Shades of Ugliness

You know the worst thing about Fifty Shades of Grey?
It’s not just that it’s an appalling affront to basic intelligence, with its awkward writing, cringe-worthy clichés and constantly repeated phrases.

It’s not that it was originally written as an online fan-fiction homage to Twilight, written under the pseudonym of Snowdragon Icequeen. And sure the sex scenes draw from BDSM ((bondage, discipline and sado masochism), but hey, whatever floats your boat.

These elements pretty much mark the book as your run-of-the-mill self-published erotic fiction novel, give or take the odd whip and nipple clamp.

For me what’s unsettling about this book is the manipulation, coercion and glamourised abuse of the young female protagonist, Ana, and the fact that women around the world can’t get enough of the bullying, controlling hero, Christian Grey.

Ana is a never-been-kissed 21-year-old virgin about to finish university and begin adult life. She owns just one skirt, doesn’t have a computer or smart phone, her car is a bomb, she’s never been drunk and she’s as about as streetwise as your average Amish teenager.

She’s introduced to readers as an empty vessel, a blank page upon on which Christian is about to indelibly stomp his muddy feet.

We’re told Christian is one of America’s leading entrepreneurs, a powerful global player at just 27-years-old, with 40,000 minions beneath him and several romantic relationships under his belt.

“His time is extraordinarily precious – much more precious than mine,” Ana tells us in clunky first-person prose.

The dynamic of their relationship is demonstrated at their first meeting when Ana trips over thin air and ends up on her hands and knees before Christian. Cos girls are clumsy and silly – and easily subjugated – like that.

The clear imbalance of power between Ana and Christian, who is “like a man twice his age,” and his penchant for hurting women – which is hinted to stem from his own childhood abuse – sets up a coercive relationship. Christian pressures Ana to sign on to play Sub to his Dominant via a detailed contract, which would control every aspect of her life, both in and out, of the bedroom.

BDSM is an erotic choice made by consenting adults, but in this book we don’t see two equal, mature adults make informed decisions about their intimate lives, we have a young woman in the throes of her first romance who is coerced and manipulated into allowing an older, more-experienced man to play out some fairly extreme fantasies.

And forget simple role-playing fun with handcuffs and a feather. In one scene, to demonstrate her ‘love’ for Christian, Ana allows him to hit her as hard as he wants.

“I close my eyes bracing myself for the blow. It comes hard, snapping across my backside and the bite of the belt is everything I feared.”

This is the sort of action that has suburban mums gossiping at the school gates? Which part of a man controlling, hurting and manipulating a young woman is sexy exactly?

After the beatings Christian brings Ana painkillers and rubs cream on the wounds he inflicted. This is even creepier than the beatings. This damaged billionaire can only express tenderness after he’s purged his need to inflict pain. Therapy anyone?

The couple’s relationship also seriously blurs the lines between the roles of father and lover. Christian washes Ana’s hair, nags her to eat properly, buys her a new, safer, car, sends her for a check up, rebukes her for running on a slippery floor and threatens corporal punishment if she breaks his rules – punishment that combines sex and pain.

Interestingly Christian himself doesn’t like to be hurt, he simply likes to hurt women. Nice.

Some readers describe the book as escapist fun and a romantic romp. A woman being degraded, hit, controlled and coerced into meeting the needs of a seriously screwed-up chap who sounds like he needs a good decade on the couch doesn’t sound much fun to me.

I understand that proponents of BDSM are not mentally unwell, but Christian’s need to hit to get off is more than a sexual choice, it is presented as the symptom of an abusive past.

The contemporary proliferation and normalising of porn largely due to online media, has already taught young women that surgically ‘improving’ their labia, bleaching their bottoms and ripping hair from their hoo hoo, is ‘expected’ sexual hygiene. This book seems to suggest that if they’d now bend over for a good walloping they’d really brighten up the bedroom.

“I do it for you,” Ana says of the beatings. “Because you need it.”

I look at the success of this book and wonder what happened to feminism? There are so many choices of clever, insightful, escapist, sexy and funny books available, why would women settle for a sordid story that reduces us all?

