Kathleen Stewart has been writing and publishing, both novels and poetry, since she was 21. Her memoir, The After Life, has already gained rapturous accolades from fellow writers Luke Davies (Candy) and Susan Johnson (The Broken Book). Acclaimed writer Kate Holden, author of the bestselling memoir In My Skin, spoke to Kathleen Stewart for Readings’ series celebrating Australian writing (sponsored by the Copyright Agency Limited) about the process of laying herself bare – and the freedom it gives her.
Publishing any memoir is a delicate and intimidating experience. Memoir, is, after all, one of the most fragile and intimate literary forms: the best of such works shed their clothes and find the courage to turn nakedness to the light, make poetry from the private. The voice of a memoirist is a husky whisper laid close to the ear. And whispering the very personal is almost always nerve wracking. Especially when you’re whispering out into the great echo-chamber of public readership.
Kathleen Stewart has chosen, after writing seven novels (one, Spilt Milk, shortlisted for the 1995 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards) and two collections of poetry, to finally bare the skin and bones of the most terrible year of her life. As she awaits the release of the resulting book, The After Life, she’s feeling a little nervous. It’s one thing to write a memoir, she says softly, from her Blue Mountains home, but another thing altogether to publish it. Both her parents are now deceased; she admits she could never have released the book in her mother’s lifetime. Doing so now, Stewart says, is a way of declaring, ‘here I am as a soul, here is what I made of my life, here’s what my life has made of me’. It is an act of catharsis and self-possession after a youth in which it seems she rarely felt such entitlement – instead, she was made to feel shame for most of her feelings. She has written an exposure of suburban family life that, though it reads as darkly as one of her beloved fairy tales, is uncompromising in its dissection of a tragic adolescence and the people who formed it.
There are two stories of anguish in The After Life: one of family bonds drawn tight (far beyond the point of comfort) even as the family splinters apart; and of a hopeless romantic infatuation by the teenage Kathleen for a ‘devil’ she calls Martin.
In 1975 the cat went mad. Our mother left. Our father sat in his lounge chair every night and drank bottles of red wine and wept. It wasn’t a good year. And things got worse from there.
The young Kathleen grew up in a white-bread Sydney family: a mother, apparently the perfect model of a beautiful young wife, a moustachioed father who believed in discipline and a brother. Kathleen was clever, pretty and sensitive. But she was regularly beaten for such infractions as laughing; her father would sit at the kitchen table and scream threats of murder; the house was full of guns and knives. Brother retreated to his room; mother froze within her own preoccupations before leaving; Kathleen grew into a silenced daughter, caught between fear and devotion, soon to eclipse herself further in a rebellious love affair. In language rich and urgent, spilling over with similes and images, she tells the story of what happened next.
‘What was it I learnt in 1976, and why is it I never can unlearn it? That love – romantic and transcendent – isn’t. That no man can be trusted. That all there is to look forward to is pretence and pain, and then more pain.’ Stewart’s account, which has taken several years to write, is dramatic as she traces her history of submission, yearning and quiet resistance. In the crucible year of 1976 the teenage Stewart alternates between cooking an endless series of meals of mashed potato and meat for her father and brother in a rictus of apprehensive duty, trying to be a sympathetic audience to a self-obsessed mother she describes as a ‘spider’, and sneaking out to have rapturous sex with Martin, a malign character who, like her parents, veers between apparent love and cruel torture. During that year she takes up heroin, drifts in a sleep-deprived haze through days of wagging school, and eventually, numbed by years of pain and trauma, wanders, belly full of sleeping pills, into a park to die – prompting a stay in the haven of a psychiatric institution. The memory of a violent rape is just one of the wounds she bears, alongside those of profound loneliness and psychic abuse. Within those terrible 12 months she tried to kill herself – and her father did kill himself. ‘It was a year of silences and strangenesses, that sent me to a place more deeply submerged than any I had ever dwelt in.’
‘My feeling,’ she says, ‘was that I needed to come to terms with these things. As a writer this is how one owns one’s life. It seemed a very necessary thing to do for my own survival. I feel I have a better chance of living my next 50 years more comfortably in myself.’ She mentions that although she has written an entire book about that year of her life, she spent many months working on ‘pre-writing’ notes, and perhaps hasn’t yet finished with the material. She plans, she says, to keep writing until ‘they put me in the box’.
Writing the memoir was itself painful (recalling her early self ‘turned me green,’ she says), but also freeing. ‘I was able to like that girl [I was then], rather than having the sense of shame I had at the time – and until recently. Writing the book I felt compassion.’ Compassion, she insists, lies throughout The After Life, although she unflinchingly lays her parents open to the reader’s condemnation, as well as pity. Stewart’s father appears as an ogre, literally threatening murder, and as a pitiful abandoned husband, weeping night after night to his silently consoling, neglected daughter – and, finally, as a tragically uncertain man. Her mother, ‘such an engaging, enigmatic character’, seems less sympathetic somehow, endlessly weaving her daughter’s vulnerability into the opera of her own indomitable life. For all her mother’s fixations with control, Stewart believes that the book-loving and biography-writing woman would have wanted, after all, to be included in the story.
‘Societal voices said I shouldn’t be ungrateful [for the upbringing I had],’ says Stewart, ‘and that to tell my story is a rank ingratitude to those people I dearly love, despite the difficulties’. She disagrees. ‘I don’t know if it’s come through in the book but I feel tremendous love and happiness about knowing those people who were my parents.’
Writing any memoir involves devising an economy: what will be tactfully omitted, poetically smoothed over, or fearlessly laid bare. Stewart says she followed her instinct, believing that she had a story she needed to tell and that she has every right to tell her version. Once she found the language in which to write it – her own lushly poetic, burning style – she knew she could complete the task. ‘Once I recognised my voice on the page I thought, That’s it, here comes a book and a story that wants to be told. I must tell it.’
She was inspired by reading other memoirs, such as Lucky by Alice Sebold and Unchain My Heart by Andiee Paviour. ‘I admire them for having the courage, and I appreciate the generosity of it. It’s a marvellous time in history when people are telling their stories. There seems to be a level of honesty that I find tremendously human. It’s not,’ she says quietly, ‘a very soft-edged world.’
The After Life is out now.
Kate Holden's memoir is In My Skin.
This article proudly supported by Copyright Agency Ltd