Maureen McCarthy’s latest novel Stay With Me tackles domestic abuse head on, a very important issue and one that is particularly timely. With over 34 women having been killed so far this year as a result of domestic violence, and a new report from Curtin University highlighting the long lasting mental health impact of domestic abuse, these topics are brought to the fore in Maureen’s story about a young mother, fleeing for her life from an abusive husband.
However this wasn’t the story Maureen initially set out to tell, and last week she shared her inspiration with a moving speech at the launch of Stay With Me, explaining how the issues surrounding mental health 100 years ago were to combine with the domestic abuse and mental health issues of the present day. Read on for what Maureen’s explanation of what inspired her follow up to The Convent.
The inspiration for Stay With Me
This novel Stay With Me has been a long time coming, and its original inspiration was my paternal grandmother whom I never knew.
Lillian Kyme was just 19 when she got married in 1908 to my grandfather Tom McCarthy who was 36. They lived on the farm in Homewood near Yea. She had five young children (youngest 3) when in the Feb of 1920 she was committed to The Kew Asylum for the Mentally Insane. She died there four years later without ever seeing her children again.
My father was only 8 when she was taken away and he always spoke of his mother with great tenderness. But he didn’t talk about her much. Because of the shame… and the fear, the belief that madness runs through families
When I began my research into her life and into the people who ended up in that Asylum I realized that this was a very commonly held view. When they couldn’t step up and play the role that was expected of them they were either bad… or mad.
Was she abused? We don’t know. On the initial doctor’s report its noted that she has bruises on her back and arms. The same report states that she seems ‘almost normal’. But by the end of the four years in that place she’s dazed and confused and quite convinced that she is a wicked woman. Prognosis is ‘very bad’ in other words not expected to recover.
So there I am working on that story. Taking all the history of the Kew Asylum, knowing my grandmother’s story is important and not really knowing how I’m going to deal with it.
Around that same time I’m travelling back to Melbourne from Warrnambool and I notice a young woman, early 20’s, with little two babies sitting up a few seats up and across the aisle from me. The youngest is about ten months old and the older child two. They’re already cranky and crying and the journey has only begun. I notice that this young mother is very distracted. She is going through the motions of caring for her little ones but she keeps peering behind her as though waiting for some one to arrive. Constantly looking for someone.
When we arrive at Southern Cross station. I watch her trying to deal with the two babies, a heavy backpack and collection of five or six cheap plastic bags all bulging with stuff that she hooks around the handles of the cheap light pusher in which the young child is squirming and crying. I offer to help by carrying some of the bags. She accepts gratefully.
We make our way off the train out slowly onto the platform. I notice that she is dressed very poorly and so are the children. It’s winter and they don’t’ have coats. And yet there is something dignified about her. Restrained and gentle. I don’t want to sound a snob but … she is no bogan!
We make our way to the gates and during the course of that walk she tells me that she is making her escape from her partner.
‘So will some one be meeting you?’
‘A woman from a refuge… they have a place for me’
‘So he hits you?’
She nods. Her face is clear and quite beautiful, and as though she can read my thoughts she pushes her shirt briefly away from her neck and shoulder revealing nasty cuts and bruises, then pulls up her shirt a little. Black bruises on her belly.
‘But never on the face’ she smiles at my shock.
‘So where is he now?’
‘Working late tonight This is my best chance’
So we wait together for the government person from the refuge who doesn’t come. And doesn’t come. And doesn’t come! The girl rings and rings and there is no answer. The children grow more ratty, and she grows more agitated. I see real fear in her eyes.
‘What about your family?’
She shakes her head.
‘Mum stopped talking to me when I got with him. She’s got herself a new partner. Now they both think I should stay because he’s got a job’
The little ones are growing increasingly distressed. They need drink and food, nappy change and somewhere to be.
‘I tried this once before’ she tells ‘he told me if I try it again he’ll kill me’
I go and buy the children some food and juice. She is pathetically grateful and tries to insist on paying.
‘I have $46’ she tells me holding out a twenty dollar note. $46 turns out this is all she has in the world. Then she says something interesting.
‘I don’t mind being bashed so much’ she tells me in her soft refined voice, ‘you get used to it. It doesn’t happen every day and he is often apologetic afterwards. After a beating you can sometimes have a full week of him being nice. It’s being told that I’m mad all the time, that really gets to me. Because… after a while you start to believe it. I’ve started to believe it!
I figure this is my last chance to get out. I stay much longer and I really will go mad’
I left after an hour. Gave my number, offered to come to get her if they didn’t turn up. But basically I deserted her. I have no idea if she ended up in a refuge that night or back at “home” with her partner who threatened to kill her.
Anyway that’s how the book began. I kept thinking of that young girl. I worried and wondered about her. I felt guilty. Terribly.
People often ask where ideas come from. Well for me ideas come from my guts! From basic feelings of guilt and fear and hope.
I guess I wrote the book in part because I wanted to work out a realistic way to free her. I wanted so much for her to have a future. And so the modern day story of the girl on the train took over. The historical one is still there sewn into the story. But the escape of this girl, this young mother, became the central spine of the book.
Through the story I wanted to look at the way we pathologize unhappiness. We put it out there away from us. In the past you didn’t measure up as wife or mother then they put you away, to moulder away in a mental hospital until you die.
Today it’s different but some elements remain. So much of life pushed away under the umbrella of ‘mental illness’. Maybe you suffer loneliness, despair, grief, a sense of dislocation, perhaps you hate your life and don’t know what to do next. Maybe your parents are neglectful selfish drunks… and you have no idea what to do about it. Perhaps you’re with a man who thinks love means owning you, and you don’t know how to get away from him because you feel so powerless.
Well we’ve got a name for you. We’ve got a name for all that. Mental Illness. And here are the pills… to fix you up! To my mind that way of thinking lets the rest of us, the whole bloody culture, off the hook! Nothing has to change if we can subdue unhappiness with a pill.
And so we get Stay With Me, which shines a searching light on the entwined issues of mental health and physical abuse from a partner. It’s an unflinching read, but it gets under the bruised skin and into the head of someone physically and mentally abused. It highlights the systematic nature of abuse and the power dynamic in place that undermines the thoughts of the victim, and how time and time again they can be coerced into thinking “this time it’ll be different”. Readers will hopefully understand how ridiculous it is to ask, or even think, of someone with an abusive partner: “Why did you stay with them?”. While writing stories might not be the most obvious way of combating these issues, this quote from Margo Lanagan explains the importance that writers keep doing so:
Writing stories often doesn’t feel like the most effective way to lift this weight… We have to keep making some noise, somewhere, so that ongoing efforts to render invisible all that violence, hatred and injustice against women don’t succeed.
Read Stay With Me by Maureen McCarthy
Read an excerpt from Maureen’s gripping and unforgettable story Stay With Me below:
Reviews for Stay With Me
This psychological thriller by Aussie author Maureen McCarthy was brilliant! The subjects of domestic violence and mental illness were well executed and compellingly written. The main character Tess was a troubled young woman who had her spirit crushed but her strength consistently rose to the surface. This is my first book by this author but it won’t be my last. I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending Stay With Me highly.
This book, as well as being important, is immensely readable and this gives me hope that younger readers will see domestic violence for what it is. The story of Tess is a cautionary tale. We see her flattered by the attention of an attractive older man. Slowly we see Tess become trapped as he exerts increasing amounts of control over her, and the inevitable violence once she is isolated and has no escape. It is a simple, but powerfully told tale, but one that captures very important subject matter.
Stay with Me is a powerful and sympathetic story that will speak to many older YA readers.