The peeping tom and other voyeurs

First published in Griffith Review and reprinted in The Age

Lying in bed, under a cotton sheet and a slow-turning fan, I was listening to tropical birds—not knowing what kind they were, but enjoying the early morning illiteracy that comes from a mind on holiday in a foreign country. I won’t say which country I was in, for fear that what I am going to say later will hurt or embarrass those who might recognize the precise location or even themselves. Let me just say it is a country not far north of the equator, where humidity refracts the dawn so that all seven colours of the rainbow can be discerned in the wet, luminous light of morning. From where I lay, I could see through a wall of windows into a courtyard, shaded by the monstrous trunk and ambling branches of an old Frangipani that dropped its flowers onto the red pebbles below.

Lying in bed, under a cotton sheet and a slow-turning fan, I was listening to tropical birds — not knowing what kind they were, but enjoying the early morning illiteracy that comes from a mind on holiday in a foreign country. I won’t say which country I was in, for fear that what I am going to say later will hurt or embarrass those who might recognize the precise location or even themselves. Let me just say it is a country not far north of the equator, where humidity refracts the dawn so that all seven colours of the rainbow can be discerned in the wet, luminous light of morning. From where I lay, I could see through a wall of windows into a courtyard, shaded by the monstrous trunk and ambling branches of an old Frangipani that dropped its flowers onto the red pebbles below. The courtyard walls were not that old, perhaps fifty years at most, but having been rubbed with cow dung and mud they blazed with lichen and stood, in their slow decay, with the silent presence of another age. Orchids and ferns grew from inside cracks, taking moisture from the air and nourishment from the crumbling rock, and draped their massive root systems down the sides of the wall. I was somewhere about here in my observations when a scalp of black hair rose inches above the wall’s rim, followed by a forehead, eyes, and then an entire face. I remember thinking, before considering its intent, that it was a nice-looking face, not just in the sense of it being attractive, but also in the sense that its owner would seem, by its gentle features, to be a nice person. I lay motionless in bed, but it took only seconds for his eyes — for the face belonged to a man — to lock with mine and then the face was gone.

The shock of seeing that face registered like a slap that shook me from illiteracy into the world of language and difference. If I had been at home in my own bed, I might have jumped up to confront the owner of that face — if for no other purpose than to assert some control or to dole out, for what it was worth, a measure of shame. But I was not at home, and in any case the large wooden doors of the bungalow were padlocked each night and not unlocked until breakfast. And this, being dawn, meant that breakfast was several hours away. But there was another reason I hesitated to act: I had already observed that punishments in this country often exceed their crime. Political instances aside — and they are many and brutal — a servant at the Estate where I am staying had recently been fired for the infraction of ‘dancing his way back to the kitchen’. In fairness, his dance was merely an instance of his broad-spectrum indifference to work, but I have to say when I heard the news my sympathies were with the dancer. I had seen animals, too — normally protected by the Buddhist precept of nonviolence — suffer the harsh consequences of their actions. In order to ease the minds of the Estate’s foreign guests, the staff are on order to kill any snake, poisonous or not, that winds its way into the vicinity of the bungalow. I regretted that I had already been the cause of two snake deaths: one, a thin black snake that I was certain was harmless, had run across my foot and coiled beside me on the verandah. I was trying to shoo it, when two men arrived and poked it with a long stick, so that the snake raised its diminutive head, spread an impressive hood, and was whipped to death. The other one, which I was uncertain as to whether it was a viper or a garter snake, drifted into my courtyard one morning, seemingly unconcerned that I had been there first (or at least I hoped I had). When I asked that the snake be removed, despite it being identified as harmless, it received the same treatment as the cobra. And so I made a vow, which thankfully has not so far been tested, that I would suffer the next snake I encountered in silence. And so this was my thinking in the long minutes after the face appeared and disappeared above the courtyard wall. I knew that if alerted my hosts to the Peeping Tom, as I came to think of him, he would not have been beaten or anything that Medieval, but he would possibly lose his job — as might his family, who were also employed by the Estate. Given the egregious poverty and unemployment in this country, that seemed something I couldn’t risk.

