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Rattled and stalked

My latest for Primer, interviewing Ellis Gunn about her experience of being stalked…

It was in a park in Adelaide, cherry blossoms catching in her hair, that Ellis Gunn’s world came tumbling down. The poet and furniture restorer had just dropped her son at school and was walking home when she heard someone call her name.

It was him. Again. A man who had approached her twice before and who had left her with a peculiar, uneasy feeling each time.  Perhaps it was his overfamiliarity with her, or his intensity.

Now, on this spring morning the man had cycled up beside her, and once again struck up conversation. Within a few moments, Gunn’s unease returned with sickening force; it was clear this man knew where she lived, her daily routine – even that she was a vegetarian.

Fear, like “rattling stones of panic” settled in her stomach. “On the surface he was behaving so casually, so normally… on the inside, I was freaking out.”

That morning, as the pair left the park, the man calmly cycled away. But later, he would show up again and again – at her house, at an auction house she liked to visit – and message her via email and Facebook.

Eventually, Gunn approached the police and later confronted the man himself, telling him to leave her alone. He did, leaving both relief and chaos in his wake.

Years have passed since that morning in the park – her three children have all left school – but its shadows have stayed close, demanding attention, nudging her to ask what exactly the “point of all that” was.

The result is her book Rattled, which is released this month and rewrites the story of Gunn’s life, piecing together previously unconnected episodes – an abusive former marriage, being harassed in a bar, along with being stalked – to uncover a thread of misogyny that will be familiar to many women.

**

Today, the Ellis Gunn who speaks to me on the phone from Adelaide couldn’t be further from the terrified woman she describes in Rattled. The gentle lull of her Scottish accent is calming to listen to, even over the phone.

“As women, we’re always told to look at ourselves when we’re harassed or when something goes wrong,” she reflects. Her own reaction to being stalked was to first doubt (“I tried to convince myself I was getting things out of proportion…reading things into it,” she writes), then, blame, herself (“Why on earth had I been so friendly?”).

Once she finally accepted that the man (who she refers to in Rattled only as The Man) was in fact following her, she became engulfed in uncontrollable, all-consuming fear – the kind of fear that gnawed away in the dead of night and left her trembling on sunny street corners.

Everything she knew to be safe and dependable – her home, her neighbourhood, her daily commute – became terrifyingly entangled in a psychologically exhausting game of cat-and-mouse.

“This idea that a stranger could just suddenly decide to follow me and there was nothing I could do about it and the police weren’t able to do anything about it – it changed my worldview,” she says now. “It just felt like I was living in a very unsafe world that I hadn’t fully understood.”

Should she have reported the man to the police sooner? Gunn reasons that unless you’re certain something suspect is going on its hard to tell someone to leave you alone the first time you meet them.

Instead, her advice to anyone being stalked is underpinned by the complexity of the problem.

Not only are there many kinds of stalker and stalking, but state and territory divisions make the process of prosecuting stalkers more fraught still, as police don’t automatically share details of criminal histories. Britain, Scotland in particular, has resource centres dedicated to stalking. Australia has nothing comparable.

In the absence of adequate government support, Gunn advises women to trust their gut. “Listen to that voice that says I don’t like this, I’m uncomfortable here, especially when it’s a stranger or somebody you don’t know well. If you’re thinking something’s not right here, then it probably isn’t.”

Besides addressing the failures around stalking legislation and support for stalkers’ victims, Gunn believes we need to unpick the social culture that allows this behaviour to happen.

In subtle ways, patriarchal culture is telling men that they’re entitled to sex and respect and adoration, explains Gunn.

The resulting culture of self-blame, of “just putting up with it” can only be eroded by awareness, she says. Her message to young women is to question things, to talk. She wants those conversations to be put the centre of sex education in schools. Awareness, awareness, awareness.

Towards the end of Rattled, Ellis reveals she has been diagnosed with stage four cancer – a diagnosis, she believes, that was not helped by her abuse. A newly milder course of chemo is keeping her alive for as long as possible. She’s taking things day by day, learning to accept. “This is just something I’m going to have to deal with,” she says. She is good at ‘dealing with’.

There is a sense, now that her story is public, that it is only a natural step in a journey that began decades ago. As a poet, Ellis has subtly jabbed away at the system for many years, taking aim at husbands who expect their wives to (in phonetic Scottish) “gie um hiz conjuggles” of an evening. And, while things have improved at breakneck speed, this week’s news of a British newspaper comparing a female MP’s leg movements in parliament to Basic Instinct has her dumbfounded.

