Darcey Bella Arnold, Conversation: me say edit be…, July, 2020
1/1. Darcey Bella Arnold, é-dit, 2020, acrylic on canvas board, 120 × 90 cm

A conversation between Darcey Bella Arnold and Michael Arnold, Melbourne, July, 2020.

Listen to the recording here, or read the transcript in full below.

In this recording Darcey Bella Arnold speaks with her father Michael Arnold who is an educator and partner of Jennifer Arnold. Michael and Jennifer were married in 1974 and have four children, they live in Princes Hill, Melbourne Victoria where this recording was made. Michael is the primary carer of Jennifer.

 

Darcey Bella Arnold:

My name is Darcey Bella Arnold and I’m having a small discussion today with Michael Arnold. I am an artist and my practice’s current focus is around painting and language. Michael is an educator and partner ofJennifer Arnold, they are my parents.

So I wanted to sit down and talk about some aspects of Mum / Jennifer’s inner workings,
and to give a short back story, Mum had an acquired brain injury in 2004, this was shortly after being diagnosed with breast cancer and having surgery, the brain injury was swift and she now has severe brain damage.This damage has primarily affected her memory, short and long term, this has then trickled into other aspects of life, including language. I wanted to chat with you Michael, because you have an incredibly unique insight to Jen, being her partner of 45+ years. You met in high school and are now in your late 60s. With this history of knowing Jen, I wanted to ask you some questions about her personality, her work and her politics, with a particular focus on language.

Jen was a teacher by trade, and as an educator, how important is language to her?

Michael Arnold: Prior to the brain injury, no more important than it is for anybody else. She had exemplary spelling and grammar, as a teacher herself and also as the daughter of two other teachers. So she was very eloquent and well spoken, her writing you know, was always excellent, but she didn’t have any particular interest in language…

DBA: Really? Wow…

MA: No, no more so than any other educated person…

DBA: Even in her, in her teaching, in her focus, because that would have been a focus for her, as a teacher…she didn’t teach handwriting or spelling?

MA: Not really, she taught social studies, history, politics and that kind of thing she wasn’t a grammar teacher…she was a secondary teacher not a primary teacher so she wasn’t concerned with the acquisition of language in particular… like every teacher though, she was concerned to ensure that students expressed themselves eloquently, but, it wasn’t a focus. The focus was on the issues concerned with social studies, and politics, sociology, that kind of thing…

DBA: Humanities…

MA: Yes…yes

DBA: When did you first notice a change in Mum’s language?

MA: As you said earlier, Jen contracted breast cancer in 2004, and that required surgery and other treatments as well, radiation therapy and so forth. However, during the surgery, she, it was remarked by the nurse to me, and then relayed through to the surgeon, that Jen was running a high temperature. This was put down by the doctors concerned as being associated with the surgery itself, apparently people under anesthesia and coming out of surgery sometimes do run a high temperature. So, not a lot was made of it. Jen came home, post surgery…

DBA: I remember she didn’t stay overnight, did she? She came straight home…

MA: I can’t remember to be honest, whether she stayed overnight…or came…

DBA: Well…that’s the funny thing when we talk, when we have these conversations…is be cause we’re relying on our memories…Jen’s memory has been severely affected and our memories, can be, I’ve found, have been different…which is…

MA: Mmmm…mmm….I know, memory is very tricky even at the very best of times…

MA: Anyway we came home and I was conscious at a very early stage that something was amiss… Jen just, was not herself…and there were a number of things that were associated with that….but one of them, was….dysphasia. There’s dysphasia and there’s another phasia…anyway, the misuse of words was…

DBA: Mmmm…big indicator…

MA: yeah, was a key thing…so for example, one thing that was clearly in my mind, was when she was in bed, upstairs, and the room is quite bright, it was in the afternoon the sun was coming through those front windows, and Jen asked if I could please pull down the dog….and, what do you mean? And she pointed to the blind, and said “I want, pull down the dog.”

