My Word: More Than a Few Good Men

8 July 2014 Elly Robinson

My Word: More Than a Few Good Men

Elly Robinson, Ed#462, June/July 2014

An act of kindness towards her daughter prompts Elly Robinson to reflect on people's intentions and reactions. 

My daughter, hovering on the precipice of adolescence, is growing into her body as a puppy does, all big hands and feet on her lean frame. She is unconventionally pretty – straight brown hair with streaks of blonde, and eyes that twinkle with rude health. She is clever, funny and surly in turns.

One afternoon she comes to work with me and I take her to a cafe so she can devour the exceptional homemade sausage rolls. There’s a stack of Asterix comics near the door, and she contorts her body around a group of middle-age men in suits to reach one. When she returns, I watch one of the men watch her – he observes her quiet movements, and reflects on her youthful beauty.

Later, as we finish eating, the man approaches our table with a hedgehog slice and two forks. He hopes I don’t mind, but he wants to give it to her. He doesn’t engage her or me in conversation beyond this, and leaves immediately without looking back. It was a simple, graceful gesture that acknowledged a small pleasure. My daughter beams, and I reflect on how this gesture affects her self-worth. I am careful not to emphasise looks over other things with her, but I am also acutely aware, as her parent, that teaching her about the power of her charm is an inevitable lesson.

Back at the office I mention the incident to some colleagues in the kitchen. Some smile at her, others engage in an appropriately understated affirmation of her prettiness. Then at the edges I hear the comment: “That’s creepy”.

Before this it had not entered my mind – I naturally hover on the edges of paranoia in relation to her safety, but in no sense did the interaction feel like a threat. I could suddenly see, however, that the incident was rife for interpretation. I watch a cloud start to hover over my daughter’s face – she is receiving mixed messages about the event, which are duly confirmed when I repeat the details to a friend who conjures the same word in response: creepy. And my daughter suddenly doesn’t want the story told – the feel-good bubble has burst; she is confused and anxious. Suddenly, the message transforms itself into being wary of men, that all is not as it seems, that the motivation of simple and generous acts need to be questioned.

When Jill Meagher was raped and murdered in Melbourne in 2012, I tried to shield my daughter from the news that the safety of our streets had been compromised. The effect of that incident still resonates, but we need to keep perspective or else we start engaging in an unfocused fear of what we don’t know. We begin to see harmless men in a doubtful light. I know many good men. A friend, my confidant and kindred soul, who researches, writes about and works with perpetrators of violence to find a better way to deal with issues that most would rather not think about. My next-door neighbour, a genius physician with two tiny daughters, who is an impromptu handyman at my beck and call. How do we stop men like this from censoring themselves, to feel they need to be less than they are? Stories abound of men being anxious about showing affection to children, their own and others, lest it be misinterpreted. How do we create a space where supportive and aware men can interact with children and adolescents in a positive way? How do I teach my daughter about the nuances between good and evil, the shades of grey, not worrying her unnecessarily but keeping her safe?

At bedtime on the night of the cafe visit, I feel compelled to replay the details of the day and monitor her feelings. I mention the man and the hedgehog slice. Her face remains quizzical and she is silent.

I can’t help but feel disappointed that such a gentlemanly act has been tarnished by others’ responses. I hope he continues to share his goodwill, as it is momentary interactions such as these that exhibit the goodness of the majority of men. Conversations about family violence are critical, as are the means by which we inform young women and men. But the circumstances by which we allow decent men to express their good intentions are equally crucial.

» Elly Robinson is a Melbourne writer and researcher with an interest in adolescent health and exceptional homemade sausage rolls.

This article first appeared in Ed#461 of The Big Issue magazine.