No Crazy Lady here—Rosie Waterland’s clear-eyed reckoning of her life

In Every Lie I’ve Ever Told (2017), Rosie Waterland tells stories from her ruptured childhood, first laid bare in her 2016 memoir The Anti-Cool Girl, interlacing them with intelligent, wickedly funny observations about being a woman today.

As the daughter of addicts, Waterland was neglected and abused; she went to 17 schools, lived with violence, and was hospitalised in a psychiatric ward. Where The Anti-Cool Girlis the story of her survival, this book marks a maturity that comes with self-knowledge. Waterland learns from her experiences and, in recounting her shortcomings and flaws, she asks us to think about ours. Her examination of grief, trauma, sex and relationships is evidence of a woman who does not flinch from introspection. Every lieis also the story of her love for her best friend, Tony, whose sudden death brought home to her sanity’s wafer-thin fragility.

 She opens each chapter with a lie she has told herself and others over the years and weaves serious discussion amongst her self-deprecating stories. I haven’t had bad sex since I promised I wouldn’t put up with it asks, ‘Has porn broken the brains of men?’ Her story about going to bed with a 21 year old who is shocked by her pubic hair should be required reading for millennials. In a follow up, she invites the reader into the bizarre and humiliating experience of laser hair removal.

It’s uncomfortable enough to have to get naked from the waist down, lie down on a table and spread your legs as far as they will go. But it’s even worse when you do that and the heavily made-up technician looks directly into your snatch and lets out a big, unimpressed sigh. “This is going to be difficult, she says, wincing now….”

Yet, she muses, the counter-argument is that ‘waxing your pubes is a powerful example of the autonomy you have over your body.’ How can women today work out who they are with so many contradictory messages?

Waterland struggled with eating disorders in her twenties. In her chapter on body image and thatFacebook photo, she asks again, Why is what we look like more important that what we do? But there isn’t time to think about answers in today’s 24 hour media-blitzed world. While her nude selfie caused a media frenzy, her accompanying considered examination of society’s skewed obsession with women’s bodies was all but ignored. It’s not new, but I’m so glad she’s asking these questions again, and to a new readership.

Just don’t be too fat, too skinny, too sexy, too prudish, too aggressive, too passive. Be a role model for all other women but be modest enough to never think you’re a role model. Have it all, but also admit that it’s impossible to have it all.

As a former writer for Mamamia, she used to be part of that world, ‘the Fast-Food Opinion machine’ but having taking a step back, she is now struck by the sheer volume of meaningless drivel, aka ‘content’, that it generates. She asks us to think about its harm— the cruelty of labelling people, of defining a complex life with a tag.

Waterland is acutely aware that her own change in attitude has come only after she has been personally hurt.

(I know – how narcissistic to only realise the error of my ways after I was the subject of media scrutiny. Scrutiny that I had participated in countless times. But I got there in the end, at least? I’m ashamed to say that’s the best I’ve got: I did get there in the end…)

After Tony’s death, she told people that she was ‘okay’, but she was drowning, not waving. Her subsequent breakdown and suicide attempt brought home the biggest lie of all—that her ‘mental-illness story was one of past recovery, not current struggle.’

 ‘Recovered’ means it’s over, I’m good now, I can talk about this because it’s only in my past. That girl was a crazy lady. This girl is fine. I’m okay.

Her acknowledgement of her vulnerability is a powerful contribution, both for those living with depression and anxiety and those caring for them. I read her book at the same time as Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love (Hamish Hamilton, 2016) where he discusses the human predilection towards delusion: we in the Western Anglophone world would do well to learn more about our character traits, our insanities which are deeply embedded in our psyches. Rosie Waterland’s clear-eyed reckoning of her life meets his challenge head-on. ‘Let’s all embrace failure. Let’s all accept that we can only be perfect at being imperfect. That’s about as close to ourselves as we’re ever going to get.’

Rosie Waterland (2017), Every Lie I’ve Ever Told, HarperCollins Publishers, Sydney.

First published in the Newtown Review of Books. And Rosie, a Newtown resident of old, liked it too.  Read more on her Facebook page.

