We’ve all been there. Walking down a dark laneway at night, our senses suddenly hyper-acute, checking for danger. Listening behind us for footsteps breaking into a run. Listening ahead of us for footsteps falling silent. Using our ears because our eyes don’t work so well in the dark.
This has been my experience night after night as I’ve walked home from the local train station. When you’re a theatre critic night work is inevitable. Most of the time I feel lucky to be living only a ten-minute stroll to the train. And yet, night after night, I’ve had to steel myself to enter the long dark alley between the station and the end of my street.
The statistics are horrible. Two Australian women are killed every week. One in three Australian women have been physically assaulted. One in five Australian women have been sexually assaulted. Whilst more men than women are assaulted, and most assaults on women occur in the home, nevertheless a quarter of all assaults occur on the streets. Your eyes are probably glazing over right now from this barrage of brutal numbers. But we’ve all seen CCTV images of women being pursued down the street by the men who will soon kill them.
These images are the ones that haunt us when we’re out walking late at night with shadowy figures following close behind, our heart racing, our stride quickening.All women know this fear deep in their guts, even the tall, strong, middle-aged, flat-heeled ones like me.
‘Flat-heeled!’ I hear you say. ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’ We feminists have spent decades trying to persuade each other that we can – and should – wear whatever we like out there. That no one has the right to curb our impulses when we’re flicking through a wardrobe. That we shouldn’t have to dress conservatively to feel safe on the streets. And we’re right about that.
Still, it makes me anxious to see young women wearing heels so high that running would be impossible. I keep an eye on those young women as they walk ahead of me into the dark alley outside the train station, priming myself in case they need help. I wear flat heels when I’m planning to use that alley to get home after a night at the theatre. Just in case I have to run.
When I was a teenager men would sometimes follow me home from the train station. On a couple of occasions these men caught up to me, unzipped themselves and masturbated in front of me. One night on a dark platform my girlfriend and I were surrounded by a group of young men who began tugging at our clothes. That night we had to run.
When I was in my early twenties I did a course in self-defence for women. ‘Stand tall and shout at them’, we were told. ‘If that doesn’t work, try poking them in the eyes or kneeing them in the crotch. They won’t expect you to be aggressive’. Sometimes in that station laneway I ball my fists as I’m walking, hoping I’ll look tough. But no one can see how tough I am. It’s too dark.
Six months ago my fear prompted me to phone the local council and ask if they could install some lights in the laneway. The initial response was promising. There would be an inspection and someone would get back to me. The follow-up phone call was less promising. There was no budget for this kind of thing and besides, the council employee told me, there was plenty of light down there on the night of his inspection.
‘What was the moon like that evening?’ I enquired. With a full moon it’s not quite so bad in that alley.
‘Oh, there’s always moonlight,’ he replied cheerily.
Now I’m no scientist, but I’m pretty sure that for half of every month the moon provides about as much illumination as a candle in a cathedral – or less. It took all my willpower not to say ‘astronomy-fail’ out loud. Instead I reminded him there had recently been a number of night-time attacks on women in neighbouring suburbs. Some of those women never made it home. He agreed to ‘have a closer look’ at the lighting question.
A little while ago there was another phone call. Somehow they’d found money in the budget and solar-powered lights would be installed in the alley. Mr Moonlight and I congratulated each other on a job well done.
It’s a small victory but it feels huge. I’m sick to death of feeling afraid when I walk the streets alone at night. I’m sick of my own ambivalent feelings about what clothing women should wear to feel safe. I’m sick of having to convince myself that violence against women is not an inevitable part of the human condition.
Thirty years ago I marched in Reclaim The Night rallies. Back then I believed mass political protest would lead to permanent social change. These days my ambitions are more modest. I’m going to try to re-reclaim the night one solar light at a time. You might want to join me. And if anyone tells you that women should take responsibility for the violence visited upon them, you could try saying, ‘Yeah, you’re right, and of course there’s always moonlight’.
‘Dad has no idea how paralysing this thing is. I never want to talk to him again’.
These miserable words appeared recently in a Facebook message from my teenage friend Anna*. Her father had been giving her a hard time about not finding a part-time job. He accused his daughter (and not for the first time) of being lazy and of sponging off her parents. In fact Anna is suffering from a form of anxiety so severe that some days she can’t leave the house.
Anna’s father is a fearless extrovert. Like her mother, though, Anna is very shy. Shyness is an inherited temperament trait that often manifests as social anxiety; our nervous systems are hard-wired to avoid those we don’t know intimately. Some of us may eventually find ways to feel safe in the company of strangers. Others develop full-blown social phobia and endure lives of quiet desperation. The difference sometimes comes down to how we are parented.
