The war had lasted all my life and I had difficulty imagining how it could end. I began to drag my feet and day-dream, convinced that Daddy wasn't there. Mother grabbed my arm, nearly wrenching it from its socket as she became more agitated, turning and hurrying hither and yon. Suddenly she stopped and dropped my arm. An old man was standing sightlessly by a pylon. His neck stuck scrawnily out of the collar of his grey-blue greatcoat. His eyes were sunken, his skin grey and loose. I ran up to look at Mother's face. Surely she wasn't going to take this old man instead of Daddy. She was standing with her head cocked, peering like a wary bird in the jaunty hat that she wore on her forehead like a crest. If she was shocked she made no sign. She bundled the old man up and took him home and a year later my sister was born.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Daddy, We Hardly Knew You"
Copyright © 2014 Germaine Greer.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Tuscany, December 1986,
Melbourne, December 1986,
Tasmania, December 1986,
Melbourne Again, December 1986,
Still in Melbourne, January 1987,
India, February 1987,
Essex, March 1987,
When a Girl Marries,
Cambridge, September 1987,
Reg Greer in Malta,
Queensland, December 1987,
The Heroine of This Story,
What Daddy Never Knew,
Acknowledgments for Quoted Material,