Elly McDonald

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Woman of Substances: A journey into addiction and treatment – by Jenny Valentish

Jenny ValentishJenny Valentish’s book Woman of Substances is subtitled “A journey into addiction and treatment” and sets out to explore how addiction is triggered and plays out specifically in women, across a range of behaviours: drug abuse, alcoholism, abusive or obsessive relationships, eating disorders, self-harm and self-mutilation, and other compulsive behaviours, including sex and theft. She investigates social and historical factors as well as neuroscience, endocrinology and psychiatric approaches.

Organised in three parts, (Part One: Predictors of a problem; Part Two: Gendered adventures in addiction; Part Three: Woman’s Lib), this book is part sociological research, part memoir. Both aspects resonate with me. Valentish writes as someone who came of age in south-east England’s music scene in the early ‘90s, who published a fanzine, was publicly represented in the tabloids as a music groupie, who was immersed in music and drugs and alcohol, was sexually abused, who relocated to the other side of the planet, has intimate experience of addiction and (arguably) mental illness. She now lives in regional Victoria.

We have common ground. I was a rock music writer from ages 17 to 29, writing for rock music publications, pilloried as a teen by Molly Meldrum on Countdown as a “stupid female”, constantly negotiating the crosslines between sexual experimentation, peer perception and shame, witnessing drug and alcohol abuse, occasionally participating, with intimate experience of other forms of addiction, and mental illness. I crossed the planet, in reverse, to spend my 30s in ’90s London. I now live in regional Victoria.

Like Jenny, I am fascinated by the challenges posed by writing memoir.

Jenny Valentish describes her personal experience woven through her research findings as a “case study”. As it happens, one of my freelance employments is editing the psychiatric case studies required of trainee psychiatrists. It’s all too easy for me to condense and mentally reformat Valentish’s accounts of her personal experiences as third person psychiatric reports. It’s easy, too, for me to follow her accounts of different treatment methods and wellness strategies, as set out in the book’s final section. Truthfully, that section is so lucid I would recommend it to anyone who hopes to learn what works.

She writes wonderfully.

I nearly did not read this book. I’d seen a review that commented on how direct her language was, presenting as an example,”I had a cock in my mouth by the age of seven.” I took that to be the book’s opening line. I was concerned this would be a sensationalist, exhibitionist narrative – the “crazy woman as attention-seeker” trope. A part of me felt I already knew this story. Why revisit it through someone else’s darkness?

To learn, to contextualise, to rethink, to reframe, to empathise, to better understand. Because it’s well-researched. It’s useful reporting. It’s entertaining. It’s encouraging.

I had some predictable responses. I found it impossible not to map her experiences against mine, not to place us in relative positions on a graph mapping “Just how bad was that?”

There are no prizes for being the most out-there addict. That said, as a reader, and as someone who had thought our experiences might be loosely comparable, I was shocked, actually distressed, by much that Valentish recounts. I felt outraged on behalf of her 14 year old self, being inducted into music scene sex; her 18 year old self, raped in an alley; her 26 year old self, fleeing an abusive ex across oceans; her 7 year old self, sexually abused by a neighborhood teen – outraged by the continuum of her experiences. I felt shocked, confused, by the extent of her substance abuse. Why would she subject herself to that? How did she function, build a career?

The “Why would she subject herself to that?” is, obviously, the question the project addresses. How did she function, build a career? Seems to me that side by side with – or within, or fronting, or inextricable from – the identity Valentish presents on the page, the person who stumbles and trips and can’t articulate coherently, there was the person who functioned just fine, thank you ma’am, within her chosen environments, aided by considerable intelligence, her talent, her resilience, her humour, other character traits she doesn’t make explicit, and by her social capital (education, beauty, middleclass background).

In the final section, the section about treatment options and the experience of weaning off addictions, Valentish writes briefly about narrative therapy. This is the process whereby a person articulates their story and then, with an appropriately qualified therapist, they “look at some of the dominant narratives that they are using to give themselves a hard time: ‘I’m to blame’, ‘I’m an alcoholic’, ‘I’m a bad mother’ or ‘I’m a failure’. […] The therapist and client will then look for the subjugated narratives of resilience, courage and strength, and work on lifting those to the fore.”

My brother-in-law is clinical director of a private psychiatric clinic and is a senior psychiatrist within the public health sector. Narrative therapy is an approach he promotes. I have gleaned a few hints observing him and asking him about his work, and a strategy I do find useful is consciously noting how I am telling my story – to myself, to others – and consciously exploring ways of representing it that are true to those events and yet empowering.

