Acts of Living
by Emma A. Jane
Published March 2022
‘Smug-faced readers, managing editors, and big bosses don’t like the true texts of women – female-sexed texts. That kind scares them.’Helene Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa
‘…you think you’ve got the right to just decide, like you’re God, who I am and who I’m not and what I’m like and what I’m not and what I’d do and what I wouldn’t. Well, you don’t.’Ali Smith, The Second Person
The literary scholar Nancy K. Miller proposes that one reason some of us find memoir so compelling is that reading it can help us encounter ‘the memory of the zeitgeist at work; the undertow of cultural memory that pulls our personal reminiscence into its domain … Another’s text can give you back your life’. Approaching fifty, I’ve been thinking about that zeitgeist a lot; the nineties were a significant chunk of my teens and twenties and they were, to put it mildly, difficult. Trying to understand how I got here, and particularly the ways in which forces outside my control worked on me, has been crucial in both forgiving myself and figuring out what to do next. In some ways they are all the same thing, and the memoirs of contemporaries are particularly valuable in that process.
Emma A. Jane has built an impressive career initially as a journalist, then scholar; to take just one example, her recent book Misogyny Online (2017) was a superlative examination of gendered abuse on the internet. For me, though, she will always first be indelibly associated with the nineties. I wasn’t really interested in the news then, but between classes on Milton and Donne and the Romantics, between fluorescent-lit supermarket checkout shifts, between earsplittingly loud gigs at the Annandale and the Phoenician Club, between episodes of Melrose Place and Baywatch, I read her newspaper column, ‘Babewatch’. Aside from the pun, the name itself might signify the somewhat confused approach taken to feminism by newspaper editors at the time: was this a column about perving on ‘babes’? Or a column in which the ‘babe’ critically returns the (mostly male) gaze? From memory, it was more the latter.
There’s a way of reading her memoir Diagnosis Normal (2022) as continuous with, or perhaps a culmination of that project. The book’s cover is a beautiful painting of an eye in close-up; we are in the book’s sights from the beginning, being read as we read it. Perhaps because my undergraduate years have been so much on my mind, I kept thinking about Laura Mulvey’s influential feminist essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ as I read; in it, Mulvey declares that ‘Destruction of pleasure is a radical weapon’. There is something of that going on here. At the book’s core is a prolonged period of sexual abuse a family ‘friend’ inflicted on Jane as a child, and the devastating ongoing effects of that abuse. This person took pleasure in causing a great deal of harm; this memoir is partly about undoing that pleasure. There are moments where it shifts into a manifesto: ‘We need more un-pretty stories’. If part of the abuser’s pleasure comes from dehumanising the object of his attentions, writing memoir can be one way of insisting on one’s humanity. One of the early chapters, ‘Hello’, is dedicated to asserting a complex identity via a sequence of largely celebratory paragraphs describing who she is, what she likes and dislikes, how she spends her time; a kind of ‘Song of Myself’. The final one begins, ‘I know people like me can seem alien and alienating.’ I smiled with recognition at this point, because the long list of quirks, habits of mind, preoccupations and preferences that precedes it are familiar. Unlike Jane, I don’t have a formal autism diagnosis (and having spent a semester working with kids who do have that diagnosis, I have my reservations about how helpful I would find one) but, like every first-person late-diagnosis account I’ve read, this section of Diagnosis Normal feels uncannily like my own story.
Whatever the case, I suspect one thing that enables abusers to do what they do is thinking their targets aren’t really people, and that their actions are without effect. Poor or non-existent empathy might be another. Both the extraordinary richness of Jane’s inner life and the appalling damage the abuse has caused are delineated in this memoir; it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the abuser will read it. It’s hard to imagine him taking pleasure in those memories after reading this book.
Low empathy for others is generally linked to an inability to connect with one’s own vulnerable emotions; reading memoir might be one way of mending that connection. It has been for me; reading the lives of others can’t help but pull up my own memories, experiences, emotions. Another strategy in the destruction of pleasure is that Jane deliberately eschews ‘specific details about who did what to whom. I don’t like these blow-by-blow accounts. They’re voyeuristic. Salacious even. I worry that predators like you might enjoy them.’ Instead, given that one strand of her project here is to educate her readers about the insidious ways such predators operate, ‘the details of the way you mind-fucked me…those must be laid bare.’
