Surviving the war that came home to Rockhampton
This powerful personal narrative is a difficult book to negotiate, not least because it comprises 309 pages of text entirely devoid of chapter numbers or headings, followed by a blank page and the acknowledgments.
But this caveat in no way means that the book — the author’s first — is not an enormously rewarding and revealing exploration of the effects of war on family life and on the human soul and psyche.
Enemy begins with a striking opening sentence: “I was born into the war still raging inside my father. Indeed Ruth Clare’s first memory — at the age of three — is of her Vietnam veteran father, Doug Callum (born in 1946), savagely beating her until she became badly bruised and lost some hair.
Born in Brisbane in 1974, two years after Australia’s involvement in the war ended, she was raised in Rockhampton where, after having been a baker, her father taught fitting and turning at TAFE. Now living in Melbourne, the author has been a professional writer since 2004.
‘Enemy’ is dedicated to her siblings: her elder sister Kerstin and her younger brother David, “and the childhood that was, and to her own children, Scarlett and Alex, “and the childhood that is. This is utterly appropriate because after she became a parent, Clare was gripped with a dark and intense fear that she was somehow doomed to repeat her father’s violent and Ã‚ÂÃ‚Âultra-Ã‚Âcontrolling behaviour.
Tellingly, one of Clare’s key acknowledgments is of deep gratitude to her therapist, Mary, whose loving attention helped her “find the light when she first brought out of the shadows the stories that comprise this book.
Her other heartfelt vote of respect and thanks is to the Vietnam Veterans Association, the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service and to all those war veterans who shared their often harrowing, but sometimes uplifting, stories about conscription, the war and their return to civilian life.
After reading this emotionally charged and thoroughly engaging book, it seems clear it was only the combined force of the experiences of the Vietnam veterans she read about and interviewed, plus the assistance of her (seemingly Jungian) therapist, that enabled the author to ultimately find considerable emotional empathy for the flawed and vulnerable man who had caused her so much pain and damage and heartache. As ‘Enemy’ reveals, Clare was perhaps wounded emotionally, even more than physically, by her deeply damaged father — who had been a conscripted national serviceman — and her chain-smoking, generally passive mother, who was unable to protect her children from her husband’s unpredictable rage and fury.
Some sections of the book, especially those about trying to stop her father hitting her, brought me close to tears. As well, her father (and sometimes her mother) cruelly undermined her success at school, which was for Clare a safe place to learn and develop, so unlike the unpredictable environment at home.
The terrible truth is that even when Ruth tried to do something nice for her father, he almost always found a way to make it bad. No matter how hard she tried, it was never good enough. As she puts it, in something of an understatement: “It was impossible to skate along the razor edge of his expectations. Yet in some ways, life became even more difficult when her father left home for another woman.
Clare’s mother actually missed him dreadfully, and in a spiral of alcoholic despair she became an increasingly violent derelict in her own home. Indeed after the divorce, she even stole money from Clare’s bank account.
Such was the family’s dysfunction, it wasn’t until her 15th birthday that Ruth saw her father again.
Clare’s triumph is that despite so much heartache and soul searching, she has managed to process all this pain and to ultimately emerge as a member of a loving family, and also become an excellent author.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 39 books.
The Weekend Australian, March 12-l3, 2016, review, Books, pp 20-21