Week in Review
Profile: Renée, by Steve Braunias and Jane Ussher
We continue our series of author profiles with a visit to Otaki to meet "a feminist lesbian with working-class ideals", Renée
Recently I set the alarm for 5am to take a taxi to Auckland airport, flew to Wellington, got the airport bus to the railway station, caught a train up the line to Waikanae, bought a succulent at the market while waiting for a bus to Otaki, duly hopped on, duly hopped off, then walked about 30 minutes on a bright winter's day down a long street in that flat, quiet Horowhenua town towards the sea, stopping at a tidy brick unit where a little old lady was waiting at her front door. It was 11am.
"I'll put on the tea," said Renée.
"I've brought you these from my tree," I said, and took six Te Atatu tangelos out of my briefcase.
We've emailed each other messages of friendship for a good six or seven years, but never met, and I wanted to do something about that. I was very glad I did. At 90 – she was about to turn 91 – Renée, nee her married name of Renée Taylor until she reduced her name down to the bare and feminist essentials, has an agile mind and a ready laugh, and spoke with real candour about her strange and vivid life. Most of us stay within the range of things we want to say out loud. We confirm our own thoughts. There was a sense with Renée that she was surprising herself with some of the things she was saying, and feeling their shape, testing them out; it was likely the playwright within her, always alert to dialogue.
She pocketed $60,000 and gave a dazzling speech at Premier House in Wellington when she was awarded the 2018 Prime Minister's award for literary achievement. It was mainly in recognition of her plays, although she has also written fiction (her novel The Wild Card was shortlisted this month for the 2020 Ngaio Marsh crime fiction award) and an exquisitely and perhaps eccentrically formed memoir, These Two Hands. Earlier this year, Reading Room published her two striking accounts of life during lockdown; her byline note serves as an excellent precis of her life: "A feminist lesbian with working-class ideals."
She grew up working-class, in Napier, which is to say she grew up working: her father Stanley killed himself when she was four, and her mother Rose told her to leave school and go out to work at a wool mill when she was 12. She describes a household of almost stunning poverty in These Two Hands. Just about their most prized possession were their chairs: Rose and her three children (Renée was the eldest) had their own chair, and no one else could sit in it.
We sat opposite each other in her lounge with our cups of tea. She laid out a plate of biscuits. I asked, "What did your chair look like?"
She said, "It was a black kind of varnished chair and the back had a flame on it, and two or three spines. We didn’t have much but we had our own chairs."
Her father shot himself with a rifle. I asked if she ever thought about him, and she said, "I don't think about him much at all. I don’t mean its upsetting; I just don’t really care. The shadow of what he did killed Rose."
These Two Hands quotes from a lurid story in Truth, in 1934, about her father's suicide: "Stanley George Howard Jones left his home, ostensibly to go to Napier, purchased a .22 rifle there, caught a service car to Palmerston North and his body was found lying on the railway embankment in Wellington. How he covered the last stages of his journey - from Palmerston North to Wellington – is unknown. Beside his body were two unopened bottles of ale and in his pocket a broken glass."
I said, "And that's pretty much all you seem to know. You have no idea why he did it."
She said, "No. No idea. And the other mysterious thing is that he went to Napier, got the rifle, the bullets, the cartridges, registered them, came back to Hastings, got on the bus and got out at Palmerston North, but he killed himself under a rail bridge in Wellington. How did he get to Wellington? I can only suppose he caught a lift."
I said, "Perhaps he had an assignation in Palmerston North, and travelled with that person to Wellington."
She said, "Yes! Anything is possible."
"What did he look like?"
She said, "I don’t know. I was four."
"You write in your book that you finally stopped hating him."
She said, "Yes, well, that’s a bit of a lie. I despise what he did. It wrecked my education, really, the possibility of it. And it wrecked Rose. She never really recovered. But I don’t actually hate him. That’s an emotion which is a waste of time. But I don’t have any time for him. It's left me very critical; I heard someone on the radio last year talking about this man who had killed himself, and saying what a wonderful person he was, and right at the end of the interview he mentioned there was a wife and kids. And I thought, 'How can you believe this about a guy when he’s left a wife and kids?' It seems to me such a selfish act."
I said, "It sounds like this was the newsreader Greg Boyed."
"It possibly was," she said. "But it's a fault in me. I admit that. I am irritated when this happens. It seems to me that anyone who kills themselves becomes a beautiful person who brought love and all that sort of thing into people's lives. And I think, 'Well if they were that great…' But I'm a little bit unhinged on that subject."
I asked, "What kind of mum was Rose?"
