Goldsworthy describes the encounter in the new book Unbreakable: Women Share Stories of Resilience & Hope, edited by Jane Caro.
Other contributors – including Kathy Lette, Tracey Spicer, Lee-Ann Tjunypa Buckskin, Dee Madigan and Sandra Levy – share stories about experiences ranging from sexual assault and rape, to domestic violence, miscarriage and depression.
“I want to pass on courage and hope to women who have also gone through such things by all of us speaking up about our own experiences,” Caro says.
“These things do not need to either define us or destroy us. We can find the strength to move forward, and this book shows how successful women have done just that.”
Such a Small Thing
By Kerryn Goldsworthy
Once upon a time, around the end of the twentieth century, I woke up one morning with a terrifying headache. It lasted for three days, and it proved to be the first of many.
After several months and much talk about possible causes but not a lot of helpful action – the problem was later diagnosed and treated by a brisk female doctor – the fashionable but ineffectual male GP I was seeing at the time eventually sent me off to a psychologist. Both the GP and I thought that the headaches might be to do with the common but regrettable habit I apparently have of grinding my teeth in my sleep, something about which several exasperated dentists have tutted over the years. Hypnotherapy can be very successful with that, said my GP. And because I had had one startlingly good experience with hypnotherapy in the past – also as recommended by a doctor – off I obediently went.
They were frightening headaches; the pain was unbearable. They made me throw up, and they went on and on and on. My mother had died of a brain haemorrhage a few months before they started. I was not in a good place.
I had carefully researched the psychologist, hereinafter referred to as D. He was by all accounts a good one, a highly qualified one, one who specialised in dealing with habits such as these, one who belonged to all the professional bodies and worked in a large, established practice. At our first appointment, he took me through a long list of questions and made notes on my answers about my history, living circumstances, relations with my family, work situation and recent worries. One of the first questions was about the household in which I lived, and I replied that I lived by myself, which he wrote down. He asked whether I had a partner, another standard question in these situations, and I replied that I had a long-distance lover about whom it wasn’t really accurate to use a word like ‘partner’, and he wrote that down as well.
D seemed intelligent and knowledgeable and I found him neither attractive nor repulsive, a neutrality of visceral response that I knew to be a good thing. He said that hypnotherapy could help, but that he was making no promises. He was plausible and pleasant, and the session went well – partly because I have always been, perhaps unwisely, willing to put myself in someone else’s hands, and therefore make a good subject. I knew from previous experience that even if these sessions did nothing for the headaches, they might help with other things.
It’s hard to describe being under hypnosis to someone who’s never had the experience, but there is nothing flaky or mysterious about it. Physically and psychologically it’s very like meditation, or like that liminal zone between waking and sleeping when everything is still and peaceful and all sounds from the outside world seem distant and benign. During our first, relatively brief hypnotic session in D’s office, all of these things were true. He counted to ten, spoke softly; I drifted away, spoke back; we had a conversation that I both do and don’t remember, about stress and teeth and sleep. All very well and good. Full marks to D.
At his behest, I went back for another session a week later. So, he said, are you still grinding your teeth in your sleep?
I don’t know, I said. Um, I’m asleep, so how would I tell?
Well, he said, did you ask the person you sleep with?
I looked at the clipboard on his knee, which contained the notes he had taken the previous week. The fact that I lived on my own should have been right there in front of him; had he, as one might expect, read through my case before I came in for this second appointment? No, I said, as I told you last week, I live on my own, and my lover is on the other side of the country.
D let it drop, and so did I. Back we went into the soft and teeming limbo of altered consciousness. I was in a sort of recliner chair. The room was cool, the blinds were drawn, a stray little point of sunlight bounced off his wedding ring. His voice was soft and distant; my own voice in reply was also soft and seemed to be coming from somebody else. This time I felt as though I had gone very far away: the first image that came to mind was of riding one of those very long escalators down into the London Underground; the image after that, of being a sea creature, deep in the ocean. There was talk of relaxing, of a face at rest, of healing sleep. Various truths emerged, some of them enlightening, none of them distressing. D told me that I would now come back to full consciousness when he counted to ten, and he did, and I did.
