The other Kevin: childhood tennis memories from the apartheid era

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Kevin Anderson celebrates reaching the US Open final

When Kevin Anderson surprised everyone and made it all the way to the US Open final – where he was naturally summarily thrashed by Rafael Nadal – it reminded me of a sporting moment, surely deeply etched in the memories of many fellow South Africans (where ever they may live) when Kevin Curren beat both Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe to reach the 1985 Wimbledon final during the dark days of apartheid.

Like Anderson, Curren was playing the tournament of his life, sending down aces at will and demolishing everyone on his path to the final. Such was his form that he beat Connors and McEnroe in straight sets.

But unlike Anderson, who no one really gave a snowball’s chance of beating the great Spaniard Nadal, Curren was expected to prove to experienced for the raw talent that was Boris “Boom Boom” Becker, a 17-year-old, unseeded, copper top German who had stunned the tennis world by just making the final.

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Kevin Curran in the 1985 final

I remember sitting in our lounge in our Germiston family home in the old Transvaal surrounded by uncles, aunts and cousins watching and hoping the gangly Curren would do the isolated nation proud by winning the biggest title in tennis.

Sadly it was not to  be: Becker, riding on a wave of teenage punk energy, powered his way to a four set win over a shell-shocked Curren, who couldn’t bring his A game to hallowed centre court of Wimbledon.

I can still see my 12-year-old self purchased on the brown and gold patterned sofas my parents held on to for ages, hoping that mild-tempered Kevin Curren could fight his way back against tennis new wunderkind.  (There is a photo somewhere of all the family, uncles and cousins crammed into the lounge watching the final or one of the Wimbledon in what became a Sunday afternoon ritual in the 1980s).

I am not sure if I even realised it at the time that Curren had become an American citizen but to us, he was a South African hero.

Having young kids and been stuck in a different timezone meant I never watched any of this year’s US Open – apart from some highlight packages – but I was still excited to hear that Anderson, who bears some similarities to Curren with his skinny, long-boned physique and a killer serve – had made it all the way to a Grand Slam final. (The last player to get even close was the super talented, but poorly tempered Wayne Ferreira who made the semi-finals of the Australian Open twice).

By contrast I was addicted to the television screen during the two weeks of Wimbledon every July, and more so that year as Curren surged on.

It was one of the few global sporting events where South Africans could still compete against the best in the world. By contrast cricket and rugby union, my two other passions, were strictly domestic affairs, peppered by the ‘rebel tours’ as we remained banished until the early 1990s.

Wimbledon was also was also one of the few international events we got live on our TVs for some reason (there was no Olympics or World Cup coverage). The commentary was provided every year by tennis greats Bob Hewitt (who was much later shockingly convicted of rape) and his doubles partner Frew McMillan (I think).

I remember in the cold July afternoons taking breaks from school studies to watch just one game, just one more point in the tennis and ending up staying in the living room for hours. In the end it was 5pm and I’d watched the whole match and done no school work at all.

Thinking back in the hazy past, watching Kevin Curran play in the 1985 Wimbledon final is among a host of sporting moments I remember vividly from my apartheid-era childhood.

The others were of course Gerrie Coetzee knocking out Michael Dokes to become world heavyweight boxing champion (“We have a new, heavyweight champion of the world” I can still remember the TV announcer calling out), listening on the radio when tiny Zola Budd got horribly entangled with Mary Decker in the 3000 metre race at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (where she ran barefoot as a hastily ordained Brit and finished 7th), my beloved Transvaal rugby team losing numerous Currie Cup finals and numerous cricket memories, not least of which was the great, late Clive Rice yorking successive Australian batsman in a 1980s Kim Hughes rebel series and in the early 1990s Jonty Rhodes managing to hit 7 off the last bowl in a domestic Day-Night game between Transvaal and Natal, when Richard Snell bowled a chest high no ball.

