ROBYN DAVIDSON Unfinished Woman. Reviewed by Mary Garden
Robyn Davidson’s memoir delves into her family relationships and provides a window onto the ongoing trauma of sibling abuse.
Robyn Davidson is best known for her international bestseller Tracks, about her trek across 2700 kilometres of Australian desert in 1977. Her new memoir, Unfinished Woman, is of another journey, this time into her past. It is mostly, she says, about her mother, who died by suicide in 1961, when the author was 11 years old. Davidson wanted to write her own story, excavate her memories, in order to release her mother from ‘the prison of other people’s stories’ where she’d been ‘misrepresented, dishonoured, murdered’.
What stood out for me in this brave and brilliant book was not her mother, but Davidson’s sister, Margaret, who is six years older. She is a significant person in Davidson’s life and their relationship as children has had long-lasting effects. She stood out for me because I, too, had a difficult and painful relationship with my sister.
Relationships between brothers and sisters are significant. They are often the longest lasting over one’s lifetime; siblings grow up in the same family environment and have a shared history. Davidson says she adores her sister. When she was little, Margaret was the person she loved most in the world, despite their fights.
Unlike the other people she writes about, Davidson’s sister crops up throughout the book. It’s a major thread, from the prelude ‒ ‘My sister’s take on my mother’s story is so different from mine that it is as if we emerged from different worlds’ ‒ to the last page: ‘I do know that she acted out of her own loss and grieving, and that one must never forget the vital significance of point of view.’ Yet Margaret is seldom, if ever, mentioned in reviews of the book or interviews with the author. Jacqueline Kent writes in the Australian Book Review that she found Unfinished Woman frustrating as she wanted more detail about other people in Davidson’s story. Apart from her father, Kent says, they are rather ‘shadowy presences’, including her mother.
I did not find Davidson’s sister to be a shadowy presence. Her sister looms large, especially in the author’s recollections of her childhood and the years spent in Mooloolah, Queensland. Her sister can be a bully and their fights are terrifying for Davidson:
Sometimes it happened that a fight would break out. From my vantage, my sister was a giantess. Boomph, the air would go out of my lungs, and I would be left doubled up, wondering if this time, I would die before breath came back. … [Davidson would go to their mother] I would be in tears, not from the punches, but from the words. Or perhaps it wasn’t even the words, it was the tone. The sneering, annihilating tone which reduced me to sobs. …
She turns and I know what’s coming, because it has come so often before. Her nails dig into my arm, the air goes out of my stomach, and the sneering, loathing refrain pours down: ‘useless, ugly, stupid’ … I know (do we all know?) that her anger arises out of my usurping her place.
Davidson recalls a time when they were children and standing outside their house at Mooloolah looking up at a double rainbow in the sky. Davidson asked if that was heaven. Her sister looked down at her and smiled: ‘No, rat-head, it’s not heaven. It’s just the sun.’ Shortly afterwards, they were in the kitchen and for some reason Davidson told her sister she wanted to die. Her sister pulled out her father’s carving knife from the cutlery drawer, handed it to her and said, ‘Go ahead, you little shit, let’s see if you’ve got the guts.’
When her sister goes to boarding school in Brisbane, Davidson is relieved as there would be ‘no more bullying’. Readers might be surprised to learn that sibling abuse or bullying is the most common form of violence in families, occurring four to five times as frequently as spousal or parental child abuse. It is as much as three times more prevalent than school bullying. Despite this, it is under-researched and seldom discussed in the media. The 2016 Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence noted that sibling violence is a form of family violence that receives inadequate recognition.
Davidson’s father was a distant figure and worked outside on the farm. Her mother was the housewife, the ‘semi-slave’, but also distant emotionally and struggling with depression. Her attempts to intervene in the fights were ineffective. She’d tell the older sister to stop bullying, which evidently made things worse in the long run. She’d also compare them, and say to Margaret: ‘You are like my gaillardia flowers, you’re tough and you’ll thrive anywhere. But your sister is like the rose.’ Margaret saw this as favouritism. It stuck:
… like a splinter of ice, for a lifetime … and became an emblem of the subterranean causes of my sister’s rage with our mother and therefore with me.
Sibling abuse can have long-lasting effects. Dr John Caffaro, an internationally recognised authority on this issue, says victims may struggle in adulthood with shame, depression, low self-esteem, loneliness and hopelessness. Davidson struggled with these things. Her mother’s suicide in 1961 would have played a part, of course, but her sister’s cruelty left its mark as well. Tellingly, Davidson says her walk across the desert in 1977 gave her a kind of integration, and ‘proof that “useless ugly stupid” was not all there was.’
Sibling abuse is often mirrored in future relationships. Davidson provides few details of her tumultuous relationship with Salman Rushdie, ‘two damaged children each with a different bedlam inside their heads’, but blames herself for the ongoing abandonments.
There had to be something in me, in my behaviour that caused them … My childhood loves primed me to assume that any anger coming my way had to be my fault, my responsibility.
Of her childhood loves, Davidson only mentions her sister’s anger towards her.
Davidson and her sister became estranged for a number of years as adults. They met up in 1996 when Davidson returned to Australia to promote her book Desert Places. Davidson collected their parents’ ashes and visited her sister so they could scatter them. The reunion was not the happy meeting she hoped for:
I went to hug her but it was like approaching the same pole of a magnet ‒ a repelling force that increases the closer you get. Everything about her said, ‘You have done something unforgivable.’ But what? … When she spoke her voice was cold, bitter ‒ the tone of one who has been wronged. That voice vibrated with … What? Rage? It was more like loathing ‒ the longing to crush something loathsome.
Her sister asked Davidson if she remembered the dog that killed her pet duckling Auburn. When Davidson replied that she did, her sister dismissed her: ‘You were too young to know anything about it,’ adding, ‘I willed death to that dog. And the next day it took a poison bait and died.’ Her sister said that was when she first knew her own psychic power.
After they’d scattered their parents’ ashes in the sea at Bribie Island, Davidson recalls Margaret saying with a withering tone, ‘Well, it seems our parents are happy. So here we are, pleasing our parents again.’ Davidson touched her sister’s shoulder but Margaret flinched away.
Davidson excuses her sister’s anger, and says that behind her behaviour is pain. Yet its effects have been ongoing:
Just as my birth left its effect in my sister’s development, so her contempt marked my unfurling ego. It is with me still, that malformation ‒ a habit of worthlessness ‒ and it has governed much of my fate. I have accepted as normal that deep love from someone can be mixed with a desire to obliterate.
Davidson may baulk at my use of the term ‘sibling abuse’. After all, she spurns the use of the term alcoholic (‘a Western concept’) to describe Narendra Singh Bhati, her Indian partner for many years, who drank heavily. In India, she says, there is more tolerance of drunkenness.
Should sibling abuse be tolerated? Robyn Davidson’s book provides a rich and valuable opportunity to spark a cultural conversation about the lifelong damage done by siblings.
Robyn Davidson Unfinished Woman Bloomsbury 2023 PB 304pp $34.99
Mary Garden is an award-winning author and a journalist, with a PhD in Journalism (USC). She lives in Castlemaine in regional Victoria, on Dja Dja Wurrung Country. Her new book My Father’s Suitcase: a memoir will be published in 2024.
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