Australian Biography: Veronica Brady
Veronica Brady (1929–2015) became one of the first Australian nuns to teach in a university, broadcast on radio and enter public socio-political debate.
She become an Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia in 1991 and spoke out against the Vatican stance on abortion, homosexuality and contraception.
She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1993.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
Veronica, you've had many different hats that you've worn in the course of your career, and I suppose the one that intrigues people most, given that you've managed to mix it with many other aspects of your life, is the fact that you became a nun, and that you are and continue to be a Catholic, and I wonder if you could tell me why you became a nun and why you are committed to Catholicism.
Well, you see I don't see myself as wearing different hats. It's a rather different view inside your own skin and I'm never terribly interest in playing roles. It seems to me that's who I am. And, being the person that I am, I get interested in different things, and so I do different things. But ... and ... nor do I see being a nun as being a special sort of species. I know in the old days when we got all dressed up we did look like a penguin. There's one ... if I can digress a bit, I used to love one cartoon I saw in the good old Saturday Evening Post: a nun in old fashioned garb has been knocked down, and she's lying flat out on the road and two burly workmen come to pick her up and one says to the other, 'Hey Bill, you better get a spade, she's blessed you know'. [Laughs] However ... But anyway getting to ... well, just because I suppose as a child I had certain sorts of religious experiences. It comes of course from the Catholic subculture to which you belong. Freud or someone might say they were merely illusion, but ever since I was a little child I've had a very, very strong sense that there are realities beyond us. I remember one wonderful experience, and I must have been quite small, and just lying under the lemon tree in the back yard. and it was a sunny day. which was extraordinary in Melbourne, and my legs were in the sunshine and the lemon tree was in bloom and the hose was running somewhere, and I just had a sense of sheer bliss and sheer beatitude, and sheer holiness. I think by having been surrounded also by love in the family and knowing that you could trust, and so I've always had a sense that there're ... there are realities beyond me and I'm floating in the midst of those and I was ... And religious instruction at school sort of took - not ... not ... not necessarily the pious bits, but we had some very good teachers and we used to read a lot of Scripture, and I've always liked poetry and that spoke to me, and then there was, in those good old days, there was incense and processions in the chapel, particularly in spring time with the blossoms in bloom. So all of those made me feel, yes, there is some other dimension, and when I was in my last year or so at school, I began to think maybe I ought to be a nun. I also admired the nuns who taught us. The main reason was, because not only were they intelligent women, but they obviously got on very well with one another. They were obviously friends, and they were obviously happy, so none of this nonsense that you get in, for me, in stories about Catholic childhoods and the nuns who taught me were ... seemed to be well adjusted and happy women. So, something inside me said, 'Now look really you ought to be a nun'. However the rest of me, which was at that stage discovering that life was terribly interesting and I was intelligent and I was writing poetry and I dreamt I was going to be a great writer and I was going to the university, thought, 'No thanks'. And I also was discovering boys. 'No', said I, 'No I don't want that, thanks'. And I remember when I said to my mother, and she was a bit surprised, because they were not pious Catholics at all. She said, 'Well, look, you go to university first', so I went to university and I had a good time there, and then I still thought, 'No thanks', and so I taught for a year, after I graduated, and the feeling was still there. So ... and there was this good chap who wanted to marry me and I still thought, 'No, I don't think that's the way I'm meant to spend my life'. And also, as I like to say, I'm pretty sure that I'm probably under sexed. I mean I like the company of men, but I'm not frantically interested in sex. And you know, good old Catholic upbringing you're a good, pure little girl. So I thought, 'Look, I'll give it a go'. And I did think that I wouldn't last long and all. my friends gave me about six months. And we had the most wonderful celebration on the way up to Ballarat to join there, with wonderful picnic with lots of ... I remember it was Chianti in its little baskets, and ending up with some wondrous brandy, so the tale is told that I wasn't terribly clear about where I was or who I was when I entered. But there you are. I've stayed, because it seemed the right place. It seemed the right thing to do. In those days of course, that was in 1950, the old style religious noviciate was very strict indeed. There was silence. There was lots of prayer. Lots of scrubbing of floors and washing of pots and pans. You were made to do difficult things and it was ... the whole existence was pretty austere. And I did think a lot of them were quite crazy, but I thought, well, that's part of the deal, I'll do it. And fortunately, the first year as a novice in ... I was allowed to do some teaching. Then the second year is ... brought nothing but prayer, which again I liked, and then the third year I came back to do some teaching, and I love teaching, and so there we were and I've always been successful at my teaching, so.
Intelligent Catholics, I like to think. My father had travelled quite a bit before he married and in the good old Irish Catholic tradition he didn't marry 'til he was in his forties. He was a member of ... I think there was something like thirteen children in his family, and he would have loved to have gone to the university. He was a very very intelligent and cultivated man, but of course there wasn't money. But he did manage to make some money. He was the brother-in-law of T.M. Bourke, so he travelled, and his Catholicism was very much bound up with ... with paintings and pictures. They never talked piety, and my mother had been a boarder at Mary's Mount and had a convent education. But I think they were both relatively sceptical. I mean, I do remember twice my father marching out during a sermon because he thought the priest was talking nonsense. One time it was ... he was reading out the list of people who'd paid money for their Easter dues, and the priest was making comments about some of them and saying, 'Wouldn't you think he would have given some more?' and my papa could not take that. Maybe he even said that of him, I don't know. But we marched out. I remember that.
I was only quite small. I felt terribly ashamed, but it was the sort of thing that my father would do and so we trundled along behind him.
I don't remember what the other occasion was but I do have another ... or maybe it didn't happen. Maybe I was just imagining it - another [time], of all the church looking at us, in a big old church in Balaclava, hideous old church, and everybody looking at us as we walked out. He had ... you see he had his very strong opinions also. So they were not at all conventional. I used to be terribly ashamed when at the first convent school I went to, in the country in St. Arnaud, and they were, some of them, were caricature sorts of nuns, not very well educated. They used to cane the kids. I was afraid of going to school. I used to pretend to be sick in the mornings so that I wouldn't have to go to school, and since I was a spoilt child my parents would often let me stay home, which is probably why I'm well educated. And I'd read and do all sorts of things, and recover, of course, the moment school was in. But, now what was I saying? I remember they used to ask whether you said the family rosary and of course we didn't, and I remember once or twice when we were travelling we didn't go to mass on Sundays. Ooh! Err! But if you are Irish and Irish-Australian, your Catholicism is part of you and I had a good education as I say and when I was ...
We moved to Melbourne. Well even when we were in the country my mother kept saying to my father, 'Look, really we ought to send them as boarders to Mary's Mount in Ballarat'. I mean, partly there wasn't money for it because this was the Depression and we were genteel poor, because my father had gone out of the family company just as the Depression was started - typical of my dear father, but also I think he said, 'Boarding school is a terrible place and children should be at home', and thank goodness that he did that. And then that meant that when we went to Melbourne I just loved every minute of Loreto, because as I say, the women were loving and cultured and so there we are.
Because it was his opinion that they were being dishonest. That there were some funny things going on.
No my father's. No my father. My father's ... my father's sister was married to a well known real estate, and well, my father was a man of principle. I ... I know, and I used to be very conscious of it. Often some of the relations would laugh at him. They'd say, 'Oh, Uncle Ted, he's just so terribly impractical'. He was. He was not ... I suppose I get a lot of that from him. Money was not the be all and the end all. It was really important for him to do what was right and decent. He may or may not have been right. My sister knows all about family history, I don't. She maintains that, yes, he was right, and indeed that he was very badly treated. And we were never of course on the bread line, but the Depression's not a good time to start up in a new job. One stage, he was running a pub in Seymour, but as he always said, just like him, if only he'd stayed with that pub 'til World War II broke out, and that was the big army camp. He would have made his fortune, but he didn't. He moved on, and then we went to St. Arnaud in the country and I suspect that he probably was a SP bookie, I'm not sure. And he did manage. He had ... Some of his sisters owned a pub there so perhaps he managed that . I'm not clear how we lived, and I know we were regarded as rich people in the country town, because we had a big house and we had a maid, but there was constant worry about money. I think everybody worried about money during the Depression. And then, when we came back to Melbourne, he started as an estate agent in St. Kilda, and was not very successful at it, because as I say, he wasn't a great businessman, but we never starved and we were always middle class, and you see, he'd had all these experiences so I suppose I've always been one of the privileged people.
There were only two of us.
Very unusual. And you know one wouldn't know how they managed it or what they did or anything like that, but there were only two of us.
So from the beginning, you were conscious that you didn't question in your family the fact that you would be Catholic, but the fact that you would question that Catholicism was there right from the beginning.
Yes. And as I grew up I read more. I read. I was a great vogue of the French Catholic writers, people like Bernanos, and Blois and Mauriac. And I ... well, when I was at university I joined the Campion Society and there was a female version of that and I belonged to them, the Women's Society, and Melbourne Catholicism has always been a thinking kind of Catholicism, so it seems to me perfectly sensible that you didn't leave your intelligence outside when you went into church, and there's a long tradition of thinking and of ... of the arts and of culture. It was a tribal thing. It was part of you. Being a Catholic meant that you were part of a worshipping community and a believing community, and there was a tradition of theology, and I got interested in theology. But I've always thought that you have to be the human being that you are, and that Christianity is all about God involving himself, or herself, in history and after all, Jesus was Jewish, and Jesus belonged in his time and place and had his views in time and place, and if the spirit of Jesus is alive then that spirit is working here and now, and I suppose that's another thing that my father realised having travelled, that say, French Catholicism was one thing, English Catholicism another, American Catholicism another. You had a ... He met an American when he was travelling, one Eugene ... Now, what was his name? I forget the surname, but Eugene someone or other, who lived in Georgia ... and they used to correspond with one another and Eugene was also a Catholic. So it's always seemed to me to be perfectly logical that ... and I happen to think that a certain kind of authoritarian Catholicism is an aberration, and I always say that they don't own the church, that the church is the people of God and I belong just as much as they do, and if the word 'God' means anything, it means something utterly mysterious and we really don't know what it means, so how anybody can think that he or she has the final word on that matter is a bit beyond me.
I did. I was very strongly drawn - people don't believe this but it's true - to become a Carmelite. Because I really do ... do like peace and quiet, not that I get very much of it, and I do find it very easy to pray and that life seemed to be very attractive, but various people said to me, 'No, no that's not really you', so I said, 'All right', and well, that's fine. I haven't looked back ever since.
Not really. No. I mean I don't believe in ... I tend not to look back and I tend not to ... [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]
I suppose again the surprise was that people were so normal. I remember the very first night I arrived and, you see, we again were quite civilised. We didn't sleep in a dormitory, we had little rooms of our own, and I woke up in the middle of the night to find one of the other sisters, who was supposed to look after me ... When you come in, you know, somebody looks after you to make sure that you know what to do and where things are, and it was a cold night, and she'd come in just to put a rug on my bed and I thought, well, that's a very nice thing to do. And people gen ... as I say people genuinely did seem to be happy, and the odd thing was that I found myself quite happy. I mean let's say I was ... the first week or so, saying, 'Oh, this time last week I was doing such and such', and then 'This last time I was doing such and such', but it just didn't seem to ... to suit me. It was austere, especially in the winter in Ballarat, oh heavens above, and there was no ... you didn't ... you had a bath once a week and you had to wash in your own room in a basin thing, and you used to have to fill up your ... You had a little billy of hot water and you had to fill it up straight after dinner and then you didn't go to bed 'til after nine and there were all sorts of contortions to keep your billy warm. You know, wrapping blankets and so on round about it, and I do not getting like getting up early in the morning. In fact, I thought ... and it wasn't dreadfully early, it was ten to six, then you'd get up and sit in that freezing cold chapel. Now I did think at one stage, I cannot get up at ten to six for the rest of my life, and the mistress of novices was very worried, and said, 'You don't have to think about that, just think about getting up this morning', which I did. And of course, since then, I haven't looked back because now we have a much more civilised sort of regime. That ... all that sort of thing was ... was difficult. And the cold I found really terrible. I used to get very very bad chilblains. But, you know, strangely enough it suited me. And then you see, because I loved teaching, I really do love teaching, I was doing what was familiar and what I was good at from the beginning. Some of the people, my colleagues then, had a really terrible time because they had come straight from school, many of them, and they were thrown into teaching, and they hadn't the foggiest idea how to teach, and they didn't have the gift. And they must have gone through absolute hell. I used to admire them and think, aren't they wonderful? But not me. And ... and it is obviously the sort of life I was meant to live. I believe we all have some sort of a destiny, and I was lucky enough to find my destiny and go with it, and then when I'd been professed ... You're a novice for three years. You have to make up your mind whether you really want to stay, and the community has to decide whether they want you, and then at the end of the three years you take your vows just for one year at a time, and you go on like that for another five years, and then at the end of five years, if the community wants you and you still want to stay, then you may give vows for life. So you've got plenty of time. But after you leave the noviciate, at the end of those three years ... you see, I was sent out to teach and I went back to Mandeville, where I'd been at school, and that was Christmas because I knew a lot of the girls, and I'd been to school there myself, and I was really at home, and I'm a good teacher, and I was very successful, and I was young and I was popular. It was great stuff. So ...
I think the time for prayer and contemplation. Now our particular order lives according to the Jesuit rule. We have a wonderful foundress, an Englishwoman in the seventeenth century, who wanted to found an order of women who would do the sort of work that the Jesuits would, who would not have to dress up in specific religious garb, who would not have to live behind convent walls and wouldn't have fixed hours of prayer, but they could be professional women and they could just witness to who and what they were.
Well, the official name is the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary - the Society of Jesus Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We're generally called Loreto Sisters. And they're still ... well, she was put in prison by the Inquisition and had to modify some of her views, but there were a group of her sisters in York in England, all through the penal times. There were houses all ... spread all through ... well not all through but in Europe: particularly in Austria, southern Germany, Italy, and well, we've survived right through. But the idea is that you're trained to ... to make your prayer time really intense, and then, that what you're doing is enclosed in that ... that prayer, and I think, for me, that's fine, because I've always had this sense: that we're sort of like floating on an ocean. One of my favourite bits of poetry is that wonderful moment at the end of Dante's Purgatorio, when they come to the top of the mountain of purgatory and look out across the great ocean of being, and it's all dark and they see all these little lights moving across it, the little ships, and each one going to its own port, across the great ocean of being. So I've always had that sense, and I feel then that whatever you're doing that's okay, because it's caught up in this larger pattern. I mean, in ... and I assume I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. I mean, in theory a superior could say to me, 'Now stop that and go and teach kindergarten in Ballarat', and I think I would do it. I mean, I'd be supposed to do it. But you see, we've always been an intelligent order, and obedience doesn't mean you're being told to this and that, and though in the past it used to mean sometimes being told. For instance, I was moved from Melbourne, where I was doing very well teaching, to come to Ballarat to teach French and Geography, which I wasn't particularly good at. However, I did it. But mainly, the general notion is that your superiors listen to you and you talk about what you think you should be doing. Well here I've been teaching at UWA for twenty-one years now, and I seem to be doing all right so I'll stay there. But you know that it's okay because that's what the community says that you have to do.
But some people might have thought that if you were someone who loved teaching and loved prayer and contemplation, you could have done all of that without, in a sense, surrendering your independence by joining an order that required you to be obedient.
Yes. Oh yes. And that's perfectly true. But I felt that ... that call. You see I do believe there's ... that that word 'God' means something. There is a something. There is ... and I believe in the Christian story. Nobody's disproved the fact that the resurrection happened, so give it a go. I'll believe in the Pascalian Gamble. If it's true, that's fine. If it's not true, bad luck, but you've ... it's given you some purpose in life. And I believe that I was called to live in this sort of way. That was my shape and my life. Now I would never want to influence anybody else to do this. If ... if you're called that's great, and I think what we have seen since Vatican II, and all the changes that have come about, we've seen that some people join religious communities, I think perhaps for the wrong reasons, perhaps because they're immature. They had romantic ideas. Many of those have since left, and that's great and that's good, and others, a few, [have] stayed on, unhappy and ... but perhaps afraid to leave and afraid to jump and I think that's ... There's a great pathos about that. But ... I may delude myself, but I think this is the sort of person I'm meant to be and it suits me, so there we are.
Looking at what you committed yourself to, you're someone who is famous, some would say infamous for being independent in your mind, and acting sometimes against authority, often against authority. So looking at what you committed yourself to when you went into that order, one thing was this obedience. Now at the noviciate, when you arrived, was there anything done in order to test whether or not you could live with that and that you could end up saying, 'If I was told to do something I would do it?'
Now let me think. I'm sure there were things, but we also ... you know we were given ... we read. We read up on the theory of religious life and the theory of the vows and when you meditate on ... on the Christian story, yes, but we were told to ... For instance, I remember at one stage we had to ... we were supposed to stay behind and help clean up after meals. The novices had to do that while the others [in the] community went off to their work. Now at one stage ... And we had to ask permission to leave, you see. And we had to make sure that everything was done properly, and I remember on a couple of occasions, because I always wanted to dash on and do the next thing, the mistress of novices there in charge would say, 'No, you may not, sister', and you had to wait and then leave when you were allowed to leave. It used to make me very wild but I could see the point of it.
Well, to train you that you had to do what you were told, that you couldn't just do what you liked. See, no human being can really do just what you like. If you've got a family or if you've got a partner you have to fit your life into other people. I mean these were obviously crazy things, and some of the others used to get a bit demented about it - some of my colleagues. But, being a bit older I could realise that this was sort of training, the way they make commandos train: climb up ropes and jump into cold water. I could see that. Besides which I got terribly interested in this whole theory of religious life and I was a lucky woman, because I'd had my degree and I was trained as a teacher, whereas the others didn't, and they used to have to go into these classes and I was allowed, fortunate woman, to go away and read, and so I got hold of these extraordinary books about the monks of the desert and I was full bottle on all of these austerities, and I must say at that time I was a bit disappointed we didn't have so many austerities because we always had plenty to eat and that sort of thing. So, that was ... that was I think ... but I ...