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Gerrie Coetzee knocking out Michael Dokes

Surprisingly though, despite the heartbreak of Kevin Curran’s defeat, I became a huge fan of Boris Becker and can equally remember the three successive finals he played against the great Swedish maestro Stefan Edberg, one of tennis’s great rivalries – with Edberg winning two of them in 1988 and 1990 and Becker triumphing in 1989.

I’ll end on a nice bit of trivia.

In writing this blog, I came across an interview with Kevin Curren on The Guardian website, where it transpires that he went to a Bruce Springsteen concert in London the night before the final, so confident was he of winning!

“You may laugh but it was unbelievable,” said Curren, who said he was not much of a concert goer, but that Springsteen was “the man right then.”

Perhaps a better night’s sleep and my childhood sporting memories would have been a lot more rosier.

 

 

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City to country: Musings on moving house

It’s been a couple of months since I last posted on this blog. The main reason is that we moved house (packing up is a bitch).

We’ve relocated from the bland northern suburbs of Melbourne to the pretty country town of Gisborne in the Macedon Ranges, between Sunbury and Woodend (for those who know them) and on the way to the gold rush towns of Castlemaine, Bendigo and Ballarat.

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So we have made the proverbial “tree change” swapping the conveniences, but also the congestion of suburbia, for the quieter life and fresh air of the pastoral countryside.

Gisborne, it’s quiet, pretty, country town of about 12,000 people, with lovely tree-line streets, nestled in a green valley – an hour’s commute from the centre of Melbourne.

According to Wikipedia, it is named after Henry Fyshe Gisborne the first Commissioner of the district and began life as a merino sheep grazing station. There is still plenty of farming about: sheep, cows, alpacas and horses, olive groves and vineyards.

Probably the most famous thing nearby is Hanging Rock – for those of you who have read the book ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock‘ (the mysterious novel by Joan Lindsay) or seen the spooky movie, directed by Peter Weir (Witness).

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Hanging Rock in Woodend

Unfortunately we don’t have the funds yet for a grand country estate or even a rural block – we’re renting on a subdivided block – but we’re surrounded by tall trees and mountains and on a clear night the pitch black sky is peppered with an astonishing display of flickering stars.

Also, a two-minute drive in the car and you’re winding your way through a sweeping vista of valleys and green and gold mountains: it’s food for the city-wearied spirit.

On my daily train ride into work the farms and fields fly by and beyond them the undulating hillsides, stone cottages, grand Victorian homesteads, before we re-enter the sprawling ‘McMansions’ of suburbia.

It is good to be “disconnected”.

The last time we moved house was four years ago – swapping one Melbourne suburb for another.

Goodbye to stuff

Over that time we naturally accumulated a lot more things, but as we packed up our house, it did strike me – as we deposited hundreds of CDs, DVDs and books at our local charity shops – how technology had embedded itself even further into our lives.

Armed with a Netflix account, a Kindle and an iPod and/or Smartphone, who needs to hold onto these things?

Just about anything you want to watch or listen to these days can be found, streamed or stored on a device or online. I can’t remember the last time I bought a DVD (I think it was a season of Nurse Jackie or Inspector Morse) or a CD from a shop.

I still like buying actual books (there’s something nice and tactile about holding a book in your hands) but it’s hard to beat the almost instant delivery to your Kindle and the cheaper prices.

I should also remark that over the four years we lived in our Niddrie suburban house, our two local video stores – a Blockbuster and a Video Ezy – closed down (I blogged about this in: In memorium: the suburban video store).

In the end, we only kept a small selection of books, CD and DVDs mostly for sentimental reasons or because we will use or watch them again. Also, to ensure we had something to put on our bookshelf – its still aesthetically pleasing and homely to have a lounge filled with books.

The other physical thing we have less now of is printed out photographs.

I spent a nostalgic Sunday afternoon going through my old photo albums, pulling out only a selection of photos dating back to my early childhood and encompassing my Bar Mitzvah, numerous overseas trips, four years of London life, my year in Brisbane and six years in Sydney. It was a nostalgic and sentimental afternoon: many faces I had long forgotten, or have lost touch with.

