This Saturday I’m going to my first meeting of the Northern Beaches Writers’ Group. It feels like a strange time to be joining a writers’ group, just as I’m at the end of a book, but I’m glad I’ve taken the leap and I’m glad I’m doing it now. I’m looking forward to looking at other people’s words for a while, thinking about how stories that didn’t come out of my head fit together.
The memoir has been written in a bit of a vacuum, for several reasons, and I think it’s time to start unpicking those reasons.
For a long time it was mostly part of my PhD, I was working right up close with my supervisor, Shady, and she was the only person who saw drafts. This worked well and not so well. I was writing about difficult and controversial subjects, with the real names of characters. I was crafting descriptions of prisons and officers that may have led to litigation. I was spitting my unfiltered trauma out onto the page. After reading the chapter about my mother, Shady looked up from the page and confirmed that I was still seeing my psychiatrist. With very good reason. I needed the safety net of having only one reader back in those days.
But then I started to realise that there were some downsides to having only one set of eyes on the book. For a text which focuses on the impacts of shame and stigma, keeping it secret was actually acting to increase these impacts. Writing in a vacuum, about these big scary topics, was increasing the feeling that I had something to be ashamed of, a secret to keep.
Theoretically I know the value of speaking out, and this was one of the core motivations for writing the book in the first place. Stigma is a hard thing to shake off, whether it’s external stigma (shown to you by other people) or internal stigma (that you carry and reinforce for yourself). Stigma is a dirty beast, with many different faces, and it can creep up without you even noticing it’s approach. I’ve done a lot of thinking about stigma over the last few years.
A funny thing happens on a person’s face when you tell them that you’re writing a memoir about prison, addiction and child abuse. They pause for a moment, run their eyes up and down, try to look for the external indicators of what I describe in the book as ‘the stain of green’ on your soul. Sometimes I think that they make my track marks, but they’re so old now that they just look like shadows in the crooks of my elbows and so I write that off as paranoia. Most often, they are just baffled. It’s a big step to disclose this about myself, and I’m still navigating how and when to do it. The question of disclosure is one that anyone living with a stigma magnet (trans* people, those living with HIV/AIDS, injecting drug users, the homeless, mentally unwell, and (somehow still) gay and queer people) knows. You constantly navigate a minefield of whens, hows and whys, knowing that disclosure can have bigger impacts than you can ever imagine and once done can never be taken back.
But, when you write a book about this stuff and call it a memoir, then disclosure becomes less of a question. For the last few years I’ve been living with the idea that soon all my secrets will be disclosed, I won’t have the option to hide anymore.
Challenging stigma, according to the people who work everyday to do it, involves education and normalisation. It takes advocacy and people who have the ability and the voice, speaking out to make room for those less able to speak to exist. It involves people like me identifying and showing that the stigmatised ‘whatever’ isn’t like all of those nightmare stories you’ve heard. I know advocates working across the trans*, HIV, mental health, sex work and prison sectors, who use their roles to educate about what they’ve lived and hold their experiences as a valuable and essential part of this. I’m inspired by these people.
I’m living on the intersections of multiple stigmas here, and I have a way of telling these stories that can cut through the stigmas. About two years ago I started letting select people read the book as a way of starting to brace myself for what I’m calling the ‘exposure shock’ of publishing the story. Then last year I started my author Facebook page and began sharing selected excerpts from the book.
And now I’m taking the next step. I’m breaking out of the solitary bubble of writing and taking the risk of sharing my skills, knowledge and experience with a whole new group of people.