By Peter Roberts
Key Themes: fiction, anxiety, psychiatry
Desperate after being dismissed for a ‘sex for marks’ scandal, Tristram Kennedy is on the verge of panic about his university career and future. He denied the allegation but was found guilty of liaising with a young Oriental female student and awarding her grades beyond her ability and performance.
He is ordered to get psychiatric help, which he does, from his old school colleague, Dr. William Brask. Brask treats Tristram for some time with medication, but one night their session continues and develops into a full expose of Tristram’s affairs and demise, including the loss of his family.
The story revolves around that night when Tristram opens, one after another, the sordid details of some of his affairs, and his inability to control himself when it came to Oriental women.
Brask is full of sympathy but does not treat Tristram compassionately. He wants Tristam to reason his way through the corridors of his seduction and arrive at his own acknowledgment regarding his behavior and that of his women companions.
Basically, Tristram sees the Oriental woman as brazenly and blatantly seductive – in her eyes, her hair, her figure and voice, her movements – and there was no resistance to such seduction.
Brask has to lead Tristam to the realization that he, Tristram, was the seducer. The women were just normal girls caught in the phantasmagoria of his debauched imagination and inability to relate to them as normal human beings.
Tristram denies this, saying they seduced him with a type of magic, weaved by Oriental women over Western men – or at least on him.
One by one Tristram relates his encounters and demonstrates his own incapacity for love, only for sensation. Finally he maintains, if it was his problem, it was his illness, his anxiety, which took away his reason and disabled him to relate normally. But he goes further and says that people do not act on reason, that most actions only have the appearance of reason.
In his state of mind he was able to reveal the deceit – the deceit of love, and all endeavours, supposedly based on sound judgment, but really concealing an anarchy of emotions and unconnected thoughts and false reasoning. It was his anxiety that gave him this insight into life, and this insight that lead him to pursue a path of wonton and deleterious philandering.
What he did with Oriental women was live through his anxiety in its most dissociated form: sexuality. Some forgave him, others did not. All knew he was different and deceitful. Two of his lovers die and the third comes back to deliver to him the ultimate humiliation.
About the Author
In1951 Peter was born into a working class family in the inner west of Sydney. His upbringing was on a shoestring, but then that was normal for the times. He often spent his twopence for his bus fare home from school on lollies and preferred to walk and talk to himself.
He remembered the first book he read in one day: a Zane Grey western, followed by Leslie Chartres’s The Saint, and whatever other library book his parents left lying around. They couldn’t afford to buy books.
By the time he had completed primary school he had read Dickens and his favourite acquisition: 365 Things to Know. It introduced him to history and mythology of the ancients.
His first philosophy book was Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, read before he was a teenager, and another book: How to be a Freelance Writer took his imagination. He wanted to be a writer. He also ventured into animation spending weekends drawing caricatures. He loved the work of the Australian artist Norman Lindsay, and in his early teen years perfected a technique of copying Lindsay’s drawings perfectly.
During his teen years he suffered agonizingly with acne and caught pneumonia twice. By the time he had fully recovered the Americans had landed on the moon, the PLO was hijacking planes and the Vietnam War was in full swing. In his political naivety he supported the war, but on reading more at University, he decided with many others, that it was really a ‘bad war’ and protested US policy.
At University he studied Philosophy and European History and graduated as a teacher with the NSW Department of Education. He was offered a place in the University’s Education honours school but he declined. He wasn’t that interested in education, yet it dominated the next twenty five years of his life.
During that time he taught English and History and studied for an MA in Australian History, but never really felt comfortable in the institutionalized world of government secondary schools. He married and had four children and wrote a two volume ancient history study guide for senior students, which is still in print.
He tried his hand at fiction writing, but could not find sufficient space and time to dedicate himself to the task, and left the work unfinished.
In 1996 Peter was diagnosed as an anxiety sufferer and put under the care of a psychiatrist. He applied for and received compassionate or medical retirement.
I was sick with the fear of my own existence. The girls distracted me – distracted me from counting, from the numbers that transfixed my waking – the number of breaths I took, how many times I swallowed or blinked, the pace of my breathing – too quick, too slow -how many heart beats. Their love brought me a reassurance. I don’t know how it worked.
And from that one sighting my convulsive panic about life lifted a little. I could see maybe there was an invisible shore. But they were also hallucinogenic.
“Interesting you should say that. Did you understand it was your imagination, that they were only figments? Shadows? A passing parade….?”
Not at first. But when I realized I wanted to enter the life of every oriental woman I saw or passed on the street, and when there was no definitive moment with any one of them, I knew then, but I still wouldn’t give it up. I was fighting one myth with another.
“But in fact they were flesh and blood. You made them into something they weren’t. In one sense they were fantasies, but of course, they were actual people.”
Yes. And each one fell short of the ideal. But the obsession took away the nightmare of suffocation. There had been always something to fear – a type of anarchy of the emotions: I had forgotten how to swallow, how to breathe, how to speak, and it was the end of reason, because I couldn’t use reason with myself; they were the illusions to fight other illusions. And in their flesh they satisfied my carnality – the one compensation of anxiety.
It was immense. Their coming sent me into raptures.
“You said you had an encounter with witches. Tell me about that.”
It’s strange, I’m not sure if it happened or I dreamt it. Everyone knew the old woman and her daughter next-door to us, when we lived in the highlands, were witches, or somehow the word got around. The old woman had strange eyes – they were not aligned properly- and the daughter was scraggy and mannish. I suppose you could say they both looked like witches.
But it never bothered me until gradually, night by night, I couldn’t sleep and I had this perverted desire to go into their house. I even had fantasies of having sex with the daughter. Then one day my wife, Eloise, asked me if I had taken her underwear from the line. I hadn’t. But all her pants had disappeared. That night I dreamt I went into the witch’s house. Three of them were waiting for me….the mother, daughter and a neighbor – I find this hard to say….