Review: Fiona Wrighton Gillian Mears

‘Careful Archaeology’

Sometimes when we read, and never quite when we expect it, there are encounters that feel like a recognition. They lodge within us: I have friends who call these burrs in the brain, or splinters – but to me they’ve never felt like foreign bodies, stuck on or stuck in the skin. They go deeper. They become a part of who we are. Living within me like this, I know, is a single image from The Grass Sister, the first of Gillian Mears’ books that I ever read. A snapshot: it’s from a small and deeply intimate scene between the protagonist Avis and her lover Lavinia; the pair are lying in bed and one of them – I think it is Avis, but can’t be sure – admires the soft and downy line of darker hair running down the other’s lower belly, beneath her navel. Snail trail, I sometimes hear this now, although when I first read the book, just over ten years ago, I had never heard that term. I’d never seen one on another woman (though not for lack of trying) and was strangely ashamed of my own – but for Avis, it is not only beautiful and individual but electric: erotically charged, terribly and irresistibly so.

This is one of the things I’ve always loved about Gillian Mears as a writer – the unabashed sensuality of her work, the way desire is always something shimmering and shifting, an unsteady mix of the strange, the transgressive, the dangerous, of the beautiful and luminous, and of wonder.

I didn’t intend to mention Avis and that beloved line of downy hair, except that when I returned to The Grass Sister to find the passage, this short scene I’ve carried within me for so many years, I discovered that I had misremembered it entirely. The line of hair is Avis’ own, and it is a thing that ties her not to her lover but to her mother (‘another unwanted inheritance’) and her sister (whose ‘belly hairs’ remain even after chemotherapy). Alone, she draws circles around the individual hairs and joins them up, and is vaguely disappointed that ‘no pattern emerges.’

This misremembering, though, this crafting of a very different story from one set of material, this slipperiness (to say nothing of that attempt to draw the connections) – it all seems in keeping with so many of the central concerns of Bernadette Brennan’s biography of Mears. In the introduction to Leaping into Waterfalls, Brennan writes that Mears’ life and work pose a particular problem for a biographer – because not only does Mears’ fiction draw on and often rewrite her life (so much so, Brennan writes, that the boundaries between these are ‘porous’ enough that she often found herself confused about which source material provided which details), but Mears was also an almost compulsive letter writer and diarist, someone always trying to determine the outline of her life herself, searching for its meaning and trying to find the patterns that might emerge. She would return to old diaries and amend them, occasionally even imagine the future biographer who might read them. (‘Anyway whoever you are, hello, I acknowledge you may exist when I am dead and that you’d prefer I wrote in my mother’s hand, which is so large and flowing and easy to read.’) Mears herself, that is, was someone intent on ‘shap[ing] and control[ling] the narrative that…would one day be told of her life,’ fearful of being misconstrued, always trying to understand her self and her experiences. Someone who would hold the same events up to the light over and over in order to consider each refraction anew.

What space this leaves for a biographer (‘I always imagine a young woman, with time on her hands obviously and a shy manner,’ Mears’ diaries say) is complicated. A biographer is tasked, after all, with interpreting a life, yet Mears deliberately did so much of this interpretation, and re-interpretation, herself. And she did so with an increasing knowledge, it seems, that her own interpretations were partial and fallible and liable to change shape over time (some of those diary amendments Brennan quotes as reading: ‘I was already adrift in lust AND I knew it’; ‘I was extremely ill psychologically…when I wrote this’). Lives are slippery things, built as they are from materials that never can hold firm – narratives and memories, emotions and charged encounters – materials that react to our every touch and change shape responsively, as if thermodynamic. Brennan’s approach to these challenges she describes both as a kind of listening – an idea adapted from Maria Tumarkin – and a ‘careful archaeology’, words that are Mears’ own. Both metaphors are, at their core, about respect – about uncovering or listening for a story that is already there rather than writing right over it, and allowing the material Mears elided in her own interpretations to sit alongside it, rather than obscure or replace it. There is a deep empathy to Leaping into Waterfalls that this approach certainly cultivates, and which is strengthened too by Brennan’s remarkable capacity to meet her subjects and interviewees without judgement or censure, even when they have behaved poorly or caused great harm.

