Why Helen Garner was wrong

I was twenty when I first read Helen Garner’s The First Stone, published twenty years ago, in 1995. I had fallen in love with Garner as a teenager via her novels Monkey Grip and The Children’s Bach, thrilled by her depictions of ‘ordinary’ Australian women living in urban and suburban areas, thrilled that women/girls like me might be worthy of literature.

So I remember approaching The First Stone with trepidation, knowing of its subject matter but, hoping, Garner’s skills would provide an interesting insight into the case the book was investigating: two girls who were taking a master of Ormond College at the University of Melbourne to court for sexual harassment.

Reading The First Stone was like being betrayed by a good friend.

I still recall the visceral feelings: anger at the descriptions she used to describe women of my age, frustration at her inability to comprehend the minefield of sexual games young women had to contend with at that time and anxiety at how quick she was to label the girl’s actions as ‘destructive, priggish and pitiless’. It was my first exposure to the generational divisions between feminists that continue to this day.

While we are all now drowning in the quagmire of [insert pre-label here] feminisms, The First Stone seemed to be one of the first real public playing out of young feminists versus old feminists in Australia and was an obvious example of someone growing up in certain conditions being unable to empathise with those who grow up in quite different ones. If the girls involved in the case were anything like me (and, unfortunately, we never got to hear their voices because they refused to talk to Garner), I had no training in how to negotiate the ambiguous power relations which play out between older men of authority and younger women.

Leaving high school and stepping into full-time work I drew the unwanted attention of a number of older male colleagues, one of whom constantly made lewd remarks about my intention to go to university – and the subsequent campus ‘action’ I’d be involved in – and who then bought me a packet of condoms for a Kris Kringle gift and, in the same Christmas spirit, gave a female (pregnant) co-worker a videotape of pornography, which was subsequently played in one of the staffrooms. Twenty years on, would such a scenario still happen in a governmental workplace? I like to think not. And such change is no thanks to Garner’s attitude in The First Stone.

While she might have seen these ‘puritan feminists’ as shutting down the ambiguities of sexual relations, the girls who took their master to court were but a small example of women saying no to casual objectification, to smirking sexism and to the ‘she should have known what he wanted’ blaming of rape victims.

Believe it or not, at the age of eighteen, I still naively assumed that when I talked to men, they were talking to me as a human being first, and a woman second, particularly in environments where, as far as I was concerned, sex had no place and, yes, I was shocked when a male lecturer admitted he’d been ‘checking out my legs’ during a university seminar.

The feminists ‘consumed with rage and fear’ that Garner condemns in The First Stone are still having to be vigilant, and still cop the same criticisms she threw at them twenty years ago: that they are throwing stones when they too have sinned. Such logic implies women are equally capable of inappropriate behaviour, that we use our sexual prowess when it is convenient and should be merciful when those of the opposite gender ‘get it wrong’. Back then, I could understand the call for compassion in Garner’s argument: yes, perhaps, we don’t always have to go for the jugular.

But now, I have to ask, what would have happened if we had granted clemency? How much worse would things be if we hadn’t started calling out appalling, sexist behaviour? If we hadn’t gone to the courts? Campaigned for legislative change? If we hadn’t become the ‘puritan feminists’ Garner named us? Over the last twenty years, I have been enormously grateful for workplaces where contraception would not be deemed a suitable gift, where doors are kept open to protect both parties and where sexual ‘banter’ can lead to serious repercussions. I have lived to see a female prime minister – however much her treatment showed how far we have still to go – and I am heartened by the daily call to account of men in power by female commentators of intelligence and ferocity.

The First Stone was described as an ‘anti-feminist book written by a feminist’ and its importance cannot be underestimated in galvanising women like me into understanding the many levels at which the patriarchy operates. While I am not sure I am yet to forgive Garner, I am grateful to her for making my own position clear: to be one of those feminists who make punitive noise when the circumstances demand it.


Rachel Hennessy

Rachel Hennessy’s novels are The Quakers (Wakefield Press, 2008) and The Heaven I Swallowed (Wakefield Press, 2013). She teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne.