Yes, there were. But I like that. It kept ... For one thing I love exercise, I hate sitting still. And it ... it got you beautifully warm. I was always afraid that I was going to be taken away from polishing the floor in the chapel. That was the job I was nearly always on. But I wasn't. Because it was wonderful. It kept you warm for the whole day. Because we had these dry rubbers - a block of wood on a long handle - and you put cloth on it first of all with wax and you waxed the floor, and then you had another cloth, which polished it. Nowadays of course, you use electrical polishers. But that was glorious fun. Got you beautifully warm. And I ... I didn't even mind washing up because washing up and doing all the pots and pans meant that I got out of sewing. That's what I really hated. I loathed it, because I've always been a bit of a tomboy, you see, and I do not like ladylike things, and I used to always ... that sewing was terrible because I'd never ... never do it properly, so I was always made to pick out what I had done and do it again. This was all a part of the training, so that I loathed. But the other: no, it didn't worry me very much. But I want to get back to this business of obedience. People say ... I'm not a rebel. It seems to me obedience is being ... well the root meaning of the word comes from 'to listen', ob aldeerae [?], and being obedient means being obedient to, what I call, God and God's will, or your deep destiny, whatever else you call it. And I try all the time to do what I believe I ought to do. I mean, perhaps I've got galloping scrupulosity or something like that. So, if it's the case that perhaps I might say something which conservative Catholics might say is disobedient to the Pope, I'm afraid in my theology, the obedience we all owe is to God. And the Papacy is the focus of the faith of the believing community, but no human being can have the last word. And so I try ... I think I'm obedient and the same thing if a particular politician or particular business person seems to me to be doing things which are destructive ... I mean I think what's going on in this state at the moment, what our Premier is doing to Aboriginal people is shameful and disgraceful, I will be as critical of it as I possibly can, though it's very hard to find an outlet in this state to say so. So I don't look at that as disobedient.
Well yes, but the ... as I say we, our superiors are intelligent women and it's an intelligent community. [Robin interjects] I usually let the superiors know what I'm doing, and by now they're sort of used to it. But if ... I mean, I remember ... well one of the ones, which really did cost me something was when I was just back from North America in the late sixties, and I'd been of course very much involved in the anti-Vietnam talk in the States. It seemed to me just the only logical thing, that that was a mad war, and when I came back to Australia I was profoundly shocked to see the very wide support that it had in Australia. Of course, I'd been in ... in a university in the States and in Canada, so of course I was with a special group. But when I came back I was very, very deeply shocked and I was very, very deeply shocked that so many Catholics were supporting that war. And then came the Jim Cairns moratorium and I asked permission to go to it. Nowadays, you wouldn't have to do that. And I was told, no, that I might not go to it, because in those days I was wearing a veil, and it was perfectly true that the cameras would have focused on me and I was told that that would give scandal. So I didn't go, but I tell you what: I was teaching at the Catholic Teacher's College at that time and I was walking down Swanston Street. No I didn't go down Swanston Street because they were sitting down there, so I walked down Elizabeth Street and looked very yearningly up at that. I really would have given my eyes and ears to go to it, but I thought, no, that's not the deal. Well since then, I've gone to it. All the sorts of things I thought I'd given up have come back to me in different ways. For instance I'd always wanted to travel, and I thought well, that's the end of that. I'll never travel. And look at me: travelling all over the place. I mean it's also the fact too, that I'm an academic, and that's a great help. So I still say that I would do what I'm told. If superiors came and said, 'Stop all that', I would stop it. I mean, even this time when I'm upset lots of people and went on the Four Corners programme, which was discussing the new Papal Encyclical, I rang up my provincial first and said, 'Is that okay if I go?' So, it's not ... I mean I ... I have had great support. Maybe they're wicked women. Perhaps I'm not the wicked woman, but they accept that that's a thing I have to do and that's my conscience.
I don't know. I mean, in theory I will do what I'm told, but I might ... it might have then seemed to me that that was not the place for me to be. But it didn't happen, and I have been given a dream run, really, because I've always ... apart from that one time when I went to teach French and Geography, which of course I managed, because you know, this is not ... it's just the truth that I have a few brains. And I did ... did do a bit of French at university. It wasn't my favourite thing, but apart from that, I've always taught the subjects that I liked, and that I'd been teaching in high school for about ten years, and then one day I was rung up and I was asked if I would be prepared to go and do my doctorate in North America. Well, you know, all expenses paid. So, off I went.
Yes. And because you see, the intelligent people realised that universities were expanding and since our work is teaching, you teach in universities, so off I went. And then I came back and it seemed a bit silly to go back into the school and the provincial didn't ask me to. She asked me to go and teach in the Catholic Teachers' College. And I was there for a couple of years and I really did think, well look, this is not ... I'm not using what I have to the best of my abilities. It would be much better to get a job in a University. So I said that to her, and she said, 'Well hang on. Hang on for another year until I can find somebody to replace you and then look for a job', which I did, and I got a mere senior tutor's job here at UWA and I've been here ever since. And again I was very lucky because our professor at that time, Alan Edwards, was famous for being an eccentric and no nonsense about selection committees or anything like that. He made all the decisions and he was famous for making eccentric appointments. I mean, imagine appointing a little nun? Granted that I did have my PhD, but Alan appointed me and since then I haven't looked back.
Looking back to going into the order, we've talked about obedience. The other thing that people have to focus on giving up is sex and family life, except for the family life that the order itself provides. And I wonder whether you thought very deeply about those things?
I did actually, because I had a very good friend, or not very - a good friend, who was on the teaching staff with me: a Jewish ... he'd been a psychiatrist, poor man, and when he arrived in Australia his qualifications weren't accepted, so the poor man was teaching science, and not very successfully. They were desperate for science masters, but we were good friends and we used to drink lots of coffee together, and he put it to me that perhaps I was afraid of sex and I was running away from sex, because I had this boyfriend who wanted to marry me. And so I thought very, very deeply about it and concluded: no I didn't think it was true and I still don't think it's true. I think that, well, I happen to have a firm belief that probably there are more people who are less interested in sex than ... than in theory they should be, than we usually admit. I think some people are sort of natural celibates. It's probably a question of sublimation if you think about it in Freudian ways. And I've always got lots of interesting things to do and be cheerfully ... and I suppose I'm healthy and ...
Very occasionally I think yes, it would be wonderful to have one human being to whom you matter absolutely. Yes of course I think that. But then, I've got other things. I'm afraid, you see again, I'm not particularly maternal. I think kids are all very well, but in their place thanks. So I really haven't regretted ...
Yes. Yes. It usually goes ... It's probably because of the anxiety but it usually goes: poverty, obedience and chastity. But never mind. No No. I think I was saying ...
I mean he wasn't the only boyfriend, but it was the one that got serious. I met him through a friend, actually my best friend at school and university, who was mad keen on horses. And he was also a man who went hunting and so on. They'd had a fall so he was slightly lame, but he was a press photographer with the Melbourne Herald and he was great fun, and I enjoyed him. I especially used to love going out to Sunday night at Mario's in Melbourne. That was the great thing and I was very fond of him. He was a nice chap and he was a Catholic, and he came from an Essendon ... an old Essendon family, and yes I did like him very much, but I didn't ... I just did not think of spending the rest of my life with him, and I wasn't particularly sexually attracted to him.
No. No. I mean I'm probably a hard hearted old brute. I mean I'd had other boys I'd rather liked because you see in my days, if you didn't have a boyfriend, you were really absolutely a nobody. Even at school, you see, there were a group of us, about three or four of us, who were known as the intellectuals. So we used to talk about books and things and not about boys. It was the all-absorbing conversation of most of the other kids. I think that's one of the things that separate sex schools do. They tend to fixate young women on young gentlemen and vice versa. And they used to be you know absolutely fixated on pop songs and so on, so, no, we intellectuals were above those sorts of things. But once I was at university I realised the significance of having a boyfriend and a little bit of canoodling and being invited out to dances, and yes, that suited me quite nicely. But I think it was sort of social, and I liked ... I liked this man's company, but it just didn't seem to me that I was going to spend the rest of my life with him, and I didn't spend the rest of my life with him. Looking back, I feel quite ashamed now, because I really did use him, you know, because he really was serious and I knew he was serious and he was older, quite a bit older. I think he was in his thirties. And ... but you know, young people are stupid and I probably did lead him on.
Oh very strong. Oh yes, just, you know, the arm around the waist, and you're thinking, am I being daring? And just the little peck goodnight kiss, but nothing more than that, oh no.
No I didn't.
Oh yes, of course he did poor chap. And he got married soon afterwards so it was reported. I've never, you know, heard anything since about him. There we are.
Oh I turned him down because ... In fact I did say to him a couple of times, 'Look, Ben, you know I really think I have to be a nun', and he would say, 'Go on, don't be silly', and all that stuff, so, I mean, he ... and he was also a Catholic and he was part of that subculture, so in that sense, he'd had warning. No, that was the thing right through. I thought, well look, really I've got to give this thing a try because I just won't have any rest until I do. Because you know you have a sense this is the thing I ought to do. Some people feel that they ought to become a great painter or climb Mount Everest and that was the feeling that I had to do, that ... and I thought this is perfectly silly, I'm sure I'm not the right type, and everybody ... as I said, I had a great aunt who was a member of our order and she told me later when I'd been professed that nobody had thought that I would stay because I was ... I mean I was a bit ... a bit eccentric.
Well in the sense that my mother died I think it was my second year, or was it my first year, at university and then my father married again within about a year or so. I mean he was lonely and he married his secretary and there we are, but I couldn't stand that. You know I was a very difficult child and I'd always been spoiled so I more or less ...
I did. Yes. And I thought this was nonsense. He was an old man and he should have ... shouldn't have been going on with all this nonsense. And I was terribly intolerant and look, his second wife, she was ... you know, she was just his secretary, not a very well educated woman, not [a] very good looking woman. I was very cruel to her. But in the interests ...
Of course there was, yes. I'm a frightful snob in many ways. I was worse in those days and I more or less marched out. I spent most of my time with a good friend and had very little to do with them. Sort of lived me own life. You know how students think they're independent souls and gay bohemian and they know everything and I've always ... I mean, I do have a touch of intellectual arrogance also and I can't stand fools, so I must have been a sore trial. So I've been used to doing more or less what I liked, and it was glorious when I had a job and I had some money. I'd had a jolly time.
Oh my father of course continued to support me. Oh yes. I mean, the young are never logical and I would come home for supplies of course. And of course in those days there were no scholarships or anything like that, so I was always penniless and, you know, I remember skipping lunch so that I could do something else that I wanted to. But not total disaster.
No, I don't know whether it was that, it was just ... I always thought that I was very, very much closer to my mother than my father. Good Freudian stuff, because I used to quarrel with my father immensely when I was growing up because you see we were very similar. I mean now I realise that he was probably far more influential than my mother was, and being a sort of arrogant young thing, at times I used to get impatient with him because you know he couldn't make money and he was a bit feckless and my mother was the one ... He wasn't feckless but he was just gentle and idealistic, and my mother was the one who sort of ... who held things together and drove the car and did all the right sort of things, and I felt that I was just very, very close to her and we really were very good friends.
Well of course I mean as a little child he was just wonderful. One of my first memories is sitting on his knee and his reading to me, or teaching me long words. I still remember one of them. He made this word up: triantiwontagong. He was just a very gentle man - the least aggressive macho man you could possibly imagine. And also, something else that makes me very proud of him, he was a young man during World War I and he refused to fight. Now, it was probably part of his Irish background as well, but he really was extraordinarily gentle and the least aggressive person. I suppose that's why he didn't ever do well when he was by himself in business. But then, of course, in the appropriate Freudian sort of way, when I became an adolescent, I fought with him terribly. None of his ideas would do me, and, you see, really I was pretty brutal because he'd always ... he'd wanted to go to university and there I was going to university and like, particularly in those days, university students were not numerous and I was so puffed up as though I absolutely knew everything. So we used to have these dreadful fights, and my mother would always make peace and you know ... so there we are. And then when she died, you see, I got so cross because I then had to keep house for a while as well, and that rather blighted my life as a student and I'm sure I kept house extraordinarily badly, and then I should have been enchanted when he married again, and possibly that was one of the reasons why he did. I don't think it was a great romance or anything, but this lady looked after him and there we are. But I found that so dreadful: what an outrage to the memory of my mother, that my wonderful mother would be replaced by this boring, ugly woman. So as I say I was a great trial and I now repent, but that's the way young people are. The only thing you think about is yourself and your own great destiny, and there I was, going to be a great writer and a great poet. In fact I did have some poems published in The Bulletin and things, and I was appropriately bohemian. I remember I had ... I loved one particular raincoat, a red raincoat and I'd cut the sleeves out, God knows why, so that I could look particularly Bohemian. So ... and I ... There were a few artists that I used to know and I used to think it was glorious to go to studio parties and whatnot. So a terrible trial I must have been, to live with, and that's why I also must have taken a bit of taming when I first came into the noviciate. And I think, you know ... But I was given ... They handled me extremely well, you know. They gave me special privileges. I could go away and read and pray and things when the others were doing courses, which I really didn't need. So there we are. It all works out in the long run. And of course I suppose I still am a bit eccentric. I mean, I think I was spoiled as a child. You see my parents were married before, for three years [cough - excuse me] before I was born, and I was the only one then for another three-and-a-half years, and I've always been conscious that well, I regarded myself as important, and I've always been confident, so I'm really not particularly scared about what other people think about me, and I don't feel the need to conform the way most people do. So I think I'm still probably a great trial to live with and you never know what I'm going to do next. I know I ... because if I think something ought to be done I do it. I really don't have sufficient sense of compromise and I don't have a sufficient sense of what is socially acceptable. And I made lots of mistakes, particularly when I first arrived here in Perth, because I didn't realise the sort of town Perth was. I remember once writing to the paper in defence of some dear little students in the student newspaper, The Pelican, who had published the photo of a nude in the student magazine. Of course there was immense scandal: the university was turning to immorality. I remember writing saying, 'Don't be silly, what's wrong with that?' and of course that did not go down well: sister defending the publication of nudes, and I've always been opposed to censorship, so that got me into some hot water too.
No I don't regret it, but it just, I'm not very tactful, and so it means that I'm ... you know, that I rub people up the wrong way. But it's too late now, I'm afraid.
I don't think so, no.
Oh no. Look she's the civilised member of the family. Of course she got on with her very nicely. She was very charming to my stepmother. She stayed at home. I mean she was younger. She was always very charming to them and she looked after my dad until he got married. Oh no, she's an admirable woman and she's the one who knows all about family history and ... No I mean, I think she's wonderful, and we're very good friends now, but you know she was so much younger than I was, that we really didn't know one another very well when we were growing up.
Oh yes. Oh yes, but she was little sister. And particularly when I was this grand university student - not really a grand university student, but you know, the great intellectual. You see I went to university far too young. I was only seventeen, because I was clever, you see. And I was always the youngest in the class, and when I went to university it was that wonderful time. I went to university in 1946, when the men had come back from the war. So it wasn't the usual undergraduate place. It was these men who'd thought things about life and knew where they were going and what they were doing. I think it was one of the things which has helped to make me a radical, that and the fact that I was taught by some wonderful thinkers and I did a combined History and English degree, and the English was a bit of a waste of time in those days, but Melbourne History School was extraordinarily good. And that's affected me ever since. It's given me this sense of injustice and given me a sort of world view. So I was moving in that world, and the kid sister at school - no thanks.
She was ... Now what was she like? She was extraordinarily loving. I remember one of the great things, one of the great pleasures in life, was to be given a cuddle in bed. Mummy would come and give you a cuddle. She was only a little woman, but I've taken after her. My father's a great big man, believe it or not, but she was the practical one. She managed things and she drove the car. She was also ... I gathered that in her youth she had been a bit wild, and she loved to play cards. We used to watch these card parties of my mother's and she had a whole circle of friends. She was much more extrovert than my father, and I remember when the war broke out she thought we'd all better do something. My father - his great idea was that we were going to be self-sufficient in case we were invaded and so he got chooks in the backyard and turned all the flowers into veggies and he was even going to get a cow, but my mother said, 'No, you can't do that', and we didn't have that, but she went off and she worked in a munitions factory, possibly also to make a bit of money. But a very practical, marvellous woman, and also very gifted and lively woman and well, we were very, very close.
I would have been ... I suppose it would have been my second year of university, I would have been eighteen. And that was a terrific blow. Mind you she had always sort of lived fairly intensely and she'd had some sort of a turn a couple of years before, and had spent some time in hospital. So it really wasn't surprising, but you know it is a blow when you ...
Stunned, of course. Stunned. And then for weeks afterwards I kept thinking of her in her grave you know, and the body rotting away and I used to wonder whether there were ghosts around and then, well, you're young, you get on with it. And I suspect probably it was harder for my sister than for me because you know, I was a bit older. But it really was a great blow, particularly as I was so busy fighting with my father at that time, and I used to talk to my mother about things and about life and what I was doing, and I knew she was immensely proud of me, and of course so was my poor old father, but at that stage he couldn't get a word in. But we did ... we did become good friends later, when I'd grown up a bit, and I joined the community and I was in Melbourne, and I used to go out and see him. They'd moved out to Heathmont, which was sort of one of the outer suburbs in those days and I used to go out on the train and there we are. We got to be good friends then.
Oh yes, oh yes. I didn't ever hear them quarrel. They really got on. I don't ... It's an odd relationship because he was quite a bit older and when they married, her mother was a widow and so they were always scratching for things and she married a rich man. And I suspect some people might have said that she married him for his money, but I don't think so. I think there was really deep affection and they were an extraordinary pair together because he was a great big man and she was little. And you see she was a wonderful wife to him because he was a bit vague and a bit disorganised and she would manage things, and we moved around, and I think she was intensely loyal, and then her mother, my grandmother, was loaded on us for a while and then that was ructions, because she didn't approve of my father at all. I remember there was a famous saying an aunt of mine quoted when they were first married, and my mother was sitting up driving the car and he was sitting beside her. And she said, 'Here comes beauty and the beast', which was, you know, a bit nasty, and she was a trying old lady, this granny, and my father used to get very cross with her. That was friction. But he took all of that and ...
So in deciding to give up family life and the prospect of it to go into a convent, you knew what you were giving up. You knew that there was good. there was a really good thing there that you were turning your back on.
