Things That Helped by Jessica Friedmann
Last year I was challenged by Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a book its publisher categorised as ‘autotheory’, a kind of hybrid of autobiography and critical theory. Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick (which I read when it was republished last year) could also fit this category, though Kraus herself considers her work to be fiction despite the fact that everything that happened in the book ‘happened first in life’. I think I would also place Jessica Friedmann’s collection within this ‘genre-bending’ category.
In this collection of candid essays, Friedmann weaves thinking from the likes of Lacan, Kristeva and Cixous into her own lived experience of postnatal depression, to more broadly consider the onerous challenges of being female, a writer and a mother. While Things That Helped does not push at the boundaries to the same degree as the writings of Nelson and Kraus, it is more accessible in its structure. Friedmann’s deeply personal story takes the reader on captivating digressions, from the intergenerational trauma of Holocaust survivors, to the latest cross-cultural research on postnatal depression. She deftly weaves in popular culture references from Antony and the Johnsons lyrics to her anxiety-induced obsession with the American teen movie Centre Stage. She is careful not to try and speak for all women and I strongly admire her determination to make it her ‘life’s work to bear witness’ to the suffering of other women who have been similarly rocked when their bodies and minds seem to turn against them, or whose stories do not conform to the typical narratives of motherhood.
Autotheoretical literature is an exciting genre and I hope to see more works like Friedmann’s collection reach a mainstream audience in the future.
Kara Nicholson works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.