The Sound of Silence: Unpacking Uncertain Family Relationships in Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance

Shapiro’s memoir of discovering her true paternity is a moving meditation on genetics and family identity. However, it also cements an alternative silence relating to her newly discovered relatives, which begs the question: how much truth can a family handle?

In a 2014 article for the New Yorker, Dani Shapiro wrote that literary memoir is ‘born of the powerful need to craft a story out of the chaos of one’s own history. One of literary memoir’s great satisfactions- both for writer and reader- is the slow, deliberate making of a story, of making sense, out of randomness and pain.’

In addition to her three previous memoirs, Shapiro has also written five novels, all dealing in some way with family secrets and identity. Inheritance lifts the curtain on the conscious and unconscious roots of this preoccupation, delving into her emotional turmoil upon discovering at the age of fifty-four that the Orthodox Jewish father who raised her was not her biological parent. After taking a DNA test on a whim, Shapiro learns that she was conceived via a sperm donor, and that both her parents, now dead, had withheld the truth about her conception from her. Despite over half a century elapsing since her birth, she deploys some quick detective work to track down her biological father, who turns out to be – ironically- a retired doctor specialising in medical ethics whom she calls Ben Walden. They exchange emails and, after a few false starts, eventually meet and embark on a tentative relationship.

Shapiro describes both her existential crisis and the more practical aspects of processing this new information. When the DNA finding first comes to light, she is packing for a trip to San Francisco, and reflects on how her life was divided after that moment: ‘there would now forever be a before.’ Over the course of a year, she frequently finds herself experiencing something akin to an anxiety attack; at the onset of dizziness both at home and in public she has to steady herself, feel the fact of her body. ‘You’re still you,’ she tells herself in these moments.

Despite having moved away from Orthodox Judaism earlier in her life, she retains a strong cultural identity from her upbringing. In light of the Holocaust, Shapiro has also always had an acute sense of both the fragility of her lineage and the tenacity of her ancestors in rebuilding the family, and the refrain ‘be fruitful and multiply’ rings in her head. Yet now the black and white photographs of her ancestors that adorn the walls of her house seem strange, and she has to contend with an emerging image of her parents as co-conspirators in withholding the truth from her, which competes with her guilt about their decision to bring her into being. Amid all of this, she also worries that her relationships with her surviving family members may be severed and that her friendships may suffer due to her newfound identity. There are also health considerations. While her son quips that he is unlikely to go bald (Ben Walden has a full head of hair), Shapiro has to consider afresh what diseases she may be genetically predisposed to, and is concerned that for the entirety of her son’s life she had unknowingly deprived his doctors of his full medical history.


Reading Inheritance I was palpably reminded of the book Oranges and Sunshine, which explored the devastating impact of the British Government’s child migration scheme that operated from the 1920s to the 1970s. This scheme sent British children to Australia after they were surrendered by their impoverished families to church-affiliated charities. It furthered the aims of the White Australia Policy and subjected the children to abuse and trauma. Officials routinely told the children that their parents had passed away or didn’t want them, when in fact their families had tried to protect them by asking the Church for help. By the time some of the scheme’s victims discovered their true heritage, their birthparents had passed away, foreclosing the possibility of reconciliation or healing.

One of my great grandmothers was a child put through this scheme, and the ripple effects are still felt in our family today. A number of her children were ravaged by alcoholism, including my mother’s father. When I witnessed my grandfather’s agonising death from complications of liver cirrhosis and type two diabetes in 2016- the same year in which Shapiro undertook her fateful DNA test- I made the connection for the first time between his life trajectory and his mother’s childhood experiences. It also forced me to consider that some of my mother’s personality traits likely stem from the now-obvious trauma her family carries.

Feeling the weight of my family history gives rise to conflicted feelings when I read memoir. As a reader, it is possibly the literary form I enjoy the most. The best memoirs are sophisticated mysteries that reveal how individual lives can be profoundly shaped by historical events the author may not even have experienced firsthand. They uncover a historical record residing in the body, and the uncanny abounds. For instance, when they view a clip of her biological father on Youtube, Shapiro and her husband are astounded at the physical resemblance and shared mannerisms between them, though they have never met.

As a critic, however, I feel burdened. I know that trauma is simultaneously universal and intensely personal. I know that having control over their life story is critical to survivors of trauma, and that delegitimising their version of events compounds their suffering. How does one critique the interpretations and conclusions the author posits when one has not lived the life the author has, and cannot lay claim to their experiences?

So it was with some trepidation that I realised about two thirds of the way through Shapiro’s book that I was becoming mildly frustrated. Initially, it is a gripping read and her descriptions of her turbulent emotions amid her burgeoning relationship with her biological father and his family are beautifully rendered. But as the narrative progressed I had a sense of being short-changed, and felt that the depiction of Shapiro’s emotions was becoming repetitive at the expense of opportunity for cultural critique. In turn, this means the moral dilemmas surrounding her story and the ongoing use of reproductive technologies are not fully explored.

This is partly the result of personal and literary decisions Shapiro made in order to protect her fledgling relationship with the Waldens. When Shapiro emails Mr Walden, his wife learns for the first time that her husband of fifty years has biological children outside their relationship. While permitting Shapiro to have a relationship with her family, Mrs Walden is clear that there are limits to how much she can take before her marriage is endangered; she dreads the possibility of other children conceived with the use of her husband’s sperm materialising at her front door. At one of their dinner dates, Mrs Walden takes Shapiro aside and says firmly but without malice: ‘If any others come, you won’t tell them. You’ll stay private.’ Their agreement to let the matter lie opens up another salient question: how much truth can a family handle? In cracking open the silence around her conception, Shapiro has to learn to live with an alternative silence.


It would be unfair to criticise Shapiro for acquiescing to the Walden family’s wishes, however it does constrain the narrative, especially as Shapiro acknowledges early on in the book that she has always had a lingering curiosity about her identity. As a child and a young adult, her ‘non-Jewish’ appearance had often been questioned by acquaintances, both casual and those close to her. For example, when Shapiro was five, a longstanding family friend suggested to her that given her blonde hair she could have helped to save Jews during the Holocaust. Similarly, at a writing workshop, a fellow participant she had only just met repeated to her emphatically that she could not possibly be Jewish.

This constraint on the narrative is exacerbated by Shapiro’s decision to wear her research lightly. While she makes passing references to conversations with other individuals conceived via sperm donor and alludes to reading many papers on the issue, Shapiro doesn’t delve into cultural commentary. It is possible this is for stylistic reasons; the book is full of vivid imagery that conveys the visceral nature of her disorientation, and is rounded out with a pleasing circularity, albeit one that belies the half-truths that now underpin her identity. If she broke off to explore academic research and others’ experiences, the book would certainly have had a different tone.