When hypnotherapists recall you to your normal waking state, there is a brief stretch of time, maybe twenty or thirty seconds, when you are fully back in the world, but physically, verbally and socially tottery: vague, blinking, unprotected, like a snake that has just shed its skin. And somewhere in that moment of intense, defenceless vulnerability, I heard D’s voice saying conversationally: ‘You make such cute little noises when you’re under. I think it would be fun to sleep with you.’
In the rhythm of that sentence, the stress was on the word ‘fun’. The nonverbal component of his remark, its intonations and inflections, indicated a harking back to his question about ‘the person you sleep with’ at the beginning of the session, as though he were merely continuing the earlier conversation. I hadn’t yet learnt the phrase ‘plausible deniability’, but I have applied it to this conversation in retrospect many times. Oh, but I didn’t mean that. You’re imagining things.
I hadn’t yet learnt the word ‘gaslighting’, either.
My immediate thought was: ‘No, that didn’t happen.’
Then I thought: ‘No, he only meant, you know, sleep.’
And then, as my brain finally snapped into normal focus: ‘Oh, for god’s sake. I’m a perimenopausal overweight forty-seven-year-old feminist with a short fuse and a sharp tongue and I still have to put up with this kind of shit.’
Like most women of my generation and age, I had been propositioned many times over the years, with varying degrees of sophistication. I had been painfully groped by strangers, rubbed against on trams and buses, dragged into doorways, obscenely cat-called from kerb-crawling cars, pushed up against walls, approached in pubs by strange men who asked ‘Do you f***?’, and sexually harassed by academic tutors, lecturers, supervisors and other assorted superiors with too much power over my career. And so, again like most women of my generation and age, I had developed a lot of wry resilience.
Put into that context, this moment with D was only a small thing. At the desk, I paid. When asked if I wanted to make another appointment, I replied that I did, and made it, for the following week. It took me several hours to try to process these events, and even when I had done so, I still wasn’t sure what had actually happened.
For a couple of days following this encounter, I beat myself up about it. Had it, after all, been innocent? And if it had not, then why had such an ambiguous and mild and cautious, indeed pathetic, remark had the power to throw me so far off balance? Eventually I consulted a close friend, herself married to a psychologist and therefore in a good position to tell me what was normal. Gratifyingly, she looked quite shocked, and she is not easily shocked. ‘Report him,’ she said.
‘No no no,’ I said, flapping my hands.
(I’m still not sure what this reluctance was about. Part of it was the knowledge of where such a report might lead, and the humiliations that might be in store for me if I started down this path. But a great deal of it was – I swear that this is true – about pity, both reactive and projected. For there was clearly something wrong with D; he had been cowardly as well as unprofessional, inappropriate and manipulative. And it was in my power, if I chose to use it, to make his life very unpleasant, and that knowledge, in a way, was enough.)
Well, you must at least get an apology, said my friend.
While I truly did not want to fling D into professional disaster over this small exchange, I also had no desire ever to encounter him again. I rang up, spoke to his receptionist and cancelled the coming appointment that I had numbly made.
Ten days afterwards, late at night, the phone rang at home. A ringing phone at 11pm is almost always trouble, and I took a deep breath to steady myself before I picked it up.
Hello, said a soft male voice. It’s D. I’m just calling to find out why you haven’t been back to see me.
I thought of my friend’s insistence that I must at least make him apologise, just for my own peace. I took another deep breath: it’s quite an effort to confront someone you think has behaved badly and call them to account, especially when it seems to you that they are now behaving badly again. ‘Do you remember what you said to me?’ I asked.
‘I hope so,’ he replied, which I found odd. I told him what he had said, which I remembered verbatim. There was a little silence. And then he said soothingly: ‘Oh, that’s alright.’
‘That’s alright’ is what one usually replies to a person who has just apologised. Did he think I was apologising to him, and if so, for what? Was I being not only wrong-footed but spun around 180 degrees? Now I felt positively deranged.
Then he said, in gently wounded tones, that he was sorry if I felt that way.
‘I’m sorry if anyone was offended’: the standard non-apology of the male politician or high-profile footballer, men coached in the wording of apologies to bleach them of all admission and make them sound instead like generous concessions to crazy bitches with their panties in a bunch.
This is an edited extract from Kerryn Goldsworthy’s story in Unbreakable: Women Share Stories of Resilience & Hope, edited by Jane Caro, published by UQP, RRP $29.95
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