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  1. Well said Rachel,
    I was appalled and astonished at Helen Garner’s lack of sensitivity and meannes of spirit in publishing “The First Stone”. I too had been a great admirer of her earlier work and was astonished that such an icon of feminism in Australia could turn against her own kind so publically and so overtly side with the master of the college before she had even attempted to speak to the young women.
    For 25 years I ran university residential colleges and I am sad to say that I saw first hand dreadful behaviour on the part of a number of male heads who either objectified young women themselves or condoned this behaviour by remaining silent while young men abused the young women in their care. .
    The women concerned in “First Stone” had a great advocate in Jenna Mead in her book of essays responding to Garner’s faction, “Bodyjamming”. It successfullly revealed the lack of veracity in First Stone and presented an altogether different view of events. Unfortunately, it did not receive the publicity the First Stone did. However, there was another strong voice out there and I think Garner had to work very hard to regain her credibility. And rightly so.
    Cheers, Helen

  2. I am closer in age to Helen Garner than the young woman in The First Stone but have no sympathy for the position she took in that book.
    Not only did she falsely ascribe a sexual power to the student, which the student herself was powerless to wield, but she then also blamed the student for possessing such power.
    It did strike me at the time that Helen Garner was deeply envious of the young woman’s attractiveness to men, and blamed her for evoking such a response in her lecturer. Was it her fault the man lusted after her?
    I think Garner made the mistake of blaming the victim, and I remember how shocked I was that Helen took the side of ‘the poor much maligned male’. I remember how uncomfortable the advances of male tutors and lecturers made me feel at uni, and whatever sexual power I had was a paltry thing compared to the rank those men occupied and potential for reprisal should their advances be rejected.
    In the end, I wondered why we had ever bothered to challenge such abuses of male power when Helen thought she could come along and wipe out the gains women had made to assert their right not to be assessed solely as sexual creatures but as fellow humans entitled to equal respect and opportunities as males.
    I have felt uncomfortable about at least two of the books Garner subsequently wrote because they seemed to be written from an anti-female perspective, and while I recognise she is a wonderful prose stylist, I cannot warm to her writing and find her strikingly lacking in humanity, especially towards her own gender.
    But there you go. She is a controversial writer and, as a woman, I am pleased for her success. It’s not easy making a living as a writer, especially a female writer, and her voice certainly adds to the rich variety of views that is contemporary Australian literature, so if only for that reason alone, I support her right to express her views even if I don’t agree with them.

  3. Hi Rachel, How interesting to read this for I am of an age with Helen Garner and loved her book The First Stone. What perhaps was missing was an empathy for the fact that this younger women – your generation – did not have the tools we had to dismiss a lot of the casual sexism. Nevertheless, for someone like me who was raised in pubs (not part of the middle-class) apart from the ‘quick wit and smart answers’ that one learns to defend oneself, our lives in the lower echelons were marred and, to be truthful, I still think men (with few exceptions) still see women as potential sex partners, mothers, daughters or some other label of relationship rather than people in our own right first. In other words, nothing much has changed, it’s just much more subtle now and therefore harder to manage.

  4. In 2001, Melourne University regulations were that a person guilty of sexual harassment could not be approached by a sexual harassment university representative but that the victim’s only recourse was to have that person charged under the law.Helen Garner’s The First Stone was cited to me by a Melbourne Uni sexual harassment officer as the sole reason for that change. This meant that if I wanted to put an end to the sexual harassment I was subjected to by an acting Head of Department, which included him cornering me in his office late at night when I accepted his offer to use his phone to call a cab after a night at a university venue, I would have to take him to court. In taking him to court I risked my future professional reputation which was no doubt affected anyway when two weeks later, after a “quiet word” and the handing of some pamphlets, he sat on my thesis defence evaluation committee.

    Aside from his harassment of me, he also engaged in groping a 25 year old PhD student, who’s rebuttal he replied to with “if you didn’t want it you wouldn’t wear clothes like these”. I know the 25 year old started wearing clothes neck to knee. Who knows how many others were subject to his blatant and very physical harassment, and shaken to the core as I was.

    Thanks to Helen Garner the louse was untouched. He served out the rest of his career and retired without a blemish to his name.

  5. Yes! Thanks for encapsulating the exact feeling I had when the First Stone came out. I was in residential college myself at the time, and getting quite an education on gender politics as well as my chosen degrees.

    I too had loved Monkey Grip and, on reading the First Stone, felt like I was on the other side of a huge chasm from Garner or that she was deliberately taking my experiences and twisting them out of recognition. Betrayal is a great word for it. I don’t normally hold a grudge but I’ve never read anything of hers since.

    As for ‘the tools for dismissing casual sexism’, I had developed those. I grew up in a working class town as well and worked in a very male dominated area at uni holidays. But as quick as I got with the come backs, the giving as good as I got, and diffusing the advances and suppressed violence with a smile and a joke, it was never acceptance as a person. It was ‘passing’ and there are always limits to passing.