 

 

 

Anything is possible, Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge, is an author of piercing insight. Many a religious and philosophical tome has been written on moral righteousness but in her slim books, Strout’s characters show us how to live a good life. They embody love and forgiveness.

Anything is Possible is a companion set of stories to her novel My Name is Lucy Barton (2016). The nine stories in this collection centre around an ensemble of residents in the small rural towns of Illinois, outside Chicago. Lucy had grown up there, in desperate poverty. She manages to get to college and then to New York where she becomes a writer. She has just released her memoir and her home town is confronted by an awakened sensibility. Some have read the memoir, others shun it, as they shunned Lucy, but its existence affects everyone.

Each story is defined by a complex life, a private pain, as Strout’s characters search for some way to cope with past hurts – some bury their history, some live in isolation and can no longer recognise an offer of help, others run away, or return home. As their lives intersect through the collection, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes as a backstory, the reader learns more about them.

Strout is interested in why people do the things they do, showing the complexity of human relationship – the pleasure and the harm:
Patty had tremendous sympathy for Angelina … But she wanted to say right now: Listen to this! Lucy Barton’s mother was awful to her, and her father – oh dear God, her father … But Lucy loved them … We’re all just a mess, Angelina, trying as hard as we can, we love imperfectly, Angelina, but it’s okay.

A woman’s private mocking of her host shows the pain of an unfulfilled life; a bed-and-breakfast proprietor who refuses to be bullied spits in the jam of an abusive customer; a janitor shows kindness in allowing a girl to stay behind in the warm classroom. The disparity between the fishbowl of the small town and the anonymity of the city is illustrated when a visiting festival director is billeted with a local couple – her claustrophobia and feeling of exposure in their home is palpable as the reader sees the smallness of their lives.

While those who have got away to the cities are understood to have ‘escaped’, Strout’s quiet recounting of routine tasks by those who have stayed shows the meaning in an ordinary life. Despite the snide remarks, bullying, and social exclusion, her ensemble of characters demonstrates how tiny acts of human kindness can change lives. A teacher who is openly scorned by a student overcomes her own pain to see the child’s greater hurt and helps her, laying a foundation for greater good. And when a woman who participates in her husband’s sexual perversion is confronted by a victim, Strout allows for her self-awareness showing that liberation can come through the courage of forgiveness: Almost always it’s a surprise, the passing of permission to enter a place once seen as eternally closed. And this is how it was for a stunned Linda, who stood that day in that convenience store with the sun falling over packages of corn chips and heard those words of compassion – undeserved …

Courage is also present in characters resolutely doing something they know to be right, but which is hard — embracing a man, recognising his humanity, when he has been shunned by all others.

The beauty of Strout’s writing is one reason to read and reread these stories ‘… and he did not know what he would do … the minnow darting through the stream of his anxiety …’

If you need another reason, Strout’s ability to confront us with the harm and sadness of poverty and mental illness, but without despair, is a marvel. She asks, Why do we do good? And her answer is a message of hope – because it leads to love. In the final story, Abel understands: ‘… perfect knowledge: Anything was possible for anyone.’
Elizabeth Strout Anything is Possible Viking 2017 HB 280pp $29.99

First published in the Newtown Review of Books, 17 August 2017.

Jeffrey Eugenides and Marilynne Robinson

I am drawn to writing about these books. Both Home, (Robinson, 2008) and The Marriage Plot (Eugenides, 2011) portray the truncated half-life of a person suffering depression and the stress it brings to their carers. Allowing entry to those darker places is part of being seen, being understood. It’s why I read fiction.

I know this subject. I think many of us do but stigma and taboo crowd out a basic human need to share an experience. Without knowing who amongst us will understand, and feeling that it is not our story to tell, we keep it inside. It is a long and lonely heartache living with someone who doesn’t want to be here anymore; trying to keep them alive and sometimes failing.

In The Marriage Plot, Eugenides’ character Leonard is bi-polar, swinging between mania and deep depression. His girlfriend, Madeleine, is told early on by an earnest psych major ‘how attractive it can be to think you can save somebody else by loving them.’ How this resonates. I thought love—and organisation—could save my brother.

