I’ve never liked the term ‘mid life crisis’. It reduces what can be a revelatory phase in your life to a histrionic headline. When I turned fifty late last year there was no crisis. There was a time of reckoning.
In 2014 I published my first book, completed a PhD, clocked up a decade as a freelancer and hit my half-century. To reward myself for this quadrella of significant events I sold my old car, bought a small van and, with the help of my stepfather, converted it into a campervan. I was single and without dependents. I had found temporary tenants to rent my home. It was time to untether myself.
In the first week of winter this year I left my hometown of Melbourne and headed north. For three months I noodled up and down the east coast of Australia in my little van. Along the way I kayaked to islands and hiked to lighthouses, danced to eighties music at RSL clubs and took endless photos of pelicans. Interstate friends and relations who I hadn’t seen for decades contacted me with generous offers of accommodation and companionship. And I made a pilgrimage to the northern NSW beach where my father drowned fifty years ago.
Along the way I gave myself permission to park the van under shady trees, lie down on the mattress in the back and do nothing but think. I thought about the last fifty years and the next fifty years. Hubris? One of my grandfathers made it to 102, so there’s a chance I’m not even half way to the end.
I thought about all the things I’d wanted but would never have, and all the things I’ve had that I hadn’t known I wanted. Thoughts trickled rather than cascaded. Hours flowed rather than scrambled. Decisions came to me slowly but clearly. Yes I could write another book. No I wouldn’t apply for that full-time job my conscience had been nagging me about. Yes I do love my precarious freelance working life. No I don’t want to relinquish the freedom to untether myself from daily life when I need to. Yes I have learnt a few useful things in the past fifty years.
There is a poem by Judith Wright called Turning Fifty in which she describes drinking her morning coffee and tasting ‘my fifty years here in a cup’. The poet’s mind, like the coffee she savours, is ‘dark, bitter, neutral, clean, sober as morning’. Turning fifty is a sobering thing. Bodies have become unreliable vehicles. Physical pain has become a constant companion rather than a temporary annoyance.
Watching the grey nomads doing their gentle laps in the camp park swimming pools, I understood the fear that drove them up and down, up and down. Just keep moving. If you stop it will be hard to start again.
‘These years we live scar flesh and mind’ wrote Judith Wright. By fifty we’re all bearing these scars. People we loved have let us down or let us go. People we respected have failed to live up to our unreasonable expectations of them. Death has begun stalking the perimeter of our circle of attachment, picking people off. We cannot protect them, or ourselves.
As I meandered along in the van the digital post delivered news from people within that precious circle of mine. Dying parents, newborn grandchildren, dying marriages, newborn love affairs. Everyone, it seemed, was going through a time of reckoning.
Meanwhile the pelicans floated serenely past on those great bodies of water that permeate the Australian coastline, oblivious to our little dramas.
So what else did I glean from all that thinking time? I’ve done some dumb things but some of them ended well. I’ve hurt some people but some love me still. Courage has sometimes failed me but courage is not finite. I may have another fifty years to acquire it. It’s not too late to ‘show my colours’, as Judith Wright said.
This winter I paid two visits to the beach where my father drowned. On the first visit I donned my wetsuit and entered the surf. When the water reached my thighs I retreated back to my towel. The tow was too strong. Some risks are not worth taking. This is something I have learnt.
On the second visit there was no tow. There were whales on the horizon. I strode out into the surf and caught wave after wave. I tasted my fifty years there in the sea. Bittersweet, neutral, clean.
(This article will be published in The Big Issue in September.)
I was recently asked to answer a few questions for Writers Victoria about writing memoirs, in the lead-up to the course i’m running for them from September till December.
- – Writing about the details of your life is a daunting task for anyone. Does being shy make this even more difficult?
I don’t want to downplay how difficult it is for ANYONE to write a self-revealing memoir, but one of the key characteristics of shyness (or social anxiety) is ‘fear of negative evaluation’. So there is perhaps an added stress when a shy memoirist imagines their readers reading about all their strange and shameful little fears. But for most memoirs to work there has to be something at stake for the author, and for me, dealing with that fear of self-revelation and potential rejection (by imagined readers) meant there was definitely something at stake for the author in writing ‘Shy’.
- – ‘Shy’ isn’t a straightforward memoir. It includes glossaries of psychological terms, interviews, lists and more. What drew you towards such an experimental format?
In part I was just playing around, having fun with language, and in part I was trying to mimic the way my brain works and perhaps how other shy people’s brains work. I often use lists as a way of managing my anxiety. They help me deal with the incessant ‘what ifs’. And I do interviews for a living, as journalist. So that was familiar territory for me. And I grew up surrounded by the language of psychology because my mother is a psychologist. I hope that those quirky ingredients give readers particular insights into the person they’re reading about.
- – Writing can be an intimidating profession. A shy writer might find it difficult to attend writers’ festivals or share their work with critique groups. Do you have any advice for shy writers struggling to engage with the writing community?
Remember that audiences respect and relate to vulnerability. I’ve had people say they wanted to hug me when they heard me talking about my shyness. Effective personal writing stimulates empathy in the reader, so you can feel safe that your readers and listeners at writers’ festivals are ‘on your side’. And remember that you know more than anyone else about your topic. You are in control. You only have to tell the audience what you feel comfortable telling them. Keep some of your secrets. They’re important.
- – When you’re writing about people from your life, how do you balance worrying about how they’ll react to recognising themselves in print with the need to tell your story?
There is no single or simple answer to that question. Everyone has to map out their own ethical comfort zone. Keep your readers in mind. They will know if you’ve deliberately ‘done the dirty’ on someone, or over-praised someone, and judge you for it. I made sure I got approval from my immediate family before sending my memoir manuscript out to publishers. I changed the names of most of my friends and former partners to protect their privacy, and consulted with many of them. I tried to be as honest as possible, and as self-critical as necessary. That’s all I could do.
- – How should someone writing about their life decide which episodes to include and which to exclude?
You need to be clear about the difference between the situation(s) you’re describing and the story you want to tell. Situations are not necessarily interesting. Good stories are. Unless each episode relates in some way – directly or indirectly – to the insights you want to convey to your reader, your memoir can fill up with unimportant and potentially uninteresting material. We will cover this topic in some detail during the Refine Your Memoir workshops.
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.
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