An interview with Gerard McCann, shortlisted for the 2022 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award

Gerard McCann grew up in Cottesloe in the 1950s and 60s, the second of five boys. Staunch Catholicism had the boys on their knees at night and Sunday mornings, but otherwise running free, exploring and adventuring in the streets and neighbouring gardens. He studied Architecture at the Perth Tech and UWA, and specialised in heritage architecture as his own practice grew around his home in Fremantle. He began writing poetry as an adolescent, then short stories and travel non-fiction as an adult, before completing an Arts degree at UWA in the 1990s, majoring in Australian and American literature. He joined Rosemary Stevens’ writing group ten years ago and continues still in the group under the caring eye of Louise Allen. He is married with two children.

Describe your manuscript in your own words.

The manuscript began as a recollection of events, but soon developed into a wider and deeper analysis of the effects of childhood sexual abuse. Enabled by my vivid pictorial memory of places, feelings and people, the text quickly expanded to include detailed descriptions of these, and the feelings that enveloped them. The process of writing also became the conduit for deeply repressed memories and trauma to surface and was, in this sense, a cathartic process. This developed into a further exploration of the profound disempowerment that abuse trauma triggers, and my life story in the wake of these effects.

Through therapy and consciousness-raising, the narratorial voice of ‘victim’ slowly yielded to one of a more separate, but empathic, observer. This led to a different exploration of the places and people of my childhood, a journey that unearthed so many other boys who had been abused by the same priest. Parallel with this process was the journey to seek justice. A good part of the manuscript describes this stop-start journey, that of a ‘disempowered person’, to pursue the Catholic Church for some remedy, which might equate to justice. The text also explores at length the effect on a family of the sexual abuse of its children, the disintegration of the lives that follow, and the extraordinary ripples that radiate out for generations.

What inspired you to write it?

I was in Melbourne on holiday and read on the front page of the Age newspaper that the Catholic Church had, for eleven years, run a secret psychiatric clinic in Sydney, treating paedophile priests from across Australasia. The program was reputed to have cost over a hundred million dollars. At the end of their ‘treatment’, the priests were quietly transitioned out of the Church, given a generous payout, a university education and accommodation for life. Having wavered for years trying to exact some sort of justice for myself, I was devastated that the Church could so comprehensively look after the paedophiles whilst at the same time brutally fighting the victims in the courts. I became so enraged that, for the first time in my life, I had to tell everyone my story. The friend with whom I was staying, on hearing this, said I should write it down. I began the next day.

How long have you been working on it?

I began writing it on November 18, 2012, the day after the Age newspaper article. The story tumbled out as though it had been waiting years to see the light of day.

What does it mean to you to make the shortlist of the 2022 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award?

My career of course has been as a heritage architect, and writing has been a sometimes occupation, mostly on holidays when the responsibilities of running a professional practice ebbed away to allow time for another life to emerge. So, despite my previous writings being enjoyed by friends and family, and the fulfillment of writing this manuscript, and even despite the encouragement of my writing group, I still did not feel I could credit myself as a writer. That voice over my shoulder kept whispering, ‘You’re a fraud.’ Being shortlisted for the Hungerford Award however, is like a lit-up neon sign flashing across the sky, saying ‘You can write! You can write!’

Excerpt from Tell Me the Story

Leunig arrived unannounced at the back door, just before dinnertime. He stood just inside the vestibule. I felt a sudden deflation as the air was sucked out of me, our secret instantly resurrected, leaving me on my own again.

My mother had no reason to refuse him, especially as we were about to sit down for dinner. She stretched the meal eight ways or went without herself to include him.

Our dining table was octagonal, 1960s laminex with a red-and-white scatter pattern and chrome legs. It sat in the middle of the vestibule. The spare space at the table was opposite my father, and Leunig sat himself there, next to me. He said grace, and as had happened previously on the altar, I realised he was looking at me, remote and watchful. The usual chatter and chiacking of my brothers took on a greater volume, each of them talking over the others to impress Father. When dinner was finished, he became the showman, telling stories and jokes and we all laughed as his narrowed eyes roamed the table, back and forth. I watched those beady eyes.

I remember five visits in his grooming of the family. Each time he performed a new jest. On the first visit he gave a slide show of a trip he’d made with a fellow priest across the Nullarbor Plain. He brought his own projector and we watched the pictures on the vestibule wall. One was taken from the passenger’s seat inside the car. It was at night and showed a flared match lighting a cigarette, lighting up his face as he was driving the car. He warned us that the flare from the match temporarily blinded you. He was teaching us safe driving habits.

On two visits, he did the ‘Craven ‘A’ rocket trick.’ Carefully disassembling an empty ‘Craven ‘A” cigarette packet, he spread the aluminium foil inner lining flat on the table. Then taking the tissue paper that encased the cigarettes, he folded it into a concertina shape. Standing this on its end on the aluminium foil, he lit the tissue. The flames burnt down until all that was left was the gossamer thin ash, still intact and upright in its concertina form. The weightlessness of the tissue ash in the rising column of hot air caused it to rise quickly like a rocket until it nearly hit the ceiling.

‘Do it again, Father,’ we all shouted.

He arrived another evening, at dinnertime as usual and again unannounced, carrying a small, dusky pink, canvas carry bag which he put on the floor beside him at the table. It was a typical meal, my brothers all talking at once, vying for his attention. Dom, whose nickname was ‘talky-talky’, was the loudest. Both he and Paddy were young and impressionable, keen to have a voice over us domineering three older brothers. When we had finished and the empty plates were cleared away, he lifted the carry bag onto the table and showed us it contained a portable tape recorder, a brand new, battery-operated, Grundig reel-to-reel. It was the first we’d ever seen.

‘I’ve had my housekeeper sew the microphone into this invisible pocket,’ he said, pointing at a small black dot surrounded by pink stitching on the outside of the bag.

It had been running since he arrived, recording our meal together. We gathered round, leaning over the table, and listened again to our chatter. The meal had sounded like chaos, each of us clamouring to be heard above the other, especially Dom. The dinner table was his stage and his chatter hilarious. We all thoroughly approved of Leunig’s trick.

He sat through it all, unsmiling, detached in his inscrutable way, scanning our faces still, left to right, left to right. He didn’t approach me in the house nor single me out for special attention. It was not in my nature to be insolent or disrespectful or do anything that might betray my secret.

Nothing awkward or distressing had happened so I laughed along with everyone else, conscious though of being separate from them all. The only relationship that existed at the table was between Leunig and I. Our secret was an invisible, tight cord and I endured its tension, warily watching his eyes roam back and forth. He was like a sorcerer, mesmerising the whole family.

The winner of the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award will be announced at Fremantle Arts Centre on Thursday 20 October 2022.

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