And Now …

Dear Reader, the image above is of one slightly congested but delighted writer who has just signed the contract for How To Avoid A Happy Life in the very apt environs of Rabble Books and Games in Maylands.

The idea of having someone in Australia read the manuscript was, quite frankly, nerve-wracking. (My dear mentor Howard Norman is at a comfortable distance in the US, and also, like any midwife, and used to seeing all the messy bits along the way).

The manuscript is very long, longer than my PhD was, and I feared it might be A Bit Much. To be fair, living it has been A Bit Much too, at times, so I would have had sympathy had that been the response.

Happily, that was very much not the response.

Happily, I got a Friday afternoon call from publisher Georgia Richter at Fremantle Press, which was the dream of every writer.

Happily, the contract is signed and countersigned, and will be toasted by me with alcohol free something or other during the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival, where I am shortly off to.

I’ve already started on the acknowledgements, to thank the people who got me through the living of the life as well as the writing of the book, even though it won’t be out until some time next year.

And among these are you, readers of this blog. Thanks for sharing the journey thus far, and I’m unutterably relieved that we will be able to continue it.


Minds Went Walking

Dear Reader, it’s been a long time – months!

Since last I wrote, I am pleased to report that I have completed a proper draft of How to Avoid a Happy Life, and am awaiting marked up pages from my mentor, Howard Norman, without whom it would not be finished at all. He has brought to it and to me his wisdom, wit, and incisive but kind criticism. There have been a few times during the drafting that I’ve felt that going on was beyond me, that I could not do the subject matter justice, or fulsomely explain this thing or that thing, or put certain matters into the context I would like them to be in. But Howard always is at hand with an apt quote or a comforting observation – including, at a particular juncture during which taking a vow of silence seemed appealing, that writing a memoir will drive even the most experienced writer to despair. That a memoir is not stenography.

The memoirs I have been reading lately have reinforced to me that a story well told is more powerful than fiction. Recently, I’ve read and adored:

Found, Wanting by Natasha Sholl

Big Love by Brooke Blurton

The Sins of My Father by Lily Dunn

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

Memoir is a way of working out what happened, and putting it in context and order: done well, they are windows into the lives of others which deepen our understanding of how to live, how others live, and how we might regard others with kindness. All of these books do that and more.

In other (related) news, I am over the moon that the first narrative non-fiction piece I’ve published for some years – also dealing with some of the same subject matter appearing in one of the memoir’s chapters – has appeared in a fine collection called Minds Went Walking: Paul Kelly’s Songs Reimagined, edited by Mark Smith, Neil A. White, and Jock Serong. My piece is entitled Dumb Things, set in 1987 and 1988, mostly in the Sydney I’d hitched to with my friend Carita. You don’t have to love Paul Kelly to pick up the collection and enjoy it, but if you do, you’ll feel a deep sense of communion with this book.

Faking tough, 1987

Which brings me to one of the things I was saying to Howard in our most recent Zoom conversation. The memoir is called, as you know, How to Avoid a Happy Life. It is arranged, as you may have guessed if you’ve been a reader of this blog, around difficult events and experiences that have had force fields of their own. I hope that others, reading, will take comfort from tales from certain trenches. However, I have had the luck to have deep and abiding friendships, to have loved and been loved – not always, and not always consistently – but this has sustained me. And books, music, writing. Dogs and sunsets. And to have learned from my mother, ornery as she was, to lift your chin and keep going, no matter what, and especially no matter what people think. There have been times where I’ve felt ambivalent, to put it mildly, about life and the events it has visited on me and those I love, but mostly, I am grateful to have experienced it all.

I’m also grateful to have finished writing about it, for now.


Experience Vicarious Trauma through Your Friend Being Raped and Murdered by a Japanese Serial Killer

Dear Reader, despite what could be seen as the flippant heading, this has been the hardest chapter of my memoir to write. I completed a draft some time ago but needed to go back and fill it in. The chapter title reflects the gallows humour necessary for living with what even after all this time seems unreal, something which never should have happened. Writing the chapter has also required me to think about the continuum of abuse and exploitation, particularly from people in positions of power and authority, that was a constant feature of Carita’s life from when I first met her to her death at 21.

For several decades I have been reticent to speak about what happened to me, to us, at the child and adolescent hospital which no longer exists, although I have given evidence to one inquiry, three criminal trials and one royal commission. I am proud that the evidence I gave in those trials contributed to keeping a former child and adolescent psychiatrist, Ian Stuart McAlpine, from practicing again after the first trial in 1997; and then to his imprisonment in 2018. I am glad, now, that Grace Tame has been so determined to show survivors that silence is part of shaming, among other things.

This chapter will, in time, be dedicated to the survivors.

As I walked across the violently striped carpet from the flight of stairs I’d just ascended and up to the candy bar, I found it necessary to tell myself not to stare.

Carita was standing to one side of the freezers in which the teeth-breaking choc bombs were stored after we made them out the back. I’d seen pretty girls before, but Carita was something else: high-cheekboned, perfectly proportioned to my sixteen-year-old eyes, ridiculously graceful in her carriage and gestures. Immediately I understood this girl was from another planet, and there was no way I would have anything in common with her: just the sight of her made me feel awkward in my skin. It wasn’t that I was comparing myself to Carita: she was so beautiful that there was no point. She was yet more proof of why the only place I belonged was in the psych hospital I was about to enter, no doubt filled with awkward, depressed misfits like myself. Carita symbolised a type of existence, pleasing and easy to navigate, so far from me that merely looking at her evinced a bittersweet longing for the imagined and the impossible.

There were a number of casual candy bar staff employed at the cinema, all from the same public but upmarket school which resembled mine in no way at all.  They were to a person lovely but groomed the way my cousin’s private school girlfriends were, having opinions about clothing, eye makeup and skincare completely alien to mine, and were full of gems of wisdom about topics such as why you should never wear tights darker than your dress, and other information I couldn’t believe anyone cared about. Carita was evidently drawn from this group, dressed in the same studied casual way, curls of her beach-girl hair framing her heart-shaped face.

One of the casuals, emerging from the back room, now said, ‘Hey, Jules, this is Carita.’

Then Carita smiled, and all the longing that her unreasonably good looks had generated dissolved. Her smile was kind, and shy, and made me want to protect her from the base impurity of the world.

I was definitely, I concluded, going mad. Just as well I was going to a mental hospital, I joked to myself.

‘Carita’s from my school,’ the casual confirmed. ‘She’s your replacement.’

One of the doormen sidled up, leaning his beefy forearms on the black counter top. ‘Hi Carita,’ he said to her. To me he said, ‘What a replacement, eh?’

I wanted to punch him right in the middle of his smug supercilious smile.

‘She’s way out of your league,’ I hissed in his ear.

‘Not like you, eh?’

When the casual invited Carita to come to lunch with us, my awkwardness reappeared. I didn’t eat, instead blustering on about how I was quitting because I was going to a loony bin for teenagers, and how I hoped I would get better, and how I wanted to go back to school at the new senior college that had opened. Carita offered that she had just left school, even though she was in year ten and technically wasn’t allowed to, and gave me a look I couldn’t decipher. For all the world it seemed that she wanted to say something to me. What could she possibly want to say, I wondered as I walked back down the steps, away from the cinema and my perfect replacement and the reminders of all the bad decisions I’d made. I was relieved to be stepping out of my own life, to no longer have to put up with the exhausting rounds of trying and failing to control my eating, my thoughts, my tedious self. By going into hospital, I was admitting failure. I had defeated myself. The fight, I thought, was over.

Gwen dropped me at the hospital on Sunday morning, before the other residents had returned from weekend leave later in the afternoon. The hospital was an old, two-storey building at the end of a long driveway, obscured by pine trees. The stairs creaked as we climbed them to see my single room with its plain old dressing table and view of a shiny tin roof and the home for autistic children behind the hospital. Gwen did her best to look sober and normal, then hightailed it back to Kelmscott in her purple Kingswood, perhaps to reflect on being the parent of a teenager in a psychiatric hospital, or perhaps to drink an extra King Brown to put hold on the feelings that may have attended such reflection.

When I came downstairs, I found that an ex-resident had dropped in for a cup of tea.

‘Hey Stuart,’ she said to the nurse. ‘Remember when I made Sue that smashed glass sandwich?’

‘You lot were the worst,’ Stuart said.

‘She didn’t eat it, but,’ the ex-resident smiled.

I was relieved when the other new resident arrived. She was awkward-looking, overweight, and when we sat at the dining table to have lunch, she started emitting quiet sobs. After a few moments, I joined in.

‘Oh, come on,’ joked Stuart. ‘We’re not that bad, are we?’

I wondered what the other residents would be like. Would it be One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest-style mayhem, complete with smashed glass sandwiches? Would it be inhabited with Sylvia Plaths and Virginia Woolfs, tortured geniuses whose suffering produced unsurpassable works that spoke to the souls of people like me? Or would there be merely lots of muted sobbing, as at the lunch table?

I watched as the other residents returned from weekend leave with their parents or parent-substitutes. One girl stomped wordlessly up the stairs, leaving her mother wide-eyed at the bottom. The parents seemed uniformly anxious and unsmiling. Their offspring were a variable lot: a couple of normal-looking girls, a soft-looking boy who hid behind his fringe, a girl who yelled rather than spoke, a boy who ran up and poked the yelling girl, and ran off again. Stuart introduced me as people came in, but they didn’t seem particularly interested. I sat and shredded a paper napkin into tiny pieces, trying to listen without looking.

Then a quiet voice said, ‘Hi.’

It was Carita.


Musings from memoir-land

Dear Reader, it has been an eventful time (London! Liverpool! COVID! Glasgow!) and I have been remiss on updating you on memoir progress, which has led some to surmise I have stopped.

I reached the 100k word count (yay!) at almost the same point that I realised the degree of difficulty of the enterprise (boo!) – no, that’s not quite true. I knew certain parts were going to be tricky, but answering the ‘What were you thinking?’ query is proving difficult to be able to answer in a way that is full, honest and makes a conveyable kind of sense. Sometimes, in life, you are only vaguely aware of why you or others are doing things: sometimes, it is only in retrospect, with reconstruction, that you can see the tapestry and not the stitching, but to write a memoir the answer cannot be ‘Nothing/Ten Different Things/I Don’t Really Know.’

The complicating factor of trauma is that the techniques you learn to survive it aren’t very helpful in trying to describe its impact on you. Mentally vacating the room, for example, is exactly what you need to do when you’re stuck in a situation you can’t physically escape; but describing that process, and what led to you needing to mentally vacate the room, without either glossing over it or depressing the bejesus out of the reader – well, it’s harder than it seems.