DBA: So she said it more than once…

MA: Yes… “It’s too bright in here.” Now, she was also not herself in lots of other ways. Very aggressive, and you know, that kind of thing… so I contacted the GPs. The GP put it down to a psychological rather than a physiological condition and suggested that it was post, a post traumatic response to having cancer…

DBA: …yes, and surgery…

MA: …and having the surgery. I wasn’t convinced of that at all.

DBA: Because you could notice a shift in personality…

MA: …cancer is a serious thing, of course it is. Jen is a strong person, and it’s not the kind of thing that’s going to knock her for six. So I wasn’t convinced of that, but I couldn’t convince the medical fraternity of that, and she was becoming more and more difficult, obviously, whatever was ailing her, was getting worse. I rang the crisis assessment team, the CAP team, who respond to people who are having disturbances, mental disturbances, emotional disturbances….they wouldn’t come because she was not a threat to herself nor to anyone else at the time..and so I was really at sixes and sevens as to what to do…and then happily, it so happened, a friend of ours, who is, whom you know as well, who is a clinical psychologist, came to the house with flowers for Jen. And so she and I went up to the room, up to the bedroom where Jen was, and I described to our friend, you know, what was going on…

DBA:…and with particular focus on the language…

MA: …with the particular focus on the language, and immediately she said that that’s a clear indication of a physiological brain injury…

DBA: yep…mmm…

MA:…and we’ve got to go now, we’ve got to act now

DBA: yep, fantastic…

MBA: So she, and I, and Tess and Angus, bundled Jen out of bed, she was kicking and struggling and fighting, and down the stairs into back middle seat of the Kombi, Angus lay on top of her, on the seat in the Kombi, to stop her jumping out and we went to emergency and within a few minutes, it was obvious…

DBA: …take her out of an environment…

MA: …yeah, it was obvious, to the emergency triage people, that there was a brain injury here and that it was physiological and not psychological…

DBA: It’s interesting because I remember that, I had remembered that she had had a seizure and that’s why…we had…I remember parts of seeing her bundled into the car, but it’s funny how my memory, you know, I had formed that memory…

MA: …yeah, it’s not because she had a seizure…it’s because she didn’t want to go to hospital, she wanted to stay in bed…

DBA: yep, yep…something that I’ve noticed within Mum’s language now, post-illness, is that it seems like she’s forgotten some of the rules of English language , like dropping the e before ing

MA: …yeah…

DBA: …and things like that, that are quite, you know, she always corrects those things…

MA: …that’s right what’s happening is that there are different set of rules, the rules that Jen applies are consistent…

DBA: yes, they are…

MA: …they’re logical, but they’re…unconventional…they don’t adhere to conventional spelling and grammar, but they’re internally consistent…

DBA: …they are, yep, like in her dictionaries, that we’ve got…

MA: …yep…

DBA: …and the other thing is the combination of English and French, so I can’t remember Mum speaking French, but she combines the two in a consistent way…

MA: It’s…only though, in the written form, not in the spoken form. And her use of accents and acutes and so on…

DBA: Mmmmm…

MA: …the French things, that has just come from nowhere…

DBA: Did she learn French at school?

MA: Only until about Year 10

DBA: Because her memory stops at about 20, 21 you’d think that would be quite significant to her…

MA: …you said earlier that there’s damage to long and short term memory, that’s not strictly true, it was damage to short term memory…what was happening is that without, well, let me take a step back. The brain injury was caused by viral encephalitis, a viral infection of the brain, the way, the mechanics of that, is that the virus attacks the nerves in the nose, and then the virus worked it’s way up those nerves, up through the nasal passages into the brain, and in the brain, the virus reproduces and as a consequence of various physiological things there to do with temperature and so forth, it causes brain damage… now it so happens there’s a direct route from the olfactory nerves, through to the section of the brain that controls memory, short term memory…

DBA: …short term, so it’s at the front?