    I don’t know that the tools that were developed by us – the anti-discrimination suits and so on, have made it that much better. They certainly haven’t solved the problem. But I can tell you that I prefer to sit in a management meeting and say things like ‘if you continue to allow this manager to harass these women, we are looking at litigation that will cost us $X plus all of the publicity that entails’, than try to solve this sort of stuff with a diffusing smile and a swift knee to the balls as advocated by bloody Helen Garner.

  6. I well remember this book being slated at the time of its publication by some “feminists” … that was, as the author states, 20 years ago now. It is somewhat confusing as to why this article returns to a debate that was played out way back then, minus many of the important points made back then in Garner’s defense. And for this author to somehow conflate Garner’s book with her own experience of sexism is unfair.

  7. Hmm! Are some people trying to make a name for themselves? It was 20 years ago. Garner wrote something. So? Personally, when I recently read this book (after reading your article) I did think there wasn’t enough information in it to justify having a book published, but I read it anyway to see what the fuss was about. As I said, I don’t know if there were that many conclusions drawn, but I welcomed the opportunity to rethink some of the sexual harassment situations I had been through in the workforce, over the last five decades. This dialogue sounds like a good chance to kick someone – a woman. How is demonizing Garner helping anything? Did you really read the book? Aren’t there bigger fish to fry? Garner had an opinion, and did try to talk to the women. There are two sides to the story. How is re-starting a hate campaign, after all these years, helping. Many of the women (people) who read your article will not read the book, but now hate Garner, because you told them to. Aren’t there other, more useful things/topics/campaigns/wars/etc that you could be getting on with? Jus’ saying. Merlene Abbott

    1. The twenty year anniversary of a book’s publication is, I believe, quite a valid reason to revisit an important text and to question its arguments in the context of today’s feminist agenda. I don’t think I have any desire to “make a name for myself” and find your comment much more aggressive than my article is towards Garner. I give readers of Overland more credit than to think they will hate Garner, because I told them to (which I didn’t anyway). And, yes, I have read the book. As I said, twenty years ago and a month before writing this piece.
      I have also written articles about Jonathan Franzen, egg-freezing, accusations of racism and gender stereotyping. Sorry, no war but I’m not a war correspondent and see this journal as a place to explore and discuss a diverse range of topics.

  8. It would be amiss to simply focus on ‘The First Stone’ to present a critical analysis of Helen Garner’s body of work. In an entirely non-personal response to a library recall notice, unlike some of the commentary on this book above, I decided to return Helen Garner’s 2014 book “This House of Grief” when I was just over half way through. I found it boring. It was like watching the recreation of a car crash in slow motion, which was exactly what it was about. Garner’s carefully crafted attempt to forge a non-judgemental pathway through a morbid litany of predictable inevitability where no amount of speculation was going to improve the conclusion did nothing for me. Attributing feelings to those around her was about the only thing that could be achieved, when all of the action had taken place off-stage and in the past. That is not to say that some of her other books were like that too. ‘Monkey Grip’, the first piece of social realist fiction that I could tolerate, was gripping, like the film wasn’t. The actors in the film were too old, too polished and too well-schooled in the art of middle-class boho when that word did not exist yet. The film was intrusive, and the actors created a slightly knowing and oily presence which made me wary of over-dependence on characterisation, especially if they are too sophisticated and have got it wrong. Perhaps people who actually lived that life are too unreliable as actors – ‘Dogs in Space’ was beautifully filmed and deeply moving.

    I skipped her other works of fiction through the ’80s and ’90s because the subject matter did not interest me, and caught up again with ‘The First Stone’ about five years ago. I enjoyed it, for entirely different reasons from the focus of criticisms presented above. I saw the book as more a problem with the Public Service and the fumblings of the people within. Yes, it was set in a University, with all of the self-centred indulgence that a more dedicated than have a good time, make lots of friends, get a degree and get out lifestyle within that now somewhat over-inclusive community entails. I just wish someone had murdered someone, or stolen something AND murdered or stalked the person or people who found out – life might have been a bit more interesting, humorous and exciting for these people, and us as readers. We all have personal harassment stories, but the word ‘feminist’ bothers me – I studied the old ones like I studied the ancient Romans and the Greeks – and we shouldn’t be forced to stick to a plan that worked nearly 50 years ago. Men are not the enemy – we all are, when things go wrong. It is how you deal with anyone hassling you or other crises severe or mild that matters, and the crux of this one was how the people involved dealt with it. As an example, in the most ordinary of social situations, I seem to attract the aggression of middle-aged women with depression and anger issues. Alway have, and never seem to see them coming. Don’t make eye contact, do not engage with them in anything other than polite and trivial conversation, no matter how empathetic, interesting or controversial they appear to be. It pays not to be judgmental, however – it is not your problem. If it is, you will be judgemental, and it will be clouded.