And then: what do you do with the happy bits? Like, you know, ABBA. Well, music in general. Writing about any life attunes you (ha) to the through-lines both of pain and joy. For me, music has been an enriching delight, and I remain grateful for who gave me the love of music – my mother, Mrs Sally Christmass, our wonderful music teacher and choir conductor, and ABBA, my pop-music gateway. To my great surprise, I am now an enthusiastic intermediate student of cello, in spite of physical conditions that once would have prevented me, and rehearsing with my musical-partner-in-broken-consorting, Nikki Jones. Again, how to describe the role music, and the friendships forged in music, has had without inducing eye-rolls in a reader?

The only way out is through, in writing and in life, and so I am writing and re-writing, paring and shaping.

And: if you get the chance to go to the ABBA Voyage concert in London, you’d be hard pressed to find more joy in one place.


Be born an introverted singleton

Dear Reader, I have been reflecting a lot on what writing is, what it is for, and why I am compelled to do it. In part this is because the announcement of the Western Australian Writer’s Fellowship is approaching, and one of my fellow shortlistees and I discussed the joy of recognition which is mixed with a certain anxiety.

To write, you cannot be invested in the outcome, I have learned from long and hard experience. You write because of the delight of putting words together, because of the satisfaction of telling a story in the best possible way your talents allow, because it is the thing you are happiest doing. I have been publishing novels for more than two decades now, and the world of writing – both the actual writing and the events around publishing, which are two different things – has brought me huge joy, occasional despair, and prompted regular soul-searching, often on the same day.

But there is a deeper reason to the why for me, and that is because of how writing has allowed me to connect with others. The reasons for this are below. Publishing, it seems to me, is like the performance I learned in year three, but writing is the thing beneath.

According to Gwen’s family, I was an overly sensitive, fussy, and/or whinging child. I was compared to my boisterous, fearless male cousin in the first instance, and my sweet natured younger girl cousins in the second, and found wanting. Although I was told my family loved me, my predominant memories of adult relatives are coloured by their mild impatience with me, their shared frowns and head-shaking, which occasionally erupted into outright irritation.

A range of behaviours was produced in evidence of the ways in which I was difficult. To whit:

I was fussy with food. I did not like eating vegetables, eggs, or meat. I choked on sausage skin and was taken to hospital to check for a swallowing disorder; I vomited eggs; the smell of cooking mince made me feel faint. I would only eat the icing off cake after smooshing the un-icing part into a wodge in my hand.  If I was not able to eat toast and Vegemite at someone’s house, I was liable to collapse into an inconsolable heap and require taking home.

I had a series of anxieties and phobias. Each night I packed a small bag my mother had made me with my favourite teddy and nightie and slept with it at the foot of my bed, in case there was a fire. I went through a long phase in which I refused to wear anything other than pyjamas, and a longer phase where I would not go anywhere without my mini-dictionary, yellow covered with a blue L on its front. If anybody gave me a present I didn’t like, the object would induce a terror in me to the extent that the giver needed to remove it from the house. I was convinced there was a redback on every toilet seat, like the song, and would not sit on a toilet unless I’d checked.

I did not much like other children, unless they were my cousins, and I found adults even more alien, expecting behaviours of me that I did not understand. I clung to my mother, who pushed me away, which made me cling more. Gwen had an extended family who lived in the south west, and we often visited their houses or farms. I liked dairies and cats, but hated being in the strange-smelling houses of great aunties and uncles. I went to kindergarten for a few days, was horrified by the boisterousness of the other children, and refused to go back. My mother tried peeling my fingers from where I gripped them, hiding behind the white vinyl armchair, but as soon as she peeled one hand off I’d reattach the other.

My unfitness to be a regular child was deemed to be chiefly my mother’s fault for not using corporal punishment, or, in the alternative, for failing to produce additional offspring so that I would not have been An Only Child. In the 70s everybody knew that Only Children were bossy, selfish, strange, barely human, pitiable creatures who, if their numbers increased, could well be responsible for the downfall of society. The other fault was mine, for being born shy, sensitive, and anxious, when I was not being bossy and selfish etc.

When compulsory schooling began, I wept every morning before school until I was in year three. The terror began building as we approached the school and I saw children milling outside; the prospect of getting out and walking among them caused me to panic. Gwen would sometimes comfort me, sometimes snap at me, and other times try to reason with me to stop snivelling and go to class. One time, she was so frustrated she opened the car door, placed her 70s wedge heel against my hip and booted me out. This was witnessed by my classmate April, who was indignant at the maltreatment I’d endured, and marched me up to her older sister saying, ‘You won’t believe what Julie’s mum just did!’

All I wanted to do was to either be with my mother, to play in my paddling pool, or to lie in the back yard on a blanket, clutching my teddy bear, watching the clouds drift along. ‘You’d do it for hours,’ Gwen would later tell me with mild disapproval. ‘I used to wonder what you were thinking.’

One day I cried at school, in year three, not because Gwen had booted me out of the car, but because I was mortified to discover that I’d left on my summer pyjama bloomers instead of putting on knickers. I was so distressed I couldn’t stop crying and had to go sit outside. My teacher Mrs James squatted down before me and told me it didn’t matter one bit, and nobody would know. As she squatted, I got sight of her white cottontails in the small gap between her substantial thighs, perhaps proving that even sight of a knicker need not cause a person to dissemble. Gwen was not called; I survived the day in pyjama pants and never forgot my proper knickers again.

Mrs James was a fearsome woman, terrifying even the toughest of the boys. But not long after the knicker incident, I was having another fit of paralysing shyness and weeping before school: my best friend Nobbly wasn’t there, and I was inconsolable. Gwen, in a state of irritation and despair, delivered me to the classroom and muttered something to Mrs James.

Mrs James had noticed that the one time I openly showed enthusiasm in class was during reading of any variety. I loved silent reading, the fifteen minutes after lunchtime where everyone had to read material of their choice to themselves. I loved going to the library and choosing new books – I cared little for their topic or genre, I only wanted new words to read, as I had so few at home I was forced to read the same titles over and over again. And when we had to take turns reading aloud, I shot my hand up to be picked, hoping I would get the longest paragraph with the most difficult words. I cringed at the slowness with which some of my classmates stumbled over sentences, how blankly they intoned the syllables which swung and sang when I read them to myself. The pleasing rhythm of The Tale of the Custard Dragon (with its ‘realio, trulio, little pet dragon’) was enough to create waves of wonder, paroxysms of pleasure: how did mere humans write such marvels? Surely God (the nice God of Sunday school, as opposed to the fierce God of church) must be helping them. The only people more special than writers were ABBA (more of which later).

‘I have something special for Julie,’ Mrs James said.

I thought this might be a ruse to get me into my seat, but not long after the day began, Mrs James handed out a play to a select group of students, which included me. I don’t recall what the play was about, or anything about my role, but before recess the players assembled at the front of the classroom to perform our piece. It was all the fun of reading aloud, the delight of reading to and with others, and of adding little flourishes as I went. I remember appreciative laughter, surprise applause, and the happy flush that came over me as I returned to my seat.

‘Julie was a star,’ Mrs James reported to Gwen later that afternoon.

I understood that I had, inadvertently, been taught a trick. You did not have to show your raw self to others; you could coat it with a veneer of confidence, and nobody would know the difference. I could feel terrified, sure, but I didn’t have to show it. I could play a version of myself as a role, and my real self could remain tucked away, observing, hidden.

Excellent preparation for life.

Look em in the eye and pretend

Life in a northern town

Dear Reader, you’ll be pleased to know that the trauma in this bit of the memoir is off-screen. I wanted to share this for two reasons: one, COVID-permitting, I’ll be going back to the UK shortly and so have been thinking about my vastly contrasting previous visits (the first features here); and secondly, my dad will hopefully soon be out of hospital, where he has spent the greater part of the week. His main concern was that I go to the UK as planned, revisiting the hometown I don’t think he’ll get to see again.

(PS My gran gets her own feature later on in the memoir.)

When my parents met, Derek had not long decanted from the north of England, arriving by boat as a ten-pound Pom. Upon being unable to find a regular job, he became a regular in the army, and promptly got shipped off first to Malaya, and then to Vietnam. At the time he met my mother, he was handsome, drily funny, and escaping from the misery of having been brought up first in an orphanage in post-war Lancashire, where he was roundly ignored, then in a group home, where the house mother took a vicious dislike to him.

As well as finding Dad handsome and as gentle as her father was harsh, Gwen felt sorry for the deprivation he had endured, the hunger he’d lived with, the neglect in the orphanage which he preferred to the abuse meted out by the house mother. She might have been beaten to the point of brain injury, but at least she had parents.

Derek had parents too, though, or at least one that I knew of, growing up. He brought Gran and his sister over from Warrington. Gwen thought Gran was peculiar because once she arrived in Australia at the age of forty-four, she never made a single friend. She was as a tiny, bird-boned woman who rarely spoke at family gatherings. She kept the television on at all hours, and only left her flat when Dad and I took her shopping on Saturday morning, or she visited her daughter’s house. Everything in her flat was covered in plastic: the chairs, the settee, the spare bed, and every single item in the cupboard or fridge found themselves wrapped in several layers of plastic bag, cling wrap, or, in the case of the chairs, the protective covering they were delivered in.

Gran hailed from an Irish Catholic family from County Mayo, the county hardest hit by the Irish Famine of the 1840s, who escaped to poverty of a different kind in the Irish-thick county of Lancashire.

Gran and my aunty Jean had conversational grooves which, once set upon, played out in a Becket-like manner:

Jean: Mum’s family came from Ireland, you know.

Gran: County Mayo. We had a house.

Jean: A house with no roof.

Gran: Aye. No roof at all.

I found this sentence which was charmingly whimsical: I imagined my gingerbread house birthday cake after my cousins had been at it. It was only when I met an elderly Irishman that I discovered that this was a reference to the crimes of the English: during the famine, and the subsequent economic collapse, English landlords set fire to the thatched roofs of their tenant farmers if they were unable to pay rent.

Jean: Mum’s brothers were all handsome fellas, weren’t they, Mum?

Gran: Street angels, home devils.

Jean: But lookers.

Gran: Oh yes. Easy on the eye, they were.

My father’s lifelong hatred of idlers, bludgers and wastrels stemmed from his blame of my grandmother’s feckless brothers, but for whom he and my aunty would have grown up among family instead of the cold halls of the Padgate orphanage. One brother was a gambler, the other a drinker. Gran was fonder of one then the other: in the brief period of his life when he had initiative, Thomas headed to London, expecting its streets to be paved with gold, instead finding himself destitute in a city that hated northerners almost as much as it did foreigners. Thomas lumped up to the Catholic church, expecting to find succour from the institution that sent around collection plates to its poorest parishioners and expected them to ply the priest with tea, biscuits and brandy on his rounds. However, when the priest turned up expecting tea in Warrington after Thomas had found Catholic charity was as cold as a bucket of Thames water in winter, Gran delivered a pithy piece of her sixteen-year-old mind to him, and stopped going to church, an act which I even as a young person understood was seen as outrageous, the Kelmscott equivalent of being female and not wanting to get married. I used to look at my tiny, timid grandmother and wonder what had happened to that feisty defiance.