In the end a huge stack of bulky photo albums was reduced to a shoe box of photos and a small stack of CDs.

Everything else, especially the record of the last decade or so of my life, is stored on the computer in endless digital files

More recently, I took the prudent step of backing everything up in the digital “Cloud”.

The Lost Son of Philomena Lee

philomena_xlgThe story of Irish woman Philomena Lee’s search to find the long lost son she was forced to give up for American adoption in the 1950s was made into a moving 2013 Oscar-nominated movie starring Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as the journalist, Martin Sixsmith.

I loved the movie (it made me cry) and was intrigued to read Sixsmith’s 2009 book upon which it was based, which I just happened to find on display at our local library one Saturday morning.

I was not disappointed. It is a great piece of journalism and imagination, with Sixsmith piecing the sad story together and retelling it through his conversations with Philomena and all those in America who knew her son, Anthony.

Another good reason to read it, even if you have seen the film, is that it has an entirely different focus.

The movie told the story of Philomena’s search for her lost son. The book, which was orignally called “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” is devoted to telling the story of the life of Philomena’s son, Anthony Lee, or as he became known in the US, Michael Hess.

His story begins, when aged just three he gets on a plane bound for Chicago and then St Louis with his ‘sister’ Mary (a young girl in the convent the Hess family adopted at the same time) for a new life in America.

He leaves behind a heartbroken Philomena, whose story Sixsmith (somewhat frustratingly) does not return to until the last 30 pages of the book. By that time almost 50 years have passed since she watched Anthony be driven away from the unwed mothers and babies home at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea near Dublin.

Philomena yelled ‘Antony! Look up here! and Margaret (Mary’s mum) banged on the window. But the noise of the engine seemed to blot out their voices and neither child responded. As the car pulled away, Philomena wailed, ‘No! No! Not my baby. Don’t let them take my baby. And at that precise moment Anthony twisted in his seat and climbed up to peer through the rear windscreen.

That was in 1955.

The book begins in 2004 when Martin Sixsmith meets Philomena Lee through a mutual friend. The previous Christmas she had broken down and finally told her grown-up children they had a brother living in America.

Having agreed to help her find her son, Sixsmith plunges the reader back into repressive Ireland of the 1950s and the silence and servitude of Sean Ross Abbey, where Philomena gives birth miracously to Anthony, who is a breech baby.

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Michael Hess, chief counsel to the Republican National Committee

We spend nearly four years with Philomena in the cold-hearted confines of the abbey, where she is forced by the nuns to sign away her motherly rights to her son, and where she must work long hours in the intense heat of the laundry awaiting the day when he will be ripped from her, without notice.

In a cruel twist of fate, the Hess family (whose story Sixsmith also tells in great detail) had only planned to adopt Mary, but because Anthony is her protector and because he is such an affectionate child, they decide to adopt him as well.

Sixsmith goes into great detail describing the cruel forced adoption system that existed in Ireland in the 1950s, where the government, under the complete control of the Catholic Church, allowed up to 60,000 illegitimate children to be ripped from their young mothers against their will, and given to American familes in exchange for hefty donations.

Then over the next 300-odd pages Sixsmith combines his talent as an investigative journalist with the imagination of a master novelist to tell the story of how Irish adoptee Anthony Lee became handsome Washington lawyer and powerbroker Michael Anthony Hess, who by his mid-thirties had risen to be chief counsel of the Republican National Committee, one of the most powerful legal positions in the country, who hobnobbed with the political elite including the Reagans and the Bushes (Look him up, he has his own Wikipedia page).

Through Sixsmith’s book, we learn that Michael Hess, despite his professional success, could never come to terms with the idea that he had been abandoned by his mother (the truth, that she was forced to give him up against her will was kept from him by his adopted family and by the nuns of Sean Ross Abbey).

Despite years of counselling, he suffered what I imagine is the classic abandoned child’s dilemma of believing he never deserved the success, love and happiness that came his way because even his own mother had not wanted to keep him.

