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Miriam Dixson – the family iconoclast

DEMOLITION EXPERT An iconoclast is another way of saying
DEMOLITION EXPERT An iconoclast is another way of saying “wrecking ball”.

IN LATE 1999 I joined my father at the launch of a new book, The Imaginary Australian, by social historian Dr Miriam Dixson.

The setting was Sydney’s Gleebooks, the turnout disappointing, but one familiar face lurked down the front – Bob Gould, activist and denizen of his own sprawling bookshop in nearby Newtown.

Dr Dixson spoke about her latest exploration of Australian identity, then Gould began to interrogate her and disseminate copies of his response. It was a confrontation between old socialist warlords and I took great delight in witnessing it.

Gould I’d once served as a regular customer of the cafe across the road from his bookshop, where he’d barked his usual order of chocolate cake and ice cream to we student waiters.

Dr Miriam Dixson I knew because she had been married to my father for two decades.

Our first meeting was surrounded by my father’s lies. I was nine, my brother Andrew 11, and my sister Jenny, five. Our parents had been separated for a few months, and we were on a Christmas access visit to Inverell.

Dad promised to take us to the coast, an exciting prospect for country kids who were now living with their mother in the Blue Mountains. But we didn’t head seaward, we headed south, as Dad told us of a new ‘friend’ he wanted us to meet. When we pulled up at a strange house in Armidale, we were introduced to Miriam.

At that time, Miriam Dixson was enjoying a certain notoriety in the wake of her 1976 publication, The Real Matilda, a feminist Australian history that labelled Australian women: “The doormats of the Western world”, a work the author curiously described as nothing more than a “temporary scaffolding”.

THROW IT UP Is “scaffolding” a good metaphor for new ideas?

In the half light of Miriam’s office, where we lay awake on blow-up beds on that first night in her life, tall filing cabinets loomed on either side, the ends of the drawers labelled “Matilda”.

We were literally and emotionally within Miriam’s polemic.

Our second meeting came after my parents’ divorce was settled, and we went to Armidale for Dad and Miriam’s marriage.

I did what any gay boy would do: I ingratiated myself with Miriam by offering to make her a bouquet of flowers from the garden. She held the spring blooms as she made a short procession from the kitchen to the living room, where Dad waited for her.

We visited the school where Andrew and I had been booked into since birth for our secondary education. When Dad pointed out the dormitory from which he had shimmied down the drain pipes to get up to mischief, I imagined escaping down those same pipes to the railway station if I were ever incarcerated in such a Victorian establishment.

While we played, with his permission, at Dad’s lapidary table, I inadvertently discovered a letter on the top of his desk tray, confirming Andrew’s acceptance at that school. Seeing the inevitable coming, and without thinking, I screwed it up. Andrew panicked, then bravely tried to iron it flat, while Jen and I kept watch.

Dad found us out and clipped me around the ear. That probably should have been it, but Miriam had yet to start.

She leant over me, and took slow pleasure in delivering some devastating news: “Your mother went to court,” she said, “she was a thief.”

My mainstay was bulldozed in seconds, and Dad said nothing in her defence. Mum rang in the middle of the trauma, and I tearfully asked her to tell me the truth. Instead of an angry reaction, she just gave a simple confirmation: yes, three years before, she had been arrested on shoplifting charges. “Daddy and I said we’d tell you about it together, when you were old enough,” she said.

Wrecking Ball

Dr Miriam Dixson’s need to demonise my mother speaks volumes about the woman whom academics and journalists have been trying to define for decades.

Described as a feminist, a misandrist, a social historian, a communist, a progressive, and a conservative, the confusion has caused many leap to label Dixson a hypocrite. She’s been telling us for years that she’s an intellectual, but no commentator who’s met Miriam Dixson seems to think that’s quite apt.

Maxine McKew discovered the truth. “Ever the iconoclast,” she wrote in The Bulletin of her first impression of Dixson before the release of The Imaginary Australian.

YOUNG COMRADES Bob Gould (far right) was a member of the Communist Party in Sydney with Miriam Dixson in the 1960s.
YOUNG COMRADES Bob Gould (far right) was a member of the Sydney socialist group.

