Sydney Writers’ Festival 2018

Session: Family Portrait

Staying cover_final_TW

Friday, 4th May, 1.30pm. Seymour Centre, Reginald Theatre, CHIPPENDALE

“Composing a memoir is a deeply personal process, one made more complicated when writing about family and friends. In this session, three memoirists consider the opportunities and risks in telling true stories about loved ones. Rosie Waterland’s Every Lie I’ve Ever Told details her family’s reaction to her bestselling debut memoir, The Anti-Cool Girl. Jessie Cole explores loss and grief in the beautifully written Staying. Tara Westover’s Educated explores her escape from a survivalist end-of-days childhood. They speak to ABC Radio Sydney’s Richard Glover.”

Head to to see the program and book tickets!



Photograph: I love Images/Corbis

Photograph: I love Images/Corbis

Getting to know someone new can be a complicated affair. Sometimes it’s hard to judge what to reveal about yourself and what might best be left to a later date. The last boyfriend I had told me that when I first talked to him about my childhood he had to drop in on a friend afterwards to offload.

‘She’s got this crazy backstory. I just don’t know if it’s all too much.’

He only revealed this post-conversation-debrief to me after we’d been together a few months, and though my first response was defensive, on reflection, he had a point. Which brings me to one of the biggest quandaries those with a difficult past face—when to tell the people we meet the basic facts of our lives?

Of course it’s a personal choice, and each of us is different, but I favour getting it out of the way quickly. Omission of truth has always felt like lying, and if people don’t know what I’ve been through I fear the relationship is built on a kind of false floor. That it could, at any moment, cave in. Mine is a traumatic story, with no easy explanations, but usually it comes up naturally enough.

‘So, how many siblings do you have?’

I always pause, not sure how to respond. Right now I have two, but I used to have three. How this came about is the crux of the story. For me, this innocuous question holds a different kind of weight.

When I was twelve my eighteen year old half-sister, Zoe, committed suicide. I could mention this, or I could hold off. If I disclose, the conversation will either slam to a halt, or continue. I’m most afraid of the first possibility—my revelation causing a rupture, a shutting down of something burgeoning, an end. But sometimes I’ll risk it. I’ll say—‘Three. I had three.’

My sister has been dead now longer than she was alive, but that doesn’t mean she never existed. Growing up with Zoe coloured my whole childhood. The loss of her devastated my family, her suicide like a detonating hand grenade thrown right into the heart of us. No-one was unscathed. But it saddens me that because of the way she died—and whatever mental health struggles led her there—there’s never been any space to talk about the person she was. Vibrant and fierce, delicate of soul and wild of heart—a teenage girl who never made it through. I often try to imagine the adult my sister would have become if she’d chosen life over death all those years ago. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of a stranger and see a fleeting resemblance. She’d have been like that, I think. Just like that. And what I most long to say to the sibling question is—‘Three. I have three.’

But if by chance that question doesn’t arise, there’s always the seemingly safe territory of—‘So, where’s your dad these days?’

Grief stricken after my sister’s suicide, my father became ill. Crippling depressions interspersed with effervescent but terrifying highs. A late onset, grief-induced bipolar disorder. In and out of psychiatric hospitals from that point on, he finally took his own life six years later. One suicide lighting the fuse of another, a sort of explosive domino effect. In my head, I call them ‘the dark years’. The time everything I knew and took for granted crumbled. You can see why I might be nervous about false floors when my whole family very suddenly plunged into an unimaginable black hole. My father was fifty-four when he died. The older I get the younger that seems.

‘Floodlighting’ is what American social researcher and TED Talks sensation Brené Brown calls the act of sharing too much sensitive information with someone who you haven’t yet built enough trust. (See above for a spectacular example.) Traumatised people do it for two main reasons. Firstly, as some kind of self-defeating subconscious test. If this person can hear my pain then perhaps they’ll stick around. Secondly, because the need to talk about the events can be so overwhelming it is impossible to contain. The problem being that often the person on the receiving end is caught like an animal in the headlights, startled and unable to respond.

For me, learning how to judge when I’m floodlighting or more healthily sharing has been a long road. When my sister died I was just a kid, and for many years I believed when I spoke about her I wasn’t using the right words. That words must have existed that would make sharing our story possible but I just hadn’t found them. After the death of my father I began to see it wasn’t the words I spoke that created such a discomforting space between me and the listener, it was the enormity of the events themselves.