I had never known why my grandmother had left her husband. As a child, it took a while for the effects of the Commonwealth’s 1975 Family Law Act, which introduced fault-free divorces, to trickle down: my parents’ 1979 separation was at the beginning of a very large tide-turning. It didn’t occur to me to wonder that perhaps she had required all that feisty defiance to be a woman leaving husband in post-war England, let along in the family-celebrating north.

Derek’s anecdotes of childhood were few, mostly involving food or the lack of it, once he was in the orphanage. Once, for example, when he was sent to work on a pig farm as a teenager, he scarfed the marshmallows from the marshmallow factory deemed suitable only for the pigs and, it turned out, youths semi-starved from years of institutional care.

When I was eleven, my aunty gave me a blue envelope stuffed with a blue-paged letter, and suddenly I had a full complement of grandparents.

It transpired that Aunty Jean had on a whim written to her father care of 142 Slater St, Latchford, a place the Lawrinson family had lived for hundreds of years, aside from occasional stints in the poorhouse. To Jean’s surprise, he’d written back. Now, he wrote to me and my cousin, and we excitedly lined up at the post office to have our return letters weighed and stamped and sent to the other side of the world. When he retired from his job opening and closing the canal lochs of Warrington, he sent my father a worn pair of overalls.

Granddad wrote in strange sentences, half lowercase, half capitals, enclosing clippings of the latest news from Australia that made the British tabloids, usually concerning SHARK attacks, deadly SPIDERS, and other VENEMOUS fauna. I thought perhaps he was semi-literate, or mildly deranged. I read these missives excitedly to Derek, who only huffed in response, and giggled with my cousin over his strange spelling and exaggerated dread of the continent in which we lived.

The only photograph we had of my grandfather showed a handsome young man in an army uniform, looking off-camera. I wondered what he looked like now, and whether he would be as kind as Frank was ornery. I asked him questions about his life but he never answered them. I wondered whether he was as forgetful as he was fearful of SHARKS.

Even before finding Granddad, I had long hankered after England. My hankering grew as my feelings of displacement and criticism from my mother’s side of the family increased. As an older child I was less shy and weird, but still Different, I wondered if it was my Englishness that was the cause of this difference, and once I returned to England, my jagged edges would finally smooth themselves, and I could be at one with myself.

The England of my imagination and the England in which I arrived on 1 February 1991 bore no resemblance. I pitched up in Brixton with a backpack and five hundred pounds during its coldest winter since 1963, having secured a ‘room’ in a ‘house’ advertised at the youth hostel in which I’d first stayed, dazed with jetlag, my clothes reeking of the cigarettes others had smoked on the flight over. My idea of what the word ‘house’ referred to turned out to be wildly Antipodean: rather than a brick and tile establishment, it was a jammed-in terrace, one amongst a long row of identical terraces, which themselves were luxurious compared to the council towers nearby. The room I rented was a room only to the extent that it was space enclosed by four walls: in all other respects it was better named a laundry, complete with concrete sink and dripping tap.  A mattress with dirty linen took up most of the floor space; in vain I dabbed it with Body Shop elderberry perfume to try and disguise the odour of the last several dozen people who had slept on it. The occupants of the lower floors were white South Africans, a black Frenchman, and a student from Liverpool.

On my first trip to the supermarket, I witnessed a group of teenage boys mug an old lady for her shopping. The staff were kind to the old lady, but there was none of the attendant horror that would have ensued had this taken place in Perth. When I arrived home, my South African housemate arrived, flustered, another teenage boy having ripped her necklace off her neck on the bus. When my housemate asked the other passengers who had studiously ignored her as she wrestled with the boy, ‘Why didn’t you do anything?’, they shrugged, or said, ‘What do you want us to do?’

As well as not expecting casual robbery to be a tolerated inconvenience, I had not expected to be a racial minority in England. In Australia, I had had the privilege of ignoring race and its significance for most of my life: even though I grew up in bogan suburbia with Aboriginal people around me, I was almost completely ignorant of the history of their dispossession until I got to university at nearly 20 years old. In Brixton, I was often one of a few white faces on the bus. In the job interviews I had, I was shocked at the nonchalance with which employers said: ‘Thank God they sent you, all we’ve had are darkies applying.’ In the temporary jobs I had, scrubbing conveyer belts or serving sandwiches in canteens, white managers called black staff monkeys to their faces, and nobody – myself included – said anything.

Surely this mean, pinched attitude was not England. Dad and his mostly Liverpudlian friends were jovial and laughing, when together. I decided that the problem was I was a northerner in the south: whenever I told managers my family was from the north, I noticed an odd cooling, which I finally realised was an expression of the British class system. So I made plans to head to Liverpool, to indulge my Beatles obsession, and Warrington, to really go home. Surely this would be the England I had been homesick for?

From London I had written to my grandfather and cousins telling them I would visit one weekend, but I had no phone numbers for them and besides, I wanted the visit to be a surprise. Aunty Jean talked incessantly about the warmth of family life in Warrington, of how aunties and uncles and cousins came and went from each other’s houses. She talked of how shocked she was, when she’d come to Australia: family lived miles away from each other. Gran’s Irish family disapproved of the lack of family life in England; they’d have been even more horrified by Australia, where vast spaces were taken advantage of and placed in between brother and sister, parents and their offspring. In Warrington, things were different.

So, I arrived at 142 Slater St one Saturday in March 1991, having deposited my belongings in a hostel in Liverpool, 30 minutes away by train. A small, old man peered at me beakily.

‘What do y’want?’

‘Hi Granddad, it’s Julie. Derek’s daughter,’ I added, in case Granddad always had Australian grandchildren turning up unannounced.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Oh. Well. Come in.’

I shuffled into a dusty downstairs room, and stood awkwardly while my long lost grandfather moved things from a spot on the settee so I could sit.  I extracted the photographs I’d brought of Dad, Aunty Jean, my cousins, and my new baby sister from my backpack, but Granddad glanced at them without looking and beckoned me to the kitchen.

‘I haven’t got milk,’ he said. ‘But look, come here.’

I tucked the photographs away and followed him into the small kitchen. He opened the fridge, in which there was an end of cheese and some bread, and an opened tin of something.

‘I do all right,’ he said. ‘See? I just haven’t got any milk.’

I felt a heave of sadness. Gran, living alone and friendless, often made me feel a sense of loneliness on her behalf, but this was something different. I wanted to sit down in the grimy corner of the kitchen and weep.

‘Let’s go visit Stan, me nephew,’ he said. ‘There’s a phone box at the corner.’

As we were about to leave, Granddad stopped me and said, ‘Eh Julie. I didn’t know anything about that business before, you hear me?’

I wanted to ask what that business before was, but he was suddenly vehement.

‘I didn’t know anything,’ he repeated.

‘Okay, Grandad,’ I said. ‘It’s okay.’

He relaxed after that. We walked up to the corner payphone, where Stan did not answer Granddad’s call, and then we waited for a bus to go visit my cousins. My cousins lived in an estate charmingly called Sankey Green, although no greenery was evident, and we drank tea and smoked cigarettes and Granddad became voluble about topics ranging from the ownership of factories to the ridiculous cost of designer sneakers. He was full of bluster, inviting us to laugh at his anecdotes, agree with his observations. He did not once refer to my father or his daughter, nor did he ask after Gran.

In the kitchen, I asked my cousin what he did at Christmas. I thought of him living alone, carless and phoneless.

‘He’s with Stan, or with us,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry.’

But later, as I left him at the bus station, waving, as I headed for Liverpool in the cold and colourless afternoon, I was wracked by a feeling I could not understand. When I returned to the hostel, the feeling prevented me from sleeping, and drove me out into the Liverpool night in the early hours of the morning, marching furiously in the silent streets, passing closed pubs and bakeries advertising Eccles cakes, my face freezing from the streaming tears that would not stop. I wandered down to the docks, where the day before I had crossed on the Mersey ferry while Gerry and the Pacemakers sang their eponymous song. I hoped the frigid wind would ease the burn under my sternum. The weeping seemed to erupt from a grief that was sudden, terrible, and without cause. I tried to connect it to something – homesickness, existential angst, anything – but no explanation sufficed.

When a man approached me on the docks, I moved under a street lamp. If I was to be murdered near where my father’s life began, I felt it was best not to be murdered in the dark.

‘Oi, Miss,’ the man said, brandishing a torch. ‘You shouldn’t be wandering down here. It’s not safe.’

I was brought back to where I was – wandering alone through the Liverpool docks at night – and hightailed it back to the hostel, rattled but unmolested.

The unnameable feeling persisted until the bus headed south the next day; I had never thought I would be so relieved to see the grey streets of London, and then pull up in Brixton, comforted by the now familiar, chaotic chatter and crush of those washed up on England’s indifferent shore. I was even relieved, if not overjoyed, to be back on my smelly mattress in the laundry room.

I concluded, reasonably enough, that I’d experienced a fit of madness. Fits of madness were not unknown to me at that time of my life, prone as I was to extreme untrammelled emotion without understanding the swelling of unrecognised and undealt-with past events that precipitated them, so a fit was as fitting an explanation as any.

Back in Australia, I omitted the fit of madness when I answered Aunty Jean’s questions about the house, what Granddad looked like, who I’d met. Gran and Derek listened, but asked nothing. Derek’s face held the strained expression I only ever saw when Granddad was mentioned. The film I’d taken to Warrington had jammed in the camera, so I had no photographs of Granddad, or my cousins, only a single shot of the outside of 142 Slater St. Warrington would remain in imagination, and Granddad in sepia tones, young, handsome, looking away.


Thank you for letting me know what I did

Dear Reader, one of the things Howard Norman said to me in giving me feedback the first draft of the Mr Hyde chapter was: where is your daughter in this? What did you think she was experiencing, at the time? Your narrator is not simply a masochist. What, in short, was she thinking? He noted my tendencies to introduce and not develop matters that are indispensable to the fullness of the memoir.

In trying to rectify my tendency to abbreviation, I have to honour the painful truth of what my daughter has survived – not only with a father who developed early onset Alzheimer’s disease, but what happened before. So, here is what I am beginning to write about Before. It is raw, and is merely the beginning. But I feel it is important to share the messiness of this, this writing of lives. All the trigger warnings apply, as usual.