Leonard lies, cajoles, distorts and is ruled by his medication: dosage, properties, schedules, results, or lack thereof. It makes him feel fat, slow and stupid. He can’t remember what it was like to feel normal. He goes on spending binges, rampant with his own generosity. Only exorbitant gestures kindle a sense of life. And Madeleine ‘threw herself into the task of loving and caring for Leonard’ (Eugenides 2011 p184), as she mops and tidies, cooks and plans, she is keeping him alive. Or so she thinks. But you can only save yourself, the prescient psych major says.

Madeleine’s energetic impotence so closely mirrored my own. In one scene, he cannot be around people, his apathy and listlessness driving Madeleine to burst out ‘Why can’t you go to one party?’ ‘I just can’t.’ My brother would do the same. I wanted to shake him, slap him, show him all the things he could be, could do. The total incomprehension of that life, the impossibility of seeing the world through their eyes, is a constant when you love someone with depression.

At a writers’ festival event, I asked Eugenides about his awareness, his precision here. He had not experienced depression himself, but spoke to many who had. A woman stopped me afterwards, ‘You were the one who asked the question!’ I nodded. ‘Me too!’ she said. Her rage at her sister for not getting a grip, just snapping out of it, was consuming.

Marilynne Robinson’s Home tells of Jack, a child in a loving family who grows into a man they do not understand. He disappears for twenty years, staying away even for his mother’s funeral, never knowing how often they try to find him. Robinson tells of his return to his father’s house. He looks at the family who love him with cool eyes, a lived detachment—if I stay away, I can’t be hurt. They see his alcoholism, contained but just below the surface, and fear is the air they breathe. Removing bottles from his room, counting housekeeping money, hiding it in the piano stool, keeping him from self-harm.

“Was this what they had always been afraid of, that he would really leave, that he would truly and finally put himself beyond the reach of help and harm, beyond self-consciousness and its humiliations, beyond all that loneliness and unspent anger and all that unsalved shame, and their endless, relentless loyalty to him. Dear Lord. She had tried to take care of him, to help him, and from time to time, he had let her believe that she did.” (Robinson 2008 p 248­–249).

It pierces, language like this. The shame my brother felt at failure, failing us, failing himself, was constant. Not understanding, we could not heal it. Robinson writes that Jack refuses help. I saw the prison my brother created for himself, seeing himself as someone unworthy of receiving help, owing it to us to either fix himself or get out of the way. Out of our lives. And, like Jack’s family, we imagined every dreadful outcome, ‘lying awake nights’.

When we change, or our lives are changed, books like these can help us understand. The intricacies of the human condition can be smothered with misunderstanding and euphemism, or explored; while the hole in my life cannot be filled, I can accept it and accept me.

Home, Marilynne Robinson, Virago Press, UK, 2008

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides, Fourth Estate, UK, 2011

Kent Haruf and Marilyn French

Sometime earlier this year, I added Kent Haruf to my list of ‘books/authors to read’. I’d not heard of him before but caught some reviews of his final work, Our Souls at Night. In a second-hand bookstore in New York City (favourite destinations, both), I found a hardback copy which then sat on my shelf of ‘unread’ for a while (and yes, I am quite systematic in my reading consumption).

When I picked it up recently, I was astonished by its grace, by its clarity. Haruf’s prose is simple and compelling; his pared back recitations of domesticity happen in real time. I followed the characters through the minutiae of their tasks, one step after another and I was there too, in his novel, seeing what they were seeing, absorbing their reality.

Its spare beauty reminded me of a yoga teacher I knew once who told us that a perfect stance can be held with every muscle engaged but no visible movement at all.

Our Souls at Night dwells on the loneliness that can be so real in our splendid, suburban isolation, divided by our houses and gardens and fences and oppressed by its gatekeepers’ rigid codes. In this world, an arrangement to share lives is embarked upon, its comforts and delights gradually taking the place of trepidation.

I was reminded of Marilyn French’s The Bleeding Heart which I read many years ago. Her protagonists in this 1980s feminist love story are brought together by chance and share a short, beautiful period, inhabiting a place which is not their ‘real lives’.