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A small death

Winter wind lashed her skinny legs and soil caked black and ugly beneath her nails as she dug the grave.

The grave for her doll.

She chose a spot at the edge of her dad’s vegie garden, where the weeds now grew amid broccoli gone to seed and unwieldy, fruitless strawberry runners.

Her thin dress held little shelter from the elements as the sky above darkened and wind wrenched leaves from the trees.

Tangles of hair stuck wet to her cheek in the spitting rain, but still she dug.

Grim. Determined.

The doll’s empty sockets admonished the girl, so small and unnoticed in the backyard as her dad abused the umpire in front of the box and her mother stewed over another pot of tea.

The doll was dead. That much was clear. Her time was finished and now she would be interred.

There was mud on Phoebe’s knees and the rat’s ends of hair plastered to cheeks.

The hole was deep enough, the doll was laid inside and dirt emptied on to her face until it could no longer be seen beneath the damp soil that squirmed and festered with worms and centipedes and the fetid remains of a compost heap.

Among this stench and rot the doll lay, soundless and silenced.

She made no protest. She swallowed her fate and gave herself up to this death. This ending of things.

Phoebe stamped on the disturbed soil. She picked nasturiums and daisies and tossed them carelessly on top.

Clouds swirled past and wind shifted the landscape about her, but Phoebe was still, and the doll was dead.

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I bought a new notebook today. It’s small and red with a butterfly on the front. I don’t need it. I already have dozens of half-scribbled-in notebooks scattered around the house. They’re tucked into my handbags, buried in my bedside drawer, stacked on my desk, squeezed between the books in the shelves and flung under my bed.

My name is Michelle Hamer and I have notebook issues. But I can stop any time I want…I think.

It’s just that there’s nothing quite like having just the right notebook when there’s occasionally time to write for me – not for the latest novel, article, editor or blog.

I can’t imagine a life without writing. I’m blessed to be able to write full-time as a journalist and author, but even if I had a different job I would probably still write every day. My fingers get twitchy if I don’t write for a while; they’re accustomed to the task of delivering the noise from my head onto a page or screen.

Personal writing has no deadline (oh joy!); doesn’t need to be finished, it doesn’t even have to make sense. It’s just random jottings, snatches of moments or emotions caught in words. Sometimes I write to process my thoughts and make sense of my life. Other times I jot down snippets of ideas or sentences that float into my brain, or turn people watching into a creative exercise.

Despite my extensive collection of notebooks I don’t always have one at hand, so I also have lots of jotted notes on the backs of envelopes, Medicare receipts, on crumpled brown paper bags that held my lunch and scrawled on the backs of bills that I really should have paid. I like how these scribbled thoughts are like fragments of history, caught on the ephemera of life. I keep them all, along with the diaries I have written since I was about ten-years-old. As the diary handwriting transforms from scruffy primary-school cursive to angry teenage scrawl and finally the harried scribble of a busy mum, I can track the landscape of my life.

One day I’ll gather all my notebooks, diaries and scraps of paper and collect them all in a box to pass on to my kids – who will probably take one look, shrug and put them out in the recycling.

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Lost for words

I’ve been making pies – lots of pies. Sweet potato, fetta and caramelised onion, meat and vegies, chicken and egg-and-bacon. I must have made three dozen in the past week.

I haven’t created this cooking frenzy just to feed the horde of kids at my place (eight at last count) but mainly as a way to avoid working on my new novel.

I figure that at least cooking is creative and resourceful and gives me a sense of achievement, whereas at the moment writing a coherent sentence is like trying to whistle with a mouthful of peanut butter.

Thanks goodness for Twitter, which at least keeps me engaged with the world, and gives me a chance to write and publish something – even if it is only 140 characters in (Follow me @shellwrites).

And it’s not like I have no experience with this writing lark. I’ve been a journo for more than 20 years and had seven books published – yet suddenly I can’t seem to string words together.

I sit in front of the laptop reading and re-reading the same sentence, wishing I could find another other word that means shiny and sunny, but not ‘bright’ cos that’s dull, and not ‘luminous’ cos that’s over-the-top and….well, you get the picture.

