Ever heard of Joanna Grochowicz? No, I hadn’t either, until a few days ago, although I probably should have. She’s a New Zealand author who wrote a book about Ernest Shackleton, along with some children’s books about polar exploration heroics.
What brought Grochowicz to my attention was a bitchy hit job on her by another New Zealand writer, Stacy Gregg. Grochowicz had committed the unpardonable sin of writing an opinion piece for a British-based website called Perspective Magazine, published in February last year, in which she criticised her home country’s enforced isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic (you can read it here). Cruel and tyrannical were two of the words Grochowicz used.
That might have been permissible, at a pinch - it was a widely held view, after all; but Grochowicz went on to attack Jacinda Ardern. While praising Ardern’s “decisive and compassionate” action in the early stages of her prime ministership (and admitting she had twice voted for her), she said the “once saintly” leader had morphed into an autocrat, executing stealthy manoeuvres against her own people and exerting mind control.
Grochowicz also put the boot into the compliant New Zealand media and by implication, the docile New Zealand populace at large. Under Arden, she wrote, New Zealand had become a smug cul-de-sac.
I thought it was a good piece, but that’s neither here nor there. Whether you agreed with it or not, it was a legitimate expression of opinion on a matter of public interest.
Not so the response from Gregg, who is a best-selling author of children's novels about girls and horses – and now also, it seems, a member of the self-appointed Praetorian Guard that comes to Ardern's defence when anyone dares attack her. Gregg’s riposte to Grochowicz, which originally appeared on Newsroom last February, was republished a few days ago as part of Newsroom’s “Best of the Year” series, which is how I belatedly caught up with it.
What made one article okay and the other not is that Gregg’s response was gratuitously and vindictively personal. The writer knew Grochowicz – had once even liked her – but clearly decided, on the basis of the Perspective article, that they could no longer be friends.
Accordingly, the piece was peppered with snide observations not only about Grochowicz but her wealthy husband and their lavish lifestyle. According to Gregg, “the people who seem to have railed the most at having their lifestyles curtailed by reality [during the Covid lockdown] are the wealthy, privileged, upper middle-classes who can't understand why this thing won't just end because they really, really want to go on holiday in Denarau and anyway their friend had Covid and it's literally just a head cold! And they are triple-vaxxed and they are fine!”
The intriguing thing is that Gregg seemed not to mind this life of privilege and entitlement while she and Grochowicz were still friends, and indeed bought into it (she reveals she took a bottle of Veuve Clicquot – $90 at New World – to a dinner with Grochowicz and her Polish husband, only to be aced by his magnum of Pol Roger). But all this self-indulgence apparently became abhorrent when she realised, on reading the article criticising Ardern, that she and Grochowicz saw the world differently. Then she turned on her erstwhile friend, attacking her as the cold, unfeeling face of affluence. (You don't have to squint too hard to detect more than a hint of resentment toward Grochowicz for the mere fact of being rich.)
The striking thing about Gregg’s article is the tone of betrayal, as if Grochowicz had deceived her. In fact Gregg berates herself for not deducing sooner that Grochowicz, all along, was really just an apologist for male white supremacists. Get this: “I thought she was a trailblazer working in a male dominated field, outside of literary norms. I believed we were on the same path. When I look back now, I feel like a real dunderhead for not seeing what she was really writing about. Now I think she was paying an homage [sic] to the glory days of the good old empire. Now I think that her deifying of white, male explorers who came, saw and conquered other worlds speaks volumes about her, cultural imperatives and New Zealand as a hicksville outpost whose existence is in service of our masters in the UK. Even when she regaled me with stories of hanging out with white, crusty male historians and leering it up at Lord Spencer's estate, I just thought - oh fun stories!”
So what started as an attack on Grochowicz for daring to criticise the sainted prime minister – heresy! – then took a headlong, hyperbolic leap into the now tediously familiar mire of identity politics. Yet Grochowicz was presumably still the same person Gregg had been attracted to, so what had changed? Only that Grochowicz had exercised her right to express opinions that clearly didn’t align with the prevailing ones in the circles Gregg moved in.
Gregg’s article also invites the accusation that she intruded on Grochowicz's privacy by revealing information about Grochowicz’s personal life and marital relationship – information acquired when the two were friends and therefore arguably imposing a duty of confidentiality, given that Grochowicz would have had no reason to suspect it would become the subject of an article. That there was nothing incriminating about the information doesn't make the disclosure acceptable. But hey – no doubt this apparent betrayal of trust was justified, in Gregg’s mind at least, because of Grochowicz’s supposedly despicable opinions. Such people need to be exposed, after all.
Here, laid bare, is the intolerance and priggishness of people who probably think of themselves as liberal yet can’t tolerate any departure from approved groupthink. Gregg’s hatchet job could be summarised thus: “I thought Jo was one of us and she turned out not to be, so she must be exposed.”
There’s a lesson here: think carefully before you befriend a writer. They can be a spiteful, duplicitous and disputatious lot, and you can never be sure the friendship won’t come back to bite you.