It asks how can we live? How can we find a place with our friends, with our families, with their demands and our own? Rigid expectations again.

The couples in both books, one mid-life, the other nearer the end, look inwardly; in the long stories they tell each other, we see how they came to be the people they are now, with all their quirks and foibles and shortcomings and offerings.

In the distillation of their characters, the authors might help us find something in our own that we’d not seen before.

the-bleeding-heart our-souls-at-night

Patrick O’Brian

Introduced to Patrick O’Brian by a friend, I was suspicious. Volume after volume of a boy’s own adventure—ships and sailors, battles on the high seas. Yes, there is that and it is extraordinary in his deft hands but O’Brian’s genius is in taking the Napoleonic Wars as an exoskeleton, holding within it the soft flesh of human frailty. The Guardian describes him as Jane Austen at sea.

I love his creation of Diana Villiers who embodies the period’s freedoms and strictures. She has money and a degree of independence but accepts the protection of powerful men when she needs them. She is frankly sexual and open in her preferences.

The friendship between Dr Maturin, the ship’s surgeon and also a spy, and Jack Aubrey, the captain, is complex and real in its different incarnations; they struggle with weakness and are sometimes estranged. Their needs are plain to each other, and to us; you can love, but often you cannot help.

Sharp and humorous dialogue fills the books. Nonchalantly explaining to Aubrey’s wife an event on a recent trip, Maturin says —

‘To be sure, he lost the rest of his ear in the Indiaman – but that was nothing.’

‘His ear!’, cried Sophie, turning white and coming to a dead halt….

‘Yes, his ear, right ear, or what there was left of it. But it was nothing.  I sewed it on again, and as I say, if you had seen him last night, you would have been easy in your mind.’

‘What a good friend you are to him, Dr Maturin.’

‘I sew his ears on from time to time, sure.’

You can happily wallow in its technical detail of rigging, winds and navigation, or speed through to rejoin the narrative. You would be in good company. Maturin, on being furnished with a lengthy description of the ship’s features cries: ‘For God’s love, Jack, just point the ship in as near the right direction as ever you can and tell me about leeway afterwards.’

O’Brian’s lack of sentimentality is a cool shower on a humid day. Read them in sequence, beginning with Master & Commander and see if you’re not hooked.

 

patrick-obrian

 

Peter Matthiesen

Travel, exploration, philosophy, religion and science in one luminous work—Peter Matthiesen’s 1978 classic The Snow Leopard is unlike anything I’ve read before. Matthiesen’s narrative follows his expedition to the Himalayas with a zoologist friend to study the bharal, a sheep/goat which has proven elusive to classification—somewhat like this book.

The language both soothes and stimulates. I would wander off into introspection only to be drawn up by some abruptly realised danger. As a story of exploration into the wilderness, tension is high: the reader does not know whether both men will return home until the closing pages, or whether the scientific research has been rewarded. The expedition’s course is never certain and the author never lets us forget their near-absolute isolation. When it is time to leave the monastery where they are based, the porters who arrive to escort him back bring letters from home. These he puts away to read once safely down. He knows he cannot move any faster in the event of bad news. ‘Good news too would be intrusive, spoiling this chance to live moment by moment in the present…’ (Matthiessen, 2010, p214).

Matthiesen’s acute sensitivity towards cultural difference and his musings on commonalities would be one reason to read this book. Or for the science, calibrated to a lay audience, and dryly humorous. A description of how the male bharal has evolved to protect its head while ramming other males ends with this observation: ‘Why nature should devote so many centuries – thousands, probably – to the natural selection of these characteristics that favour head on collisions over brains is a good question….'(Matthiesen, 2010, p.229)

Meditation on old and new cultures and spirituality are interspersed with field reports on the bharal and observations of his companions. The book’s title comes from the elusive creature that he craves to see during his sojourn in the mountains—a symbol of our constant searching. Humour, often at his own expense, is frequent. Matthiesen is an intriguing figure of vulnerability and toughness and left me hungry for more. Writing this piece now, I find myself wanting to read it again.