Jenny Valentish I think employs this strategy too.

In the Acknowledgements section Jenny Valentish writes: “I realised afterwards, once I’d signed off on the book, that I skimped on the love, support and good times. Certainly they’re more obvious now (who really basks in those good fortunes in their twenties anyway?), but they were always there from family and friends, keeping me afloat. To this end, Women of Substance is a memoir of addiction, not a memoir of a girl.”

Good point.

She writes: “My life should have been a Duran Duran video. Exotic climes, open-top Jeeps, gleaming hotel lobbies with marble floors and ceiling fans rotating lazily over potted palms. I should have been thumping hard-oak boardroom tables and powering through airports in my safari suit.”

This is Jenny Valentish being self-deprecating, aware of middleclass privilege. I know I too have benefited immensely from class privilege. In fact, chunks of my life have been a Duran Duran video, especially, but not exclusively, my life in London advertising agencies. I still get to check-in occasionally to glamorous hotels with thriving indoor plants, and though my cashflow is constrained, to say the least, I live very comfortably, in a beautiful upper middleclass environment, and I do not lack.

She writes: “I’m lucky. While Woman of Substances isn’t exactly a beach read, my own experiences only skirt the edges of awful possibility. With my drug use I was just a tourist, albeit the type that overstays their visa. I didn’t get into trouble with the police. I didn’t drive under the influence, or even learn to drive. I didn’t overdose or take drugs with anyone who did. I didn’t get rushed to hospital. Nobody beat me up. I didn’t need to have sex with anyone for drugs, nor for drug debts. I didn’t want kids, so I didn’t accidentally drink through my first trimester, or use through a pregnancy. I had a secure childhood and parents who were able to look after me.”

Me neither. Me too.

Quite apart from the shock of how sordid many of Jenny Valentish’s experiences were (and I say “sordid” as a descriptor, not as a judgement), the shock for me in reading this narrative was realising just how conservative I’ve been. Yes, there were a few months sucking bongs at age 17. But my dope-fiend career was cut short by my complete inability to draw back, a failure I recall one rock musician friend murmuring must be “a terrible handicap for a girl”.

There was the one occasion I attempted to snort cocaine off a mirror; my long hair fell forward and wiped the mirror surface. (That same musician friend laughed and remarked how popular I must have been.) There was the time backstage when I reached for a proffered white powder and a rock musician friend, a famously drug-abusing rock musician friend, slapped my hand sharply, saying “Not that! That’s smack.” There was the life-changing, hideous episode with white powder backstage that led to a blackout and a blow-up my brain never stored in memory. There was the sleazy paparazzo with his date-rape drug.

Thing is, after age 18, I never smoked dope. After 21, I stopped drinking, almost entirely. After the white powder episode, I never touched white powder. After the date rape, I moved back to where my parents lived. As I once told an old friend, I never met a drug that liked me. Every time I tried an illegal substance it blew up in my face (so to speak), and I immediately stopped.

For a so-called groupie (“bandmoll”, we called it), I wasn’t even promiscuous. Over time, in my twenties, I had sex with more men than the girls I grew up with did – I think. But highly discriminately. And rarely.

Eating disorders? Overspending? Compulsive behaviours? Impulsivity? Stalking? I put my hand up. I did those other things that fit within the realm of addiction.

This is not a review; this is a personal response. My personal responses to what Jenny’s written are complex. Foremost, ultimately, they take the form of a chorus of “BRAVA!”, directed with a metaphorical bouquet to Valentish.

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Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager

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Quincy, Lisa and Samantha are each sole survivors of mass murders. But they live with threat.

When Lisa dies in suspicious circumstances, who should Quincy fear? Coop, the protective cop with Daniel Craig eyes? Jeff, the Ryan Reynolds look-alike Public Defender boyfriend? Samantha, her Riot Grrrl alter ego, tattooed SURVIVOR? Jonah, the tabloid scumbag? Her own mother, who taught her to be “Fine”?

Could He (who cannot be named) rise from the dead?

Or is that pesky dissociative amnesia concealing something Quincy’s survival depends on?

It’s 10.30pm. I’m working tomorrow. But I’m hooked.

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So began my relationship with Riley Sager’s Final Girls – undoubtedly soon to be a movie near you, not to be confused with a 2015 teenflick of the same title.

This was a thriller I read through the night, constantly mapping it against its pop culture references, the movies, the books, the actors who might be cast, constantly guessing and second-guessing the whodunnit.