In many ways, though, this kind of difficult terrain isn’t unfamiliar to Brennan – her previous biography, after all, described the life of Helen Garner, another writer whose fiction frequently transfigures the material of her life, and whose diary-keeping is legendary (all the more so now that Garner’s diaries are being published almost serially). Both biographies have at their heart a similar line of questioning, one that is attempting to understand precisely how this interplay between life and literature operates, what kind of compulsion drives writers to work this way, and, inevitably, what it might cost. So too does it ask what it is that we might learn in a critical sense by considering the work alongside the life that it was drawn from: what it is of the world that might have shaped the writers who shaped these worlds of their own.

I don’t think it’s an accident that it is women writers that Brennan is looking to in her interrogation of these issues; nor that her focus on Garner and now Mears is solely a matter of correcting that long history of undervaluing, overlooking and erasing women writers from our literatures. There are so many women for whom personal life and work are never separate domains. There are so many women writers who are acutely aware of how their individual experiences and emotions are part of, or subject to, much bigger social stories and forces, who are more interested in looking for the truth of these than for a truth within a displaced and more obviously invented scenario. And the imaginative work of this kind of writing, the structuring and shaping, the craft of this, is so often treated differently as a result. The writing is confession rather than careful construction. It is a diary – Monkey Grip was dismissed as such by some contemporary critics – and not a discourse. The self is its centre (they are self-centred), not its starting point.

Brennan’s biographies, though, are interested in the creative lives of these women – in the source material for their writing, certainly, but also in their grappling with it, in the difficulties of carving out a space and a place for their work, in the boundaries, creative and structural, they pushed at, and in the reading and thinking and friendships and correspondence and communities that sustained them. They’re interested in the interplay itself, that is, the complexity of the combination of writing and life, and in a kind of criticism that disregards neither, and gives both equal credence.

The word Brennan uses most emphatically to describe Mears is ‘enigmatic’, largely because of the contradictory impulses and character traits at play across her life – shyness and charisma, compulsivity and exactness, fragility and ruthlessness, fearlessness and doubt. This shifting mercuriality is part of what makes Mears so compelling a figure; so too her determination to find her own way to live and be. Her life was passionate – not just because of the fervent, consuming love affairs that she pursued with all kinds of people or because of her dedication to her writing and the ideas that drove it, but also for the depth of her friendships and her relationships with her family, the intensity of her emotions and engagement with the world. The latter of these is especially important: in one section of the book, Brennan details just how many of the people who knew her described Mears as ‘skinless’, ‘porous’ or ‘open,’ ‘without a protective barrier’ or a sense of boundaries, a border around or endpoint of the self.

Perhaps it is this is that made her a writer, that being affected so deeply and so often by the world makes turning to art, to narrative and image and transformation, a natural, almost inevitable outcome, a means of making sense of everything that might threaten, otherwise, to overwhelm. So too might this lie at the heart of many of the transgressions and betrayals that Mears’ loved ones often found in her work: when so much of the world feels less around you than part of you, when there’s no clear delineation between your self and everything other, it must be easy to forget precisely what of it belongs to you and what is not yours. Easy too, perhaps, to pay inadequate attention to privacy, given that it is a concept that depends upon demarcation, a separate self, containment.

There was always an unboundedness of sorts within Mears’ family, too: Brennan writes that Mears’ sisters now describe their childhood relationships as ‘enmeshed’, so intense was their sense of themselves as single, tight unit. Mears was the third of four sisters, raised just outside of Lismore by parents whose childhoods had been dominated by ‘dysfunctional relationships’ with adults. Both of Mears’ parents were children of broken, sometimes violent, marriages with largely-absent mothers; for both, the mental illness of a caregiver loomed large across their adolescence – and this left them determined to create something different for their own household, to break with these long histories of trauma. These histories, the silences and absences within them, fascinated Mears – and in so many of her works, dark forces from the past and inherited, almost-mythical stories press upon the characters, even drive their actions and desires.

