Garner Trouble: Reading The First Stone as a Detective Narrative



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Garner Trouble: Reading The First Stone as a Detective Narrative

Jay Daniel Thompson

La Trobe University


Helen Garner’s The First Stone (1995) has commonly been read as a feminist-authored attack on feminism. I concur with this reading, but also argue that this text contains some distinctly ‘queer’ aspects that have previously been overlooked by critics. I suggest that a useful way of emphasising and exploring these aspects is by reading The First Stone as a detective narrative. I contend that Garner creates a sense of ‘gender trouble’ by performing the traditionally ‘masculine’ role of detective. The Ormond complainants are portrayed as femme fatales - figures of mystery and desire for the author/sleuth. I move on to question whether, in creating gender trouble, Garner’s ‘detective narrative’ reinforces traditional gender roles as well. I also ask: what do the The First Stone’s sexual politics say about the broader political culture in which the text was published? This paper aims to provide a fresh and provocative perspective on one of the most controversial Australian books of recent decades. I also aim to demonstrate the usefulness of reading ostensibly ‘heterosexual’ texts through a queer lens.

In 1995, Helen Garner published The First Stone: Some Questions About Sex and Power. The text purports to detail the events surrounding the sexual harassment allegations brought against the Master of a Melbourne University residential college by a pair of female students. The text also chronicles Garner’s (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to interview the two complainants. The First Stone has elicited a range of critical responses (many of them hostile) since it first appeared on bookshelves. There is a sense that there is nothing new to be said about this text. I aim to prove that assumption wrong through rereading The First Stone as a detective narrative. I contend that this reading brings to light the provocative messages about gender roles and sexual identity that appear in Garner’s text, but which have been elided by critics.

The paper will be divided into three sections. The first will summarise existing commentaries on Garner’s text, emphasising some of their limitations, such as overlooking the suggestions of gender role-play and queerness in The First Stone. In the second section, I argue that Garner creates a sense of ‘gender trouble’ (to use Judith Butler’s famous concept) by portraying herself as a detective figure, and the Ormond complainants as femme fatales – figures of anxiety, mystery and desire for our amateur sleuth. In the third section, I ask whether, in creating gender trouble, Garner’s ‘detective narrative’ subverts traditional gender roles or reinforces them – or both? I also consider what the sexual politics of The First Stone reveal about the broader political culture in which the book was published.

Casting The First Stone Again
Before addressing The First Stone itself, I will briefly describe the sexual harassment allegations upon which Garner’s text focuses. This harassment is alleged to have taken place at Ormond College, a residential college at Melbourne University,1 in October 1991. Five female Ormond students filed ‘informal complaints of sexual harassment’ against Dr Alan Gregory, then the College Master.2 The students claimed that this harassment took place at a student party following the Valedictory Dinner that was held at Ormond that month. In March 1992, the College council released a statement declaring that ‘although it believed the students had acted in “good faith”,’ they still had ‘confidence in the Master’s ability to continue in his position’.3 Shortly afterwards, two complainants brought their harassment allegations to the police. The allegations progressed to the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court, where Gregory was found guilty of sexually harassing one of the two complainants. This charge was later overturned in an appeal hearing at the Victorian County Court. In May 1993, Gregory officially resigned from his position at Ormond.4

The First Stone opens with a transcript of Gregory’s interview with police following their receipt of the allegations. Garner moves on to document her increasing interest in the case. This interest is generated primarily through reading about the allegations in the media, though she concedes that she knew several women who were acquainted with the complainants.5 Garner recalls her attendance at court hearings. She describes her attempts to interview the two complainants – the three other women who claimed to have been sexually harassed by Gregory, but who did not seek legal redress, are not mentioned. Garner claims that interviewing the two complainants will enable her to ‘make more complex sense’ of the allegations ‘than the press had so far been able to’.6 In saying this, Garner advises that she has no interest in trying to establish Shepherd’s guilt.7 The author wants to know ‘why the girls went to the police’.8 However, Garner’s attempts to speak with these two women are blocked by their supporters.

The First Stone generated a storm of controversy that was played out in newspapers and scholarly journals, as well as the books Generation f (1996), Bodyjamming: Sexual Harassment, Feminism and Public Life (1997), and Talking Up: Young Women’s Take on Feminism (1998). Some critics have contested the generational conflict that Garner evokes between so-called ‘older’ feminists such as herself and ‘younger’ feminists such as those who were apparently supporting the Ormond complainants.9 Yet other critics read the text as being a reaction against a feminism which Garner perceived to be fixated on male domination and female subordination. I want to look closely at the contention that The First Stone is a reactionary text, as this will be crucial to my overall argument.

