Before He Left the Family | Carrie Tiffany #AUSshortstory

Before he left the family, my father worked as a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company. He travelled from chemist to chemist with samples of pills and lotions and pastes in the back of his Valiant station wagon. The best sales representatives visited modern chemists in the city and suburbs. My father had to drive long distances to country chemists who had stocked the same product lines for years and weren’t interested in anything new.

Carrie Tiffany and Gregory Day were the joint winners of the 2011 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Tiffany’s story was titled Before He Left the Family. You can read it here at the ABR website. It is also in my anthology of The Story: 100 Great Short Stories Written by Women chosen by Victoria Hislop as well as The BBC International Short Story Award book published 30 September 2012.

Bill @The Australian Legend hosts a Gen Week every January that focuses on Australian Women Writers. 2023 is Gen 5 “the generation of women who began writing in the 1990s up till now (early 2023)“. Bill has picked out two major trends from this period – the rise of First Nations literature and the use of Science Fiction, in particular climate fiction/dystopian and what I call speculative fiction. There are obviously more, and readers can take their Gen 5 reading in any direction they choose. With this in mind, I’ve been searching through my short story collections for possibilities this past week or so.

Carrie Tiffany was born in Yorkshire, England in 1965. Her family emigrated to Perth, WA in the early 1970’s. After finishing school, she took up a job as a park ranger in Central Australia. In 1988 she moved to Melbourne to take up agricultural journalism. Her debut novel was Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living (2005). Thanks to her previous careers, Tiffany not only views the landscape differently to most of us, she is also

…interested in the myth and symbolism around the idea of the head of the family and the father. I’m probably interested in pushing that more broadly to the universal father, and then I’m interested in masculinity and in men.

Carrie Tiffany | The Garret podcast

This may have had something to do with her parents marriage falling apart when she was 11, and her father moving all the way to the other side of the country to Sydney.

Before He Left the Family is the story of a family breakdown told from the perspective of the teenage son, Kevin. Both boys know that their parents only married because their mum got pregnant on the first date.

It was not a happy household, Dad drank too much and both boys took solace in the Playboy magazines that their dad kept in the garage. The separation was even messier.

My father never came to the house again. He took a job interstate. The telephone calls became less and less frequent, then they stopped. The first year, with the anticipation that he might write or ring on our birthdays or at Christmas, was confusing, but things settled down after that.

Kevin reveals later in the story that his father had told him one night that he was in love with another woman and really wanted to marry her instead, but he had to marry his mother because she was pregnant…with him. As time goes by, Kevin becomes concerned that people think he is his mother’s lover rather than a son…he regularly looses himself in the fantasy of Playboy photos and stories…the tone he uses to tells us about this lets us know he thinks they are ridiculous and not real, yet they also somehow tap into some deeper wish fulfilment or hopefulness centred around his father.

Stories about belonging and loss always stir my sympathies. Kevin clearly wanted to find something about his father that he could connect with or admire. His final summation broke my heart.

I want Nathan to understand that our mother was never going to make things work with our father. She was the wrong girl. And because she was the wrong girl, Nathan and I were the wrong sons. It could never have been any other way.

I’m going to throw out a wild claim for consideration that another trend in Australian women Gen 5 writers is intergenerational family trauma.

A large number of the books I have read in the past decade or so, feature family dysfunction, marriage breakdowns, trauma, as well as the sexual, physical and psychological abuse of children. Unhappy families have been written about since time immemorial, or at least since Tolstoy. But there is a new millenium bleakness or grimness to many of the unhappy family stories being written at the moment. With all we have supposedly learnt about human relations, we still keep on making the same mistakes. Marrying the wrong person for the wrong reasons, dependency on drugs and alcohol, passing on our own suffering to our children, repeat. A large number of these stories are written from the child’s point of view.