I need to interrupt myself at this point to explain that this can’t be a ‘normal’ review (whatever normal means – more on that later); a sense of dialogue with the book feels particularly alive to me in this instance, because Jane is a friend, if a new one whom I am still getting to know, and the SRB editors and I want to avoid too much of an insiders-writing-about-insiders situation, or perpetuating the secret guild of publishing where you have to know the right people to get this kind of gig. Far too much of that already. But I was a fan of Jane’s writing long before I knew her; felt I did know her, in that way one can feel close to writers whose work touches us. In ‘Babewatch’ I saw a way to ‘do’ feminism that moved away from the slut-shaming and femme-shaming of second-wave feminism. I had no idea of the price she paid (had already paid, would continue to pay) until much, much later.
A story about the ‘shocking excellence of [a] subversive new fashion statement’ – a t-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Porn Star’ she bought and wore until it disintegrated – forms part of a reflection on her early experimental, adventurous sex life, about which she is frank and non-judgemental, but there’s also the caveat ‘I did not know no was an option’. Like Jane, I’ve come to view the sex-positive third-wave feminism I embraced in my twenties with a more critical eye. I don’t think this is simply due to the encroaching conservatism of middle age; it’s got more to do with a deepened understanding of how early trauma messes with a person’s ability to create safe attachments, and of just how entrenched and all-encompassing were the systemic oppressions of patriarchy we were up against. ‘Sex-positive feminism’ was attractive to me as the shaming I’d experienced from both men and women for having a sexuality at all (never mind being queer) didn’t seem very feminist. It did not mean, however, what many men seemed to take it to mean: that I was available for anything, at any time, with anyone. Finding people with whom it was actually safe to be positive about sex with was the problem. More often than not, men just seemed to feel the same old sexual entitlement in a postmodern disguise. Where does that leave us now? It’s phrased by Jane as a question: ‘As a grown and extensively therapied woman, I’m still not sure what shape an authentic sexuality might take.’
Reading Diagnosis Normal now, I find her sense-making of being a young woman – particularly a clever, literate, ambitious and feminist young woman – in that supposedly liberated but actually pretty sexist decade is useful to my own ongoing project of self-forgiveness, and of grasping the bigger picture. In many ways they are the same thing. We had riot grrl feminism, Bikini Kill and L7 and Hole, but there was also the public shaming of Monica Lewinsky and a pervasive atmosphere of misogyny.
Part of that atmosphere included the media attention given to ‘false memory syndrome’, aka ‘recovered (or repressed) memory syndrome’. In a study of this phenomenon in Australia, psychologists Kate McMaugh and Warwick Middleton note that the backlash against claims of abuse was less extreme than in the US and UK; still, there was enough to cast doubt on the testimony of sexual abuse survivors and indeed on all claims of sexual assault. Did it really happen or was it a ‘false memory’? Layering evil on evil, Jane’s abuser used that prevailing atmosphere of doubt to mess with her sense of reality, telling her that what he was doing was not abuse, and that she’d better not ‘pretend’ to have been abused. People do dissociate during traumatic experiences and that can interfere with memory processes – Jane includes a detailed explanation drawing on recent developments in neuroscience explaining how implicit and explicit memory works – but the sensationalised accounts of unscrupulous therapists implanting false memories of child abuse were questionable, and did damage by contributing to a prevailing climate of disbelief. Instead, Jane describes a phenomenon that is much closer to the truth of how traumatic memory really works for a lot of survivors:
as if [my brain] had placed [each memory] in its own binder with an unintelligible title. “File #76*&^y&” and “file #9&$^#6s”, for example. My mind had then taken the additional precaution of placing them in cabinets situated at opposite ends of the mental building. […] I’ve never suddenly recovered a previously inaccessible recollection because of manipulative psychotherapy, sketchy hypnosis, or post-alien-abduction brain cleansing. The memories of violence and abuse were always there. They were just scattered, incorrectly and unfindably filed.
The computer file metaphor is an apt one, recurring occasionally – Jane shares that she and her therapist joke that the therapist is her ‘external hard drive’; my own therapist has at certain points offered that I can ‘leave’ certain memories, obsessions, worries with her. It does help to think about it that way. Jane has long had an interest in digital culture, on which our generation has a unique perspective: we had analogue childhoods but came of age more or less simultaneously with the birth and growth of the internet. And women got to see its dark side straight away. There was a strong sense that anything to do with computers was a male pursuit – hackneyed assumptions about women’s ‘natural’ deficiencies in maths and science carried over into the new era, as did the ugly fact of rape culture. Although I worked on technology magazines for nearly a decade, it was always clear that this world was not for us. I was there to render geekspeak into reader-friendly language, but the ‘real work’ was a male domain. This feeling of being excluded was mild compared to the abuse Jane copped, though: men used the new technology to bombard her with insults about her appearance, rape threats, death threats. I can’t imagine how I would have borne up under such an onslaught, but Jane, observing the unoriginality of their phrasing, which always followed the same formula, collected them, filed them and used the data to create a social research project into gendered cyberhate. Eventually, it feels like there’s a poetic justice in the fact that a literal computer error results, circuitously, in ‘the best accident ever’ – the birth of her daughter.