John and I, as adherents to attachment parenting, believed that so long as the first three years of a child’s life are full of comfort, reassurance, and the meeting of needs, they will be able to weather whatever else comes their way. John and I blamed our own anxieties on our mothers’ both smoking through their pregnancies, which reportedly caused anxiety through foetal oxygen-deprivation, and then failing to be available to us as babies and infants. So in this three year formative time, we made sure we were available to Annie. She breastfed until her third birthday at the drugs I had to switch to for rheumatoid necessitated weaning. She had co-slept with me. And, aside from when Annie had witnessed John throwing plates at my feet or heard him yelling at me, her life was generally filled with positive social interactions at day care, in the co-op, and home.

But as she grew, and developed her own personality, the endless patience with Annie John had had in her early years was replaced with something altogether different.

For example, once she was old enough to understand, he instructed her not to speak with him in the car, unless he asked her a question. He explained that it would be dangerous for her to ask him anything if he were crossing a road, or concentrating, and that because she did not know whether his concentration was required, she should remain silent. Because he drove her to gymnastics, to school, and to tennis, Annie was expected to be silent a lot of the time. She wasn’t allowed to have screens or her Tamagotchi or anything to distract her: she was just to be quiet.

There were only two problems with this. One, Annie was lively and energetic and talkative, and being constrained in a car seat was enough of a challenge without the requirement for her also to remain silent. The other was that John, if he was in a good mood, would chat with Annie as they drove, or they would sing to Daddy and Annie’s Favourites, mix tapes he recorded onto cassettes from a community radio show called Sunday Morning Coming Down. Once Annie was allowed to start chatting, she thought that she might be able to keep on. But then John would say, ‘That’s enough. I need to concentrate now’, and if she didn’t shift from chatty to silent immediately, he would – once on the other side of the intersection, or through the traffic jam, or the 40 kilometre an hour section – yell until his face turned purple, glaring at her in the rear-view mirror.

I knew of these events because if I was home, I would be alerted by the sounds of the car doors slamming with a particular force, and then Annie would enter, weeping.

‘I didn’t do anything!’ she’d protest.

‘Go to your room,’ John would say. ‘I told you. You were just shitting me.’

‘I wasn’t, Daddy!’


Each afternoon, once she started at school, John expected Annie to tell him everything about what had happened during her day. He wanted to know who she had talked to, what she had eaten (to check she hadn’t illicitly consumed anything salty, fatty, or sweet), whether she had drunk her required volume of water, and whether she had worn her hat and sunscreen when she’d gone out into the playground.

And if she argued with him, or brushed off his questions, or didn’t immediately tell him what he felt was the whole truth, John would yell at her (see above), and send her to her room.

If I was concerned about the way John treated Annie, I told myself that she was as feisty as he was, and was tough in ways that I was not, as a child. She did not seem wounded by his yelling at her: she would yell back until he sent her to her room, where she would cry and then, later, they would make up. I felt, often, that I was watching a battle of wills between the two of them.

Sometimes, I would wonder to myself why John couldn’t seem to rein in his impatience or his frustration. Sometimes, I tried to talk him around: if I gave him my focused attention, if I asked for, or listened to, the full story of whatever it was that had driven him wild that day with Annie, he might calm down. Sometimes I delicately tried to suggest that with his manner with his daughter was not having the desired effect: perhaps giving vent to his frustrations through criticising her, through yelling at her, through monitoring what she said and ate and acted at every moment was not the best way?

But no matter how carefully I broached it, he would say that it was all right for me, being at work and away from it. I did not know what it was like, being with her all the time, so argumentative, so tiring: what was he supposed to do? It was all right for me, being at work, being among adults. How dare I criticise him, when he was doing his best in such a trying situation?

Once she’d stopped weeping and raging, Annie, confined to her room for hours, would make a drawing demonstrating her penitence, how sorry she was. She would feed it under her doorway, so it was visible in the corridor, and wait for John’s response.

‘Why are you sorry?’ John would say to her. ‘You’re just bullshitting me, you’re not sorry. You just want to get out of your room.’

So Annie began to add to her drawings these notes:

To Daddy. Sorry I ruined your day yesterday. I feel really bad. I was too wound up about that silly raspberry tea. I’m gonna give you some space this weekend coz I know and understand you won’t forgive me straight away until I prove to you I will be good. I hope this card has made you feel a bit better. Love from Annie.

Daddy. Sorry that I was being grumpy this morning. I will be more organised next time. I love you.

To Daddykins. I’m sorry for once again ruining your Friday. I was wound up in the car and today you were right and I was wrong and as you pointed out I said, ‘I don’t think so’ which said to Mrs Durack basically ‘No’. I have been thinking about it and did realise that you were right. I hope you know you are the best dad ever.

I’m so sorry Daddy. I know writing a note to you every time I go into my room might seem a bit suspicious but I just want to make you feel a bit better. I will stop with the attitude. I can get really grumpy as you know. We both do! If I’m feeling grumpy I will stay away from you, I promise. I’m really really sorry. I do know you’re sick and I shouldn’t be giving you a hard time. I will let you relax without me annoying you. Luv Annie.

To Daddy, I’m sorry I was difficult and rude today down at the cliffs. I know you wanted a relaxing time and all. I promise I won’t give you any more problems this holidays. Xxx Annie. PS I will give you time to forgive me.

To my dearest darling Daddy. I’m as you know extremely grateful to you for pouring your money and time towards my plate. You have taken me to the orthodontist god knows how many times so I am not in pain and you have been extremely sympathetic towards me when it hurt. I’m sorry I have been such an arse and I will go along with my punishments that I deserve and I will be a saint for the rest of me living here. I love you.

Dear Daddy, Sorry for talking over you today and not letting you finish your sentence. Love you lots more than anything, from Annie.

To Daddy, I’m really sorry that I was so difficult in the car today. I was very hysterical because I was excited to see Jaz. Now that I realise what I did I feel really bad. I can tell how tired you are from driving. You’re the best dad and I know that you’re really angry with me (I don’t blame you) and I really apologise for ruining your day. I love you so much about what I did you always know in my heart you’re the bestest dad a girl could have. I love you from your daughter Annie. I’m sorry.  Sorry Sorry Sorry Sorry Sorry.

Dear Daddy, I’m sorry I have been ear thumping today. I will never again insert a poo-bag down your checkered, red button up shirt (I think it is cotton). I love you and deep down somewhere I know you love me too. Thank you for letting me know what I did. Love Annie.

I began taking comfort in what I imagined would happen when Annie was a teenager. Once she was a teenager, she would argue back. She would not be shut in her room, then. Then, he’d reap what he was sowing. I could not fix this. But in time, Annie might.


Well, isn’t this nice?

I was in the midst of a personal crisis/freelance-work juggling/insomniac week when the lovely Nadia King messaged me. It was early in the morning, my eyes were bleary (see above) and all I could make out was a picture of a screen shot followed by ‘JUUUUUULIA!!!’ ‘What?’ I messaged back. ‘I can’t see anything.’

What she was talking about was this:

It has taken me a week to collect myself enough (see above) to say BLIMEY!

And what an honour. And how bloody awesome is it not only that I know most of the people on most of the shortlists in the 2022 WA Premier’s Book Awards, but that these are also the people I would most want to be in a shortlisting with, them being all creators of integrity and passion. I am lucky to be a Western Australian creator in such a fabulous and warm creative community. Thank you, David Templeman, the Government of Western Australia, and the State Library. And Fremantle Press, of course.

A bit later Nadia messaged me and said, ‘Hey, you’re from Gosnells, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Gosvegas? My mother lived there, but I am an 80s Kemmy girl from the bottom of my DBs.’ (Okay, I might not have said exactly that, but you get the idea). Also, if you’re reading this from outside WA, Kelmscott (some of it anyway) was your working class/Pommie immigrant/bogan/chav/ghetto kind of a place (it’s a bit more gentrified now), and people from Kelmscott not as likely to be on a shortlist of any kind compared with people from, say, Dalkeith or Nedlands. Then she said, ‘I know a guy.’ Next thing – see below.

So. What a time. And thank you to everyone who has been cheering.

I might have to change the title of the memoir.


More than one kind of church

Dear Reader, I have been in the more recent past lately, trying to fill out the draft of my final-ish chapter (the Phalanx one). Howard Norman has suggested I try and perfect Phalanx and then go back to the previous chapters to use its narrative structure as a template of sorts. In the process of discussing this, he asked what in my past had prepared me to survive the events of 2015 and beyond, which gave me pause, sending me back to the distant past, and how I survived other things.

So, with that said, this section includes mention of cults (Scientology) and child abuse. If you can cope with that, here it is.

More than one kind of church

The only paternal cousin I had was RJ. RJ was eighteen months older than me, and I adored her. She had Irish black hair which she insisted on calling dark brown, and was always shorter than me despite her seniority. She was skinny and sporty and insisted on instructing me on all the things about which she was expert, which was everything. She showed me how to write on a chalkboard. She demonstrated the art of colouring within the lines. I pretended not to know my letters so she could teach me. She even corrected my singing, although it later transpired she was tone deaf. When, after an afternoon visit to her place, I was not allowed to sleep over, I knelt on the back seat and waved tragically through the back window as she chased our car down the street until her legs, sporting though they were, were bested by our white Valiant’s six-cylinder engine, and she disappeared from view. I cried until my face swelled and Gwen told me not to be ridiculous, I’d see her next weekend.

I was, as intended, suitably impressed by RJ’s superior skills in everything from knucklebones to roller-skating, and I was jealous that she was allowed to catch the green Metropolitan Transport Trust buses by herself from Thornlie to Perth city from when she was eight. The buses smelled headily of diesel in my favourite seats at the back, but whenever I caught a bus with Gwen we always sat close to the front, where it smelled merely of bodily heat trapped in nylon, Johnson & Johnson baby powder, and the leather hard with age and excessive use.

But the thing that most inspired my jealousy was the collection of cards RJ had from L. Ron Hubbard. Each year she received a birthday card especially from him, which showed how special she was: I had no such collection with which to compare. L. Ron Hubbard was the leader of their church, which was just like our church except it had headquarters in town in a large building on St Georges Terrace and was called The Org. That meant RJ was getting mail from the Scientologist’s equivalent of Jesus. RJ and I waited at the building sometimes, while adults went to their sermons. We drew pictures on the free literature waiting to be distributed to the public after the sermons. I used to look at the board with the list of top donors that was prominently displayed, plus the amount they had given alongside. When the adults came out of the sermons, their faces held an identical serene glow, their eyes mildly glassy. They glided from the rooms and smiled vacantly at RJ and me.