This difficulty in striking the stylistic balance highlights the tension in memoir; it is a form devoted to personal experience, but when is the author too much at the centre? Returning to Shapiro’s words in the New Yorker, she notes that ‘[i]t is the complicated, abiding pleasure… of finding the universal thread that connects us to the rest of humanity, and, by doing so, turns our small, personal sorrows and individual tragedies into art.’ The most profound memoirs attempt to reconcile the personal and the universal; while suffering occurs on an intensely personal level, there is also the broader social context in which stories such as Shapiro’s play out. Additionally, reflecting on the legacy of historical practices raises moral questions about the use of reproductive technology in the contemporary context.

The clinic Shapiro’s parents used undertook work that was off the books; unregulated, unethical, and the last resort for desperate couples. It transpires that it was common practice for medical students in the 1960s, like Ben Walden, to donate sperm anonymously for use in what was then cutting-edge work in reproductive technology. The current head of the clinic tells her that every year a significant number of Americans discover their paternity is not what they were raised to think it was. The number of other children Ben Walden fathered remains an open question. Thus, while she feels intensely alone- and reckoning with her parents’ silence is a solitary task – a number of people of her generation and younger are in the same situation. It is still common for sperm donors to remain anonymous, and Shapiro has argued in media interviews that this option is outdated, especially given the availability of DNA kits such as the one she used.

The book could also have taken a dramatic turn when Shapiro reveals that she and her husband had considered using reproductive technology to conceive a second child. Having married her husband at the age of 34 and giving birth to her son Jacob just after she turned thirty-seven, by the time Shapiro considered having another baby she needed medical intervention, including an egg donor. The reasoning behind their decision to abandon this option is not explicitly detailed, but Shapiro makes it clear that the thought of allowing doubt to cloud her child’s understanding of their origins was too much of a burden for herself and her husband to carry.

The lack of depth to the cultural commentary in Inheritance is disappointing given that, over the last five years, donor conception and surrogacy have received considerable international media attention, such as in the case of baby Gammy. As far back as 1992 the British social anthropologist Marilyn Strathern critically examined the implications of such practices on notions of kinship in her book Reproducing the Future, and reproductive technology continues to garner significant academic interest. Watching Shapiro and the Waldens feel their way towards each other was heart-warming but I am not convinced, in the absence of cultural critique, that it was enough to sustain a book-length memoir, especially as Shapiro has revealed so much of herself in previous works. I felt the narrative fizzled out.

Despite these reservations, the book remains though-provoking and beautifully rendered. John Berger once asserted that ‘the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.’ Despite scrutinising our faces in the mirror and repeating our origin stories to ourselves and to our children, we would do well to remember that our identities are contingent upon unseen historical currents; that our past may lie secretly within us, or be masked by even bigger secrets. Shapiro reminds us that allowing such uncertainty into one’s life is an act of grace.


Check out my review of the opening exhibitions of Tuggeranong Arts Centre’s 2020 program, themed Solastalgia, which has been published in RightNow.

The Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the phrase ‘solastalgia’ to describe the homesickness brought about by environmental destruction, particularly climate change, that is a legacy of the Anthropocene. The term Anthropocene denotes the way humans have completely colonised the earth, leaving the marks of industry everywhere in the form contaminated soil and waterways, atmospheric pollution, biological degradation an hanged weather patterns. Albrecht contrasts solastalgia with ‘nostalgia’, the original definition of which referred to homesickness, which could be cured by returning home. With solastalgia, a return home is not possible.

The works on show document the impact of climate change and challenge distinctions between the categories of natural and man-made. Taking the concept of the Anthropocene to its logical conclusion, we should no longer apply the term natural disaster to bushfires. Along with a framework for thinking about how we might create the symbiocene, the exhibition also provides a space for the community to grieve. In an era when paying attention is a political act,  it also reminds us that we can work to create a better world.

Why ‘Old-Chook Lit’ matters

The critic Daniel Mendelsohn has argued that the first role of the critic is to self-criticise. A critic’s choice of words is very revealing about the extent to which they have appraised their own values in the course of reviewing a book.

Like many fellow readers, I have been eagerly awaiting the release of Charlotte Wood’s new book The Weekend. In following the press surrounding its release, I was very disappointed to read a review in the Guardian by Susan Wyndham that stated:

Behind the laughs there is deep humanity, intellect and spirituality, qualities that mark The Weekend as much more than old-chook lit.

What exactly is old-chook lit? Is it a genre of novels about older women for older women? Because if it is, what exactly is the problem? Older women do exist and deserve to be written about. The implication in this phrase that novels featuring older women should just be read by women only perpetuates their social and literary marginalisation. This feeds into the broader problem of the dearth of literature that portrays older people, not just older women, as complex human beings in their own right, as Ceridwen Dovey has detailed in the New Yorker.

There have been flare-ups of the discussion about the invisibility of older women for as long as I can remember. Initially Wyndham’s review put me in mind of this debate. Women are constantly struggling to be seen and heard on their own terms, rather than on terms dictated by or in relation to men. So this seemingly knee-jerk characterisation of work dealing with women’s experiences as frivolous struck me as deeply problematic. It is also surprisingly out of tune with our current social context, in which the Stella and VIDA counts lay bare the gender disparity in publishing and reviewing, and the physical appearances of women writers, rather than their work, still become the subject of so-called reviews.

Further still, there is a heavy dose of irony in the use of this phrase, as Wood’s novel explores key issues around women and aging, such as financial security, the aging body, and the way older women are treated by their families and by society (see Sophia Barnes’ review in the Sydney Review of Books). Wyndham acknowledges this, writing ‘Ageism is another face of sexism: older women are shut out of work, love and financial security; men are still dominant, and now young people are patronising.’ Given this, it is even more odd that she thought it appropriate to use the phrase ‘old chook lit.’

Perhaps Wyndham was attempting, in a clunky way, to draw a distinction between popular and literary fiction. Old chook-lit falls into popular fiction, Wood’s work into the literary category. However this is also problematic, particularly because literary value has a long-held association with male writing, a connection evident as soon as we ask ourselves who gets to decide what has literary value and which writers can enter the canon.

The ANU Academic Julieanne Lamond wrote a wonderful article in the Sydney Review of Books earlier this year that teases out these questions. She traces the rise of the novel as a form, and argues that it started to be regarded as serious, rather than just entertainment, when more men started writing novels. Our idea of the canon, she argues, is shaped significantly by modernism which ‘formed itself in opposition to a notion of feminised, rapacious, disastrous popular culture. Especially popular fiction.’

Emily Maguire has also written about encountering the literary canon when she commenced university education at the age of twenty four:

When I got to uni I read a lot of amazing books I never would have come across otherwise, and I’m forever grateful for that. But I also got infected with this idea of the canon, and the associated conviction that books outside the canon are fine for a certain kind of person – but not for serious readers. Definitely not for serious writers, which is what I wanted to be.

Also, most of the books in the canon were by men. Most of them white. Many of them dead before I was born. And hey, what do you know, it turns out most of the fine-for-a-certain-kind-of-person books – the kind I’d read – were by people who didn’t fit those categories.

