19 June 2014

The First Stone, Helen Garner’s analysis of a 1992 sexual harassment case at an Australian university, is fascinating, provocative and deeply flawed.

In 1992, two female students at Ormond College, a residential college at the University of Melbourne, made complaints of sexual harassment against the college Master, Dr Colin Shepherd. One woman claimed that Shepherd had groped her breasts during a dance at a student party; the other that he had made unwelcome sexual comments to her during a conversation in a private room after he had locked the door. After the university’s internal disciplinary board sided with Shepherd, the women hired a barrister and brought criminal charges of indecent assault against him. The first magistrate’s trial found him guilty, but the verdict was reversed on appeal due to insufficient evidence. Shepherd later resigned from the college, his reputation in tatters. The complainants reached an out-of-court financial settlement with the university, the details of which were confidential.

Australian journalist and writer Helen Garner followed the story from its beginnings, attending the indecent assault hearing and interviewing Shepherd and some of the lead players. The experience shocked her. “I was finding out things that would cause an upheaval in my whole belief-structure, particularly where men and women were concerned”, she wrote. Her resulting non-fiction study, The First Stone, is her attempt to track and understand the complicated ethical questions the Shepherd case raised about sexuality, power and the nature of retribution and punishment.

The First Stone is a strange shaggy beast, inflammatory and contradictory. On one hand, it’s a rigorously reported account of the case, in which Garner interviews Shepherd, the complainant’s solicitor (though not the complainants themselves – more on that later), and dozens of interested onlookers. It’s also an unashamedly partisan piece in which Garner sides with Shepherd and condemns the “puritan feminists” at the university who she accuses of leading a Crucible-style war of attrition against the male powers that be.

Unsurprisingly, the book created a huge furore when it was published in 1995, at least as big as the case itself. Supporters praised Garner for not taking the obvious line of supporting the women without question. Critics condemned the book for its apparent lack of objectivity and accused Garner of being an apologist for the culture of sexual harassment. Garner acknowledged the controversy, but was still adamant about the importance of writing the book: “These are the stories that need to be told,” she argued, “not swept away like so much debris, or hidden from sight”. The First Stone isn’t the “pro Shepherd” book that Garner’s critics accused her of writing, it’s certainly a work that disrupts some of the more doctrinaire notions in contemporary feminism.

The most fascinating aspect of The First Stone lies in Garner’s early participation on the case, which she freely admits compromised her later attempts to cover the story objectivity. Garner first read about Shepherd’s trial in a newspaper. Thinking “Has the world come to this?”, she immediately wrote a letter to Shepherd – a man she had never met – expressing her sympathy for his troubles and saying that the case should never have been handled in the criminal justice system. It was a move that proved divisive when she came to research the book later. Shepherd, assuming that Garner was his supporter, circulated the letter, which created an impassable barrier between her and “the other side”. Much of the book describes Garner’s unsuccessful attempts to interview the complainants, and being repeatedly being given the cold shoulder by “angry feminists” who had read the letter and viewed her as a traitor to the cause.

Undaunted, Garner struggled on, interviewing Shepherd, staff at the university, fellow students of Ormond and anyone else who would talk to her. The First Stone partially succeeds where it ought to fail, due to the intelligence and insight of Garner’s analysis, and the rigour with which she hones in on the difficult issues that the case raises. Her narrative, a mixture of journalistic reportage, anecdote and memoir, widens its scope from the case to become a commentary on the confused state of contemporary sexual mores.

Throughout the book, she struggles and largely fails to understand the point of view of the complainants, who retreat into silence and refuse to be interviewed. “What sort of feminists are these, what sort of intellectuals, who expected automatic allegiance from women to a cause they were not prepared even to argue?” she writes.

I found Garner’s rage towards these young feminists puzzling at first – if only because the world of Osmond College seemed so familiar to me. I was at university in the early 1990s, where sexual harassment was a hot topic in university culture. As a student representative, I fielded complaints from undergraduates about the unwanted attention of male lecturers. Rumours spread about Professor A- who now wasn’t allowed to close his office door if he was alone with a female student. Across campus, counsellors and women’s reps chanted the mantra that sexual harassment was an abuse of power, which seemed right and proper. Old white heterosexual men had ruled the world for too long, we agreed – it was time for the patriarchy to be toppled.