And nearly twenty years later it’s still tricky. Usually I can tell when there is enough intimacy in a relationship to share about one of the deaths in my family, but often the second death is a kind of tipping point into too far. I am left in a limbo land between half and full disclosure, not knowing how to proceed. And all this is not because I don’t like to talk about my dead ones, it’s because I’m trying to find a time and place where the other person will feel safe enough to hear.


Lifeline (Australia): 13 11 14. Samaritans (UK): 08457 90 90 90. Lifeline (US): 1-800-273-TALK (8255).


First published in The Guardian, 13th October, 2014.

The Breaking Point

It was the suicide of my older sister Zoe, in all her shimmering teenage glory, that pushed my father to the edge. Perhaps everyone has a breaking point. An incident or event that cannot be overcome, a moment in time that can never be erased. Most of us might get through life without encountering it, but my father was not so fortunate.

We lived far outside town, nestled in green hills, on a winding dead-end road a thousand kilometres north of Sydney. Filled with hopes for a new start, a tree-change—another world—my parents had packed up their busy city lives for the freedom of the country. My father, a psychiatrist, worked only three days a week. On days off he toiled in the garden. He began fantastical tasks and finished them in one day. Covered in sweat and dirt, with an aching back and a tired body he came in and told my mother of his progress. A Japanese garden, with a real slated pond and giant lilies, huge boulders and bamboo. An orchard with endless rows of citrus humming with bees. A rainforest, shady and ancient-seeming, strewn with fallen coloured leaves.

When I was small my father brought me special things he found in the garden. I sat steaming in the bath one evening, naked and easy, the flickering leaves of the growing forest outside whispering wordless secrets in my ears. The bathroom sat among the trees, the sliding glass doors open to the green. Coming in, dirt-speckled and sour smelling, he showed me a tiny white ball. With a delicate tug my father pulled this small sphere apart and thousands of spiders fell, sprinkling down upon me. Miniscule, they spread across the water, floating determinedly towards the edges, their legs braced against the sway of my careful movements. Hurriedly, the masses of baby spiders climbed out and along the top of the old enamel bathtub. With concentrated joy I scooped up the stragglers and flicked them gently from my fingers and out the long open doorway into the forest. I stared in wonder that so many lives had come from such a small white seamless pouch.

I understood that my father had held the power of their lives—and deaths—in his gentle hands, and felt in a subtle way that he had created them. I searched my father’s face for signs of meaning, but he was unreadable and unexpectedly quiet. My mother came in from the kitchen to see what had caused my squeals, and I checked to see how deep the crease between her brows became when she saw the delicate wafting spiders.

‘They’re not biting ones, Mum.’

My mother’s face broke into a sun-like smile. ‘They’re amazing.’ Her words were soft, and she looked at my father with a gentle warmth. ‘Where did you find them?’

He motioned out towards the garden and my parents wandered off together in search of the very spot.

My father was a man living in the moment. Before my sister died I once spotted him doing a lap of the town, ghetto blaster on his shoulder, wearing his bright yellow esprit shirt, on an afternoon errand. Hanging around on street corners after school as a young teenager, I got a glimpse of him in the distance.

‘Isn’t that … your dad?’ my tittering friends asked. When he jogged right past calling ‘Hi, Possum!’ it was a hard question to evade.

‘But what is he doing?’

Now, I suspect he was rushing about trying to get that beloved ghetto blaster repaired, and jogging with it on his shoulder just seemed a natural time management strategy, but the yellow woman’s esprit T-shirt was harder to explain.

My father loved that shirt. ‘Esprit is French for spirit!’ he’d proclaim, ‘S-P-I-R-I-T. You know, spirit, life, strength. That’s me!’

‘But why does it have to be bright yellow?’

‘That’s my favourite colour!’

‘But it’s a girl’s shirt, Dad.’ All I got for that objection was a slight roll of the eyes. For my father, gendered clothing was irrelevant, but in my small Australian country town a yellow woman’s shirt was enough to set a man apart. Add a ghetto blaster and a zappy jog, and the word ‘lunatic’ easily sprang to mind. There are advantages to growing up in a family with a high tolerance for eccentricity. Boundaries are loose, undefined. Odd fashion choices are celebrated, experimental artworks championed and socially inappropriate expressions of authenticity never shunned or derided.

But what happens when your crazy parent turns out to be … well, crazy?

After my sister’s death my family was in tatters. We were like fish swallowing air. Silence enveloped us. But in time my father’s muted grief turned wild and the tangled threads of his control snagged and tore apart. My mother and I woke one morning to find he had partitioned off the kitchen with a hinged ad hoc wooden screen to which he nailed all his favourite books.

‘Jess, Jess. Look, what do you think? Great, hey?’

