Mystery Carnage was a singer with the 80s band the Stray Dags. She’s a 78er and has shown her artwork at galleries in Australia and New Zealand. After working at Apple for 5 years and as a graphic artist for 20 years before that, she now spends a fair amount of time gardening, doing woodwork or at ALDI and Bunnings. She recently moved to Port Kembla with her partner Nellie and cat Queenie and she first performed this story at the inaugural Wollongong Queerstories in June, presented in partnership with Wollongong City Libraries.
Thank you. Quite a welcome! I have a confession. I’m a bit baffled by people who are incredibly close to their families. I don’t mean in a judgmental way. I just don’t have that experience of the biological being logical.
I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable about the importance people invest in blood connections. Like men who discover that their children don’t share their DNA, so want nothing more to do with them.
What?!? Is that not the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard? Do you think you might have misunderstood the concept of family?
I still enjoy watching TV shows like ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, though. And it’s the ultimate sleuthing, following DNA through the ages to people you have nothing in common with.
People who may have wanted to disown you quicker than you can say… double helix.
But, I did do a DNA test. Out of curiosity after a life of people asking me where my ancestors came from, Lebanon, Italy? Greece? And me not knowing half that story, I decided to send some spit off in a parcel.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’m going to tell you about me by talking about my mum Helen. Logical and biological families.
My birth in Adelaide created a cascading heartbreak disaster. My mum had an affair with a man who she later told me she loved, but he wasn’t her husband. My biological father, who was married with children, had to move with his family to Ballarat in disgrace. Ballarat. Famous for George Pell.
I guess mum was in disgrace too, but mum and dad stayed together for 8 more years and I never had a sense from my dad that I was different from my brothers and sisters. When people hear that story they often ask me if I’ve tried to find my biological father. All I could think about was knocking on a door and a woman answering the door, opening the door.
Hello, I am the cause of all your suffering. And now you live in Ballarat.
I hope you’re not Catholic.
Logical and biological families.
I was the 4th of 7 children but the first child died at 18 months old, before any of the rest of us had entered the scene. Diana. She doesn’t have a grave, or a tombstone. It was just not the thing then. You were just meant to get over it and have another child. Chop chop. My father (my mum’s husband) was a kind, genial man but he was the classic absent father of the fifties and sixties, at least emotionally and he was often interstate with work. He must have been devastated by her death too.
But Helen was alone way too much after the death of her first child and ciggies and flagon hock became her friends. I don’t mean this to sound depressing, because she was a very funny, warm woman. She and her sister Joan would share a drop around the kitchen table, roaring with laughter over some dubious, unladylike topic, like what dropkicks the men in their lives were. Don’t you find that straight women are so much ruder about men than lesbians?
Sometimes mum would let Henri the budgie out on the kitchen table and Henri’s main trick was to throw his bell over one shoulder continuously, so scribing a tight circle going nowhere. I often think about that metaphor of Mum and Henri, together.
Mum’s favourite thing was being with her brothers and sisters at Nanna’s holiday shack in Port Nalunga, forming a lager circle of eskies and practising her special drinking and laughing skills.
Us kids had special, strict instructions to be back before dark. This would be at 10 in the morning.
Mum just wasn’t into helicoptering. Mind you, this was before the Beaumont children disappeared in Glenelg in 1966, so I wonder whether she would have wanted us to be home an hour earlier after that.
But I feel lucky to have had that exploring, independent childhood. Because these days I suspect that the greatest danger for kids is to get run over by a 4 wheel drive outside their primary school.
Sometimes those esky laagers would form at Aldinga Beach, where you could drive your car onto the beach. “Look both ways before you go for a swim”. The young ones would have to be escorted to the water’s edge. People are horrified when I tell them about those cars on the beach but I have very fond memories. I’m just pissed off at all those wasted half hours where we weren’t allowed to swim after eating.
Mum’s favourite sayings:
If I’d lost something, ‘where did you leave it?’
Or, ‘it must be somewhere.’
Or if I was having a silent tantrum she’d say, ‘I can see the smi-I-I-le!’ Which would provoke tears of fury because of course, I would have to laugh.
Mum and dad divorced and then both remarried, but this second marriage for mum was pretty DV-packed. She didn’t have her own bank account or independent income, so it was hard to leave. I think we forget the huge changes for women in just one generation. Years later, when I told mum I was a lesbian, she said ‘I don’t know what that means for your life, but I hate men too.’
*Audience laughs and claps*
I moved to Sydney and was out on my own as soon as adultly possible, seventeen. I went to uni and had my first ever relationship, which was with a woman. This was the beginning of my logical families.
I was a lesbian years before I was a feminist. I lived with straight friends. I remember my Psychology 101 housemate telling me that lesbianism was a phase I was going through. He’d read it in a textbook.
Well, I’m 64 now so I’d better hurry up to fit in those other phases. In the mid-70’s I met a Glebe household of women who were like the Windsors of radical lesbianity.
They were wonderful. So exciting. They opened that magic door to feminist lesbianism. And through that door was an inflatable plane escape chute to a fabulous new life. They were the reason I was at the first Mardi Gras day march in 1978. I remember experiencing one downside of feminism pretty well straight away though because going to the movies was ruined. All those misogynist plots and characters became painfully clear. Took me ages to learn to zone by movie genre and enjoy them again.
Arthouse film? Thought-provoking foreigners.
Blockbuster? Piece of enjoyable crap.
So many lesbians! Uber exciting. You see, I didn’t know any other lesbians for the first few years. Only my partners. So when I went to a women’s dance at the Paddington Town Hall in the mid-70s, I was overcome with simultaneous excitement and excruciating shyness. I just did not know where to look.
In 1979 I joined the Stray Dags women’s band with Tina, Celeste, Ludo and Chris.
That’s where I got this name, Mystery for the hippies, and Carnage for the punks. We played at the Women’s Warehouse, which is a wonderful multi-storey women-only warehouse in the Haymarket, that had a restaurant, women’s business offices and dances and cabarets on the ground floor.
The Dags were quite the sardines in our own puddle for a while there. We toured interstate and we ended up number one on the independent record chart with our single, ‘Self Attack’ and album ‘Lemons Alive’. I recently posted ‘Let’s Have a Party’ on Youtube so you can see what we all looked like when we still had collagen.
When the Dags toured Adelaide, my mum came along and I dedicated one of our song ‘Rude Girls’ to her. She was chuffed.
So, my logical family took over at an early stage in my life.
I love seeing my five brothers and sisters but that happens once every couple of years. We were split between mum and dad, and Adelaide and Sydney, so we just didn’t know each other that well.
But, back to that DNA test.
In the results online I saw that my niece had done the same test and was lamenting that she appeared to be the whitest person on earth.
As was I except for that little bit of Iberian Peninsula! Aha! That must be you. Do I call you dad or root of mum?
Helen died a long time ago, in 1984. Orwell murdered her. Her friends, the ciggies and plonk turned on her in the end. I’m now 5 years older than she ever was. Of course, I regret that she died before the mandatory ‘running away from family’ period was over. So, I’ve missed 35 years of conversations with her as an ally.
But now I live in Port Kembla, and I’m sprouting more branches of the logical family tree there with my cat Queenie, and my partner Nellie, whose New Zealand two sisters and one brother are all gay.
But stranger than that, they’re all incredibly close.
Now that is just weird.
*Audience laughs and claps*