She said, "In some ways she was a very good mother. She fed us. We never went without. And somehow she paid for sheets when we needed them – she got calico sheets, the cheapest ones you would buy. If you kept washing them and washing them and washing them, they eventually went white. We didn’t have any decent clothes but she knitted us jerseys which were very decent. She was a great knitter.
"It was just my bad luck that she didn’t love me. She adored my brother, and she loved my sister. But the fact is she did not love me. On the other hand, she taught me to read. She taught me to work.
"I think I’ve survived in quite a reasonable way. You know? And I think that’s the strength of Rose. She was a very strong woman. I admire her. I just wish she'd lived longer because I think we might have been able to talk about it all."
I said, "What did she look like?"
She said, "She was very beautiful. She was little and had this perfect olive-skinned face. Big eyes. Black hair. When she was in a good mood, she was smiling and laughing; when she was in a bad mood, she would be very closed, and fierce. Fierce. And I take after her. At my 90th birthday party, my eldest son said his big memory of me is always reading; I used to take them to the sea, see they were safe in the water, and then I’d just open a book and read. I’m sure I would have known if they were drowning! Surely. Surely, surely."
I said, "You wrote that when Rose met Laurie [Renee's late husband], she said to you, 'He loves you more than you love him. That's good.' Do you suppose that was revealing of her own doomed marriage?"
She said, "Yes, I do. And I think she was right. I had a very narrow range of interests for someone who was 18 or 19 when I met Laurie. I spent a lot of my time reading and the rest of the time working. It made it hard for me to be on the same level as other people because I missed out on high school. And I was so damned dumb! I learned nothing from Rose about sex."
Rose died at the age 42. "She died twice," said Renée. "The first time – I can laugh at myself now, but at the time I was terribly annoyed with [her sister] Val for fainting. I sort of had no patience, I still don’t have a lot, but I had very little then. The nurse put the sheet over Rose's face and said, 'She's gone', and Val screamed out, 'Mum! Mum!', and fell on the floor in a faint. I was all, 'Oh for goodness sake, pull yourself together' sort of thing. Which is pure Rose. And then of course Rose started breathing again. It was very strange. Only Rose could do that. She lived for another 24 hours."
I asked, "What did Laurie look like?"
She said, "Laurie was about your height and he had a roundish face. A diffident smile. He'd stuck a screwdriver in one of his eyes when he was an apprentice mechanic and one of his eyes was nearly blind. He could be a lot of fun. He didn’t have a lot of confidence, really, when I think about it. I had enough, or thought I did, for two people. At least I had enough determination, I should say. It wasn't confidence."
I said, "I'm thinking you had a lot of resilience."
She said, "Yes. I've got Rose to thank for that. I think everything good about me I owe her. I can't see much of my father in me."
"But you don't know hardly anything about him."
She said, "That's right."
The room was neat as a pin. When I got up to leave, I noticed biscuit crumbs on my chair, and felt ashamed, and wondered if they were a kind of metaphor for the mess all journalists leave behind. Certainly I ate a lot of biscuits. We sat opposite each other for two hours.
When I asked her what she considered her greatest literary achievement, she said, "I guess Wednesday." She meant her acclaimed 1985 play Wednesday to Come. "I love good dialogue. I’ll go over it and over it to get it right. There are lines in there which are just right." Yes, she agreed, she thought she also got it exactly right in an intensely sad scene in These Two Hands, when she describes the moment she picked up her suitcase and left her husband for a woman on May 30, 1981.
She: There's food in the fridge.
She: I have to go.
She: It's not your fault.
He nods. He doesn't believe her….He looks to where a younger, second woman is standing in the doorway, and says: You've won.
The second woman says: It's not a contest.
…She pushes the clothes down in the suitcase and forces the lid shut.
He: Can I come and see you?
She: Ring me. The number's by the phone.
She makes it easy to imagine the room as a stage, with three actors taking their places – a man sitting down with folded arms, a woman with a suitcase, a woman standing at the door. But it's real life, collapse and freedom playing out in an actual home, told with a cold and steady hand.
She said, "You can't duck those things that you’ve done, and you shouldn't. I wanted to show that I was capable of being…cruel is the wrong word, but I was capable of being immovable. And I wasn't going to duck the fact that the impetus was mine, and that I left him heartbroken. I need to accept the responsibility for that, for caring for myself more, I suppose is what I'm saying, but also recognising that I was right. I was right to do that. Anyone who looks at that will see that I was right to do that because it freed me."
I said, "To this day for a man to lose his wife to another woman is a challenge; but in 1981 – it was almost unheard of. I mean, lesbians were thought of as a rumour."