RJ wasn’t a Scientologist because you couldn’t be until you were a teenager, but Jean was and her new husband was. On his ute he had a sticker that said PSYCHIATWIST in twirly letters. When I asked what it meant my uncle said there were doctors who wanted to change your head and they should be avoided at all costs. My uncle was the kind of man everybody liked, and, unlike my religious family on Gwen’s side, he did not try to press his beliefs, whatever they were, onto the children in their midst. So I liked him too.

My uncle was liked by everybody except RJ. Everybody who liked him said this dislike was because she was jealous: she’d had her mother to herself for so long, and now her mother was married, instead of living with Gran and getting Gran to help raise RJ. She was so rude to him it made me embarrassed. She yelled at him and called him names. He acted as though he didn’t care, and Jean would sometimes say, ‘Now, now, dear’ and RJ would ignore her and keep being rude.

After my parents separated when I was nearly nine years old, I spent a lot of time at my cousin’s house. One day I wanted RJ to go swimming in their above ground pool, but she was in a bad mood. She was often in a bad mood, so I was preparing to swim by myself when my uncle said he’d swim too.

I loved swimming underwater. I loved the swoosh of water in my ears, the way the world blurred prettily. I gathered my legs and push hard against the vinyl lining and launched myself from one side to another. I wasn’t sporty like RJ but the water was where I felt weightless and playful.

My uncle would catch me at the side I was rocketing toward, lift me up, and throw me back. This was always the game he played, when he swam with us. I squealed, splashed, and returned to my launch site. On this day, my launch site faced the house; the other side, where my uncle waited, was facing the asbestos fence and the scrubby trees that were there to conceal it.

Then my uncle stopped catching me. With blurry underwater vision, I could see he was squatting at the pool’s edge. Maybe he was resting. Then I could see he’d pulled his bather bottoms down, and had his hand in his lap.

I pretended that I had not noticed that he was being a rudie, and I kept coiling myself up, launching myself, and now running, slow in the water that was up to my chest, back to the other side.

He stopped me the next time I arrived next to him. He took hold of my hands and pulled them toward his lap. I’d only seen boys’ doodles, which were were like wilting worms. My uncle’s doodle was more like an overcooked sausage. I did not know why he was moving my hands up and down it, but I was relieved when he stopped.

‘You won’t tell anyone, will you?’ he said anxiously as I was climbing up the pool ladder.

I smiled. ‘Of course not.’

Because I had been reading the Secret Seven and the Famous Five, and I knew how important it was to keep secrets. It meant you were a jolly good sort. And I knew, if I kept this secret, my uncle would keep liking me more than RJ. This seemed important.

Six years later, when I was fifteen and RJ was sixteen, a flurry took place in and around my uncle. I can’t remember the order of things, or how close or distant they happened, but they involved: my uncle punching RJ in the nose; my father, who had never hit anyone in his life, taking a swing at my uncle; my uncle lying on the ground outside my father’s house, being kicked by RJ in her shiny black Bata school shoes. And somewhere in there, me breaking a promise.

I had more important promises to keep, now.

‘Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls’

Bodily (and other) ills: two

Dear Reader, If you’re following along at home, you’ll notice that there is another bodily ills excerpt, which post-dates this one. So two should be one and so on, but no matter. I am tempted to re-name this section: How Reading Led Me to Incorrect Conclusions about The World, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring, and besides, the main subject is illness and its close companion, suffering. Howard Norman has observed that I have the tendency to compress events, amply demonstrated here. TW: see above.

As a child I was fascinated by tales of life-altering illness. In the books I read, such illness was accompanied by the development of moral courage and heroism, and most importantly, it attracted the admiration of others for one’s staunch attitude in the face of suffering.

Gwen had kept a volume of medical encyclopedias from the early sixties she’d acquired during one of her aborted attempts at becoming a nurse. I pored over its descriptions of illnesses, injuries and abnormalities of all stripes. There were colour transparencies showing organs, bones and blood, as well as engrossing pictures of suppurating sores and skin diseases. A whole section was dedicated on how to prepare for and survive a nuclear attack. I felt mildly envious of the pictures of children practising their responses to an H bomb: hiding under desks, their hands covering their necks, or with their neatly attired families in their bomb shelters, the mother in her immaculate dress preparing meals from their tinned supplies. I understood little of world affairs, but I understood enough to know that Kelmscott was so quiet and boring that I would never have reason to participate in such a drill.

I was particularly affected by the illustrations of the onset and development of polio, beginning with a girl having sore throat and a fever, being taken away by an ambulance, and emerging with callipers. As a child growing up in a household of smokers, I was always getting sore throats, and wondered, each time, if this were the day the ambulance would come for me. I pictured my parents standing worried over my hospital bed, hoped I wouldn’t need physiotherapy like Alan Marshall in I Can Jump Puddles, but was sure I would emerge with wisdom and patience, like Katy in What Katy Did.

If that weren’t enough, I was introduced to the consequences of child blindness caused by disease, first in Scholastic books on Helen Keller and her fascinating teacher, Annie Sullivan; and then by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House series. In the latter, the scarlet fever which had beset the Ingalls family when Laura was thirteen resulted in her annoyingly perfect older sister Mary first having to have her long blonde hair shorn off, and then becoming blind as a result of the fever ‘settling’ in her eyes. This tragedy galvanises the family: makes them close, forces Laura to work hard in school to become a teacher to help contribute money to send Mary to Iowa School for the Blind, and (it is implied) causes Laura to become a writer, as she is suddenly required to be Mary’s eyes, narrating everything for her benefit.

How I longed for, and feared, a similar tragedy! I tried (and failed) to teach myself Braille, or even the raised alphabet, from the back of my Helen Keller book. I wandered around supermarkets behind Gwen, eyes squeezed shut, pretending to be blind, just in case.

When I was seven, my youngest cousin, Lara, was born. She was a chubby, healthy-looking child, at first, with halo of bright red hair, but she had a bronchial wheeze and developed a hacking cough. After being told she was a neurotic mother by a raft of GPs, my aunt happened to have two-year-old Lara with her at the children’s hospital while getting her son seen to after a playground accident.

‘I’m not worried about him,’ the treating doctor said, ‘but does the baby always breathe like that?’

Later that evening, my aunt and uncle were told that the suspected asthma was in fact cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that at that time had few effective treatments and a high fatality rate.

I understood from the grave tones in which Lara’s condition was discussed that her health was poor, and her prognosis serious, but to me she seemed mostly normal for a long time. She had a sunny and sweet temperament, and didn’t seem particularly interested in the excessive attentions she was given by adults, nor the indulgence allowed her if she wanted extra lollies or ice cream, denied to the rest of us not suffering from a life-limiting illness. She didn’t want to go on the below-ground trampoline that was my greatest envy: it had been bought in the hopes it might loosen the mucus in her lungs better than the physiotherapy with which her tiny ribs were hammered morning and evening, and which developed admirable arm muscles in my aunty. So my cousins and I took advantage instead, while Lara waited around inside, wanting us to play more sedentary games which, I am ashamed to say, I often avoided.

As a teenager, I sometimes resented that Lara was tolerated for things I had been criticized for: that is, she wasn’t smacked, or told no (very often), and if she complained, she was not informed she was a whinging child who needed something to really whinge about. Her food fussiness wasn’t a sign of moral degeneracy. I thought she was being spoiled, the way everyone treated her. She didn’t even seem that sick.

Until she did.

When she was seven, Lara started getting sicker. She was skinnier than I had been in my most extreme anorexic phase, and the kids at her school teased her about her knobbly knees so relentlessly she was taken out of school altogether. She became lethargic, watching her older brother and sister squabble and laugh and play without the longing she used to have: now she was too tired. She found drinking the powders and pills she took to help her digest harder to stomach.

And then, in January 1985, just after her eighth birthday, she died.

Gwen and I drove to my aunty and uncle’s house. I was scared of seeing my cousin’s dead body, but she seemed less dead than very, very still, neat in her bed. Her forehead was cooling as we kissed her goodbye. At her funeral, the coffin she was placed in was tiny, and it was not the effort of the weight of it that made the funeral directors lower it slowly down. Her brother and sister were considered too young to attend: only my cousin and I, being both fifteen, were allowed. There were prayers and the prayers did not comfort me.

I expected, based on all the books I’d read, that this type of tragedy would galvanize the family. As it was a time in my life where everything else seemed to be disintegrating, not least of which a reliable sense of self, I was keen for our family to unite over this terrible and unfair event. It seemed particularly galling to me, as someone taken to fervent bouts of Christian belief from time to time, that it befell the most religious of my mother’s family. The sufferings of Job were not incomparable: after losing Lara, my aunt and uncle’s only son, Konrad, developed the epilepsy which was the symptom of a to-be-fatal brain tumour.

But the loss of Lara rent the family, the increasing illness of her brother a further demonstration of the unrelenting unfairness that had befallen us. My grandparents raised the pitch of their mutual ire; my mother retreated into beer, cigarettes, and misery, and my aunty and uncle doubled down on the religiosity that promised that Lara wasn’t gone, just waiting for them in heaven.

Against their incomparable suffering, my own, which was chiefly mental, was not of a scale deserving of attention from my family. The primary events which had caused the mental suffering, such as my parents’ sudden separation, incidental molestation, and Gwen’s conga-line of men streaming through our various rented houses, were not recognised by my family as being any cause for comment. Indeed, I felt their criticism of me increased. My alternative dress now included stare-inducing dyed and radical hair; taking Gwen’s lead, I regularly drank myself into oblivion and took up indulging in more-or-less consensual sex with neighbourhood boys; and I found an outlet for my unnameable angst through epic episodes of binging and purging which left me with detailed knowledge of the least smelly public toilets adjacent to food courts in the metro area.

When I did finally land in an adolescent mental hospital later on in the year Lara died, this was not mentioned at the Sunday lunches I was allowed to attend on weekend leave; instead, the usual teasing or mocking I received from certain relatives morphed into a watchful silence. A person was meant to deal with unpleasant feeling through acceptable methods such as imbibing quantities of home brew or flaying oneself into martyrdom. A person was, above all, meant to keep it to oneself instead of putting on a show, or making a spectacle of yourself, or in any other way making the invisible visible to all.

One happy result of my multiple mental hospitalisations was that I finally stopped thinking there was something wrong with me, and started thinking there was something wrong with the family I’d grown up in.

Cousin Lara, November 1984

The beginning of the ending

Dear Reader, I have been beavering away at the memoir (and, as it happens, a few other creative projects besides) so I thought it was time to share some of what is turning out to be a rather lengthier chapter than the rest (to date). Howard Norman has suggested that I use the structure of this final part as a template for what I will do once I return to fill out the previous five. The lacunae in the first draft of this section are shared by the rest of the manuscript, so I am cutting out superfluous information, slowing down the compressed narrative, adding in dialogue, including more about Annie, and, as always, trying to reconstruct how it was I was feeling about it all as it was happening. So, here’s a taster.

