The Third Chopstick


The Third Chopstick is a memoir about my unique relationship to the Vietnam War. There are three parts to this story. Firstly, I was a passionately engaged protester from 1965 to 1975. Secondly, I first visited Vietnam in 1995 and have continued to do so ever since, sometimes taking tour groups on trips that focus on both Vietnamese culture and the history and after-effects of the war. Thirdly, in 1997, I sought out Vietnam veterans and asked to be allowed to listen to their stories – what I learned has become integral to my emotional experience and cognitive understanding of the war. Obsessed by the topic of the war, I wrote on and off over a period of 22 years, placing pieces of this complex story into different patterns. Ultimately, I settled for a rough chronology as the structure for describing my unflagging interest in this part of our history. For the veterans and the older Vietnamese, those who remember the war, a word or two is usually sufficient to fan the coals of memory into animated discussion. Many people who weren’t directly involved in the war also have their own ‘Vietnam memories’. Ginninderra Press is publishing The Third Chopstick which is due for release in March 2020.

In My Mother’s Hands

My memoir, In My Mother’s Hands (published by Allen & Unwin), has been described as a beautifully written and emotionally perplexing coming-of-age true story about growing up in an unusual family. Ultimately the book is about things that are hidden and the trauma of living without language to name what is happening.

Others wrote: In My Mother’s Hands is the story of a young girl confused and anxious about her mother’s behaviour, yet also fearing that her mother might be taken away and locked up forever. Emotionally complex, it has some of the qualities of a first-rate mystery. What was the real story of her sister Alison’s death? What is the real nature of her mother’s illness and where it will lead? What kind of man is her father – a legend or a womaniser, or both?

A story crafted to intrigue readers of any age.

In My Mother’s Hands was:

  • Short-listed for the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards for Non-fiction 2016

  • Short-listed for the NSW Premier’s Douglas Stewart Award for Non-fiction for 2015

  • Long-listed for The Stella Prize for 2015

There are secrets in this family. Before Biff and her younger brother, Mark, there was baby Alison, who drowned in her bath because, it was said, her mother was distracted. Biff too, lives in fear of her mother’s irrational behaviour and paranoia, and she is always on guard and fears for the safety of her brother. As Biff grows into teenage-hood, there develops a conspiratorial bond between her and her father, who is a famous and gregarious man, about managing his wife’s condition. This was a time when the insane were often locked up in Dickensian institutions and left there; whatever his problems, her father was desperate to save his wife from that fate. He also struggled to protect his children from the effects of living with a tragically disturbed mother. In late middle age, Biff and her brother start to look back and deal with the demons they have been carrying.

They find the grave; they sit there in the wintry Sydney sunshine and unfold faded memories; the ponder what-mgiht-have-beens; they begin to bring their childhood mystery to life. Biff writes this book and then her daughter, in constructing a family tree for a big get-together, includes Alison who has been invisible for seventy years. Somehow she has come back into the land of the living.


Father-Daughter Rape

Father-Daughter Rape was written in the white heat of the days when only a few people had realized that sexual abuse of girl children by a trusted adult male was occurring at a significant rate and that it was invisible to the wider community.

While working at Beryl Women’s Refuge in 1978, we workers were confronted with family-based child sexual abuse. My searching for help in this field led me to libraries and what I found there turned into Father-Daughter Rape (The Women’s Press, 1984). One of the first books in the world on the topic, it focuses on the phenomenon of trusted adult males sexually using girl children to whom they have access. Father-Daughter Rape is a feminist analysis of the literature on sexual abuse as it existed at that time – an array of psychiatric and criminological theorising about the sexual abuse of girls in the family, from Freud in 1896 to the beginning of the 80s. In essence, what I found was that the only explanation ever given for perpetrators’ crimes was ‘poor impulse control’ and that the vast majority of clinicians actually blamed the mothers (for not providing enough sex, for being unattractive) or the daughters (they were seductive, they wanted it, they didn’t complain).

Published in the UK and US in 1984, Father Daughter Rape became a standard text for child protection workers throughout the western world.

Now out of print, it is available from many libraries and on-line from all reputable second-hand book sites.


three’s company

Three’s company is a conversation in poems about the environment, feminism and love by Biff Ward, Donna McSkimming and Debroah McCulloch. three’s company won the Friendly St/ Wakefield Press poetry award for 1991 and was launched at Adelaide Writers’ Week in 1992.

The first edition of 500 sold out within a week, so we talked Wakefield into printing another edition. It turned out the rush was over – so now we each have a box of books under our beds. Available for the cost of postage!