‘Much of Mears’ writing,’ Brennan writes, ‘is fuelled by her attempts to comprehend her family and her place in it,’ to understand the relationships and dynamics so foundational to her often-shifting, always doubt-ridden sense of self. Her parents’ and grandparents’ lives in Africa and England, and her relationship with her eldest sister, are central to The Grass Sister, so much so that the book was originally intended to be a ‘biographical fiction’ and retains the real names (and nicknames) of some of its characters. The Mint Lawn circles around a creative, ambitious and ultimately stifled mother very similar to Mears’ own, and her first two collections of stories, Ride a Cock Horse and Fineflour, are set in small country towns that share many characteristics and much history with her childhood home. What is drawn from life is reconfigured, always, combined with other ‘abiding obsessions’ and imagined settings and scenarios – but it was the pulsing, prominent vein of autobiography within her fiction that caused the most difficulty for the people in her life. Sisterly rivalries and betrayals, deep-seated shames and long-held secrets, intimate exchanges and moments of eroticism between lovers: so many of Mears’ loved ones recognised themselves in her ‘excoriatingly intimate’ work. One story draws upon a sister’s description of her own breast milk; another relays in ‘graphic detail’ the painful death of Mears’ mother Sheila; several works feature a woman who has an affair with a sister’s husband. The brutal honesty of Mears’ work, her ability to draw out the charged complexities of emotions and exchanges, is no small part of what makes it so compelling and affecting: it’s always clear how much is at stake for her characters, exactly how it is that they suffer. Mears believed, Brennan writes, that writers have ‘a responsibility’ to speak aloud what is kept secret, whether by the self or by other people. It is as if having taken into the self so much of the world, much of that self should be given over in return.

I have always loved how lush Mears’ writing is, how verdant – it has none of that inclination towards the spare or pared-back that’s far more common in Australian literature, nothing that is ‘dun-coloured’ or restrained. It often teeters right on the brink of excess, with descriptions that unwind in long, many-claused sentences, and images startling for the way in which they can simultaneously feel surprising and almost inevitable in their aptness. Her discernment and ability to ‘see deeply’, as Brennan puts it, is renowned – one of Brennan’s interview subjects, refers to this as ‘look[ing] straight through whatever she sees,’ instantly, with a canniness he always found frightening. But it is physical, this discernment, a visceral registration of detail and atmosphere: when her characters move through the world they feel it. Whatever they might imagine is rendered tangible in the reactions of their bodies, their registers of sensation.

Sensuality and sexuality are vital forces in Mears’ work, animating and energising so much of what her stories portray, especially where these forces are unspoken, stymied or repressed. Brennan writes that Mears kept in one of her diaries a quote from Patrick White, because of how strongly it resonated with her sense of creativity and how it operates. It states, ‘I feel more and more that creative activity in the arts is very closely connected with sexual activity, and an awful lot of the insights I have had have come from that source.’ For Mears, these are both physical – in her chartings of the pleasures and abasements of the body – and psychological, for the complex dramas of desire and power, intimacy and risk, the murky edges of taboo that are the territory of so much of her work.

In her life, too, Mears placed great importance on sexuality and desire, the ‘exquisite’ and ecstatic nature of ‘sexual enchantment’, the way desire can reshape and transfigure your engagement with the world, what of the self is offered or exchanged under its thrall. Brennan doesn’t shy away from this facet of Mears’ life – it would be almost impossible for any biographer to do so, given how fervently Mears pursued lovers and affairs, how sexuality could be considered, Brennan writes, to be ‘at the core’ of Mears’ identity’ and her attempts to understand herself. There’s a real grace to Brennan’s handling of this material – it is even-handed but not detached, curious but not salacious; and it maintains an awareness of both the unconventional nature of Mears’ romantic and sexual life, and the fact that the great force and importance Mears attributed to sexuality and desire mean that convention was never a consideration or concern.