And have you ever felt curious in the time since at any stage? Has there ever been a time when you thought, look I'm someone who reaches out after experience and wants to understand things, but I've cut myself off from a whole area of experience.
Yes, I do occasionally think that, and I think, well, look that's right but think about all the other interesting things that I've done. I mean, one human life has to move in one direction and I think I've done so many interesting things, and had such a fascinating life, that you can't do everything. And I also think that the sort of life that I live has given me real opportunities for, you might call it introspection, I call it prayer and reflection and for ... I don't know whether I know myself, but getting to live with myself and like yourself and get on with it. And I always think that however close people are, finally each of us is alone, and is herself or himself. We certainly die alone and I think as you get older you begin to realise that your friends ... your friends move away or they die or they get sick or things like that. For instance, this very good friend, with whom I was really part of the family when I was at school and we went to university together, I haven't seen her now for years. I did meet her. There was a school reunion about a month or so ago, and fortunately the frequent flyer took me to Melbourne. Three cheers for frequent flyer, so I was at it, and I realised we'd both changed and we were very different people. She married a farmer and she's had a very different sort of life, and has remained a fairly conventional Catholic, and that I found rather sad because we had been so extraordinarily close. I mean, but there we are. That's what life is all about.
Oh yes. They had ... See her father was ... I won't say who he was, but he was an important newspaper man, and they had a little sort of hobby farm in the country and when we were undergraduates we'd spend all university vacation up there and have a whale of a time and sit up all night and leave everything. I remember no washing up was done, nothing was done until the Friday when the family were likely to arrive up. And, oh, marvellous, you know, talking about what we thought the meaning of life was all about, and we both thought we were great writers and there were a lot of other young people around there and we used to ... I never learned to ride but ... and she was a mad keen horsewoman, but I was put on a quiet hack and stayed on. I didn't ever fall off, and we used to ride, a whole crowd of us, you know, go for long rides at night. All terribly exciting and great fun. Yes, so you think, but then, righto that's no longer a part of my life and I have other friends. So that's ... as I say, I don't think everybody can do everything.
No, my problem has been that we don't live poorly enough. I would love us ... You see I'm a romantic at heart. I would love us all to live much more simply but that's not fair for old ladies and so on. I get frenzied about the way we use cars, because I do have a real feeling about the environmental crisis and I wish we wouldn't. I wish ... Of course not ... not everybody can ride a bike, but I wish we'd use more public transport. See I love riding my bike, but I also do it on principle. And I wish some ... Because when I first joined the community we did live very, very simply and very, very austerely.
Of course I would. But, and probably the wine most of all. I'm a great boozer. I love a good glass and ... But you see when I joined the convent we didn't ever have wine and that was one of the things I ... I don't think I'm an alcoholic because I can do without it. I always say to everybody, 'I'm not an alcoholic. I survive very nicely in countries like India and Indonesia and whatnot', but I do like a glass or two, one of life's great pleasures, and fortunately I'm a Catholic, you see, so you can do that. But it really ... I did miss it when I first joined the community, and it wasn't until I went to North America and nothing said that thou shalt not drink wine, it's just that no wine was provided. And the sisters had a glass or two in ... even in dreaded Toronto. So there we are. But yes, I mean, I think your needs be ... and certainly we'd just have a Chateau cask. I mean if I have visitors, yes, I'll have some decent wine, but I would like to think that we live more simply so we can share more. Well we do share. We have people in for meals and things like that and we've got the students staying with us now, but I would like to think that we ... I know many people who live perhaps with a greater awareness of the importance of simplicity and respecting the environment than some of us do. But, then, that's just because most of the people in our community don't meet the people I do. They don't read. They're simpler people and some of them are older people. So there we are. You've just got to get on with it.
Well, I pay it in. I mean, I ... I keep what I need, that's fine, but I also insist ... I'm probably very wicked because I have my own bank account and my money is paid into my own bank account. Why? Because otherwise I wouldn't have to pay tax. And when I first got this job I wrote to the provincial and said, 'This is disgraceful because I ... I mean, well, after all our old ladies get old age pensions and I believe that those of us who earn ought to pay tax', and this wonderful provincial agreed with me completely, and she said, 'Yes, paying tax is like giving alms'. So I ... as I say, I have my own bank account and I pay my tax, and I remember the first year, silly old woman, I did my tax by myself and of course I got a bill to say you need to pay some more because I didn't know about appropriate deductions and things. So I rang up the chap in the tax department and said, 'Look, sorry chum, at the moment ...'. I mean it was about another thousand I had to pay. 'I haven't got it at the moment because I paid it into the community. Can I have 'til the end of the month?' and he was obviously a Catholic because he said, 'Oh, sister you shouldn't be paying tax, you're a charitable institution'. And I told that to my brother-in-law. At that stage they were over here in Perth and he ... my sister married a widower with three children and then they proceeded to have another six, so there they were with nine kids and they were trying to live on a university salary, so when I said ... he said I shouldn't pay it because I'm a charitable institution, he said, 'Well, so bloody well am I!' And of course that's true. I mean now I've got ... I had a dear friend, who's now dead, who used to help me do my tax and then he passed me on to his accountant, so there we are.
Everything that I don't use. I mean I ... Of course I've got to keep up a certain standard and things like that, and you know I like taking people out to dinner - people who need a good feed or things like that. And I'm trusted. I think probably strictly it's very terrible, and I shouldn't be doing this, but I've got permission to do it. And then all the rest goes to the community. So, I mean, that's it. And I mean, frankly, I ... I think money is an awful pest, so I think it's great to have enough so you don't worry about it, but it really doesn't interest me and I'm ... I'm only just learning to keep my accounts properly because normally when tax time comes around it's hell because I haven't kept the proper records and things, but I'm learning now, you know, after all these years. But I do find it supremely uninteresting. It's just not ... I think I've got that very much from my father.
You've lived as a Catholic through some very dramatic changes within the church, during the period that you've been a nun in it. And before that, as you were growing up as a child. One of the things that of course must have been an influence in your life particularly in Melbourne as you grew up was the activity within the Catholic Church that led to the split in the Labor Party. Could you tell me how that affected you?
Yes, well now my father was always ... he was always interested in politics. In fact he once stood for local government and he always said that he didn't get elected because they spread the word round that Ted Brady was a Catholic. I don't know whether that's true or not. And he was always a good Labor man. But he ... and that's another thing we had so few fights about. Being a good Catholic, even though he was a questioning sort of person, he did get News Weekly and there were all these lurid headlines about communists and the union, but you see I was at university at that stage, and I was not ... I ... I think I was faintly affected by it, but I remember Prof. Crawford saying once in a theory and method of history class once, the only school of history which nobody should embrace was the Devil's school of history. And in fact, I nearly got thrown out of the noviciate ...
There were no baddies, you know. There's no such thing as wicked commies and the good west. And I remember, as I said, when I was in the noviciate I happened to remark one day ... there was the fuss about Cardinal Mindzentsy, the Cardinal in Hungary, who had ... I ... I think he'd spoken out against the Communist Regime and he had fled into the American Embassy and of course he was one of these heroes, the martyred Cardinal. And I happened to remark in the noviciate that I thought that the church was one of the big landowners, and he was probably on the side of the capitalists and the reactionaries and serve him right. Oh my, didn't the heavens open. I really thought I was going to be chucked out that time. So ...
No, I had a certain scepticism about the Devil's school of history. And yes, I was always ... I was always a Leftie, because from growing up, I think the Depression influenced me profoundly, growing up in the country. And as I say we always ... we were okay, though I was very well aware that there were money problems, but we lived in a big house and we had this servant, but the servant, our maid, Doreen, was the sole breadwinner of her family of about six or seven. Her dad had lost his job. And the family next door, they'd lost their job, and there were quite a number of kids there. I don't remember how many. But they used to come into our house and say, 'Tend your money, we're hungry'. And I remember we used to laugh at little Patty, little Patty Webster, who was my sister's friend because she had no pants. Now they were genuinely poor. And we used to have boys who'd ... who were carrying a swag, who'd knock on our back door and ask for a feed. That I think did affect me. And that I think my father always had some sense of social justice. And then when I went to university and this was the heyday of the Labor Club and all of that sort of thing, and we learnt about ... Well, one of the really influential courses I did was one of the Honours courses. It was the history of the British Revolution in the Seventeenth Century and I remember we had to read the Putney Debates and I still remember those wonderful words of John Milburn, 'the poorest he', and he should have said 'she': 'that is in England hath as much right as the richest he'. I'm sure that comes from my Irish background. And I ... and I've always thought that the trade unions ... well, also at school we learnt what used to be called Catholic social principles. We read those pioneering encyclicals about Rerum Novarum and whatnot. We learnt about things like the just price and the just wage, and I think what a pity we don't know about that now. We learnt about the rights of trade unions. So I regret to say ... no I don't regret to say, I'm proud of it, I happen to think that we have an obligation to see to it that people aren't poor. And you see my father was also an Australian nationalist and I remember his reading Henry Lawson to us as kids, and he was obviously very, very young at the time of all the federation struggles and I had always been interested in that period and the great social laboratory of the world, and I always believed in this idea of a fair go, so I've always been Left of centre as far as that's concerned. Now I was in the noviciate at the time of the real split, and one of the things, when you're in the noviciate, you didn't read newspapers. There was one very kind nun in the community who used to, at meal times, talk at the top of her voice about the headlines so that we might learn a little bit, so the split, and also the Korean War, passed me by. I really don't know very much what happened.
It was regarded as worldly. You see, in those days we were still based on almost a monastic way. We didn't go out except to going to things like the dentist or the doctor and we went out in pairs. Other than that we stayed behind convent walls. And the idea was we were to put our mind on higher things and pray and contemplate, and all of that stuff. So, fortunately, I was spared that terrible and torrid time.
Now the split was really, in the end - although it was really very much more complex than this - between the very strong anti-communist movement that was Catholic based and in the Labor party and people like yourself who had a sympathy for a lot of Leftist, socialist principles, who nevertheless were Catholic and also part of the Labor party. That all passed you by. What would your attitude have been had you been out in the world and participating in it?
It was a long time ago and I made well have had some sympathy with Santamaria and his crowd.
Possibly simply because he was Catholic. And yes, that might have ... yes. I think I ... Although I do remember there was a couple of terribly fanatical pro-Santamaria-ites in one community I lived in and ... and I remember one of them going up to vote, because you know we still had to do our citizen things, and she nearly punched the unhappy man who was giving out how to vote Labor tickets and said he was dreadful and he should have ... he should be voting DLP, and I remember being scandalised about that. I thought, look this woman's a bit crazy. But I think my attitude would have been somewhat more ambiguous. I know exactly what ... if I were me now, what I would have done.
Well, I would have said, 'Don't be silly. We must preserve the unity of the Labor party', and, I mean, I certainly voted Labor all that time, and I didn't vote DLP, but, growing up Catholic in Melbourne was a bit like being born ... You know how it is. I mean, Melbourne is tribal. I also grew up in the one true faith and I had an uncle and two cousins who played League footie for Melbourne and you know belonging to the church was a bit like belonging to your football team. And you see, we ... we went to Catholic schools. My parents only had one pair of friends who were not Catholic. They were a marvellous Jewish doctor ... Actually that was very sad. He died of polio. His little boy got polio and he went in to kiss the little boy goodnight and then died. So if you're part of this mind set it takes a while to come out. I remember for example, when I went to university I thought, isn't this good. I'm a little Catholic, I've got all the answers. And in first year, Crawford gave the lectures on the cause of the Reformation, and I, little seventeen-year-old pip-squeak first year, took him aside after the lecture and gave him the right point of view and told him he'd got it all wrong and this was the Catholic point of view. So you don't escape your conditioning, so I suspect I would have been more ambiguous and I would have thought, yes, what a good thing to be saving 'the church', because it is 'the one true church'. And we Catholics have to tell everybody else what to do.
Not until I went to university. No. Because I admired my teachers and they were good. Oh no, of course I did. I remember I got into another terrible row when we were in matric year we were doing the history of the Reformation you see, and I rose, and I said, 'Well I thought ...', and said this in class, 'There's a great deal to be said for Luther. The reforms were necessary'. Oh heavens, particularly as there was a girl in our class who was thinking of becoming a Catholic. Oh. She did as a matter of fact, so I didn't really destroy the whole fabric of society. But yes, I suppose that is true, because I had been trained to see things slightly differently but generally I followed the party line.
You say that Melbourne was tribal, and that if you belonged to the tribe Catholic you were against the other tribes. At that time, when you were growing up, was there really overt strong feeling against Protestants among Catholics, and against Catholics amongst Protestants?
Well we felt that the other tribes were against us. And you see, we had a tribal leader, we had Archbishop Mannix. And when he used to come to school the whole school closed down. It was like being visited by royalty, and he'd looked a very princely person and again I remember making a terrible boo boo. I met him. I was walking along the passage and there he was and instead of going down upon my knees oh, you know, genuflecting and kissing his ring, I called him father, so again, I have never been famous for my tact. But he did rally the troops and he did keep the people together and there was of course in Melbourne that strong memory of the anti-conscription movement and it was, I think, looking at it from other eyes, you can see that Catholics were regarded as probably disloyal. They wouldn't want to help Britain in her finest hour and see people like my papa who refused to fight. Though my mother's brother, Uncle Joe, went to war another thing which has given me a horror of war, and came back gassed. He only went as a stretcher bearer and was a wreck, and drank himself to death, poor lad. So that gave me a sense that war was dreadful. But you see these Catholics were unreliable, they were also Irish, and there is that strong sense that the Irish were poor. And when they came ... For instance. my great great grandfather was born, poor lad, in the poorest part of Ireland, or one of the poorest parts, County Cavan in 1842. So he lived through the great famine. We were very worried for a while that he might have been a souper. You know that you got souper if you turned Protestant. But no, apparently the landlord was decent, and as soon as he was old enough he came to Australia and worked on the railways, and then, got to be an inspector and so on. And did better with himself. But Catholics were outsiders, and I mean in Victoria. That was the case until very, very recently. The majority of really significant positions belonged to people from the independent Protestant schools. So we felt a little bit excluded and we did huddle together, and then all sorts of things like: the church teachings, well the notion of the one true church, meant that we held together. We also, at school, learnt this apologetics: how to explain to everybody the answer to everything and prove that the Catholic view of the world was right. And certainly, well I ... In the country town in which I grew up, I had to have two big girls to escort me to the convent school because the state school kids were out to get Catholics. And they used to sing out, you know, 'The Catholic dogs, jump like frogs, eat no meat on Friday', and we would shout, 'Catholics, Catholics ring the bell, while the Proddies go to hell'. So truly it was tribal. And when we were at school we were [taught] one of the worst evils was to make a mixed marriage, that's to say to marry outside the Catholic Church. And all of our socials were with boys from Xavier and St. Kevin's and we were not supposed to go out with non-Catholic boys. Even that word non-Catholic is quite remarkable. And when we went to university we were warned in case we lost our faith, so we had to belong to the Newman Society and stick together there and by and large I did tend to do that, except that doing Honours meant also that I mixed more widely and made some friends outside the fold. And you see, if you set that split in the Labor party in that context, it's much more understandable. Particularly as communism was called Godless communism. See one of the things I remember getting very interested in Marxism, and Karl Marx, and anyway we were reading about him in history and I saw, of course, a very different Karl Marx, and thought this was nonsense. I mean, all right, so he was a materialist, well so what? I mean in fact, his passion for justice seemed to me to be very close to what Christianity ought to be about, as well. So I gradually moved away from this high papalist triumphalist Catholicism. Oh I also ought to mention that in the school up to the senior years we used to do special church history because you see there was a special church history, which was different from other history and you got the true Catholic story there, and you realised that anything that really mattered was what happened in the Catholic Church. I mean, looking back on it, I can see that it's all very peculiar. And because I was fortunate enough to ... to have an education, to be able to think, I suppose I've been able to accommodate my thinking life with my believing life, but of course there's still some Catholics today who can't do it, and then even more so, many of my contemporaries at university left the church, and many more, of course over, Humane Vitae, the first encyclical against birth control. Fortunately that was a thing which didn't worry me.
Well of course, of course it did, but it wasn't a practical issue for me at all. And being ... I mean some people think I'm not a Catholic at all, that's as may be ...
That wasn't in church history. That was in matric history, when we were going to do the matric exams. And we didn't have church history at that advanced and exalted stage.
Yes, that's true, but I find it, and I think it's true, that I often feel closer to Protestant friends than to some Catholics, but vice versa. Some Protestants feel closer to the Catholic position. I happen to think that the Reformation was one of the great disasters of history, the way it divided Christendom. I also happen to think that if he had lived today Luther would not have been regarded as a heretic. I mean there's been interesting theological work done on these grounds.
Yes. The split. And of course, it was largely political. Same in Northern Ireland. The interests of some of the German princes, like the interests of the British Monarchy, lay with the new religion and getting free of Rome and that whole entanglement of the Holy Roman Empire. Just as it was in the interests of the Spanish Monarchy, and to a lesser extent the French monarchy, to remain Catholics. And we know all about the principle of Cuius Regio Aius Religio, that ... you know, that you will follow the religion of your ruler. You see religion I think is one of the world's most dangerous drugs. I would always make a distinction between faith and religion. We have to have a religious framework, of course we do, and that's where I suppose I'm a believer. I was brought up a Catholic. But then you have to move into it, to internalise it. When religious belief is used as a political weapon, or a patriotic weapon, then it ceases to be proper religion, and I remember being absolutely bowled over by Marx's critique, when I first read it, and he took that from Feuerbach. Remember he said, 'What people call God is just a projection of their social, political and emotional needs'. I don't think it's true, myself. I mean, I think God is more that that, and in fact the God I believe in is someone's ... one of my favourite theologians says, 'The best definition of God is interruption'. Well, in other words, interrupting your complacencies, and calling you to go further and rethink, and be more just, and all that sort of stuff. But it's all very easy to use your religious beliefs as a cloak for other things, and is a justification for other things. And I think that happened. That's why the Reformation split widened so much. And then generations of suspicion and hostility are very, very difficult to bridge over. To this very day there are lots of Catholics who suspect Protestants, and lots of Protestants who suspect Catholics, and I think still that there are lots of people who suspect me precisely because I am a Catholic and religious, and they still think that probably behind it all there's some dire papal plot where I'm going to pull out an ace from my sleeves, and I find it terribly interesting: the prejudice still exists amongst educated people against Jesuits, for example. So we're all culturally conditioned, just like fish swimming in ocean. They don't think about the ocean, they're there. And we just ... we're influenced by our culture. But I hope, if you live a thinking life, then you change it just a little bit, and try to get on top of some of those things.
