jessie cole

novelist/writer

Tag: the guardian

Floodlighting

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.

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It’s hard to raise a teenage boy – and even harder to be one

Photograph: Murdo Macleold

Photograph: Murdo Macleold

As a parent, negotiating the road through your children’s adolescence can be harrowing, and often in ways you least expect. Despite all my fears about drugs and alcohol, drink-driving and traffic accidents, the thing my son is statistically most likely to die from is suicide. It’s a baffling fact, and one that surely needs more consideration.

Beyond Blue recently launched a multi-million-dollar campaign to combat the high rate of male suicide around the nation, and it got me pondering the real risks involved in parenting teenage sons.

I have two sons. The oldest is soon to turn sixteen. By fifteen he was 186cms tall and still growing. For some years now he has dwarfed his friends, towering above the other kids like a giant gumtree.

As a baby he was always large. I once had a man approach me on the street and ask – ‘What’s his name? Battle-axe?’ This to a toddler with the biggest toothy grin imaginable. A champion cuddler. A gentle giant. Even then the world weighed in. He was a Viking baby, a warrior-in-the-making. But despite this expectation, gentleness has always been my son’s defining trait. Generous, kind and big-hearted, his final year six report ended with: “He is considerate, forgiving and caring, acknowledging other people’s feelings and offering comfort where needed.”

I admit, on reading those words I cried.

I have long considered myself a feminist mother. I aimed to bring up my sons to be sensitive to the needs of others, to be open-minded and self-aware. To actively champion equal rights and to be conscious of their social responsibilities. We talked about sexism and racism and prejudice and the subtle ways they sometimes worked. I wanted an understanding of these issues to be part of my children’s worldview.

When he was ten, my oldest son developed an interest in hip-hop, a genre I knew little about, and we asked a friend to find him some music. I walked out of the room for a minute and when I came back my friend was staring at him in surprise.

‘What’s up?’ I asked.

‘Oh,’ my friend answered, ‘It’s just … he asked for songs that don’t have violence against women.’

I almost punched the sky. But she was nonplussed – ‘Ah … I don’t know if I even have any like that.’

And slowly the floodgates opened. The world encroached on my son, filling his ears with what it means to be a man. Fast forward five years and it’s a whole new ballgame. Since he entered high school I’ve watched him morph. Jeans slung low, he swaggers about like a gangster from the rapper films he so admires. I try to get him talking about the lure of Underbelly and all its subsequent spin offs, but though his eyes sparkle, he doesn’t say much. The glamour of this underworld culture fires his imagination like nothing else, and I am unable to keep any of it at bay.

As the mother of an adolescent boy, how can I compete with a society that actively glorifies this kind of manhood? Where Eminem, despite his rapey lyrics, is a best-selling artist. Where images objectifying women are so ubiquitous they are considered normal. Where mainstream pornography is getting more and more brutal. Where violent video games are increasingly graphic and accessible. Against this cacophonous soundtrack it must be easy for boys to forget that in the real world most men aren’t actually violent. And, if this state of play isn’t depressing enough, add the new WHO report characterising men’s violence against women as a ‘global health problem of epidemic proportions,’and the sad reality that women standing up against sexism often brings out a barrage of hate.

I wonder how my son manages all these messages. How does he balance what he’s learned at home with what the world is teaching him?

A year or so ago I was talking with my son when he wandered towards me, picked me up with one arm and placed me on the other side of the door. Gently, of course. He then waved, smiled his gigantic smile, and said – ‘See ya Mum.’ And that was that. If he didn’t want to hear what I had to say he could effectively remove me. One-handed. It was a joke, obviously. He let me straight back in. But standing on the outside of that door for those few seconds highlighted my powerlessness in a way nothing else previously had.

His largeness has other unforeseen consequences. The mothers of his female friends let them go out at night if he is with them, as though his big body will be enough to protect them all from harm. The world is unsafe for teenage girls, so these mothers think, but my son neutralises the danger by his mere presence. Partly I am proud. They see him as trustworthy and strong. But I also wonder if this is a heavy load for him to carry.

He told me once that at a party a bunch of older boys arrived uninvited in their hotted up cars. He was standing with a female friend who had gone outside to make a call. She lifted her chin to these bigger boys and said – ‘What the f#ck are you looking at?’ Safe in the knowledge of my son’s big body at her back, she was calling them on their intimidating stares. And he worried about how he could possibly protect her.

And, of course, I worry too.