Bob Gould also smelt a rat in his enlightening rebuttal, Interrogating Miriam Dixson, when he questioned why on earth his socialist comrade in 1960s Sydney had reinvented herself as a conservative?

When he observed how Dixson evolved her political ideology as she changed domestic partners, he almost got to the truth. Perhaps Gould assumed that Dixson had eschewed marriage in the wake of publishing The Real Matilda?

If only Bob had bumped into my father at Gleebooks, he would have come across the former grazier who was the significant spousal relationship of Dixson’s life, and discovered the reasons she remained more the academic feminist than the practising one, and had certainly been moving in conservative circles.

Gould described Dixson’s approach in The Imaginary Australian as: “A fast and loose psychological assault”, replete with “softening disclaimers”. He used the word “demolish” when he recalled Miriam’s modus operandi at socialist meetings: “Almost by clockwork, you would get a migraine around 9pm, after criticising the lot of us, and go to bed.”

In the light of others’ experience of Miriam Dixson, her ‘knockdown, rebuild’ vocabulary finally made sense to me. The woman driven to raise the scaffolding she called The Real Matilda was no mere intellectual, she was the wrecking ball who’d rushed to another room to listen in on that crucial trust-restoring phone conversation between me and my mother.

And her iconoclasm continued, aimed not at adult socialists, but children.

The next swing came during an access handover in Sydney, while Mum encouraged Jenny, aged six, to go for lunch with her brothers, father, and an enraged iconoclast.

“Daddy loves you too,” Mum said, as she encouraged Jenny to take her father’s hand.

MIND GAMES Dr Dixson was convinced my mother was Mrs Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate - capable of reprogramming her son's mind.
MIND GAMES Mrs Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate – capable of reprogramming her son’s mind.

In an unwelcome shot, Miriam said: “Oh, well programmed, Pat”.

The P-word stood out because it sounded powerful to children, and unsurprisingly the negative energy behind it saw Jen stay put in her mother’s arms.

At lunch, the ball swung again, this time at me.

A new world order was blasted into me by Dr Miriam Dixon and my father, a pair of squabbling control freaks, who contravened legal process by telling me without a court-appointed counsellor present that I was to be singled out for a solo access visit.

Once again, Miriam employed a builder’s vocabulary, asserting that if I was by myself, she and Dad would be able to “rebuild” parent-to-child “frameworks”.

I wasn’t happy, but I went to Armidale by myself and endured their experiment. When it was over, I just craved some peace, but in order to get it, I too needed to become an iconoclast.

I told anyone who would listen – including them – that I did not want to see my father or his wife. The only “programming” I could see going on were their enthusiastic attempts to alter my sense of security and denigrate my mother using the worst experience of her life.

That one swing from my wrecking ball saw their insubstantial “frameworks”, erected without the slightest emotional intelligence, come crashing down. No school in Armidale for me.


Jump forward two decades, just four years after the Gleebooks event, and my brother invited me and Jen to his second daughter’s christening.

Months before, my partner had died suddenly. Like many academics, Miriam was out of touch with the common marginalisation felt by feminists and LGBTQI, and greeted me by telling me how I was: “You’re alright. Yes, you’re alright,” she decided.

Prone in my grief to exhaustion in mixed company, I sat by myself at the dining table Mum proudly purchased after leaving Inverell. Andrew had inherited the suite after her cancer death a decade before. It was a familiar piece of furniture which evoked the woman we’d all loved.

It had been a long time between battles, so I put up no resistance when Dad quietly sat next to me, followed by Jenny, and I was able to enjoy watching them converse as adults.

Andrew offered drinks and finger food. The godparents joined us. We began to talk about our family’s heritage, and Dad outlined the great conundrum: were the Burges convicts or settlers?

Someone noted how silly it was to send people to the other side of the world for stealing something as insignificant as a loaf of bread. Everyone chuckled.

Everyone except Dr Miriam Dixson, that is. Finding herself on the edge of the scaffolding our family was gently erecting, Miriam said: “Michael, I’d like to sit next to Bruce please.”

Before I could answer, she continued with a diatribe straight from The Imaginary Australian about how none of us should question Georgian sensibilities and notions of criminality in Great Britain in the late 18th century, that none of us should make light of institutional decisions made in the past.