Matthiessen, Peter 2010, The Snow Leopard, Vintage, London

.snow-leopard

Alice Sebold

This is the first of a series I’m writing to recommend some literary gems and authors I’ve loved. If I can help other readers find some new ‘old’ books, I’ll be repaying some of my debt to writers. Find them!

*

‘When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.’ So begins Alice Sebold’s novel  The Almost Moon.

Known for her more famous book, The Lovely Bones, Sebold writes from the dark side. We know it because we’ve been there too, even if we push it away, under the rug. It lurks and she gives it a voice that we understand. Suburbia, neighbourhood watch, dogs. Dementia, suicide, fear.

And life goes on amid the desperation. It’s all so normal. Consequences are weighed and considered by the characters as they enter, stage right through the domestic sets of bathrooms, carpeted stairs, basements. Burger King carparks, Life Drawing Classes at the Senior Center. We’ve been there.

I read recently that most women go through life trying to live up to their mother’s expectations. Who can say whether they’re real, or deluded? The expectations and the attempts, or lack of. ‘You’re throwing your life away, you know that? Pissing it down your leg.’

Harsh.

It’s one of those books which crowds your head as you read, each sentence and page turned clamping down a little tighter on the options. How is this going to end? It’s not a thriller, not a whodunit. It’s being painted into a corner.

Her book Lucky is the real account of her rape in her first year at college and living through the days and weeks and months that followed. She’s lucky that she’s not dead, like another girl, killed in that same tunnel. Her life did not end among the dead leaves and broken beer bottles.

Her recounting the events over and over stays with me. When her father, many months afterwards realises that the rapist had dropped his knife, Alice can see him thinking ‘Why couldn’t she get away…?’ So simply, she evokes the burden felt again and again of lifting away that weight, the dead weight of her not struggling hard enough, of granting a permission of sorts.

Other people’s fear or sympathy, or pity, worse by far, were harder that the clinical policing, the courtroom proceedings with their rules and patterns. People knew their roles and played their parts, there.

Don’t be put off by Sebold’s grim landscapes. Her voice is clear and her prose fluent. Like an origami artist, she folds her story deftly, one crease after another, edges sharp, until it becomes the crane, standing upright.

Why go there? Ask yourself that the next time you read a crime story, or watch a murder, or a rape on some screen. Saturated with violence already, this lucid recounting of its impact is a gift.

And if you missed these when they came out….

I used to have a diet of new releases. I’d follow the Booker shortlist, section myself in the front third of a bookshop, note down reviews. It all seemed too hard to do it any other way. How could you begin to choose something from the closely packed shelves? So many writers. I didn’t need a degree in maths to tell me that the probability of picking something I’d love was low.

And then I had children. The contradictions of living with babies include both slowing you down and speeding things up. In the weirdest way, the day’s allocation of minutes and hours remained the same but everything resized. Leaving the house could take up to an hour. Clothes shopping for me took five minutes.

Reading became a refuge and the greatest pleasure; nobody had told me it was the perfect complement to childrearing. One demands, constantly. The other gives, with no conditions. It provides adult company and imparts lessons in the human condition when you most need them.

Storytime at the local library brought a revelation. Papery dry, cool, unhurried. Free. I could fill a bag with novels by random authors, take them home and read over three weeks. Then take them back and get more. Who first thought of this? Extraordinary! No longer relentlessly contemporary, my reading expanded, in all directions.

But my memory was crammed with the minutiae of daily routines and I could forget, within minutes of closing it, a book’s name. I began to keep a list. No dates or comments (a passing judgement is of no interest to me). Just titles and authors.

Years later, it’s given me a feast of data. I know the authors to hunt down for more of their work. And I am always ready with referrals of those I’ve loved.

img_1964

This is the beginning of a series I’m writing to recommend some literary gems, exploring a few books at a time through themes. In the vast crush of information today, what is the longevity of a novel? There are so many that deserve to be remembered. If I can help other readers find some new ‘old’ books, I’ll be repaying some of my debt to writers. Bring these ideas to your book clubs. Indulge. You’ll be rewarded.

