Tell me I’m here by Anne Deveson

I’ve just finished reading it. Sitting in a hammock in Warren Gorge, a free campsite below rocky cliffs just south of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. This morning we saw two rock wallabies playing like typical young siblings: one poking the other in the nose and giving little hooks and jabs, then what looked like affectionate nuzzling. Then I went for a run. I ran 20kms through country which is typical for up here: scrubby plains leading to spectacular escarpments, dotted here and there with reminders of tragedy and disappointment. Proby’s grave: he died at 24 trying to cross the flooded Wilochra Creek. Simmonston: where the town was surveyed, and a shop and pub were built, but then abandoned because the railway line wasn’t coming through town after all. And for me running is sometimes about letting go. There’s an emotional thing going on where something is being processed. People, times, incidents, embarrassments, hurts and successes, hopes I once had visit me, and at times I feel emotionally open to them and ready for them to pass through me, at least for now. Then I breathe deeply and run, and I become present again for a while, and then something else, some other idea or memory comes up, and I run with it for a while.

Tell me I’m here is like that. It’s Anne Deveson sitting with her memories as they come and visit her, working through them and working out how to let go or hold on. How does one choose what to remember, to hold tight and secret, or forget, or to share? And how should anyone tell his or her story in a way which does it justice?

I went to a counsellor/psychologist once. As you do when you go to a counsellor (I assume) I answered questions and told him about how I was feeling and gave him a brief synopsis of significant parts of my personal history. When I described one particular incident (I don’t remember which) he waited until I had finished and then told me that it was typical of someone who hadn’t moved on from an event that when they described an event he (or she) would look at the ground, or away, and seem to peer directly into the moment he was describing. To me this was a little bit just about being a good storyteller. I thought everyone who tried to tell a story accurately would do this act of projection, putting themselves back into that moment and conjuring up all the smells and tastes, of hope and fear and embarrassment and joy, and try to convey that to the listener. The counsellor saw it differently. He said that this meant that I was giving the experience too much power, and that I hadn’t allowed myself to move on from it and see it from a distance, a distance from which I would be able to see my strength and, to be obvious, the distance itself: the fact that the event was over and that, if only I would acknowledge it, I had successfully moved on. The symptom to watch out for, he said, was this looking away and sinking back into the memory as if it was happening again, not being recalled from the past. The cure, he suggested, was to stay focused and attentive to the person I am talking to. Stay connected to the here and now. I mention all of this because Anne treads this line very carefully.

Much of the book is in the first person and this makes it feel as if the reader is sinking into the memory along with Anne, and in places she writes about the agony and frustration of writing the book, because it is an act of reliving, of sinking back into the memory and reliving them in order to create the book she has written. It is her regular use of first person present tense and generous helpings of intimate and telling detail which makes the story seem so consuming. As a reader we sink with her into that time period. But she also stays connected, to Jonathan, whom I suspect is really the primary imagined reader for this book, but also to the general reader, for whom this is an important story. Her eyes are focused and one can feel the urgency of her drive not to just relive it but to tell it well, in a way that does it justice.

Like going for a run, it’s exhausting, but reading – or sharing that journey with her – allowed me to step into and get a glimpse of that process and come out the other side, without having to live it for seven years (not counting the twenty-six years since Jonathan, her son’s, death in a Hostel in Sydney). It’s the kind of book I’m grateful to her for having written.

I met Anne Deveson earlier this year, at a workshop at the Clunes Back to Booktown Festival. Four trestle tables had been set up to make a square, and we all sat around in the Clunes Bowling Club for an hour, talking about writing. Most of the time was taken up with each of us introducing ourselves. I thought that was a valuable way to start the session, but also a shrewd waste of time.

I don’t remember much of what she said. Partly this was my fault; I had no context for her, not having read her books or heard of her in any of her many roles (as writer, producer and director of documentaries, as a journalist, as a member of different government bodies, as head of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School). This wasn’t necessarily laziness on my part: I had managed to score a free ticket to the workshop, so I went in with nothing to lose but very open to seeing what I could gain from it. And one of the things I wanted to gain was some basic awareness of who Anne Deveson was.