It was a bright summer’s Wednesday in February 2015. I woke up in my small but airy unit in inner city Maylands, with Annie in her room and Hecta curled in his basket. The year’s first meeting of the Public Administration Committee would be held at 9am: the committee was inquiring into prisoner transport, and today I’d be advising on which prisons and lock-ups to visit, which witnesses to call to give evidence. I couldn’t wait. I had a committee chair I got on famously with, and a job which married my love of research and writing with my curiosity about the world. Since I’d left calling the Council to attention as Black Rod, I’d done inquiries into pastoral leases, flying over the striated red plains of the Kimberley in a plane so small I’d had to breathe into a paper bag as it see-sawed to land; recreational hunting, which had taken me to the remote forests of Orange, New South Wales, where I met hunters who hated the industrial meat industry, and to Victoria near where I’d had my horse-riding accident, and where I cuddled rescued baby wombats. Now, prisoner transport.

I had reason to believe that the wheel of fortune was indeed moving on and up. I had taken Annie to New York in January, aided by a grant I had got to attend a writing retreat in Vermont at the beginning of February. The distance from our Perth-based woes had been bracing, as had minus-25-degree-centigrade Vermont. While I was away, the guardian had arranged for John to be placed in care, and the sale of the house was in its final throes.

On my first day back from the US, dizzy with jetlag, I had visited John in his new abode, a locked dementia unit his father had also been in. I was worried he’d be sad about not having Hecta there, or that the move would be unsettling. Neither thing appeared to bother him. He greeted me cheerfully: he did not notice my three-week absence. He still knew who I was and was happy to see me. We went out into the beautifully landscaped courtyard. He proceeded to strip the foliage from every bush there, and deposited the leaves in his pockets. When I left, I told him I’d be back tomorrow and he waved and smiled and turned away, unconcerned. After four very difficult years, it was a relief.

Before I left for work, I checked my phone to see if Nigel had replied to my good-night text the night before. He hadn’t, which was unusual, but it had been the first sitting night of the new parliamentary year. Perhaps he was tired, or distracted. I sent another good-morning message, and got in the car.

Because it was committee meeting day, I did not have time to write, as I usually might have. I had been translating Annie’s experience of having a father developing early onset Alzheimer’s into a young adult novel, Before You Forget. Writing provided me with the optimism inherent in the making of coherence. When I wrote, I was no longer at the mercy of the tangled feelings, reactions, hopes, and regrets, the habitual composite of which I experienced as myself. Having watched someone’s selfhood dissolve into a morass of reaction, repetition and anxiety, I also had the dual perception of knowing that Self – anybody’s – wasn’t solid in the least. At minimum, it was reliant on the possession of adequate myelin, something over which nobody had control, no matter how much Sudoko you might play. Neither the witty-lovely-John nor impatient-angry-John I’d lived with were solid or reliable or true: they were the product of electrical impulses in the brain as much as the product of experience, let alone a flimsy notion such as choice. The contemplation of this led to regular existential abysses from which, I often told people, I was only rescued by Nigel.

For Nigel remained my untainted good thing. No matter the storm that surrounded us, he remained steadily at the helm, navigating me through of the chaos of administrative tribunals, the wrath of people earned (his now ex-wife) and unearned (my ex-in-laws). He was careful in his reactions, reliable in that his words and deed exactly matched each other, entirely opposite to the daily volatility I had experienced with John. The ways in which he was exciting – taking me riding on the back of his Ducati, impromptu visits to golf and gun ranges, quad biking and helicopter riding, surprise plane fares to my brother’s 50th and Broome holidays – were perfectly balanced by his in-person calmness, his Islander reserve, focused listening, and unruffled demeanour.

Before I went into the meeting, I checked my phone again. Still no text from Nigel. I would go and see him at lunch time in his office, the way we always did on a sitting day. He would be handsome in his bar jacket and jabot, and his kind eyes would be happy to regard me after an absence, the way they always were.

I was part way through the meeting on prisoner transport when one of the committee staff came to the door and asked for me.

Howard Norman asked me, How did you get through?
This is how.

Memoir musings 2: both sides now

Dear Reader, a warning (or invitation, depending) that this entry deals with more musing on the process of writing a memoir. Come back later if this is not your thing.

The (at the moment) final chapter of How to Avoid a Happy Life is entitled ‘Find Yourself and Your New Partner Being Chased Down the Street by a Phalanx of Reporters’. It has been the section most difficult to write, and after kind, expansive, and direct feedback from my marvellous mentor Howard Norman, it turns out I’m not nearly done with it yet.

The reason this chapter was difficult to write is not because, or not only because, it deals with my partner’s 2015 very public mental breakdown, which led to the chasing described in the title. Although reflecting on the events that led to the above, and everything that happened subsequently, was less than edifying, the difficulty for me as a writer is simply that there is Too Much Information.

How do you decide what to leave in and out in a memoir? In fiction it is easy (relatively): anything that does not serve your narrative trajectory is out. But in a memoir, there is a fine balance between explaining too much and leaving your reader baffled.

By way of example, at the beginning of 2015, I was working in a committee of the Legislative Council of Western Australia, the context of which is important to understand for the impact of subsequent events. In the first draft, I have tried to summarise the salient features of committees and the Council thus:

Committee meetings are, generally, considered sacred. As creatures of Parliament, committees operate under the Standing Orders of the chambers, have the same powers and privileges as the Parliament itself, with considerably more secrecy attached to their proceedings. If anybody, staff or member alike, broke committee confidentiality, they could be subject to the exercise of the powers of the House, which included fines and imprisonment for contempt.

Unlike some Westminster parliaments, which have required themselves to observe procedural fairness or removed their ability to imprison for contempt all together, the Western Australian parliament in 2015 had not legislated its powers away. It had imprisoned someone as recently as 1995. Then, the Usher of the Black Rod had been sent to arrest former public servant Brian Easton after he refused to apologise to the Council after his involvement in a political scandal, the consequences of which resulted in a Royal Commission, the charging of a former Premier for perjury, and the suicide of Easton’s ex-wife. Unlike the Legislative Assembly, which was generally prepared to keep its powers in reserve, the Legislative Council was regarded as being far jumpier about upholding its privileges.

So, being called out of a committee meeting was so out of the ordinary that even before I was at the door, I was wondering if somebody had died.

I suspect you started yawning somewhere between the first and second paragraphs. How much is necessary to give adequate information on what comes next?

Howard Norman has given me the following task: if the information in the expository parts is not integral or indispensable, cut, or at minimum, streamline.

The other, trickier part is to slow the velocity and tension in what I’m writing, but to still keep pace. Because there is so much sheer chronology to fit in, I have gone hammer-and-tongs in this chapter. There is much by way of immediacy, but this is at the risk of emotional depth. As Howard said, a memoir isn’t Wikipedia.

One of the ways Howard has suggested doing this is reflecting on the contrast between the sheer public nature of what happened and how it was, experiencing it privately. Include in it not only what happened, but how you survived it.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Black Rod 2013


Bodily ills: One

Dear Reader, this section contains descriptions of the above, as well as a couple of creepy doctors.

In January 1993, I had my first close encounter with bodily ills which, in bringing me uncomfortably close to mortality, provided a new lens through which I saw the world.

I was working in a ski lodge in Dinner Plains in the high country of Victoria. During one of my free days, I had been placed on an ex-racehorse to take up the rear of a trail ride. I had blusteringly said to the owner of the trail ride company that oh yes, I had ridden horses before, not revealing that the horses involved were tough-mouthed nags on trail rides in the sandy plains of Perth, horses which would no more rise to a trot than they would begin discussing world affairs over the feedlot.

The ex-racehorse, realising it had an inexperienced rider lacking the moral force required for control of a large animal, took advantage by racing up the inside of the plodding trail horses the minute he was able, before bolting across an open plain and heading for the trees, most of which featured branches the exact height required for scraping off unwanted passengers.

‘Sit back!’ yelled the trail leader.

‘I can’t!’ I wailed back.

‘Jump off!’

I tried to un-wedge my Doc Martens from the stirrups without success.

‘Agh!’ I responded.

In order to get to the scraping-off branches, the horse first had to navigate a series of fallen logs. I’d always wanted to try horse jumping, preferably in a sandy ring with nicely painted Koppers logs, rather than involuntarily, in the middle of the Victorian highlands, three hours away from the nearest hospital.

The horse jumped. I did a backward somersault, which might have been okay if a) it hadn’t been over the top of fallen logs, and b) my foot hadn’t been jammed in the stirrup. Going by the resulting bruising and injuries, I landed first on my lumbar spine on one log, then pivoted onto a second with my thoracic, my ankle sustaining a clean break as it wrenched from the stirrup.

When I realised I was on the ground, rather than being decapitated by a branch or dragged along the ground like a papist during the reign of Henry the Eighth, I was, for a moment, relieved. Then the combination of being unable to breathe and pain of a magnitude I had never experienced combined to make me wonder if I was dying, or, if I wasn’t, whether death would be preferable.

The trail riders caught up with me. As soon as I was able to breathe, I began to moan.

‘Stand by,’ said one of the trail riders. ‘I’m a doctor.’

The doctor proceeded to prod and poke various bodily parts, including my back and my legs, prompting me to moan more loudly.

‘Be quiet,’ he said. ‘I’ve been in Vietnam, and I’ve seen men in real pain.’

I used all of my Kelmscott words to describe exactly what I thought of him and his opinion.

‘Her back’s not broken, but her leg is,’ he pronounced to the assembled.

‘The ambulance can’t get in this far,’ the trail leader said. ‘We’ll have to get the ute to get to the road.’

Being lifted into the back of the ute, and being transported on a bumpy bush track to the ambulance, took the pain to yet a new, piercing level. The ambulance then took some hours to wend down the mountain to what was less a hospital than a nursing outpost, which was not equipped with Xray equipment equal to the task, so I was bundled back into the ambulance and transported a further hour to the mainland hospital, by which time I was retching with pain unrelieved by a Panadol lozenge. The pain radiated around my ribs as if I were encased with barbed wire, and my foot and ankle bloated and throbbed.

The pain around my ribs was caused by compressed thoracic fractures, apparently to the surprise of Dr I’ve-Been-In-Vietnam, and the ankle was a Potts fracture which was pushed back into place by the orthopaedic surgeon after filling me full of pethidine.