One of The First Stone’s most trenchant critics has been Jenna Mead, who was an Ormond tutor at the time of the alleged harassment. In the introduction to Bodyjamming, Mead argues:


The First Stone enabled Helen Garner, celebrity journalist and cultural icon, to mobilise all the melodrama of a woman victimised by other women, portraying herself in the media as the humble and resolute seeker after truth.10
As cultural critic Mark Davis points out, Garner describes the feminists who are apparently victimising her in unfavourable and particularly unsubtle terms:
Garner … speaks of “several other university feminists who had supported the complainants,” of a “faceless group of women,” of “radical feminists” and “ideological passions …on the rampage,” of “puritan feminists” who exerted a “certain influence.” of “faceless supporters,” “feminist ideologues” and “the politically correct gang,” who as a group “maintained facelessness and voicelessness.” What sort of feminists are these?11
Davis argues that in The First Stone, Garner ‘reverses the underlying power dynamic’ of the alleged harassment at Ormond.12 According to Garner, the complainants somehow wield the ‘incredible power’13 required to destroy the career of a well-respected college Master. The question of whether Gregory subjected the complainants to unwanted sexual advances, and therefore abused his institutional power, is never explored.

I agree that The First Stone is politically reactionary. Yet I would also suggest that reading The First Stone as a salvo thrown in a media-fuelled attack on feminism does not in itself recognise the complexity of the book’s sexual politics. This kind of reading says nothing about sexual identity, or the fact that the text was conceived in a political culture that was shaped by neoliberalism. According to the terms of this reading, Garner is simply a ‘celebrity feminist’ who spouts what may be regarded as anti-feminist views about the politics of sexual harassment, and receives considerable media coverage for doing so.14 Garner apparently feels nothing for the complainants except hostility, or at the very least, she fails to understand why they sought legal redress for what Gregory allegedly did to them.

I argue that The First Stone evokes a sense of gender trouble and queer desire at the same time as it endorses quite conservative ideas about men, women and sex. By investigating these aspects of The First Stone, I follow a long line of queer theorists who have sought to expose the ‘non-heterosexual’ aspects of even avowedly ‘heterosexual’ texts. This ‘queering’ of popular culture has, in turn, been part of a far broader ‘challenge’ to the heterosexism of much ‘mainstream opinion and representation’.15

‘Queering’ a text does not simply involve labelling it as ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’. Queer theory has been concerned with deconstructing – or at least moving beyond - traditional identity categories such as ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’ and ‘heterosexual’, as well as ‘male’ and ‘female’, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. Queer textual analyses focus on moments of desire that cannot be easily subsumed under the above categories. In particular, these analyses look for moments (even fleeting moments) within a text that are situated inside that realm of heterosexual desire that is specifically geared towards marriage and reproduction.16 Queer readings also investigate moments in which particular modes of gender expression are not tied to their culturally-assigned bodies. These includes moments in which a female protagonist adopts what might be regarded as a ‘masculine’ – or even non-gender specific – identification of some kind.

I argue that a useful and creative way of illuminating the queer aspects of The First Stone is through reading the text as a detective narrative. The term ‘detective’ will be used to denote a man or woman who is employed as a ‘private detective’, ‘police detective’ or ‘police investigator’. This term will also refer to a man or woman who occupies none of the above occupations, but who investigates certain persons and/or events.17 I draw comparisons between Garner’s text and several other literary and filmic detective narratives. Some of these examples are relatively recent, while others are dated from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. I engage with several feminist and queer analyses of detective narratives, including works by Glenwood Irons, Sally R. Munt and Anna Wilson.

Also, I reference texts which might more accurately be aligned with ‘noir’ fiction and film.18 In these texts, there is no ‘detective’ figure of any kind; such texts include the film Gross Misconduct (1993). I cite these noir texts because they foreground the figure of the femme fatale and the erotic ‘spell’ she casts over the male protagonist. In such noir texts, the male protagonist is usually a happily-married, middle class, ‘respectable’ man. He embodies quite a different model of masculinity to many male detectives in popular culture, although like these detectives, this ‘respectable’ man finds his masculinity sorely tested by the bad girl he falls for.

My final disclaimer before addressing The First Stone concerns Garner’s use of pseudonyms. Garner changed many names in her book in order to avoid legal problems. Gregory is named ‘Colin Shepherd’, while the complainants are referred to as ‘Elizabeth Rosen’ and ‘Nicole Stewart’. When I use these pseudonyms, I emphasise that I am not referring to the ‘real-life’ men and women involved in the Ormond case; rather, I am referring to Garner’s representations of these men and women.
When Garner Met Butler
My decision to read The First Stone as a detective narrative may seem unusual given that the text is framed as a work of journalism.19 In true journalistic style, the author declares that she will not ‘take sides or make judgments’.20 Garner’s account of the Ormond harassment episode and its aftermath are interspersed with reflections on the episode by those who have been connected in different ways with Ormond College over the years. Garner also cites opinions on the case that have been provided to her by people she encounters in her everyday life, for example, shop attendants and friends.