Amid the trials and tribulations of his young adult life, Michael Hess decides to visit Ireland in 1977 in the hope of finding out who his mother was and possibly even meeting her. But after what turned out to be a fruitless and frustrating visit, Sixsmith writes that Michael Hess turned to “hopelessness and self-loathing”.

Now all the setbacks and rebuffs seemed to him the result of his own inadequacy: the orphan’s rootless insecurity, his sense of not belonging, left him feeling adrift, helplessly tossed by life’s tempests.

The story of Michael Hess – as told by Sixsmith – is of epic highs and sinking lows. Sixsmith paints a picture of a man who was both brilliant, funny, charming, warm and tender, but who could come spectacularly off the rails and descend into heavy drinking and promiscuity. By day he was involved in shaping the crucial redistricting laws that would change the course of political power in the future, but by night he often cruising gay bars for casual sex.

Sadly for Michael Hess, his bouts of wild sex with strange men would prove his downfall; coinciding with emergence of the AIDS epidemic in America and the reluctance of the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan to do anything to address what was then considered a gay man’s disease.

In another ironic twist, Michael Hess’s quest for acceptance and success in America led him to serve a political party, which, delayed the start of medical research, which might have saved his life.

While the book proved controversial (aspects of it have been discounted by those close to Michael Hess) if you take it at face value its a wonderful retelling and re-imagining of Michael Hess’s life by Martin Sixsmith, and a fitting tribute to the son that Philomena Lee so tragically never got to see again.

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Philomena Lee

However, it seems an injustice that so few pages of the book were devoted to Philomena’s story, a formidable and brave woman.

I suspect this is partly due to the fact that she lived a mostly unremarkable life after she left the abbey – marriage, children, domesticity – especially in comparison to the amazing life her son Anthony lived in America.

In that sense it is pleasing to think that a Hollywood movie has shined the spotlight so brightly on her again, and it seems, turned her into an important figurehead for all the women in Ireland, who had their children ripped from them so cruelly.

And while Philomena Lee was horribly robbed of the chance to know her son as the brilliant man he became because of a merciless system, there must be some comfort for her in his life coming alive so vividly in the pages of Sixsmith’s enthralling book.

 

 

Inside a mental breakdown: Re-reading ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath

the-bell-jarThe Bell Jar is the only novel written by the late, great American poet, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide aged 30 in 1963, a month after it was published.

I had read the book, which chronicles a young woman’s mental breakdown,  a long time ago, whilst living in London. Battling my own mental health issues at the time, I found it a balm against my own inner torments.

Then, recently, whilst browsing a pile of books offered for free at the local library, I came across a copy of The Bell Jar. Curious to see what kind of effect it had on me 15 years later, in a much better frame of mind, I snapped it up and re-read it – twice.

Set in the summer of 1953, it tells the story of Esther Greenwood, an attractive young writer and aspiring poet (the fictional version of Sylvia Plath) from the quiet suburbs of Boston who finds herself – for the first time – in the Big Apple. Esther is there because she, along with a host of other bright, young girls, has won a writing competition to spend a month working for New York fashion magazine,  Ladies Day.

Written in the first person, in the confessional style of a diarist, Esther begins:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York

Esther knows something is wrong, because instead of having the “time of her life’ amid the glamorous lifestyle of lavish lunches, movie premiers and photo shoots with her new, excitable friends, she’s thinking about  Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American couple accused of spying for the Soviet Union and who were executed for treason in June 1953.

Esther’s already fragile state of mind grows increasingly more cynical and gloomier during her stay in Manhattan as she encounters situations and people that frighten, disappoint and disorientate her: a wild night out with her rebellious friend Doreen ends up with Esther feeling like the “only extra person in the room”, a lunch where she deliberately over indulges on caviar ends with Esther suffering an awful bout of food poisoning while her plan to seduce the kindly United Nations simultaneous interpreter Constantin, ends in failure.  Then, on her last night in the city, she is viciously attacked at a country club by her date and narrowly avoids being raped.