    The banal domesticity of Garner’s ’80s and ’90s fiction was a must to avoid for me. Like the film version of ‘Monkey Grip’ there seemed to be a slightly greasy and nauseating intimacy amongst the characters, with whom I didn’t wish to complete the journey, and didn’t. My next foray into Garner’s body of work was ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’, another work of non-fiction but with a certain freshness about it. I also found it deeply moving, most likely as Garner intended. Maybe I could relate more to the people involved there, rather than to a bunch of townies whose lives seem to be a never-ending car crash, or a bunch of middle-class trendies who I wished would get kidnapped, murdered or be on the run with state secrets – anything.

    Back to ‘Stone’ and the debate in question. It is much harder to empathise with the lives of boring and predictable public servants whose arts-orientated academic training and jobs seem to lack the self-discipline and rules of behaviour that seem to be more organised and self-explanatory in large firms within the private sector. Creepy older men come in all shapes and sizes, and those wearing slightly longer hair and jeans shouldn’t fool any young woman in this day and age, unless they are themselves part of that public service mind-set. Perhaps it really does depend on what people do for a living or during the course of their daily lives. If they get into trouble, and their lives are mundane to start with, it does make for an extreme writing challenge. So when observing someone’s attempt to analyse the foibles of human nature in the measured and almost impartial style of Helen Garner, perhaps we should not be the ones to cast the first stone.

    1. I think saying ‘men are not the enemy’ is entirely reductionist to be frank. It’s through societal structures that we are inculcated with particular attitudes, most importantly in regards to our sexualities and genders. In this sense, I think you are being as dishonest as Garner was in writing this piece – perhaps naive. As with the victims in the book, the focus is not to besmear those individuals that act out of turn. Instead, we as feminists act to undermine the structures that give rise to this behaviour, to demonstrate its unacceptability. Really, in attempting to subvert the enmeshed normativity of gendered values, we can expect some turbulence and to some degree the ill-practice of people acting in revolt.By assigning the usual labels of ‘reactionary’ and ‘priggish’ you are handing out the same undeserved mockery to those willing to fight to effect real change.

  9. Just dying of curiosity about why the alleged victims, Elizabeth Rosen and Nicole Stewart, seem by all accounts to have been silent on these so called controversial events. It all smacks of classism to me. I was out in the world at 16 years old supporting and having to fend for myself. I admit the harsh reality of living in a patriarchal society and suffered because of this. More recently, the past decade of my workplace has been one of sheer bullying and harassment, including comments to me such as “you need a good root”. I am a 60 year old woman with an impeccable work history. This last decade of my working life has been nothing short of life changing despair. I face the prospect, yet again, of having to defend myself, after making formal complaints, in a doubtless, daunting courtroom scenario against a very large corporation. I am more than happy to share my awful experiences with anyone who will listen, but, because of my lower station in life and my gender, have a lot more hurdles to cross. If Elizabeth Rosen and Nicole Stewart were so grossly offended, and or, assaulted, then why, after all this time, did they not stand on their own respective convictions to impart what they had learned from this experience, or, was this privileged for a certain class or age of feminist? Perhaps their experiences could have helped other girls or women. Again, this smacks to me of some cloistered middle class arrangement, where, only the elite have access to knowledge and information. I have nothing but praise for Helen Garner in expressing her views and observations. It would serve the current so called feminists to read up on Marilyn French’s Beyond Power and, whilst extremely academic, Germaine Greer’s views also. I still maintain that if this was an important charge to bring against a member of the opposite sex, why, decades later, aren’t these now mature alleged victims doing so for their cause? I wish I had someone like Helen Garner to support me in court and detail the events of harassment to myself. Apologies to anyone who believes working class women should not be heard. Cheers

  10. Some of these comments make me wonder if we read the same book. For me, The First Stone was a thoughtful meditation on gender relations and class politics.

    1. Yes! Thoughtful and reflective. Garner constantly and frankly examines her own motives, reactions and opinions throughout the book.

  11. What no one seems to see (apart from Catherine) is that ‘the First Stone’ is not about Feminism : it is about the GREAT UNMENTIONABLE in Australian society, Class.