 

For my friends in book clubs, looking for ideas…

I went to a party on Saturday night and got talking with friends about bookclubs. I’m a fan of anything that gets people reading, books circulating and authors rewarded. While reading is essentially a private activity for me, I love sharing suggestions and my lovely friends in book clubs asked me for my top ten. Some are well known, some less so. I can recommend them all.

Lydia Millet (Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, Mermaids in Paradise)
Ann Patchett (Run, State of Wonder, Truth and Beauty)
Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face; companion to Truth and Beauty, above)
Elizabeth Strout (Abide with Me, Olive Kitteridge)
Mark Poirier (Modern Ranch Living)
Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries)
Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch)
Ruth Ozeki (A Tale for the Time Being)
Valerie Martin (Property)

Megan Abbott, (The End of Everything)
Elizabeth Gilbert (The Signature of All Things)
John Green (any – I think he’s a genius in getting into young adult heads)
And that’s more than ten! I could go on. 1234963
Happy reading.

3 resources for mental strength – and all from women!

13-Things-Mentally-Strong-People-Dont-Do-Review-2 (1) 41m0N7IIcsL OBC_2.0_M_colorsXplr6_v3_Book

Three books crossed my path recently that share a message, albeit in different ways. They are about the power of resilience and the value of looking inwards for answers.

In 1995, grieving her mother, not knowing what she was doing in life, dabbling in heroin, loving the wrong men, losing the right ones, Cheryl Strayed made a decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She walked 1,100 miles through California and Oregon, mostly alone, carrying a pack she called Monster.

Her book, Wild, subtitled A journey from lost to found, recounts her resourcefulness in going on, increasing the miles she walked each day, finding water and feeding herself, making camp each night. She earned back her own respect through doing something that was hard, that took courage. She fought off a bear, survived her solitude—she saw no one for her first six days—and ran out of water. She lost most of her toenails, and then lost her boots, mid-hike.  She became alive to her own strengths and witnessed her capacity to bring herself to each day.

When we’re adults, we don’t have our parents to push us anymore. Sometimes we have a mentor or a friend who will but it’s rare. We pussyfoot around each other, careful not to overstep boundaries. Giving advice on life and choices can be construed as ‘interfering’. We’re supposed to be able to do this ourselves. But often we can’t. In a world of the ‘individual’, we have to call on our own resources, our mental strength.

Amy Morin’s book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do identifies behaviours that control you. Strayed’s experience is an exemplar of realising, identifying and responding to those behaviours.

For instance, number 3- ‘[Mentally strong people] don’t shy away from change’. Strayed’s realisation that she had to change her life is there, on page 1. ‘My solo three-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings. There was the first, flip decision to do it, followed by the second, more serious decision to actually do it, and then the long third beginning of [preparation].’ (Strayed, 2007). Morin says that mentally strong people don’t expect immediate results or give up after the first failure. Forty minutes into her hike, ‘the voice inside my head was screaming, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’

Mentally strong people don’t focus on things they can’t control and they don’t dwell on the past. Walking the trail meant living only for that day and ‘each day on the trail was the only possible preparation for the one that followed.’ When she loses her boot, and throws its useless companion over the escarpment to join its mate, she knew there was only one option—to keep walking.

Perhaps, most especially pertinent, mentally strong people don’t fear time alone. ‘They can tolerate being alone and they don’t fear silence.’ (Morin 2016).

And this is what makes me think of another contributor to this discussion who enters from a different angle.

Susan Cain’s message is about the power of introverts. When we prize extroversion, performance, collaboration, we devalue the contributions of the quiet.  She begs us to ‘stop the madness for group work’ which makes me applaud.  I loathe teamwork. I used to wriggle out of the inevitable interview question with some embroidered half-truths. I’m not a borderline sociopath. I get along with people in the office fine but when left alone, I produce my best work.

Susan says that we need to value the privacy, the autonomy and freedom of working alone: ‘we need to have our own revelations; we need to go to the wilderness.’ Which brings me back to Cheryl Strayed and mental strength.

More please.

http://amymorinlcsw.com/mentally-strong-people/

http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts?language=en

http://www.cherylstrayed.com