THE FIRST STONE: Some Questions About Sex and Power by Helen Garner

THE FIRST STONE: Some Questions About Sex and Power

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A circuitous, speculative essay about an infamous sexual harassment case at an Australian university. Garner, a novelist, essayist, screenwriter of films directed by Jane Campion and Gillian Armstrong, and occasional journalist for Time Australia, was drawn into her obsession with this case by a 1992 newspaper report: A woman law student filed an indecent assault complaint with local police against the master of Ormond College at Melbourne Univesity. The student alleged that the man had put his hand on her breast while they danced at an end-of-the-school-year social. Garner, a self-described ""feminist pushing fifty,"" impulsively writes to the accused academic, deploring that ""our ideals of so many years [should be] distorted into this ghastly punitiveness."" She seems surprised that these words come back to haunt her later attempts to probe the case as a journalist and effectively block her constructing a straightforward investigative account. Indeed, her unsuccessful efforts to arrange a single conversation with either of two women students who bring charges against the master is the slender thread on which she hangs her narrative. We follow Garner through a series of awkward interviews, from the hapless master (who is forced from his job, though Garner comes to believe he is innocent) to many others peripherally involved in the case. None of the informants speak to Garner on the record, and her own reliability as an observer is far from clear. She comes across as a self-absorbed woman who is admittedly overinvested in her identity as a rebel and a seeker during the '70s. The mother of a grown daughter, she remains both skeptical of men's ability to negotiate subtle sexual currents and vaguely contemptuous of young women in denial about the power of their own beauty and sexual magnetism. Though not without occasional insights about the inadequacies of the adversarial processes of law in resolving conflicts about sex and power, this is ultimately more frustrating than illuminating to read.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1997
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Free Press