What is most interesting to Brennan, though, are the other kinds of desire at play in Mears’ relationships, the currents of attraction less physical than metaphysical, those that eddy around what the other person might represent or offer or bring into being. In no small part, this is because Mears’ own accounts of her love affairs are remarkably self-aware: she once described herself falling ‘wholly and achingly in love’ with a series of ‘magical teachers who’d take the edge off’ all of her self-doubt and ‘great fears’, and who seemed to ‘hold answers to the secrets about me’. Brennan’s depictions also make clear the whole-hearted fervour with which Mears immersed herself in her affairs, her habit of giving herself over or throwing herself in, almost entirely without reserve. There’s an optimism as well as a recklessness to this, a trust in the ‘magic’ the other person might work – but also a subsuming of the self that is as fascinating as it is troubling.

Mears’ first important relationship was with her high school English teacher, whom she met at age fourteen. The relationship began shortly after Mears left school, and the pair married when she was 21, and divorced five years later, in no small part because of Mears’ disinterest in monogamy. Another relationship, with a woman who had been one of her university lecturers, began shortly afterwards, and these two actual teachers were followed by people who all displayed a strong personality and an exacting discipline which sat alongside their expertise in and commitment to their vocation or craft, and, very often, a streak of cruelty or anger that seems to have been part of their magic to Mears. In one relationship, Brennan describes Mears as ‘becoming increasingly submissive and quiet’; at the conclusion of another, she quotes from Mears’ diary, describing her habit of stepping into ‘cages [she] could be controlled inside’ and willingly closing the doors behind her. Yet all of these relationships were energising, even euphoric, in their initial stages, offering Mears solace, bodily pleasure, creative energy, even creative collaboration in some cases. So too, Brennan argues, did they often provide for Mears ‘the structure and security she needed to write,’ to say nothing of material to write about. These contradictory impulses Brennan always allows to coexist, and she is interested in the complexity of these interactions, the different desires and drives they might reveal, their multiplicity.

There’s a wonderful anecdote about Mears’ approach to love and sex that Brennan relays when writing about Mears’ relationship with Marr Grounds. The connection between the pair Brennan describes as ‘passionate and intellectual’, challenging and creative, except that ‘Mears was not entirely satisfied with their sex’ and believed that Grounds’ ‘deficient technique’ was the cause of the problem. ‘Astonishingly,’ Brennan writes, Mears tackled this problem by phoning the man she had married 21 years prior and asking him to ‘outline the steps he had once used’ all those years ago – and then presenting Grounds with ‘two pages of typed instructions.’ I love how pragmatic this is, even as there’s something wildly inappropriate or indecorous, even insensitive about it too, how any sense of interpersonal proprietry, any delicacy or tact, was completely forgotten for the sake of the information, the understanding – and how the sheer (astonishing) audacity of the act was surely what allowed Mears to get away with this as well.

There’s another kind of ‘magical teacher’ present in Leaping into Waterfalls, especially in its later chapters: the series of shamans and gurus and natural healers who Mears began to turn to after the symptoms of her multiple sclerosis appeared, and slowly intensified. Brennan first mentions these symptoms occurring in 1995 – as gastrointestinal issues, swollen glands, numb feet, and legs that alternately seized and lost their strength and coordination. Doctors were no help – her condition was not properly diagnosed until 2002, despite her family history of MS – and their suggestions of ‘invasive and risky’, to say nothing of terrifying-sounding, spinal surgeries led Mears, Brennan suggests, to ‘exploring alternative therapies’. These included, she writes, a practitioner who put the symptoms down to feelings of inadequacy, despair and fear which were ‘exacerbated by lesbian lovemaking’ (dangerous stuff, that), and prescribed ‘singing, wearing blue underpants and carrying a sodalite stone’ to counteract this.

Mears was already, by this stage, practising Vipassana meditation and yoga – Brennan writes that these did sometimes help ameliorate her symptoms, but it’s also clear that Mears always had something of a mystical streak that drew her to these practices (that unbounded openness to the world). So too did her constant self-scrutiny, those repeated attempts to understand herself and her life lead her to the kind of thinking that draws connections between the body and illness and the psyche, the interior world of the self. Even before receiving these kinds of suggestions from practitioners, she had attributed her symptoms alternately to stress, repressed anger, a ‘refusal to let go of old wounds’, to self-righteousness and rigidity, a habit of being ‘too accommodating to other people’s wishes’, a diet too high in refined sugar. It’s hard not to read in this her tendency towards self-flagellation and abnegation too: Mears’ interpretation of an osteopath’s advice to ‘be kinder on yourself’ was to strive to not be ‘tempted by the momentary pleasure and sensuality of coffee.’

