Romulus, My Father - Book Reviews Print E-mail
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Author: Raimond Gaita
Text Publishing Company
Biography and Memoir
Published 7/05/2007

View reviews of the film, Romulus, My Father.

Laurie Clancy
The Age
August 15, 2005

Laurie Clancy explores a moving snapshot of a son trying to define his relationship with his father

THIS book came about in unusual circumstances. Raimond Gaita delivered the eulogy at his father's funeral in 1996, and two fellow writers urged him to publish it in the literary journal Quadrant. Out of this came the book, a spare and beautifully written memoir of his father and his own fraught relationship with him.

But if the circumstances of the book are unusual, the genre is not, especially in this country. Australians seem to have a passion for reading and writing autobiography, as if they feel the history of this young (in white terms) country has not yet been adequately documented; as if we all have stories that have not been told.

In recent years alone, we have seen brilliant memoirs by David Malouf, Robert Dessaix, Brian Matthews and Drusilla Modjeska, for instance. Gaita's work is often compared to A.B. Facey's A Fortunate Life, also a runaway best-seller. But an even closer comparison is with Richard

Freadman's Shadow of Doubt, which appeared not long after Romulus, My Father. (Here I have to declare a conflict of interest. My company, Bystander Press, published the Freadman book but the comparison is instructive and worth making.)

Both books deal with flawed and vulnerable fathers who were nevertheless much loved by their sons. In both, the son attempts to come to terms with his relationship with his father after the father's death, and to analyse retrospectively the nature of the father's character. Both books are written with scrupulous objectivity and fairness.

Above all, both books postulate a peculiarly Australian kind of decency -- what used to be summed up in the colloquial term "fair go". Gaita speaks of "a distinctively Australian decency", but he is quick to acknowledge its downside -- for instance, the sometimes-condescending way in which Romulus is treated, or the limits of understanding and emotional sympathy that lead most of the town to dismiss Raimond's mother.

He is far from starry-eyed about Australia and Australians but, as with anything else, he examines what is good and bad, flawed and admirable about society. It is this even-handedness which to me is one of the book's finest qualities.

The problem with a memoir like this is what makes us believe the writer's account. How, in D.H. Lawrence's words, do we trust the tale and not the teller if we have no way of verifying the teller's account other than through the story?

Gaita, in particular, seems to me to be fully aware of this problem, and his writing is scrupulously detached. It is noticeable how little he himself intrudes into the narrative. There are only brief, incidental mentions of what must have been momentous events in his life -- a divorce and re-marriage, appointment to a chair of philosophy in London, the birth of two daughters.

When he does bring himself into the narrative -- as in his decision to go to Melbourne High School -- it is because it leads to a major confrontation with his father, and the only incidents he describes in any detail are those which affect our understanding of Romulus.

This is also, as one might expect from a philosopher, an extremely analytic book. Reviewers have commented on the lyrical qualities of the prose -- Gaita responds to the harsh beauty of the Australian landscape, for instance, in a way that his European father was never able to do -- but what struck me most about the book is the careful, calm precision with which he studies his father and attempts to come to terms with his contradictions.

There is his father's stoic, unflappable patience in the face of disaster and yet the attempts at suicide and the mental breakdown. There is the tenderness with which he treats Raimond most of the time but the occasional frightening burst of anger towards his son. There is the absolutism of his sense of morality (his hatred of lying, even of the most harmlessly social kind, for instance) and yet his tolerance of the selfish behaviour of his relatives -- until, in a beautifully human detail, he loses patience when one of them presents him with a bottle of slivovitz that is not completely full.

The sympathy and love that Raimond accords his father could not, in the nature of things, be replicated with his mother, but the book makes a determined attempt to understand her as well, and to recognise the failings of understanding committed by those closest to her.

In one of the most thoughtful and retrospectively analytic passages in the book, Gaita writes in chapter eight: "My father, Hora and, I think, Mitru, did not appreciate the degree to which my mother's life and behaviour were affected by her psychological illness ... But, looking back, I believe that her behaviour should have seemed stranger than it did to us and to others." The only reparation they can make is to eventually and belatedly build a headstone for her.