“Still? Really?” she asks with a weariness that brings to mind social media posts featuring older feminists holding up posters with the words ‘“I can’t believe we’re still protesting this shit”.

Yes, she’s wary about entering the public fray – Twitter pile-ons and online abuse are part of the territory, she suspects – and anxious about The Man coming across Rattled and how he might react. But to finally speak and be heard, well, that’s something as worth fighting for as it is novel.

“Women have been encouraged to keep silent about this abuse for so long, it is empowering to suddenly be able to speak out about it and have people listen,” she says. “It’s not like I’ve never moaned about the patriarchy before.”

If you know someone who is being stalked or threatened please contact 1800 737 732.

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Please can we go home, now?

My story for The Guardian, about being marooned in a beautiful and distant place, isn’t about shipwrecks and daydreams, it’s about me and so many others all over the world whose lives depended – rightly or wrongly – on planes. Coronavirus, then, has put a spanner in the works…

Read it over at The Guardian, or below:

With borders closed, our lifelines to family overseas have been cut. The isolation is suffocating

The first exhibition I visited when I arrived in Sydney in 2010 was called On Their Own: Britain’s Child Migrants. I stumbled across those gut-wrenching stories, and their tragically false promises of a better life, as I wandered alone around the city I was born in but hadn’t lived in since I was two. What I saw in those photos and letters at Australia’s National Maritime Museum wasn’t the land of milk and honey I’d dreamed of – that progressive, independent, free-spirited modern life my Australian mother fondly imbued in us as we grew up, oceans away. Instead, I saw a nation filled with people who had come against their will from far, far away, building their new lives on land owned and lived on by a people and culture pushed far, far from their homelands and the mainstream. Children torn from their parents, hearts broken across hemispheres and deserts and whole cultures disjointed from their song-guarded spiritual homes. How many lives in Australia are built on loneliness, I wondered?

They came by boat two centuries ago, they came by boat in the 1960s and they attempt to come by boat now. I came by plane, and I chose to come. But it doesn’t matter how we got here. The point is that the vast majority of us came from somewhere else – and, whether through family, or stories, or on paper or in feeling, are still entangled in that somewhere else.

My tight tangles come in the form of friends and family. My parents and a sister live in the UK, my parents-in-law live in Germany, another sister lives in Dubai. And so, my life, like so many lives in Australia, is partly held in place by a scaffold of planes and airports, bouts of jetlag and survival tips on travelling through the stratosphere in a speeding metal canister with two toddlers for 24 hours.

Covid-19 has thrown a spanner in the works. For some, this strange moment in time will forever be remembered by loneliness, as those living solo bounce around quiet apartments, tend to pot plants and Zoom family and friends. For others, it’s the utter opposite: their time, their body, their privacy all noisily sacrificed to family as they isolate together from the long tentacles of this kraken-like virus. They are living at work and at school and at home all at once and the end is nowhere in sight. For many, it’s far worse. Illness, intubation, loss and questions. For me, the pandemic has become about existing too far away.

Each English summer, I’d fly back with my babies and spend a few months with my mother, who has early-onset dementia, and my father, and my sisters and my German family. It was doable, back then, before a novel coronavirus wiped out the global air industry, closed borders and shut down the seemingly endless flow of people around the world. Before the viral age, airborne rivers of human bodies poured from Beijing to Tokyo to LA to London to Johannesburg to Abu Dhabi to Moscow to Istanbul to Calcutta. Aircraft hopped from city to city, over mountain ranges and deltas and family separation and detached friends and brought pieces of me together. It couldn’t – shouldn’t – have lasted as it was, pumping carbon into the atmosphere at the rate of knots, but I hadn’t expected those lifelines to dissolve quite so dramatically and indefinitely.

The upshot is that I’m trapped in a wonderful place that, to me, worked because of the planes that came in and out, and because of the borders that allowed me to travel freely. I came for work, for my Australian family, for the lifestyle, and I reconciled living 15,000km from my sick mother by telling myself I could be with her in less than 48 hours, if the worst came to the worst. Now, even if I could somehow abracadabra my way to Heathrow, I couldn’t get to her anyway – she’s been in strict isolation in her high-needs nursing home since March, no touch from her husband, no visits from her children, no scudding clouds overhead or smells of just rained-on concrete to break the monotony of her months.