I knew guessing whodunnit was a pointless exercise. The author is such a fan of this genre that I knew s/he’d strew red herrings liberally and would make sure the ending twists back on itself like an angry rattler. (For the record: I’ve since discovered Riley Sager is a man.)

Partway through:

The movies it’s reminding me of most right now, other than Fight Club, are I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Blair Witch Project, and the Sharon Stone pic Sliver, where the script intended the Perfect Boyfriend (Billy Baldwin) to be the killer and Tom Berenger as the brooding cop with icy blue eyes to be the Male Savior. But preview audiences didn’t like that, so the ending was re-shot, making a nonsense of any nuanced characterisation the actors might have attempted.

Icy blue eyes ex-marine = sociopath ordinarily. But hey. Anything can happen.

In fact those icy blue eyes might be more Gary Cooper than Daniel Craig and Tom Berenger. The cop’s name is Franklin Cooper, known as Coop or Frank – Gary Cooper’s real name was Frank Cooper, and he was known to his friends as Coop.

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Then I got precious:

Might be a touch of Donna Tartt (quince) in here too. The Secret History. The girl in the sacrificial virgin’s white dress that turns red with blood. Quincy and Sam are definitely maenads.

Btw Quincy is an Instagram blogging baker. She makes tartts (sic). And sweet muffins. Just desserts.

The Hitchcock Vertigo references kicked in.

vertigo_elly_mcdonald_writerNext day, I couldn’t let it rest:

I’ve been turning this one over in my head this morning. The author really loves genre. This is surprisingly smart plotting and structure and is ultimately a fan homage to the “final girl” trope. It’s also genuinely terrifying in some sequences.

Yup. It is.

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Review: Into The Water by Paula Hawkins

 

Into_The_Water_Paula_HawkinsI’ve just read Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water, and IMO it’s a better and more interesting novel than her bestseller The Girl On The Train.

It doesn’t have the more egregious flaws of GoTT – the drawn-out over-repetition, the ludicrous gothic ending, the central character we wanted to strangle. In all, much more disciplined: more pointed, less hysterical, more affecting. The ending is particularly finely judged.

The point is not really the whodunnit, which I won’t comment on. The point is how we construct and contextualise memories, the lies we tell ourselves and the delusions we accede to.

Hawkins prefaces her tale with two quotes, one from Hallucinations, by neurologist Oliver Sacks:

“We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorised with every act of recollection.”

Jules has been estranged from her sister Nel for decades, despite Nel’s frequent phone messages, to which she will not respond. Jules remembers Nel as callous – even cruel – as an adolescent big sister. She has Nel written off as a narcissistic self-dramatist. Then Nel dies in circumstances that might seem to justify that verdict. Jules returns to the village where the two spent teen summers, the village where Nel died, to care for Nel’s 15 year old mini-Nel, whose name is the near anagram Lena. But Lena is hostile, and her mother’s death is her second recent loss: not so long before, her BFF died the same way Nel apparently died.

The same way another local woman died 30 years earlier.

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There are those who believe they know the truth of what happened in each case, and those who know versions of what happened but cannot quite trust their knowing. There are those who seek a ‘justice’ that validates their version of events. There are those solely interested in self-justification. There are characters who effectively live in parallel universes, their versions of ‘reality’ in contradiction to the universes inhabited by others in their orbit.

Paula Hawkins explores what might happen when contradictory realities, constructed memories, are contested. She’s interested in interpersonal conflict, the shock effects in the wake of tragedy. She’s particularly concerned, as she was in The Girl On The Train, with how misogyny impacts women. There are several plot strands that play out ways men exert power to the detriment of women. Not all of these are presented in the most obvious terms. There are subtleties that are disquieting.

Don’t get too hung up on who did the killings. It’s really not the pay-off with this novel. The pay-off is the deep sigh when the question “Why?” is answered.

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Review: The Last Days of Jeanne D’Arc by Ali Alizadeh

Jeanne_D'Arc_Elly_McDonald_Writer.pngIvor Indyk at Giramondo Publishing was one of my lecturers at Sydney Uni 30 years ago, and I see he helped birth Ali Alizadeh’s novel The Last Days of Jeanne D’Arc, which I read last night.

Declaration: When I read Thomas Keneally’s Joan of Arc novel Blood Red, Sister Rose at age 14 in 1975 it made an indelible impression on me. It was always, perhaps, an uphill task for Alizadeh’s novel to surmount that.

It’s not that the Alizadeh novel isn’t interesting. It’s simply that for me it’s not compelling. And partly it’s not compelling, for me, because of how he’s chosen to expound his narrative, in ways that might be described as unconventional, might be described as experimental, might be described (my description) as pompous.

