Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Finding audacity to criticise country

Questioning NZ is enough to make you think you’re mad.
The author didn't seem to discover ways to avoid the oppressive rugby culture. Photo / Doug Sherring
The author didn't seem to discover ways to avoid the oppressive rugby culture. Photo / Doug Sherring

'Smiling zombies" was how Gordon McLauchlan described New Zealanders in his controversial work The Passionless People 40 years ago.

We're not even smiling now.

In Growing Up Hating New Zealand, a mini-memoir on the horror of a Kiwi childhood published this week, offshore-based writer Katherine Dolan seems to have found her upbringing in Otago unstintingly dour.

Rural New Zealand in the 1980s and 1990s was a "puritanical, misogynist, authoritarian, anti-intellectual, alcohol-dependent society that specialised in casual brutality", Dolan writes.

As a child she was driven to a "lonely farmhouse on a hill" (Gothic!) to watch a young animal "trustingly" being led in to be killed and disemboweled. "The guts realised they were no longer contained and slipped heavily out on to the dirt."

Some bullet points: Our culture was rugby culture. Stoicism was a full-time duty. We took defiant pride in our reputation for toughness. Pain was considered good for the character. Playing rugby was the best, most noble thing you could do. Apart from the poorly heated houses - "bed felt like a wet rock" - and the bullying, life in Godzone was just peachy.

"I feel quite homesick for New Zealand reading this," said one of my friends (do I need to add "drily"?). In another essay "New Zealand: the most sexist place on earth", Dolan said New Zealand is more misogynistic than Saudi Arabia, a place where she has lived. But the Saudi claim destroyed her credibility for many readers, who pointed out Saudi women are not allowed to drive cars, wear normal clothes, interact with men, swim or play sport.

My feeling was that although Dolan chose to frame her shitty experiences as being about sexism, the kind of brutalising culture she described is as destructive for boys and men as it is for women and girls, but even worse, men are not even permitted to acknowledge it, let alone talk about it. At least us chicks get to have the sisterhood to prop each other up.

I was a bit worried about how the writer might have coped with the backlash to her candour, but she told me her mum said "good on you", which rather makes you think her family must be good eggs. Bit of a shame her mum couldn't stop her being taken to the Gothic farmhouse though.

Do read Dolan's articles, but my purpose for writing about it here is not so much about what Dolan said, but about our reaction to it. Why did I have such a visceral (gut-spilling!) relief that Dolan had dared - yes, dared - to put words to her experience?

Even venturing to like her article online turned out to be inflammatory.

At the same time - "Dirty Hua, the sequel" - others were spit-frothing that she had the audacity to criticise our amazing country. Even venturing to like her article online turned out to be inflammatory: "Deborah Hill Cone has demonstrated repeatedly in her columns that she is a mentally unstable flake who needs a shrink not a soapbox. Not surprisingly, she lauds this piece."

Maybe the truly terrifying thing is how in New Zealand in 2016 it is still not acceptable to say what happened to you; to "believe your pain" as WH Auden exhorted. If you don't want to join in with the consensus (Rugby! Godzone! Paradise!) you must be deficient or mad or plain wrong. Dolan said that the idea that New Zealand is 100% Pure, natural, liberal and wonderful is so ingrained in us, that for her to question it made her wonder "if I was crazy".

What she described here sounds a lot like gaslighting. Gaslighting is usually applied to relationships: it means manipulating someone into doubting their own perceptions and sanity. The name is derived from the 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman in which a husband attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by manipulating small elements of her environment, including dimming the gas lights, and insisting that she is mistaken, remembering things incorrectly, or delusional when she points out these changes.

Maybe we are a nation of four million gaslighters. Or rather, gaslighters and victims of gaslighters. It certainly seems true that when you notice the light is dimming and say so, you're shouted down as crazy. Yet it is possible to learn to hold on to your own reality in the face of others' denial.

I related to much of what Dolan wrote, but to be honest I don't blame New Zealand. I think I'd probably have hated anywhere I was growing up unless I was living in a castle, with an invisibility cloak and a flying car and Nancy Mitford as my godmother feeding me Babycham and icecream.

Also, I feel sad that Dolan didn't seem to discover ways to avoid the oppressive rugby culture. There are whole enclaves of New Zealanders who flout social norms and are wonderfully free and batty and, yes, even intellectual. You just have to find them.

Sadly, Dolan won't be able to do that. She told me she would have found it impossible to write her essays from within New Zealand "because you'd feel the earth was going to shatter". It's a shame she had to go 18,000km away to tell the truth.

- NZ Herald

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