Helen Garner’s True Stories


I am re-reading True Stories, a collection of essays and other non-fiction snippets written by Helen Garner. It contains an essay titled A Scrapbook, An Album which I read first in another collection, called Sisters, edited by Drusilla Modjeska and published in 1993. I have my mother’s inscription on the inside: To Dearest Jen, Much Love Mum, December 1993. So it was probably given to me for my birthday, or Christmas that year.

I wish I could transcribe the whole of the Garner essay about her sisters here because I love it so much. It resonates on SO MANY levels for me; there is a distant family connection (not so distant really, but we never have met so it feels distant to me, something about two brothers marrying two sisters, some Hopetoun connection, an Ocean Grove connection too). When she writes about her father coming from the Mallee and his ‘type’ of man, I know that type of man intimately because it is my father and his father, my grandfather. And when Garner talks about being locked in silent laughter with a sister in the kitchen at a family event, she could be writing about me and my sister, and when we were younger, my brother.

Here are the best bits, on laughter:

There is something ecstatic, brakeless, about the way we laugh together. We laugh in spasms and paroxyms. Almost anything—a glance, a word, a mimicked grimace—can act as a trigger. When any (or all) of us are together we are quivering in readiness for the thing that will push us off the edge of rational discourse into freefall over a bottomless canyon of mirth: laughing together is a way of merging again into an inchoate feminine mass.

Perhaps ‘hysterical’ is the right word: I’ve heard this wild laughter among nurses, waitresses, nuns. If you are not included in it, it can be alarming—not because you are the butt of it; it’s not ‘bitchy’ laughter—but because there is something total about it, shameless: it’s a relaxation into boundarylessness. Of course, as a spectacle, it is probably boring. It is ill-mannered of us to indulge in it in company. Sometimes two or three of us will withdraw from the table, at a big gathering, and be found in another room shortly afterwards, doubled up in weak, silent laughter. ‘What is it?’ the discovering sister will beg. ‘What? Oh, tell me!’

I know that delicious laughter that Garner describes. It’s similar to the teenage laughter in classrooms with certain girlfriends, always rare but always so pleasurable. For me, there are only a handful of people who can make me laugh so much I will begin to wet my pants. It doesn’t happen very often these days which is sad and perhaps I need to try to get some of it back.

I miss it, that wild, weak, brakeless, silent laughter that pulls me into an inchoate feminine mass.

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