Garner’s initial take on this culture was one of disbelief and contempt – a response that she freely admits is coloured by her strongly held beliefs about feminism that hail from an earlier and more idealistic time. Like Germaine Greer before her, Garner exemplifies the 1970s feminist: articulate, argumentative, unconcerned with causing a ruckus and able to defend herself in the face of stiff criticism. She seems constitutionally unable to understand younger generations of feminists, who she criticises for thinking of themselves as passive victims, “dragging themselves on bleeding stumps to the high moral ground of survival”, and wielding the law and other blunt instruments in their defence. “Why didn’t you slap ‘im?” Shepherd’s barrister asks one of the complainants in the indecent assault hearing. It’s a line Garner repeats several times, and appears to agree with, maintaining that both incidents could and should have been dealt with by the women themselves with a quiet word in  Shepherd’s ear.

Fearing that she might be too out of touch with the younger generation, Garner tries a different tack, and attempts to reconstruct the case from the complainants’ point of view. Using interviews from fellow students, she draws a precise, pitiless picture of the boorish and chauvinist culture of Ormond College: a place of petty hierarchies and kowtowing to authority, in which the casual sexualisation of women is normalised and excused. Her insights prompt “sharp flashes of empathy” with the complainants, but it’s never enough: “something in me, every time, slams on the breaks to prevent the final, unbearable smash” of identification with their cause. The First Stone stands as a striking and rather sad account of the failure of different generations of feminists to understand each other’s politics.

There’s a lot of anger in The First Stone: mostly Garner’s, but from others too. Garner is fantastic at writing about anger. Like Greer and Susan Faludi, she has an uncanny ability to keep jabbing away persistently at white-hot sore spots until she reveals the discomfort and rage churning around inside. That’s not to say she’s always accurate: some of her contempt gets flung about rather unfairly at first in the direction of “radical feminists”, who she blames for imposing a punitive and anti-sex world order. As she digs deeper, though, she makes a more nuanced case. One of her most compelling propositions is that Shepherd’s hounding was a misguided form of retribution caused by women’s “referred anger” and guilt about their own “passivity under pressure” in old cases of sexist abuse. She describes with horror the modern conflation of sexual harassment with violence, and argues persuasively for distinguishing between levels of severity of sexist behaviours. Shepherd was, she concludes, at worse a “helpless blunderer”, whose punishment was disproportionately severe given the nature of his reputed offences.

Garner’s conclusion is to plead for mercy and understanding, in recognition of the fact that no one is exempt from questions of sex, power and abuse. Tellingly, her title is drawn from Jesus’ words in the Gospel of St John: “Let the one among you who has done no wrong cast the first stone.” As an unabashed libertarian she argues strongly for women taking responsibility for their own sexuality, and cautions against the stifling of the erotic in academic life, which “will always dance between people who teach and learn”. (In an eleventh-hour curve ball, she drops a casual reference to her affair with a university tutor when she was a student, an encounter she describes as painful but never harassment or an abuse of power).

The First Stone is both a brave and a foolhardy enterprise. Garner is never less than intelligent and inquisitive, and her prose is lucid and emotionally taut. The honesty with which she identifies her own opinions makes it an engrossing read, even while the exposure of her prejudices threaten to compromise the authority of her argument.

Yet this perhaps is no bad thing. In Garner’s view, there are no absolutes about sex and power – only shades of grey and an appreciation of context. Eros is “for good or ill”, she says, “always two steps ahead of us, exploding the constraints of dogma, turning back on us our carefully worked out positions and lines”. With that in mind, it seems appropriate that she declares her beliefs and prejudices, and encourages others to do the same. In an afterword, Garner writes that the book “declines – or is unable – to present itself as one big clonking armour-clad monolithic certainty”. We’re left with an intelligent middle-aged woman’s perceptive account of a very sad and difficult case, which is perhaps as much as any of us can hope for. The greatest achievement of this sad, funny and compelling book is to reiterate Wilde’s maxim: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”