Being from somewhere else is all I’ve ever known. I’m a classic third-culture kid – two parents from different sides of the world, bringing children up in a yet another range of countries and continents. I’m used to feeling a little dislocated, but this feeling, this new government-mandated isolation on a national scale, is different. With every slowly processed application to leave Australia, every new cap on the number of international arrivals, or every $3,000 hotel quarantine bill, the bubble of Australia – fighting fit but utterly cut off – becomes more suffocating.

I’m in good, if a little lost, company: 34% of Australia’s population over 15 years old – some 6.9 million people – were born overseas. Every one of my toddlers’ daycare friends has grandparents overseas. We all made this far-reaching life work, because we knew, if things went pear-shaped, we could be on a plane home within hours. That comfort has frittered away, like an air mattress deflating without warning. We can go, sure, but it takes an application to the government to leave, then a lottery to find flights to get back to Australia, then the expense and difficulty of hotel quarantine for a family of four. I have friends who are sick with worry about not being able to visit elderly relatives, and there are all the missed funerals, missed births, missed weddings and missed grandchildren – missed, because, although we choose to live with immense distance, the all-important option of being able to be there, if we so choose, has been ripped away. One friend, in Dubai, couldn’t be with her husband as he died in the Philippines.

Through it all, I’m hyper aware that my needs are few and my comforts are many. But, even for those who have been forced into physical or emotional exile, for those who have no financial power, for those whose worries are far more immediate than I’ll ever know, I sense the basic need for human touch, for family, for home – in whatever form – is universal.

For forced migrants who find themselves in a new place they never expected, but most especially the refugees and asylum seekers who are now held in detention, itself a cruel, trident-headed isolation from new beginnings, from society, from life, homesickness – if that’s what this is – on a massive and interminable scale is, I imagine, wrapped into the ordeal.

So, thanks to this coronavirus, the great global experiment that, in recent years, invited so many of us to call so many distant shores our homes has lost a little of its sheen. Perhaps this version of FIFO, cross-pollinated living, toes physically dipped into different cultures and lands and languages and opportunities, relying on planes and planes alone to fuel those rivers of workers, families, of snatched weeks of togetherness, wasn’t such a good idea, after all. Or perhaps things will spring back to form, contrails criss-crossing the planet, delivering jetlag, grumpy toddlers and huge, irreplaceable parental hugs sooner than I fear.

One of the funny things about all of this is the hyper-connectivity that has gone unabated, even accelerated. As vulnerable to cyber attack as our lives may be, our virtual lives can’t be directly touched by this particular virus. But, despite all the video calls, my body still, resolutely, remains stuck in Sydney.

These days, I sometimes feel I might have taken a wrong turn and ended up in one of those black-and-white images I saw hanging at the maritime museum in 2010. A self-orphaned child miles from her loved ones and unsure where to turn, carrying a face mask and a useless passport, waiting to be rescued. And feeling very, very far away.

But perhaps that’s the nature of our nation. With the help of planes and technology, we’ve learnt to forget that we live with the tyranny of distance, that our isolation is in-built and deeply shapes our collective soul. Loneliness is part of the Australian condition. But, if I’m feeling like this in a stint that we know to be temporary – god help us if it doesn’t turn out that way – then I have no idea what it must have felt like for those helpless migrant children, or for the millions who are forced to leap from all they’ve known, never to return home.

Because, I know, unlike so many from these lands and beyond, that I came by choice and I will, when things settle, be able to leave by choice, too.

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Bedtime, Bondi

The Southern Cross sits above the avocado tree and the slow, steady flap of a bat beats rhythm into the shrill electric static of the night’s white noise. Crickets, frogs, the bite of a motorbike revving as it pulls up, up, out of the bowl. Mosquitos leave nothing unpunctured, their leafy homes alive with the fecundity of late season heat and deafening storms. There’s a mango tree that doesn’t bear fruit and baby banana plants, their soft, pale green arms pushing through a corner where, when we arrived, a pigeon lay dead and defeathering. Windows all around, lit by yellow insides of homes I hear but don’t see, look down onto this pocket; Ruby’s parents, the TV-addicted girl, the Frenchman and James and his silent housemate. Their lives – or the private bits of it, at least – are strangely familiar to me now, part of the soundtrack of my languid Bondi evenings.

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