A review of The After Life: a memoir by Kathleen Stewart

Reviewed by Sue Bond

The After Life: a memoir
by Kathleen Stewart
2008. ISBN 978 1 74166 727 1. 270 pp. $AU34.95.

Let me tell you about love, and how I concluded at seventeen that it did not exist after all – that love I’d longed for as an antidote to everything I’d lived, that would fling a ladder spun of my own hair up to me in my walled-in-castle.

This first sentence of Kathleen Stewart’s memoir prepares us for her life in the mid-1970s when she was a teenager. Then she endured a raging, violent, desperate father, a self-absorbed and controlling mother, sexual molestation by a male relative, a horrific rape, and a relationship with a self-centred, emotionally abusive young man. Her parents separated, her father killed himself, her lover rejected her and she attempted to take her own life.

Many of these facts are on the back cover, so I am not ‘spoiling the story’. And it is not telling the facts themselves that is the essence of the story, but how she shows us her state of mind, her relationships with others (father, mother, brother, lover, friends), her family life, her despair. This is not a mystery, but the telling of (part of) a life.

Stewart has written of these things in a language that is not self-pitying. She strives to make clear what is was like for her as a teenage girl in a frighteningly dysfunctional family that was allowed to continue because on the outside it looked good. The rest of the world saw a beautiful mother and a successful father with a family they reared on opera and instructive holidays. It was all a sham.

The language used in the first sentence is representative of the whole. Stewart spins words like silk, producing images of great beauty, but she also uses them to search for the truth. On meeting Martin, her obsessive love, for the first time, she comments ‘[w]hat odd flints we are, though, we humans, and what strange fires our unions start’. Their times together are described as rapturous: ‘Naked we were a sculpture of interweaving curves and angles and our skin glowed pale as silkworms…’.

On her home, and family life, she writes ‘[h]ome is nowhere I would want to go back to’, a space where she was ‘raised into full shadowdom’. Her father ‘is a firestorm’, a man who could fling abuse and rage at his family over the butter being put in the wrong compartment in the refrigerator, and then ‘when my father rises to leave the table we all stand quickly and kiss him goodbye for the day, kiss his mouth that tells in such detail how he would destroy us’.

Her mother is ‘extracting my life energy’, ‘doesn’t know where her body ends and mine begins’. When her mother leaves Stewart’s father, she enlists her daughter’s help, but does not seem to consider any possible danger to her, and does not insist that she go with her. But Stewart does not want to go with her ‘high-maintenance’ mother who ‘took everything from me’: ‘I felt like a girl making golden shirts from a never-ending pile of straw around my mother’.

What is prominent in Stewart’s memoir is the absolute neglect of both her and her brother’s emotional welfare. The adults who are their parents are too psychologically damaged themselves to see what they are doing to their children. The author’s brother is a shadowy, resentful figure, hiding in his bedroom, squashed by his father. Stewart blames herself for everything, feels guilt and shame for everything. When, at 13, she wakes one night to find a male relative, naked, molesting her, her cries for help elicit only a cold, crossed-arms scorn from her mother.

When her mother leaves her father, he is a broken man, weeping and drinking every night, demanding his children tell him they love him best.

The rape, the gynaecological examination some months later by a specialist, the abusive bra strap-snapping teacher, the family home that is fear: there is so little in Stewart’s teenage world that is love or comfort that it is no wonder she seeks it in Martin. When he casts her off, she attempts suicide, and the hospital is a place of refuge. It is telling that she marvels at the kindness and respect and consideration she is shown there by the nurses and kitchen staff and everyone.

Kathleen Stewart’s memoir is poetic, courageous, and shocking. She shows how children can be so badly treated, how women can be so badly treated, how the mentally ill can be so inadequately treated, that they can destroy themselves and others and the world continues on, oblivious. Stewart endured, survived, wrote seven novels and two books of poetry along the way, and now gives us a remarkable work of life-writing, a book of art that tells some savage truths.

About the reviewer: Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane with her partner and their large cat. She writes reviews for the Courier Mail, Metapsychology Online, Journal of Australian Studies Review of Books, dotlit, Asian Review of Books and Social Alternatives. Some of her short stories have been published in Hecate, Imago, Mangrove and SmokeLong Quarterly, and she has degrees in medicine, literature and creative writing. She is working on a memoir of her adoptive life, as well as short stories and essays. Her blog is at http://geckowriting.blogspot.com