Trigger Warning: This post deals with issues of sexual assault and may be triggering for survivors of abuse.
When I was sent a copy of Richard Glover’s latest book, Flesh Wounds, I tore through it, expecting to chortle and guffaw.
I was wrong. I ended up sobbing.
On air (he’s the host of ABC 702’s drive program) and in his writing Glover is, well, lovable. His legion of radio fans have kept him in the number one spot for most of the past decade. His weekly newspaper columns are warm and witty.
“…I never felt like the favourite, which is hard when you are an only child,” he writes.
And later: “Can you really be self-raising, like flour? Or is that just a glib way to pretend that bad parenting doesn’t hurt?”
At first his parents seem quite odd, but harmless.
His mother fabricated a posh family background and adopted a fake British accent. She changed her name often and was known as Alice, Anna and Bunty. She joyfully told everyone Richard was the first artificial insemination baby in Australia – not because of fertility issues, but because she refused to have sex with his father. After 12 sexless years of marriage, she fell pregnant thanks to a turkey baster.
“My mother and father didn’t really behave like parents to me or as partners to each other. It was more a case of two self involved individuals who happened to rent a room to a boarder of mystifyingly modest height.”
Not surprisingly, his mother ran off with another man. What is surprising is it was Richard’s English teacher – a Tolkien devotee, nudist and stuffed-toy collector. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.
Richard’s father couldn’t cope with the betrayal and basically spent the rest of his years drunk, marrying a number of women but always pining for his first wife.
Both parents made it clear that looking after Richard was a burden.
But there is a dark side to parental indifference. In the book Richard alludes to both sexual abuse and pedophilia.
As for me I was having adventures and misadventures, and both were probably the product of negotiating an adolescence unencumbered by parenting. Some of the experiences were great and some quite awful. I don’t need to recount them all, but to summarise: when a young person is unprotected and needy, pedophiles from miles around seem to instantly know, as if they are on some sort of text alert. I remember at age 16, having been invited to stay at some older man’s flat in Sydney, opening a cupboard door to see a swill of child pornography on the floor and thinking: ‘How did I get myself into this? And how do I get myself out of it?’
This vulnerability to older men continued. Richard’s mother packed him off to London at age 19 to stay with a family friend. This obese, much older man made Richard his sex slave for five awful months.
Lionel was after companionship more than sex, although every few weeks he’d more or less force me into bed, as I’m sure he’d done with at least some of the young ‘house guests’ before me. Afterwards he would stand up in his bathroom, with the door open and scrub himself with pHisohex to remove any trace of what happened, strangely keen for me to see how he was sanitising himself, despite the fact the sex had been at his insistence. I had a bedroom at the other end of the apartment in which I would cry myself to sleep most nights, burying my head in the pillow to muffle the sound.
The thought of the confident and outgoing Richard I know now being in a situation like this made me cry.
I’ve been a regular on Richard’s radio show once a month for 11 years so far. Richard and I had a ‘he said/she said’ debating segment once a week on the Today Show, back when Steven Leibmann and Tracey Grimshaw were hosts (yep we’re that old). In all that time I never had an inkling of how horrible his childhood was, so I was shocked. When I saw him for our regular spot on Weekend Sunrise I gave him a hug, but he looked a little uncomfortable.
I interviewed him later and again he seemed uncomfortable talking about the abuse.
“I don’t think that’s the heart of the book. I think that’s my point about it. The book is very much about my parents. When you have inattentive parents terrible things can happen. The abuse is not a causal or central part of my personality, it’s a by-product of things that happened,” he said.
He has not been able to talk about it on the radio or write about it for legal reasons. But now his father and Lionel are dead, and his mother has dementia.
“I haven’t talked about it on the radio and I’ve only talked about it to my close friends. It’s not been possible to write this book, but my mother is now really lost in dementia so it can’t hurt her. I still think it’s a fair book to both parents. But it shows how parental inattention has a price. And a lack of love has a price.
“I tried very hard to be accurate to the feelings I had along the way. The degree of my parents inattention is accurate. I did not set out to create monsters out of them, but to be very accurate, even if it reflects badly on me. These books are only worth writing if you try really hard to be accurate.
“I was partly influenced by Matthew Paris, a conservative MP in the UK and now political writer whom I admire greatly. He wrote about his life and how he hid his homosexuality from the public. He was even victim to a homophobic attack and was bashed badly. He turned up to a constituents meeting bruised and battered but he lied and said he’d fallen. If Matthew could be honest, I can be too,” he says.
I said I was sorry he had such a horrible childhood.
“I wouldn’t call it a horrible childhood, it’s an imperfect childhood. And that’s really common – we all have an expectation of a perfect childhood but I’d say maybe 40 per cent of people don’t get the parents they ordered. Maybe 60 per cent say their parents never gave them the love they wanted.
“I think there is a misbelief that paternal or maternal instinct is part of our DNA. You see cats with kittens and dogs with puppies. I’d like to build an argument that there are so many factors that outweigh this – dads who drink too much or mothers who take pills.
“What I wanted to write about is the great resilience of human beings. Some get crushed, but most find the love somewhere else. People who’ve had imperfect childhoods are not all mad or drug addicted.
And true to Richard’s style, the sadness is peppered with hilarious anecdotes as well.
“There’s a fun part of the book too – a dinner party game “Who’s got the weirdest parents?” It’s a glorious thing. You realise everyone is abnormal. You never look over the red roofs of suburbia in the same way again.
“I wrote in vivid detail the stories like my virgin birth and my mother’s fabricated past. I think a lot of people will think my family is odd but in an entertaining way,” he says.
Richard says his partner, playwright Debra Oswald, urged him to write the book.
“She’s been an important influence. It fits the theme of finding the love elsewhere. Parents aren’t the end of the story. Uncles, children, mentors, partners – you can find the love elsewhere. I think it’s a strong part of the book – not having the perfect parents is not the end of the story.
“It’s not autobiography, it’s a book about my parents and my relationship with them. I’ve been very successful at holding this relationship at arm’s length and not being emotionally engaged with them. I didn’t necessarily want to spend two years of my life writing about relationships that I’d tried to limit. But Deb said ‘It’s a story you’ve been given and it may help other people. You should write it’.”
The way his life has flourished is testament to not being a victim.
“This story – it’s more about survival. I think it will help me feel stronger. I hope it will help other people feel stronger. The humour in the book is the crazy defiance. You can stare unblinkingly at the pain of the past but you can also laugh at it. There’s a strength in that,” he says.
Mia Freedman spoke to Richard Glover about Flesh Wounds. Find on iTunes here or listen here:
So as hard as it was to revisit his family history, he’s glad he did.
“It’s not necessarily cathartic – but a story like this comes out of your heart and on to the page, then you get to turn it into something that you can put on to the shelf, and walk away from it,” he says.
He can certainly walk away with his head held high. Thanks for your honesty, Richard.
This post was originally published on Debrief Daily.