(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and Stuff.co.nz, May 1.)
So, the revered James K Baxter turns out to have been a rapist.
A recently published book reveals that in a letter to a female friend in 1960, the sainted poet admitted forcing sex on his wife. He implied that she enjoyed it, noting that she seemed “10 times happier afterwards”. The tone seemed almost boastful.
That disclosure prompted a woman to divulge, in an article in Stuff’s Your Weekend magazine, that Baxter tried to have sex with her when she was a teenager at his commune at Jerusalem, on the Whanganui River.
He persisted despite her protestations. The only reason he didn’t complete the act was that he couldn’t get an erection.
She was 18. Baxter would have been in his 40s. The woman wrote that she was one of several female followers whom Baxter abused sexually. In his letters, he also casually mentioned impregnating “a girl in Auckland” who subsequently lost the baby.
There is a parallel here with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, another counter-culture hero whose ashram became a mecca for his many celebrity followers, including the Beatles. A disgusted John Lennon wrote the song Sexy Sadie after the Maharishi made sexual advances toward Mia Farrow.
I wonder what happens now. Will the New Zealand literary elite, who for decades have idolised and even mythologised Baxter, not only as a poet but as an inspirational cultural figure, quietly file him under D for deplorable?
After all, he doesn’t seem so different from the despised Harvey Weinstein and other celebrity male predators targeted by the Me Too movement. Yet the response to the rape disclosure has been distinctly low-key, which raises an interesting question: does a different standard apply when a sexual abuser is a bearded, barefoot poet as opposed to a Hollywood mogul?
Baxter is an iconic figure in New Zealand literature. He was also a spiritual guru to dozens of disillusioned and impressionable young New Zealanders who were drawn to his commune seeking meaning and direction in life.
He made much of his rejection of capitalism and materialism, his embrace of Catholic spirituality and his empathy with Maori. But I wonder how many vulnerable young women he hit on.
I met Baxter once or twice in the early 70s and can confirm that he certainly had a certain charisma, although it’s hard to imagine women finding him sexually attractive. He had long, lank, dirty hair and wore grubby op-shop clothes.
He didn’t look like a man who showered often, if at all. He possibly dismissed personal hygiene as a hang-up of the neurotic white middle classes. But he would hardly have been the first literary idol to imagine that he possessed some sort of sexual magnetism.
There are two striking things about the Baxter rape scandal. The first is the hypocrisy of it all; a man who paraded his humanitarianism and empathy with the underdog, sexually brutalising his wife and taking advantage of vulnerable young women who came to him seeking guidance.
The other is that although it’s shocking, it’s hardly unusual. There has never been any shortage of lionised males from the arts and literary worlds who combined a massive sense of sexual entitlement with apparent indifference toward the women they inflicted themselves on.
The glaring contradiction between this rampant male chauvinism and their professed embrace of sexual equality is rarely acknowledged, still less explored.
From the 1950s through till the 70s, the belief among the arty, left-wing elites was that all sex was liberating. Men not surprisingly took full advantage of this, often treating the women around them as sexual chattels. Their female acolytes played along, perhaps imagining that by doing so, they were showing their contempt for conventional bourgeois morality.
This led to some truly grotesque behaviour – none more so than the recently revealed abuse suffered in the 70s by the two daughters of the Sydney novelist Dorothy Hewett. An author much admired by the Australian Left for her politically charged writing, Hewett encouraged her teenage girls to have sex with the men in her fashionable circle – among them the late Bob Ellis, a celebrity left-wing journalist and Labor Party speech writer.
Incredibly, when the two daughters wrote about their experiences many years later, they were savaged by their mother’s male contemporaries for damaging her reputation. Such is the warped values system of the literary Left.
Back here in New Zealand, a recent biography of Maurice Shadbolt by Philip Temple portrayed the acclaimed writer as a man whose treatment of women was so reprehensible that even some of his best friends abandoned him – although, to be fair, a woman of my acquaintance who knew Shadbolt told me that’s not how she remembers him.
In an interview with Kim Hill last year, Temple portrayed the New Zealand arts and literary scene of the 1960s and 70s as incestuous and promiscuous. The men slept around at will and the women, needless to say, humoured them. It all sounded sad rather than liberating, and certainly more seedy than sexy.
Double standards, much? Yep, but there's nothing new under the sun.