I slid towards the table, trying to sit down among the books. ‘I’m not sure about the John Cowper Powys. Your mum’s always hated that book. Boring, she said. Fucking boring.’ My mother tried not to look at the newly constructed shrine. There was meaning in it somewhere, this fictional crucifixion, but my mother and I were frightened, and we huddled together in a quiet fist of unnamed communion over breakfast.

‘Jess, what about you? You haven’t read any Kafka. You’ve got to, baby! I’ve nailed this one up here. All these books, they’re between me and her. Your sister. Zoe. She’ll know. She’ll know even if you guys don’t. Don’t tell me Kafka’s fucking boring! Jess, your mum does like Kafka, even if she’s not willing to admit it here. Tell her! Zoe will know. So what do you guys think? How do you like it? The end of the hammer broke off last night otherwise I’d add those ones too.’ My father held the broken hammer in his hand, motioning to the piles of books still on the table—‘Some Mishima, The Leopard.’

‘You’ve taken up half the kitchen. There isn’t enough space to sit.’ My mother’s voice was quavering, falling away at the edges.

‘What? What are you talking about? Just move those books over and sit down. You have to complain about everything. God, Jess, your mother is such a fucking complainer. I scattered the ashes last night. Out in the garden, it was great, just me and her. I could feel her. She was with me.’

‘You scattered Zoe’s ashes? Where?’

‘Out there in the garden.’ He gestured behind him. ‘It’s a great spot. You’ll love it.’

My mother stood up, her mouth pressed together in a tight line.

‘Oh what, you have a problem with that too?’ My father’s face was red, his lips jutting forward. Wrapping her sarong tightly around herself, my mother replied quietly, ‘What about us? You can’t do things like that without talking about it.’

‘Fuck! She’s my daughter. I know where she should be. You’re such a control freak. You want to control everything.’

‘You’re not the only one who’s hurting.’

‘All right! But I’m not taking the books down. Zoe knows. She knows what it’s all about.’

‘You can’t do this, it’s crazy.’ My mother’s voice was quiet.

‘What, now I’m fucking crazy?’ Leaving no space for reply, my father’s words streamed out, relentless and loud. My mother gazed longingly at the green garden sea, as though willing the trees to come inside and rescue her.

I slipped into the garden and searched the fallen leaves for some sign of the soft grey dust. It lay in little clumps, meagre and exposed, underneath a tree that looked no different to the others. Gathering some up, I hid my sister’s ashes in a little painted wooden box among my jewellery, and avoiding the kitchen and the shrine of books, walked out to the driveway and the hissing doors of the school bus.

Always a punctual man, my father began to run late for work, and in the office he made phone call upon phone call until his patients, milling about in the waiting room, looked away from each other’s startled eyes. He bought a small rickety house, on impulse, in my one-street country town, with a cheque that he wrote out to friends at three o’clock in the morning, drunk, and he did not tell my mother. He dreamed of building an elaborate marble-floored Italian restaurant in his tiny new house and he drew up the designs and called the architects. He called the bank manager and the builders. He called old friends and acquaintances. His secretary phoned my mother, her voice low and disturbed.

‘I’m worried about him. He looks terrible, like he hasn’t slept in days. I can’t get him off the phone.’

In the evening he rang home to say he’d be there soon but he didn’t arrive. He disappeared and my mother’s long skirts swayed as she paced, the crease between her brows a savage line. She thought of accidents and car wrecks and he did not phone and he did not phone. He had vanished into the nearest city, and it took my mother all the next day to track him down. In the consumer complex of that other world he spent and spent, his credit cards bloating.

‘My daughter, everyone thinks she’s dead. But she’s not, she’s come back! She’s come back to me,’ he told a stunned woman at the checkout. ‘She was just on holiday. A protracted holiday!’

On the way home he took twelve hours to complete the two-hour drive, stopping along the way to make more purchases. He bought a new cane furniture suite, a brand spanking leather lounge and more and more presents for my mother, which he claimed post-acquisition were all tax deductible and therefore half price. When he finally arrived home he still didn’t tell my mother about the house he had purchased, and the hefty house-sized cheque. Erratic and wired, my father talked and talked, in endless flooding words. My mother’s lips tightened and she rang his old doctor friends for help and advice.

‘He doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t eat. I think he’s having some sort of episode.’

‘He’s just starting to feel better.’

‘No, he’s acting crazy. It’s beyond that.’

‘I saw him the other day at Jim’s. He was in high spirits. Life of the party. Back to his old self.’

‘No, this is not normal. He is out of control.’