So in having ideas and thoughts that really are a protest against some of the things that are taken for granted within your church, you believe that it's better to work for those changes from within the framework of the church, rather than go outside it.
I do. I don't know what I'd be without ... without being ... well I call myself a Christian. But the particular form of Christianity in which I was brought up, I find that the Eucharist is profoundly meaningful, providing the priest doesn't talk nonsense, but I'm very fortunate that I do belong to a Eucharistic community, which really does make sense, and the priest is not merely a good man, he's a prison chaplain, immensely compassionate, and he's also a scriptural scholar, and we all have to work hard to be part of that community, and to bring to our worship the lives that we live. Now that's ... that's great for me. I really do believe in that whole sacramental system, and I also like the Catholic theology which regards this world as good in itself, which is sacramental. I like its tolerance. I always say I don't like fanatical people, but I think I probably am rather fanatical myself. But one thing I'm certainly not ... I think I'm not a puritan. I love life, I love enjoying things: I like my body, I like good food and drink, I like swims, I like all of those sorts of things and I don't regard them as evil, and I don't suspect them. And one of the reasons why I get so upset about all this nonsense that's been talked about sexuality and population control is that look, sex is a good thing, and I don't see why we should be slaves to ... to biology. I really do think that love is the most important thing, and you ought to have children so that you can love them. And if you're trapped, and just the sort of women ... those poor women who are just baby bearing machines and I think that's ... that really is an insult to the God who made us to live with dignity and happiness, and I'm sorry to say that, but that's the way I see things. And I think the way some sections of the Catholic Church are so obsessed with ... with sex is just weird. You'd think it's the only ... Well, you mention to some Catholics, say what's the word that comes into your mind when you think of sin and it'll be 'sex', and that's weird and terrible, isn't it?
I think war, injustice, suffering people. Sorts of things that, well, what you see and what you hear with Aboriginal Australians. That's our original sin. I have many Aboriginal friends and they're nearly all people who've made it. But when I hear their stories sometimes I want to break down and weep. I mean, they've made it in our terms and still ... still you hear their history, you still hear ... One of my good friends was coming to see me one afternoon and she rang up and said terribly sorry, she couldn't come. She just left a message. And I rang to see what was the matter: look her little grandson was being bashed up on the way home from school. It's still going on. She and her husband, they're middle class, [but] they dare not drive a decent car. Why? Because the police pull them up and accuse them of stealing that car. I mean, I've seen in a country town: I have seen Aboriginal children playing and I have seen a lout come out from the pub and drive that car straight at them to try to kill them. I mean I ... Now that's sin. These are fellow human beings and we're doing that to them, and I think that ... and I know I'm fanatical about this and people say I'm just obsessed by it, I'm sorry I am. I think that in scriptural terms the Aboriginal people are Australia's suffering servant, wounded for our iniquities and bruised for our sins, for our brutal materialism, for our insensitivity. And look, I mean the people who first arrived, look, they were poor unfortunate ... well my ancestors starving Irish, and I think they were all in an advanced state of culture shock, and this country must have seemed terrible to them and they needed their land. They weren't brutes. They didn't know what they were doing. If you were an ordinary Nineteenth Century person you believed one white person was the equal of about fifty black people, and that you had a right to the world. I mean, we still go on with that. One of the weird things about the Gulf War was, it seemed to me, that simply because if there's oil anywhere in the world we have a right to it because we're pink people. Now I don't think the people in the past were wicked or evil, though I don't think it was a good thing to shoot Aborigines or some of the terrible things that you know ... kicking children's heads off and that sort of thing. So I'm not saying they were all monsters, but dreadful things happened, and it's about time we acknowledged them, and said, 'We're sorry', and tried to do something about it. So the end of that lesson, and that's ... but I do get passionate about that one, which is why I am a nuisance now because everybody in this state types me and says, 'She's just a ratbag, she's just passionate about the Aboriginal cause', and I don't help the cause of reconciliation, so I've decided, at the moment, that I have to try and stay quiet. Besides which, I think that Aboriginal people, they're the ones who say what they want and they need, and it's our business to listen and do what they tell us to do.
It will help us. I think, change some of our values. And also it will help us to live in this country a little better. I mean, we are wrecking this environment at an alarming rate and we're also extraordinarily aggressive and individualistic. I think that one of the great things about Aboriginal culture, and I don't romanticise it, I think can also be a great difficulty, is that they really do know about sharing. And they're not particularly materialistic, though they also like good things. And they love life. I mean, I just can't get over how it is that they've survived. You think about what they've come through and they've survived, a lot of them, laughing. I mean, they think we're funny. When you see ourselves through their eyes we really are hilariously funny, especially say in the north-west, where, I mean, sun gets up and they sit under the tree and tell stories or sleep during the day, and then the sun goes down and they begin to revive. Whereas we crazy persons, who work right through the hottest time of the day and charge round like elephants and rhinoceri, and drive our cars in straight lines and don't give ourselves a minute's relaxation. So I just think they give us a different perspective on things. And after all, we won't survive, the planet will survive, unless we scale down our consumption of things. So why not sit still a little bit more and why not make do with less, and you know, of course I'm the last person to talk because I am ... I know I'm a workaholic, but we really shouldn't work as hard as we do. My only excuse is I like my work. But, you know, we can learn from them. Just to be a little bit more relaxed about life.
Oh, everything. I was studying in North America when Vatican II was going on, and of course I'd already been sent away to study, which meant moving into a different environment. I mean granted we lived in a religious community. Our sisters in Canada ran one of the colleges in the University of Toronto. So we were still in community there, but we were moving into a different milieu and the sisters in North America had moved earlier than we had, so there were all sorts of changes occurring then and we were reading these documents of Vatican II and I was sort of over the moon. I think I was made for it. It was the sort of view of the world, which really had always suited me. So when we moved out and took off our veils and moved into secular dress, that didn't worry me at all. That's ... I mean I'd been play-acting before that. This was who I really was: an ordinary human being with a particular professional work to do, but, praying ... but I didn't ever like those walls between ourselves and the community. And I had more friends outside the community than in the community. I mean, that's not odd, because we don't choose the people we live with. One of the miracles is that we live together, and live together with certain friendliness.
For people, who don't perhaps understand the significance of Vatican II, could you say really what it, what it was, what it meant in the Catholic Church at that time? Just putting it in a little bit of context of where things were at when it happened and why it happened?
The essential thing was this great genius of John the XXIII, who announced that the great infin giornamento, that the church, Christian people, ought to become citizens of the world in which we live, instead of living off somewhere in our own little Catholic puddin' paddock. Remember the end of the Magic Puddin'? The puddin' had his little paddock, in which he looked down on the rest of the world. That ... and one of the other slogans was learning to read the signs of the time. It was a new theological emphasis and instead of God being out there, God ... There's one wonderful passage in one of the documents: the spirit of God's at work in the hearts of all human beings, inspiring us to whatever is good and true and just and beautiful. And that was the task that the council set to do, to revise the new notion of the church as the people of God, instead of this sort of tight edifice, and bringing the liturgy ways more in tune with the world. I personally now think that it's a pity we've thrown out some of the great tradition. I'm afraid I'm a snob here. I do not like badly played guitars. I do not like cheap and crude hymns. I think God's worthy of something very good so give me Bach and Mozart any day thanks very much, rather than these, and I do think we need an element of mystery, but I do get that in the particular Eucharist that we have. We do have, in fact, taped music of you know, the great classics: William Byrd and so forth. There's no need to throw out the whole tradition, but it is important I think that the people should understand ... should be in the language of the people and I think it's also ... There was a new emphasis on Scripture and the study of Scripture and that of course brought us much closer to Protestantism. So it simply meant that there was a concerted effort made to ... to be a Christian in terms of the needs of the world in which we live.
And the whole hierarchical centre. Because you see this new model, the people of God, suggests ... and one of the other wonderful things that Vatican II said, when it was talking about this notion of infallibility ... said that it's the people of God as a whole which interpret what God means for us, in our times, and the papacy is the focus of that belief. Because of course theological training is necessary, but also the living experience of people. That's why I think lay people are the ones who should pronounce on sexual matters. Celibates shouldn't.
Well, I have no difficulty with the way it's defined in Vatican II: that he is the focus of the faith of the church, and you see, a pronouncement is only infallible when the Pope says it is infallible. And there've only been two infallible pronouncements. One, the Assumption; one, the Immaculate Conception. So what John Paul the II was saying is not infallible. You take it seriously, yes, but at the same time, if it is the case that he is the focus of the faith, the community, and God's spirit works in the whole community, then the papacy also needs to listen. This present John Paul II is going back to this older centralised, monarchical view, but what Vatican II did was a more conciliar notion, and it also suggested that local churches had a need to reflect on their own experience because cultures are different and that the church ... It was more like the church as a federation. Now the present pope is bringing it back to a more monarchical view. And he may be right, okay. It doesn't seem to me to be in tune with the teachings of Vatican II, and it certainly doesn't seem to me to be in tune with Scripture. Now, I'm not saying he's wrong, I'm simply saying that I have to see the world the way I see the world, and before God I cannot see it any other way.
Vatican II appealed to you. It gave a sort of recognition to something you'd always felt about the power of the people and what it meant to be a nun. It also licensed your political activism. which had brought you into some trouble, but it was ... some people would say it was an aberration in the history of the church, and that your attitude is one that isn't the normal line of Catholic development at all, and that the current pope is just bringing things back on course after a sort of crazy period in the seventies, when people like yourself lost their heads.
With all due respect, I don't think those people know much about history. I mean it may be true that I lost my head, I'm not a prudent woman. I'll ... I'll accept all of that, but if you really do look at the story of the development of ... even of the Roman Catholic Church, it's always been the story of adjusting to new circumstances. The only problem is the Catholic Church takes a remarkably long time to adjust. I mean, the hierarchical order that we have comes essentially from the fact that when the Roman Empire collapsed the only educated people were the clergy, and then through the high Middle Ages there was ... they took on the shape of the feudal society. Pius the Ninth in the mid Nineteenth Century, you know, condemned democracy as a sort of heresy and he condemned religious toleration as a sort of heresy, so the dear old Catholic Church takes a very, very long time to adjust. And there's nothing necessarily wrong with that, because silly people like me do jump on every band wagon. But you simply cannot deny the fact that doctrine develops. I mean, these people who get frenzied when there's any talk of a married clergy or of women priests, forget the fact that Jesus wasn't a priest in our terms. He was a lay person. I mean things develop. That's one of the laws of life. I think it's very sad that so few people in our society know anything about history. Well I always did very much better at university at history than at English, and you know I've still kept up my interest in history and so ... But you see we all love to have things secure and right and tight and I think there is ... There is a sense in which an old-fashioned authoritarian Catholicism appeals particularly to a certain type of personality, and God loves those people, and it's fine to be authoritarian and anal retentive and all of those sorts of things, but there are other ways of being a human being and I ... Look I think it's great and I admire these people and their fidelity and so forth. I just wish that they would trust more, and realise that somebody like me is trying to follow my conscience, and it's not always easy ... and do what I believe to be right, so why not let us get on with it, and let them get on with it? I mean, the very meaning of the word Catholic means 'universal and tolerant' and if the mystery of God means ... I mean, it means that it's a mystery. I mean, how can you be so sure? I remember even as a kid, funny ... it's all very peculiar. They had it all worked out, you know, which bit of Purgatory you'd go for for which sin, and I always thought that that was most extraordinary. It's never been my habit of mind, you see, because I was brought up in a different sort of way, but it has to be said that many Catholics, particularly with big families ... people were brought up in a fairly authoritarian way, and certainly in many Catholic schools the children were caned and it was fairly tough and rough. So that's not surprising. But let the hundred flowers bloom.
Well, I ... I used to say to them yes that's perfectly true because I'm a practising communist. I mean the Russian experiment wasn't communist. It was the old Czars back in a new form. But I ... I share what I earn, and in our community it's from each according to ability to each according to need. Communism in itself is a good thing, so what's the fuss? And I mean, I think it's dreadful. I mean we Australians are most peculiar people. We think that anything that is different is somehow wicked or wrong. It might be interesting, mightn't it? And why not change your views? One of my favourite quotations from dear old William Blake is, 'standing pools breed only toads and vipers'. It's a lovely saying. And they do, don't they?
I feel I'm completely Australian. But I like to think that I'm a Celt. I find I've only been to Ireland a couple of times and it actually didn't appeal to me very much, which is disgraceful, and again my sister's ... she loves it and she trots around and does family history. I find it rather narrow and if I may say so, a little priest-ridden. And I find most of them ... and the scenery is beautiful, but they do seem to be acting ... play-acting as Irish people. My favourite country in the world is Italy. I love Italy very dearly indeed, because I like that sort of life. But I like the fact that I'm Celtic, whatever that means, because I think it does mean that there's ... well within the culture that I was brought up, as I say, there is that very, very strong sense of spiritual or psychic realities. I'm firmly prepared to believe in that such things as ghosts exist. I don't think they're necessarily supernatural either. I think they're preternatural. And I'm sure that comes from my Irish temperament. And I, yes, well ... I think I belong to the more joyous side of the Irish. And I think also, my Irishness gives me a very, very strong sense of injustice. I often say to some of my Nyungah friends, my Aboriginal friends, 'Look, my ancestors also knew what it was to be persecuted'. And I, again, these dreadful prejudices ... I really don't like England very much. I don't like the class distinctions there. This is a terrible thing to say. And I do feel that they condescend to me A. as an Australian, and B. as somebody with an Irish name, but then ... but that's they're prerogative to do whatever they want to do. So yes I think it's made a difference, and I think I'm quite proud of the story of Irish history and I think the Irish writers of this century are the greatest writers. I mean, Joyce and Yeats and Shaw, and then going back to that wonderful Swift, they write a wonderful prose. So yes. But I'm ... I'm definitely Australian, there's no doubt about that. Even though I loathe patriotism, I love to quote Dr. Johnson: 'Sir, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel!' I mean, I think really, the days of nationalism are over, and what we need to do is to realise we all belong to the human race.
I am very attached to what I like to think of the Australian nature: the place where we may begin again, where people who've been turned out for all sorts of reasons - political refugees, economic refugees - people who've come here to a big, open country, but we've got to learn to respect it, we're destroying it, where as good old Joe Furphy says ... One of my favourite books is Such Is Life ... 'It's the recordless land'. I mean he got it wrong. The Aboriginal had ... had all their stories, but the fact is we don't have all of those grim traditions of class, of injustice, of prejudice, and I still am rather proud of the fact that really we've absorbed so many millions of migrants, you know, a couple of million since World War II, with the minimum really of fuss. I know there's ... there's a certain amount of intolerance, and the average Australian will say, 'Oh, I hate those Chinks or those Viets', and then you point out that their next door neighbour is Chinese, and they say, 'Oh, he's a good bloke'. So I don't think we're ... this is one of the good things and I think we're free and easy, and I really do think that we're fairly democratic. In fact, my Chinese friend falls about. She cannot get over the way people speak so disrespectfully of our dear Prime Minister and the politicians. I think that's terrific. Our great, great blot is our treatment of Aborigines, but I think our big task now is to change that, and if we learn from them how to live in this part of the world, that's terrific, and I think now we're beginning to learn more about the cultures of the peoples around about us, although many of us are brutally insensitive. And that's so important. I always like, when I'm going to a country, to find out what you shouldn't do. You know, things like, for instance, I discovered to my horror, after being a couple days in Indonesia, that when somebody offers you a drink or something like the first thing you do is say, 'No thank you', and you have to be pressed and then you don't ever drink until you're urged to do it/ You know things like that, because if we're all going to live together, we've got to respect one another's views, but that makes it ... I think it's marvellous to be Australian at the moment. We've got these big challenges. And I think the people who are resisting it are just frightened, that's all. Ignorant and frightened, like ... you know, like dinosaurs. But if you look at it positively, we've got marvellous opportunities to learn about other cultures and look at all the people who come from the different countries into Australia. And I love travelling and I love ... and it's a great glory to be an academic and to be able to go and teach in different countries and meet people there. So, yes, I'm glad I'm Australian in that way. But I don't like the ugly Australia.
Oh yes, that's the story of my life. I ... one of my ... My philosophy of life is ask for nothing and refuse nothing. So all the things that have happened to me have happened to me. In fact, you know just apropos of this, I was just thinking to myself sadly, just a couple of days ago, I said, 'This is frightful. I can't see myself getting out of Perth. I'm going to Sydney in January, but it looks as if there's nothing next year at all. Isn't this frightful?' In the last three days I've had three invitations. So you see, things happen. The good old serendipity thing. So yes I was asked to go away. I though it was all right, I was enjoying my teaching but all right, so this is obedience.
I was asked if I'd like to go overseas and do my doctorate in Toronto, and I said, 'That's fine by me', and off I went.
Now how did you choose what to do because you'd done a double Honours - History and English Literature, and you've already told us that you enjoyed the history more, so what made you go off and do a PhD in literature?
Ah, but when I became a teacher, I loved the English much more. I think you need more maturity to be able to respond to literature. See I was very young to go to university and I was also extraordinarily immature. You know, little girl from the convent, family of two. I lived a very, very sheltered life and I really didn't know what was what. And I ... you know, as I said, I'd never been practical but I've learned. I still don't know much what's what, but I've learned to do a bit and I've matured a little bit and I just ... and I love ... I've always loved reading. I could read and write before I went to school, and my father read to us from very, very early, and there were always books, around, so God help us if there are no books. When I travel, my luggage is always heavy because I think, imagine if I was stranded somewhere and had plenty of time and didn't have books to read? So there we are. So I decided, yes, I'd do a PhD in literature, which I did. And then I'd fallen in love with Patrick White's novels so that was easy. I decided to do my doctorate on Patrick White. And then when I came back, you see, the idea was I'd go into this Catholic Teacher's College. Well, yes, but then I thought, now this is silly, I can really do better than this because, I mean, it was primary school. And I couldn't teach. I mean, I'd never taught primary school in my life. And I really was a bit much for the kids and I was not ... I was not bringing the practical things that were needed, so all right, I applied for a job at UWA, and again I was very lucky that there was this eccentric professor, who ... who appointed me. I mean it was a very eccentric thing to do. And at first, you see, I arrived and I was still wearing a veil. Particularly the kids from Catholic schools didn't ... oh, didn't like it at all. Didn't want to be in my tutorial.