So I lay in bed, feeling the bile rise to my throat, yet unable to act. As a foreigner, I felt altogether too powerful — like a giant whose disgruntled yell could flatten a village. The Peeping Tom had maleness on his side, for I admit the possibility of rape had crossed my mind (it was difficult not to think about it, knowing that two female tourists had recently been raped at a nearby beach). Nonetheless, my foreign passport and more money in my pockets than most people here earn in a month seemed a lethal combination. For a moment I felt sorry for the Peeping Tom, feeling myself succumb, perhaps, to a mild version of the Stockholm Syndrome, in which the victim falls in love with, and then protects, the kidnapper. But the feeling, as it arose, dissolved when I remembered what has since become the ‘sickening’ smile that rose with the face above the wall. I had that odd feeling people sometimes get when they have not been the victims of violence exactly but feel, nonetheless, violated. I had seen it once in the face of a friend, who returned home to find her house broken into and, although nothing had been taken, her underwear drawer had been rummaged and the knickknacks on her dresser rearranged. She felt sick, she said, and would rather the burglar had taken the television than have touched her underwear and personal possessions. Of course she quickly recanted: ‘well, not the plasma screen but maybe the CD player.’ She waivered again so I suggested the clock radio, and we both dissolved into laughter. But it was nervous laughter and that, too, soon dissolved. ‘It just makes me feel a little sick’, she said scrunching up her face.

And that’s how I felt as I dressed, brushed my teeth, and looked out at the lichen flaring on the courtyard wall: a little sick. But the truth is, the fact of the Peeping Tom didn’t really come as a surprise. The Lonely Planet had advised modesty for women travellers in this country and warned in the earthy register emblematic of that publication: ‘the sight of a woman, foreign but not necessarily, is enough to make a few men masturbate on the spot’. And there was another reason that it was not surprising, one that had to do with the bungalow itself. Situated inside three acres of jungle, it had been the private residence of a prominent architect, who had established a trust so that, upon his death, artists might stay here and work (which was in fact the reason for my visit). The architect’s bungalow intrigued me as much as his artist’s statement, which I will extract and reword to protect the implicated: ‘For myself a building can only be comprehended moving around and through it and by experiencing its intonations and its poetics of space, of light, as one moves through — from the exterior onto verandahs, into rooms, passages, courtyards — the view then from these spaces into other spaces, the view through to gardens and sky beyond, and from outside the building, the view back through rooms into inner rooms and central courts’. As I moved through the bungalow, experiencing its intonations and considering the play of light from the shaded inner spaces to the celebration of light in the courtyards, I considered the man who had created it. Being of the writerly persuasion and therefore given to creating characters from fragments and traces — a cynic might say given to conjecture and lies—I gradually understood that the prominent architect was a voyeur in the supreme. But this observation, however extreme and to some ungenerous, was not entirely of my own making. In an initial tour of the bungalow, my host had pointed out a small window with wooden shutters that, when opened, looked across an internal courtyard directly into the shower of one of the guest rooms. ‘He was a wicked man’, the host said, meaning by his tone that the architect was playful.

So in the bedroom I was granted for the duration of my stay, I knew to look for angles of vision that might lend to spying. I had surveyed the height of the courtyard wall and deemed it high enough to guarantee privacy, as was (I thought) the external wall of the open-air bathroom that housed, between it and the shower, a small jungle in which I saw, at various times, not only frogs but also an iguana, a possum, kingfisher, and hundreds of fireflies whose luminescence made the ‘fairy lights’ strung on trees in my home city seem garish and hopelessly mechanical by comparison. With each cold water shower, I knew the eyes of the jungle were on me, but it was human eyes that troubled me. I found myself asking, what is it the architect wants to see? And it was this question that led me to an undersized and seemingly unnecessary door near the bed. Examining it from outside the room, I found, in addition to an antique keyhole, three tiny holes that had been drilled into the corners of the door’s panelling. They  seemed too small to be of consequence, but having checked that there were no such holes on any other door in the house, I bent down to take a peek and there I found my answer. Each hole provided a telescopic view of the bed from a variant perspective so that, together with the keyhole, the whole room could be surveyed. Being conscious of my role as guest, I said nothing of my discovery to my hosts but plugged the holes with little wads of paper and hung my sarong over the inside of the door. I was happy enough knowing that anyone who tried to use the peepholes would not only be thwarted but would know I was onto them. And then, so I thought, I could relax.

And I did relax, until the incident of the Peeping Tom. Fear is easy to describe but it can be difficult to defend. Without our permission or even our awareness, it can set up residence inside muscle and along nerve fibres, and its release can be explosive. Where before my eyes had enjoyed the ruinous courtyard wall, with its lichens and orchids, now my gaze turned upward to the open air above it, and every view out became paired with the view in. The first evening after the incident, I grew uneasy so I closed the shutters, locked the windows, and drew the curtains against the night. Noises I had learned to live with — pole cats in the ceiling, monkeys in the bamboo, bats swerving close to a window — rattled me to the point of sleeplessness. In the darkness, my ears became my eyes, alert to the tiny, practically inaudible variations of sound that occur even in an apparently quiet room; to the sometimes invisible border between sound and silence; the almost imperceptible sense of time passing; and the usually insignificant interval between when we hear something and when it had actually happened. I like to think that I am not a fearful person, that I am somewhat savvy and confident, a person who lives many mental detours away from traditional female frailties, but this is not something my body that night was convinced of. And so when a frog strayed from the bathroom and leaped onto the lampshade near my bed some time around midnight, my body screamed so loud I frightened myself even deeper.