  12. I was heartened to read Rebecca’s piece. I am the same generation as Helen Garner and an alumni of Melbourne University and as part of the Second Wave feminist movement in Australia, was appalled at the events at Ormond. In the light of the continuing sexism and the current (did it ever go away?) problems on campus, the efforts to change gender bias, class discrimination and patriarchy need to continue. Real lives are impacted by all these events. Helen Garner was wrong.

    1. Come off it! Are men ever responsible for their actions? Nobody ruined Gregory’s career except Gregory. If you are a middle aged master of a college, don’t go around indecently assaulting students half your age! What he did was a crime. And it wasn’t just two women he went after that night, but five! Although Garner makes sure not to mention that important fact in her book.

      1. Confirming from Gloria’s team that this is certainly not Gloria but someone using her name. Thank you to Peter for alerting us and hope the moderators remove this original post.

  13. My daughter’s life was ruined through being sexually harassed at work at age 21 in the modern times of 2011. A much older married man who was her direct supervisor had so much power of this young early school leaver who was so grateful for a job and frightened to lose it. She went along with all of his requests until it was too much for her and she left with what we realised later was PTSD. It is hard to remember once we are older how difficult it is for young women to navigate these things and how older men can so easily manipulate. It is truly frightening.

  14. As all things gender political, I approached The First Stone trying to remain impartial.

    I share exactly the same grievances expressed by Rachel Hennessy, but a greater hopeful quality to Garner’s angle has been overlooked in her analysis. Here was a rare feminist writer capable of grasping the sexual power all women have over the men who are attracted to them. And reading a book on gender politics where the writer was capable of understanding the “other” left me with a sense of hope that maybe this minefield might one day be navigable.

    I can’t help but wonder if, now the years have passed, whether the two ladies might have approached things differently. Would they feel capable of speaking up and putting a man like that in his place? And for that matter, in hindsight, whether Helen Garner might have approached her book from a different angle? How does Helen Garner feel about the state of her sisterhood today? Would she concede that the punitive approach has made women safer to empower themselves on their own terms? Or would she lament The First Stone as a documenting of the nascent stages of some sort of crybully phenomenon that’s gripped the sisterhood?

    I hope to find out!

  15. I just read the book. What bothered me was the initial letter she sent to Dr Gregory. It was such a naive thing to do. I think she mentions that. Her problems started from that; it established her as being on his side completely, and thus left her out in the cold. Mind you, he was proven innocent. This hasn’t been really covered in the comments above. yes I know, ‘not enough evidence’ tars the decision with a vague hue. I;ve enjoyed reading all these responses too.

  16. One of the crazy things that doesn’t seem to go away, is that Helen Garner continues to call herself a feminist, and others – particularly in the media (and Rachel Hennessy here) – accept this at face value, implying that Garner has earned this title and is somehow ‘representative’ of female feminists of her age. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a feminist close in age to Garner, I had the same reaction as Rachel when Garner inserted herself into the sexual harassment incident at Ormond College in the early 1990s. Her letter to Gregory (In response to a newspaper report) was misguided in the extreme, and when he used it in his own defence by releasing it publicly, I expected her to retract it as private correspondence sent in the heat of the moment. I was astonished when she didn’t. And her subsequent actions, including the publication of “The First Stone” disappointed me enormously. Many feminists of my generation, who like me, had admired Helen Garner (as a writer), were similarly dismayed. So let’s be clear, feminism is as feminism does. Regardless of what type of feminism you identify with, solidarity with other women is a first principle of the sisterhood. Helen Garner is not a feminist. So please stop calling her that.

  17. Hear, hear, Louise Watson.
    I am 71 and a former arts student at Melbourne Uni in the 1960s. I loved Monkey Grip so was gutted when I read The First Stone. My mother (and father) was a feminist and my sisters and I were raised to accept nothing but equal treatment between all people. However, this still has to be fought for in 2020.
    Helen Garner is a fine writer – sometimes – but she is not a feminist and has blinkers on when it comes to sexual politics. The First Stone was (is), frankly, awful.

  18. Helen Garner did not and does not represent the views of women of any particular age group. Many of us nearing her age have a much more nuanced, theoretically underpinned and personally arrived at position regarding the violence that is sexual harassment, in its many forms, than did she at that time. Many of us understood that her stance was wrong then as we understand it to be wrong now.

  19. Is it true we all have a view. It’s crystal clear when black words and paper meet. But that is not the sum of us. The person that walks the narrow line doesn’t need a hand to balance. All that they require is a right . Simply the democratic ability to express themselves.

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