So the canon tells us that literature equals greatness equals men, while popular fiction equals inferiority equals women. Lamond argues further that this ‘deeply held association between masculinity and literary value’ makes it ‘easier for a work by a man to cross the line between the popular and the literary than it is for a work by a woman.’

To bolster this claim, Lamond looks at two categories of popular fiction: romance and crime. She asserts that crime fiction, a commercially successful genre, is granted more literary validity because it is dominated by men, while romance is ‘has to keep in its corner. If it’s lucky, it gets released into a bigger corner: variously described but most recently by publishers as ‘commercial fiction’, which is also feminised, also sequestered from the literary.’

Which brings us back to ‘old-chook lit.’ Granted, in a bookshop you are more likely to find Charlotte Wood’s books in the literary fiction section rather than general fiction, but taking this distinction for granted, rather than engaging with the substance of Wood’s work, is a disservice to both the author and the reading public. Critique the representation of women in a novel if it is shallow or the characters are one dimensional in a way that it reveals the author’s sexism or internalised misogyny. But don’t sideline books just because they focus on women.


Intended as an affectionate tribute, Lowenstein’s documentary about the late frontman of INXS is obfuscated by reverence.

In 2018, sisters Rose and Kate Lilley, daughters of the late writers Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley, both released books that dealt with the sexual abuse they experienced in the 1970s, which was perpetrated by men, mostly artists, who frequented their parents’ house. The revelation was not only that the abuse occurred, but that it was in part facilitated by their mother in the name of a bohemian lifestyle. Public responses varied. Many were shocked, some even calling for the renaming of the Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript which is awarded by UWA Press (the prize kept its name) and some criticised the sisters for bringing their mother’s name into disrepute. In an illuminating article in Meanjin, Jane Jervis-Reid argued that the insights offered by Rose and Kate ‘further a reader’s understanding’ and that they did the literary community a favour by ‘ask[ing] the public to see Hewett in her full complexity.’

Complexity is a loaded word in the wake of the #metoo movement. As the tally of male artists accused of misconduct towards women (and, in some cases, towards children) continues to grow, audiences and fans have had to find a way to accommodate their horror and distaste towards their beloved artist’s behaviour alongside the adulation of their art. This process of reckoning also encompasses broader questions relating to character, creativity and moral boundaries. If the #metoo movement has highlighted anything- other than the prevalence of the abuse of women – it is that unadulterated adoration should not be confused with artistic appreciation. Placing an artist on a pedestal precludes a full exploration of their personality, influences and output, and closes off the possibility of reckoning with the darker side of their character.

And yet, adulation is exactly what Richard Lowenstein asks of viewers in his recently released documentary Mystify. Lowenstein was friends with Hutchence, having directed him in both music clips and in the film Dogs In Space. In an interview with Junkee, Lowenstein revealed that when Hutchence died:

“I knew one day I’d have to do something that gave him the respect and credit that he was craving along the way.”

Thus, it seems that from the outset, Lowenstein’s mission was to cement Hutchence’s reputation as a performer and artist, and to rehabilitate his image as an intelligent, sensitive and loyal figure who deserves admiration rather than ridicule. Eschewing the reminiscences of Hutchence’s fellow INXS musicians, Lowenstein instead hones in on those who knew him intimately, including the band’s former manager, siblings and former girlfriends. Nary a cross word is uttered and no recriminations are broached. Helena Christensen, Hutchence’s partner from 1991-95, assures us that though Hutchence loved women, he was also a committed partner. Kylie Minogue tearfully recounts their doomed relationship, but does not appear to harbour any bitterness.

The film points out that Hutchence wanted to be admired for being an artist, and claims that, at times, he resented the public perception that sex appeal was his defining trait. We are reminded that he wrote melody for INXS songs in addition to lyrics, and his first serious girlfriend, Michele Bennett, discusses his penchant for referencing Sarte and Camus in conversation. But Hutchence’s evolution from a shy child who got beaten up at school to a major international rock star remains hazy. His fellow members of INXS don’t provide commentary, appearing only in footage of performances or as references in a third person’s commentary. This is an odd directorial choice given that the film seeks to recast Hutchence’s legacy as his talent- surely fellow band members would be those most able to shed light on his creative processes.

While talent is hard to quantify, the lack of focus on Hutchence’s output renders the music a side question, and his essence is instead put down to charisma. The film is a constant montage of footage from interviews, performances and video clips interspersed with private footage taken by friends and family that has not previously been released. There are many scenes showing Hutchence smiling down the lens, but the expression of his mouth often sends a different message to that of his eye contact; his lips curl in a bashful half smile, as though he is resisting his audience but still wants them to believe he is being intimate with them.

Then, in one scene, the illusion falters. In an interview, Hutchence reveals he has not seen an audience for fifteen years. By refusing to wear his contact lenses during performances, he protected himself from stage fright. This reminded me of the late Lauren Bacall, whose famous “look”, interpreted by audiences as a sultry stare, was later revealed by her as a stance that allowed her to control her nerves. Charisma lends itself easily to mystification and mythology, and it is the role of the biographer to avoid being trapped in its fog. Lowenstein, conversely, makes no serious attempt to reckon with Hutchence’s darker life experiences. There is no investigation into his drug use, or even a clear stance on whether he used drugs, though NSW police have publicly claimed that they found drugs in the hotel room in which he died. The glimpses into his bouts of melancholy are frustratingly general, with the audience left to infer that he bore the scars of his parents’ dysfunctional marriage and his eighteen-month separation from his younger brother when his mother took him to America as a teenager. And surely there is a contradiction crying out to be acknowledged in a man who wanted to be regarded as an intellectual but who nevertheless called his only child Heavenly Hiraani Tigerlily, a decision that, at the very least, could be characterised as a lapse in judgement. When done properly, exploring the grey areas of an individual’s motivations and life choices can make for gripping viewing, but Lowenstein’s failure to cut through makes it unclear whether Hutchence tried to mythologise and obscure himself, or whether he genuinely possessed a complex personality that remains hard to pin down.

The film briefly edges towards a more complex exploration of the singer as it turns to the brain injury that Hutchence suffered as a result of being assaulted by a taxi driver in France in 1992. This incident caused him to lose his sense of smell, and those around him witnessed the emergence of a more volatile personality which at times veered towards the pathological. Dr Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist who specialises in the psychology of smell, provides commentary on the deep sense of grief that an individual can experience as result of losing their sense of smell. But as there is no suggestion Dr Herz ever treated Hutchence, her words are speculative rather than illuminating. Commentary from Kylie Minogue about his love of the book Perfume, by Patrick Suskind, is clearly meant as an attempt to illuminate the value Hutchence placed on his sense of smell, and Minogue alludes to Hutchence’s pursuit of a sensual lifestyle more broadly, but like his reported penchant for Sarte and Camus, this remains a superficial point.

