A DECADE or so ago, misery memoirs were all the rage.
The worse your childhood, the better your book sold. Sometimes - such as in the case of American James Frey's 2003 fake life story, A Million Little Pieces - you even made bad stuff up in order to get more readers.
But Mary-Rose MacColl's extraordinary new book rewrites the misery memoir.
You couldn't make it up - being groomed by your (female) high-school teacher so you could end up three-in-a-bed with her husband, eventually ending up pregnant - but nor could you write so beautifully and powerfully and heartbreakingly unless you were a writer prepared to put everything on the line.
MacColl is such an author. All writers have two lives - one they live and one they live again through words - and this memoir is MacColl's testament, shaped and controlled on the page. If once she was a 15-year-old kid at the mercy of her elders when she was supposed to be safe in their pastoral care, now she is a 56-year-old adult with full mastery over both her story and her life.
One of the perpetrators of her abuse is dead; the other is out there somewhere, growing old, having got off scot free. MacColl isn't after revenge or retribution. Even when she sat glued to her seat as she watched the recent Brisbane sittings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, it wasn't anger fuelling her. She doesn't want the high school she attended in the late '70s investigated, nor does she have any wish to make a formal complaint.
"Rage is more destructive of the person who's enraged than anyone else," she says. "Because what they did was such a fundamental betrayal of my developing self, I've had to let it go."
What MacColl seeks instead is understanding and acknowledgment of her experience, and to explain it not only to the daughter she gave up for adoption but also to her readers. In the memoir she tries to "tease apart these unequal power relationships" and explain what it's like on the ground of one such relationship, "the harm it does later, for sure, but also how helpless you are to do anything".
But what she seeks above all else is absolution from the shame she's lived with most of her adult life. "Letting go of shame has been a big thing … I've worked really hard to let go of the shame around all this," she says.
In a book that should be harrowing - and certainly is in parts - what MacColl achieves is a work of spare, transcendent beauty. Here she is writing about exposing her most private self in public: "I am by nature a private person. Secrets are different from privacy. They are things you are forced to keep to yourself, by family, friends, by your own shame. Secrets like these come to the surface one day and demand an airing. If you don't allow them air, you will not go on. They will drag you back down with them. You will die, slowly or quickly. If you allow them air, bring them up to the surface, you can watch them float away."
Through the power of words, MacColl succeeds in letting pain and a deep sense of shame - all her worst secrets - be rinsed away. She lets readers share her sense of relief in the knowledge that even our worst experiences carry the possibility of redemption and that it is in the nature of life to keep seeking "something good and right in the world".
MacColl - a columnist on Qweekend from 2013 to 2016 - is the third child (and only girl) of four children born to the late Brisbane journalists Dugald MacColl and Rosemary Lynch. Her parents met as young journalists in Brisbane in the '50s (her father was once chief sub-editor on The Courier-Mail). But like many women in the '50s, when babies came along Rosemary Lynch stopped working. Possibly she suffered from postnatal depression - or possibly she suffered from being stuck in the suburbs with no adult company and four unruly kids - but something "knocked her from happiness to unhappiness", as her daughter puts it. MacColl recalls her as a warm, loving mother but - for whatever reason - she found life difficult: once, for a short time, the children went to a children's home north of Brisbane so she could "have a rest".
MacColl writes that growing up in a big Catholic family in Brisbane's west was more "Addams Family than Brady Bunch". The house was a mess, the kids were allowed to scribble on the walls, their father's sense of humour ran to asking random kids how old they were: Seven, they'd say. "Do you want to live to be eight?" Yes. "Then shut up."
It didn't help that MacColl was what is euphemistically known as "full of beans". She was a tomboy, smaller than other kids, and had worked out early that when you're small, the best way to get noticed is to do things you're not supposed to do.
"I was always labelled attention-seeking," she says. "(But) as a criticism, not a compliment. For as long as I can remember I loved entertaining people, making them laugh. I still do - this doesn't suit classes in which teachers had to keep 40 children quiet and listening."
MacColl and her brothers loved comics and superheroes and she was inclined to look for heroes in the real world, too. When she was 11, in Year 7 at a Catholic primary school, her hero was Brother Bob, because he once laughed at one of her jokes. MacColl took to devotedly attending Mass at school every morning because of him. Brother Bob came with other brothers from Xavier college in a minibus to Mass at MacColl's school. MacColl thought it would be a great joke to spend a weekend making a big gold "Just Married" sign to hang on the back of their bus - she was astonished to discover the school principal did not find it amusing.
"I was very naughty," she says now. "I don't really know why. (It seems like) I was in trouble my whole life."