I wrestle with the same damn sentence, move it around, change the tense, add another adjective and then mentally slap myself for my weakness (adjectives are the enemy remember) and then delete the whole thing in frustration and head to the kitchen to caramelize some more ingredients. At least that way I can blame my tears on the onions.

It’s my very first experience of writers’ block – a condition I didn’t even believe was real – until now

As a professional writer with deadlines usually backed up for weeks ahead, kids to feed and bills to pay, the luxury of writers’ block seemed a foreign and expensive concept.

But for the first time I’m trying to write something that is deeply personal (albeit fiction), which requires introspection and emotional processing. And sometimes that means my head can’t even form the words to describe what I’m feeling.

Clearly I care about this damn book. Although I’ve been writing for so long, I feel like this is the best thing I’ve ever attempted – and so the pressure I’m putting on myself is huge.

And I have no excuses to ignore it either.

Suddenly there’s a break in my schedule. I’ve just done the final edit on a new co-authored novel for Random House and finally completed an eight-month-long ghost-writing project.

All my newspaper and magazine deadlines are under control and I have the time and brain space to work on what I hope will be my first literary novel. Bugger, that’s scary.

Seven years ago when I started the novel I wrote 45,000 words, five years ago my agent sent it out to a professional reader and I got back very detailed insights and suggestions.

I ignored it for many years though every now and then the characters tugged at my conscience like insistent children in the lolly aisle. Then last week I took it out, talked to my family about it again, rehashed the plot, the theme, the narrative arc, the characters and their motivations….and then started making pies.

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The end of days

He’s slipping away. From me. From us.

I make inane small talk to ease the tension; ease my discomfort, my sadness at the space that gasps between us. I try to embroider the edges of the hole with meaningless chat, with hollow camaraderie, but he resists. The more I lean forward the further he leans away.

The weather’s clearing up, I say, into space. My words hang, unwanted until they tumble into that damn hole.

He says nothing, show no signs that I have spoken, my words do not reach him, they are swallowed by the distance.

This can’t be.

Remember how he loved me? Couldn’t live without me? Ached to hold me, be near me, make love to me? Now he doesn’t know whether to stay or go. I’ve let him down, changed the game plan, become a disappointment and I can’t say whether I will die or live through this.

I see no future without him in it, without him loving me. It all seems so long ago, his infatuated desire for me. How when I met his work colleagues they would tell me how he talked of me all the time, of his love and adoration. What did I do to kill that, to fight that off? Christ it must have taken a lot of work because it was a lot of love, but well done me, I managed to dilute it, to reduce it to rubble.

Can we be fixed? I don’t know. We make the occasional lame attempt, we go out for ‘romantic dinners’ and it seems better for the night, the hole seems less something.

Sometimes we forget altogether, the hole is plastered over well and holds the weight of our love with ease, and then we dance and skip and love on it…but as the cracks show, the fissures begin to splinter inwards and the centre of our world collapses, we are once again standing on opposite sides staring into the crater.

I feel so stupid, so dumb; so bad. I don’t want to lose him, he is me, I am him, nothing would ever be the same again. Everything I know – everything – will be tainted by this loss, or held up against this experience never able to measure up.

What have I done? What have we done? How could we let life intrude in such a way. We had (have?) something rare and precious and forgot to fight for it, forgot to nurture and protect it, to put it before all else. We got mired in routine and duty and responsibility and left love on the back burner because we were so sure of it, and now it has wilted and sits curdled and past its prime and I don’t know how to regenerate it.

I can’t bear it. The pain. I can’t lose him; he’s my everything, my reason. For being. Isn’t he my reason for everything? What will I do? I can’t be alone, but more than that I can’t be without him.

I can’t let him go.

I can’t go on. I have nothing.

What am I doing and where am I going? How did I get so lost?

I need a life raft. I can’t swim. I’ve never been able to swim, I just kept flapping and moving and splashing enough water so no-one would notice. And now I’m drowning.

There is nothing in me and he filled me.

This is a very short piece from my new novel.

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The lull after the storm

Which way now?