As someone with a longstanding interest in memoir and a belief that lived experience perspectives need to be part of any effort towards social change (in which I include therapy), I’ve found it fascinating to observe the discomfort felt by some of my fellow therapy students who have more science-oriented backgrounds when we are required to write in the first person. The position Jane expresses here, making the case for such narratives, is a useful reminder that memoir can have broader applications beyond the literary:
A narrative is not science as it is usually known, but it is no small thing. Indeed, first-person accounts offer invaluable insight into experiences and phenomena the best research and technology cannot currently fathom. Maybe narrative is science as it should be known.
Memoirs like Diagnosis Normal are particularly useful to the therapist-in-training, as Jane details the lack of compassion she’s encountered in some mental health professionals. It’s a humbling and necessary reminder of how easily therapists and counsellors can miss the inner experience of the traumatised person. As someone whose own narrative started out as ‘memoir scholar’ but has begun turning into one of ‘therapist’, I see a great deal of value in therapists reading lived-experience memoirs in addition to scholarly papers. It’s good for us not to forget what it’s like to be ‘on the couch’, so to speak; one way to maintain a sense of the impact we could be having might well be to read memoir. Jane has been generous in describing her encounters with a variety of counsellors, therapists and other mental health professionals, not all of whom have been very helpful. Having just spent the past two years learning to use the skill of ‘reflective listening’, I laughed ruefully at her depiction of this exchange:
[Jane]: ‘It feels like you’re doing Active Listening with a capital A and a capital L.’
[Counsellor]: ‘What I’m hearing you say is that it sounds like I’m doing Active Listening with a capital A and a capital L.’
We are advised to try and avoid this kind of echolalia; the aim is to help the client feel heard and felt, not parrotted. Jane brings in therapist and scholar Allan Wade’s concept of ‘small acts of living’ from narrative therapy. This is a method of reframing, not in a dishonest or disingenuous way (what happened wasn’t that bad) but rather a way of seeing our own resistance, the little ways in which we saved ourselves, seeing our own strengths. While her abuser gave her pornography and told her he ‘had’ to teach her ‘normal sex ed’ as a favour because she was, he said, so undesirable, she was thinking, ‘Good… Who’d even want some man doing those things. Stupid bloody idiot’. One of the most painful effects of any kind of abuse can be shame at having been helpless to stop it; one way of counteracting that shame can be to remember that even thinking angry thoughts about the abuser is a means of pushing back, however small. ‘I like remembering myself thinking those thoughts. Remembering that, for a spectacularly long time, I kept you out of my head.’ I have a long talk with my therapist after reading these words; she wants to call this a ‘coping mechanism’, but I much prefer Wade’s term ‘resistance’. It captures the spirited defiance Jane conjures in the image of a small girl silently thinking ‘stupid bloody idiot’; as someone whose default stress position tends to be the freeze response, I’ve often struggled with shame about not having ‘done anything’. Thinking about ‘small acts of living’ is helpful; I was never quite as compliant as I might have seemed on the surface.
Writers are sometimes told to be cautious about using the second person; as an editor, I’ve queried the usage when it has come across, to me, as inappropriately combative, patronising or making unsustainable claims to universality. But used intentionally it can be highly effective; in the central chapter dealing with the abuse, Jane directly addresses the predator throughout as ‘you’. It’s an inspired stylistic decision: ‘you’ is intimate, can force the reader to identify with a position that might be very foreign to them – or might not. The final sentences of this chapter are each given their own line for maximum impact:
…you chose to act on your impulses. And you could have chosen differently.
There are no mitigating circumstances.
You have shown no regret or remorse.
I read this as another act of living. The abuser told her if she wrote about him, he’d kill himself – adults threatening suicide to control children is unfortunately a not uncommon phenomenon – but Jane writes of struggling with suicidality throughout her life, along with self-harming practices and self-loathing thought processes, ‘feeling DNA-level deficient’. These reactions are particularly prevalent in people who were sexually abused as children; I know this, but it still shocks me, hurts beyond measure to think of my friend’s suffering. I’m angered by the waste: that any of the energy of a brilliant mind should be expended on ‘the urge to extinguish myself’. The anger is not at Jane; that’s what traumatised minds do. The anger is at ‘you’; the direct, confrontational second person is exactly right here. The injustice strikes me afresh: we were nearly deprived of this extraordinary thinker. Just consider how many others we’ve lost.