Gwen flew over to Victoria, with a mixture of concern and annoyance, to return me home, an echo of the trip she had made in 1964, except this time returning with an injured adult child. It was the first time she’d set foot in Melbourne since relinquishing her son nearly thirty years before, and she hated it no less on this occasion. She wheeled me around the city, which was not especially wheelchair-friendly in 1993, all the while complaining about the cost of everything and how stressful it was and how she missed her husband. We arrived back in Perth, to my dismay and her delight: my wheelchair didn’t fit in the house, and neither did I.

I was admitted to hospital for a couple of weeks, in the hopes that my pain levels would subside long enough for me to use crutches. As I had been hospitalised interstate, I had a single room until they were sure I wasn’t harbouring golden staph. The room was abutted by a shower cubicle which had a partition under which one could see. Although it was supposed to be for disabled folk, it was not quite big enough to accommodate a wheelchair, nor did it have a working lock. Gwen got her GP in attendance, an ever-smiling man whose eyes kept dipping below my neckline as he spoke to me. One day I was showering, my casted foot wrapped in plastic while I sat on a plastic chair, having hopped over to it, when the doctor came and said he wanted to see me.

‘I’m in the shower,’ I told him, redundantly, as I could see his shoes under the door.

‘I just want to see how you’re moving,’ he said.

I turned the shower off and hopped toward the towel. ‘Just wait,’ I said.

He pushed the door open; I leaned back on it, hoping my wet, good foot wouldn’t slip.

‘I’ll be out in a minute,’ I said.

‘I don’t have time,’ he said angrily, and started shoving against the door while I, with my newly fractured back, held the door as fast as I could.

Eventually he gave up, and I shakily retreated to my bed. When they moved me to the women’s ward later that day, I was relieved, even though I was kept awake by my fellow residents, old women with dementia wailing, or snoring, or else trying to get into bed with each other. It was better than having my mother’s GP get into bed with me.

Sometimes I do not feel I have been well served by the books that I read as a child. They did not correctly inform me of the effects of the tragedies, or mere misfortunes, borne of bodily ills. You might find yourself getting wisdom through being forced to re-examine your life from the unusual prism provided by pain, illness, and life-limiting diseases in your close kin. However, you are much more likely, in my experience, to find your family fracturing in imitation of a crushed bone, or to find yourself preyed upon by those attracted by your vulnerability.

Before: Victorian High Country January 1993
After: Bairnsdale hospital

Memoir musings 1: defamation for dummies

Dear Reader, if reflections on writing are not your bag, stay tuned for another installment of the memoir, coming soon. Also, TW below: suicidal ideation.

Writing a memoir is not for the faint of heart. People often joke about putting things in their memoirs, or of what they’ll write when they retire etc, but the strange combination of detachment and unflinching honesty which is required to write a memoir requires fortitude and therapy in roughly equal amounts.

To taste the sea, all one needs is one gulp.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

My mentor Howard Norman asked me why I had applied to him for help. I’ve published more than a dozen novels and understand, obviously, the discipline required to write (and to deal with the vagaries of publishing, which is a whole other matter). I understand, I hope, structure and pace and developing characters. But writing fiction, even if autobiographically inspired, is a different beast to a memoir. A memoir is not a history, and, as Howard Norman reminded me, it requires many of the same elements of fiction writing. But the intersection with Others, and the need to understand and describe your own responses and reactions, are two things not required by fiction, and which I need to get a handle on.

I have a tendency toward the dense and the summary, for example, which means that I need to go back and develop further. For example, I began one of my chapters with ‘I celebrated my sixteenth birthday by deciding it was time to kill myself’. I give a brief overview of the factors that led to this, but it needs more than a flippant faux-dramatic sentence. Similarly I mention finishing my PhD at the same time as another event happening: apparently I need to explain a bit about my compulsion to study and how I have managed it among the unfolding chaos. Howard says: slow down. Explain.

Which brings me to the Other People problem. I have not included very much about my daughter’s growing up with a father developing Alzheimer’s, as well as having been otherwise difficult, because I don’t want to describe her experience. But in memoir, it is important to give the full picture of your main characters. I need to explain how I thought she was coping with things. So it’s tricky.

And then there’s defamation. There are some things I know I will not be able to publish, but I need to write my perspective of what happened and edit later. Legal Aid gives a handy guide to defamation in Western Australia which I have by my computer:

If someone causes harm to your reputation by publishing material about you that changes the way people feel about you, you may have been harmed in a legal sense. Not all offensive, embarrassing or upsetting remarks cause harm to your reputation.

Defamation is when words have been spoken or written which:

  • harm your reputation in the eyes of ordinary people in the community,
  • harm your reputation in your trade or profession (for example, lead you to get less work), or
  • are likely to result in you being shunned, avoided, made fun of, or despised.

A claim for defamation is a complex, time consuming and expensive legal matter.

The law in Western Australia encourages people to resolve disputes about defamation without going to court. Even if defamation is proven, it does not mean the court will award you much or anything in damages.

Fortunately for memoir-istas everywhere there’s also this: Things like gossip or embarrassing stories are unpleasant, but do not amount to defamation unless they cause the required harm to your reputation.

So, I need to test to make sure that I don’t include that kind of material. (Luckily you can’t defame the dead, so some of it will be fine!)

The process of writing continues to be a joy, a puzzle, a privilege. I am grateful to have this time to be doing it, and if you’re considering doing it to, investing in a mentor might just be the thing you need.

Note to self: Must mention the PhD!


Dear Reader, I was going to reflect a little on the process of writing the memoir thus far, but I thought you might instead prefer a laugh at my teenaged self’s expense.

Along with becoming a writer or a teetotaller, becoming a lesbian was not something easily imagined in the suburb I grew up in.

Any girls holding hands in high school, or walking too close to each other, or showing anything other than brief physical affection, would be met with jeers of ‘Lezzos!’ from passing boys. These same boys were often the ones who introduced us to the shiny contours and sometimes puzzling close-ups which comprised 1980s pornography, in which girl-on-girl activity was considered in quite a different light. The activity of the women in these videos seemed to involve a lot of manual work, like a housewife trying to remove a stain from a carpet, and a lot of moaning that seemed unconnected to the manual work. Neither of these were as stimulating to me as they were to the boys we were watching it with, so I concluded that I probably was not a lesbian.

I should clarify that I did not reach this conclusion because of any shortage of un-heterosexual feelings on my behalf. At fourteen, I had fallen deeply into unrequited love (normal) for a sixteen-year-old girl (not normal). The object of my desire was named Karen. Karen hailed from the north of England near my father’s family and was intriguingly Other. She seemed balanced, for one, a characteristic I was displaying less and less often as I careened toward mid-adolescence.  She was pretty in a Princess-Diana way, an excellent artist, could cook, and was at ease in social situations. She was the lead in our school musical, which was how I came to meet her. She was everything I was not.

I was never sure if I wanted her, in a romantic way, or wanted to be her. To attempt the latter, I started parting my hair the same way she did, growing a bob with a blonde streak in the long fringe, and started working in the same Hungry Jacks in the bogan heartland of Gosnells, where I began spending Friday and Saturday nights mopping up blood from the fights that occurred in the restaurant there. I saved up to buy a lime green (not my colour) mini dress (not my style) that was way more expensive than anything I’d ever purchased before, just because she had one. I tried to copy her way of being generous, inviting people over in northern English style. I even made sure I attended school, which had not previously been my strong suit. Even though she was in upper school and I in lower school, I knew I would see her because I had memorised her timetable and knew where she would be at every minute of the school day. In the days when the term stalking was connected only with game hunting, I engineered ways of bumping into her, found reasons to ask her about things just so that I could stand close to her, and spent sleepless nights wondering how next I could gain her attention.

I remained, however, stubbornly myself. Which is to say, I felt shy, awkward, comfortable only with my close friends, sensitive to everything, but wanting something More.

All my life, I’d watched adults cope with any feelings they were experiencing by drinking them down. I’d watched as they became louder, quieter, angrier, or sadder after drinking quantities of beer, moselle, port, whiskey, or whatever was to hand. So when I became overwhelmed by this desire for More, and Gwen’s friends were at our house with bottles of summer wine, a substance requiring quantities of sugar and carbonation so it could be imbibed without triggering the gag reflex, it was perfectly natural to be able to hold out my glass as the bottles were being poured for Gwen’s friends to initiate me into inebriation.

Before long, I did the 80s version of drunk dialling. This consisted of staggering to the local phone box and trying not to get cut on the smashed glass upon entry, dropping coins into the grey square object, weeping into the smelly handset about how terrible my life was and how wonderful Karen was.

Not content with humiliating myself over the phone, I went one better and staggered down the dark streets to Karen’s house. I cast myself down on the itchy doormat, dressed in a black and red checked teddy-girls outfit, still weeping. Karen’s mother heard these strangulated noises, flipped on the porch light and peered through the smoked glass at the side of the door. I heard her call in her northern brogue, ‘There’s something on the mat, Karen! It’s a big thing, it’s a red thing –’ and then, opening the door, she added, ‘It’s our Jewley!’

Karen showed preternatural patience with these and other visits, drunk or sober, reading my heartfelt, melodramatic manuscripts, tolerating my inquiries about her and her life. She let me stay in her house when nobody was home, listening to her Big Country, Culture Club and David Bowie albums. When she left school and then the country, possibly in part to get away from me, I was inconsolable and absolutely sure I would never love anyone again, regardless of their gender.

This is not to say I did not experiment with sex. Due to Gwen’s proclivities regarding Allans, Mikes and Steves, I knew better than to equate sex with love. Indeed, I regarded my feelings for Karen to be purer because there was no impurity of the flesh attached to it. With her, there would never be any chance of sex of such force it could have been recorded on a Richter scale, or that which would reach aural heights the envy of opera singers. I read Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 and it fitted with the sense of chaste devotion: the marriage of two minds seemed far less problematic that the marriage of two bodies.

I reinforced this perception by following Gwen’s lead and bringing home guys from parties and nightclubs as a fifteen-year-old. The sex was passion-less, mechanical, and allowed for a release of pent up feeling that was akin to purging. Tina Turner and Madonna were on high rotation that year, depending on which club you were in, and both of them projected the sass I wanted to emulate. What did love have to do with it, indeed.

I also, occasionally, kissed women in Perth’s one gay nightclub, and twice had had sexual encounters with other girls, to see if my Karen crush had been a sign of latent lesbianism, or, as all the guide books of the time promised, a passing phase. The kissing was nice – nicer than with the guys – but sexual encounters awkward, possibly because there was no expertise to be had on either side. It reinforced my conviction that sex and love were better left separate, and that the latter was ineffably more desirable.

All that changed with Boudicca.

My role in Dracula Spectacula was as an Idiot [see far left]. For this I took the method acting approach [see above].

Misapprehensions 1: Birth

Dear Reader, as my present week has been dominated by death, I thought it might be time for its opposite. Content warning: may contain mention of vaginas and the things that come out of them.