Staring out the window of her hotel room at the “weird, green, Martian Honeycomb” shaped United Nations building on her last night, Esther muses:

The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.

She goes on to say…

The city hung in my window, flat as a poster, glittering and blinking, but it might just as well not been there at all, for all the good it did me.

Esther’s poetic narration reminded me of Holden Caufield, the rebellious anti-hero of JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, who wandered around Manhattan calling out all the ‘phoneys’ in the world. Esther, like Holden Caufield, can spot a phoney a mile away and she finds nothing inspiring in the glitz and glamour of Manhattan life.

The day after Esther is nearly raped at the country club, she takes the train home, her face covered in claw marks. This marks the start of second part of the book: Esther’s return to the outer suburbs of Boston and her mother’s house.

Here the ‘Bell Jar’ starts to descend over her after she hears she has not been accepted into a summer creative writing program.

I sank back in the grey, plush seat and closed my eyes. The air of the bell jar wadded around me and I couldn’t stir.

The Bell Jar – a vessel used in scientific laboratories to form and contain a vacuum – is the way Esther visualizes her suffocating depression as a physical barrier that traps and holds her swirling, darkening cloud of suicidal thought, with no means of escape.

The shape of the Bell Jar is also mirrored in Esther’s aborted suicide attempt, when she tries to sink under the ocean whilst swimming to a rock far out to sea ,and then later  when she hides herself in an alcove underneath her mother’s house and takes an overdose of slipping pills.

Miraculously Esther survives, but ends up in successive psychiatric hospitals,where she undergoes electroshock therapy, a treatment she describes in all its clinical detail, evoking through her poetic imagery, the horror of the experience:

There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath.

Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whe-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.

I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.

While this may seem like a demoralising book to wade through from start to finish, it has the strange, reverse effect of being life- affirming.

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Sylvia Plath

This I put down to the brilliance of Plath’s writing, which is full of the powerful imagery that made her poetry so magnetic and Plath’s ability to draw deeply from the well of her own personal experiences of dealing with severe depression to bring Esther’s mental state so vividly to life.

Few writers have given us such access to the inner workings of the young, intellectual mind, brilliant and yet so vulnerable to collapse as through the character of Esther Greenwood.

The truth is that just about everyone is susceptible to losing their mental footing, to slipping into despair, to doubting their own cognitive faculties.

It is of course a profound tragedy though that writing the book did not provide enough of a cathartic experience for Sylvia Plath to sustain her own will to live.

Remembering a lionhearted friend

13626405_160511671019245_6888735082524876778_nI had a dream the other night about my close friend Darren Serebro, who passed away on July 27, 1997 from leukemia. We were both 23.

I was working as a camp counselor in Mid-west America near Milwaukee when he died in a Johannesburg hospital after an incredibly brave two year battle with the horrendous disease. At the time, he was awaiting a bone marrow transplant that might have saved his life.

Incredibly, just over a week before he died, on July 19, I received a long, letter from Darren via fax. Hand written in his neat, compact style, it ran to eight beautiful pages.

I still have the letter. It has survived numerous overseas trips and relocations to London, Sydney, Brisbane and now Melbourne, and miraculously, a water spillage, that turned the pages brown. (I have since scanned it and saved a digital copy.)

I thought, after all these years, I might share some of what Darren wrote and pay tribute to a lionhearted friend whom I have never forgotten.

From the confines of his isolation ward, because his cancer was no longer in remission, Darren began by apologising for the delay in writing back to me:

Dear La

I do apologise for not writing sooner. I am aware that this is an extremely cliched expression with which to start a piece of correspondence and can comprehend that while time is pretty much the same for us, you life has been altered radically for the moment and more regular correspondence from S.A. would be re-assuring.

Of course this was the kind of man Darren was. Even gravely ill, he could put himself in someone else’s shoes. (Studying law at the time, he would have made a brilliant lawyer in the Atticus Finch mold).

As for my life being “altered radically” it was nothing in comparison to the challenges he had faced everyday since learning of his cruel diagnosis, about two years prior.