It is possible that some of the issues with the documentary stem from negotiations and compromises Lowenstein had to enter into in order for the film to be made at all. Lowenstein had to strike deals with friends and family in exchange for their personal footage of Hutchence, and some individuals retained the right to veto the use of the footage. Hutchence’s daughter, for instance, requested changes to some a scene that she argued showed Hutchence in a negative light. Lowenstein clearly judged that the project was worth these compromises, however it all adds to the sense that his overall project was to rehabilitate Hutchence’s image, rather than to genuinely reckon with the full complexity of his approach to art and life. In the absence of nuanced reflections on his creativity and influences, what we are left with is happy snaps and lovers’ recordings. For those with a critical eye, the mystification remains.

Prima Facie

Prima Facie is a 90-minute one-woman play that centres on Tess (Sheridan Harbridge), a high flying criminal barrister who, after being sexually assaulted, finds herself on the other side of the courtroom.

The play begins with Tess describing the thrill of winning in court and the way she overcame the assumptions of her privileged law school peers to become a successful lawyer. She has fully bought into the theatre of her profession and does not demonstrate a lot of empathy as she dramatically relays the thrill of trapping a witness in the dead ends of their own recollections (“you have stated that you drank four gin and tonics, two vodka shots and numerous glasses of wine. Would it be fair to say that you were drunk?”), and the jokes she shares with her colleagues about “naïve” graduates who get confused about the difference between legal truth and the actual truth (“what if he admits he did it? Do I still have to defend him?”). Only legal truth matters, only legal instincts matter.

Between courtroom victories and after-work drinks, Tess is offered better chambers on a more prestigious floor by a QC that she admires, and also starts dating one of her colleagues, Damien. One night this same colleague rapes Tess at her own house after they have had dinner and drinks together. They have had consensual sex on two occasions- the second time being on the same night as the rape. It is clear to the audience that the act is not consensual; Tess narrates the incident, describing how she struggles but is pinned down, and how she tries to call out but is gagged by Damien’s hand. After 763 days Tess is in court for her hearing, but despite knowing all the ins and outs of the system, cannot convince the jury to believe her.

The format of the play is the key to its effectiveness. As criminal barrister turned complainant, Tess embodies both sides of the law. She fully understands how her own choices (to drink alcohol, o invite a member of the opposite sex back to her house, to seek to advance herself at work) will be (and are) used against her in court, and uncomfortably recalls having done the same thing herself in the course of examining witnesses. The irony is that although the audience hears only her voice throughout the play, ultimately it is her character that is rendered voiceless. The men in this play- the men who rape and the men who uphold the legal system that allows rapists to get away with it- hold the power despite being physically absent. This irony is amplified by the staging, which consists of black background and floor, and a single office chair on a raised platform, drawing attention to the way the legal system theoretically allows women the opportunity to speak in court, but ultimately does not administer this right in a meaningful or effective way.

The playwright Suzie Miller is a former lawyer herself. In the program notes Miller reflects on her experience working within a system that is supposed to deliver justice, but which seems rigged to do the opposite:

The legal system is shaped by the male experience. While innocence/guilt focuses on whether the (usually) male person believes there is consent or not provided from the (usually) female person, it has always been the victims, (usually) women, who are on trial, cross-examined and made to relive their experience, only to be doubted and have their motives for reporting such a hideous crime questioned. Significantly, research shows that women giving evidence in sexual assault cases aren’t believed, even by other women.

The Director Lee Lewis also provides reflections on the play’s broader cultural significance. The focus on Tess’s character taps into the social context of the #metoo movement which aims to render women’s voices audible as a means to challenge male dominated social structures. Lee states that:

[Suzie Miller] writes with a language that has struggled to find a place on the traditionally male stage that is mainstage theatre. She is one of an extraordinary number of female playwrights who have continued to create despite not being produced by major companies… This play won the 2018 Griffin Award. It would not have won ten years ago because the audience did not want to hear this story then.

Ultimately, the play becomes an impassioned plea to change the system. During the trial, Tessa is granted voir dire, an opportunity to speak in front of counsel without the jury. Tessa uses the opportunity to draw attention to the male-dominated nature of the system, and how it is designed to discredit women. Her speech underpins the irony inherent in the title of play. Prima facie means that, at first glance, there must be enough evidence to establish a case. Tessa points out that the memory of rape is crystal clear for women, while the legal system is premised on degrading women’s ability to reliably articulate what they have suffered. As Tess demonstrated to her peers who wrote her off at the beginning of law school, not everything is as it appears at first glance, and if a concerted effort was made to uncover the facts instead of spinning plausible alternate stories at every opportunity, perhaps the legal system would offer some degree of justice to women.

The pain and suffering experienced by Tess is palpable, but there is one aspect of her characterisation that I found particularly challenging to interpret. At the beginning, Tess talks freely about corroding the stories prosecution witnesses have prepared, and states that if the defence wins it is either because they landed a better story or because the prosecution didn’t execute their case properly. Despite the pantomime Tess willingly participates in when in court, she seems to be able to morally exculpate herself from the shortcomings of the system, but then at the end of the play she talks about how her faith in the legal system has been broken.

How are we to read this? Is she reckoning with the way she morally deluded herself during her courtroom battles to pursue the particular image of career success that she desired? Or was she an accomplice in her own defeat? The latter strays towards victim blaming, which the play is ultimately trying to redress. My preferred interpretation is that our society as a whole is implicated in the ongoing maladministration of justice for women; the legal system’s poor grasp of how sexual assault affects women is shaped by both the misogyny that runs through our culture, and by our failure to defend women from it.

Prima Facie was a timely, well-acted and gripping play that could well be a catalyst for social change.

Written by Suzie Miller

Directed by Lee Lewis

Canberra Theatre, 29 June 2019

Griffin Theatre Company

Gloria Bell

[background music here]

As a general rule, I hate wishy-washy reviews, but this might be one of them. Bear with me though. It is possible that ambivalence may be the point.

It started off promisingly enough. Palace Cinema was offering tickets to advanced screenings of Gloria Bell, a film written and directed by Sebastian Lelio, starring Julianne Moore as a fifty-something divorcee looking for love on the dance floors of Los Angeles. One night she bumps into Arnold (John Turturro) and things move very quickly. The main aspect of the plot- if there is one- is Arnold’s character: a poetry-reading ex-marine who claims to be divorced but constantly fields calls from his irate (ex?) wife and daughters and disappears suddenly for long stretches.

Most of the scenes, including the ones of Gloria and Arnold on dates, are of a mundane nature. They feature Gloria attending dinners with her children, doing her laundry, repeatedly shooing an errant cat out of her house, putting up with the yelling of the suicidal maniac in the flat above her, and generally being nice to everybody, including her clients. (She works for an insurance company and deals with car crashes all day… clearly a metaphor for what her life is about to become).

