A Swansong of Sorts–Almost

I have a few more diatribes up my sleeve before my New Zealand Herald column will be coming to its close next month. In its last gasps, what better time to go behind the scenes to reveal what has always made this column tick for me. Without doubt, the most interesting, infuriating, inspiring part of what writing in this space has been about for me—comes from you.

What never ceases to astound and confound me are readers’ stories behind the story—the ones you never get to see.

Once, when I wrote a column on US soldiers raping their own female colleagues in Iraq, I was completely unprepared for what came barreling back into my in-box, literally from all over the world.

The column was about a 19-year-old American woman soldier in Iraq who was allegedly murdered—that is, until her father examined his daughter’s body and realized someone had poured acid over her lower torso to get rid of any DNA traces before setting her body on fire in a superior’s tent.

It set him on a path looking for justice that uncovered a horrible litany of unreported military rapes. Women soldiers reported being assaulted outside the latrine where loud generators would cover their screams. Others reported being taken to outposts and forced to perform sex in trade for supplies like generator fuel.

It wasn’t just this war, or just Americans. I got letters from women soldiers raped by their own comrades in Viet Nam, Korea, Afghanistan. They were prepared for being assaulted by an enemy, but not for being in fear of the very men they were working alongside.

Sometimes a column elicits gobsmacking hypocrisy that just shuts you up. Once, a therapist in the field gave what felt like expert comment arguing against a column I wrote about domestic violence in the online comments. Afterward I got a separate letter from his former partner. She explained he had been abusing her for many years and still kept it his secret.

The only thing that has been predictable over the years is how unpredictably readers respond. Columns you expect to be sleepers get lots of mail, like one I did on the decline of marriage. Yet the ones you expect to get deep-fried most actually pass with a yawn, like the earliest columns I wrote arguing against SAS troops in Afghanistan. No one wanted to know.

Only twice in the history of this space have I even mentioned I was Jewish. Strangely, that fact alone seems incendiary. Once, when writing about a Lebanese-American Muslim friend who was stuck in Beirut when Israel was attacking. The second time was when writing about our quiet brand of racism here, particularly against Asians. Both times, I got the worst, most unsettling hate mail in the history of this column, one man sending a photo of a Hasidic Jew beaten in Australia with a note implying threats to my children. It was far more ugly than any of the occasional, “go back to America” notes most prevalent during the Bush years.

Yet for every swipe that hits below the belt, there have been hundreds upon hundreds of indelibly inspiring responses I want to have tattooed on my forehead. Twice. A comedian wrote a particularly nice note once. I wrote back, “Look, is my mother paying you to say this stuff? If so, I’ll double it.” I started recycling the line when someone was particularly kind. After using it one day, a reader wrote back, “Yeah, you said that last time too.”

The letters I will probably never forget most came when I wrote a thank you column to Louise Nicolas. Sadly, there were too many.

One elderly woman wrote describing getting raped as a teenager. She had never told anyone until her email to me. Women wrote about being raped as children, or by their husband’s best friend. Every letter spoke about the pain of not being believed. After a week of letters from silenced women using their buried voice, I distinctly remember my reaction.

I strode into the lounge, planted myself in front of the family, blocked the television screen as if God had just handed me the eleventh commandment, and announced with my voice breaking, “If you do not like your work, if you do not find some kind of satisfaction in what you do by the end of your days, you will have lived a very, very poor life.” I’ll stick with those words until the day I become compost.

I have found huge satisfaction writing in these pages. Your bizarre, funny, psycho, articulate, intelligent, ridiculous responses are what have made this column such good, interesting work. I want to thank John Gardner for my first opportunity. Arnold Pickmere for his gentle care and my partner and long-suffering first draft editor, Simon Mrkusic, for more than I could ever say here. Above all, thanks for listening. It’s been a privilege.

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