Darren was softly-spoken (except after a few glasses of good whiskey), but also someone who laughed easily. He was extremely polite but equally capable of being cheeky, hilarious and crude.

He was quite brilliant, a straight A student. I remember he had an amazing ability to absorb and retain information , was intensely curious and interested in other people and places, loved travelling and eating out at good restaurants and was generous to the point of always putting others’ needs before himself. He was a true “Mensch“.

In the first few pages of the letter, Darren describes his current medical situation, the two treatment options available to him and his decision to undergo a bone marrow transplant.

The other option, he writes, of receiving small doses of chemotherapy would “inevitably result in my death within approximately two years”.

His candidness about his own mortality is painful to read now.

I try to picture him back then, in his isolation ward, no doubt feeling awful and yet writing in a concentrated manner. Perhaps from time to time he looks out the window, at the leafy northern suburbs of Jo’burg or pauses to think about how best to describe things to me.

Darren had a brilliant mind and intellect. This he put to full use to explain complex medical terms and procedures in relation to his illness he had sadly become an expert on. He goes into great detail explaining the procedure for undergoing a bone marrow transplant, enumerating the risks like ‘Graft versus Host’ disease and the treatments that would follow. He ends this part of the letter by saying:

Hopefully, a realistic and hopeful outlook on my part, combined with God’s will, will see me survive and will carry me through this trying time, into a long, healthy, happy and successful future.

The rest of the letter is full of wit, charm and lashings of wicked humour as he describes the ‘goings on’ among the Jo’burg scene and his limited interactions with hospital visitors.

A hilarious part of the letter is when Darren dutifully lists all the experiences, he believed I was going through, thousands of miles away at Summer Camp in Wisconsin.

These he believed included meeting some international students of similar age, some of of whom are “extremely attractive”. He adds, in brackets a succinct description: “6 foot tall, 34 inch bust, great legs, pretty face”.

He also reminds me:

“You have seen more of the state of Wisconsin than any Jewish Jo’burger knew exists. The average kugel or bagel tour through the States never comprehended ‘such far off places’

(For those not of Joburg Jewish descent, a ‘kugel’ refers to a Jewish princess, while a ‘bagel’ is the male equivalent.)

Later, he talks about how some of our friends are making a long weekend of the following weekend and going to the Game Reserve. Some of the guys have girlfriends, other not. Darren writes:

Paul says he has told Craig to dress up in drag because neither of them is going steady with a girl at the moment. HA HA. Join the club!

These jokes take me back to the numerous cups of coffee we – Darren, myself and our third musketeer, Jason – would share at ‘Carlos’, the Italian cafe on Grant Avenue, Norwood (also the preferred place for first dates) where we would talk about our lack of girlfriends, the latest arty movie we had seen in Rosebank, discuss politics, art and music interspersed with lashing of local Jo’burg gossip, personal slights and other social faux pas.

Some of the humour in the letter is decidedly black, but who could blame Darren, given his situation.

Talking about a girl he liked and who had visited him a number of times he remarks that wearing a mask is “not conducive to long, wet kisses. HA! HA!”.

Also, he remarks after not hearing from her for a few days: “She knows where to find me.Unfortunately, I have more critical life issues to deal with at the moment.”

I had no idea this letter would be the last I would here from him – or maybe being so far away I pushed the idea to the furthest corner of my mind. It was certainly difficult to comprehend Darren’s passing, thousands of miles a way among people who did not know him.

Many months later, when I returned to South Africa and visited Darren’s family, it came as a profound shock that he did not come down the stairs to greet me.

The saddest part of his letter, is that I missed his last birthday on May 25th by a single day. I wish I had been there. Darren writes:

About 30 people came over for coffee – it was the day after your left. (Thank you for the present by the way).

He ends the letter:

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Rest in peace my friend. You remind me never to take life for granted and to actually count my blessings, of which there have been many.

I only wish you had had that “long, healthy, happy and successful future” you hoped for and deserved.