Some critics have noted the influence of detective and noir texts upon The First Stone. John Docker has likened Garner’s role in this book to that of ‘Miss Marple’, Agatha Christie’s famous amateur sleuth,21 while Mark Davis and Anthea Taylor have acknowledged that Garner’s book draws on familiar femme fatale narratives.22 These kinds of narratives were trademarks of the ‘hardboiled’ crime fiction published during the 1930s and 1940s by authors such as James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.23 Such narratives have continued to play out (albeit with different variations) in detective fiction and film, as well as in The First Stone. In the narratives I am referring to, a male detective is assigned to investigate a beautiful and mysterious woman. The woman seduces the detective and, in doing so, brings upon his personal and professional downfall.

The narratives that I have just described foreground two gender stereotypes. The first is the macho male detective. This man is aggressive, unfeeling, a loner. He is familiar with the criminal underworld and not above bending the law in order to get his way.24 The second stereotype is, of course, that of the ‘femme fatale’. This woman is an enigma, mysterious and erotic, as well as lethal. This woman is situated outside the traditionally ‘femininised’ spheres of the home and the nuclear family. Frequently, the femme fatale is situated outside the realm of the law itself, as she is romantically involved with criminals, is plotting a murder, or is engaged in some other heinous crime. The femme fatale has dangerous designs on the detective which he only discovers once it is too late.

In The First Stone, the detective is a woman – in fact it is Garner herself. The author alerts her readers early on that – like all popular culture detectives – she is no stranger to investigating crime. Garner recalls that, around the time that she first read about the Ormond case in the newspaper, she was reporting ‘the trial of a man accused of having murdered his girlfriend’s two-year-old son’.25 She became fascinated with the Ormond case, and declares that she wanted to meet the complainants, to interrogate them. This declaration is made with all the stoicism and resolve of Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930) and Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939).

By portraying herself as a detective figure, I contend that Garner creates a certain degree of gender trouble. The concept of ‘gender trouble’ was coined by Butler in her text of the same name. I want now to provide a brief overview of this concept, as well as that of ‘gender performativity’. Butler’s work on both concepts has been hugely influential on queer theory and contemporary feminisms, and this work will inform the argument that follows.26 In Gender Trouble, Butler argues that the ‘best way to trouble the gender categories that support gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality’ involves a radical rethinking of the relationship between the categories ‘sex’ and ‘gender’.27 Butler argues that just as ‘gender’ has been commonly understood as an expression of ‘sex’, so ‘sex’ has been seen as the ‘natural’ self that gender expresses.28 That is, ‘(if) gender is the cultural meanings that the sexed body assumes, then a gender cannot be said to follow from a sex in any one way’.29 Creating gender trouble means severing – or at least problematising – this link between gender roles and sexed bodies.

Central to Butler’s conceptualisation of ‘gender trouble’ is her argument that gender is ‘performative’. She elaborates on this argument in the following, oft-cited passage: ‘Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.’30 In her essay ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination’ (1991), Butler develops the above point even further when she argues that gender is ‘a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself’.31 The naturalistic effects of heterosexualised genders are produced through imitative strategies; what they imitate is a phantasmatic ideal of heterosexual identity, one that is produced by the imitation as its effect.’32 Gender performativity should not be understood as a feminist or queer political strategy. As I will argue later in this essay, some gender performances are politically conservative.

Nevertheless, the interrelated concepts of ‘gender trouble’ and ‘gender performativity’ are useful to the extent that they demonstrate that ‘heterosexualised genders’ (masculine/active = male, feminine/passive = female) are not biological or inevitable. These ‘ideals’ ‘congeal over time’33 to serve a view of the world where heterosexuality seems natural and men are always powerful (sexually and otherwise). Mismatching gender roles and sexed bodies (for example, in the case of the ‘masculine’ lesbian) can be a compelling and provocative way of showing how ‘heterosexual gender roles’ – and, by extension, ‘compulsory heterosexuality’34 – are illusions, not givens.35

Butler has famously argued that gender performativity and gender trouble are both exemplified by drag performances and lesbian butch-femme roleplaying;36 I suggest these are exemplified by some textual representations of the female detective. The female detective is not a new cultural figure,37 nor is she always politically transgressive (a point I will return to later). Nevertheless, within some feminist fiction the female detective engages in what Butler would describe as ‘gender trouble’. Within this fiction, the female detective must ‘inhabit the hard-boiled form and parody it at the same time’.38 This figure debunks the idea that the detective is always male. As Glenwood Irons points out, some female detectives also debunk the assumption that the detective must adhere to a model of unreconstructed masculinity. Irons supports her point by considering Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels. In these novels, Warshawski ‘takes in and works with a young girl whose father has been murdered’, and ‘enjoys the help of (mostly) female friends’.39 Compare this with the many male detectives who are depicted as ‘loners’ who protect their own interests.40