One of the first people to make a study of the experience of shyness was Charles Darwin. A century and half ago Darwin described shyness as one of ‘the mental states which induce blushing’.
‘It is not the simple act of reflecting on our own appearance’, Darwin wrote, ‘but the thinking what others think of us, which excites a blush. Shyness seems to depend on sensitiveness to the opinion, whether good or bad, of others, more especially with respect to external appearance.’
The scientist writes tenderly about his two year old son who behaved shyly towards his father after Darwin had returned from a weeklong absence. Darwin begs his readers not to judge shy children when they avoided the scrutiny of ‘the unmerciful spectator’.
One hundred and fifty years on, Darwin’s findings have been confirmed by psychologists specialising in social anxiety. According to Professor Ron Rapee, head of the Centre for Emotional Health in Sydney, at the core of social anxiety is fear of negative judgement. ‘A diagnosis (of social anxiety) requires that people avoid social situations because of that concern about being evaluated by others.’
Rapee says a lot of shy people have physical symptoms like shaking and blushing. Some of them are able to ‘get on with life and don’t let it stop them. But people who are highly shy are the ones most likely to be socially phobic’.
The Centre for Emotional Health offers a range of resources for the parents of anxious kids, including public talks, downloadable fact sheets and treatment sessions. They also conduct research into the impacts of shyness on children. For example, one study shows how an innate dislike of uncertainty is part of the distress experienced by young people with socially anxiety. Another confirms that social anxiety can get in the way of children making friends.
I recall my own mother trying to encourage me to deal with my dislike of uncertainty when it came to making childhood friends. In my memoir Shy (Text Publishing) I describe how I found it almost impossible to visit my friend Sally who lived just around the corner.
My anxious mind was so full of ‘what ifs’ (what if she doesn’t want me there?) that my mother had to bribe me with coins to make the journey to Sally’s place.
My mother’s instincts were right; gentle encouragement with rewards for risk-taking can be very helpful for shy children. On the other hand a response like that of Anna’s father – punishing a shy child for her fears – can only add to their distress.
Later in life my mother pursued her interest in children’s behaviour and became a psychologist specialising in the study of temperament. In researching my memoir I interviewed Professor Margot Prior (aka mum) about her findings.
‘If, by the time you’re nine or ten, you’ve been shy all along and you’re still shy then it’s a pretty enduring characteristic’, she told me. ‘But lots of kids are initially shy and grow out of it. The way the parents handle it can make a difference. It’s hard if the parents are biologically inclined to be shy and are modelling shy behaviour. But if the parents model brave behaviour, then that can help.’
According to a set of guidelines distributed by the Centre for Emotional Health, the three most important things a parent can do for a socially anxious child are to show them affection and acceptance, to stay emotionally in touch with them and to support their attempts to be more independent.
‘Respond consistently to your child in a warm, loving, supportive and respectful way, and support their autonomy. Be involved in the various aspects of your child’s life and engage in fun activities. Know who your child’s friends are, take an interest in what (they’re) doing,’ the guidelines advise.
Everything in moderation, though: ‘Being over-protective of a child gives them the message that the world is a dangerous place. It is important that children be allowed to take age-appropriate risks, attempt difficult tasks and learn from their mistakes’.
Being impatient with their anxiety can be unhelpful, as can pushing them too far too fast. ‘For example it may not be helpful to encourage your teenager to enter a singing contest if they’re not yet comfortable singing in front of the family.’ In Anna’s case, perhaps fronting up for a job interview is simply a bridge too far for a teenager struggling with social anxiety. If fear of negative evaluation is a problem then she may need to gain more confidence dealing with unknown adults before she puts herself in a situation where she is being judged as a job applicant.
Writer Kate Holden, author of the best-selling memoir In My Skin describes herself as having been a shy child: ‘My mother tells me that when we’d go to my friends’ birthday parties I wouldn’t leave her side. Then she would invite all these people for my birthday parties and I would run away and hide while they all sang happy birthday to the cake,’ she laughs.
Holden has vivid memories of being tormented by her fears. ‘I remember at school being asked to do something for a theatre class and freezing up. I sat on the side curling tighter and tighter into a little bundle with my knees up to my chin saying ‘no no no’. Eventually my teachers contacted my parents and suggested I see a psychologist. After six weeks the psychologist said ‘Leave her alone, stop pestering her, she’s not comfortable with this and not good at relating to people in these situations.’ ’
In my own battles with shyness I discovered that I could behave more confidently and take more risks in the workplace than in social situations. Feeling professionally useful allowed me to focus less on my own anxieties. Kate Holden describes in her memoir In My Skin how she found an escape from her shyness whilst working in a brothel, where she could hide behind her professional persona as a sex worker.