MA: …short term memory, no it’s at the side…people who’ve read Proust are well aware of the connection between smell, and memory…and so it is physiologically…so in the CAT scans, CAT scans? or MRI scans?

DBA: MRI…

MA: anyway in the brain scans that were conducted it’s clear that those sections of the brain, that are responsible, all sections of the brain are responsible for short term memory, but these are particularly responsible…now the interesting thing is, that immediately adjacent to those sections are language centres… again, language occurs, you know, all over the brain, there are particular centres if you like or focal points for language production, and they’re immediately adjacent to short term memory focal points. So, the change in language, can as a consequence of damage to short term memory can be theorised as being either the virus also attacked the language centre, or it can be theorised as the memory section colonising the language section to compensate for short term memory…but that interaction is very interesting, but also very uncertain, there’s a whole lot that’s not known about it…

DBA: I was…the hippocampus, in the brain, which is in the centre of the brain, there’s two hippocampus, I was aware that they were affected…

MA:…it’s the temporal lobes I think, at the side, I used to know all of this back in 2004–2005, and I’ve forgotten to be honest…

[Grandmother clock chimes]

DBA: It’s very evident when you speak to Jen, that her focus is sort of, the 1970s, and second–wave feminism, and the Vietnam War, and it seems that that might be a point in where her memory lies, that those memories are very forefront…

MA: That’s right, I figured that there’s about fifteen years gone…

DBA: Another thing I wanted to talk about, was Mum’s politics, and how, you know, I said the Vietnam War and feminism, and they do come out a lot in her language, that I’ve noted. She tries to remove patriarchy from language quite a lot, that consistent conversation I guess she’s having with language, like removing, changing history to her story and underlining it to make emphasis…

MA: …to emphasise, yeah the gendered nature of it, yeah…

DBA: is that something you think has changed, post-illness? Or is that a consistent conversation…?

MA: It’s pretty consistent…because that was part of our formative, like back in the days when we were young, people didn’t refer to feminism, it was referred to as women’s liberation…

DBA: Yep, women’s lib…

MA: Yep, and women’s lib, women’s liberation was part of our, an important part of Jen’s politics in particular, and politics was very formative of Jen’s character and personality, as it was with all of our peer group, back in those days in the early 1970s. So for example, I failed every subject in first year university, every single subject in first year university…

DBA: What were you enrolled in? Was this Teacher’s College?

MA: Economics and Politics…and the reason I failed is, that I was a full time political activist. Jen was at La Trobe1, and Jen was very heavily involved in the politics at La Trobe, which led to a number of students, good friends of ours, being jailed, being expelled and banned from the campus. We were, our lives revolved around, political action of organising demonstrations, organising meetings, printing pamphlets…

DBA: Would this be Vietnam War…like 70–?

MA: Yeah, the Vietnam War was just, was finishing up, but the Vietnam War was certainly a catalyst for all of that…yeah…

[Music]

DBA: What do you think the act of writing means for Jen now?

MA: It’s got a lot of attributes, so for example, Jen will correct other people’s writing…

DBA: Mmmmm….like she’s corrected mine, my essays, your lectures…

[Wooden kitchen chair creaks]

MA: …yep, she’ll correct yours, she will correct the newspaper, she will correct the dictionary. For quite a long time, Jen would come with me to lectures and to tutorials where she was very comfortable, because the student life was a life she knew and understood and knew, and was very familiar to her, but there was always a danger that Jen would protest at the language used on the powerpoint slideshow, or the language used in hand outs…

DBA: Yes, I’ve found that in most places we go, if there’s something that she sees that’s different, she’ll tell you…she’s not afraid of telling you (laughs)…

MA: No, no, and she really does take affront at mistakes…these mistakes cannot and should not be tolerated…and must be…

DBA: …corrected…

MA:…must be corrected…

DBA: …improved…

MA: …exactly…and correcting is something that can be done within the timeframe that is, that she operates in.

