The Mirror Book: A memoir by Charlotte Grimshaw (Penguin, 2021), 320pp, $38
This memoir is from the daughter of someone who has been portrayed, especially in Auckland, as New Zealand’s greatest living writer. C.K. (Karl) Stead, prominent in the local literary world for 60 years, has been given the country’s greatest honour, membership of the Order of New Zealand, primarily for his fiction and poetry. But his uncompromising literary criticism and public disputes with other writers were the agencies that kept him mostly in the minds of the writing community, to the extent that a Metro article in 1990 was headed ‘Blaspheming against the Pieties: Why the literati hate C.K. Stead’. He was also accused of too often portraying himself and his intimates as characters in his fiction. In a 2019 interview for the Academy of NZ Literature, Stead responded with, ‘Stories are stories and create their own reality.’ In fiction, the ‘border between what really happened and what is invented is always open, and if the writer doesn’t put it on record, there’s no way of knowing when and where it is crossed’.
Daughter Charlotte grew up as a middle child in a household that revolved around the pivot of Stead’s career and reputation, burnished by ever-supportive wife Kay, and with ‘his eye always on the record’. Stead said he used to have three regular readers, Kay and daughters Charlotte and Margaret: ‘All three would read and comment on my fiction before it went to the publisher … Kay and I used to read Charlotte’s fiction before it was offered, but not in recent years—though Charlotte still often sends us reviews or articles before they’re offered … On the whole we have a been a close literary family … with a lot of interchange of ideas and opinions …’
It seems that Grimshaw’s relationship with her father was relatively secure, perhaps too secure in the eyes of Kay who, Grimshaw says, saw her as a rival when he began to flirt with her as a teenager. It was Father who cancelled an overseas trip to be around when Grimshaw’s marriage threatened to disintegrate; father who attended court when Grimshaw was up for a misdemeanour, though commenting afterwards (somewhat creepily) on how beautiful she had looked.
Yet both father and mother seemed careless of her welfare when, as a small child, she was absent all day in a Waitākere bush gorge and they had no idea where she was. When she roamed Auckland’s central city as a teenager with her friend Louis, stealing phones from a hotel, blowing up a telephone box. When she was 13 Grimshaw was groomed by a swimming pool attendant in his forties. She showed her mother the love letters and photos he sent her. ‘She didn’t do anything about it. She wasn’t alarmed.’ The man raped her but she buried it: ‘I told no one at home, judging that a report would be regarded as off-putting, embarrassing, that the disapproval would land mostly on me.’ When friend Louis was killed in a hit and run before her eyes, father was absent overseas; mother gave her a pill.
But there were good times at home, during family travels and summers out at the Karekare bach. Vicariously, mother enjoyed the stories that her daughter brought back from nights out along Karangahape Road. Grimshaw comforted her mother when she lay on the floor weeping at her husband’s latest affair. According to Grimshaw, she was the only one who challenged a father who was a ‘controller by nature; he controlled the message. He wrote the story. I learned from him …’ He could not acknowledge the ‘progression from his and my intense bond to my becoming an object of conflict’.
The warfare between father and mother ‘overrode the normal ties of a family,’ writes Grimshaw. ‘The dynamic, the powerful forces, the damage. He was allergic to the idea of subtlety and duality, of hidden depths …’ The insult that mother hurled most often at daughter was: ‘You’re just like him.’ Father and daughter grew into two violent forces that mother was unable to handle other than by withdrawal or silent rejection. And Grimshaw became the rebellious bad girl, the petty criminal. Her ability to ‘remain articulate under fire was described as harsh, tough and abnormal … raving and madness’. She was the one who caused chaos, disturbing the sunny public scenario of a vibrant happy family among a sea of books. It was ‘jokingly acknowledged by my sister and me that our mother had no feeling for me at all. I remember Margaret pausing in some conversation and saying, matter-of-factly, “If Mum had to choose, it’d be you she’d throw off a cliff.”’