She said, "Oh yes. I lost every friend except one. Oh yes. And that one, you would not have thought she was such a good friend. She didn’t look like the sort of woman who – I mean, she wore gloves and carried a purse when she went out. And yet of all of the people, and this is a literal thing, who crossed me off their Christmas card list, she didn’t. I just loved her."
"I wonder if it's a matter of realising at times like that who your friends aren't."
She said, "Look, in a way, Steve, I didn’t care. I didn’t really care. I had made the decision, and I just didn’t look back."
"Did Laurie recover?"
She said, "No. I don’t think so. Our relationship changed; after a few years, he came around with his bowls trophies and we began a kind of friendship. He didn’t come around a lot. He knew better. And of course I spoke at his funeral. I had nothing but good memories of him."
"He doesn’t sound like he stopped loving you."
She said, "No. I don’t think he could. I've been extremely lucky to have those two major relationships. They gave me things I wouldn't otherwise have had, and they were things I needed to have."
She writes in These Two Hands about the exciting and liberating thrill of feminism, in the 1970s; I asked, "Is this when you began to realise you were gay?"
She said, "It never occurred to me."
I asked with pathetic awkwardness, "How did this development happen?"
She said, "You mean how I came to fall in love with a woman. Bernadette made me laugh. She was very, very bright, a very intelligent woman, and so was I. And so we kind of sparked. And moving to Auckland together, and being part of the lesbian feminist community, was wonderful, just wonderful. Our message was very loud and clear. There was no subtlety. It was: Women matter, and if we want to do something, the world is ours. And if we get some shit, then what's what happens, and it doesn't stop us. God knows I know that from that experience. We don’t really know how strong we are. But it doesn't mean you're not warm and loving and fun and a good cook or that you keep a house clean. I worked at Theatrecorp as a cleaner when we got to Auckland and Raymond [Hawthorne, the director] said it was the cleanest it'd ever been. Rose had taught me to clean and I was the best cleaner in the world."
I said, "It sounds like you had a lot of that thing known as fun when you got to Auckland."
She said, "Absolutely! So much fun. I was like a heedless adolescent. I’d never had an adolescence, and I think that was mine. Those years in Auckland were fabulous except for one or two things, and I grew."
"How long were you and Bernadette together?"
She said, "It lasted 22 years. I didn't expect it to last; I knew I was going to have fun, and it was fun, and it lasted a lot longer than I thought."
"Why did you break up?"
She said, "Because she fell in love with someone else."
The most famous and publicised and wildly divisive act ever associated with Renée was something she imagined but had no hand in bringing to life.
On February 1, 1984, six women chained playwright and Auckland University drama teacher Mervyn Thompson to a tree in Western Springs, and spraypainted the word RAPIST on his car. They accused Thompson of forcing women students to sleep with him. A writer in feminist journal Broadsheet (Renée and Bernadette were on the magazine's collective) stated, "The attack on Mervyn Thompson must be seen in the light of male violence against girls and women in our society." Thompson's plays were cancelled. He was cancelled; paranoid, bitter, shamed, he died eight years later. His abductors were never identified. The direct and unmistakable inspiration for their attack was Renée's first produced play, Setting The Table. One of her characters ties a man to a tree at knifepoint, and hangs the word RAPIST around his neck. It was staged at Mercury Theatre in 1982
Assy: You shouldn't do things in the height of passion.
Sheila: I didn't. I did it in the light of conviction.
Assy: You didn’t take time to think.
Sheila: I didn't have time. And if I had, I'd have felt the same.
Assy: You really believe that?
Sheila: We all despise the way courts deal with rapists….I decided that I should do something about it.
Assy: I know.
Sheila: Do you? Do you really understand why I decided that this time the rapist would know what it was like to be hurt and frightened?
Assy: Yes. I do.
Sheila: I didn't rape him did I? I hurt and frightened him. Now he knows what that feels like.
Renée writes in These Two Hands, "Because the attackers kept very quiet – as did everyone else who knew who they were – all the media, police and theatre people had to go on was me and my play. I had written the play, they argued, so I must have been involved in the attack. I had done it because I was a vicious, lesbian feminist. I had done it because I hated all men…I went to work at Broadsheet [the morning after the attack] and the office was buzzing with the news. I said straight up, 'I don't hold with this vigilante justice – I think it's wrong, and you all should know that.' I was steaming and they could see it…Of course a few words in an office had nothing to do with anything. Those who were gleeful about the attack went on being so."
I said, "You said before that your Auckland years were fabulous 'apart from one or two things.' You mean the Mervyn incident."
She said, "Yes. I was left in the shit."
"It's such a bizarre thing, an extreme example of life imitating art. How did you come up with that idea in the first place?"
She said, "It was just something I thought of. I just thought of it. And the play only had a two-week run."