Oh, they'd had enough of priests and nuns most of them, you see. But, well, gradually, I mean, I'm a good teacher, if I say that myself, and so I got reappointed, and equally I haven't ever wanted to apply for a promotion. I've had the head of department twist me by the arm. I know people don't think this, and I know they think I'm ambitious. I don't really think I am. I frankly don't care. But it's good for the department so there we are. So I love teaching and then, one of the sad things about my life is, you see, I thought I was going to be a great poet. But when I was away I did a semester at the University of Chicago before we went on to Toronto, and I did a creative writing course.
Patrick White, of course.
I had discovered Patrick White, or rather he discovered me one night when I was teaching. It was the night before school speech day and we were putting out all the prizes and I noticed there this book called the Tree of Man, so I flicked through it. I took it away. I sat up just about all night which is a thing I very, very seldom do. That book absolutely gripped me and I was hooked ever after. I think when I left Australia ... Well yes The Solid Mandala came out when I was in Toronto and I managed to persuade the University of Toronto, which was very fuddy duddy and usually wouldn't allow you to write a thesis PhD on a living writer ... I managed to persuade them to allow me to write a PhD on his work and then I had a whole raft of supervisors because nobody knew anything much about Australian literature or about Patrick White, but the first one was an American, who said, 'Well, you've gotta write to Patrick White'. I said, 'I don't have to write to Patrick White. Let Patrick White get on with writing his books and I'll write about him'. However, this man persisted, so the letter I wrote to Patrick must have more or less said to Patrick, 'This is nonsense. You get on doing your writing and I'll get on writing about you'. So he liked that, and we know that Patrick had a thing about nuns anyway. So he wrote back to me and was extremely helpful, and when I got back to Australia, having done my finals exams to get on with writing the thesis, he came to see me. And this is one of the wonderful stories of life. There I was, living in Kirribilli, and in those days, there used to be, oh, ten, twenty people. We used to call them 'poor men', who would come begging for some food or a cuppa every morning, so one of the chores after dinner in the evening was we all set to and cut sandwiches, so there'd be cut lunches there, you see, and as soon as the side doorbell would ring, you would pick up a sandwich and rush to the side door and give it to this poor man. Well, of course, guess who rang on the side door? Patrick. And that ... that I think was the beginning of the fact that he thought this was an all right place and he was a very ... I didn't ever know him well. But he was always very, very kind to me. And it was the best thing ... one of the best things I ever did, because I find that my view of life is ... or certainly my view of Australia, is largely coloured by Patrick White. I just think he's a wonderful writer and the world is full of people of course. I mean it's divided into two: those who can't abide Patrick White and those who think he's wonderful, and I'm one of the latter. So, I had a great time writing my thesis. Usually people get very bored. I had to write my thesis. In those days there was none of this nonsense about having time to write theses. I was also tutoring at the University College in Melbourne and teaching part-time at the Catholic Teachers' College, as well as writing my thesis, so it was just as well I enjoyed writing it. [Laughs] And I remember in the middle of it also, some ... the sister who taught the senior English and History in Adelaide got ill for the last term, so I was ... was sent off to teach the Senior English and History in the last years ... last weeks before exams while continuing to write her [sic] thesis. However, there we are, but it was because I enjoyed it so much. It was quite fun, really, doing it.
I think it affects the way I see the world. I mean, some of my colleagues, not so much the ones that know me at work, because they know that ... that I'm relatively normal, but certainly my critical writing has a theological slant and that's unfashionable and that's often suspect. And I think a lot of people don't think much of me as a scholar for that very reason. And I also think that probably I'm ... as a critic, I'm usually far too kind. I don't like writing about books that I dislike, because I think we academics have tenured jobs and a permanent income and most writers live in a very vulnerable and fragile way, and it doesn't behove me to tear to pieces the work of a writer. Leave that to other people. I like to be positive in what I do. And I suspect that that's affected the way I behave and the way I do my teaching and my writing because I ... unashamedly, I think that critical writing is a very minor art form, and I do wish I could have gone on and been a poet, but there we are, I didn't have the ability. But I think that it's a great thing to be able to mediate between books, which are sometimes rather complicated, and readers, and help them to enjoy things and also help to understand more what the world is all about. And unashamedly, I'm interested in values. I mean, they don't have to come labelled Christian values, but I like to see works which can open up our possibilities as a human being, to help us to understand other people ... can help us see evil and contest it and so on and so forth.
If you interpret moral in that very large way. You see I was influenced. When I was an undergraduate the vogue of Leavis was just ... just beginning in Melbourne. Sam Goldberg was one of the very, very, very bright young academics at that time. And it did influence me. I mean, once a Catholic, always a Catholic. You're always, I suppose, a moraliser in the sense that you continue to have a fairly strong notion of good and evil. And I think also my experience growing up during the war affected me. I remember being absolutely bowled over when the revelations appeared of what had happened in the concentration camps of the Holocaust. And also, rather oddly, I thought that Hiroshima was the most terrible thing which had ever happened. You know everybody else was saying, 'Well, isn't it wonderful, we've ended the war'. And of course, I had no brothers. So I didn't have any man directly involved in fighting that war. But I remember writing an aghast poem, not one of my major works. I remember the opening line, 'Oh God, that men could hate like fiends and blow one another to bleeding lumps of flesh ...', or something. You can see the level of the poetry, but the sense of evil, and of the evil of war, somehow or other got at me, and I've always ... the more I read about it I always admired those good Germans in the 1930s. That's sort of been a model for me I think. And then, when I was in North America during the ... the civil rights movement when I was in Chicago, and I used to walk ... I wasn't supposed to: I used to get off the bus and walk about four blocks through the black quarter around the University of Chicago, because I liked looking at things and seeing what was going on. And I was perfectly safe in my religious habit, because the church in Chicago was great. When the other white people moved out, they didn't. They stayed. And little black kids would come up and say, 'Hi, sister, my name is Steven, what's yours?' It was fine but ... and then the Vietnam War, I ... I just think, look evil is a very real possibility, that is that kind of destructiveness, and we can easily go along with it. Most of those ordinary Germans just didn't want to know what was going on, and so they did nothing. So I think that the thing I can do ... I'm not ... I'm only good at a few things: I think I'm good as a teacher, I sometimes write well critically, other times I don't, I flop about, and I think that's my contribution, just to add to our awareness of the way the world is and how things are going.
When you write critically, you write critical works, you say that you like to find the positive, and you like to show a sort of enthusiasm for the writer. Don't you think it's possible to point out what's negative or what isn't working in a book in a constructive way?
Yes it is. Yes, I like doing that. And we're only talking there about reviews. I don't like doing reviews as much as long extended explorations of a book, because in a review you don't have much space. You usually have to do it on the run, and I'm perfectly delighted ... I remember one of the things I really liked doing [was] a paper attacking The Thornbirds. Now I enjoyed that very much. I mean, that's fair game, something like that. But say a new, young writer - many of them can be crushed because their first work perhaps isn't what it might be. Yeah, sure, but I do like to be positive. I think that there is a school of criticism in which the critic shows off her or his cleverness at the expense of the work, and I ... personally I don't regard that as ethical.
No, I ... I like them both. Sometimes the writing can be really very very tough. When you've got something ... I've got something I'm trying to review at the moment and I can't quite work out really what I want to say, and that's very hard work when you sit down there in front of that empty page. I think teaching is nearly always a sheer delight. Occasionally you can get a tutorial that doesn't gel. You can get somebody in that group who simply doesn't like me. I mean, I always say to them in the beginning, 'You know I'm a bit wacky, and if you don't want to stay in my tutorial, please don't, because then it doesn't work'. But normally I think that it's ... it's just great, because you learn as much from the students I think as they learn from you, though they don't realise that. And it's wonderful to see a sense of trust growing up in a group, and many of the people I teach later on become good friends.
Well, it doesn't have to. But if it's a positive dislike, it can affect the tone. Or [if] somebody sits sullenly and doesn't approve or won't contribute, that also can make a difference. But usually, you see, we've got to, I think most universities have this. We've got a good system. If they don't like their tutorial, they're allowed one chance to move elsewhere. And most of us encourage them to go. It can be rather difficult because there're some people who are not very popular tutors, and other tutors find themselves with a very large class, which also means a great deal of marking, and so on. But we're defended against that a little bit. We can't fit more than at the very most about thirteen into our rooms. I mean, we're ... we're spoilt in our university that we are still teaching in those relatively small groups. Soon, we'll have to give that up, but then I'll be gone by then, fortunately, and I think the tutorial system is just marvellous: to get with a group of people, and being able to really explore particular issues. And mostly they're getting even better nowadays. Mostly they come prepared. And yes, I make sure that at least somebody's prepared. Somebody has to lead that tutorial.
I'm interested ... I think I'm interested in people. I'm interested in ideas and, you see, I'm lucky to be teaching subjects which really interest me. I've always been fascinated about being Australian, and teaching Australian literature is very exciting and when I first arrived at UWA there was no course in Australian literature and there were a group there - Dorothy Hewett, for instance was one of them, and good old Bruce Bennett was one of the leaders and Peter Cowan was with us then, and we were agitating to have a course in Australian literature and the favourite retort of some of the others was, 'Oh, is there any?' Anyway, we got a course established and it soon became the most popular second year course, and they flourished ever since. And it really is fascinating because the way I teach I ... it seems to me that there's always an interrelationship between a literary text and the larger social and cultural context, so that's great fun, and the students, I think, mostly, find it quite interesting. Well, just that. And then you can ... if you're lucky enough you can build up quite a good group feeling. I like to think that they will go off and they will have coffee together and help one another, because I'm ... I'm absolutely convinced that in the humanities anyway, learning is co-operative, and you really need to share and talk to one another and I just like that. And then I ... also, I'm a terrible exhibitionist. I do like lecturing. I don't think lecturing is a good means of teaching. I think it's a way of the lecturer showing off, because when you get back in the essays and exams, which we don't have now - at least I don't like [exams] ... you get back garbled versions of what you said in lecture, you realise how people just don't hear and don't listen, but it's a nice way to prance around and show off and develop your ideas.
I think so, yes. I mean, even when I was a child I wanted to be a teacher. I used to ... [INTERRUPTION]
Yes, I think I have. I think it's partly having been that only child and being obviously so loved and so spoiled. I was perfectly prepared to perform for anyone. I remember one of my party tricks was my father had taught me Baa Baa Black Sheep in French: Baa Baa bebe noir, A tu du a laine ...', [?] and I used to love doing that for all and sundry. And I do think that people tended to dote on my every word for a while. So why not? It's ... and I always think that teaching is a kind of performance and I used to ... I wasn't fond of dolls, but I do remember lining up these dolls and teaching them. So I mean, it's just ... just the way a person is, I suppose.
Well, I went ... I did a semester at the University of Chicago en route to Toronto, because I think at that stage Toronto didn't have a semester system and it was ... We'd left Australia at the end of February and as you know, they're academic year doesn't begin 'til August or so. We did go up to Toronto and do a summer course, but there was a semester at the University of Chicago, which was actually marvellous, because it was quite a university, and there was a creative writing course. So I took that, and I think I said yesterday that the person responsible for the prose was John Cheevers, and the person responsible for the poetry was Edgar Bauer, and there were people there from all over the States who really were very talented indeed. And I see no point in being dishonest, and I realised I really wasn't much good, so what was the point in going on scribbling? Why not do ... find out what you're really good at? And I think I probably am quite good at teaching, so I decided to go on with that. And then of course, teaching, school teaching, was all right. You had time off when you could cultivate your poetry, but as an academic if you take it seriously, you don't have time over and above that, because if you're not teaching, you're doing your research and your writing, and scholarly writing is a very different kind of operation from writing poetry, with all that receptivity that's involved. Very, very occasionally now, I feel a poem coming on, and I'll do something with it. But there's not the time to work on it and to perfect it, and I don't think that was who I was meant to be. I mean, who knows when I retire, when I'm an old lady in my rocking chair with nothing else to do, but in the meantime, I don't ... I'm sorry about it. It would have been nice to have been a good poet, but I don't think I was, and there we are. We get on with it.
Well, nobody said it. There was no real assessment. There weren't marks, but I could see that in comparison with the work that the others were doing, mine was pretty poor stuff. It's largely what I call the drainpipe school of poetry, you know, pouring out my own sorts of feelings. I really didn't have much sense of the craft and the art, and so there we are. I mean, I think it's sad, and I would have liked to have been, but it's ... I really don't have any great regrets. I think it's better to be honest with yourself, and that's why sometimes I'm a little bit unkind about people who insist on the fact that they are true poets or true novelists, when it's quite obvious that they're not, and they really ought to realise that themselves.
You don't. But I think I do. I think I have to feel that it's a good thing to be doing. That may well be part again of the Catholic puritan in me, and possibly the religious. I think that, as far as I know we've only got one life, but who knows? It would be fun to come around again, and I've got all sorts of interesting ... I mean, since I believe in the resurrection, I presume that there's another life and I hope it will be great fun. In fact I nearly killed myself on a country road a few years ago and I was in a ... went ... it was a gravel road and there was no sign. There was a bend but it proved to be a hairpin bend and the gravel was loose and I didn't slow down enough, and there I was proceeding towards a telephone pole, and I thought this is fascinating, I'm going to die, and I'll see if it's all true. It was a wonderful feeling. I was rather disappointed, in fact, when we bumped into the telephone pole and I wasn't dead. And you know, the other side of my brain did all the right things, like going with the skid and steering it a little away from the telephone pole, and so forth. So ... but as I was saying, if you've only got one life you may as well live it as fully as possible. I remember being very much taken by Sartre's point that in your own life you ... each of us, draws your own portrait. So I think it's a good idea not to muck about too much, but to draw the portrait that's really there and do what accentuates the positive, in that way.
The idea of a nun as a teacher and as an academic and as ... or even as a poet, if you'd chosen that road, is one that we're quite familiar with. The idea of nun as political activist is less part of the conventional idea of a nun. You became involved in caring a great deal about various political causes. In fact, some of the major political causes of your time. And I wonder how that happened. How did that begin, that interest in politics? And how did it develop?
Well, of course, from my father. Then also, as I was growing up, two of my friends were involved with newspapers and I ... even as a child, I followed World War II very vividly. I and my best friend, who's father was a newspaperman, we used to draw cartoons about the war. I'm not good at drawing but we used to do these things and we took a very, very vivid interest in ... well I suppose, look, I remember the summer of 1942 when Singapore fell, and I remember playing at school, and kids used to play sword fights and we thought the war was just one big picnic. And of course Melbourne wasn't really threatened but there were air raid drills, and there was talk of our being evacuated, and we thought that [that] was a picnic. But I suppose, oh a little bit later, I began to ... I was a little bit older then. What was I then? I would have been thirteen in 1942. But I also began to be aware, because of brothers of my friends - older brothers who went away and some of them got killed and later some of them came back as wrecks ... I was really interested in it all. It was partly my interest in history and I really did think that Hitler was monstrous and I had a very clear view of that. And then Hiroshima shocked me very profoundly. And then, of course, when I went to university, it was a very political time. There were these men who'd come back from the war and the history department was political, and I remember the Putney Debates we had to study particularly - the debates of the Parliamentary Army after the death of Charles the First, debating what sort of society they would have. So intellectually I've always had that real interest in things. Also, my kind of Christianity has always said that you can't just sit back and pray, you're responsible for other people and you have to do what you can do and, you see, I wanted to go ... When I was in North America, with all the civil rights activities and the anti-Vietnam activities ... I didn't join in that because I wasn't Canadian, I thought it's none of my business, but when I got back, yes, I did want to get involved in the anti-Vietnam movement and I went to various debates and things like that, but I wasn't allowed to go to the moratorium. And then, well shortly afterwards when I came over here, I also joined the university branch of the Labor party, the ALP, and there was the great Whitlam era - the great and glorious era when, at last, the one and only time, we had a politician who was a statesman, who took us out of Vietnam, who reordered our ... reoriented our foreign policy, who did good things about education, though to be fair, Menzies had already done it. To me it was ... it still is a golden age, and I know I romanticise it. And the deposition of Whitlam was one of the most dreadful days of my life. I hadn't realised, because Whitlam seemed to me to do all the things that seemed to me to be what Australia was all about. And then, not only the deposition, but then the majority voted against him. I was overseas at that time. I just could not get over it. Another terrible blow came when I was in Holland. I voted in London at Australia House, and then I was in Holland when the results came out. And one of the leading Dutch dailies had a two-page analysis of Australia. Of course, I couldn't read Dutch but my brother-in-law and sister by this stage could, and they interpreted it for me. They had came to the conclusion that Australia was a profoundly conservative society, which of course is right, but I'd never thought of it that way before and that was another terrible blow because I'd always grown up with this dream of Australia as the ... the land of the new beginning, a ... a fair go for everybody. I mean, that's how I'd been brought up, and I'd always mixed with those sorts of people. So there I was and then here, under the great and the good Sir Charles Court, the Court Government introduced a bill which was going to make ... the Fuel and Energy Emergency Bill was going to outlaw strikes and would make every single unionist liable for thousands of dollars. I mean, it was designed to smash the trade unions. And I also knew a lot about German history, and that was one of the ways in which Hitler started. So I think I wrote a letter to The West, and again, that's my father, he used to write letters to the paper. So I wrote a letter to The West saying I didn't think this was a good idea, and of course the idea of nuns writing letters about politics stirred everybody up, and I think that's silly. I'm a citizen, and I also care about justice, and then Four Corners came over and did a story, and because there was this little nun, they filmed me. And then I also ... Because I'm a good speaker, I was asked to speak at various rallies: peace rallies, anti-Uranium rallies, environmental rallies, support of Aborigines. To me, they're all the one issue. And of course in dear little Perth, you meet the same thirteen or fourteen people involved in all of these causes, and of course we are then known as the terrible ratbags. So I made lots of friends there and in ... And I now think that demonstrations in this city are quite counterproductive because people just say, 'There they go again'. For instance, we gave up demonstrating against the American nuclear-powered warships, which used to come down to Fremantle, because the media invariably focused on somebody with a punk hairdo or else, I'm convinced that there were deliberately contrived scuffles. People would irritate or enrage somebody, and then the media would film this and say, 'Look, they call themselves peace activists and look at that'. So we've largely given up. The only one recently, was [when] the Aboriginal people here in Perth asked all those who supported them in the Mabo affair to march with them and we got about 10,000 people. It was, in my opinion, very badly reported by the West Australian. I went to that kind of thing. But nowadays I think we live in different kinds of time. But I don't see anything peculiar about that. See I'm not much good at anything else except thinking and talking. I'm not a practical woman. And I'd be hopeless as a politician. I really wasn't very good on the ABC ... and also ... because I'm not good at compromise. But you do what you can, because otherwise, what happens? You let it go by default. I mean, those good Germans of the 1930s had no impact in their time, but they ... people can look back and say, 'Look, somebody cared'. And I think the same thing now about the Aboriginal issue. I feel completely flummoxed like many other people. I don't know what we can do to stop this appalling, appalling racism and the madness of our present Premier, who thinks he lives back in the Nineteenth Century. I think he thinks he's shouldering the white man's burden in darkest Africa. But you've got to do what you can do. And it's my view that if one person influences one person in her lifetime, well that means that things still stay on track, and that a certain amount of decency still prevails. I mean, if you don't do what you can do, well, the nasties just go uncontested. But I don't find it odd. I think it's simply what I have to be as a Christian. Now I think I probably was a liberation theologian before liberation theology was invented, and I find their theology immensely stimulating and convincing because you see, I mean, Jesus was ... kept saying, contesting what was evil because he cared about people, and every person in my simple view is sacred as such. And if ... if some other person is being degraded or humiliated, then I think that affects all of us. I'm convinced that what we've done to Aboriginal people has damaged us as a people. Because of my sort of so called mystic streak, I think injustice damages people, and it makes for brutality and leaves a terrible burden, and I think many of us are still carrying that awful burden, because we won't face it. If you think of it in Jungian terms, think of it as the shadow. And if you refuse to face the shadow it haunts you forever. So, my sense is look, you know, let's do what we can. I don't think there's anything odd about it. I think it is odd in this place because as you know the climate can be a bit oppressive at times, and there's the famous West Australian tired feeling which afflicts people. And there's also this sense, I remember a friend of mine once saying, who left WA, and he said, 'Being in Perth is like thinking there's a large elephant standing on your towel and he won't get off', because there is a great deal of apathy. But there we are, you just do what you can.
