When I was a child I learned the lesson of silence. I struggled to speak about the things that mattered to me but nothing came out.
We were a silent family. Sitting around the dinner table, we said nothing at all. Our mother was in a sad mood, troubled by her thoughts. She roused herself only to rap my plate with her knife. ‘Hurry up and eat.’ We all got that directive, which is surely why we grew up to be people who bolted our food. I have a photograph of brother 1 on his wedding day. He’s sitting next to his bride at the wedding breakfast, his plate held to his chin, and is shovelling food into his mouth.
On the days when she wasn’t sad, my mother chattered about the weather, the price of tomatoes and other small things. This is how she covered the yawning silence in our family, and in her.
I read stories that seemed to speak for me. Fairy tales like the Little Mermaid, the girl who longed to be human, but paid the price for it, then later, when I was older, Sherlock Holmes and Jane Eyre. Like the family’s Sherlock Holmes I tried to decipher the clues as to what was wrong with my mother, where she came from and why she was always sad. Like Jane Eyre, I sought a code I could live by, one that allowed me to express myself, not one that silenced me.
As an apprentice writer, I felt silenced. I told stories that frightened me. They were always violent, involving rape and murder. As soon as they got to the violence I was so scared that I stopped writing, stuffed the pages into one of the many hiding places around my bedroom, and started a new story. Every now and then I’d take them out of their hiding places and read them, trying to understand why they were like that and how I could change them. If I could change them, I could finish them and that would be a form of speech. But I couldn’t finish them. I always gagged them.
After I moved to Australia I moved into a different place as a writer. Now I was aware of the silence in my stories. Other writers told me, ‘There’s no emotion in your writing. You have to show emotion.’ But emotion was so powerful I was scared it would annihilate me.
When I got my eye condition, an overwhelming need possessed me to write about my mother and me. That meant learning how to write memoir. It meant conquering the prohibition inside me, the one that forbade me to write about her, expose her. I sent my ill-formed pieces to a friend who wrote exceptionally good memoir. What she achieved, that effortless transparency, that candour, I wanted for myself. Her comments were puzzled. ‘You’re not in here, Sydney. You have to put yourself in your memoir.’ She went through each piece, writing in red letters after each paragraph or scene, ‘How did you feel? What was going through your mind when this happened? How did you feel? Tell me how you felt.’ I couldn’t put myself in my writing. I couldn’t tell how I felt. I tried to explain to her and always ended in tears.
Still I persisted. The compulsion to write about my mother and me was stronger than my fear of doing it.
Then I stumbled on the solution. I was writing an essay about Wife Swap USA, a wonderfully sordid reality show about crazy mothers, and had come to the end of my analysis of it. Without a blink, I took a reality TV camera into my home and showed my life with her when I was sixteen. It was liberating. Suddenly, I was there, guiding the camera, censoring the camera, putting my hand over the lens to stop it exposing her to judgement and disapproval.
I sneaked up on her in another essay, and after that, the prohibition was over, the silence was broken.
I wrote my book-length memoir, and when I was doing the publicity rounds, people commented on how evil my mother was. I didn’t think of her as evil. I thought of her as lonely. She’s the loneliest person I’ve ever known. I was sitting on a panel at a writers’ festival, and someone in the audience said I must have hated her to write such a book. ‘But I don’t,’ I said. ‘Can’t you see? It’s my love letter to her.’
In my family, silence holds in the fear and sorrow. That was so of me, too. When I learned to speak, I let them out to fly away, and what’s left is love.