Shane Weaver, Bantam Press, 2003
Reviewed by Jenny Haines
When trendy liberals and avowed socialists talk about the working class, it is often without having any personal experience of working class life. Shane Weaver’s book about growing up in Blacktown in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s is a personal and painful recounting of his working class childhood, in a family that lived with the terror of a drunken stepfather and random domestic violence. The cover of the book recounts just some of the terror the family lived with: “the screen door bangs shut. The silence that follows is like the collective intake of breath between the split second a guillotine falls and when it thuds home…unable to get a clear shot, he rips the bed away from the wall. I scream as the first lick of the electric cord stings my back…”
Shane’s mother bore the brunt of most of the family violence, but their stepfather often came home drunk and directed his violence at whoever in the family he could get his hands on. Shane’s biological father, Ryan, left his mother when Shane was four. He went to the shop one day to get milk and bread, and never came back.
Saul, their stepfather was an army mate of their biological father, who moved in when Ryan left. Shane’s mother was only 20 at the time, heavily pregnant, with little choice but to agree. Saul was a war veteran who had his spine smashed by shrapnel in the Korean war, leaving the left side of his body numb and deformed. “The combination of booze and bullets leads his limbs in a deadwood dance. Floppery, bobbety, jerk and jig.” Saul was no doubt a man in pain, physical and emotional, but his unbounded selfishness in inflicting his pain on his step family is astounding and infuriating. More than once you feel yourself wanting to reach through the book to grab Saul, and rage at him, to make him realise by whatever means, that his cruelty was damaging his step children for life. Each of Shane’s siblings dealt with their childhood differently. Sarah suicided in 1999. Beth became a born again Christian. Kelly became alienated from his brothers and sisters. Tony suffers from mental health problems. He sits in his lounge room with the blinds drawn, his paranoia, his dope and his Tom Waits and John Lennon for company. The youngest child, Richard, Saul’s blood son, is single and desperately lonely, still apologising to the world for being Saul’s son.
Shane’s mother made it out of her life with Saul. Many women who suffer domestic violence don’t. She now lives in Western Australia, an archetypal white haired pensioner, living with her little dog Sherna in a government flat. Shane recounts that despite everything she is not bitter. “Survivors know better than anyone that because life is seasonal, hope is eternal.” Given her experiences, it is remarkable that she can see her past, her present and her future in that way.
Shane suffered. Out of the terror of his childhood, he grew into an aggressive, belligerent teenager who took up boxing, and became a boxing champion. But he also became an alcoholic and a drug addict. He spent time in psychiatric hospitals as a patient, and he worked in the early 1980s at Rydalmere Hospital as an developmental disability nurse. But then, when he was near his lowest point, and facing warnings from doctors that if he did not stop drinking he would be dead in 6 months, he was given a break. He was jobless, with a wife and three kids to support. He applied for a copywriting job with an advertising company, and a whole new life opened up for him. Not all of his problems were solved at once. He continued to struggle with booze and drugs, but eventually he becomes the creative director of one of the world’s biggest advertising firms, winning award after award for his creative copywriting.
Shane writes the book in his late 40s, looking back with regret at the pain and sorrow he caused others, and himself. He had one family with Charlene, who eventually left him for a labourer she met through the neighbours. Then he met Kate in 1990, who patiently and lovingly stood by him through thick and thin. Shane never hit his wives or children but he admits that he was good at hitting walls and fridges in frustration. Considering the start he had in life, Shane eventually did very well. His journey, recounted with brutal honesty and clarity, is compelling reading. He could easily have become another Saul, but his insight, his intelligence, his creativity, and his loving and compassionate nature underneath all the beef and the brawn, especially his undying love for his mother, and her continuing belief and trust in Shane, bring him to maturity as an adult, eventually leaving the frightened child behind.