There's a sense in which most of the causes you've been involved in has been about giving people freedom, and you say liberation theology appealed to you. I suppose that's one of the things that strikes people about you as a nun, because they tend to associate the church with restricting certain activities, rather than defending the right of people to do as they choose. Is there anything that you feel that you do want to restrict people in?
I think people should restrict themselves. I don't ... don't think that it's every any good to tell other people what they ought to do. I mean, I'm a great one for ... you know that Mary Douglas' distinction between two different sorts of societies: the grid and the group. The grid society imposes rules from outside. There's always preoccupied with the ... with fortifications and entrances and body's orifices, and is essentially defensive and it thinks of society as conformist and agglomerate. The other model of society, the group starts with the individual, with individuals associating freely with one another, and being the source of values for within themselves. Now it's not an absolute polarity. I mean I learnt my values from other people and I still get my values as being part of the believing community. But my sense of morality is that each person must make decisions and nobody else can make decisions for her. But if you ask me ... for instance I don't pronounce on the matter but I have ... I'm deeply troubled by abortion. Deeply troubled. Now again, I can see that somebody who's raped and so on, there may be reasons, but ... and I do not like and I thoroughly disapprove of sexual promiscuity. But how can anyone define what is sexual promiscuity? I mean, you know, it's ... it comes within the person. And I also loathe and detest bullies and loathe and detest people who live just for money and destroy other people's lives in order to make money. I've got lots of loathings and detestings. But I ... frankly I think Christianity is about setting people free to ... to respect other people and to cherish other people, and to enlarge their possibilities. That's why I like teaching. I mean, the medical profession heal people when they're sick, but if you're a teacher, you enable people to be more fully human and I think that's great. Of course freedom has it's limits. You know most of the time you have to do things that you don't really like doing, but then you are free if you say, 'Look, I don't really like doing this, but I need to do it to get from point A to point B, and so I choose to do it'. There we are. And I think the way most people now are worked upon by advertisers and so on to live just to satisfy their desires, I think that's the most awful kind of slavery and tyranny. You never really make choices for yourself. And I've always been exceedingly suspicious of fashion. I frankly don't care about clothes. And I'm a great sorrow to many people who are always wanting to dress me up, and I ... no I ... I like that business about 'consider the lilies'. There are far more important things in life than being preoccupied with these kinds of things. The most interesting thing is to be a human being, and to discover all the inner and outer possibilities that you have.
No I don't like it. I wish ... and it's one of the great trials of living in Perth, you know, I remember once getting on a bus and somebody saying, 'Hello Veronica'. I don't like that at all. I know people think I'm a publicity hound, but actually I just like to be me. And ... and I do care what people say about me. And I must say, the physical and psychic violence I find quite terrifying. When ... they've ceased doing it now, fortunately, because actually I seem to have gone quiet because there seems to be no way in which I can say or do things, but I ... In the past I used to get these awful phone calls telling me, their favourite thing is, usually from good Catholics, 'Get back to your convent and say your prayers', and telling me I was doing the work of the Devil. And full of violence and virulence. And same thing with anonymous letters. And I can't help ... I just quiver all over. I just couldn't ... I can't hack it because I've never known violence in my life. I'm an extraordinarily privileged person. I didn't know any violence. My parents obviously loved one another. And I ... I mean I ... okay I keep on, but ...
Well they call me an evil woman and all these sorts of things. But there was once, once, and I suspect it had something to do with our lovely State Government ... It was during the Noonkenbah thing and I was riding my bike, you know, in a secluded street down in Claremont and I always ride. It was night time and I always ride close to the gutter because it seems to me it's much safer there. So a car's less likely to hit you, and I've got a beautiful bike headlight, tail light, and suddenly somebody leapt out in a track suit, rubber gloves, mask, and knocked me off me bike. At first I thought he was going to rape me and I thought, now, come, come, he can't. He's in his track suit and all this, so I screamed and gave him a good kick in the right place and he ran away. I think that was done to frighten me. What I do now is, when I'm riding at night, I ride in the middle of the road as far as possible. Yeah, I think so. Otherwise it's a very extraordinary thing to do, unless the man was mad but I don't think ... I don't ... I don't think madmen wander round the night with ... in track suits with rubber gloves and there was almost ... there was almost a sort of antiseptic smell about this. He tried to get the rubber gloves over my mouth you see. So yes. So I don't like those things. I'd like just to lead a simple, peaceable life actually. And just be me. I mean, even yesterday I ... No we can't talk about yesterday, but even when people see me being filmed or something like that ... I remember when I was an ABC person and the cameras were all over the place and, you know, I could see my colleagues saying, 'Oh there she goes again, the publicity hound'. And I suppose I am silly to say, 'Yes', but, well, I always think that journalists have to earn their living, don't they?
You spent a lifetime working for social change, both in the wider society and in the church, and in the Seventies you say Vatican II and a sort of sea change in the church, and it was the time of Whitlam, and a lot of changes that you'd worked for, but now we see things going, in that sense, in your sense, backwards. And I wonder how you feel about that, I wonder whether you feel a sense of frustration that in fact, not that much has changed.
The answer to the second question, the answer is, yes, I often do feel frustrated. But I think I ... I think it's not true to say that I've worked for social change. That's why I'm in a bit of a despair of people who are really organised. I tend to do what I think I need to do and frankly I seldom think that ... think about winning or not. I think that's again part of my religious belief. I really do believe that in the long run God's ... God's spirit ... well I happen to believe that God's spirit is working through the world and that it's our responsibility to work with that spirit, which is a spirit of love and justice and hope. And my sense is that's ... there's a pattern to it all, which we don't really understand. I also believe, in my funny sort of theological way, that the way to ... certainly the Christian way is that you have to ... have to be prepared to be a loser. I mean Jesus was a loser. And then somehow through losing and giving all of yourself, and believing in this larger good, that good comes about. And I really do think that we do not see the reality of human beings. One of the things in the Gospel is the kingdom of God, the rule of God, is within you. So, on the outside things look very bad, but my view is that I have to do what I have to do, if I believe that I'm supposed to be part of this larger plan, and that that larger plan is ... is ... will move on. Not move in a stunning sort of way. I've never really been a utopian, and when I do get depressed, and I get profoundly depressed about our society at the moment. I get profound ... Most of all I get depressed about the, the racist reaction against Mabo. It seemed to me when ... when Paul Keating made that speech at the opening of the Year of Indigenous People in Redfern, in which he apologised on behalf of all Australians to the Aboriginal people, I thought, oh isn't this wonderful. At last it's happened, a brave new era is going to open up, and then when the Mabo decision came, I think it was ... I don't know whether it was before or after that, I thought, great we're now getting somewhere. Now, on the surface, we seem to be going backwards. But that's simply if you trust what you see in the media and what the appearances are. I think that if you do believe in these things, you keep on believing, and you put on your tin hats and I think sometimes we go through bad times, and the important thing is to keep that little flame alight. The one story or essay I think I read when I was a child at school, one of Robert Louis Stevenson's ... It's called The Lantern Bearers, and [it] was just a personal reminiscence of when he was a boy in a Scottish town. There was a gang formed, and they used beg, borrow or steal one of the old hurricane lanterns, and then go out on a dark winter's night and hide that lantern under their coats, and then when they met a fellow member of the gang, the thing was, you opened your coat and you showed the flame to somebody else. The original flashers if you like, but I thought that was a wonderful image, and Auden has a line somewhere that we have to show the affirming flame, that in dark times, you've got to keep the light alive. And there may be many other people with a light, many more people than you know, and you just keep on. Because as I said, the main thing is not the winning, it's keeping the thing alive. So ... and I think if I were .. if I didn't believe those things I would be unutterably depressed about the way our society ... The gap is growing between rich and poor. That's something else which appals me. And increasingly, if you don't have money, your children are condemned to a less good education than people who are now able to buy a better education. That there's a whole generation growing up of young people who have very very little hope of a job, and in our society, a job means purpose and job means dignity. That appals me. It appals me this outburst of dreadful tribal nationalism throughout the world. I mean, I was in Dubrovnik at a PEN conference last April, and of course Dubrovnik has suffered nothing in comparison with other parts of the former Yugoslavia. And as I say, the growing ... the economic crisis, which is sending the whole world into a frenzy and meaning that the poor are bearing the burdens. The crisis of overpopulation and the threat to the environment - all these things can make you feel really awful. I mean they do. And I just hate ... I try not to think about what it's like to be say a woman in Africa. Or ... or a child growing up here in, with parents ... perhaps you've only got a single parent, and you go to a less than good school - not the fault of the school teachers. I mean, some of our schools now are like gaols because children are forced to stay on in school, and they know. They know that there's no point. Our education system, by and large, exists to educate people for jobs and jobs don't exist for the poor. So I ... you know, it is very depressing, but then, I think my job is to keep hoping. And then also, we were talking about this last night, since there's so much unhappiness on the planet it's also important to keep up the happiness quotient. Not at other people's expense. But I don't see any point in my going around miserable. Somebody's got to be happy and so, you know, let's get on with that.
Well, yes of course. How many people nowadays care about peace, and think that war is just so outrageous? How many people are deeply, deeply concerned about the environment? And think about us as Australians, [and] our new awareness of our place in the world, our new openness to other cultures. The interest in the arts is growing, and then I find, especially amongst young people I know ... I love young people, I think they're marvellous. But I mean, fortunately, I meet the wonderful ones - most of them. They are really looking for values and one of my great, great griefs is that they don't seem to find it in the institutional church. I think the institutional church has sold people so terribly short. I mean, God help us, this is my judgement, but how many people of my sort - and I know we're probably just an eccentric minority - can look to a church which seems to be fixated on sexuality, which is appallingly misogynist? I mean, they refuse even ... the Catholic Church refuses even to entertain the notion of women priests. At least the dear old Anglicans sweated it through and have got somewhere. Yes, I'll say it, in this diocese we have an archbishop who hasn't uttered a peep over Mabo. The Anglican Archbishop has been very outspoken. The Uniting Church have been very outspoken. If that's not ... If that issue of justice to our Aboriginal sisters and brothers is not an issue for a Christian, I ask you, what is? Instead, there's so much concern in keeping the institution going, in founding this private Catholic University. It's sort of fiddling while Rome burns. So I mean these are dreadful things for me to say, and I'm not saying these are bad people. They're just ... To me personally, it's great anguish because I don't think you can invent your own religion. I really do think that there are great religious traditions, which have grown up over thousands of years, and I find it ... I know it's okay. You know, more and more people are drawn to eastern religions, but I happen to be a Christian, and I think that Christianity is jolly good. As Chesterton used to say, it's not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it's been found difficult and not trite. However ...
The current expression of the great tradition to which you belong. has come in a recent encyclical from the Pope. What do you feel about that as a sort of statement of the position of the church at the moment?
I find it very dispiriting.
Well, let's go through it. First of all, I think its scriptural basis is lamentable. One would ... I mean the church exists under the judgement of God, and part of that judgement of God is Scripture, and in order ... Scripture is terribly difficult and dangerous and we know what the fundamentalists do, but there are scholarly tools to use. Now this encyclical was based on the fundamentalist, pious reading of the story of the rich young man and the Gospel, which is a story about this ... They don't ... He doesn't even set it in context. In the context, Jesus ... A group of children has just been brought to Jesus and Jesus blesses them and then says to his followers ... he says, 'Unless you become like these little children, you won't get anywhere. You won't be part of the kingdom of God'. And that in itself is an attack on power and arrogance and domination. At least it's usually taken in that way. I mean Jesus was a stirrer also. And then this young man ... wealthy young man watching says, 'Oh, this is terrific! Well good master, what must I do to have eternal life?' And Jesus says, 'Don't call anyone good except God,' and that's ... that's some sort of ... You'll see in a minute when this high papal authority is concerned ... And the young man says, 'Well, look I've kept all the commandments,' and Jesus says, 'That's good but that's not enough. What you must do is sell what you have and give to the poor and come follow me'. In other words the life of the spirit, not just the letter of the law. And the rich young man turns away, and then after that Jesus turns to his disciples and says, 'Now look, chums, you've got to have a different kind of authority'. Now that's ... that is the, I would think, a relatively intelligent scriptural reading but, the way this encyclical reads it just says, 'We must follow Jesus'. Well, okay. But it's pretty fundamentalist. And then it attacks trends of our time. Well that's all right: excessive intellectualism and excessive acceptance of the values of our time. Well yes, of course you can't take everything. And then it was ... it's particular target is appeal to conscience. Now I think again that's ... It makes the point that conscience is subordinate to truth, well of course we all know that. But what is truth, suggesting Pilate. Then the next move: it more or less says the papacy, the pope, is truth and that whatever the papacy says must be accepted, and then it goes into a long excursus about different forms of morality - attacking some of the best accepted intellectual forms, and above all, the notion that one can only make moral decisions within one's self. Of course they have to be informed by the question of tradition and of course we're all likely to make mistakes, but the ... this document condemns all other forms of notions of morality, except the notion that the present Pope assumes, and then goes on to the most ... most astonishing statement that some acts are intrinsically evil. Some acts are intrinsically evil. Now I'm sorry, I cannot accept that. I mean, we've been given brains. It's the intention with which you do things. And then of course, what are those acts? They are contraception, abortion, a whole raft of things like that. But what is stunning is it is utterly individualistic. There's not a mention of the crisis of population in the world, and now it is perfectly true, somebody said to me, the Pope has also written encyclicals about that, yeah, but it's germane to this issue. So I find ... and it's style is terrible, and it's dogmatic, and of course it's not ... not infallible. That's what people don't understand.
It's not infallible, but it is an expression of the church to which you belong in its current state and it is an expression of everything you've always opposed in life. You've always opposed that kind of authority. Everything you've told us about yourself and about your belief system is opposed to what was expressed in that recent encyclical. How do you reconcile your continued membership of the church?
Because I think that one has to take a long, historical view. The contemporary papacy is the product of a certain decision in 1870, which as a historian I would say was at least influenced by political circumstances: the loss of the papal states. And all that the contemporary papacy says is that the pope is infallible in matters of ... which are declared, which the Vatican II declared. But the ... one of the things I find interesting about the present papacy is that it is a reaction against Vatican II. Now if one is going to trade these things, it is probably better theology to say that authority lies with the council, which is the assembly - not of course the whole people, but of all the bishops and their experts, and drawing them together. And that council was called together by - well I'll call him a great pope because I happen to agree with him - John XXIII, who set the task of seeing where God was speaking to us in our times, which seems to me to be fundamentally in tune with the Scripture, and with the whole spirit of Christianity throughout the ages. And Vatican II defined church as the people of God. I do not see, I do not believe, that the church belongs only to the priesthood and only ... And there is such a thing as the priesthood of all believers and I do not believe that it belongs only to the papacy and it seems to me ... and look throughout Catholic history there are long, long traditions of people contesting the papacy, even though we've had some very peculiar popes in the past. That great Catherine of Sienna, a saint, argued with the papacy of her day. The papacy is part of ... part of our church. The papacy is the focus of our faith, but it is the church. The church is the church of all the people and that's what would ... distresses me: that there are so many people now who are feeling that they're no longer the church. And of course the Roman church, that's not ... when you're travelling you realise that there's ... I mean for instance, there's a wonderful church in East Timor - the church of the poor. There's a wonderful church in many parts of South America - the church of the poor. There's some wonderful things going on in South India, where there are people trying to see [what] Christianity and Hinduism have in common. Wonderful churches throughout the world. It's not just Roman.