 

 

Sins of the father: reviewing “The Blood on My Hands” by Shannon O’Leary

front-cover-676x1024The Blood on My Hands is a self-published account of how Shannon O’Leary survived a horrific childhood on a rural holding in Hornsby on the outskirts of Sydney and later Port Macquarie in the 1960s and 1970s.

It recounts the abuse – mental, physical and sexual – O’Leary and her family suffered at the hands of their father, Patrick, a psychopath with multiple personalities (The Devil, The Baby, The Games Man and others) who she witnessed murder numerous people.

O’Leary describes one horrific scene after the other (in one her father hacks a woman’s head off in full view of the author and kicks it like a soccer ball, in another he leads the author and a young woman to an isolated spot near a train station and strangles her with guitar string and then drives a rail spike through her mouth) with only brief moments of domestic normality when her father was either away or not psychotic. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have survived even a fraction of what the author and her family endured year after year.

Dad said he “knew the devil and God” and I realised that they had somehow gotten inside him and they popped out when no one else was around. I didn’t know how they had gotten inside him; I wondered if my father had eaten them at church.

But survive it she did raising a family of five children, obtaining numerous degrees and post-graduate degrees according to her Facebook profile, which notes also that she is an “author of several books of poetry and children’s stories, and has won many awards for song-writing.

It goes on to say: “O’Leary has acted and directed on the stage and on Australian national TV, and she runs her own production company. …and lives with her longtime partner in Sydney, Australia.”

Shannon O’Leary is not her real name. She told me in an email that she adopted a pseudonym at her family’s request.

She adds: “I self published because I was afraid of rejection and wanted to protect myself from criticism. It was psychologically easier for me to press the publish button than wait for some one to say they liked or disliked the book.”

As for her murderous serial killer father, Patrick died on May 16, 2009 a free man, never charged for a single crime.

Of his death when it finally came she writes: “It was as if the bell jar shattered and the clawing, scrambling mouse was free.”

The Blood on My Hands is well written, particularly for a self-published work which has not been professionally edited. It’s a raw, extremely brave memoir with the author sharing in graphic details all the horrendous ordeals, many of them in the creepy, rickety house built by their father. As a reader, I was glad to get to the end which ends at least with the author able to live without fear.

I lived for about six months on a farm near Hornsby, so I can well imagine the rugged wilderness she brings to life with its long grass, deep valleys, caves and venomous snakes.

Even when I lived there, in 2010, it was semi-rural – peppered with small hobby farms and without street lights – so I can well imagine it being almost deserted bushland when the O’Leary family lived there in the Sixties and Seventies, providing the isolation necessary for the evil acts of Patrick O’Leary to go undetected.

Just how much of it is actually true is hard to say. Because of the use of pseudonyms its impossible to research the story in any way while its hard to ignore the fact that the author was a small child, as young as four or five when some of these horrific events occurred.

Based on the memoir, Patrick O’Leary would have killed at least a dozen people all of whom disappeared without a trace.

A note at the end of the book by a “C. MacKenzie” who accompanied O’Leary in 2007 to one of the murder sites she remembered from her childhood and attempted to find evidence of some of the crimes she recalled remarks: “All my efforts to identify possible victims to support the author’s story have so far been fruitless”.

But MacKenzie also highlights the poor record keeping of the police during those times and notes a page one headline in the Sun newspaper from November 1974 that between 1968 and 1972, “299 girls under the age of 16 were missing and never found”.

While memory is never perfect, especially what we remember as children, if even 20 per cent of this book were true (and I believe that figure to be much higher) it would be a truly incredible feat of bravery, courage and triumph of the human spirit to survive it and live as productive a life as O’Leary has.

And so I salute Shannon O’Leary, whoever she may be.

(And many thanks to Kelsey Butts from Book Publicity Services for sending me a review copy)

‘One of These Things First’: the joy of reading Steven Gaines’s bittersweet childhood memoir

one-of-these-things-first-360x544My introduction to the New York writer and journalist Steven Gaines came through a review copy I was sent of his newly published memoir, “One of These Things First”.