The book is also very good at capturing the temper and texture of the times -- the way "new Australians" were treated in the 1950s and the slow changes in attitudes towards them as they gradually came to be accepted; the expectations and social treatment of women; and, the ignorance and cruelty of the treatment of the mentally disturbed.

Romulus, My Father is a very sombre book. Tragedy, suicide and mental illness are never far away, although there are moments of relief, and even comedy. I particularly enjoyed Gaita's accounts of the animals and birds that helped him stay sane in his worst hours. And the last few chapters constitute an almost happy ending, when Romulus finds love with Milka after being betrayed by Lydia, his previous love. Gaita tends to gloss over this long and fulfilling relationship slightly, no doubt because he saw a great deal less of his father first-hand than he did as an adolescent. Nevertheless, one could say at the end that if Romulus did not have exactly a fortunate life, at least he had a fulfilling one.


Jarvis Walker     Arlec

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Featured Articles

The 'Forgotten People'

by Anna Malbon from the Progress Press October 22, 1996

WHEN nine-year-old "Tom" was asked to draw a picture of himself with his mother be drew her trying to strangle him.

Tom entered the world of adults too early. If he was ever immune to the complications and pain of life that adults try to shelter from children, he says he can't remember.

Bulletin Board

I had to struggle extra hard

Her doctors did not bother to enquire about my father and I.

They only listened to her stories ”

“ I grew up thinking - Nobody wanted to help. Nobody wanted to know.”

Hi, I had a mentally ill mother. She passed away last year. I literally grew up hanging around mental hospitals because my Mom's condition was a cycle that always ends in a mental hospital. When I was younger, there was a long period when I cried my eyes out every time I was separated from my mentally ill mother because she had to stay in a mental hospital. After I grew older, my Mom's mental illness became impossible for me to bear.

Literally, my Mom's mental illness ruined my life. I think. I had to struggle extra hard for everything because of my big handicap at home. There was no support at all from anyone other than my father. Nobody else wanted to know about it. My mother's own cousin even said to my father not to bring my Mom to their place. I grew up thinking - Nobody wanted to help. Nobody wanted to know. My mother's own sister has been complaining since 2000 and her last complain was on 5 July 2014. This particular aunt keeps complaining about the same thing. That she had to take my Mom for her weekly injections and complained that my father and I was not around to do it. Then, she goes on to say that she saw my Mom beat me up with a cane. When she said that, I asked my Aunt, you saw my Mom beat me up with a cane? She said yes and than, she walked away.

I feel very sore with this aunt. Number one, the period she was complaining about was when I was still schooling and my father's and my mental health had deteriorated so badly that we had to leave the state for our own sanity. Before joining my father, I had to live alone with my Mom and my baby sister for almost a year. My aunt who lived a few minutes drive away did nothing when my Mom beat me up every day for months until my father managed to cut the red tape to remove me. My body was full of bruises and I was terrified to go home after school. Nobody helped. Not the neighbours who can hear all my mom's shouting at me, nor my aunt, nor my grandparents, nor my school's teachers. Someone should had intervened for a 12+ little girl. No adult helped. My father was trying his best to get me away to stay with him. Nobody helped him.

On XXXXXXXXXXXX, my Mom's sister let slip she saw my Mom beat me with a cane. And yet she did nothing! My aunt even had the cheek to say that my Mom beat me up because I said I wanted to go live with my father. The way my aunt said it was like the beatings were wholly my fault. What is wrong with the picture? You have a 12+ girl being beaten up daily, you are an aunt who knows something is going on and did nothing. Yet for years later you complain about having to take your own blood sister for her injections. And, I do not think she did it for longer than my own experiences. Probably only a few times because my father and I had to travel frequently to see to my mother. Due to the cyclic nature of her illness.