The next morning, my father’s day off, the handyman came to spray the orchard with white oil, but my father made him sit down and watch music videos.

‘See how when Clapton comes on stage, Neil Young shifts over? They can’t stand each other. You can see by the way Clapton holds his head. I’ve got it figured, man. You can see it, right?’

‘Well, I don’t know … but I guess I should get to work.’

‘No, no, man. Just watch this bit. It’s fucking great. You can see that Dylan doesn’t even want Willie Nelson there. I mean, it’s Dylan’s concert, right? You can see this exchange. Backstage, I can tell you what happened. I can tell just from this one look. There, that bit, did you catch it? See how Dylan kind of smiles right there? Here, I’ll rewind it for you.’

He had developed detailed theories about what the videos meant, and he sat and stood and sat and stood and talked to the handyman until finally it was dark and the bemused man escaped into the night.

Back at work, he came home late from the office, arms gesticulating with a frenzied flourish, and declared he had something amazing to tell my mother. Waiting while he made phone call after phone call, exhausted and bewildered, she went to bed.

By the weekend he had converted to astrology. Accosting me at breakfast, he dragged me out to the verandah. Sitting across from me with a notepad, my father asked endless questions and jotted down my replies.

Star signs. I was startled by this latest obsession but I sat with him and talked. It felt to me that this morning was the first time my father had heard me speak since Zoe died. He was vibrant, his arms sweeping out in lavish emphasis, and I tentatively smiled.

From the verandah I could see my mother lingering in the garden, wandering from tree to tree, touching the leaves gently as though searching for sustenance. She peered up at us, eyes narrowed, and then left to get supplies from the local shop. When she was gone, my father stood up, smacking his pen against the page.

‘Thanks, Jess, you’ve told me everything I need to know. I’m working on something special here.’

‘Right, okay?’ I was uncertain.

‘I’ll be back later to tell you what I’ve found.’

My father went to his room and when he returned he cornered me in the kitchen. ‘I’ve discovered something amazing, Jess. Zoe didn’t leave me. She didn’t fucking leave me. I’ve got this patient, a beautiful girl, you’d love her. You’ll meet her soon. She’s fourteen, and I know that she’s really Zoe. She’s Zoe reincarnated.’

Standing over me, my father began to cry, a deep collapsing sob. ‘She’s not dead, Jess. I knew she’d never leave me. I worked it out from all the things you told me, from what you said about the star signs.’ Voice wavering, he wiped his tears roughly from his cheeks with the heels of his palms.

‘But Dad, she’s fourteen, how could she be Zoe? She was born way before Zoe died.’

‘It’s partial reincarnation, one of my patients told me about it. This guy knows about heaps of fucking stuff. I’ve done a lot of talking with him. Lots of fucking talking.’

‘Dad, that’s crazy.’

‘You don’t believe me?’

‘No. You’re acting crazy.’

‘You want to know something else?’


‘See this picture.’

My father held up a Time magazine with a picture of a black-skinned man with glasses. ‘Do you know who this is?’


‘It’s Arthur Ashe.’


‘Arthur Ashe, he’s a tennis player who died of AIDS a few years back.’


‘Do you see anything unusual about this photo?’


‘That’s me. I’m Arthur Ashe. I can tell by the shape of the glasses.’

‘But he only died a few years ago, right? Come on, Dad, how is that possible? Who were you before?’

‘I’m me, baby, but it’s partial, you know?’

Needing to be away from him, I fought tears. ‘Dad, you’ve lost the plot. You’ve totally lost the plot.’

‘Fuck, you sound just like your fucking mother! Both of you so fucking critical.’

I stole away to my room and waited for my mother to come home. She arrived at the same time as the furniture van, with the fancy new lounge suite. My father asked the delivery man to stay for dinner and regaled him with tales of his newly acquired astrological knowledge. After dinner he invited the man to stay the night and then, in a flurry of movement, headed out to a party at a friend’s house. We watched him go, exhaling in a communal surge of relief. This friend was a psychiatrist and a colleague, and surely something would be done. We talked shyly to the furniture delivery man, and showed him to the spare room.

Late that night the mother of the fourteen-year-old patient rang. ‘Look, I’m worried about your husband. He came to my house, he just dropped by. He says he thinks your daughter has returned. He sounds crazy. I don’t think it’s right, I mean, he’s her doctor. It’s not safe. He says he wants to take her away somewhere. She’s just a kid, you know?’

After my mother hung up the phone, she searched and searched until finally she found the cheque book and the house-sized cheque.