Brennan details two particularly excruciating encounters with these magical teacher-healers. One is with a Venezuelan shaman, whose mountaintop ceremonies Mears had to crawl to, as she was otherwise unable to traverse the steep and winding path to the ceremonial grounds. This shaman considered her illness a curse, and a contagious one at that; and his rituals included inducing vomiting and diarrhoea, drinking hallucinogenic ayahuasca and one’s own urine, chanting and dancing – and left Mears ‘exhausted and ill’ and ‘even more debilitated’. The other is with, Geoff Scott, a shiatsu and yoga practitioner with whom Mears also started a relationship – lover and healer both, this magical teacher – and moved to his rural property south of Grafton. Scott’s regime included ‘connecting to the earth’ – by walking, even on days when Mears legs would not function – a macrobiotic diet, a prohibition on physical contact, and treating infections with fenugreek. When Mears’ symptoms dramatically worsened, he saw this as evidence of her body ‘finally ridding itself of a lifetime of toxins’ and ‘coming back to life’ – when the actual cause was bacterial endocarditis, a streptococcal infection of the valves of the heart. By the time Mears was hospitalised, the infection had spread to her kidneys and spleen, and her life was in serious danger; and Brennan’s descriptions of the days preceding this, where Mears was wracked with pain but still chastising herself for ‘giving in’ to eating a single illicit orange – are shocking, and hard to fully comprehend.

It isn’t lurid detail that does this, though: Brennan is too careful and measured a writer to dwell on or itemise the physical suffering Mears was clearly enduring here. Nor are her descriptions unemotional – that Brennan is affected by these events is obvious, but an element of distance is always maintained. In part, this is because Brennan’s detailing of Mears’ time living with Scott is interwoven with a discussion of the work that she simultaneously produced – the bulk of the stories that make up A Map of the Gardens. It is Mears’ third collection of short fiction, and the stories, Brennan writes, are full of broken-bodied characters who ‘break away from the accepted social norms that restrict their potential,’ but are also often caught in ‘co-dependent sexual relationships’ or relationships where desire has soured, even turned punitive. Images of cages are common, as are addictions and the ‘brutal destruction’ they can wreak, especially when combined with ‘self-loathing’. This interplay between the details of a life and the work that is made from them is, of course, Brennan’s particular territory – but the effect of describing the stories directly alongside this awful episode in Mears’ life seems to highlight the shifting dynamic between abject submission and surrender and a defiant, creative self-sovereignty so clearly at play in Mears’ and Scott’s relationship, as well as what in Mears might have been enabled and limited within this space. The stories aren’t offered as consolation, as the creative acts that should somehow compensate for such suffering or mean that it didn’t happen in vain; instead they illuminate the drives and forces that brought Mears to this place and then kept her there, that irresistible pull and its entrapment, all of those complex desires and needs.

Mears’ hospitalisation for endocarditis ultimately resulted in her finally receiving her diagnosis of progressive multiple sclerosis, courtesy of a senior neurologist at work in that facility. This was in 2002; by 2008 she was in almost constant pain and able to walked only with the aid of a cane. Brennan writes that Mears was increasingly ‘shamed by her unruly, ravaged body’, in no small part because she had grown up hearing the maxim that ‘Mears girls don’t feel pain’. The chapter that discusses Mears’ illness most explicitly is titled ‘Betrayed by the body.’ It’s a difficult phrase. It’s a phrase that I have used repeatedly, that I once used habitually. My body betrayed me, as if it had an existence and an agency, and one that was somehow separate from the rest of me, from my self.