Assault is by far the most common form of violent crime. Males are more likely than females to be violently assaulted across all age groups. Statistically speaking, this could be termed ‘men’s violence against men,’ and those most at risk are young men aged 15–24 years. To add to this, young men are more likely to engage in risky behaviour. They are more likely than girls to be current smokers, drink to levels considered dangerous, use illicit drugs, be involved in dangerous driving, commit violent crime, and be incarcerated.

And, as the Beyond Blue campaign highlights, they are more likely to suicide. How can it be that we live in one of the world’s most prosperous countries but our children are taking their own lives? Our male children, most especially. What is causing such despair? No doubt the answers are complex and multifaceted. But is it at least possible that the status quo is not working for young men either?

 To be the mother of a teenage boy is to be always a little afraid. I used to worry about lots of things: schooling, television hours, junk food, computer games. But now I just worry my son won’t make it home.

‘I’m nearly sixteen,’ he tells me. ‘Soon I’ll be eighteen.’ I look up at his beautiful familiar face. ‘Sometime soon you are just going to have to let go.’

This article was first published at the guardian.uk on the 8th of July 2013, in slightly abridged form.

Our Silent Selves

A few years ago, I went to stay with a friend in the city. The face she greeted me with was not her face. One of her eyelids sagged, giving her a strange lopsided smile. Distress bubbled up inside me. Had she been struck down with Bell’s Palsey? Had a stroke? Why didn’t she tell me?

“What’s happened to your face?” I blurted out, feeling the tears rise in my eyes.

“It’s no big deal,” she said, brushing me off with a wave of the hand. “It’s just a bit of botox gone wrong. It’s not permanent or anything.”

It took me a while to acclimatise myself to this answer. My startlingly confident, formidably intelligent, beautiful thirty-one year old friend was getting botox? And botox had caused her eye to sag as though she’d had a stroke? Of course, I knew movie stars and the like forked out to get this paralysing poison injected into their faces, but it wasn’t something I’d considered when it came to people I knew.

Fast forward a few years and it seems far more common. I have other friends with tell-tale shiny foreheads, though I’ve never again encountered a droopy eye. Botoxed faces all have something in common. A strange vacancy, a peculiar dullness. Despite the glimmering smoothness of the skin – the odd way that light reflects off an unlined surface – there’s a kind of deadness around the eyes. All my botoxed friends look faintly angry, with a touch of indifference. It’s a particular expression, rarely found in an unneedled face, and it takes some getting used to.

Lately, I’ve found myself feeling uneasy after spending time with these shiny-faced friends. The sense of connectedness we’ve always shared seems impeded by their impenetrable faces. In short, I miss their micro-expressions. I feel cut off from them, and come away lonely and disturbed. I worry how these frozen faces serve them in other parts of their lives. How do their partners feel? What about their children?

I know why women feel they need botox. I understand the pressure on us all to maintain a youthful appearance. The relentless bombardment of media images and meta-messages. Our invisibility once past a certain age. The very real ramifications of aging as a woman in our culture. But I can’t help wondering about the costs of botox, and not just to the hip pocket.

There’s no argument that botox paralyses facial muscles. That’s how it works. It minimises micro-expressions. So in a sense, communicating with someone who’s had botox is like communicating with a static image – much of the body-language involved is silenced. Considering body-language, mostly facial expressions, makes up at least half of any message being communicated, this is a significant loss.

But this facial paralysis also inhibits the ability of the botoxed to mimic the facial expressions of others, which is critical in the formation of empathy. Facial micro-mimicry is the major way we understand others’ emotions. If you are wincing in pain I immediately do a micro-wince which sends a message to my brain about what you are experiencing. By experiencing it myself I understand what you are going through. This suggests that not only do I find my botoxed friends hard to read, but they are also hindered in their capacity to read me. An unfortunate feedback cycle. The possible implications of this are truly frightening.

There has been a study into the effects of botox on the ability to empathise, but nothing which specifically addresses the impacts on friendship, or the mother-infant bond. The absence of discussion around the effect of botox on mothering is troubling considering in that a mother’s display of emotions is how the infant learns to interact with the world. Psychologists have a method for testing infant distress at unresponsive faces called the ‘Still Face paradigm.’ Any alarm bells ringing?

Obviously empathy is a cornerstone of relationship, vital to both building and maintaining positive interactions with others. That many women are prioritising themselves as a still image is disturbing and worthy of consideration. The poker-face, by definition, doesn’t express anything. With the proliferation of selfies and the focus on static representations of women’s faces, are we forgetting how much of who we are is communicated through facial expressions? Are we, in some sense, choosing a form of silence far more insidious than women have ever known in the past? Who benefits from the silencing of women’s faces? And what is the cost?   

 

First published in the guardian – ‘Comment is Free’ – May 22nd, 2013.

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