All around Gloria people are dying. Figuratively, not literally. Over lunch, her ageing mother foreshadows that she may not leave behind much of an inheritance, while reminding her that life goes like that (cue finger snap). A colleague has a meltdown over her meagre lack of retirement savings (“I’m going to have to work until I’m eighty”) and is subsequently retrenched. Her daughter, showing a video of her new Swedish dreamboat boyfriend surfing ridiculously huge waves, reminds Gloria that we could all die at any moment. Not long after they meet, Gloria and Arnold are sitting in bed talking, and Gloria mentions an article in the newspaper about cell rejuvenation, which claimed that the skin cells covering their arms and legs might only be ten years old.

Nevertheless Gloria is not immune. Visiting the optometrist, she is told she has to take eye drops from now on to prevent blindness. Drop by drop, the rest of her days are measured out for her. The film wants you to know that the clock is ticking, and as it meanders along you are definitely conscious of time. But when I started to feel the drag, I paid more attention. I could feel the repetitiveness and emptinesss of Gloria’s days, and wondered whether the reaction in my own body was a stirring of empathy; a recognition of the empty spaces within my own life. As Gloria’s life unspools and the passage of time becomes disorientating in its repetitiveness, the sameness resembled the time warp that happens when you are grief-stricken. Grief features in the form of her adult children, neither of whom “need” her. Her son has a small child and her daughter leaves California to join her boyfriend in Sweden where they await the birth of their hastily conceived baby. You start to wonder where the meaning -of both Gloria’s life and the film- is located.

But the banality ticks by and Gloria keeps being nice to everybody: her clients, her ex-husband and his new wife, her children, her colleagues. And Arnold. After disappearing without explanation, he reappears equally without one, and takes Gloria on an impromptu mini-break to Caesar’s Palace. Gloria professes to find the complex- essentially a theme park for adults- beautiful, and spends a lot of time looking around in wonderment. The night almost descends into a maelstrom that is almost hyperreal, with Gloria’s drunkenness backlit by neon lights. Arnold is nowhere to be seen.

Caesar’s Palace is the clue to the meaning of the film. It is the apotheosis of the American dream; everything is bright and sparkly and over-the-top, but empty at heart. Mirage-like, it reflects the lack of substance embodied by Arnold (close by, there is actually a resort named The Mirage), which is in turn encapsulated by his profession: Arnold owns his own amusement park. Early in their courtship, he takes Gloria there to shoot paint balls at targets and gawp at grown men re-enacting military combat. This scene is disorientating in its invocation of simulacra, but at Caesar’s Palace the simulation is complete. The complex aims to give visitors a taste of the Roman Empire, but the Roman Empire as imagined by Hollywood in the first half of the twentieth century. In other words, a simulacra of a simulacra. (But it gets even more meta: this film is a remake of Lelio’s 2013 Spanish language film of the same name. As an article in the new Yorker suggested, he could “sue himself for plagiarism”).

Caesar’s Palace also clinches the superficiality of other aspects of Gloria’s life. Gloria is overjoyed when another woman at her favourite nightclub asks her if she has had plastic surgery on her face (she hasn’t). She cuts a stylish figure and her body, which has borne two children, is remarkably toned. For someone who is an insurance clerk she rents a very nice- looking apartment, also tastefully decorated. Her car has leather seats. Everyone around her is white. But what kind of life is this, in an anonymous, car dependent concrete jungle where being mistaken for someone who has had plastic surgery is the climax of your existence? Unfortunately for Gloria, most of the time she doesn’t realise she is looking at mirages.

The cat- presumably a neighbour’s, is a kind of omen. Gloria herself remarks that it reminds her of the cats in Ancient Egypt that were said to accompany mummies into the afterlife. For a while it seems she may be crossing the Styx (ok, that’s Greek mythology but you get the point) when her mother bails her out of Caesar’s Palace after Arnold does another runner. She returns home partially shod, incapacitated to the point where her mother has to help her get dressed, and with what is presumably the hangover to end all hangovers. The cat awaits her, and she is later seen feeding it, resigning herself to the possibility that the animal presents what she cannot obtain from the people around her: a reliable relationship.

Until the junket to Caesar’s Palace, it was hard to tell whether the film was a self-indulgent ride through the emptiness of modern existence, or whether it was taking the mickey. Likely it is both. In true existential fashion, Gloria’s only option is to give in to the meaningless. One hopes she learns to recognise a mirage, but the conclusion is ambiguous. At the wedding of her close friend’s daughter, Gloria dances on her own to “Gloria” (If everybody wants you, why isn’t anybody callin’?/ You don’t have to answer/ Leave them hangin’ on the line), her own tune, except that it’s not. Is she giving in to self-love, reinforcing the cult of individuality that underpins her empty society, or is she at peace with her fate?

Gloria Bell was often very awkward- so much so that at the end I felt apologetic for dragging my friend to it. However, we both came out feeling oddly hypnotised, and the following morning I woke up disorientated, still mesmerised by the bright lights of LA, and I felt a surge of gratitude for my extremely reliable partner. Clearly, the film did its job after all.

Belated summer reading

While I’ve read lots of great books recently (hello, Sally Rooney) I haven’t written any reviews. Conveniently, I stumbled across a review I wrote back in my summer break which I had forgotten about. It talks about three great feminist memoirs: Emilie Pine’s personal essay collection Notes to Self, Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object and Viv Albertine’s To Throw Away Unopened.

In her piercing and gripping essays, Pine reflects on her troubled teenage years, and the ways in which she has internalised the prevailing ideology that, as a woman, she should not speak up. About anything. But especially about the painful experiences that are relegated to the sidelines purely because they are regarded as female experiences. While her essays tackle structural issues in Irish society, such as the illegality of abortion and (formerly) of divorce, the way the Constitution privileges unborn babies over their mothers, and the way the neoliberal ideology underpinning university administration places undue stress on academics, Pine also tackles the taboo: menstruation, body image, self-confidence, and sexual assault. She cogently links a male colleague’s comments about her “cute” appearance to the broader iniquities of the patriarchy, writing “[usually] sexist comments in the workplace don’t involve references to genocide, and this can make them easier to live with, but also easier to miss.” She is also highly attuned to the nuances of privilege and silence, making reference to the irony that sometimes she can struggle to publicly call out misogyny, but at the same time, as a lecturer, she talks for a living: “you can be silent and loud at the same time, it turns out.” Each essay is filled with insight, compassion and forgiveness- including for herself. This book won the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year award 2018 and I would urge everyone to read it- once I started I literally could not stop.

Valenti’s memoir is a disturbing catalogue of the sexist violence that has surrounded her since she was born. Growing up in an under-privileged borough of New York, Valenti was confronted by flashers and molesters on the streets and on the subway as she made her way to school. Generations of women before her have experienced sexual assault and abuse. A long line of boyfriends treated her badly. Then, as she became a feminist writer, she started receiving death threats, and had to move out of her own home when her daughter was very young to escape these threats being carried out.

Like Pine, Valenti also interrogates the silence that has been enforced on generations of women in her family. Valenti talks about how her mother and grandmother were both sexually abused, by either family members or close family acquaintances, and how she herself has been raped. Her call for everyone to speak out to protect women has taken on a new urgency with the birth of her daughter who has selective mutism, and therefore finds it literally impossible to speak in front of strangers.

