Paul Jennings is a very successful children’s author, particularly in his homeland, Australia. I recently bought his autobiography, Untwisted. My enjoyment of the book was sullied by the endless references to female oppression, misogyny and the selfishness of men. Paul was quite blunt in his appraisal of his father as a cold, narcissistic man who did not like his son.
I felt Paul’s own words often contradicted his incessant references to female disadvantage as well as his depiction of his dad as the cause of all the family woes and his mother the kind, self-sacrificing martyr.
I recently wrote him a twelve-page letter.
I don’t believe this letter will ever be read by you but I’m willing to write it even if there is the slightest chance, I could be proven wrong.
I recently bought your wonderful book. Untwisted, the Story of my Life and I loved it. Your honesty, self-deprecation and willingness to expose your weaknesses and failings was truly courageous and such revelations will surely open up the hearts of others to perhaps be more vulnerable and open about their own struggles and fears when they engage with the people in their lives.
I’d like to thank you as a recently retired primary school teacher, for the hours of joy, laughter and escapism you provided so many of the kids I taught over a number of decades. What an incredible legacy.
I want to comment on something I perceived as a repeating undercurrent in your story: that being the lot of the girls and women in your life. You constantly presented them as being somehow oppressed and disaffected because of our misogynistic culture.
There were constant references to your sister’s dreams being dashed when your own hopes of matriculating were shattered by your dad’s decision to end your schooling before you could matriculate.
Why was her failure to matriculate (due to your dad’s decision) somehow more tragic or unfair than what was done to you?
You referred to your dad as having a ‘narcissistic personality” so I am confused by some of your anecdotes.
“My father’s chance to become employed at the top level in a big factory finally presented itself. His application was successful-he rushed over and bought a home for us in Glenelg.”
“My mother didn’t even get to see the house. She had already made the big move from England.” (so had your dad and it wasn’t his fault your grandma had a bad dream and decided to desert her daughter and beloved grandchildren. This clearly led to the feelings of isolation and grief your mum experienced yet you bear your grandma no ill will and only talk of your deep affection for her. Was she not selfish?).
It seems you frame every situation with your mum as the victim and your dad the bully. I am sure he was hoping to be able to offer a better standard of living for his family by securing a higher paying, higher status job yet you seem to infer his sole motivation was to pump up his own considerable ego.
Later in your story you praise your mum- in- law for her high achievement in the work force and her climb from poverty to a middle-class status and openly admire her “for calling things the way they were and being the dominant force in her marriage.” Perhaps she was just a bullying narcissist too.
Back in Adelaide where your dad has begun his new job you write: “her (your mum’s) unhappiness wore him down but it increased my feelings of love and concern for her.
I would never make a woman I love live somewhere she didn’t want to–
You write as though making your mum unhappy was the motivation behind your dad’s decision to move to Adelaide. Surely thousands of families have moved house to follow the breadwinner’s best job prospects. It’s never easy and often heartbreaking but families weigh up what they think is the best long-term decision.
This passage stunned me, given your description of your dad as a domineering narcissist:
My dad only lasted four months. He couldn’t take my mother’s dark depression. (and I assume her silent treatment and probable absence of any physical intimacy).
Rather than frame your dad’s decision to turn his back on a job he had fought hard to secure because your mum was depressed, as a sacrificial act (which it assuredly was given what he knew he would be facing on his return) you use the word “lasted” so as to present it as yet another flaw in a deeply flawed man. It was simply a sign of his weakness. He was so weak he couldn’t even endure coming home to a silent, angry wife every night after a hard day’s work.
So pathetic. That seems to be your summing up of his actions.
How is it possible that a domineering narcissist would so quickly throw away a job he had desperately sought and return to his previous workplace in a position of drastically reduced status because his wife was unhappy?
The silent treatment seems to be a recurring theme where your mum is concerned.
“My mother is hiding her feelings with silence. I can see that she doesn’t like Helen.”
And then we have the day your mum and dad were hanging wallpaper and your mum grew fed up with your dad’s constant complaining and criticizing.
“She threw a wet brush at him and stalked off. She didn’t talk to him for a month. Not a word.”
Again. You seemed to be in awe of your mother’s feat of silence.
If you go on any domestic violence sight it is listed as one of the many forms of abuse used as a weapon in relationships.
Have you ever had a mate or woman in your life give you even a small dose of “the silent treatment”? It is a truly devastating experience. You become invisible. You lose your sense of self. It is humiliating. It is demeaning. It is soul destroying. Each day you hope you will see a smile or hear a kind word, an apology, feel a gentle touch. And you say this went on for a month? Unimaginable. Clearly, again, no touch or intimacy either.
This is an excerpt from an article by a relationships expert.