Perhaps it has something to do with all the research now available – beginning in the 1970’s – about the effects of trauma on war veterans. It didn’t take long for the psychologists to make the link to other types of trauma. All this data, all this knowledge about PTSD is now being fed into our stories. The rise in First Nations literature during this time may also be linked to our growing understanding about intergenerational trauma and grief. I wonder?

Is this trend towards grim domestic realism in literature something you’ve noticed too? Is it different from the unhappy family stories of old?

  • Gen 5 Reading week runs from 15-22 January.
Dates Read: 8 January 2023
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

13 thoughts on “Before He Left the Family | Carrie Tiffany #AUSshortstory

  1. I’ve lost count of the number of times that Australian prize judges have noted that their choices are about family trauma. It’s a perennial, but to pique my interest, IMHO a book (though not a short story) needs to be about something else as well, such as some kind of nod to social issues or historical events at the time.


    1. I was thinking how many of the trauma stories I read in the 90’s & 00’s were socio-economic/class/poverty in nature (sometimes with a war backdrop). But the more recent ones have a social justice #metoo or #blacklivesmatter message with a real focus on the impact of this on children. Not that these didn’t exist before (To Kill a Mockingbird jumps to mind) it’s just that there are so many more of them at the moment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think that’s what bothers me… it’s as if social equity and the elimination of poverty are issues that have gone away — and they haven’t. And while the focus is on what happens to individuals, the structural issues that affect whole generations not just individuals are off the radar and nobody cares about them any more. Here we are with what is supposed to be a progressive government and yet it’s done almost nothing to relieve extreme poverty.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Bob Hawke’s declaration that ‘by 1990 no child will be living in poverty….’ still seems like a dream. A quick search shows that ‘17.4 per cent of children are living in poverty – that is, 731,000 children.’ How does this happen in a modern world with so much privilege!


  2. Such a great post and conversation ladies. I do see and ponder the same. I have been living and working in poverty stricken schools, and the situation is bleak. It doesn’t look like 21st century America’s image that we were “promised”. I have noticed this in documentaries and movies too, not to mention music.

    It also worries me to see how specialization in a dehumanizing way is back -or never left. We’re not avant-garde, people maybe talks about it in a freer way but it’s happening and in high numbers.


  3. It changed sexualization to specialization (but maybe it’s both), and I don’t live in poor schools, in the area of the schools. Children these days are more similar to Dickensian children than we think. Technology is another labor slavery. Covid covered reality, now it’s been exposed for what it is, and it’s very bleak, feudal at the base still, classist and racist still.


    1. How far we’ve come in some ways; and yet in others nothing changes. For capitalism to thrive, it needs those who have, own, accumulate and those who do the wage labor. Without a social policy-minded government to provide support, people, families, children fall through the cracks. Certainly it feels like all the power is in the hands of the big bosses right now.

      Both Lisa and I were teachers too. Sadly since my teacher training days over 30 yrs ago, the situation for so many children has not improved at all. All our new technology is just another thing for them to miss out on having. Our new PM has universal childcare as one of his ultimate aims. He has to couch it in economic terms (ie more women working therefore better for the economy) when in fact it is what early childhood educationalists have been crying out for for decades – to somehow gather in those who are currently missing out/slipping through the gaps.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You speak wisely. I also see that those social policies, by the time they’re executed, the ruthless capitalist or the ones with power, have their ways of no allowing that money or service to get to the one intended for (long lines, impossible to make appointments, schools students crowded and understaffed because of zip codes where housing is so bad only those at the bottom of society live. Zip code is modern segregation imo.


  4. I’m sure there are children who are ‘unwanted’, though I’m not sure being born of unloving parents is a frequent cause.
    I’m not planning to run a second Gen 5 Week. But I’m happy for you to argue here for themes for Gen 5 other than SFF. I probably avoid inter-generational trauma as a subject matter for my reading, though I enjoy first novels which explore coming of age.


    1. I’m rather over inter-generational trauma in books too (unless it’s wrapped up in an historical or social context), but I’m trying to read more of the short stories in my various anthologies.


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