Mears’ disability is something that I knew about, in a vague sense only, long before I had a proper understanding of what disability might actually mean. What disability might mean in a bodily, experiential sense, but also as a concept or positioning, an experience that might shape the way a person can exist within the world. There are unruly bodies throughout Mears’ work, but the depiction that means the most to me is from Mears’ truly remarkable essay ‘Fairy Death.’ I read it in 2010, the year it was published, and remember so clearly feeling as if her description of her body – with ‘nothing lush left’, a belly ‘drawn and old’ and breasts ‘like little flat animals’ – could well have been one of my own, even though I was 20 years her junior. The sharpest, swift grief had coursed through me then, and I was mortified by my response because the comparison felt unbalanced or diminishing: I still believed wholeheartedly that my illness was something that I had, if not chosen, then at least inflicted upon myself. I still couldn’t look at it directly, still carried all this shame. And I know that one of the things that changed this, for me, was encountering a different discourse of disability, one that resists narratives of tragedy and culpability, of deficiency and encumbrance, as well as those of heroism and triumph over adversity. One that questions all of ways we narrativise the stuff of the body that we do not understand and that we fear, the social forces and systems that constrain or shun aberrant bodies or just forget that they exist. I hadn’t encountered these ideas yet in 2010 because they weren’t anywhere near as prevalent as they are now, hadn’t yet started moving towards the kind of public consciousness in which they exist today, incomplete and partial, certainly, but present nonetheless.

This discourse wasn’t available to me then, and could not have been available to Mears either: it did not really gain momentum until several years after her death. And even if it had been circulating, she may well have rejected it entirely. Her experience was one of unremitting pain, and it was one that she felt as a loss of so many of the things – solitude, sexuality, being in nature, horse-riding, dancing – that she loved and that brought her meaning. To disregard that would mean throwing out the baby too when trying to discard the grubby bathwater of old illness narratives. Brennan’s approach to this problem is a gentle one: she does use the word ‘disability’, fairly often and in a way that is neither self-conscious nor showy. Instead, it works as an implicit gesture towards these ideas, without directly drawing them out – because it doesn’t make sense to apply, anachronistically, a political or ideological filter of this kind to a person and a life where they did not yet meaningfully exist.

The accounts of bodily pain and suffering within the book are Mears’ own. It is her words that are used to describe the symptoms and sensations of her body: and this means that Brennan’s approach of listening is one that the reader is charged with too.

It is what I know now about disability that makes it so hard to read about Mears’ experiences. All of that self-blame, that attribution of symptoms to failings and flaws of personality, all of those shamans and gurus and natural healers, all of those punitive schemes and procedures and demands, all of that pushing of the body past its limits – all of these are things connected to those old ideas and stories about illness, to things that I had to learn to disbelieve; and I can’t help but wonder what, if any, difference this might have made for Mears.

In 2012, Mears became involved with Dying with Dignity, a lead organisation in the campaign for law reform around voluntary euthanasia for people with terminal illness. She spoke publicly about the experiences that led to this decision – about being exhausted by constant pain and having to manage every part of her day, restricting her activities and dietary intake, social interactions and visitors, in order to preserve her limited energy and avoid the known triggers that might cause her symptoms to flare up. What is most striking about Mears’ activism on this front is her explanation of how her position on euthanasia had reversed completely over a five-year period of illness progression. Five years earlier, she stated, she had believed that people who supported the idea of assisted dying ‘show[ed] no imagination about suffering.’ What her suffering showed her, it seems to me, is that imagination is no match for it, and also not something that a person needs, or even necessarily has access to, when they are in its grip. Suffering isn’t imaginative, and that may well be part of what makes it so difficult to comprehend.

Brennan’s portrayal of the last years of Mears’ life rarely involves elaboration on or extrapolation from the events and details as she relays them. The account feels almost stripped-back at times, an attempt to simply lay out the facts that she has gathered, one by one. It’s a shift that happens slowly, but the difference from the earlier chapters – and especially from those sections of the book that describe and analyse Mears’ writing – is noticeable. And what this does is give space to the awful and complex emotions those facts belie: there is suffering here that is palpable, and many kinds of grief, turned in numerous directions. This is what is truly skilful about Brennan’s style of biography: her ability to determine and control the times and means by which she should make herself present, and those when the biographer should all but disappear. To balance her own words with those of her subject and with silences as well, and to allow space for the questions, contradictions and complexities always at play within a life.