DBA: Mmm, so we’re talking two or three minutes…

MA: Yeah, we’re talking seconds and minutes, yeah. Whereas for example, say reading, is not something that can be done within that, because by the time you are two or three sentences in, the first two or three sentences are gone…but you can correct the words, you can do that. And there is, I imagine, you know, there’s a sort of a sense of satisfaction, and a sense of purpose…

DBA: …absolute sense of purpose, and labour…

MA:…in correcting things, in correcting things yeah, it’s important work…

DBA: …it’s work yeah…it’s absolutely important work…

MA: …it’s important work yeah, and it’s useful work…

DBA: Yes, yeah it’s benefiting everyone, especially, if she’s correcting The Age2 you know, The Age should know that they’ve spelt things wrong…

MA: Exactly, yeah…

DBA: …and what I find fascinating is the consistency of her corrections, like you say, even if she won’t, you know she wouldn’t remember the articles she’s corrected, but the consistency of her corrections. It’s always the e before ing, and gallery is always ary instead of ery

MA: Yep, yep…oh yep, yep…

DBA: …and the sense of purpose she does get from this work, and I feel that would link back to her whole life of being a worker, and that links into her politics of being useful, and working, and a sense of pride…

[Grandmother clock ticks]

MA: Mmmm.. I remember in Oxford, walking down one of the streets there and Jen flew into an absolute rage because we were outside one of the galleries in Oxford, it was, the gallery was spelt incorrectly, so, and there’s the doorman, you know who is standing as they do, and she was shouting at him “Here we are at one of the centres of education, one of the centres of civilisation, and you can’t even spell it right” …and she was just absolutely furious…

DBA: …it’s an affront…

MA: …she was furious that of all places, you know, Jen might expect this in a country town or something, but not at Oxford.

DBA: She holds Oxford in a high acclaim, in the same way she now holds French, I think in French is in high acclaim…

MA: I guess, I don’t know why French, but…

DBA: …yeah, there’s the markings, and there’s this particular focus on the letter e which I will look more into, which is interesting…

MA: …but that’s a characteristic yeah…there’s also, interesting is the use of placeholder words, like entropy and atrophy. Both entropy and atrophy are used with many meanings, they have many meanings…

DBA: …in Jen’s language…

MA: …in Jen’s language, depending on the context. Why…why…entropy it’s an interesting one to choose…entropy refers to the, a law of the universe, the law of thermodynamics, whereby all beings in the universe lose heat and lose self organisation and through time, disintegrate. So all objects, objects being subject to entropy are subject to dissolving from something that’s organised to some- thing that’s completely disorganised.

DBA: Interesting…

[Wooden kitchen chair creaks]

MA: So you can see, this table in front of us, is organised matter. Through time, through entropy, it will become disorganised matter, it will cease to be a table, and so it is with every sun in the universe –every planet, every solar system, every galaxy–everything in the universe is subject to that entropy…

DBA: That’s really interesting in terms of, her, I don’t know, looking to much into it, but in terms of her memory loss, and maybe a loss of control…

MA: Similarly atrophy for something to atrophy, is to wither away…so that the two, are not dissimilar, not dissimilar words…and why those two words, other than all of the other millions there are to choose from, should be used as these…

DBA: …placeholders…

MA: …multi-purpose placeholders, is interesting…

DBA: Yeah, yeah……well, thanks for talking with me…

MA: Ok, no worries…

DBA: I think we’ll leave it there….thanks Ang 3 … [Piano music plays]

DBA: A big thank you to Michael Arnold, Jennifer Arnold and Angus Arnold who helped us record this today.

 

 

La Trobe University is a public research university based in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, that was established in 1964.

2 

The Age is a daily newspaper in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, that has been published since 1854.

Recorded and edited by Angus Michael Victor Arnold.

 

This recording was supported by the City of Melbourne COVID-19 Arts Grants.