Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Life as Fiction - Daisy Bates

Blackburn, Julia. Daisy Bates in the Desert: a Woman‘s Life Among the Aborigines. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.

What drew me to this book was the cover art of the subject, an Irish woman of apparent gentility, wearing a blue-striped jacket, a high-collared white blouse, and low-pitched soft hat, sitting on a wooden deck chair with a white coverlet on her lap and a human skull resting atop it. Brown scrub and yellow sands surround her. She wears on her face an eerie smile. Her eyes are dark closures against the heat.

When she was a young woman of not more than 20, Daisy Bates arrived in New South Wales, Australia. It was 1883. Within a few years, she married. This husband swindled her out of a small inheritance, and she responded by deserting him. She married again, fabricating her marital status and her age, along with her religion, assumed the new husband's surname and soon delivered a child. Daisy left Australia when the son was eight and she was about 30. Five years passed. She returned, got herself a government grant to study the Aborigines and broke connections with her second husband and her only child.

During her 30 years in the desert, Daisy kept prolific notes and eventually published a book (The Passing of the Aborigines). She chose to live apart from the accoutrements of 20th century civilization, its customs and comforts, and among a group of people that she believed was fading from the earth's population. Her residence was a tent, her city a campsite, her nation the unforgiving heat and sand of Southern Australia. Her closest friends were a handful of Aborigines - women who cannibalized their infants, men who hunted cockatoos for their plumage. These people called her Grandmother; they made her Keeper of the Totems. Daisy Bates watched the secret dances of the men because, she claimed, the Aborigines said she was supernatural, beyond gender, and her presence was universally accepted. When the government moved terminally ill Aborigines to island hospitals, she accompanied them. Later, she took a small band of blind Aborigines across a stretch of desert, leading them by a long pole, to an oasis to live the remainder of their days in relative comfort. She lent her profuse notes to an ambitious young anthropologist, who appropriated her research on the peoples she had lived among. Her work was overlooked and her name and authority on the Aborigines ignored. She was defiled by white people, called names and ostracized.

What intrigues me about Daisy Bates is not what intrigued her biographer, Julia Blackburn. I am intrigued with the impetus that placed this woman in that environment. I am intrigued with the value of her notes on the Aborigines. I am intrigued with the way in which Daisy Bates was silenced by claims of eccentricity and craziness during and after her lifetime. I am also intrigued with Blackburn's decision to open this story with statements that Daisy Bates was a liar.

Finally, Daisy Bates is like Anais Nin in her predilection for reinventing her life. This intrigues me. I’m still debating whether this reinvention is self-serving deceit and ill delusion or whether these women have triumphed in taking complete control of their individual lives. The distinction is fascinating.

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