A vigorous easterly wind rustled the overhead canopies, bringing hot weather and sneeze-producing wheat dust from the recent harvest, as John and I trod the deserted footpaths of the co-op in the middle of the night, trying to hasten the contractions that remained stubbornly at a you-don’t-need-to-come-in-yet distance apart. Images of women rushing to hospital to immediately give birth in television shows bore no resemblance to the interminable hours we spent waiting. The child had already shown a reluctance to leave the womb by being ten days overdue: when I’d had a scan to make sure all was in order, the report came back ‘VERY active baby’. The baby’s in-utero kick-boxing and half pikes with twists, however, did not translate to any desire to exit its enclosed comfort. I began to wonder if the child would emerge at all, or whether I was having a very convincing phantom pregnancy.

All the things I had thought I would want at the birth – all my close friends, a masseuse, gentle music playing in the background, to be in water, to endure without pain relief – were the opposite to what I actually wanted when my body started the work required to expel the baby from its watery home and into the world. John eagerly responded to my demands for medicine balls, apple juice, a receptacle to vomit in, but I regarded him balefully, him being responsible for me being in this predicament in the first place, and was relieved each time he went off to nap on the couch. Gwen, in contrast, was completely present and knew exactly what words to say and when for perhaps the only time in my life, only once leaving the room to sob because the sounds I made birthing resembled the sounds Frank had made, dying.

There was no comfort to be had during labour: it was labour spiritual, emotional and physical. I entered the birthing tub only to immediately leave it: contrary to what it said on the tin, the still water intensified the pain of contractions and the warm water added to the already unbearable overheating. I vomited without caring I was vomiting, or where. I could not stop the diarrhoea which was no doubt worsened by the castor oil I’d taken to hasten this very event, so spent most of the second half of the labour alternating between standing in the shower and sitting on the toilet. When the midwife inserted her entire arm up my vagina, like a vet into the rear end of a cow in All Creatures Great and Small, to see how I was progressing, I could not have cared less. When she intoned approvingly ‘roomy pelvis’ upon retracting her limb, I felt re-energised with pride. I was built for doing this. I would never care about anything ever again. All the other activities and concerns of my life – writing, relationships, education, work, endlessly agonising over this thing and that thing – fell away. There was nothing beyond this. All human history and human endeavour, I was convinced, culminated in this act. I understood why men were obsessed with creating their own brain children, ideas of Uber mensch, of domination through violence and war: in the face of this, men were powerless and pointless.

These lofty considerations, as well as certainty and concern for dignity, fell away when the transition to the final stage of labour began and the pain took on an all-encompassing dimension which I had naively believed had already been reached. When I inquired, ‘Is it too late for some pethidine?’ I already knew the answer, and had a brief reflection on all the women before me who had died in childbirth. I understood now the extremity of being required for this ordinary act: these women were heroes. They fought and they lost, but the point was the fighting.

I was sitting on the toilet, resting in between the only thing that now existed in the world – the tense and release of pain – when the midwife suggested now might be a good time to stand up. I was surprised to feel, when I reached an inquiring hand down, a warm cantaloupe-shape protruding from my nether regions. As speedily as the preceding ten months had gone slowly, the baby was caught by the midwife and placed, bloody, purplish and whole, on my lap.

For second the baby was still, and then with a jerk reared back, took air, and yelled.

I stared at this fully formed human I had produced. I looked from the black-haired infant to John and Gwen, who were both crying, united in astonishment.

‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ Gwen asked, when she could.

‘Oh,’ I said. I lifted the chubby knee a little and said, ‘It’s a girl. I think.’

Some time later – after the afterbirth, the stitching, the first suckling – John and I gazed in wonder at the swaddled infant.

‘Ba-ba-ba-ba,’ John crooned, as he had been crooning at my stomach for months.

I tried to tally this curled-up collection of limbs, spine, shoulders with the unknown shapes I had felt under my stretched skin. Outside, I would have to learn the shape of this baby anew. Then I felt the side of her foot, and recognised what I had felt beneath my ribcage. I had massaged this nub of flesh and felt it push back in response. If I closed my eyes and massaged the foot under the swaddling, I found myself reassured by this edge, this relic of familiarity between one state and the next.

‘Baby Annie,’ I said. ‘Welcome.’


As foreshadowed by the ultrasound report, Annie came out a VERY active baby. She was alert, interested in all movement, and ready to be amused.

Baby Annie did not take to sleep, mostly because this interrupted her access to her supply of milk, which she extracted voraciously, and also because it robbed her of the opportunity to be involved in whatever was going on.

I would sit outside in the mornings with her on my lap, under the shade of the eaves, the scribbly gum drooping nearby, the nasturtium leaves a pillow of green. I found myself singing the songs Gwen had sung to me as a child: A You’re Adorable, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Close to You. She would smile and kick her legs, and I felt a comforting continuity with my female bloodline which I had never before experienced. In these mornings, breathing in clean air, staring in wonder at this miracle of flesh, I felt content.

This contentment was short lived.

Parent portrait by Annie Lawrinson

Prologue: the party coffin

It seems timely, dear Reader, to share this with you. Content alert: see above.

There is a photo of my mother in a coffin.

Her eyes are closed but her glasses are still on, indicating that she is, in fact, alive. She’s clutching a bouquet of fake red roses, and is surrounded by bunches of fake flowers in real (although empty) beer bottles. She’s managing not to smile.

The coffin belonged to one of Gwen’s ex-boyfriends. I think his name was John, but it might have been Allan, or Steve, or Mike. It was a great prop to bring to a Halloween party in 1990, and much hilarity no doubt ensued as people climbed in and out of it, pretending to be dead.

My mother no longer has to pretend to be dead. Just before she reached that inevitable state, we were discussing funeral arrangements.

‘Hey Mum,’ I said. ‘Do you remember that boyfriend of yours – the undertaker?’
‘John?’ she said (or Allan/Steve/Mike).
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Could he do your funeral?’
‘No, he’s dead,’ she said.

And then we laughed and laughed, until the cancer in her kidney gave her a pain in the stomach and she was reduced to wincing and giggling.

It was a moment of levity, taking place for her in the midst of three weeks of surprise suffering, belated and incomplete taking stock, and indignities; and for me, in the midst of surprise anguish, attempted and ineffectual resolution-finding, followed by a years-long eruption of feelings of abandonment hitherto under- if not unfelt.

My mother had been threatening to die since I was seventeen. Then, she’d been diagnosed with emphysema, but continued smoking and living until a series of strokes at the age of 56 put paid completely to the first, and curtailed the style in which she’d been doing the latter. For eighteen years she’d been a hemiplegic, sustained primarily by a diet of ham sandwiches and pies, increasingly confined to her loungeroom chair, her legs and feet distended with retained fluid. She criticised everyone and everything from this vantage point, softened only by offerings of stuffed or porcelain meerkats, or by beating her husband in the daily cryptic crossword.

Every time someone famous or heroic died, she’d say, ‘Here I am sitting on my fat arse, useless as tits on a bull.’

She was regularly taken by ambulance to hospital after falls, unexplained drops in iron levels, twisted bowels, or cysts. After each phone call, on my way to the hospital, I’d wonder if this really was the beginning of the very drawn-out end.

‘They reckon there’s nothing wrong with me,’ she’d say, sounding irritated. ‘But what would they know.’

She hated her doctor and said he was useless, but would not go to a different one. Her husband was constantly going to specialists and doctors: when I inquired why, she said, ‘How would I bloody know? He doesn’t tell me anything.’ When I pointed out she could, as a concerned wife, ask him, she looked at me as if it was a stupid question, requiring no response.

At work, after her actual funeral, I found language to be inadequate to explain to colleagues how I was feeling, or the nature of my relationship with my mother. As a shortcut, I displayed the picture of Gwen-in-a-party-coffin as a shorthand way of saying I was having a hard day.

When I was crying next to her bedside, close to the end, she said, ‘Remember the good times.’

You can’t remember the good times unless you’ve reconciled with The Rest of It. The Rest of It is never simple, linear, or confined to one’s own experiences. Grief, if you had a childhood resembling mine in any way, dumps The Rest of It unceremoniously on you. First, you’ve got to dig your way out of it. Then you’ve got to sort it – that lump there, that lump there – until you’ve got piles you can Marie Kondo, and only then, beneath all the rubble, you can find the things that give you joy. Or, if not joy, a sense of satisfaction that The Rest of It is in the past, and you, by some combination of luck, love, and sheer bloody mindedness, are here.

Not dead yet

The why of it

You have spoken, dear Reader!

This is the blog which will contain my reflections on the process of writing a memoir entitled How to Avoid a Happy Life. I did a straw poll, which heartily endorsed having a separate site from my website containing young-people-related bookish content. So, this is it.

For years I have had people saying to me: you should write a memoir. But I had no idea how I would form the wildly varied and chaotic and weird collection of experiences into something coherent. Then my mother died at the end of 2019, and the ensuing extremity of grief and the re-triggering of trauma meant that writing became a necessity. I had to make order of the chaos. And the only way I could do this was by adding liberal doses of irony to temper the ‘did that shit really happen?’ nature of it all.

I am undertaking this with the mentoring support of US writer and memoirist Howard Norman. He is a Vermont-based novelist and memoirist whose has twice been named as a finalist for the National Book Award in the United States and whose books have been translated into fourteen languages. He has received the Lannan Award in Literature and is Professor Emeritus of Literature at the University of Maryland. If that wasn’t enough achievement, he has also received a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, the Harold Morton Landon Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the New England Book Award.

Howard is also a great human. If you haven’t read his memoir I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, I highly recommend it, along with all of his other books. They’re tricky to get in Australia, but worth your persistence.

I look forward to sharing the process of writing, re-writing, and reflection with you.

My mother Gwen with her piano accordion 1961-ish

Writing in the New Year

Dear Reader, thank you for your support and interest in How to Avoid A Happy Life over the course of 2022.

Part of the reason I started this blog was because I was not entirely sure I’d have the wherewithal to finish it, and I thought writing here might keep me accountable, as they say.

Howard Norman has also kept me accountable: as I’ve said before, I wouldn’t be where I am without his expert guidance.

While I wait for edits to arrive through the vagaries of the international post system, I’ve been faffing about, publishing stories on Medium – I’d love it if you would follow me there.

If you’re interested in joining me in some writing-related reflections (and a writing prompt challenge), join me here.

It’s also full of random pictures, which I’ve used because I only post stock ones I’ve paid for. So you might end up with a random picture of me with a baby wombat, apropos of nothing.

All the best to you and yours for the season, and may the New Year be good to you, and bring you peace, love and all the good things.

And for me, hopefully there will be more memoir news to share.