So you take the broader view in space and the broader view in time and you feel that good traditions continue within the church and will reassert themselves formally at future times. But if you were a Catholic woman, with several children already, and unemployed and so on, how would you feel at the moment about the constant reassertion of the notion that the notion that the control of fertility isn't something that ... well that controlling fertility is intrinsically evil?
I think that most intelligent Catholics follow their own consciences. That's the sort of thing the Pope dislikes and is very worried about. And of course you would have to take it very seriously. I mean I do happen to think that some people restrict their families or don't have children out of selfishness. I think that's true. I think, like everything else, one must be conscientious about the control of fertility, but I find it hard to believe that in just this single matter we have to be completely subject to natural causes, whereas in every other ... I think the notion of the natural law is just plain nonsense. In every other ... Every moment we have surgery we're interfering with nature. I am pretty sure that I would be using my own conscience and that's the sad thing. When you have an authority which is making laws which the people do not, and, in good conscience, cannot keep, something's wrong somewhere. Now it may be, I'm perfectly prepared to concede that I'm wicked and that I'm ... I've been profoundly influenced by the wicked ways of the world in our time. And there's no doubt that we do live in a hedonistic society. I may be ... but as far as I can see and I'm searching myself, I don't think I am, and I'm not judging these other people. But just ... it seems to me that the sorts of things that are being said by the papacy are not in tune with where God seems to be speaking to ordinary people. And if anyone ought to know about sexual morality, it's the ... celibates shouldn't. We should keep out of it. It is there where other people are forming their consciences and understanding.
I do. I think myself that, I'll put it in theological terms, I think it's a gift that you can function as a normal, relatively normal, human being without explicit expression of your own physical sexuality. I think you can be psychically sexual, and so on. And I don't think there are many people who have that gift. And I puzzle about it, that it is ... a gift that is made compulsory it seems, to me, to be wrong. See, the other Christian traditions seem to manage to totter along with a married clergy. And there's no ... as far as I can see there's no theological or scriptural justification. Certainly Peter was married.
I know particularly men find it extraordinarily difficult not to be able to express it, and not to be able to make love. I think, you know, they're excited and attracted to people and I mean everybody has to control [their] sexuality. I mean, think about the average normally sexed man in particular. If he's a parish priest, the poor man is usually living by himself in the middle of families. He's usually very lonely. I mean it's pretty ... it's asking a lot. And I think very often they have to repress very much, and in the past certainly they were taught some awful things about women's expressions ... as you know, sources of temptation and evil and there was a tremendous amount of misogyny in the attitudes towards women amongst the Catholic clergy. And we've had all these dreadful scandals in the States or even here - molesting children and so forth. So I ... to me it's very sad. What's wrong with being married, I ask you? It just beats me. But you see then, hundreds of years of sacrifice ... And again going back to the case of those Catholics who didn't use contraception and had big families, a lot of them now feel betrayed. They say, 'We made these sacrifices, now other people are getting it easily', and I think, you know, people say, 'Well look, we made the sacrifice of celibacy, why should we change it?' And then, we all love habit. And there are many Catholics, especially traditional Catholics, who say, 'Oh, you know we can't stand a married clergy after all. How would we respect them? You'd have the same sorts of problems as we do', which again has funny notions of authority. But you see, that's my difficulty, that I sort of think about things and I ... for the life of me I can't see that it's logical.
Yes I do. Not in this, pope's lifetime, but if we have a different sort of pope, yes. I meant that's one of the advantages of the Catholic Church. If someone at the top says, 'Do something', if it's a thing to be done it will be done, but when someone at the top is saying things which don't make sense ... Now I perfectly concede that what the present pope is saying may make an immense amount of sense in Poland and Eastern Europe or in many other countries, but it just doesn't seem to make sense in Australia, or the States, or in most Western Countries. It may well be that we are corrupt and dreadful, I admit that, but nonetheless, God comes to people in the midst of their corruption and dreadfulness and helps them to live.
Well again I see absolutely no reason, and in fact, well we know, they're just cultural things. They say the loveliest ... the standard argument is - this is a neo-scholastic one - the matter of sacrament of orders is Jesus. Jesus was a male, ergo only males can be priests. But I heard a priest trot that out and ... it was a small mass in a side chapel, and one aging actress ... she's now very old, Nita Pound - you may know Nita, for whom Patrick White wrote the part of the Goat Woman in Night on Bald Mountain. Nita in her best theatrical voice said, 'Oh Father, don't be silly', because the fact is that Jesus was a human being. And Jesus was also ... don't forget Jesus was not a priest as we are now, he was a lay person, and ... and there's been a development of things. It is true that the position of women was different in the time of Jesus, but it's also true that all the evidence is that he was remarkably respectful of women and was ... he scandalised people the way he associated with women. And there's a good deal of evidence also that women in the very early church had positions of authority. But in any case, we live in different times and I just think you cannot deny the development of doctrine and the development of society. So I ask you what is wrong with women? Imagine in a religious community, just supposing if our superior were able to celebrate the Eucharist? The Eucharist is the family meal. And I felt it profoundly moving when I've heard Eucharists celebrated by Anglican women priests. It seemed so right to have the woman there officiating at the table. But I don't feel personally called to be a priest, though one of my friends in the order and a colleague does, and I also know a magnificent young woman who feels called. She worked in the theatre and she then did a theology degree and she really believes she's called to be a priest. And of course there's no hope. Not yet.
My favourite image is that wonderful one in the Jewish Scriptures about the burning bush. Moses went out in the desert and there was this extraordinary ... and of course I think the desert's important. You've got to be out into a place where you feel a sense of the infinite, that you are not the centre of things. You've got to have some sense of resonance and awe, and there's this wonderful thing: this fire, which is burning and yet not consuming itself, and then when Moses says, 'Well, who are you?' and the voice says, 'I am'. Who am? 'I am who I will be. I'm is-ness'. Then the next bit about it was this extraordinary thing that ... and I know this seems very. very offensive to Jewish people so I apologise for anyone who is listening to this ... that this is-ness became a human being, who rocked boats, because of that total fidelity he had to ... to the God. This is the whole business about the Trinity, and then because he upset people, and ... and challenged those in power, then he was put to death as a criminal - dumped out onto the rubbish heap and then ... well this is the bit that you either believe or you don't, everything hinges on it, and I believe it, nobody has disproved it, then he was raised up and lives, and then sent his spirit ... his spirit to be with us still. And that's what the community ... the Christian community is a community in that spirit. I'm perfectly convinced that we haven't got the foggiest notion of what the Godness of God is because I think in one sense, assuming that Jesus was divine, he was a concealment of divinity because he was an ordinary human being. And there was a lot of nonsense used to be talked about his ... whether he was lying, [as] a baby in the cradle, he knew. He was a proper human being, he didn't. But in some mysterious way that was God amongst us. And then God's spirit still lives with us. And ... and that's why I believe he sends his spirit flowing through history and flowing through us and why I believe in this sort of inwardness, and if the resurrection happened then it means that good is going to win in the long run, perhaps a very long run, and that finally our task in this world is given to us, and other people are given to us, and we've got to make it better and more loving, and more generous, and more fruitful and joyous, and eventually it'll be okay.
Now you say you'd do this in the sense of the Catholic tradition, although you think that it's perfectly okay to do it in any religious tradition. But you do it within the Catholic Church because that's the culture in which you were raised. And you look to the positive in all of that. Do you think sometimes that you idealise the church in order to be able to live with it?
Well one thing I also want to make clear, personally I believe that Jesus was the ,.. the perfect revelation of God. If that's true, then Jesus was. And I believe then therefore, that Christianity is ... is the best. That's for me. But I see it. But of course God ... this again goes back into ... this is not Brady's heresy. God speaks to everybody. I mean, this old notion ... silly notion [that] outside the church there's no salvation, that was terrible stuff, but God speaks to everybody in different ways. And so again that wonderful image at the end of Purgatorio, each little light going across the ocean of being, to its own port. So I have no difficulty about that. I was born into the Catholic tradition and I ... I don't think I idealise it, it's ... I'm fully aware of all its warts and things like that, but it does seem to me that there is a great, great tradition - not just of ideas but of faith and belief. All those holy people we call saints, or wonderful writings of mystics and marvellous people like St. Francis of Assisi. The holiest place I know on Earth is Assisi. The writings of people like John of the Cross, or the wonderful Julian of Norwich or Eckhardt, and so on and so forth. The poets and writers. I mean, I think Hopkins is a wonderful poet, [even though] a bit difficult. So I don't think ... I don't ... on ... on the contrary I don't idealise it at all. You see, what people outside Catholicism don't realise is the very ancient tradition of anti-clericalism. I think particularly in the Irish. See my father was an example of that. You read Chaucer. He says extremely rude things about priests and monks and nuns and so forth.
Yes. It's our family. And we all know that we've got funny people in the family, but it's ... it's where I was born and you see, [there are] thousands of years presumably of Irish Catholics, and, you know, most of us were intermarried, which was the whole Catholic thing, so that's who I am.
Going back to Catholic childhood and the moment under the lemon tree, where you had a feeling of oneness with everything that was around you, you interpreted that as religious experience. Do you think that if you hadn't been brought up religious, you would have seen it as a religious experience?
Well at that I don't think I did it interpret it as a religious experience other than say it was just wonderful. I mean other moments lying on my back looking up at the stars ... [INTERRUPTION]
In that moment under the lemon tree in your backyard as a child, when you had a sense of wondernous ... oneness with everything around you and a sense of wonder. You interpreted that as a religious experience. Do you think you did that because you had been brought up Catholic?
I didn't put a religious label on it. But of course because I'd been brought up Catholic I was perfectly prepared to believe that there were wonders beyond common sense. I mean, in those days I was full bottle on guardian angels and I still think maybe there are. I'm very fond of Rilke's poetry and I'm sure there're spirits and presences that we know very little about, and they're not necessarily supernatural either. I just think, well, if you know anything about Aboriginal people and their culture, they know many, many things we don't know anything about. So I was predisposed to feelings of awe and wonder. And then of course, I had the language to ... it was ... particularly in my day there's a great deal that's good in that old tradition. There's a very profound sense of mystery with the incense and the praying chant and the processions. I think we've lost a great deal by tossing all of that out. So, I knew how to accommodate it and how to put words on it. And at school we had religion lessons and ... but you could equally say, and I concede that, that it's simply a ... a ... a natural human experience, and that doesn't worry me at all because I don't think there's anything odd about religion and being religious. It seems to me it's just a dimension of our existence that is rather extraordinarily repressed in our society and most of us, I think, are spiritually illiterate and that's a pity, because we all need categories to fit our experiences and if you don't have a category and you don't have language, then you're often not aware of what's happening to you.
Many people who were brought up Catholic have memories of violence and very nasty things happening to them in the school environment. Even those who didn't have bad experiences in the physical sense remember it as being limiting and repressive kind of environment. Did you have any bad experiences at all as a child going to school at a Catholic convent?
I did when I started school in this country convent. Now I'm sure they were good people, but A. they used to cane the children, and as I've said I've got a horror of physical violence.
No because I was a good little girl and I took great care not to be caned. And then there were ... there were bullies in the playground. Some bully boys used to harness us little girls up and drive us around as a ... you know, whipping us and so on. I mean that's just normal thing, but I've always had a very very sheltered childhood and then also they used to borrow ... My father had a marvellous collection of art books, and the nuns were obviously poor, and they needed these books. They'd borrow them, and then say to me, 'I'm sure your father would like to give this book to us, wouldn't he?' And I'd go home and my father would tell me, 'Certainly not, tell them to return it'. And that was ... that was dreadful and then finally one old nun died once and all of the kids ... We came to Melbourne when I was nine so I was quite small then. We all had to file past and look at this waxworks in the coffin. Now, I mean it ... I don't have any fear of death but I just found that horrible. I did not like school. And as I say, I used to pretend to be sick and of course my parents knew I wasn't. They knew I didn't like school and anyway I think I did very much better at home reading and so forth. But from the moment I went to Loreto I loved every minute of school because the atmosphere was totally different, so I have been extremely fortunate. I mean, Catholicism for me has been empowering and positive and beautiful.
No, but just the atmosphere was violent and was authoritarian and, you see, I ... you can be inadequate to that. You need experiences of things, and as I said I can't cope with violence, I just can't. So, no, it just wasn't my cup of tea at all.
Heavens no. No. As I say I'm not that sort of person and I suspect that the people who make these decisions would never in a month of Sundays accept me. Because as I say I've only got certain things and the ability to co-ordinate, and indeed, the ability even to look after people in that sort of way, is not mine. And I think I am somewhat eccentric and it wouldn't be a good idea to have an eccentric in charge. And also I do ... I've got the profoundest respect for the people I live with because very many of them disagree very profoundly with me and I think some of them think I am really rather weak and rather heretical. But they accept me. They look after me. My Mother Superior's always put up with the flack that came from me. I remember years ago when I first arrived here in WA and our provincial, the person responsible for us throughout Australia, who comes around visiting and makes sure that everything's okay and I talked to her. I remember once she said to me. She said, 'Veronica, I'm really sick and tired of you'. And I said, 'Why?' She said, 'Every time I come to Perth I just spend hours on the phone with good Catholics complaining about you'. And that dear lady, you know, she defended me and respected my rights, so I don't think I'm the sort who ever will be. I remember not long after I joined the convent and someone else had been at school with me, but in a class lower down, joined the Carmelites. And lo and behold, within about three or four years she was the prioress, which was sort of second in command. One of my friends said, 'Look, she's done well, she's got rapid promotion, what about you?' [Laughs] No I ... I couldn't imagine. And I ... I mean I do ... It has to be said you see, I arrive fairly lightly on the official church, because I do all my professional work outside the church, and so I ... I really ... and I don't have much to do with Catholics in this city. I mean it cheers me up considerably. I quite often get invited to speak by Catholic organisations in the rest of Australia, but never, absolutely never in Perth. Though to be fair, I was invited to do some teaching at this new private Catholic university when I retired, and I ... I said, 'No, I'm sorry, I didn't approve of it conscientiously'. So mostly I ... as I say, I live with ordinary human beings.
Because I do not think that a specifically Catholic university is a good idea. I think universities are about all kinds of ideas multiplying. I think that I'm certain that we need theology now at universities and I think that's one of the misfortunes and the consequences of the quarrel over religion in the 1870s. But many universities now are introducing theology or religious studies in this particular city. Murdoch has a fine theological school, and Edith Cowan has a good school of religious studies. The way to ... to study religion is in relation to other religions and a separate Catholic one seems to me a very dubious proposition. The next objection is that it's private, so that the students there will have to pay $1000 at least, on top of their HECS fees, and thirdly, it is ... it is an immense drain on the resources of the Catholic Church, unless it is being funded from the elsewhere. And one hates to speculate where it might be funded. But, for example, the people that ... the Catholic people of Perth were originally told that this wouldn't cost them a penny. Now, parishes ... officially it's being said they're asked to donate to the Catholic university. In actual fact, you know, their arms are being twisted. And one parish that I know of was asked and has committed itself to providing $50,000. Now as one parishioner said to me, 'There are numbers of people in that parish who are in need, and instead it's going to the Catholic university'. Perth is only one million people. We already have four universities, I don't think we need a fifth, and what else? Yes, and then ... and you see it's diverting resources from other needs, for example the ... certain of the schools, Aboriginal schools in the Kimberleys, are now short of money because the money is being is diverted to the Catholic university and its purposes. And I'm not saying people are wicked. It's just I don't see that it's a good idea. I don't think it's just and I don't think it's helpful at this stage when, if you want to work out a good theology and a good way of believing, you must do it in the light of the best contemporary culture.
No I don't meet them mostly. I mean I have some very good priest friends and I admire very much the good theologians and Scripture scholars. And you see I think that's another thing though, the Catholic Church. You know, nobody's said to me, apart from these lay people, but no official has ever approached me and said, 'You are a wicked heretic, go', because frankly I don't think I am a heretic. I think theologically the positions I espouse are perfectly all right. And you see our particular order has the great good fortune that we're not directly responsible to the local bishop. We are like the Jesuits, ultimately responsible to Rome. So I really don't have anything much to do with ordinary priests. And I think, poor men, they're scared of me. Lots of people are scared of me. I think I'm an amiable sort of person. But I know that one phrased was coined about me, when I got into an altercation on campus about academic. We had ... we developed as everybody had to develop, an equal opportunities policy. And one of the phrases is, you know of course, that nobody was to be penalised for sexual preference. Well one academic opined that that would mean the university would be flooded - [that] was his word - by pedophiles sodomists and necrophiliacs. And in the controversy over it I mildly pointed out A. that I had a sexual preference, which was not to have a sexual preference, and that you know, how can you judge anybody else? And after all, the students are far more in danger of marauding heterosexual people, who might sexually assault them etc. etc. etc. And then our Sunday Times had this lovely headline, one of their better ones: Nun In Touchy Sex Row. However the particular academic with whom I'd crossed swords was heard to call me 'the stinging nun'. And yes I am. I think I can be a bit stinging at times and I know I'm intolerant of stupid people and people I regard as unjust, so I suspect a lot of the clergy would be afraid of me and anyway they're busy and I'm busy and our paths don't cross.
You said that you don't think you've got the right kind of personality to be a Mother Superior. And yet you have been asked from outside, in the wider world, to take on reso ... positions of ... sorry.
You said that you don't feel you've got the right qualities to be a Mother Superior, and yet you have taken on leadership roles in the world at large, like for example when you were asked to be on the ABC board. How did you find that?
Well I don't think I was good on it. I don't think I'm the right sort of person. I think I am too, too lacking the ability to compromise, too idealistic, if you like, and also I think my views about worker participation were not shared by many people in the organisation. When I got over my surprise at being appointed, and I think I now know why. I have friends who've had quite a lot of political influence and I think Brian Burke probably wanted a Catholic, and I was rung up before and consulted and it was all very proper, but I must say I was surprised, and when I got over my surprise and thought, what on Earth, what abilities have I got?' I thought, I know ... you know, I think I'm probably good with people and I will get to know the troops and I've always admired the ABC. It's one of the most wonderful things that happened to me. I thought, look, I'll find out what the actual programme makers are thinking and doing, and it was a very difficult time of change. Now that was not regarded as a good thing to do. It was apparently regarded as betrayal and treason and all that sort of thing.