I have been going with my father when he took my mother for her weekly injections as a little girl, knee high, ever since I can remember. My own aunt is so calculative. There was a nurse that visits my Mom to give her her injections. But, the problem is my Mom will not let the nurse into her house that is why the intervention is needed. I have lost count on the number of times I had to go with my Mom for her injections as a little girl.

Her doctors did not bother to enquire about my father and I. They only listened to her stories and full stop. I think my Mom's doctors are the most heartless people I have ever met in my life. Until today, I do not like anyone who officially practices psychology because those doctors etc... contributed to my life being ruined. That is how I feel. I have been scolded by my Mom's medical team and they even dumped my Mom on me after I just turn 18 and there was no other adult around. And, they knew the situation. I was terrified because my Mom was a very violent. My Mom has pitched me, beaten me up, she has biten me with her teeth, she has smashed my head against the table and threatened to beat me with a piece of hard wood. I experienced all these as a little girl at the tender age of 12+ I had to learn karate to protect myself from her violent ways. And, when my Mom was home, I would lock my room's door and place a chair against it. I was that terrified of her.

All our belongings can go missing because my Mom is good at that sort of thing. You never know what is what with my Mom. It is like having a criminal live under the same roof as you.

My aunt kept repeating to me that on my mother's death anniversary I will have go visit her cemetery. I live in a different state from where my mother's cemetery is located. And, my aunt knows that very well. However she repeated her question to me until I said yes. I hate being forced to do something against my will because I have been forced to do things against my will my whole life.

My life is in ruins because of my mother's mental illness and people like my aunt is perpetuating the troubles for me after my mother's death. When I was 12+, my mother's mother said to me that it is my father's job to take care of my mother. In other words, my father's job and mine. And, they never lifted a finger to help. Just helping a little, my aunt has been complaining about the same thing for more than a decade. Unbelievable. Shameful.

Even though my father and I lived in a different state from my mother, we had to travel up and down every weekend because that is demanded of my mother. Sometimes, we had to travel after school and upon our arrival, she won't let us in and we had to travel all the way back. And, my father will not let me sleep at home as it is a school day, I had to go to school. My education was very important to my father. My mother could not be bothered if I succeeded or not.

I have seen more than any of my Mom's relatives have seen with regards her mental illness but people whom I just met behave like I have no idea about my Mom like they are the authority on her behaviour and her illness. Goodness gracious.

Despite this huge handicap in my life I persevered with my studies. My Mom did not give me any moral or emotional support at all. In fact her mental illness cycle will peak just or during my important exams. In other words, I had to deal with my exams and on top of them a mentally ill mother. By my final year in university, I could not take the pressure of exams and a mentally ill mother's break downs anymore.

When I was in my teenage years and early adult years, I was suicidal. I had to call Befrienders a lot. Thank God for Befrienders.

Before XXXXXXXXXXdate, I do not wish my experience to be experienced by anyone else because it is torture. However, after feeling how hard hearted my aunt is. A so called holy person, a church goer, rich person who has successful kids and grand kids. And, she can talk like it is my fault that my Mom beat me up and she (my aunt) had to take her (her own sister) for her injections when I was a kid. I really wish that my aunt must reincarnate as my father (a few lifes) so that she can eat her own words. If my aunt reincarnates and is put in my father's shoes, she would really deserve it. Hope she learns compassion through it all.

Why can't the world give children of the mentally ill a break? I am so fed up with all this troubles that stem from my mother's sister's attitude towards my father and I. After all shel lives a great lives. Rich live. What is wrong with these people? I really cannot stand them. This is my story.

After I wrote the above - I am more myself now, and I totally forgive my aunt and everybody who did nothing to help my father and I. And, everybody else who were heartless towards my father and I. However, I still think that by living a few life times as my father (my aunt) - would do her some good. But, knowing her character, she might become a psychopath and pose a threat to humanity. My father is a very, very kind soul. My aunt is a hard hearted, prejudiced, narrow minded, one tracked mind person.

How I cope? Trying my best to keep out of their way, and hang out with positive people. There are plenty of great people out there. Nnaami is included :)


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