The above remarks have relevance to my reading of The First Stone. In this text, I suggest that there are moments in which Garner is (to some degree) a troubling figure, and not simply due to her controversial politics. She is a woman and a feminist who takes on a detective-type role. She has found a mystery and she wants to solve it. In trying to solve this mystery, Detective Garner moves through a world of courtrooms and legal proceedings which she discovers to be masculine and anti-feminist. Perhaps as a result of this pervasive masculinity, she displays ‘flashes of empathy’ for the complainants.41 For example, Garner cites the example of the QC in the County Court who asks Stewart why she did not simply ‘slap’ the Master when he gave her unwanted sexual attention.42 Garner responds by angrily noting that this is a question that ‘every woman in the room could answer’.43

A key source of narrative tension in the text concerns Garner’s efforts to interrogate Rosen and Stewart. The author pursues these complaints with all the relentlessness that the detectives in Marc Behm’s novel The Eye of the Beholder (1980) and Bob Rafelson’s film Black Widow (1987) pursued the female objects of their desire.44 Garner writes letters to Rosen and Stewart, requesting a moment of their time. Her pursuit continues even after she is sternly warned by the complainants’ solicitor and one of their supporters that the harassment episode ‘is not being played out for the benefit of (Garner’s) finer feelings’.45

I argue that Garner’s powerful desire to interview the complainants can be read in a distinctly queer light, particularly after reading her descriptions of one complainant’s perceived sexual appeal. I want now to look closely at this reading, as it momentarily disrupts the heterosexism which (as I will soon argue) permeates The First Stone. Of Rosen, Garner asks rhetorically:
Can a young woman really expect to go through life without ever having to take responsibility? Has a girl like Elizabeth Rosen even the faintest idea what a powerful anima figure she is to the men she encounters in her life? She told the court that Dr Shepherd had got down on his knees before her. Which of them does the word humiliated apply to here?46
Garner’s impression of Rosen’s sexual appeal becomes more explicit when she describes a photograph of the young woman that was taken on the night of the Valedictory Dinner. Garner’s description of this photograph bears quoting at length:
(Rosen) is wearing a dark, strapless evening dress, out of which the double mass of her splendid bosom – the only possible word for it – is bursting. Her face and shoulders are tanned, her eyes are glowing, her dark-lipped, enormous mouth is split wide in a frank grin, showing perfect teeth. Her face is so dazzling that her hair, worn up and back except for one free curl over her right eye, is only a shadow. It is impossible not to be moved by her daring beauty. She is a woman in the full glory of her youth, as joyful as a goddess, elated by her own careless authority and power.47
According to Garner, the ‘sight of this photo administers a jolt to men and women alike’.48 When gazing at this shot, ‘women sigh’ and ‘men make lewd remarks’.49

The above description of Rosen could have been lifted from a 1940s noir movie. Recall the first appearance of the femme fatale in the films Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946. As described by Garner, the Rosen of this photograph (which was taken on the same night that she was allegedly harassed by Shepherd) absolutely connotes what film theorist Laura Mulvey famously called ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’.50 Rosen becomes a source of erotic ‘spectacle’, but this erotic spectacle is not being played out only for a heterosexual male gaze.

Like all detectives, Garner seeks important information from the complainants. This aspect of The First Stone is, I suggest, particularly crucial to a queer reading of the text. Garner wants to find out what ‘really’ happened at that October 1991 party, and why the young women went to the police, but is that all? Could the complainants hold some knowledge that may be useful to Garner herself – indeed, some knowledge about Garner herself? As Anna Wilson points out, the lesbian detective faces two major discoveries: the criminal’s identity and also the discovery of her own ‘hidden sexual identity’.51

Yet unlike the avowedly ‘lesbian’ detective fiction texts which Wilson analyses, I argue that The First Stone is sexually ambiguous. The ambiguity is in keeping with queer theory’s tendency to avoid representing desire according to the standard sexual categories. The erstwhile heterosexually-identified Garner never discovers a hidden ‘lesbian’ identity. Nor does she ever get to interrogate the complainants. These women remain silent, both within and outside Garner’s text. Their ‘real’ names were not used in either The First Stone or the media coverage surrounding their allegations, and these young women were not photographed for the press. As Garner acknowledges, Australian ‘law forbids the identification of the complainants in cases of alleged indecent assault’.52 Significantly for my analysis, a sense of mysteriousness has been a distinguishing feature of the femme fatale. One is also reminded of the cinematic female protagonist theorised by lesbian studies scholars Terry Castle and Patricia White.53 This is the woman who occupies the margins of the narrative, alluring and enigmatic, her sexuality a mystery to those around her. Rosen and Stewart will not reveal themselves or their ‘secrets’ to anyone – even another woman.




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