Well, the managing director at the time was a bit anxious about the troops in any case, and some of my colleagues on the board. And then I happened to ... you see I ... I think I was probably silly to side with Tom Molomby, but I happen to believe that the particular principle when Tom was ... took Geoffrey Whitehead to court ... I thought it was an extraordinarily important principle because he was the staff-elected member of the board. He was a member of the board and he was being denied documents. And no board member should be denied documents. It was also the case that as somebody who worked with the ABC and knew it very intimately, he was ... he had knowledge that the rest of us didn't have, and he thought that there might be some problems there. So, I mean, looking back on it, I suppose, well I'm sure he probably shouldn't have sued Geoffrey Whitehead. If you're a lawyer you tend to be litigious. It probably should have been covered up a bit more, but I thought the principle was right and I stood with Tom. I mean we know the disasters in the split in the board, and of course it was perfectly sensible not to reappoint me because you've got to be prepared to make more compromises than I really am, and you see I'm not a very worldly, wise woman. I know that. I mean I haven't had a very wide range of experience, so it was probably in the long run a very silly appointment, even if it was a popular appointment.
Well I do think that one of the good things that we did, which fell absolutely flat on its face, was Richard Boyers' initiative to draw up a statement of philosophy of a national broadcaster. Richard did nearly all the work of it and he sweated over it, and I thought it was terribly important because the ABC ... because especially at that time when there were all the pressures for ratings and the distinction between the ABC and other broadcasters was becoming increasingly blurred, and the ABC's got this unique role to do what the commercials can't or won't: to have a leadership role, perhaps, if you like, to train people for the rest of the media, to set standards, and above all, of course, it's independent news gathering. And ... and people get frenzied about the ABC being left-wing, but I always point out that the act says the ABC is part of the broadcasting system of Australia, if per impossiblé one day, all the rest of the media in Australia became left-wing, then it'd be the ABC's obligation, in my view, to become right-wing. But the ABC presents views that were simply not heard elsewhere in our media, and in a democracy you need that. So I felt very passionately about that, but alas, when the booklet was launched it was launched with about three others all about new engineering gadgets and goodness knows what. Richard was not even invited to the launch, and it simply wasn't distributed. I lent my copy to someone. I don't know where it's got to, and it simply ... and most people in the organisation never heard of it and never read it. I thought that was an important matter just to give us ... people a sense of their purpose. I mean, many people in the ABC have a sort of intuitive knowledge of what their doing, but that would have been important. And the other thing ... pet hobby ... the other two pet hobbies that I had was decentralisation. Well that was impossible for financial reasons, although it was absurd that particularly here in Perth, so far away from the rest of the continent with the satellite, with Perth being the other hinge of that satellite beam. I know about the time differences, but ... and we had a couple of good filmmakers here at the time. Why we couldn't use the talent that we had over here and also to stimulate filmmakers, local filmmakers, but no, no, that didn't happen. A little bit is beginning to happen now and the third, of course my other pet hobby, was Aboriginal broadcasting, and there the ABC has done good things. It's trained numbers of Aboriginal broadcasters, and one of the great things: I was invited up to the opening of the broadcasting station on Thursday Island and that was gorgeous because they're very religious people you see, and it was opened with a reading. I had to read, 'In the beginning was the word' and oh, I loved that. And ... and that ... that it was one of the ABC's proud records, I think.
So you brought to the board a lot of strong and good ideas, as indeed you brought strong and good ideas to a lot of other platforms. And yet you didn't achieve the goal of getting them implemented. Do you think that perhaps that's been something that has happened with a lot of the other causes: that your voice isn't heard. Why do you think that's so?
Because I'm not a good organiser. That's why I'd say that I'd never be a good superior. I've got ideas but I don't follow them through, and I'm also busy doing about sixty different things at once and I need somebody to organise things for me, and to pick things up and get them running. I'm no good at lobbying. I always feel a bit ashamed at sort of badgering people and I always think, well, if it's a good idea it ought to get through and of course that's perfectly ridiculous. And then also if you live in Perth, it's very very difficult to do the appropriate lobbying. I mean, I always say that people really get to know things by talking to somebody in the lift. Although I did then formulate Brady's first law, which is that the strength, intensity and accuracy of the rumour is in direct proportion to the distance from the centre. But that was in the old days, before they cracked down on the use of phones in the ABC. So for all those reasons I was completely ineffectual and also the little nun. And you see also I did make that terrible boo boo when I was first appointed, and the journalist was on the doorstep. I'd just heard that I'd been appointed and there was a journalist, who asked me what I thought about television, and I said, 'Oh, poo, I never watch it'. What I meant was, we've got this old Belfast Irish lady who used to hog our one-and-only television set and watch things like the Sale of the Century and so on. So what I meant was that I had a great disgust with most commercial television, but it was not a fortunate beginning. And you see I do not look before I leap, and I often make foolish remarks. And then of course I ... well I think I was set up. When we decreed that homosexual people living together - if one partner worked for the ABC and was moved interstate, that the partner will be treated, for the purposes of the exercise, as if a married person, or a partner. Now that seemed to be absolutely appropriate and perfectly right. But some fool, I think someone in the ABC who wanted to do us in - there were a lot of people there who were trying to do in the board - press-released that and it was out in glorious technicolour. And guess who was the mug who was asked to defend it on PM? I was. I happened to be in Geraldton at that time, and Geraldton was not a centre of light and reason and all that stuff, and so that ... that I think discredited me a lot. That ... many people were very frenzied about the wicked nun defending homosexual people. So in all sorts of ways I really wasn't a success, and I was jolly glad when I wasn't reappointed, because I found it absolutely exhausting. I put everything that I had into it ... I ... because I thought it was dishonest to go on, collecting my full salary since I was going to be away so much. As you know it takes three days really to go to a one day meeting in Perth, so I went on half pay, but it didn't mean I got half work. And I used to spend an awful lot of time reading papers and meeting people and visiting the ABC, and then, as you know, the flying is pretty tiring and then I used to try to stay on in Sydney and meet more people.
Yes, and it was very stressful but ... that tension within the board was extraordinarily stressful and you know I could see how ... I could see from the outside what it looked like and I felt very sorry for Ken Myer, very sorry, because, no, I won't say what I was going to say, but now I feel very sorry for him.
Yes. And I think Wendy McCarthy did a wonderful job because she was the deputy, who was in effect the chair. And of course she had to be loyal, and of course she had to tie the whole thing together ... the whole thing together. And there were dreadful ratbags like Tom and myself and Dick and a few others, rocking boats, and I think in Canberra they probably wanted to shoot us all, because just when they wanted to get the ABC settled down all these dreadful things were happening. But then they should have realised that if you're going to change, it is a very stressful time. And I still think that that board for all its mistakes did do a great deal, and that some of the measures were taken are now proving how useful they were. But it was a disastrous time. And I can imagine politicians saying, 'We don't ever want to know anything about that woman ever again'.
Do you ever wish that you were better at playing politics, given that you're interested in policy. Do you ever wish that you were somebody who was better at judging the way to work to get things done?
No, I don't like it much. I like, you know, thinking and so forth. I mean, when ... if I'm asked to go on things I will go on them because that's my philosophy, and if people are silly enough to ask me, all right. You see even at the library board I think I'm good as an ideas person, but again I'm not terribly good at lobbying and so forth, but I've been on that library board for a long time and I think that's a wonderful thing because we ... our system here in WA is absolutely wonderful. Do you know about it? All the books are bought centrally by the library board. They're all catalogued centrally and that's all funded by the State Government with the Central Library. Then the municipalities are responsible for the buildings, and for paying the librarians, but if you live in Muckinbooden, you have the same access to that book stock as anybody in the city, and the stock is constantly turned over. And these poor old librarians are brought into this centre and trained. It's a marvellous system. And we've got a great ... We've got a woman state librarian, who's a wonderful woman, and that's my pride and joy because particularly in time of depression, people need libraries. What we have to keep an eye on is that these nasties. There're always mutterings about payment for services. Now we've got to save that.
You've lived through a period of great social change in all aspects of your life, and one of the big changes has happened in relation to the status of women, and the position of women in society. For you, as a woman and a nun, what have been the most significant things that have stood out from that period as making a difference to life?
Well the first really important one was a great scandal, I have to tell it carefully. I mean I've always been a feminist. I mean there were only two girls in the family and my father assumed that we could do whatever we wanted to do, so I ... and of course I'm a member of a community of women. And our foundress, this wonderful Seventeenth Century English woman, Mary Wood, was a feminist and she's got a wonderful speech when some priest sneered, 'Oh, they are but women', and she says, 'Ah ha, we'll show you what women can do!' One of them was the International Year of Women and it just so happened there was a young man on campus, who was deputy director of extension services, who was American, who'd stopped off in Perth on his way travelling around the world and liked it and stayed, and he had been a Jesuit novice, which is why I think he took a shine to me and he used to ask me to do a lot of lecturing and so on for him, and he went back to the States on a holiday and his ... I forget which was which, you know. He had one millionaire parent and one parent a South American diplomat, so he had all kinds of contacts. Before he left he'd said, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if the UWA summer school was the ... [held] a conference for the opening of the International Women's Year?' And everybody agreed and said, 'Yes'. Well when he got to New York, he said to ... he got Simone de Beauvoir, who was alive at that time, to agree. Mrs. Bandaranaika, who at that stage was the ... in Sri Lanka. A dazzling array of great, great women and great feminists throughout the world and he kept ringing me up and saying, 'I just got so and so', and I said, 'Isn't that wonderful'. When he got back he was told this was all nonsense, he had no right to do that. He had exceeded his brief. He had to ring all them up. It was partly the State's rights, the great ... at least this is my theory. The great and the good Sir Charles Court wanted to spike the Whitlam Government and Liz Reed, and the whole thing fell through and he had a bad breakdown and ended up in court and all sorts of dreadful things. But that's ... that's when I first became aware of the depth of the prejudice against women. And then, of course, I've been much involved in equal opportunity in the university. And when you begin to think of it I mean, our university ... our department in the good old days had twenty-five tenured people and I think four tenured women. And I've become increasingly aware ... You see as a celibate I'm ... I'm not existentially aware of the sexual brutality of many males, because my father was such a gentle person, and I'm becoming increasingly aware now of the way women suffer. I have friends who have been sexually abused as a child, who are beaten by their husbands. These are middle class women. So, it's ... I've never actually ... It hasn't sort of been one of my causes because I think that cause is in extremely good hands, and I think some people think I'm not a good feminist because they suspect Catholics anyway, but I certainly am. I think that, you know, it's appalling, the things that women have had to put up with and I rejoice in the differences that are being made. I'm also deeply concerned about what's going on in this state at the moment. The Office of the Status of Women is turning into the office to hold marriages together, because conservatives are often very suspicious indeed of women and the needs of women. And there's ... there's ... I have an annual Christmas party, which is wonderful. There's an annual feminist frolic hosted by a leading feminist here in Perth. Wonderful. It's just a gathering. It was just last Sunday, and you you meet these wonderful women who've battled for dignity and [for the] rights of women over the years. There's some women there who are older than I am, because in Western Australia there's been a great tradition of feminism. Katherine Susannah Prichard, I think, had a lot to do with it, and then there was this wonderful old lady, who just died recently, Irenie Greenwood. Katherine Prichard in the 1930s founded a professional women's club for example. So Perth may be backward in many ways, but women here have always been very important and we've got quite a significant number of women in Parliament. Not all of them, of course ... ornaments to the cause, because they don't belong to the right party. There we are. So, yes, of course I'm a feminist, and of course ... I mean I simply assume that because I'm a woman, that I can do whatever I need to do just as any man can. That's the way I was brought up. [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]
Thinking about yourself, looking back on your life, and thinking about yourself as a person, as a human being, what do you think have been your best qualities, that you've been able to bring to the tasks you've been given?
Energy, I suppose. I've got boundless energy. The story goes that even as a baby there had to be a pig net put over my cot because I would jump out. It's a great, great gift because it means that you can keep going and to have good health. And then I think the faith that I have and the fact that I really like myself, and I'm really at home with myself. And even though I don't like when people say unpleasant things about me, because of my childhood I really do have a great deal of self-esteem, and well I think that's stiff bikkies. And I think I've got a nice imaginative, inventive mind, and I'm really glad that I've got some intelligence and I'm very grateful for that, and I'm very grateful for the education that I've had, and I know it's not everything and probably I need a warmer and more compassionate heart, but I think those are the advantages that I've had.
Well, I was so much loved. You can see the family picture book and so forth. I was the centre of everybody's world and looking back on it again, I think, it was so important to have that loving, gentle father. There are not many Australians who come equipped with a good father. I mean ... and sometimes it's simply because the poor unfortunate man is out earning the money and working ten hours a day, eight to ten hours a day and doesn't have time to be with the children. And then also I'm very sorry for many Australian men. I think they find it extremely hard to show their tenderness and be soft and gentle. Now for whatever reason, my father was, and as I say I have these wonderful fam ... early memories of being cherished and loved by my father and he talked to us and he read us stories, so that, I'm sure, if you look back at it in a Freudian way, I'm sure it's extraordinarily important to have had. So that, I ... I was believed and I respect authority, but I'm not afraid of authority, and I trust it, and I think that sort of thing does allow you to trust the world and I ... Well I always like to say that my philosophy is to expect the worst, because then you live cheerfully. You know, if it happens you can have the melancholy pleasure of saying, 'There I told you so'. If it doesn't: pleasant surprise, but basically I ... you know, I do trust things and I think it'll be all right and it nearly always is.
Oh, I'm irresponsible. I'm all over the place. I frequently become self-absorbed and don't have enough feeling for other people. I'm pretty intolerant. I have to work hard at respecting people who disagree with me. And I'm very impatient with people, and I think I've got a certain amount of intellectual arrogance. I get very cross with stupid people. But honestly, it's not their fault and they're much better people than I am, and working in a university you get a very clear view that intelligence is not ... doesn't necessarily make you a pleasant person. It's just intelligence. That, I think. And then, you see, I am irresponsible. I say something and then heavens above I've blown everything up and left a trail of ruin behind me, and then quite often I don't go back and fix it up again, so there we are. Beware of me.
Well I think just the things that I believe in. The really most important thing for me is my quiet prayer time in the morning. I always say to myself, you know, if you miss that chum, you're done for. I think it's like with a partner, your intimacy with one another. That's the focus of it, and you have to keep relating to one another and I really do enjoy that.
I think so, yes. And then, you know, if I really think now what do I do next? And then sort of like dropping inside you, into a pool, and I try to listen, and say, 'How ought I to do it?' Now I don't always get the right answers. Quite often I do silly things, but particularly with people, if somebody comes to me with a real problem, and I haven't got any psychological training and I haven't got much wisdom, so I try to just pray and think what ought I do now? And then trust that something will come. So that I really do think that's ... that's the centre of things. It's another reason of course why I like riding my bike. Of course I've never done yoga, but I suspect yoga is something like riding a bike. If you're just going along peaceably and there's no headwind, it's the most beautiful feeling. Your body is moving, but your spirit is sort of floating and of course here, in Perth, usually the surroundings are very beautiful. And it's ... it means a great deal to me. But some people think ... I know some people in the community think I'm just doing it for principle and I'm really killing myself and I'm worn out. Well I'm doing it partly for principle, because I really think we should stop using cars the way we do. I mean look at the hole of the ozone layer over here! However, I also love it. Because I love exercise, too. And it's ... it's just so peaceful.
I probably have but it's ... it's probably buried so deep.
I do regret stringing along that nice boyfriend that I had. That. And then I wish I'd been a bit more prudent when I was on the ABC. But I wasn't. I'm trying to think about these things. There must be things I'm ashamed of. And you see when this ... we probably need to get on a psychiatrist's couch 'til it all floats up. But for the moment I can't think of ... I mean, I've made a fool of myself from time to time, but that's not what you mean by ashamed, is it? You know I've said something silly and everybody's come down on me like a ton of bricks, or I've made a fool of somebody else.
Well I assume ... well I really don't think very much. I get on with it. Well I was proud of getting my PhD because really and truly I did it under difficulties, even though I do say so myself. Now I thought that was ... that was a good thing to do. No, I mean, I you see I'm not properly introspective in that way. I do things and I think all right, there we are, we've done it. Occasionally I've written things, which I think are quite good. It's not proud, but in the end I think, mm, that's good. And others you think, oh, it's not very good. And sometimes if you've had a tutorial or given or a lecture, and you think, yeah, that really did go well, and you feel ... you feel a sort of glow. But mostly I do get on with it, and I suppose that's the ... I mean I think it is true that I ... Everybody says that I do too much and I take on too much. While you've got the life and energy, why not? You've only got one life, which doesn't leave very much time for assessing what you've done and thinking that you should have done it differently.
I find it extremely interesting. I mean, I've never really been in ... well I was in danger of death when I was proceeding towards that telephone pole.
Very interesting, I had an experience. Actually this is very funny experience, because it was the weekend the Pope was going to be in Perth and friends of mine, who had a holiday house down on the coast, invited me to come and spend the weekend with them. And the community said, 'Yes that would be a great idea, Veronica, because we won't upset you and you won't upset us', because they were all going to see him, old papa. So off I set and, on the way, I decided to do it in two stages and originally two other friends were coming with me, but at the last minute they were too busy. And we decided to do it in two stages - to stay overnight and then go on. So it was going to be a holiday, because I think it was a long weekend. Oh, no, it was ... it was during swat vac, so there was nothing much doing. And, so ... then I told my friends where we'd be staying overnight, so they rang me on the Saturday morning and said, 'Look, help'. The husband, who had two heart bypass operations, had forgotten to bring his pills with him, would I ... and where they were there was no chemist shop ... would I please go to a chemist shop, and they gave me the phone number of his doctor, and get the pills and bring them down. So I thought, well heaven, they didn't say ... He might be dead without these pills. I better hurry up. But one of my many principles is you don't exceed the speed limit. I think that it's there for a reason. So what I did, I asked about short cuts to this place, and they'd actually directed me down the wrong road. They'd said, 'First turn right', and it should have been second turn right. They didn't even think about this road. They said it was a gravel road. Well it was.