Understanding more about the causes and effects of my shyness has certainly helped me to feel less embarrassed by it and to take more control of it. I’ve sent copies of the guidelines for parenting anxious children to both Anna and her father. Perhaps the advice they contain will help this father and daughter find common ground.
- Anna’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
This article was first published in The Best You magazine (UK)
This week I’m heading off in my little white camper van for three months. North, then further north, then even further north, seeking the warmth of the tropics in winter.
Yesterday I bought a mobile phone holder to stick in the van (for map-reading) and these are the instructions for putting it together:
a: First about to A green colour part insert lead plane.
b: A second about to B plate the base down a windshield.
c: To push C the switch instruct in fixed
d: Moves the D-palace go-between,may adjust the angle and the direction wilfully.
I am still looking for my lead plane.
Maybe I left it in the D-palace.
If you never hear from me again, you’ll know why.
I recently reviewed a memoir for The Age newspaper.
Fallen by Rochelle Siemienowicz (Affirm Press)
In a popular TED talk on infidelity, relationship counsellor Esther Perel argues that having an affair is not so much about looking for someone else as looking for a new self. Evidence to support Perel’s theory can be found in Rochelle Siemienowicz’s memoir Fallen. In this frank account of the dying days of a marriage, the author describes her twenty four year old self searching feverishly for a new identity through a series of intense sexual encounters whilst on holiday in Perth.
The twist in this tale is that ‘Eve’ (as the author re-names herself) has an open marriage. Sex outside the relationship is condoned by her husband so long as she asks his permission first. To be ‘unfaithful’ Eve must not only sleep with someone else, but she must conceal the encounter from her beloved spouse.
If you’ve ever felt betrayed by infidelity, Fallen makes for uncomfortable reading. Witnessing Eve’s frantic attempts to both search for, and escape from, a moral framework for her actions is like watching someone wrestle with a snake. Morality matters deeply to this narrator; growing up in a Seventh Day Adventist family, the shame attached to any moral failure – particularly when it came to ‘fornication’ outside marriage – was acute. Eve began losing her faith soon after marriage. Her attempt to forge a new identity through the embrace of sexual freedom could be seen as a final attempt to shed her old skin.
Siemienowicz’s writing is fluid and sensual. Almost every scene – from playing with Barbie dolls to observing a glass vase in a display cabinet – is suffused with the protagonist’s physical longings. Freud’s theory of polymorphous perversity haunts this tale; any person or object can be the spark of desire for the sexual imagination. Even decay can be sexy. Eve describes one of her lovers as ‘heavy and blonde and I can see his youth dying all over him’.
The story ends with the still-married couple boarding a plane to return home from their Perth holiday and the denouement is delivered a little too swiftly in an epilogue. Occasionally, too, we can feel the reconstructive effort that has gone into recalling two-decade old conversations.
When Siemienowicz is describing body language, though, her observations are painfully authentic: ‘Sometimes I see a shrewd and wary look in the women’s eyes, as if they’re assessing me for potential threat. They thought I was safe and partnered, out of bounds. But here I am, shifting the lines of what’s possible’.
Theories abound about the causes of extra-marital affairs. Evolutionary psychologists have been falling over themselves in recent times to persuade us that infidelity lurks in our genes; that men are compelled to sleep around in order to procreate and that promiscuous women have genetic variants that lead them to seek engage in ‘extra pair bonding’.
Science may provide us with persuasive explanations of the role of things like oxytocin and vasopressin receptor genes in our sexual behaviour; this is called non-narrative knowledge. The narrative knowledge conveyed through memoirs like Fallen offers us far more complex and poetic insights into the emotional parameters of infidelity. After reading all about Eve, you may find yourself concluding that some betrayals are not only inevitable, but necessary.
I recently answered these questions on how to overcome writers block for the Australian Women Writers website:
Q. How would you define writer’s block?
The term is an over-simplified way of referring to a multitude of reasons why we sometimes find it hard to write the things we want to write. I try to de-mystify the term by breaking it down to a series of clear and soluble problems. Sometimes fear gets in our way, sometimes planning and logistics are the main problem, and sometimes we actually need to stop writing and allow our brains to do some of the work internally. Guilt is a common symptom (and sometimes a cause) of so-called ‘writer’s block’ and shedding this guilt can often help us kick-start our creativity.
Q. As you’ve reminded us, Thomas Mann wrote ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’ In your words, what’s he getting at?
I try to interpret this statement in a positive way. Writing is more difficult for writers because we care more about the quality of the writing than others, and we understand better than most what makes the difference between good writing and bad. Ironically it is this very fear of writing badly that enables us to write well. So in my workshops I look at the benefits of this fear and how we can use it to our advantage rather than allow it to disable us. Writing is tricky. Not every idea or everything we put in a first draft is going to be worth salvaging. But almost all ‘bad’ writing can be made better.