I’m having a lull. A flat spot. A pause. I don’t like it. I feel paralysed and directionless, dull and purposeless.

I’ve always worked. I got my first job when I was 14, working in a deli at the local supermarket. A string of waitressing, and babysitting followed. Chinese restaurants, cafes and a silver-service venue – I worked everywhere during high school.

My record was three jobs at once. It wasn’t about the money; it was the work ethic my father drummed into me – work and you were worthwhile. It was more important than that study nonsense which seemed nebulous to him. But work; a good, hard, honest day’s work was tangible and valuable.

When the pressure and intensity of Yr 12 peaked and I confessed my anxiety to him, Dad told me to leave, to get a job in a supermarket. I had tried to leave in Year Ten, tried to following his footsteps and become a cook, (God knows what I was thinking) but I couldn’t find an apprenticeship, so I went back to school. I wanted to please him, I wanted him to value me. I wanted him to see me.

When I finished high school and got accepted at university my parents were maybe proud, I can’t remember, but I know that when I dropped out just two weeks after starting, restless to be part of what I remember calling the ‘real world,’ they didn’t object.

I went to work in a bakery, ended up managing it and could finally communicate to my dad in the language of work. But I was dying inside. I knew I needed more, wanted desperately to write and had this outlandish, impossible dream that I could do it for a living.

One day I went to my local paper and asked them for a job. And they did. I started my journalism cadetship and my life was changed.

My dad warned me that my job would mean making coffee and being a dogs’ body for several years. He was wrong. I was writing, living my dream (mind you, with very poor sentence structure and no news sense) within a few months and I knew I had found the first part of my future.

I’m not sure how many times my Dad warned me, “Don’t get above yourself girl” but his words still tug at my conscience 30 years later.

This lull I’m stuck in feels like a deep valley that I can’t seem to find the path out of. I know I want to be up in the sunshine on the hill again, not here where it’s dank and dull. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved this far, but I still hope that there is more ahead than behind. I just don’t know which way to step next, where to head.

For the absolute first time in my life I don’t want to have those three or four or five jobs all at once. I don’t want to work simply to survive, to keep my family fed and the debtors from the door. I don’t want to be driven to work just to escape the pain that has threatened to seep from beneath my skin to pollute my life.

Finally the pain has been acknowledged and I no longer need to hide in manic busyness. Survival is no longer an issue; we will be safe financially and there is time to ponder and explore options. My kids are increasingly independent, the mothering intensity has reduced. Everywhere I turn I am relieved of duty. These are all incredible blessings. But in the truest meaning of “be careful what you wish for” I am on the knife-edge of this double-edged sword.

What is it I want to do? Who will I be now that I no longer have to be full-time mother, provider, income earner or pursued by pain?

My work decisions were about so many things, but rarely about what I wanted. Often they were about escaping the past, proving my worth – over and over and over – struggling to put food on the table and also, of course, my own ambition.

Now I am left with only ambition – and the question of what would I like to do? (within reason, clearly I’m not cut out to be a prima ballerina at this point)

And I don’t know.

I know I want to write something beautiful, something moving and maybe inspirational. I want to write the best novel that I can. It’s started. A third of the way started, so why don’t I continue? I don’t know.

It’s much harder than I thought. The distance between imagining doing it and actually sitting down and addressing it is much further and wider and harder to traverse than I had ever imagined. I’ve written several books, but nothing this hard, or this good.

There has always been a reason not to write this book, and now that I am faced with no barriers, I’m not. Not writing it. Not indulging in what I thought was a passion for writing. In fact the whole idea of it makes me feel awful. Wretched. I want to forget about being a writer, because clearly I’m not one. I can’t do it, am not doing it. Instead I sit in front of my computer, day after frustrating, awful day and fiddle about. Achieving nothing. No work ethic here.

At the height of my work mania, as a prolific freelance journalist I would add up daily and weekly how many words I’d written, how much money I’d made and would only be satisfied when it was a big enough amount – when I could feel worthwhile. Now, with almost no income I feel like I have no relevance in the world, no place and few rights.

