‘An Ordinary Madness’ – Lorna Hallahan Launches ‘The Anchoress’

Two weeks ago, Robyn Cadwallader’s amazing book The Anchoress was launched at Dymocks in Rundle Mall. I was unable to be there on the night, but a friend was kind enough to email me the beautiful speech that Lorna Hallahan delivered. It impressed me so much that I asked Lorna if we could republish it here, and she has kindly granted permission.

The Anchoress by Robin Cadwallader: launched!

Good evening and welcome.

I’m going to do things in three moves. I’ll do the first and then explain the other two.

Before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge that we meet this evening on Kaurna land, and to pay my respects to Kaurna elders past and present.

I’m going to address all of you gathered here and I’m going to talk about what I think of The Anchoress. Then, Robyn, I want to address you directly.

The AnchoressThe Anchoress starts as such a claustrophobic tale. Take yourself back eight hundred years and find yourself in a room no longer than ten small paces and half that width, with the door nailed shut, a small hole or squint through which to view the Mass, a door to a similarly shut-off maid’s parlour and a heavily curtained window through which you can speak only to other women and a couple of designated men. Imagine committing yourself to live like that for the rest of your life. Imagine that you are seventeen years old. Imagine that many of your memories of your early life are filled with loss, sorrow and fear.  When I got to here I realised I was scarcely breathing, not because I was captured by the thrill of the story but because I was captured. I invite you to also be captured. And I promise I will deliver no spoilers.

The Anchoress is a seriously scholarly and intelligent tale. In my role as an academic I supervise doctoral candidates. At a certain point in this process, so often agonising and yet compelling, I find myself saying to the scholar, ‘The reader needs to know that you know, but you don’t have to tell them everything you know. This is what you have learned in order to be able to take your thinking to the next level.’ And as my supervisor said to me after I showed him about thirty pages of earnest toiling, ‘Keep reading Lorna, this will make a good footnote.’ In the pages of The Anchoress we find knowledge of so many things. It is wide and deep in its scholarly scope, yet so light in the delivery. You will find here knowledge of thirteenth century matters and village festivals; matters of theology, church practice and history; spirituality; fantastic tales and spectacular feats; knowledge of the ambivalent reactions of women’s bodies in the presence of the desire and force of men and of our menstrual cycle; of midwifery and birthing; of babies and their wails, the movement of their hands; understanding of farming and gardening and cooking and eating; of women healers and the apprehensions of patriarchical priests; of scriptoria and calligraphy and illumination; of poverty and wealth; of wall-building and the direction of sunlight. So, now captured, I invite you into a vast space of learning. You will begin to breathe again.

The Anchoress is a profoundly wise tale. This story is of its time. Yet, at least in part because my mind was formed in the twentieth century, I can draw upon its universality of vision and wisdom. There is no moment of didacticism or moralising. Once again the touch is light, and it brings a light of its own. Remember we are still enclosed and the sunlight does not reach our face. The light is from candle and small fire, from the candles on the altar, visible only through the squint. The winter is deep and dark and the cold enters the blood. The cold enters the blood and slows its flow, except when the cutting starts. Here, through the suffering of a girl, suffering imposed by others and by self, suffering formed in loss, grief, horror and anger and embraced, scratched into a body denied nurture and comfort, denied tenderness and release, we find the story of our own darkness within. Here I find an account that links so closely to my own struggles as a seventeen-year-old as I submitted my body to amputation and medical treatment. My own withdrawal, enclosure and time of desperate prayer. My own fight to love my body and to trust my soul’s yearnings. Here I find the sufferings and struggles of so many girls I have known and known of through my work as a social worker. And here I find a deep and compassionate kindness, a heart that is open to suffering, a heart that does not avert its gaze (if a heart has a gaze!), that does not condemn to a horror tale nor falsely glorify. A heart that loves. I invite you to open yourself to that love and you will find reassurance in your solitude.

