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The hand that wrote the hand that signed the paper

May 22, 2006

Over the years I’ve occasionally wondered what happened to ‘Helen Demidenko’, the pseudonymous author whose The Hand that Signed the Paper won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1995, and garnered other important prizes. At the time she was twenty-three. There was a brief moment of acclamation, then a questioning silence. Then followed a huge furore: about whether the book was anti-Semitic, about freedom of expression, the whole nine yards. Robert Manne wrote a book about the book, called The Culture of Forgetting: Helen Demidenko and the Holocaust, excoriating the work, its author and its audience for participating in an exercise in anti-Semitic juvenilia.

As is well known, ‘Helen Demidenko’, an Australian writer of Ukrainian origin, did not exist. The author was Helen Darville, a young Australian of British extraction. Darville was trashed by the media, and following all the scandal and upset, she largely disappeared from view.

Now she has emerged from the shadows, as Helen Dale, possessed of a 1st Class law degree, a black belt in Shotokan karate, and a position as Associate to a Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland.

Quadrant this month carries an article written by her, reproduced from the Autumn issue of The Skeptic, the journal of Australian Skeptics Inc.

Unhappily it is not available online. But it is a wonderful, spirited piece of writing. To me it confirms the judgement of those who bestowed so many awards on a writer then so young.

A sure sign that many of Australia’s critics and journalists don’t have a life was the appearance — in rapid succession — of four books about the cause celebre. All were longer than my novel. Robert Manne’s The Culture of Forgetting came in at nearly twice the length, riddled with errors and laced with bile. He sent me a letter begging an interview just before publication. My solicitor read it and shook his head sagely. ‘Don’t touch this one, Helen. He’s already made up his mind’.

Reluctantly, I co-operated with Andrew Riemer in his effort, The Demidenko Debate. My publisher was behind the book and Professor Riemer had consistently argued that my novel was good, despite the controversy. We met in my solicitor’s office in the city and I tried to answer his questions. At this point, I really noticed that I just didn’t fit into ‘literary culture’. He was passionate about literature in a way I just couldn’t fathom, speaking as though it had the capacity to change the world. It’s a novel, I kept thinking: what people read on the train.

Good on ya, Helen.

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8 comments

  1. Helen’s next gig, after the novel, was as a columnist in The Courier-Mail. Unfortunately, her first column was lifted entirely from a jokey email doing the rounds. Helen made no acknowledgement of the source, but it was picked up by many readers and she was dropped before getting a second installment into print.

    Helen and I were at UQ together, she contributed to Semper around the period I was an editor, and we were both on the University Union Council for a couple of years. Helen’s life as a celebrated author was a source of endless fascination to those of us that knew her, since the story about being Ukranian was entirely different to the three or four different stories she had told people previously, and that she was reknown as a woman with a flexible relationship to facts.

    I bear her absolutely no ill-will, I hope things are working out well for her and she can move beyiond her brush with public scandal.

    But Rob, when you say she is has a “1st Class law degree, a black belt in Shotokan karate, and a position as Associate to a Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland” have you checked that for yourself?


  2. No, I was going by what she wrote in the article and the editor’s gloss, Darryl. I usually believe what people say unless there’s reason to do otherwise. Are these claims not true?


  3. I hope it is true and that’s she’s doing well. The reason for skepticism is that she has a long and well established record of make claims that have proven to be untrue.


  4. Darryl, a Google search seems to confirm the claim, including this.


  5. Hi Rob,

    I’ll chat to Quadrant and see what they say about putting it up where I blog (see above). A few people have asked me about making the piece available online.

    Kind regards,
    Helen Dale

    PS. Darryl – whatever happened to Melaina (sp?) you were on Semper with her, weren’t you? Or have I got it wrong?


  6. Helen, how nice and unexpected of you to drop by. Thought your article was great, and I’ll link it if you can get it on-line before Quadrant gets round to doing so — which will probably be in another month or ten. (I write for them too from time to time, usually intemperate rants.)


  7. Hi Rob,

    I’ll try to get it sorted out tomorrow, and see what I can do from there. It may involve me sending it to you, as I’m not sure how to put it up on the site short of just posting it in its entirety – and as it’s something over 6000 words, this is probably stretching things just a little.

    Yes, I’m new to blogging – as you can probably tell. The only reason my ‘home’ blog looks halfway decent is because Sukrit actually knows what he’s doing. So far I’ve only contributed words and a few pics – and only after careful perusal of the instructions.

    I’m sure Quadrant will be fine, although I may have to wait a little longer, mainly because it first ran in the Skeptic. Their next issue isn’t out for a month or so, which means they may still be able to get some mileage out of it.

    Kind regards,
    Helen Dale


  8. Rob, I think you’ve been spaminated.



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