This early brush with not understanding the rules was perhaps a precursor of what was to come. Three generations of women from MacColl's mother's family attended the inner-Brisbane Catholic All Hallows' School but only MacColl succeeded in being asked to leave when she failed Year 10. She set off fire alarms and pressed the emergency button in the elevator; her report cards were full of comments about her being too talkative, attention-seeking and disruptive.
When MacColl moved to a smaller Catholic school in Brisbane to repeat Year 10 - alienated at home and at school, a bright girl whose intelligence had yet to be harnessed - she was perfectly placed to be preyed upon. She was a girl looking for heroes and when one of her teachers became her mentor - apparently interested in her welfare, someone she could tell things she couldn't even talk about with her mother - the teacher became her new hero. She craved her hero's attention and affection. Soon, the defenceless teenage girl would be willing to do anything for her.
SOMETIMES THERE ARE things in life you can only approach side-on. Some things are too hard to look at full-square and can only be ever glimpsed from the corner of one eye. It's no surprise that some people suffering post-traumatic stress disorder - ex-soldiers, victims of terrorism or life-changing accidents, sexual assault victims - have trouble piecing together the moment their lives changed. For others, a particular scene will endlessly repeat over and over, impossible to erase from the mind's eye.
MacColl spent years in therapy - different kinds of psychological therapies as well as physical ones - in order to recall exactly how she lost agency over her physical self. She thinks it started with her teacher's husband, a former military officer, kissing her; she knows for sure that by Year 11 she started sleeping in their bed. She was a teenage girl, they were in their late 20s; first it was cuddling, then it became sexual (without full intercourse). Her teacher's husband - who had been in the army and served in Vietnam - said it was better for MacColl to learn about sex from good people than "from some pimple-faced idiot".
Where were her protectors? Where was her mother, her father? Apparently MacColl's parents believed their daughter to be a wayward girl, already thrown out of one school, and that the teacher and her husband offered guidance, a good influence on a troubled girl's life. Besides, by then MacColl - like many other stroppy teenagers - believed her parents to be fools. Apart from anything else, her grades were improving. Because her hero was interested in her, she began to work harder. By the time Year 12 came around, MacColl was on track to gain university entrance; in the last months of school she applied for a journalism cadetship and was offered a job at the now-defunct Brisbane afternoon daily newspaper, the Telegraph. She started in Women's News under the formidable Miss Erica Parker, then the doyenne of Queensland women's journalism.
And now comes the moment it takes MacColl many long years to remember. She's just turned 18, a virgin, on the very brink of adult life, she's drunk too much beer and the teacher's husband is on top of her, even though she's yelling at him to stop. She's on a beach, trying to kick him away but she's not strong enough, he's holding her down and it's hurting. And now she's 18, and pregnant. She's a good Catholic girl, so there's no question for her of abortion. Instead, it's off to a mother and baby home for wayward girls in Melbourne and the Catholic Family Welfare Bureau for the adoption of a daughter she calls Ruth.
In the years that follow, there's a lot of self-harm in the desire to forget: too much drinking, cutting her arms with razor blades, deep dives into debilitating depression. She can't get her old job back (she told them she was leaving to travel and the editor won't trust her again). For a time she even stumbles back into the arms of the teacher and her husband and again finds herself pregnant; this time she doesn't hesitate to have an abortion. Eventually she finds the courage to write them a letter telling them she never wants to see them again.
Bit by bit, MacColl claws back her life - successfully completing a journalism degree at the Queensland University of Technology, moving into higher education as an administrator and corporate writer, having the great luck of meeting the kind and understanding man who would become her husband at 30 (David, now 58, is a faculty manager at the University of Queensland).
"He's such a sweetheart, a beautiful man. I'm so lucky," she says.
He was the first person to whom she told the whole sad story.
"It was several weeks before I realised he wasn't going to leave me because of what I'd done," MacColl writes in her memoir. It was years, too, before she could see that she was not the one in the wrong.
THE MOMENT MACCOLL realised she had to deal with her traumatic past came after the birth of her much-wanted baby son, now 14). She was 38 years old when she woke up one day wanting a baby and 41 by the time she gave birth, pretending to be an elderly primigravida (a woman over 35 years who is pregnant for the first time). None of her friends knew she had delivered a baby girl 23 years before.
Then, one day when MacColl was out in the park with her toddler son, he started screaming after she strapped him back into his stroller. At first she thought he was objecting to being manhandled but then she saw she'd inadvertently pinched the soft skin of his belly in the stroller clip. Immediately, she undid the strap but he cried and cried and the horrible stain of her mistake on his unblemished baby skin did not fade for weeks. At home MacColl collapsed, howling, her whole body shaking uncontrollably: "If it weren't so terrifying, it might have been funny," she writes. "When I pinched (him) in the stroller clip, baby Ruth came back, demanding to be grieved, and with her came the secrets I had kept for so long."