Alizadeh has chosen to write mostly in very short sentences. Sentences grammatically incomplete. Missing subject pronoun or verb. Repetitive. Yeah, he’s a poet. He wrote his PhD on Jeanne D’Arc in verse. Very clever. Not compelling.

The authorial voice switches between what I think of as Pompous Academic; first person; second person; and Voices. The first person and second person pronouns interchange across much of the novel’s central sequences. Sometimes together within the same paragraph. Sometimes they are linked immediately together, hand in hand. I’ll take that as a metaphor for the lesbian relationship which forms one plot strand. The Voices are Jeanne’s saints, or angels, and they speak in free-form verse, italicized.

Confession: I skipped quite a bit of the italicized sacred voices. I also skipped a lot of the lesbian relationship, but I did go back and read those sections afterwards. I skipped the lesbian relationship not because I have any aversion to lesbian relationships – contemporary, historical, speculative or fictional – but because I was interested (not compelled) by Alizadeh’s recounting of the historical narrative, and initially I chose to follow that more closely. I’ll come back to that lesbian relationship.

Joan of Arc as imagined by John Everett MillaisPreRaphaelite-Joan_of_Arc_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Let’s address the historical record, and that Pompous Academic voice.

In her review for Readings Online, Freya Howarth states “Alizadeh’s authorial interjections in the midst of battle scenes (about what future films will get wrong or debates historians will have) are jarring, in a good way; they remind the reader that what we know of Jeanne D’Arc is an amalgamation of stories told and retold over centuries”.

We are indeed frequently reminded that Jeanne D’Arc – that history – is an amalgamation of stories told and retold over centuries. And those reminders, that frequency, does jar. I agree with Howarth that this is intentional, intended to provoke readers to re-examine their assumptions, their received wisdoms.

Is Henry V of England a hero, as late medieval English people saw him, the very model of a king and warrior? Here’s how Alizadeh introduces Henry:

“Twenty-seven years old, a grotesquely scarred face. An extremely devout Christian, not at all the fun-loving, riotous youth of Shakespeare’s future play [Henry IV Part 1]. Severe and frankly soulless. Muscular. Possibly a psychopath. Probably a war criminal.”

And later:

“The Treaty of Troyes between the king of England, the Duke of Burgundy and the terrified, bullied queen of France. French Princess Catherine given to the English king. It is agreed that their child will be the joint ruler of the kingdoms of England and France. Celebrations in London. Shame in Paris. King Henry burps, rubs his hands after an ale, then fucks the beautiful Catherine without interest. Without any of the courtship of Shakespeare’s Henry V.”

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How to respond to these passages?

Let’s compare them to Peter Ackroyd’s account in The History of England, Vol I: Foundations:

“There can be no doubt that Henry V was driven by a sense of divine right as well as of duty. He abandoned his youthful pursuits and almost overnight, according to chroniclers, became a grave and serious king. He acquired a reputation for piety and for the solemn observance of ceremonies; until his marriage, seven years later, he remained chaste. He established several monastic foundations of an ascetic nature, where the daily exhalation of prayer was meant to support the Lancastrian dynasty. His devotion also had an aesthetic cast. The annalist, John Stowe, recorded that ‘he delighted in songs, metres and musical instruments, insomuch that in his chapel, among his private prayers, he used our Lord’s prayer, certain psalms of David, with diverse hymns and canticles’. When he went to war in France, he took with him organists and singers.”

Ackroyd summarises Henry as follows:

“No king won such plaudits from his contemporaries as Henry V. The [financial] misgivings about his wars in France were forgotten for the sake of celebrating his martial valour. He was devout as well as magnificent, chaste as well as earnest. He was as generous to his friends as he was stern to his enemies; he was prudent and magnanimous, modest of temperament. He was the very model of a medieval king.”

He continues:

“Yet there are some who have doubted that verdict. Shakespeare’s play Henry V can be interpreted in quite a different spirit as an account of a military tyrant who staked all on vain-glorious conquest of France. What did he finally achieve? Once his French conquests were dissipated, and the dream of a dual monarchy dissolved, very little was left to celebrate. All was done for the pride of princes.”

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Which tells us nothing about Henry’s personal relations with the beautiful Catherine. Or the state of his soul (“soulless”?).

I am inclined to suspect Alizadeh’s descriptions of Henry burping, rubbing his hands after an ale and fucking the French princess without interest are speculative (fictional). And this inclines me to suspect other embellishments where the Pompous Academic voice does not make clear what is on the historical record as against what is speculative, or where the Pompous Academic voice omits details on the historical record, creating a different impression of events.