That care taken over word choice is apparent throughout; it’s one reason Jane has always been such a pleasure to read. Several words are interrogated insistently: the ‘normal’ of the title is deployed often, mostly in an ironic register, prompting readers to consider what the word might really mean, particularly in the context of the ‘normal sex ed’ the abuser subjected her to. As she points out, he was operating in a context in which child sex abuse was normalised, in a sense, describing his friends joking about ‘luring me into a van with lollies’. She’s not keen on either ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’; she uses ‘target’, ‘but if you have something better, let me know. And there’s a longish dissection of the word ‘grooming’, which has recently become popular, but she doesn’t like it. It sounds too much like something pleasant, something the target might enjoy.
There’s a taut elegance to Jane’s best lines that I remember from her Babewatch days; there’s a lot to be said for the discipline of writing for print; of writing in particular for print newspapers and magazines, where space was limited and you had to compress as much of both style and substance into as little space as possible. She has a light, deft style that is compelling; on my first reading, I devoured Diagnosis Normal over the course of a Friday night and the following Saturday; looking through it a third time to chase up a particular quote, I found I was pulled in again, initially not finding what I was looking for but drawn in nonetheless. There’s an endearingly self-deprecating tone that’s always been hers, although the enjoyment is tempered now by the knowledge of the real self-loathing that underpins it.
Jane’s dedication, both to making the world a better place for survivors of sexual abuse, and to preventing that abuse from happening in the first place, is palpable. Diagnosis Normal finishes with a list of ideas, including proposing confidential counselling services for paedophiles where they can get help for their destructive urges before they turn into action. While I might have reservations about some of its conclusions – I’m not convinced, for example, that paedophilia might be a sexual orientation that the perpetrator can’t help – I do think it’s awfully generous of Jane to give space to this theory, and appreciate the care she takes explaining that someone might be a paedophile without necessarily translating that into the action of child abuse.
While I was writing this essay, I happened to watch the time-travel sci-fi series Shining Girls. Set in the nineties, it features Elisabeth Moss as Sharon/Kirby, a promising young journalist whose career is derailed by male violence. Diagnosis Normal covers more than that decade, but it feels significant at this point that we’re starting to see cultural productions that examine that period critically. Much the same things were said of ‘Generation X’ in the nineties as have been said about ‘millennials’ more recently: that we were lazy, feckless, irresponsible, and did not take the proper attitude to work (that is, we resented being exploited, resented the neoliberal rot that was already setting in, resented the humiliating ‘choice’ between being treated like scum at the dole office and being treated like scum at a ‘McJob’, in Douglas Coupland’s words). I never recognised myself or any of my contemporaries in these descriptions, particularly those of us who were female (whether cis or trans) let alone non-binary. Personally, I felt as if I was just barely hanging on, trying to survive (abusive boyfriends, misogynist workplaces, a legacy of childhood trauma). In Shining Girls Sharon/Kirby’s reality keeps changing as her attacker interferes with her timeline, until she takes control of it. There’s a sense that she’s going back for herself, again and again, until the story comes right. Reading and writing and thinking about memoir feels like that to me too: an ‘act of living’. An act of resistance.
Nick Bendit: ‘Self-hatred in psychotherapy: One of the most difficult things to treat’, paper given at the 2018 ANZAP conference, Owl Talks.
Emma A. Jane, Misogyny Online: A short (and brutish) history, Sage Swifts, 2017
Silka Luisa (creator), Shining Girls (tv series), Apple TV, 2022
Kate McMaugh & Warwick Middleton, ‘The History and Politics of “False Memories”: The Australian Experience”, Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, issue 2, Vol 23, 2022
Nancy K Miller, But Enough About Me: Why we read other people’s lives, Columbia University Press, 2002
Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’, Screen, Volume 16, Issue 3, Autumn 1975, 6–18.
Michael Salter & Ruth Blizard (2022) ‘False Memories and the Science of Credibility: Who Gets to Be Heard?’, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 23:2, 141-147.
Allan Wade, ‘Small Acts of Living: Everyday Resistance to Violence and Other Forms of Oppression’. Contemporary Family Therapy 19, 23–39 (1997).