I acquiesced, because she placed herself between me and Dad, but as I did I said: “You like Gilbert and Sullivan, don’t you, Miriam?” remembering she and Dad singing along to their G&S favourites on my solo access visit all those years ago.

“Oh yes,” she replied.

TAKING THE MIKADO The non-quite-right historical satire of Gilbert and Sullivan.
TAKING THE MIKADO The non-quite-right historical satire of Gilbert and Sullivan.

“Well, enjoying satire like that is making light of the past,” I said.

Unexpectedly, Dad laughed, a brief insight into where his marriage had come to by then.

We all knew the wrecking ball was coming, so Jen gave me the let’s go look, and we said our goodbyes.

As I shook Dad’s hand, Miriam sidled up to me and said: “You’re wrong about what you said.”

“Don’t worry about it Miriam,” I replied.

“I don’t worry about it,” she said, “I only debate.”

Oh a debate, of course! Just what every disparate family needs at a christening. The wrecking ball glanced off my cheek and I just walked away.

Five years later, after nearly three decades together, my father left Dr Miriam Dixson and ran off with another woman. Everyone was well out of range by then.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Care, incorporated

Waiting for a real helping hand (Photo: Chalmers Butterfield).
WAITING & WATCHING for a real helping hand (Photo: Chalmers Butterfield).

A Writer’s next day job.

BY the time I felt ready to work again after the death of my partner, I was drawn to an industry which seemed at first glance to be all about offering an old-fashioned helping hand. While I took time away from writing, acting and designing, I accepted a job as a carer for older people living in their homes.

Across four years, what I discovered was life enlarging and shocking, and, of course, I eventually wrote about it. This article was published by Australian Ageing Agenda (Intermedia) In their March-April 2010 edition.

Reflections of a carer

Former carer, Michael Burge, highlights the unintended consequences of government-funded community aged care.

Dan* lives alone in a cottage with a stunning garden. To his neighbours he’s like thousands of elderly men, gardening and feeding the birds. But Dan lives with a secret – he’s in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease. That kind young man who used to call in and see him once a day was not his son, but me, when I worked for a church-owned community aged care organisation.

It took a few days to realise Dan has dementia but I guessed after we had the same conversation three times in a row. When I visited Dan, I would make his lunch and prompt him to dress. Apart from weekend visits from his retired daughter, who’d ask me for care tips, Dan was on his own.

I also cleaned for Ken and Betty, a war veteran and his wife. Ken had problems walking and was permanently catheterised, not that you would have known. As Betty was worried about losing him to a nursing home, she tried to hide all outward signs of his conditions from me.

Cameron lived with his son. Fond of telling me how many properties he owned, he bragged about securing maximum care at budget prices, since his son worked in the health system. Despite family support and excellent health, Cameron felt totally entitled.

Beryl had a degenerative joint condition, yet she handled the stairs on our weekly shopping trips with a mountain climber’s courage. I got used to the frowns from passers-by who saw a carer forcing her, rather than a woman choosing to participate in her own rehabilitation.

Klaus lived in squalor on booze and chocolate while his meals-on-wheels dinners went off in the hallway. He refused to get out of bed when I said I wasn’t permitted to take him to the bottle shop. This got him off out books and back into ‘no man’s land’.

WAITING AND WATCHING (Photo: Ahmet Demirel).
WAITING & WATCHING for solutions to home care (Photo: Ahmet Demirel).

Exposing the gaps

Carers are not there to judge, we’re there to do what our clients cannot. Trained in the practice of ‘person centred care’, we won’t do up a client’s buttons if they can still do it for themselves. Interfering might lead to ‘learned helplessness’.

Filled with such euphemisms for an old-fashioned helping hand, home care is touted as the ideal in aged care. Millions of taxpayer and private sector dollars are pumped into this growth industry every year, and the demand is only growing.

Expectations of home care are very high. It looks good on paper – after all, it’s about nurturing people facing one of life’s most challenging periods. But after working in home care for four years, I came to realise it’s just a safety net, and it’s full of holes.

So many older people are estranged from their families, or have outlived them and most of their friends. If you believed everything older Australians say about their baby-boomer children, you’d end up confused over which generation was the more demanding, but it’s clear someone is capitalising on this lack of intergenerational care within families.