For example, on Edward III:

“His father, another Edward, murdered in captivity so that the boy could claim the throne. Murdered by having a red-hot blade forced into his anus, apparently. So the towering young ruler has reason to be consumed with shame, self-loathing, brutality, hatred.”

These alleged feelings, are, according to Alizadeh, Edward III’s motive for starting the Hundred Years’ War with France.

Alizadeh is not, to my knowledge, a psychiatrist or psychotherapist. (He’s a poet.) Henry V was probably not, in my opinion, a psychopath (although being a psychopath was a handy requisite for being a successful medieval warlord). Edward III may have had many strong feelings but there is nothing on the historic record, to my awareness, to suggest shame and self-loathing were among them.

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Let’s try the Battle of Crecy:

“The French king’s Genoese [mercenary] crossbowmen advance upon the English longbowmen. The crossbows’ range is very short – no more than seventy metres at the most – compared to the longbows’ 400-metre range. Corpses of Genoese shooters pile up. Haughty French knights, angered by the crossbowmen’s failure, charge the English positions.”

Yes, and no. What Alizadeh fails to mention is that it is raining, raining so that the Genoese crossbows are damp. The crossbows cannot operate when wet. The Genoese mercenaries’ captain explains this to the French commanders, pleads not to be deployed. The French force the Genoese forwards. When the Genoese crossbows misfire, the French heavy cavalry trample over the top of them.

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Henry V is a “psychopath”, “Probably a war criminal”? Well yes. Henry V did order the execution of French prisoners taken for ransom during the Battle of Agincourt (Azincourt). The numbers of French prisoners overwhelmed the numbers of men available to guard them. But the order was stayed and most of the French knights and nobles taken captive survived to be ransomed.

Henry lays siege to Rouen: “the city’s trade routes, food supplies, water conduits, blocked by the English. Hunger forces out the city’s poorest, about twelve thousand. The English open fire: filled with arrows, thousands of civilians fall and fester. The surviving die of starvation and cold during the winter – one of the worst atrocities of the European Middle Ages.”

But hold up. “Hunger” forces out the city’s poorest? I think not. I believe the records show the good burghers of Rouen force out the city’s poor and sick, so the wealthier and healthier can live longer, sharing food and water between many fewer. Should the English army have taken in the outcasts, given them free passage? The English had camp followers enough of their own. Given men in medieval besieging armies die from contagious illnesses as much or more as they die in military assaults, the frail and sick of Rouen were potentially a biological weapon. The refugees might have included assassins, terrorists, fifth columnists. The debate has contemporary resonance.

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Not long after his marriage and the Treaty of Troyes, Henry V of England dies of dysentery, at the siege of Meaux.

Henry presided over a scorched earth policy, where English raiding parties burnt all habitations and all food sources that might provide shelter and sustenance to French troops. Henry didn’t invent that strategy; it was standard modus operandi for the English in France and their allies. Meanwhile, at the French court, the Burgundian and Orleans factions engage in massacres and assassinations. The French king believes he is made of glass. No one here has clean hands, no one is wholly sane.

But I digress. I promised to come back to the lesbian love story. Was Joan of Arc raped in imprisonment, prior to execution? That’s plausible. Was she raped by the Earl of Warwick? Speculative. Highly. Was she lesbian? Who knows. Did she engage in lesbian sexual relations? Speculative. Highly.

I am touched to learn from Ali Alizadeh that after Jeanne/Joan’s capture by Burgundian forces, not a voice in all of France, from all her erstwhile martial and political fellows, spoke up in Jeanne’s defence save one: a novice nun told a University of Paris theologian and judge something along the lines of “She’s not evil, sire. You must believe me. Joan is a good woman.”

Or maybe she said, “Jeanne’s a good woman, sire. All that she’d done has been good and according to God. She’s innocent.”

I wish I knew the precise words this Breton nun actually said, but I don’t, because Ali Alizadeh quotes all those words, yet he also writes, “What is known of Pieronne the Breton and her trial comes from a minor entry, one paragraph, in Journal d’un Bourgeois de Paris, an account of events of that time written by an anonymous Parisian.”

One paragraph? Did that one paragraph quote all those words verbatim? Or are they speculative? Or, does this Journal d’un Bourgeois de Paris exist at all, or is it a postmodern fictional insertion?

I wish I knew. Because I can’t trust the author, the Pompous Academic, and his “authorial interjections”.

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