Desire: A Reckoning

Jessie Cole

Desire: A Reckoning
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Desire: A Reckoning

Jessie Cole

What to do with the intensity of longing that occasionally arises? Sometimes I hug my pup so hard he growls. When my pup growls, I realise I need to find some other way of letting off steam. It’s easy to imagine I could just touch myself and be done with it, but no matter how many times I make myself come, that feeling of wanting doesn’t subside. A friend has a term for the need for touch - ‘skin hungry'. Lots of people live without sex, but I find it a kind of deprivation.

What does it mean to be awakened? To want? To love? Jessie Cole is in her late thirties when she meets a man twenty years older than she is. They become lovers. Both passionate and companionable, fraught and uneven, their relationship tests her fears and anxieties. Through their interstate affair, through bushfires and the pandemic, she learns about herself, how her initiations into womanhood shaped who she is now, and how the shadow of family trauma still inhabits her body.

Jessie Cole has written an unabashed, thrilling exploration of the very nature of desire, a story about vulnerability and strength, loss and regeneration. A memoir of the body, Desire is a visceral book in which feeling and longing are laid bare.


A person could be forgiven for assuming a memoir with the title ‘Desire’ would be a no-holds-barred peek behind bedroom doors, especially when the back-cover blurb asks the question, ‘What does it mean to be awakened? To want? To love?’ While that’s true to a certain extent, the ‘desire’ of Jessie Cole’s memoir title is much more nuanced than that.

Cole has experienced one trauma after another since she was 12 years of age, and as a result, her body often reacts in involuntary ways whenever intimacy is on the cards. Her body commando-rolls away from a looming kiss. Her tongue swells up at the thought of an upcoming date. She gets conjunctivitis, migraines, body tremors, hives, ‘strange compulsive behaviours like twirling my clothes into balls and rubbing my belly’. In addition, her safe place has always been the forest she lives in, but that sense of safety has come under attack by Australia’s increasingly vicious cycle of floods and bushfires (the image of a metal shipping container floating down the river and becoming wedged on top of her favourite rock, unable to be shifted, is one of many that eloquently convey the heavy sense of dread Cole experiences in the world). But despite her body’s defence mechanisms, Cole is determined to connect on a deep, sensual level with an older man she finds compellingly attractive.

In the end, this memoir is less about Cole’s desire for a single man, and more about her desire to be able to wrest back control of her body. Her desire for the world to start caring more about our climate crisis and do something about it. Her desire for her internal and external landscapes to align in a more compassionate way. This is a love story about one woman’s efforts to escape the clutches of trauma on her own terms.

Gabrielle Williams is the manager of the Readings Prizes

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