Carers are deemed competent in infection control, manual handling and occupational health and safety. After warnings about old vacuum cleaners and hand washing, they do a couple of buddy shifts with experienced carers, then work relatively unsupervised in the field. Nurses are dubious of carer’s skills, yet they are turning away from aged care citing low pay and demanding conditions.

Department of Veteran’s Affairs (DVA) clients get the most support, but they’re coded according to where they (or their spouses) served, in addition to having their needs assessed. This sometimes leaves the impression that some DVA clients are not getting enough care, whereas others seem to receive more than they need.

Experiencing the consequences

There can be few things more important than the care of people, but governments have a habit of throwing money at home care and regulating the system from a distance.

Operating from a charitable, benevolent or customer service standpoint, home care organisations fill the gap by providing broad safety nets in highly populated areas. These nets are stretched between middle and senior management, padded with charitable status tax-breaks and strung out by government funding.

Clients are netted at very vulnerable times. After a traumatic experience, such as a hospital stay because of a broken limb, they are contracted into the system. Many home care organisations eventually stream clients into their own residential care facilities.

I was recruited into a home care organisation at a vulnerable time in my life after the sudden death of my partner. Return-to-work mums were my most common colleagues. We were often full of doubt about our abilities and found it hard to get the promised hours out of our supervisors. They usually gave us just enough to keep us off the unemployment statistics but not enough to pay all our expenses.

After a promotion into the training department, I could see how the supervisor’s hands were tied by a system with a high number of needy, casual staff delivering minimal care hours to the maximum number of clients. It was also obvious that satisfying government regulation drew heavily on available funds.

Carers were commonly sent to new clients without knowing they had dementia and without the appropriate training to provide effective care. Clients were routinely kept in the dark about which day and time their carers were coming, unable to contact their service coordinator. The time supervisors spent with clients was regularly reduced by management, allowing important care needs to be overlooked.

Whatever reasons management had for this, the result always pushed the clients further from the centre of the care process, and contributed to an extremely high staff turnover. The hypocrisy of my employer not sharing its broad tax relief with employees was startling and I too eventually resigned.

NOT WAITING “Old age ain’t no place for sissies” said Bette Davis (1908-1989) (Photo: Alan Light).

An alternative approach

If the choice was up to me, I’d provide incentives for families to care for their own relatives, and pay Dan’s daughter for the one hour a day he needs. I’d cease planning which care facility I wanted to stream Ken into and I’d support Betty to care for him. I’d means test the system to filter out Cameron. I’d allow Klaus’s carer to take him to the bottle shop. I’d clarify the system which seems to define care needs based on service history for DVA clients. I’d aim for changes to free up resources for people who have limited funds and no family, like Beryl. I’d also make caring a real career option for employees.

Despite the fact that I am a fully trained and there are a plethora of aged care positions in the paper, I’ve chosen to work in a different industry since I left my previous employer. Aged care doesn’t offer an unconditional helping hand anymore. If it could, then the safety net might truly catch people.

*All names have been changed.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Merle Oberon – ours, or theirs?

3628cWas Hollywood’s Merle Oberon a girl from Tassie, or was she from the streets of Calcutta? On the eve of screening her film ‘The Trouble With Merle’ at the Blue Mountains Short Film Festival, Marée Delofski spoke with Michael Burge.

DOWN a leafy laneway more reminiscent of a country town than the faded ‘honeymoon capital’ style of Katoomba’s main drag, Marée Delofski talks of her love for The Blue Mountains.

“I write best here,” she says, “I get very good mental space”. Such feelings are not uncommon amongst local artists escaping the speed of the city, so I ask if there is a deeper connection to the local landscape?

Like one of the many people interviewed in her hour-long award-winning documentary The Trouble With Merle, Marée is on the brink of a journey to answer a question that cannot be addressed in a minute. The real answer is about an hour and two cups of tea away.

Marée Delofski is a very open person – this must be how she extracts such personal depth from her subjects. Indeed, The Trouble with Merle is a personal journey to the heart of a mystery, the kind of mystery common in the Australian experience – the kind that may never be solved…

CREATING WAVES209 of 1010 words. Unlock the rest of this article by purchasing Michael’s ebook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.