Beautifully written, with equal measures of tenderness, sadness, cheeky humour and a big dollop of nostalgia, it’s the story of his difficult Brooklyn childhood and the time he spent in the Payne Whitney psychiatric hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1962, aged just 15.

Being a gay, Jewish boy in Brooklyn in the 1960s did not make life easy for Gaines, who, fearing his “dick and balls might be cut off” because of his homosexuality, kept his predilection for the naked chested lawn-mower boy and Warren Beatty’s topless scene in Splendour in the Grass to himself.

I promised myself that I would not let myself think homo thoughts, yet I could think of nothing else. I was haywire with hormones. I spent most of the time walking around in a semi-hunch trying to hide an erection that wouldn’t subside.

Keeping a dark secret manifested itself in an obssession with stealing strange objects and then an obssessive compulsive counting disorder, culminating in his suicide attempt –  punching his fists through glass in a door at the back of his grandparent’s ladies shop, Rose’s Bras Girdles Sportswear – and his commital to a mental hospital.

Luckily for Gaines, he had a wealthy and loving grandfather – “Gog” whom the book is part-dedicated too – who paid for his stay at the expensive clinic (most famous as having treated Marilyn Monroe). Otherwise he would have ended up in the Hillside Hospital in Queens with its cold bars on the window and air of despair and hopelessness.

As it turned out, Gaines’s stay at Payne Whitney became a turning point in what up until then had been a very unhappy and lonely childhood, with constant reminders that he would come to “no good” and a difficult (to put it mildly) father who referred to his son as a “nut job”.

Gaines emerged from Payne Whitney with a degree of self-acceptance and self-worth that must surely have saved his life, and also inspired his career as a writer and journalist.

Here he found acceptance and friendship among the other “crazies” including the film and theatre critic Richard Halliday, who turns out to be the husband of Broadway star Mary Martin, one of Gaines’s childhood idols.

Even his Freudian therapy with the kindly and good-intentioned Dr Myers who attempted to ‘cure him’ of his homosexuality, ultimately proved beneficial because for the first time there was someone who “seemed interested in what I had to say”.

Gaines has an endearing obsession with movies and the book is peppered with references to his favourite films – Gone with Wind, Lust for Life, Gaslight and Marty and trivia about which actor or actress received an Oscar nomination or Academy Award.

He tells Dr Myers his favourite film is Splendour in the Grass, starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, which he saw 11 times – not because he related to Natalie Wood’s character who has a nervous breakdown, but because he got to see Warren Beatty with his shirt off.

The book is full of these painfully honest and darkly funny insights into himself as a yong man. It’s also full of the colourful characters – both good and bad – that shaped his young Jewish life for the better and for the worse, set among Borough Park, “the cognac of Brooklyn, the potent and flavorful essence” a ghetto-like place of immigrant Jews that no longer exists

Reading “One of These Things First”reminded me why I loved movies like Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, Woody Allen movies, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm with their quasi-tragic Jewish humour and quintessentially Jewish characters: the overbearing mother, the neurotic, the obsessive personality, the self-made man, the kids bound for decades of “strict Freudian analysis”.

Oh Brooklyn, my Brooklyn. Life could offer no richer lesson than to simply grow up there. I wouldn’t have it any other way, not for any suburban childhood or silver-spoon, Upper East Side private school education.

Reading about his life, I felt a connection with Steven Gaines that encompassed our  Jewishness, our capacity for mental disintegration (I suffered for a time from debilitating anxiety attacks and thought I was literally going mad), shared love of movie trivia and nostalgia for the people and places from our childhood.

Gaines-HIFF3After finishing the book, I had a peak around Gaines personal website. He is a prolific writer, the author of dozens of books including  biographies of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Alice Cooper and who has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the New York Times.

I especially like his website photo. It shows Gaines, middle-aged but still youthful with a cherub like grin, and suggests a man of warmth, intelligence, kindness and cheekiness, character traits which were also part of the make-up of the 15-year-old boy in his memoir, who came of age during his stay at Payne Whitney.