These disclosures are all shocking and made me recommit to calling out misogyny when I see it. However, the thing that really drove home to me how the struggle for our own bodies is still subject to institutionalised ownership and control is when Valenti has her baby. She writes “no one quite prepares you for the sheer number of people whose hands will be inside you”. Despite the doctors making the decision that she was having a caesarean, the nurse still shaved her vagina. How does that happen?

To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine, formerly of the punk band The Slits, is a reflection on her mother’s life and death. After her mother dies, Albertine finds a bag among her mother’s possessions with the label “to throw away unopened.” Naturally, she opens it.

The bag contains clues about her mother’s experiences that she rarely discussed, including her enforced abandonment of her son from her first marriage. This is a caustic, empowering and heartbreaking book in which Albertine is brutally honest about her own shortcomings and struggle to fight back against sexism and violence, but also about the irreconcilable inequities within families and between siblings. After a spectacular physical fight with her sister as their mother lays dying, Albertine later reflects that they had been set up for such a fight for nearly six decades, because her mother nurtured competition between her daughters. What stands out is Albertine’s appreciation of, and reconcilement to, the complex relationship she had with her mother. While there were moments in which the only support she had was from her mother, at other times, particularly during her parents’ divorce, both parents behaved abominably towards Albertine and her sister. When interviewed by the Guardian, Albertine said:

Some people will say that I’m bitter and twisted, but so what? I’m 63 and I’ve been an outsider as far back as junior school. When you’ve fought and fought to keep positive and to keep creative even though there was not a space to be creative, well, you show me any human who is not angry after 60 years of that.

I can’t wait to get my hands on Albertine’s first memoir, Clothes Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. You can also listen to an interview by RN’s Kate Evans with Albertine on a podcast extra of the Bookshelf.


Between Authenticity and Distraction: Sebastian Smee on the inner life

When I was in year eleven, my English Literature class studied To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Initially the length of the sentences, some of which are half a page long, came as a shock. On the surface not much happens, also a strange reading experience for a group of pimply students who had come to understand plot as a series of external events inducing an effect on the protagonist. Mr and Mrs Ramsay, their eight children and some guests including the aspiring painter Lily Briscoe rent a cottage by the beach, where they all grapple with the elusive nature of meaning and the ephemerality of being. Written in stream of consciousness from multiple characters’ perspectives, the structure and flow of the novel challenged the prevailing view of history as objective; a current of external events whose footprint was material. Towering over the characters both literally and figuratively is the lighthouse, a beacon of security in rough weather, and a guiding light in a dark night of the soul. The characters set off to reach the lighthouse, and their physical journey outward to it parallels their individual journeys inward to a place of greater understanding.

I grew to love this book, and Woolf’s work more broadly. There was something soothing in the way she drew connections between her characters’ inner states and the world around them. She acknowledged that we process events and observations on a profound level, and that the passage of time is experienced subjectively. The fluidity, ambiguity and bracketed interruptions that mark her style represent the interplay between our inner and outer worlds, and reveal the ways in which the material is superseded by memory. An experience can be fleeting, but its effect is felt, and can take on a life of its own, in one’s inner eye for long afterwards – perhaps a lifetime.

It is this inner life that concerns art critic Sebastian Smee in the latest Quarterly Essay. While the inner life is a concept that remains difficult to define and pin down, Smee is certain (and I agree with him) that we are losing our ability to both cultivate it and appreciate it. Smee argues that this is largely due to our willingness to give ourselves over to social media and other forms of technology which promise us connectivity, new relationships and entertainment. He asks whether we are adapting ourselves to fit this software and, consequently, reducing the depth of human connection and understanding that we bring to our existence. His fear, and the whole point of the essay, is that “as we live more and more of our lives online and attached to our phones, and as we are battered and buffeted by all the informational, corporate and political surges of contemporary life, this notion of an elusive but somehow sustaining inner self is eroding.”

I came across Woolf at a precipitous moment in history. It was 2006, a few years after Facebook was launched. Even then Facebook seemed to be more than a passing fad amongst teenagers; the “responsible adults,” namely parents and teachers, were also using it. Though the craze could partly be explained by its novelty, evidence was already there of the enduring clique it was to become. A few years later, one of my friends revealed he had missed a few weddings because the invitations were only sent out on Facebook. A colleague of my mother found out on Facebook that her grandfather in England had died because her cousin posted about it before anyone bothered to telephone the extended family in Australia. “Is nothing private anymore?” my mother wondered. But privacy is distinct from inner life. “Privacy,” writes Smee, “is linked to political freedom” and “refers to what you do and think away from the interested, potentially controlling eyes of others. Inner life is different. Next to it -and despite all we hear about privacy- privacy is a shallow concept.”

But what is the inner life? The idea of an inner self is an abstract concept. Both the experience of it and its definition are, like the lighthouse in Woolf’s novel, elusive. From the essay’s early pages, Smee grounds his exposition in art and literature, rather than science, arguing that our capacity for rich internality is infinitely more complex than corporations, armed with their algorithms, would have us believe. His description of the possible constituents of an inner life is profound and beautiful:

It has to do, I assume, with your age and personal history, with the ebb and flow of chemicals inside your brain, and with your body’s itches and aches. But also, I would say, with your apprehensions of beauty, your intimations of death, what is going on inside you when you are in love, or when your whole being is in turmoil.

Instead of turning to psychology and theories of consciousness and personality, Smee turns to writers and artists such as Chekhov and Lucian Freud. Chekhov is invoked as a unifying reference throughout the essay. Smee refers to his short story, “The Lady with the Dog,” about a man with two lives: “everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him… was hidden from other people” and “all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth…. All that was open.”

A key question invited by the premise of Smee’s essay is: if our capacity for nurturing and paying attention to our inner lives is eroding, when was its heyday? It is easy to romanticise the past and yearn for an imagined time when things were simpler. Smee acknowledges that the distinction between public and private selves is not a unique twenty-first century phenomenon. It makes me think of Oscar Wilde, whose complex position as both insider and outsider allowed him to write theatre that revealed his contemporaries’ public fashions and private fancies. I also think of Jane Austen, who cannily dissected her society’s performative selves, false friendships and mercenary hypocrisies. But surely in the historical moments in which Austen and Wilde were writing, there were times when they would have been genuinely alone. Death was never far away. Apart from social occasions, their connection to the outside world was through the postal service, which was limited by human or equine energy, the weather, and the quality of the roads. Austen lived her whole life without going abroad because of the war between England and France. So, presumably, alone at night with only the candlelight for company, people had to nurture their imaginations, and found it more difficult to be distracted from the contemplation of the human condition. Today, conversely, as we “stare at our screens all day” and “feel visibly bereft without our phones” it “gets harder… to be alone with ourselves or to pick up a book; harder still to stay with it.”