In my mind the rights belong to the workers. The hardy folk who keep the wheels turning and industries productive. I make dinner for the family each day and take some very small solace in this and then feel pathetic for finding self worth in such a petty place.

I sleep a lot, to avoid the difficulty of being awake, of feeling worthless and hopeless and directionless and irrelevant. When I am awake I fight the intense desire to just sleep more, to go back to bed and hide again. It’s very strong and very determined this sleepiness. I give in a lot.

But in between naps I apply for the occasional job, I work on my online presence because maybe that’s important, I set up a new blog, I Tweet and talk to newspaper and magazine editors with little conviction or optimism because the media is being gutted in Australia – and I have little passion left for it anyway.

I feel bad most of the time. Like a failure most of the time. I wonder where it will end, this lull. I talk to family and friends hoping for a breakthrough, I talk to a career coach, to my therapist and to a handful of media colleagues.

I have many, many ideas of what I would like to do, but can’t seem to fix, to hold to one. Is it me? Is there something burnt out and non-functioning within me that is causing this flatness?

Is it the huge changes in my life in the past six months to which I’m still adjusting? (Moving in with a new partner and forming a stepfamily of nine).

Is it the shock of having choice for the first time ever, which makes me feel stultified and paralysed? I wish I knew. I wish I could just get up tomorrow with some answers because the search for them is exhausting and draining and depressing.

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Linen conspiracy

What cost Egyptian cotton?

I wanted a new doona cover. I had a gift card for Myer. The rest was easy, right?


Myer had a lovely Sheridan cover on display, which I liked immediately. I was already congratulating myself on my shopping efficiency and imagining my first sip of a latte in the café downstairs.

Then I saw the price.


And that didn’t include pillowcases, which were $80 each.

$460 to make my bed, and I hate making my bed.

The last doona cover I bought cost me $11 (brand new) from a local op shop and I loved it.

Clearly Sheridan is outside my fiscal comfort zone. But then so were all Myer brands. I did find one fitted sheet for $70 and almost got excited, but I think that was just a touch of Stockholm Syndrome.

I marched off to Target, furious at the marketing nonsense that encourages people to pay almost five hundred bucks for something they’re just going to fart under.

At Target I was bombarded by thread counts, percale, Egyptian cotton and sateen finishes. It’s a Linen Conspiracy. These marketers want us all to crave the finest and the fanciest, the most luxurious threads and fibres, and to happily pay a fortune for the illusion that we’re buying a better life.

And worse; just some quick research revealed that up to a million Egyptian children work about 10 hours in 40 degree heat, picking the cotton from plants drenched in pesticides and endure savage beatings from their bosses, so we western folk can feel special when we slip between the sheets.

If I’d known this at the time I would have gone home, feeling quite sick. But as I stalked back to my car I passed an Adairs shop having a sale. Unfortunately the sales woman was determined to be helpful. Don’t you hate that? I avoided making eye contact and tried to sidle away, but she was vigilant.

Despite her help I managed to find what I was looking for, a doona cover which may or may not be damask/percale/embossed with a fleur de lys….I forget now. Whatever. It looked good, seemed good quality and was reduced from $220 to $100 – yey!

No pillowcases of course. They were $60 each – reduced to $15. I could live without them.

“Oh are you sure,” the saleswoman looked mortified, “It really does complete the look.”

“Well, they look a bit uncomfortable to sleep on,” I said pointing to the braid/brocade/ruching. Whatever.

“Oh, no, they’re not for sleeping on, just for the aesthetic.”

Ok, what? $120 for pillowcases to be thrown on the floor every night? Hilarious.

In a corner I noticed fitted sheets reduced from $70 to $30. “They look good,” I said pretending I knew the difference between hessian and silk.

“Oh yes, but it’s tricky to get just the right shade,” the saleswoman chirped. “And none of these really look right, but I could order one in for you.”

I looked at the sheets. There was white, brown, and green. How hard could it be?

“Oh.” The saleswoman mouthed in dismay as I picked up the brown one. She walked back behind the counter clearly washing her hands of the whole business.

* I just checked my linen and neither is Egyptian cotton, which is a fluke. I’ll be boycotting it from now on.

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