Helen Garner Q&A: How to End a Story: Diaries: 1995-1998 @ Fremantle Arts Centre

Perth Writers Festival as part of Perth Festival
Sunday, February 27, 2022


How do you know you are at a Helen Garner event? Because the crowd looks exactly like her. It’s always surprising that Garner doesn’t have more diverse fans, given her writing themes and styles are so modern and compelling. Her 1977 novel Monkey Grip was so groundbreaking it changed the landscape for female writers in Australia, and you could assume that this book alone would bring in more diversity. One thing is for sure however, she has a legion of devoted fans.

Garner was at Fremantle Arts Centre via video conference in a Q&A about her most recent book How to End a Story: Diaries: 1995-1998, which was released in 2021. The book was written during not only the breakdown of her marriage, but what was also a stage of enlightenment for Garner – a time of becoming and the beginnings of taking back control of her life.

Garner is an intellect, or as she puts it in the book, has a lot of “cleverness,” and this is most apparent when you get to see her mind work in real time. She is funny, self-deprecating, witty, and extremely affable.

When quizzed on why she thinks she has been married three times, she simply replies “I think it really just comes down to the fact that I am unmarriageable.” The audience laughs in sweet recognition, but she goes on to elaborate fully. However, it is probably best encapsulated in a passage from the book – an ‘unmarriageable’ woman may be someone who: “protects herself, establishes strong boundaries and stands guardian at the gate of her own core.”

Garner speaks profoundly and appreciatively about psychoanalysis and how it made her identify patterns in her emotional life and where these may have stemmed from. This brings her to discussing her two abortions and says that while she does not regret them, and at the time they made her feel free and empowered, that does not mean she does not grieve them. It’s this openness of Garner’s, the way she owns things she is not proud of and harnesses her flaws, that make her such a great thinker and writer, and as it turns out, such a great interviewee.

When quizzed on why she stayed in a toxic relationship for so long, you get the impression that Garner still does not fully understand this answer herself and may never. She says she never used to understand completely why women who are being beaten stay in a relationship, but she says now, after this relationship, she does. It is because the abuser manipulates you in such a way, that you believe these actions are ‘love,’ she says.

Emotional abuse can be even more insidious, and when there is no definite line in the sand on when things began, she instead finds herself questioning – “when did the rot sit in?” Again, it’s the openness on important issues that make her such a wonder. They are issues that matter to everyone, but they speak volumes to women especially. She is not shamed by her marriages, of the abuse she experienced, of her sexual history, or of her abortions – she speaks about them truly and vulnerably, and by doing so, she allows other women to shed a little bit of their own shame.

The interviewer, who did an excellent job at asking both insightful and light-hearted questions and making Garner feel at ease, asked an excellent question in “do you think you stayed in your marriage for so long because of your service to truth finding?” This seems like an “aha” moment for Garner, that this is a common thread in her work and her life, and it was truly wonderful to see her brain cog that thought through.

In fact, the only downside to the event was that it was not held in person.

Garner is a prolific writer and intellect, and her observation of both external and internal happenings and the way she paints them make her a hugely important voice and advocate for women. The Q&A showed to all the women (and some men) in attendance, that to have Helen Garner and her literature, including How to End a Story: Diaries: 1995-1998 in your female corner, is to wield more power.


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