As Smee argues, the internet has allowed our deceptions and social performances to become entrenched on a new level. Cyber bullying and trolling demonstrate how easy it is to nurture the fictional selves that we create online without being forced to confront their lack of authenticity, or question our motivations and the integrity of our relationships. Children “are encouraged to present performative versions of themselves online… concocted from who knows what combination of software design, peer pressure and fantasy” which “appear to take on greater and greater substance in the formation of their characters.” Are we able to tell what is real and what is not? Smee argues that, on some level, we understand that we are being duped, but that surrendering to the ulterior version of reality that technology offers is part of the attraction. He remains bewildered by, though empathetic towards, our apparent “eagerness… to make ourselves smaller” by conforming to tech companies’ goals of capturing and commodifying our time and attention, thus perpetuating the reductive algorithms that such corporations derive from our data footprint.

An explanation for our inability, or unwillingness, to break with the virtual world is the missing link in Smee’s essay. While lamenting our behaviour, he does not analyse how it is shaped by the social conditions arising from late capitalism. Ultimately, this impacts on the strength of his suggestions for reconnecting with our inner selves. At the end of the essay, he contends that nurturing an inner life is about acknowledging our own mortality and paying attention to the things around us. In a theoretical sense, this is obviously, manifestly, true. But in a practical sense, it is an oversimplification. Something is stopping us, so what it is? Smee himself acknowledges in an earlier part of the essay that our awareness of our mortality is not enough to make us turn inwards. Rather, as he observes, anxiety about death sends us outwards, to:

disperse ourselves, by being as widely visible as possible. Social media, and the internet generally, make this feel possible, to an unprecedented degree. They allow us to lay before the world (in the hope that the world will be watching) the things we love, the things we hate, and a mediated image of our lives that can seem to rescue us from the threat of oblivion.

Though it may be born out of panic, this state of affairs is also the logical endpoint of consumerism. The acquisition of material objects is a distraction from oblivion. I shop, therefore I am. Similarly, dispersing oneself through the panopticon of the internet is about the accumulation of likes and followers, and the pursuit of the viral. It bears a resemblance to shopping, but we pay with our performances and in return receive attention that we take to be an affirmation of human connection, although (at least to start with) we know that what we are experiencing is not necessarily authentic. Our devices offer us a simulacrum of human connection.

Simulacra is a concept of simulation popularised by the French philosopher and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard posited that, as the simulacrum develops, its relationship to reality changes. In the words of theorist Robin DeRosa, “first, it reflects reality; next it hides it; then it hides that it is hiding it; and finally, it replaces it so that the original is impossible to decipher.” In the consumer age, as we exhaust material options, we pursue simulacra. Industry and science acquiesce to our demands for the next big thing, producing ever-more inflated versions of the previous big thing. A simple but ubiquitous example is the development of artificial flavours. Prior to the 1960s, artificial flavours were not expected to completely replace naturally occurring flavours but today, most products on supermarket shelves contain them. We are surrounded by simulacra, but often take it for granted that they are the real deal.

Our preference for simulacra also underlies our relationships with the internet and our devices. Social media and applications emerged from the same consumer ideology that governs most, if not all, other areas of our lives. They nurture our expectation of instant gratification. We’re not easily extricable from these devices because the logic that holds us captive to them – the logic of capitalism- is so ubiquitous, we have come to believe there is no alternative. The hyper-connectivity that we are promised is a kind of pseudo-connection, a hollowed out version of our most intimate need that has been sold back to us. In short, our addiction to our smart phones and social media represents the quintessential triumph of the capitalist model.

It then falls to Smee to suggest a way out of the mire. As important as art is to Smee, he avoids the easy claim that art and literature are panaceas. Instead, he suggests that “[finding] ways to pay attention again to our solitude” and “daring to hope that we may connect that solitude to the solitude of others,” constitute the balm we so desperately need. Nevertheless, I would argue that connection is a basic function of art. When an artist creates art, they are seeking to expunge themselves of something that disrupts their internal equilibrium, and to put out into the world an object that embodies this strive for clarity and meaning. When I engage with art that that really moves me or gets me thinking, I feel connected, in a small way or a larger way, to the artist and my fellow gallery visitors who are also caught up in the moment. Fundamentally, art is a way to find a moment of peace, the memory of which can sustain us after it has receded.

Woolf understood this predicament. In the third and final section of To The Lighthouse, as Mr Ramsay and two of his surviving children embark on their journey, Lily Briscoe seeks to finish the painting she started ten years before. As she tries to realise her vision, she focuses on a space on her canvas, which draws her “out of gossip, out of living, out of community with people into the presence of this formidable ancient enemy of hers- this other thing, this truth, this reality.” But in a moment, her vision, sequestered in a hidden part of herself, bursts through, providing an impulse for the completion of her painting:

She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done, it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.


Works cited

Beaudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981.

Robin De Rosa, “Preface” in Simulation in Media and Culture: believing the hype, 2011.

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 1927.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

[contains spoilers]

It is most important to keep yourself very still. Even breathing can remind them that you are there, so only very short, very shallow breaths. Just enough to stay alive. And no more.

As Elaine Showalter notes in her influential book The Female Malady, “madness has been the historical label applied to female protest and revolution.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, when women in Britain were campaigning for access to the vote and to universities, hysteria was the most common of all the nervous maladies to be associated with the feminist movement. She also points out that men benefitted from women’s actual experience of psychosomatic illness. In addition to using it to rhetorically delegitimise women’s calls for equality, its disabling effects prevented women from expending energy on campaigns. But perhaps Showalter’s most important point is her reading of the origins of women’s mental distress, contending that throughout history women have suffered because of their traditional role, rather than mental illness being a deviation from it. Until the mid-twentieth century- and echoes of this are still heard today – the options afforded to women did not allow them to fashion their own narratives or public presence: you disappeared into marriage and motherhood, or you could very well have disappeared into an asylum.

The consequences of feminine “impropriety” are the subject of Maggie O’Farrell’s 2006 book The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. A young woman, who calls herself Esme, although her given name is Euphemia, survives a childhood tragedy (her baby brother dies from typhoid) and goes on to become a “difficult” young woman. Her family, burdened by Esme’s reluctance to get married and preference for books and education over banal social niceties, incarcerates her in an asylum where she spends the next six decades. The story cuts between the 1940s and the present, when Esme is released because the asylum is being closed, and is taken in by Iris, a thirty-ish single woman who, as a distant relative, has unknowingly inherited guardianship of her.