Identifying Silent Treatment
In general, the silent treatment is a manipulation tactic that can leave important issues in a relationship unresolved. It also can leave the partner on the receiving end feeling worthless, unloved, hurt, confused, frustrated, angry, and unimportant.
When one or both partners sulk, pout, or refuse to talk, they are exerting a cruel type of power in the relationship that not only shuts out their partner but also communicates that they do not care enough to try to communicate or collaborate.
When silence, or, rather, the refusal to engage in a conversation, is used as a control tactic to exert power in a relationship, then it becomes “the silent treatment,” which is toxic, unhealthy, and abusive.
Let’s flip the roles for one moment.
Imagine your dad thought your mum nagged him too much, so he hurled a wet paintbrush in her face and then refused to speak to her or touch her for a month. I wonder how that story would have been framed?
You noted the fact that only boys were beaten every day in the classroom while the girls were spoken to with respect. You didn’t make any observations about society’s twisted double standards regarding the way to discipline girls and boys. Was this sexist? Unjust?
I was strapped by the Christian brothers when I attended school. My sisters never had a hair on their heads touched. Males were just so privileged.
Perhaps girls would not have been so quick to demand equal treatment in our education system if it meant having to endure what you suffered so horrendously under Mr. Brown’s rule. You were tortured on a daily basis. No girl suffered such treatment. Now that is privilege!
I just missed out on the privilege of being conscripted to fight in the jungles of Vietnam, just another privilege the girls missed out on due to the chauvinism of our society. Many other boys were not so lucky.
No girl ever lived under the threat of being dragged from their home and sent away to kill or be killed.
When your marriage fell apart, you wrote:
“All I wanted, apart from my lecturing job was “mum, dad and the kids” trips to the beach and snow fields, camping, reading stories to the littlies, dressing up as santa, ten weeks holiday every year. And of course, being head of the family and getting all the attention.
For the man.”
The many pages preceding this passage make a mockery of your words. Your life was in no way at any stage, privileged or easier than your wife’s. You wrote:
“I ran off into the bedroom and got into the wardrobe, closed the door and squatted down in the foetal position with my head between my knees.”
So empowered. So blissful.
You both suffered heartache, frustration, broken hopes and dreams, financial struggle and exhaustion. Why do you attempt to present the whole situation as being in any way related to gender?
As for the line about “of course being the head of the family and getting all the attention” – I don’t believe for one moment that you were the “head of the family” or that you “got all the attention.” You wrote it to add power to your assertion that women were somehow oppressed and disadvantaged.
The fact of the matter is most dads were never the head of the family inside the household and most definitely they were not the centre of attention.
I think back to my childhood in the 60’s and there is no doubt in my mind that the majority of homes were ruled by the mum and the dad was in the background both literally and when it came to decisions about the household or attention from the kids. This was partly because the dad was away from the home from early morning to late in the evening. Today women control 80% of the household spending.
This isn’t a good or bad thing. The men worked and earned the money and the mum’s took care of the home front.
You played the gender card again when you wrote:
“I can see that my mother did die spiritually when, in addition to living a life like the one I described above, she left her home, her mother and her sister to live in another culture in another land.”
I know you didn’t like your dad but he left his homeland behind too. He left his dad and mum and perhaps a brother or two and had to adapt to living in another culture, another land.
Your mum’s mother left her, yet you find nothing to condemn in her actions.
You write about a woman being trapped in a man’s world, unable to pursue her dreams or goals. But you don’t for one moment acknowledge that the very same thing can and has happened to men who marry a dominant partner. I have a couple of mates who endured hell in their marriages at the hands of bullying narcissists who just happened to be female.
You say an extrovert and introvert can get on well together- but not if the man’s world takes precedence. Why would you write that? Why didn’t you write, but not if either partner’s world takes precedence?
You say you were horrified to hear yourself dominating the conversation with a friend of your wife on a tape recording as though that is all that needs to be said about all male/female interactions. Perhaps you were ‘mansplaining”. I have known and engaged with countless women who dominate the conversation in their home and the man is the quiet, subservient partner.
Why do so many men do what you do this in this day and age? I am so tired of people almost apologizing for being male. Why didn’t you approach these issues from a human perspective? Do you really believe one gender inherently possesses all of the negative characteristics you refer to?
You say back then, the whole culture was a woman’s enemy if they wanted a full and balanced life.
What does this mean? What is a full and balanced life? My brother was the boss of a bricklaying company. He died two years ago at the age of 57. He worked his fingers to the bone. He died just as he was contemplating retirement. He was up at 5:00 am every morning.
His wife didn’t work, because she didn’t want to. Men in our society don’t have that choice. Many women do. She lived in a lovely home with a sauna, swimming pool and all the money she needed to buy whatever she felt the desire to buy.
They loved each other and raised three beautiful daughters. Tell me which partner had the full and balanced life?