I also learn of a man, schooled in rigidity, in love with beauty, cast in a role that he finds he knows not how to carry out. A man who is required to do something and is at the edge of his competency. A man who must learn from a woman how to care for that woman. And here I find a mirror of my efforts as a teacher, a person seeking change that brings liberation and wellbeing to the outcast, a parent and a lover. Always discovering the limits of my capability and always seeking learning from those who rely on me. I invite you also to learn here how to learn from those who need you.

I also find a dragon and a virgin, but that tale is not for me to tell. I invite you to allow yourself to be swept up in it.

So you see, I carry out the liberal project and find in these pages an account of myself. And here comes my only lasting discomfort. Affected as I am by Foucault’s accurate accusation that we learn, through the power of discourse, how to self-govern and become a compliant citizen, I have found myself haunted by this self-critique of how I too seek to silence demons and to commit no sins. In particular, how I govern my body, exercise, diet, deny myself certain pleasures, prioritise work, study to settle my mind, tidy my home and my office, attend at mass, bite my tongue, smile when confused, welcome people I hardly know, withhold my tears, and hope that people will laugh at my jokes. I assure you that I have no obsessive or compulsive tendencies. Mine is a completely ordinary and largely useful madness. I invite you into this haunting, this scrutiny of your ordinary madness, your desire to be good.

Finally, The Anchoress does not leave you alone and empty handed. In its pages you will discover that tenderness brings deep learning; that the spirit always finds an honest way of telling its story; that self-abnegation is not the remedy for sorrow and fear and that solidarity and goodly dose of anger are. That the soul needs a body in order to flourish and while suffering is a crucible for learning, it is not a pathway to salvation. I invite you to accept the Anchoress, this holy girl, trying to find a way to burst the back of a dragon. She too can be your companion, even though you do not see her. Her prayers will uplift you.

Now I want to address you, Robyn, but I need you all to listen in.

When I finished reading your beautiful book, David asked, ‘Well, what do you think?’ Given that I spent so much time not breathing, and then gulping in air, I had to wait a moment to say, ‘This is a book that occurs in the most sensorially deprived place you can imagine, scarcely more than a coffin, sliced into the earth, filled with darkness, and yet it is the most sensuous thing I have read for a very long time.’ There is no sense left unstimulated: sight, smell, touch, taste and sound, but also pressure, force, hunger, pain, desire, release. I’m not going list it all because that would turn poetry into a science lesson. Robyn, I know you as friend, as fellow scholar, as poet and in these pages Robyn the Poet has taken her command of vision and language and delivered us a compelling paradox: that in sensory deprivation, the senses are heightened. I salute you for the beauty of your language. At some points I ached. Your images and aromas stay with me.

I congratulate you on taking the stories you were learning about in your studies and giving us a rendering that is for our time, and yet like all foundational tales, is for all time. I love your capacity for storytelling. Your starting point is so cramped and yet your tale, so careful in its revealing and so filled with intensity, assures me that your role as a storyteller is cemented. You probably recall Sara Maitland telling us that when she has a truth to tell she must use fiction. You stand in her tradition and I am delighted.

I thank you for giving me a swallow, a Gilbert and a garden. Thank you for reminding me of times that we have sat in a garden, surrounded by our friends, our lovers, our children, drinking and eating and talking about virgins, dragons, anchoresses, confessors and babies. Thank you again for bottling that all up in such a beautiful, delicately told tale of harshness and love.

I feel that in launching this book I am introducing many more people to the calm beauty, brain-busting intelligence and compassion that is Robyn Cadwallader and her tale.

Robyn, you gestated and delivered it, I am deeply honoured to launch it, and I encourage all of you to embrace and to acclaim it.

Go forth and contribute to Robyn’s superannuation, let people know that they need to read this book and allow yourself to feel its transformation working in and among you.

– Lorna Hallahan, 26 February 2015

Lorna Hallahan is an Associate Professor of Social Work at Flinders University. In 2010 she was jointly awarded ABR‘s Calibre Prize for an Outstanding Essay.

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader is published by Harper Collins and is available now for $32.99.

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