Bite Your Tongue
A review by John Carr of Francesca Rendle-Short’s Bite Your Tongue (Spinifex, 2011)
(Reviewed November 2011
This is a partly fictionalized memoir by one of the children of Professor John and Dr Angel Rendle-Short, who were well-known in medical, religious and political circles in Queensland in the 1960s and 70s. The author’s father was the foundation Professor of Child Health at the University of Queensland … and a Creationist. The main character in the memoir, however, is her mother, Angel Rendle-Short, an outspoken morals campaigner and supporter of the notorious Rona Joyner and her organizations, STOP (Society to Outlaw Pornography) and CARE (Campaign Against Regressive Education).
While these activists were opposed to the teaching of Evolution, their main targets were ‘moral’, in the narrow sense of that word: profanity, pornography, homosexuality, sex education and situational ethics. To them, pornography included even passing references in novels or textbooks to matters such as masturbation or menstruation. Their chosen battle-ground was education, particularly the learning materials used in English and Social Studies. They had the ear of the Bjelke-Petersen Government and were fearless campaigners. They forced State Schools to follow elaborate protocols for dealing with controversial texts and succeeded in having two major Social Education programs – SEMP and MACOS – removed from Queensland schools. Amongst Dr Rendle-Short’s slogans were ‘Children don’t go to school to think’ and ‘Burn a book a day’.
For Francesca Rendle-Short, the timing could not have been worse, for the campaign was at its height in the years when she was moving from primary to secondary schooling in Brisbane. Not only was her surname unique, but her mother would appear at school functions to harangue the Principal and staff. Francesca found herself a public figure and suffered some derision, bullying and considerable embarrassment in the face of teachers and peers. It is a source of joy for the reader that she ultimately survived these experiences to become a writer and teacher of creative writing herself. Her mother would be appalled to know that she is now doing ‘the Devil’s work’, in part, not despite but because of her upbringing. Reading the 100 books on her mother’s ‘Death List’ and writing novels have apparently enabled her to work through the family relationships and traumatic events of her childhood and adolescence. This is particularly true of this book, in which she drops in and out of a fictional alter ego, Gloria, as she relives and processes conflicted memories in a highly poetic way. Some readers may not enjoy the some-times lyrical style or the repetitiveness of the episodic structure, but these are surely justified by the writer’s psychological needs. For readers interested in issues like censorship and surviving one’s family, perseverance is worthwhile.
I have to say thank you for this review - I've just come across it. The Australian writer Robert Dessaix once said in his wisdom that writers should never respond to reviews, and I would normally follow his advice, but on this occasion I'm going my own, perhaps impulsive, way. To write this book I've had to develop nerves of steel while at the same time muster softness - grow and nurture this softness - in order to follow my heart with this difficult story. I am chuffed that you've picked up the book, given it time and consideration to find 'a source of joy for the reader'. It's funny too. Love the reference to now 'doing The Devil's work': reading and writing.
Posted by Francesca Rendle-Short