Back in the “bad old days” you refer to, I saw my dad work his heart out to look after and support his family. He adored us and we adored him. He wanted nothing more than to be with us yet society demanded he work long hours for 45 years. He was robbed of so much. My mum worked hard too, but she had the joy of seeing us grow and the friendships of all the other mums in the neighbourhood. They played in badminton competitions and went to calisthenic classes while my dad and their husbands worked. It was hardly hell on earth for women.
Some of these mums may have yearned for more and been unable to achieve their dreams due to having children. But just as many dads had to let go of their dreams and take on mindless, back breaking, often dangerous and dirty jobs in order to provide for their family.
They saw little of their kids.
Were their lives full and balanced? I truly cannot fathom this endless focus on women’s needs and women’s wants as though men haven’t endured the same in a different but just as frustrating and heartbreaking way.
Where is this imaginary world of male privilege and life satisfaction?
For every woman who yearned for a career there was a man yearning for more time with his kids. There were also many women who loved being a home body and housewife and found it fulfilling and enjoyable. There were men who found their career satisfying and exciting.
How can you split humanity so neatly and write as if men lived in some pristine world where they were able to achieve their dreams and have whatever they wanted while women were oppressed and lost?
You write about your selfishness in initially not allowing your wife more time with her visiting rights. Again, you speak of your male selfishness and your sister (it took a woman to set you straight) opening your eyes to that selfishness without mentioning the fact that it is overwhelmingly men who are denied access to their kids by cruel selfish women and a biased court system.
It seems beyond argument that our legal system is determined to prevent men from experiencing a full and balanced life.
I’ve already mentioned the beatings boys copped and the conscription in the seventies. That’s not nothing.
Any statistic used to measure health and wellbeing shows men as the overwhelmingly disadvantaged demographic.
Boys and men are still killing themselves at four times the rate of females yet glass ceilings and mansplaining get more media coverage than this horrific statistic.
Perhaps men’s lives may not be quite as full and balanced as so many seem to think. Boys are failing in our schools; men are having their children torn from them even when they have done nothing wrong and their lives destroyed by the biased Family Court. 96% of workplace deaths are male. 75% of those living hard on the streets are men.
I know you didn’t intend to write a book about women’s rights. It was a fascinating, beautifully written account of one man’s life. But you chose to hammer the issue of women’s “oppression” throughout your story so I think my long letter is relevant.
As I was reading a review of your book on an ABC site an advertisement for another article popped up. The article was titled
“Call for cultural change around stay at home dads”
A father who features in the article had his comments quoted beneath the title.
“Melbourne dad, Michael Wilson, says making it easier for fathers to stay at home with their kids is important for workplace equality for women!
It seemed to tie in neatly with your approach to the issue of gender in our society. Rather than view the increase of stay-at-home fathers as a wonderful thing for men who at long last are able to break free of the shackles of decades of fulltime grind in the workplace and have an opportunity to be with their kids, it is all about women’s equality in the workplace.
Do those women intend working for the next forty years while hubby stays home long after the kids have left school? I doubt it. In this privileged male world, I can promise you it is the wife who allows her hubby to take some time to be a stay-at-home dad and it will be the wife who lets him know when it’s time for him to return to his breadwinner role.
I’m an opinionated little bastard aren’t I?
I was touched by your final pages where you wrote about the death of your dad and wondered if perhaps you had been too harsh in your depiction of him.
I think you are a kind, compassionate, empathetic man who I would love to sit with and talk for hours over a cuppa. I loved your book. I was swept up from the opening page and enjoyed the journey.
I have a deep passion for people but in recent years a particularly strong concern and compassion for men. It seems most of the major institutions in our society deem men a problem to be dealt with, a creature requiring improvement and a toxic poison if not handled carefully.
Our education system and universities are often hostile places for males. The entertainment industry continues to create dramas in which men are abusive selfish monsters and the women good, generous, innocent victims. This has been happening for five decades. You can literally say you hate men in a book title, newspaper article or morning tv program and face zero backlash. I have read many such articles by Clementine Ford and she held her position at The Age for years. How long do you think a male journalist would keep his job if his byline was “Kill all women”.
If a male presenter dared say anything construed as criticism of women as a collective (no matter how mild or true) he would most likely have the angry feminist mob demanding he be sacked and in most cases this would be the outcome. This is not idle chatter. It is the truth.
What does that tell us about who holds the real power in our society?
A wise person once said: Ask yourself this simple question. Who am I not able to criticize in my society? When you give your answer, you will know who holds the power.
This is why I felt let down by your attitude. It’s nice to escape the endless berating of masculinity yet there it was again, just when I thought I was escaping into a fascinating story.
Thanks for reading my long letter (if you’ve got this far). Thanks for your many wonderful stories and the joy you have given to so many.
Take care, Paul.