She was older, and had a long face and long, expressive hands. She has something of the honesty, candour, sincerity and sensitivity, as well as the look, of a tired old dog. We talked about the writing of Tell me I’m here and how Anne had intended to write a text book about schizophrenia, but that had proved impossible. The truth – her truth – was in her story, and woven through that she tried to insert the textbook she had wanted to write. But it was the story that needed to come out of her, or that kept forcing its way back in when she tried to not write it.

She has that journalist’s curiosity and desire to ask and understand what other people’s stories are. She also, obviously, has that journalist’s belief that the story is the story. It’s not the analysis of it; it’s not the lesson drawn from it. There can’t be any simple dumbing down of the story. The only fair thing to do with a story is to tell it as well and truthfully as possible. If that gets done, then whatever is in there will be available to the reader.

Jonathan, Anne’s son, had schizophrenia from the age of 17 and died when he was 24, in 1985. I met Anne in 2011, so the woman I met is different from the woman who went through the experiences and then wrote about them in Tell me I’m here. Again, I’m startled by the fact that it is impossible to recognise people who have experienced terrible tragedy, given oceans of love in the process, and produced a moving and fairly astonishing piece of work. There were people in the room at that workshop who had read Tell me I’m here, who just wanted to say what a beautiful or important or special piece of work it is. A few worked in mental health in some way, as well as wanting to be a writer in one form or another, so for them Anne was a really significant person in the history of that duality (being a writer and someone concerned with and championing rights for those with a mental illness) in Australia.

Tell me I’m here is one of those books I think everyone should read. It’s harrowing in some ways. Anne manages to give her reader a taste of that “will it ever end?” part of the exhausting trauma of her son’s schizophrenia. The trauma belonged to all of them: Jonathan was terrified and lost, then lucid for snatches and terrified and sorry and appalled, and then lost again to the terrors of delusional thinking and the hard living that goes with being a mental patient with nowhere to go that works.

The “will it ever end?” question isn’t hurry up and die, although you know that’s what’s coming. One reason for this is that the whole book is a testament to what it means to be a mother. Maybe it’s a broader idea about being human and that it is a human trait to never give up hope, to keep trying and keep trying and keep trying. Everything fails, but the trying is important, and I imagine it’s the trying that makes it easier to both let go and to hold on. The Anne that I met at the workshop still talked with passion and immediacy about Jonathan, and cried about it. It’s still present and real more than two decades later, but seemed to sit in a good place. She talks throughout the book about feeling guilty, and the difficulty of so many theories of the origins of schizophrenia blaming the family, and the mother in particular. But as I reader I couldn’t do anything but be astounded by the depth and endurance of her love for Jonathan in the face of his illness and the lack of real, useful, organized support she received. In that sense the “Will it ever end?” question is about the suffering – how can this situation be made better? How can she, Jonathan, and her two other kids, get the kind of reward that their work and love deserves? I sound, to me, like a Catholic, or a capitalist, as if every good deed deserves some kind of reward either in Heaven or here on earth, but maybe that is the way of it. It certainly seemed natural to me to just want some kind of justice for her and happiness for Jonathan. And this thwarted hope just kept hanging in there. It’s a story of constant effort and hope thwarted and love not rewarded (or not as much as I am conditioned to hope for) so it’s exhausting, but also moving and inspiring. As a tale of what mothers do when called upon, it is brutally astonishing.

The other reason the “will it ever end?” question comes up and is so compelling, is because Deveson (the journalist, rather than Anne, the mother) does weave in the history of the illness and its treatment (or lack of) and acceptance (or rejection) in the wider community. She covers her experience principally in Adelaide and Sydney, but has connections and draws examples through America and the UK, as well as from all across Australia. She leaves us with a story of how much things have changed, but still with a profound message for health care-providers everywhere as well as members of all communities (and schizophrenia affects one in every hundred people across all cultures and community groups) to do better, because the unnecessary suffering not only of people with the illness but also their families and friends, needs to be lessened, even if it can never completely end.
Hope and a glass to drink it in