Today, sitting in the bright sunshine outside her local cafe in an inner-Brisbane suburb, MacColl understands that what happened following the day when she accidentally hurt her son "was some kind of post-trauma stuff and because we have babies in our bodies, it was in my body I experienced it. I realised I'd just been surviving really, for a long time". For many years, she wasn't "in" her body, having left her body behind as a teenage girl in order to escape the shame of it.
By then, MacColl had already published three well-received novels (No Safe Place, her first novel published in 1996, was a runner-up in the 1995 Australian/Vogel Literary Award. It was about a sexual misconduct case in a university; if her subconscious knew it had something to work out, her conscious mind did not. "I piled plots on like mattresses in the hope the reader would and wouldn't feel the pea," she writes in her memoir).
But after she accidentally hurt her son, she couldn't write. "I stopped writing … and fell apart. At first you don't know what's going on, you think, oh, that's normal, but then you know it's not and it just gets worse and worse. I would just dissemble, I'd just fall apart, without provocation sometimes, there was this awful shuddering and stuff."
This dismaying state continued for some years, until therapies - both physical and mental - helped lift MacColl from her life-denying condition. Slowly she began her step back towards the light of life: contacting baby Ruth's adoptive mother, letting her unresolved grief and anger go, learning to re-enter her body. Swimming helped, putting one arm up and over, then the other, breathing. She began to swim regularly, and still does.
"I'm a pretty revved-up person," she says. "Swimming for me is a kind of meditation; you just move through the water, the water takes you along and you become part of it. It's really very beautiful."
And she began to write the story of her life to the daughter who was once part of her body, the baby she could not forgive herself for giving away.
FIONA INGLIS, OF Curtis Brown Australia, has been MacColl's literary agent since 2009, when MacColl sent her the original version of the memoir, then entirely addressed to her daughter. MacColl wanted it published anonymously. She was - and remains - scrupulously concerned about protecting her daughter's identity.
Inglis read the manuscript in one go: "I know all the words I'll use to describe what I felt when reading it will sound cliched but here goes … Mary-Rose is so brave and honest and heartfelt, and has such incredible insight, but what really struck me was that there was absolutely no bitterness or recrimination in the book. It would have been so easy to blame and to hate, but she doesn't."
The book brought Inglis to tears. She was astonished when the manuscript wasn't instantly snapped up by publishers (possibly because of MacColl's desire to publish it anonymously). But when Inglis offered the manuscript again last year, the first publisher she showed it to wanted it (MacColl's usual publisher, Allen & Unwin).
Inglis suggests times have moved on, with increased public awareness of the sexual exploitation of children. "The royal commission might have had some impact. Perhaps it allowed publishers more freedom to explore these difficult issues, having seen so many people come forward to talk about their experiences," she says.
Annette Barlow, MacColl's publisher at Allen & Unwin, says the company is "extremely proud" to be her publisher. "In a time of Australia's growing awareness of the findings of the child abuse royal commission, and the appalling ways in which young single mothers were treated in our society, this memoir reveals the emotional damage done to one particular girl."
Barlow believes "it's a memoir of our times, wise, sad and profound and (the fact) that the reader walks away changed and somehow uplifted is a testament to the strength of the writing".
Brisbane author and academic Kim Wilkins is one of MacColl's closest friends. Wilkins was pregnant with her son Luka at the same time MacColl was pregnant with her boy - and Wilkins believed they were both having their first babies.
When the day came for MacColl to tell Wilkins the truth, "(MacColl) was so upset and worried that I would think poorly of her - because she'd lied - and all I could say was, 'You poor thing! How awful that you felt you had to keep it a secret all this time'. I felt the complete opposite of angry - she thought I'd be angry with her. I only felt this enormous sorrow that she'd been through so much and blamed herself."
Rather than end their friendship, it deepened it. Wilkins says that MacColl is now like a sister to her. "It just broke my heart to think of what she went through on her own."
For MacColl, letting her secrets rise up has proved cathartic. She still worries about the privacy of her family - and in particular the privacy of the now grown-up daughter she has met only once - but by publishing the book under her own name, she's finally able to say "I am not ashamed".
The book may no longer be addressed to the baby girl she gave up all those years ago, but it is a letter of great beauty to her all the same.
For A Girl: A True Story Of Secrets, Motherhood and Hope by Mary-Rose MacColl (Allen & Unwin, $30), out now
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