Q. Do you think most aspiring writers lack confidence in their writing and how important is confidence in getting published?
Most of us have doubts about the quality of our writing, and again. Those doubts can be useful. When I interviewed best-selling author Christos Tsiolkas a few years ago he said a very interesting thing:
‘There’s this voice on my shoulder that says, “Are you good enough? Are you a fraud? Are you deserving to be… a writer?” [But as well as] that voice… there’s the other one that goes, “You’re a bloody genius.” Equally wrong. I think.’
So too much confidence can be equally dangerous. We need a balance of confidence (or optimism) and realism. It is useful to show your work to others – people whose opinions you trust – before submitting it to a publisher, to get a reality check. I would say discipline is more important than confidence. If you are disciplined about your approach to the logistics of your writing practice and the quality of your work, you will inevitably have more confidence in it.
Interview by Sarah Menary. Sian Prior is teaching Overcoming Writer’s Block: Unlocking your Creativity on Saturday June 13 at Faber Writing Academy go to www.faberwritingacademy.com.au for details.
This interview was published recently on The Big Smoke website:
Through Sherryn Groch’s interview with Sian Prior we learn that while writing is an act of creativity for some, it is therapy for others. Prior’s “Writing as Therapy” workshop takes place later this month.
When Sian Prior sits down to tell a story, it is more than just the impulse of a seasoned writer, more than habit leftover from a career in journalism. It’s repair.
For most of her life, the broadcaster and author has turned to the “straight line” of the sentence to make sense of her experiences – including, at times, a paralysing social anxiety.
“Something about the process that goes on between the mind and the fingers tapping on the keyboard and the pace at which that happens helps me to think more clearly,” Prior tells The Big Smoke. “I will literally just sit down and have a conversation with myself in text and say, ‘well, what’s going on, why am I feeling like this?’”
This month, Prior is holding a Writing as Therapy workshop at The School of Life in Melbourne to help others take away the same benefits from their writing.
“I guess it’s a natural fit given the subject matter of my memoir, which was in many ways a deeply therapeutic process for me as a writer,” says Prior. “I hope to give people some practical tools on how to use writing as a way of understanding themselves better, of finding some relief from whatever it is that’s causing them suffering.”
For Prior herself, that suffering has been a life-long struggle with what most of us call “shyness.” As she recalls in her memoir, Shy, social anxiety has always been an unavoidable reality for Prior – something she suspects may have just been hot-wired into her DNA.
“I have a memory of being on a beach at only three or four years old and hiding behind my mother’s legs because my big scary, teenage cousins were there,” says Prior. “That anxiety is something I don’t ever remember being without.”
Yet, even back in those early moments, Prior says there was another feeling too – a growing excitement for stories.
“My mother recently dug up a story I’d written when I was still at primary school, a little crime thriller involving the family dog,” says Prior. “It was very cute to read back over it and think there’s so much wrong with it but what’s right about it is the impulse to tell a story. I was clearly really excited by the possibility of story.”
That passion has since thrown Prior into a long line of very public careers – first as a campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation, then as an ABC broadcaster and now as a creative writing teacher and author in her own right.
“I don’t think any of us are a singular, unified identity,” says Prior. “I think we all have different versions of ourselves; different voices and different roles we play. It’s about turning all that babble that goes on inside our heads, all those contradictions, into words.”
And it is there on the page that the writer will often find catharsis, Prior says. Teaching at RMIT University, she has now witnessed countless students begin to make sense of their lives through memoir.
“I have one student at the moment writing about dealing with incurable cancer and staying alive and, by writing about it, she’s realising that she’s not letting it get on top of her,” says Prior. “I have another student making all kinds of personal discoveries and revelations by going back over her past as a stripper and figuring out how it changed her. Writing can be incredibly transformative in the right circumstances.”
But, while confessional memoir is “a great way of outing shame and embarrassment,” Prior believes writers should also understand its limits.
“Just blurting out all of your innermost secrets is not enough. You need to craft it into a story, to manage things like self-pity. You should always be asking yourself: ‘what’s the story in this situation?’”
Fortunately, the author is not expecting a class full of Hemingways made to order ahead of her Writing as Therapy workshop this month
“I don’t want people to worry too much about the quality of their writing when they’re first starting out,” Prior says. “Do it so that it’s pleasurable and useful for yourself and then you can start to think about how to apply a bit of craft to do it even better.”
After all, just as writing can be healing, it can also be a whole lot of fun.
(Sherryn Groch is a freelance writer and journalism student from Melbourne. She enjoys writing short stories, frolicking in unsecured meadows and sometimes tweets.)
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