‘The Bean Patch’ by Shirley Painter

2002, 310 p

Spoiler alert. 

The author of this book was 83 years old when this book was published.  It was the product of a writing course undertaken at Holmesglen TAFE in her later years, and its narrative voice is just a little stilted.  But she is conscious that she is crafting a narrative, as well as relating it and so she makes the decision to withhold and complicate information so that the reader experiences the same partial and confused state that she did for so many years:

Because memories are often disjointed, I had two choices in dealing with them.

The first was to tidy them all up into a neat chronological order, with a beginning, a middle and an end.  But a lifetime of reading wonderful books has made me a highly critical reader, and I feared that choice might make for a very flat narrative.

The other choice was to present the reader with the same gaps, the same clues, and the same dilemmas as I had, so that the effect would be the same: What’s going on? Who in this dangerous and contradictory world can be trusted? Who are the goodies in white hats and who are the baddies in black hats?

Tough, reader! I have chosen for you the hard option   (p. vii)

This stylistic choice works well, and it is the promise that it will all come clear that draws the reader through the narrative.  There seems to be such a disconnect between what seems like an ordinary-enough life with husband, children, career, house, brothers and sisters, juxtaposed with a nightmare existence of extreme brutality.  This disconnect becomes even stronger in part 2 where, tangled in amongst the narrator’s story of breakdowns and therapy, details of the abuse are released in jerks and flashes- as indeed, such searing and painful memories must be.

But the reader is left with the final question of credibility, and here I find myself in uncomfortable territory.  I had let suggestions of the paranormal go through in Part I, but with the litany of abuse and crime in Parts II and the Epilogue  of the book, drawn out through extensive therapy, and encompassing recovered memories at and before birth, I found myself stepping back and asking “Do I really believe all this?” Although I feel almost disloyal to the narrator in distancing myself from these recovered memories,  I just cannot credit the bloodshed and crime without external corroboration.

I’m obviously not alone in my hesitation as this Sydney Morning Herald review shows.  The Bean Patch was awarded the Dobbie award in 2003 for a first book by an Australian woman writer.  The book is marketed and publicized as ‘memoir’.  Deborah Adelaide, one of the judges for the award is quoted in the review as saying that the truth or otherwise of parts of the memoir is immaterial:

Because we know it is based on her life, and the thrust of the story is true, to me the details don’t really matter

Ah, but it’s more than just details- it’s the whole premise of the book.  All memoirs are constructed narratives, and the reader takes on the author’s part in this construction as part of the memoir genre, aware that these choices are an inherent part of what is being offered.  There is always the question of fidelity and soundness of the architecture by which the author has chosen to structure the narrative, but if the whole intent of the endeavour is suspect???  I’m not sure.

Update 27 August 2014

The Age this morning published a beautifully crafted obituary for Shirley Painter (3-11-1918 – 29-07-2104) written with the assistance of family members.  It notes that:

Shirley was dux of both her primary school and MacRobertson Girls’ High School and earned an honours arts degree from Melbourne University.  She married and raised three children.

She taught Latin and English with diligence and care at St Catherine’s Secondary School for Many years. .. She was supported financially to go on to university by a bursary created by her teachers who recognized her extraordinary ability.  As a teacher she gave her tireless support and encouragement to young women seeking to find that spark in knowledge and thought that might enliven them.  She felt angry, in recent years, that free education had become a thing of the past….

Shirley was a lover of art, film and literature and a member of book clubs, film groups, bridge clubs, ACSA (Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse) and Probus…

Shirley is survived by her three daughter, four grandchildren and the legacy of hope and love she embodied.


2 responses to “‘The Bean Patch’ by Shirley Painter

  1. Some interesting points here. And some thoughts in response. I have just been reading Eakin’s ‘Breaking the Rules: The Consequences of Self Narration ( Biography 24.1 Winter 2001), raising the problem of self narration, subjectivity and the audience of readers. He notes that the ‘daily performance of identity story is instinctive and automatic’ but also dependent upon whether such a performance also mirrors societal norms. What this means when one’s life experience is outside those norms, or indeed, the origins of that experience in memory. As a clinician I can understand Painter’s claim – that she was reflecting something internal to herself and self experience but which did not fit within criteria of proven concrete experience. So many people have such extraordinary experiences that would be unbelieveable in fiction. Yet, speaking as a Historian, the auto/biographer is faced with establishing her bona -fides if she is not to be dismissed as a fabricator… or otherwise in breach of all sorts of boundaries -particularly when there are serious allegations being made, as Painter does. That she has not addressed these is regrettable… it’s a complex arena.

    • I checked out the article you cited- very apposite! I thought that it was interesting that specific mention was made of the age 2.5- 4 years old in terms of learning to tell a story about yourself, as that is exactly the age that she herself pinpoints at the moment of silencing. I sense that her book is largely a product of therapy, and here again I find myself distancing myself from her text as memoir and literary creation, and instead start questioning it as an object possibly created as part of a pathology. You’re right- it is VERY complex!

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