"And in that fortnight, the audience must have comprised of one or more of the…vigilantes, is that the right word?"
She said, "I don’t know what the word is. They certainly made my life unhappy. But the argument in the play is whether it was right to do that, and the message is that violence is not the answer."
"They contradicted your message."
She said, "Yes. But Mervyn always believed I had a hand in it. It was widespread. I have no doubt that people still think that. Heavens yes. No doubt at all."
The tea had gone cold and the bright winter sunlight moved around the sitting room. She had a fascinating face; it was in deepest thought that she looked most Māori, Ngāti Kahungunu on her mother's side – a wise and happy kuia, with small, neat features.
I said, "Were the kids racist at your school?"
She said, "Yeah. I got called Brownie. I didn't do anything about it. They all knew about my father and how poor we were. The girls would laugh at our clothes. My shoes were always – they had cardboard in them, all that sort of thing. It was noticeable that I wasn't well dressed, although we had the nice woollies that Rose knitted. We had nice jerseys. But I was always one exercise book behind, and I was too scared to ask for the money because I knew Rose wouldn't have it. The best position I ever got in class was second. I was never put first even though I'm bloody sure I was first. Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Without a doubt.
"And I didn't have any friends. The only friend I had was a girl who also had no friends and who said to me, 'You're lucky that your father's dead.' She lived with her grandmother and father. I often wondered what happened."
It was an angry speech. Her rage was barely beneath the surface. There was something else, something deeper: a misery. They were dark years to look back on.
I asked, "How's your health?"
She said, "There's two deals you can get. You can get the deal I've been given, which is to have a disintegrating body, and eyes that are going to go nearly blind, but your brain is good; or you can have a fit body and your brain's not good. You can't choose these things but if I could have chosen, this is the deal I'd want. I just think I'm lucky. Don’t you think I'm lucky?"
I asked, "Can you see me?"
She said, "Not really, no. I can see the watch on your wrist. I can sort of see your eyes and lips. But it's like I'm looking through a gauze curtain. I can see your shirt is blue – isn't it? And dark trousers. But the problem is if I passed you on the street, I probably wouldn't know you."
I said, "You've got a good set-up here. This place is nice."
She said, "Yes. I live on my own and I like it. I make my own decisions. I don’t do anything I don’t want to do. I found a job that I like to do, writing, and it keeps me sane."
"What would you like to achieve now?"
She said, "I've got another crime novel on the go, and I'd like to finish that."
"What relationship do you think your father's suicide has with you writing crime fiction?"
She said, "None at all."
"But one of the seminal incidents in your life is a crime. His death is an unsolved mystery."
She said, "That’s true! I hadn't thought of that. It never occurred to me that it might be…but I mean he kind of gave up any right for me to consider him."
"Do you dream about him?"
She said, "Never."
"Dream about Rose?"
She said, "No. But I think about Rose a lot. There'll never be a day where I don’t hear her voice or think about her."
She said, "She lives in my head. For such a little woman…My brother absolutely loved her, and what he said once was, 'She was just so small.' And she was. But I don’t pine for her love or anything like that. She did look after us. All the other adults we knew, and I'm not exaggerating, were horrible to us."
I said, "I can think of an adult in your life who wasn't horrible."
She said, "You can? Who?"
I said, "The gentleman who gave you the magazines."
She said, "Oh yes! Wasn't that wonderful!"
She writes in These Two Hands about a neighbour who gave her copies of an English literary journal, John O'London's Weekly. They'd met on the way to take the morning bus to work – Renée was 12 – and the man asked her if she liked reading. For about two years, they never talked, and she doubts she knew his name, but he continued giving her a great gift. She writes, "Sitting on that workers' bus in 1942, I began reading and was immediately entranced…I could hardly wait for lunchtime to carry on reading, and when midday arrived I sat at the table where we had our lunch and read…John O'London's Weekly showed me that there were people who talked and wrote about books and plays, who got excited and argued about them, who thought books were worth something. Here was a world that if I just kept reading, I would somehow be able to enter. No one would care that I hadn't been to high school because there was a different kind of expectation here."
She describes it with such excitement, and joy; it was all there in her face, too, when I asked her about it. She said, "It was such a roll of the dice. It's such a rare and unbelievable thing to have happened."
I said, "What did he look like?"
She said, "I can't picture his face. I can see his tweed coat, and hear his voice."
It was time to walk, bus, train and fly back the way I had come. Ashamed at the crumbs on her chair when I stood up, I wasn't sure whether to shake hands or hug as I left. "Hug," she decided.
Makaro Press will reissue a new edition of These Two Hands, published in 2018, in October.
* Profile interview created with the support of the Copyright Licensing Fund NZ *
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