O’Farrell’s writing is beguiling and magical, her concerns with memory, family, secrets and everyday violence timeless and penetrating. Australian readers may be familiar with O’Farrell through her 2017 memoir I Am, I Am, I Am, a haunting and lyrical series of vignettes that detail her seventeen brushes with death, from contracting encephalitis in childhood to narrowly escaping the clutches of a psychopathic killer. When she was hospitalised with encephalitis, O’Farrell was not expected to survive, then when she did, it was predicted she would never walk again. Happily, today she retains her ability to walk, but, the disease having made “lacework” of her cerebellum, her coordination and sensory perception are severely impaired. While her memoir may have been a way to expunge herself of the visceral horror each brush with death left her with, O’Farrell ostensibly wrote it to give courage to her elder daughter, who has a severe immune disorder that results in as many as a dozen anaphylactic episodes a year. Everyday items have the potential to kill her. Consequently, O’Farrell and her family cannot travel more than twenty minutes from a hospital. They cannot allow visitors to the family home to bring items that most other people taken for granted. They exist, O’Farrell writes, “in a state of high alert.”

A former journalist, she also occasionally writes on assignment for various publications. Her recent article in the Guardian on her chronic back pain, like her memoir, reveals an intuitive grasp of the secrets of the body, and the way memories and past experiences can be reawakened through somatic phenomena. When, working as a journalist in the 1990s, O’Farrell experienced pins and needles in her back and shoulder, her boss worried that she had RSI, and sent her off to the company physiotherapist. But O’Farrell knew better. In between making phone calls and chasing copy, she had a “sensation that there was something behind me, something only I could see, nebulous and malevolent, something I thought I had outrun, a long time ago, but here it was, back to haunt me, placing its clammy hand on my shoulder and saying, you didn’t think you’d get away that easily, did you?”

Bodily hauntings are a recurring theme of her fiction. Peppered among her novels are characters who are prompted, through what can start out as an innocuous occurrence, to re-evaluate the significance of a past experience. In her debut novel, After You’d Gone, a young woman goes on a mental excursion through her past after being injured in an accident. Her Costa award-winning 2010 novel The Hand That First Held Mine jumps back and forth between the 1950s and the mid-2000s, revealing the ways in which strangers’ lives can be indelibly linked. Secrets are revealed through experiences of birth and death, highlighting once again the way in which O’Farrell’s writing thrives on the idea of the truth making itself known through our bodies. And in her most recent novel from 2016, This Must Be The Place, referred to by one critic as her “break out,” a lecturer in linguistics, Daniel Sullivan, must come to grips with the grief he has spent his life running away from.

O’Farrell’s writing is underpinned by an acute appeal to the senses. Sometimes her imagery is intensely sensual, at other times sparse, but it always manages to add depth and convey emotion. She often alludes to action that occurs off stage or in the background, which underlines her preoccupation with excavating our past to understand how we came to land in the present: “Somewhere out of sight a child is crying. The dog stands in the doorway, watching the tiny figures of people walking along the bridge high above them. Sometimes this street feels so deep cut into the city it’s as if Iris is leading a subterranean existence.” These sentences, taken from The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, exemplify O’Farrell’s talent for melding description with penetrating insight. Appearing early in the novel, they allude to key themes in the story: the ways in which our lives are influenced by what has come before, including by grander occurrences that we have no control over, yet in whose shadow we find ourselves existing.

In The Vanishing Act, the narrative voice switches between the third person, focusing on the lives of Esme and Iris, and first person from the perspective of Esme’s sister, Kitty, whose role in Esme’s incarceration is part of the intrigue. The style is unsettling, with no clear-cut answer as to whether Esme has an intellectual disability or mental illness. At times I speculated whether she could be on the Autism spectrum, then wondered if I could be blinded by the prejudices of my own era, which have their origins in the very ideas that led to the incarceration of women like Esme. Other women in the asylum have tragic stories, and, like Esme, have experienced significant grief or trauma:

There was Maudie, who married Donald and then Archibald when she was still married to Hector, even though the one she really loved was Frankie, who was killed in Flanders… In the next beds were Elizabeth, who had seen her child crushed by a cart, and Dorothy, who was occasionally moved to strip off all her clothes.

In an interview with the Guardian, O’Farrell advised that these stories are all true; she came across them while researching conditions of asylums, and discovered that some of her acquaintances had had relations incarcerated.

While these days Esme’s presence in the asylum would be regarded as an abuse in and of itself, her treatment at the hands of the authorities is mostly portrayed with an understatement that serves to reveal its insidiousness.  When Esme spends the night at Iris’s house, she sleeps in her coat “buttoned up to her neck” and barricades the bedroom door with an armchair, revealing protective behaviours she learnt in the asylum. So it is in the asylum that Esme becomes docile. This was after all their intended purpose: to iron out the kinks in the personalities of rebellious women who bucked against what Charlotte Wood has called “the natural way of things.” The discipline meted out in the asylum via the punishment of individuality and the inculcation of “appropriate conduct” through brutality also results in Esme’s erasure. After her incarceration she became persona non grata to her family, but she also learns to vanish herself as a coping mechanism:

She shuts her mouth, closes her throat, folds her hands over each other and she does the thing she has perfected. Her specialty. To absent yourself, to make yourself vanish… Even breathing can remind them that you are there, so only very short, very shallow breaths. Just enough to stay alive. And no more… Concentrate. Really concentrate. You need to attain a state so that your being, the bit of you that makes you what you are, that makes you stand out, three-dimensional in a room, can flow out from the top of your head…

With this magical thinking, her discipline is complete. To be a good woman is to be a non-entity.

There is a cruel, ironic element in the way that Esme’s intellectual thirst is her downfall. She wants to acquire knowledge, but not the right kind. By refusing to husband hunt, she refuses the only sexual outlet her society permits, and thus denies herself a sanctioned expression of sexuality. Despite many of her peers ostracising her, a boy takes an interest in her, and her family pushes her to accept his invitations. She is initially uninterested at an intellectual level, but when he makes physical advances, she becomes curious. Alas, she has not been warned of the dangers that lie in wait for her as a woman; she cannot avoid becoming his prey. She gives birth in the asylum, where the staff assume she will simply forget about her child.

Esme’s sister, Kitty, encounters marital problems; her husband refuses consummation. Neither of them possess the requisite knowledge, and their times prevent them from seeking advice. When Kitty hears that Esme has given birth in hospital, she does not realise that her sister had been raped, and sees her child – the only evidence of a woman’s worth- through jealous eyes:

I don’t think, until that moment, I’d fully realised what had happened, what she had done. She had done that with him. And in me rose an anger. How had she known and not me? She was younger than me, she wasn’t as pretty as me, she certainly wasn’t as accomplished as me, she wasn’t even married and yet she had managed to…

Kitty takes possession of Esme’s son and spends the rest of her life erasing the memory of her sister in order to keep up the pretence that she has imbibed the requisite knowledge for successful womanhood.

The novel’s only flaw is that the juxtapositioning of Iris’s and Esme’s lives are a little too clean cut. Esme is unquestionably a victim; Iris has free reign, her own sexual transgressions going unpunished. These include an affair with a married man and a fledgling relationship with her step-brother. While these actions add complexity to Iris’s character, they downplay the ongoing presence of misogyny in contemporary women’s lives, and the way our behaviours and aspirations are still guided by the sexism that we have internalised. However, this qualm aside, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is compulsively readable, heartbreaking, and endlessly though-provoking.