The tumult of her upbringing was followed by a violent affair with a senior colleague. From her mother’s example, Grimshaw had ‘grown up with the idea that a domineering man was to be placated, that his rage was somehow sacred, evidence not of bad behaviour, but of his righteousness and intellectual rigour. I’d been trained for the man I was now living with.’
She finally found refuge and security in marriage and children with lawyer Paul Grimshaw. But her later discovery of his affair cracked the emotional concrete casing this had helped her to create, covering the nuclear waste of her past. Her mother was unhelpful. She told her that’s what often happened. Get on with it. But through the casing’s fissure radiated the questions: What has happened to me? Who am I?
Grimshaw gives great credit to her psychologist who, over many sessions, enabled her to let it all out, to find the real Charlotte, to tell her own story. She made many notes; she wrote a novel, Mazarine, and a short story to work through it. Hadn’t she always been told: Write it down.
But it was still not enough.
In mid-2020 father published his second memoir and wrote of his family: ‘There was a minimum of piety among us, tears but not too many, shouting but not too much, some songs, some recitations from memory, and endless jokes.’ This, and an altercation with her mother following her father’s radio interview with Kim Hill, finally prompted Grimshaw to release the dammed-up trauma of her Stead upbringing. ‘Telling your story is existentially important,’ she writes. ‘This is what I am interested in recording, the destructive effect of silence, and the restorative power of narrative.’ This consequent memoir releases the dark swirling currents of Grimshaw’s past loneliness, sense of neglect, alienation and sheer horror, flooding the public plain of sunlit family memory.
Grimshaw, who has only published fiction before, has the ability to tell a good story. Parts of this memoir, like the young kids’ dangerous journey down the Waitākere gorge, read like fiction. There is a recurring pattern, a returning and returning to father’s description of the family, as if she has employed the pattern of her sessions with her psychologist as a deliberate form to enable her to probe deeper and deeper, expose more and more.
But wait, this is only her story, right? Are not our childhood events enlarged in memory? How much self-dramatisation is there? Younger sister Margaret has said that a Stead upbringing was nothing like Grimshaw describes and that her parents’ story ‘is theirs to tell as they choose’. But a tell-tale comment here is when Margaret wrote in a recent Listener article that people in the 1970s and 1980s ‘didn’t think about or discuss “parenting”. They had children.’ Really? In the age of Dr Spock, Plunket and Playcentre? In the end, Grimshaw’s story will be different to that of any other Stead family member and what matters is whether, to an outsider, her story rings authentic. It does.
But should Grimshaw have published this while her parents are still alive? She could not decide whether she was being ‘bold or bad’ in doing so. She later revealed that father and mother read the memoir and asked her to cancel publication, but it had already gone to print. Earlier, her father had said she could publish what she wanted but to wait until he and her mother were dead. Grimshaw was certainly bold in going ahead but not in a ‘bad’ ‘publish and be damned’ frame of mind. She notes, ‘I’ve thought about it and my answer is that it must be more honourable to give my genuine opinion of the facts at a time when those who want to dispute it can do so.’ And she asserts her steadfast love for her parents: ‘I am still devoted to them … if they need anything, day or night, I’m on my way.’
Charlotte Grimshaw needed to publish this memoir, to finally make her parents listen, because then they would not be able to ignore what she had long been pleading for: their acceptance of her story, and the recognition of who she really is—not what they would like her to be. She has wrested back some control of the story from her father, and this notorious critic, who took no prisoners during his career, ought not to complain. Charlotte is her father’s daughter. Perhaps he had not acknowledged the warning from Polish poet Czesław Miłosz: ‘When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.’ It makes this, appropriately, an epigraph for this memoir.
PHILIP TEMPLE is a Dunedin author of more than 40 fiction and non-fiction books for which he has won numerous awards, including the Prime Minister’s for Literary Excellence. His latest work is a two-volume biography of author Maurice Shadbolt, Life as a Novel. He admits to helping bring up two children who are close in age to Charlotte and Margaret Stead. His reviews of C.K.Stead’s second memoir, You Have a Lot to Lose, is also available on LRO (see ‘My Brilliant Career, 1 September 2020).