It had occurred to me, even before the incident of the Peeping Tom, that the pleasure of seeing is at odds with the fear of being seen. Everything in nature wants to be hidden, except perhaps when inviting a mate or warning a predator. Here in the jungle, where survival depends on seeing and not being seen, the law is perhaps amplified: the chameleon takes on the green of a leaf, the mantis the brown line of a twig, the leopard merges with the dappled light of the forest.  Anthropologists have argued that fear of the Other, of their eyes in particular, is fundamental to our survival and ties us with invisible strings directly to the caves and predators of our ancestors. Eyes, though long romanticised as ‘the windows to the soul’, bring with them the shock of the food chain, which Joseph Campbell says is the basis of the human need for myth. Even in the ‘concrete jungle’ of cities, we want to be hidden — we call it anonymity — and we fight and invent laws to protect our privacies. Exhibitionists might consider themselves exceptions but, given that their pleasure arises from their knowledge that they are being watched, they are empowered in otherwise powerless circumstances. Even the escalating number of internet ‘cam girls’, who broadcast their digital nakedness to the world, would fear, I think, the unauthorised gaze of a stranger’s camera. Men too, however much they may joke that they’d like to be object of the sexual gaze, are not immune — as I recently observed when a woman tourist stopped to watch a man loop a rope around his ankles and climb a coconut tree, stopping halfway up to catch his breath — his muscles glowing like glazed stone — he slid down the trunk, jumping the last two metres, when he saw that the woman’s telescopic lens was aimed directly, but unintentionally I think, up his sarong.

All tourists are guilty of voyeurism. We are pilgrims without a tradition, paying exorbitant airfares to circle the world in the hope of getting insight into another culture, of seeing its artifacts, its architecture, and its people. Which is why one synonym of tourist is ‘sight-seer’. The locals in any country resent, or at least ridicule, tourists for their gawking and picture-taking, but they suffer them for the money they drop on the community. Of course, the tourist’s gaze is not overtly sexual, though sometimes it is —as the local gaze can be, sometimes, when it stares back at the tourist. And I, although preferring a journal and pen to a camera, am also implicated. I came to this country to write, to be inspired by what I would see and experience, and moreover, as Jung phrased it, to see myself again ‘in the simple and forgotten things’. And that’s how I came to find myself where I stand now: on the worn steps of an ancient temple, taking pleasure in observing the people of this country observe their gods, observing the people observing me, and in my notebook observing the observation.

Which makes me, like the architect, a voyeur in the supreme. And also, in some weird way, like the Peeping Tom — who I had been doing well to put out of my mind with this visit to the temple. Which is not to say I came here because of the incident — to do so would be to conflate it to the point of melodrama — but I will say it was on my mind as I approached and saw, with more than my eyes, the beauty of the lime-washed temple protruding above the tree line, a beauty that comes out of time and tradition, that transcends transgression, and also the tenderness that time can bring despite its hard history. I saw too that there are times when we want not only to see but to be seen, times that have nothing to do with mating or warnings, but everything to do with presence. And that the view inward, of ourselves, our vulnerabilities and predilections, our hopes and imperfections, is as important as the view outward. Earlier, I had removed the plank that the Peeping Tom had used as a step to gaze over the courtyard wall, and I placed it in a rather obvious way on the ground nearby. I knew full well that this would not prevent him from reassembling the perch and peeping again if so inclined (though now, at the expense of the morning view, my curtains are drawn), but I did it with the hope that Tom, as I have come to think of him, will understand that he too had been seen. And that’s the best I can hope for — that our eyes will lock, metaphorically, in the uneasy balance of truce.

Originally published in Griffith Review (Summer 2006): 121–29. Reprinted in The Age   (3 Jan 2007) A2: 10–11.

Author: bronwynlea

Bronwyn Lea is the author of four books of poems: Flight Animals; The Wooden Cat and Other Poems; The Other Way Out; and The Deep North: A Selection of Poems. Her poems are widely anthologised, appearing most recently in Thirty Australian Poets, Australian Poetry Since 1788, Sixty Classic Australian Poems, and The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry. As Poetry Editor at the University of Queensland Press her list included award-winning titles by Australia’s most distinguished poets – David Malouf, John Tranter, Laurie Duggan, John Kinsella, and many others. In 2011 she was appointed the inaugural editor of Australian Poetry Journal. Bronwyn reviews poetry, fiction and non-fiction for a number of literary pages, and she is a Politics and Society columnist at The Conversation. She lives in Brisbane and teaches literature and writing at the University of Queensland.

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