David Carlin

David Carlin’s extraordinary memoir, Our Father Who Wasn’t There has already been praised by the likes of Christos Tsiolkas and Joan London.

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Sensitivity towards your family’s feelings – particularly your mother’s – was obviously a factor in writing this investigation into the life and death of your father, who killed himself when you were six months old. How did you deal with this?

The idea that this was something that shouldn’t be talked about was obviously seared very deeply in my mind, and, I believe, in that of my siblings too. This is discussed in the book. It took me a long time to get to the point where I thought I could write about the story. I talked to the various members of my immediate family about what I was thinking of doing. My mother was the crucial one – if I had sensed that she was against the idea then I would not have wanted to go ahead with the project at this time. But she was remarkably supportive, as indeed the whole family has been. I think the idea of having such a personal story revealed has been confronting, but there was also a sense in which everyone was actually curious to find out what the story was, since for the most part, people only knew their own little bit of it.

Throughout the text, you piece together scenes of your father’s life through a combination of facts gained through research and interviews, and imaginative reconstruction based on the facts. What was this process like?

I found it absolutely fascinating to do the research – the interviews were very interesting because in almost every case it was the first time the family and friends of my father had been asked to tell their story of what they remembered of him and their impressions of his character. This gave what they said a vivid and fresh quality that was very powerful. I also loved fossicking around in libraries and newspaper archives to discover a feel for the times I was writing about. And the discovery of Brian’s medical records, and everything that flowed from that regarding the insights into psychiatric approaches in the 1950s and 1960s, was very absorbing. I felt like a detective trying to understand the motive for a crime in which the victim and perpetrator were both known.

Since I myself had no memories at all of my father, I knew that the only truthful way to write about it was to acknowledge and explore how strongly my impressions of the story were mixed up with fantasies and imaginative flights. I don’t think it’s possible in such a story to be ‘objective’. I wanted to investigate rather how the picture was built up in my mind from the mixture of other people’s memories, historical documents and my own imaginings. At the same time, I think it’s important, for the reader’s trust, to signal as clearly as possible the moments where the line is crossed from the episodes of the story that I have been told or have read, to those I have found myself wanting to imaginatively embellish.

The book seems to double as an investigation into depression itself – how it works, how it feels, how it affects sufferers and their families, and how we attempt to treat it. Was this part of your intention in writing the book?

It wasn’t a conscious intention. However, I think it inevitably came in as part of the search for the motive for my father’s death. I was trying to understand as much as possible how he might have felt and thought. The difficulty with any kind of mental illness is that it is much harder to separate the illness from one’s own sense of self than it is with a physical illness. Cancer or a virus, for instance, can be imagined as malign invaders attacking us via our body, whereas something like depression can seem to be a part of our very soul. It was very interesting to find out how mental illness was treated in Australia in the middle of the last century – I think there must have been half a dozen different labels, apart from depression, applied by doctors trying to describe my father’s affliction. And with any chronic case of mental illness, particularly where the person manages to function at a high level of normality in everyday life, it is just so hard for others around that person to fully comprehend what is going on or what the problem is. It is very hard to empathise.

You write: ‘Shame is scattered like a condiment across this story.’ Was it confronting to go public with this family shame? What made you decide it was worth it?

It is confronting, both for me and for the family, to have the story told so publicly. But one thing I noticed very early on when, on occasion, I read early sections of the book in public, was the strong response of the audience and the number of people who would come up to me with stories of their own families. Many people seem to relate the story to their own families, because I suppose it is relatively common for families to have these ‘skeletons’ — informal taboos around difficult or painful stories of their own. Shame is a very powerful and complex emotion that, like guilt, sometimes affects our behaviour in ways that we aren’t aware of. I think that shameful stories, which we feel we need to keep hidden, nevertheless have a kind of irresistible force to them that means they will tend to surface eventually. We wish the world, and our emotions and actions, were less complex and contradictory than they really are — that is why we love stories of clear good and evil, they are so much simpler and more comforting! But the real messed-up muddling-along world is pretty fascinating, I find.

Running through the book is the question of whether your father’s focus on his mental illness – his determination to solve what was wrong with him – exacerbated it, or simply made it more obvious to observers. What are your conclusions about this?

This is a very difficult question because it is hard to separate his character from the illness. I think that some sorts of mental illness, and I think my father’s was like this, have an obsessive quality, and to be treated effectively there needs to be some way to counteract this tendency to obsessive thoughts. I do wonder out loud in the book as to whether his search for answers would have found a better response from treatments available these days — I guess we would certainly hope that would be the case. But I find that a very poignant element of the story; both that Brian was so clearly striving to ‘cure’ himself, and that, at the same time, there were hints that this very striving might have been part of the problem!

Did you achieve a sense of closure in writing the book? Did the writing and researching process resolve some of the questions you had about your father?

I am not really a big fan of the word ‘closure’, which I find I can’t say without a very bad mock-American accent! I think it tends to suggest a neat and easy conclusion to very complex things, as if life had a Hollywood three-act structure. But, yes, since when I began, I knew virtually nothing at all about my father, it has been a great process of discovery for me, and it has freed me up and given me confidence to take risks in telling stories. It is remarkable, when you think about it, how powerful stories are, and how much effort goes into controlling which stories, and whose stories, are told and are listened to. Sometimes this control is overt and political, but at other times it is something that we carry within us, that we have absorbed unawares from within our culture.