I escaped the silent fear of the house to spend the night with friends. In their bright company I drank and drank, aiming for that engulfing darkness, and found myself instead crouched in the garden, shivering and lost. My older sister Zoe, vibrant and fierce—delicate of soul and wild of heart—had disappeared from our lives, but every day the event of her death expanded, as the person she was gradually diminished. Her suicide—my father’s breaking point—pulling us all to pieces. Drunk in the garden, I mourned the loss of her and the brokenness of my father.

My friends searched for me in the leafy night. Bending down, they gently pushed the hair from my face. They took me to bed, tucking the covers tightly around me and turning out the light. I lay in the darkness, my head pounding and my stomach raw, and eventually slipped off into that quiet black place.

In the morning a friend woke me gently to come to the phone. My mother had called and it was urgent. ‘Jess?’

‘Yeah, Mum, what’s wrong?’ My throat felt razored, my voice shrill.

‘Jess, it’s your dad. He went missing. They lost him at the party.’


‘He disappeared and they couldn’t find him.’

‘Where is he? What happened?’ My head throbbed loudly in my ears, and I pushed my fingers hard against my forehead.

‘He’s at the police station. The police picked him up.’ Her voice reverberated on the other end of the line. I was afraid to speak, afraid to find out why. The silence stretched between us. ‘Jess?’

‘Yeah. What did he do?’

‘Are you okay?’

‘Yeah, I’m all right. Tell me.’

‘He broke into someone’s house and put some music on. He turned it up really loud and the police came. He was naked and muddy, I mean, he’d smeared himself with something.’

‘Is he okay? I mean, is he hurt?’

‘I think he cut himself a bit with the glass. You know, from the window when he broke in. But it’s not serious.’

‘Mum, what’s going to happen?’

‘He’s not going to be charged, I don’t think. It was clear that he’s not well. He’s going to be picked up and taken to the Richmond Clinic.’

‘The Richmond Clinic? Where all his patients go?’


The phone shook in my hand, and I felt my lips turning downwards in a flickering involuntary grimace. Fighting tears, I clenched my teeth together until they scraped loudly in my ears.

‘I have to go over and bring him some stuff, some books and pyjamas. I can’t pick you up. Can you stay there today?’ My mother sounded tired and tight. I could feel her anxiety through the white cold plastic of the phone. ‘Jess, I’ll ring you when I get back, okay?’

When my father broke into the stranger’s house he carved mandalas into his palms with the glass from a shattered mirror, he smeared himself with sewage and ate a packet of cigarettes. Grief had unravelled his control. He was wild and savage and lost. The sorrow that had engulfed our home since Zoe’s death had finally spilled into his outside life in a torrent of mad despair. He was hospitalised but he soon came out, and then he was hospitalised again. He talked of axes and Aphrodite and splitting skulls, and his old doctor friends called from Sydney and whispered to my mother down the end of the line.

‘Do you have any guns there? Get rid of the axes. Get rid of anything weapon-like.’

And when the raving was over and the muted sadness returned, it was somehow our fault and he could not forgive us. He was bitter and angry and uncomprehending, and we could not forgive him. He began to talk of my mother as that woman, and when she left the house for any reason she would return to the roaring sound of a chainsaw as he cut down another of her beloved trees.

Watching my father’s slide into madness was terrifying. What we had known as eccentricity suddenly became much more. How could we tell what was his illness and what was him? He had always been spontaneous and unpredictable: unafraid of the unknown, testing the boundaries. What were the bounds of normal? Who made those rules, and who enforced them? My family were constantly on watch, but what signs were we watching for?

Raging against the dying of the light, my father was in and out of the psychiatric ward from then on until his death a few years later. And no, the causes were not natural. He had reached his breaking point and tumbled into the abyss.

And now, still nestled in those green hills, nearly eighteen years later, I watch myself in the same way. Walking through life warily, the line between destruction and perfection so fine as to be perilous. What is my breaking point, and will my life take me there? If the line between sane and crazy is fine enough to step over, how can I know when I’ve taken that step? And who, apart from me, is patrolling the perimeters?

In light of what happened to my dad, that yellow esprit shirt has taken on a whole new meaning. I keep it hidden deep in my closet, the material so soft and worn it almost comes away in my fingers. Somehow, despite everything, it has come to represent all that is wondrous about living so close to the edge. Being in the moment, being open to the world, being full of spirit and life. Being deeply and utterly yourself.

Drawing of the author as a child, artwork by the author’s father, 1983

Drawing of the author as a child, artwork by the author’s father, 1983

First Published in Meanjin, Volume 72, Number 3, 2013.

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