Jo Case interviews Jessica Friedmann
Jo Case interviews Jessica Friedmann about her debut collection of essays, Things That Helped.
The opening chapter in Jessica Friedmann’s memoir-in-essays, Things That Helped, closes with her lying on her bathroom floor in the middle of the night, resolved to drown herself in the Maribyrnong River, but unable to get up. She’s a young woman engulfed by early motherhood, distanced not just from her creative self, but from her very grasp on language. Her body is scarred and inflamed by child-bearing, colonised by her young son, and too traumatised to bear touch from her husband.
‘I think it’s funny,’ Friedmann says now, on the phone from Canberra, as I sit by my window, watching that same river gleam black under the orange lights of the dockyards. ‘But I appreciate that people won’t think it’s a very good joke. You have to laugh. Or else, you can’t pick yourself up.’
This pragmatism illustrates her distance from those dark days, as does the anecdote she shares, before we get down to business, about her afternoon playing on the floor with three-year-old Owen. ‘I always wanted a child, but I never wanted a baby,’ she says later. ‘Everything I looked forward to that I now cherish is about the child. Some of my struggle with being a young mother is that I didn’t like having a baby. I’ve never been interested in babies. And you’re not supposed to say that, I guess.’
Once, nobody did say that. But in the past 20 years, that taboo has been brilliantly broken by a series of very fine personal accounts of the difficulty of early motherhood: Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, Susan Maushart’s The Mask of Motherhood, Susan Johnson’s A Better Woman and Rachel Power’s Motherhood and Creativity. Friedmann’s dissection of her post-natal depression, and her struggle to retain her individual identity in the midst of motherhood, earns its place in the ‘difficult motherhood’ canon. Not since Cusk has a writer so precisely articulated that swamping of the self, and the surprise of it. ‘Unravelling is a painful process, one that rapidly outpaces my ability to repair the damage,’ Friedmann writes. ‘When Owen is born, the vocabulary lost to the pregnancy doesn’t suddenly flood back, as I had half expected, certainly hoped. Instead, the process of deterioration speeds up, leaving me exhausted by attempts to keep up with the train of my most basic thoughts.’
Of course, while much of Friedmann’s experience will speak to the ‘normal’ frustrations of early motherhood (no sleep, removing poo from the bath, feeling your body and time are no longer yours), it goes beyond that. She tells me that one in seven Australian women are estimated to have post-natal depression: 100,000 per year. While she in no way wants to suggest that her experience is what it looks like for everyone, she did want to create a book that would represent it accurately. ‘I wanted to be as frank as I could be, because there’s so much obscurantism about things like mental illness, or early parenthood. I wanted to strip away some of the bullshit. There’s a very dangerous societal tendency to glamorise mental illness, and I didn’t want any part of this to feel glamorous in any way. I didn’t ever want to see myself in this book as a wistful woman looking out a window as the rain falls. That’s not what it’s like. It’s mostly alienating and boring.’
Her subject is broader than merely motherhood, or even the mental health issues that gathered in a tsunami when her son was small. She explores the meaning of the cultural pleasures (dance, craft, music) that soothed or restored her at her worst, teasing out not just what drew her to them, but their intrinsic resonance with who she is. The otherworldly crooning of Anhoni (formerly Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons) represents a kindred spirit: ‘a grown woman whose longing is shot through with loneliness and pain’. In the depths of Friedmann’s depression, Anhoni’s annihilation fantasies offer the vicarious comfort of closure. In the essay ‘Weaving’, Friedmann discovers the loom at a time when her mind is too amorphous for any other creative pursuit; she revels in the sensory delight of it and in its significance as a bridge back to words. ‘To think simply that my fingers are moving in a long tradition of signification, that marks in wool are the natural precursors to marks on a page, shifts the world sideways for me into sense.’
Across these essays, she maps the shifting terrain of her relationships with her partner, her family, and her closest friends: how they have shaped her, and what she has learned about how people might come together to make a life – what they gain and what they relinquish in the process. Friedmann describes the essay as ‘kind of a collage form’. This sense of piecing together, of layering, is one of the most satisfying and engaging aspects of her book, particularly her facility for placing her experience in the context of other lives.
‘My face is the face of the suffering women’s canon,’ she writes. ‘Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted: the tragic and creative white woman is such a well-known figure that our fragility and need for protection is automatically assumed – I know walking out over a ledge that there will most likely be someone to catch me … I can’t stop thinking about those other women, the ones who don’t have recourse to benign stereotypes, only harmful ones, who are supposed to be better at suffering, or more accustomed to it anyway.’
Friedmann doesn’t presume to take us inside the experiences of those ‘other’ women. The Ethiopian, Chinese and Vietnamese women in her Footscray neighbourhood don’t join council mothers’ groups, but instead have their own community-based alternatives; their lives remain closed to her, their paths colliding only when they walk their strollers on the banks of the Maribyrnong, or past the junk shops on Nicholson Street. Friedmann addresses these gaps (and the visible absence of the traditional owners of the suburb she embraces as home) by acknowledging them, as missing pieces of the puzzle she is forming. When she describes using her whiteness as ‘a tool in [her] arsenal’, simply by being, it is refreshingly confronting, in a way that forces readers to acknowledge their own privilege.
In ‘Walking’, the essay she says was hardest to write, she interrogates the ‘live question’ of her identity as a Jewish Australian, with Holocaust survivor grandparents on her father’s side. Here, she questions that ‘whiteness’ she earlier owned. ‘In America and Australia and Britain, we have left behind the fact of being “ethnic”, blending so successfully with the general population that we are no more noticeable than flies,’ she writes. This new insider status in Australia, she says, was gained through European Jews’ visible contrast with ‘those with black and brown and Asian skins’: those others, including Indigenous Australians, were branded outsiders here. For Friedmann, this precarious whiteness, this ‘passing’ is internalised as a sense of never being good enough, a permanent low hum of anxiety. The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and white supremacism in the US brings this precariousness into relief.
‘I was revising ‘Walking’ right up until the week before we went to print,’ remembers Friedmann. ‘Some of my tentative hedging is almost comic now, because it’s all in the past. It’s moved in a much nastier direction than when I was trying to hash out all these questions.’ But this essay, with its nuanced interrogation of identity and the shifting nature of privilege, is, it seems to me, a far more valuable tool for understanding the current political climate than most up-to-the-minute think-pieces.
Did Friedmann read other memoirs, or books of essays, that inspired her? She says she deliberately avoided personal essay collections, in case they subconsciously influenced her – but she’s looking forward to reading Eula Biss and Leslie Jamieson, and recently read and loved Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance. I urge Rachel Cusk and Meghan Daum on her, and she says they’re on her list. As for memoir itself, it’s not a genre she reads much, apart from a few books she loves (mostly writers’ memoirs).
‘I hope the book is in conversation with people and ideas,’ she says, and pauses. ‘I am very resistant to the genre of the recovery memoir. I think it’s too pat and it sets you up for failure. So the book is in a sense just an excavation. I’m still here. I’m still finding things out. I’m still developing as a person.’