The other day, I was asked a question that stumped me.
I was doing a talk at a high school, and a year 9 boy asked me if, given how much I suffered, would I change anything about my younger years?
I did the standard public speaker response when you are asked a question you have no idea how to answer: “Wow, that’s a really great question. Thank you so much for asking it.”
Depending on how slowly you utter this, and how strategically you structure your pauses, you can draw this out for five to ten seconds – enough time to throw together a response.
But even after those few seconds of scrambling, I still didn’t have an answer.
I ended up thinking out loud with the audience to meander my way to a quick response – that I probably wouldn’t change things – but I didn’t have space to explain why.
Growing up homosexual in the broad circumstances I did – a country town, blue collar, Sicilian-Australian, Roman Catholic environment – gave me certain messages about being gay. It was effete; unmasculine; it made me a faggot or a finocchio; it made me evil and sick. Bad bad bad.
But these external messages, in isolation, are not what fucked me up.
What fucked me up was my response to those circumstances. Being gay in that world seemed like it would annihilate me and everything I was supposed to be. So, for years, I fought it, denied it, deleted it. I perceived it as a mortal sin; prayed to God to fix me; dug out my baptismal crucifix and wore it like a talisman; studied the Bible hoping to drive the devil out of me. This led to that spiral down into depression, self-loathing, and eventually the suicidal ideation I wrote about in Invisible Boys.
So yes, the world was hostile to my existence. But I was more hostile to myself than the world was.
I know sixteen-year-old me only did what he did to try to survive. I probably wouldn’t have done it if my external environment told me it was okay to be gay; that I was good enough just as I was.
But I don’t sit down with my therapist to unpack the world and its fuckery. Sure, I could blame the world, but what a waste of time. I can’t change society any more than I can solve suffering on a global scale. Both would be Sisyphean to attempt, and nobody will ever succeed at either.
I do sit down to work with my therapist around how I treat myself, and that is where my recovery process begins and ends: with me, on the micro level. Those microcosmic changes are what ripple out to influence the macrocosm, but I can’t start with the world. I must start with me.
I have spent a long time recovering from how cruel I was to myself. My self-loathing runs deep, and even now, on a bad day, I can be right back there in that dark well in a split second. I have a track record of treating myself worse than I would ever consider treating another human being: with revulsion and disgust and utter contempt. I can turn on myself very quickly.
It might seem logical, then, that if given the chance, I would change this.
But being cruel to myself in my younger years made me more resilient in the long run.
For instance, sometimes I meet someone new who seeks to insult me, denigrate me, humiliate me, embarrass me, or reduce me. This is less common than when I was younger, when I had no discernment and would hang around people who made a sport of ridiculing me, but it still happens.
When I was younger, I listened to anyone who insulted me. I tried to make them like me. I tried to embody the characteristics they admired and squash out the traits they derided. I laughed at their ridicule of me to make them tolerate my presence. I performed like this constantly and if they didn’t stop insulting me – which they didn’t – I would blame myself for not doing enough to make them like me.
I did this most of my life. I don’t do it anymore.
These days, when I encounter someone like this, I feel a bit immune to their bullshit. Like, what can they say to me that is worse than what I have said to myself? Nothing. I was the most destructive person in my life for years. So, every time someone in my life tries to have a go at me, even in subtle, passive-aggressive ways, I just think, You can’t hurt me. They can’t. They will never come close to making me feel as bad about myself as I already did.
That isn’t to say I’m impervious to being emotionally wounded. Far from it. I have a sensitive temperament. I have a propensity for listening to critical voices, either my own, those of others, or those of society, that tell me I am not okay.
But I know now that there is nothing wrong with me. The message that I am not okay at my core is what is inaccurate, always, whether it’s me or someone else saying it.
So, the moment I get a whiff that someone is going to be destructive towards me, I don’t try to please them, or get them to change. I just get the fuck out. I cut them off, stop talking to them, stop investing time in them, block and delete if it’s online. I keep their toxicity as far away from me as possible. Their voices do not bear listening to, and whatever I do hear, I don’t take on board.
But this is a response I’m not sure an otherwise serene adolescence could have manufactured. It is a resilience borne of self-acceptance overcoming self-abnegation; a powerful alkali neutralising a corrosive acid.
That is to say: I am not sure I could have ended up where I am without having gone through what I did. I don’t know if I could know self-acceptance and wholeness if I hadn’t, at one point, hated myself so much I was willing to abandon myself entirely. Living through my own personal brand of shit made me who I am.
What if I had grown up in a wealthy, inner-city, left-wing suburb, in a white-collar family, with no cultural or religious prejudices towards homosexuality? Or what if I had grown up heterosexual?
I don’t know who I’d be or what I’d be like, but I do know that guy wouldn’t be me.
And even if those facets of my life changed, I don’t think I’d be happier or unmolested by life. I would have suffered anyway. All humans suffer and our suffering shapes our lives. My suffering would have just had a different colour.
So, to answer that kid from the high school library: no, I wouldn’t change anything about my past.
The only thing I would have changed about my younger years is that I would have been kinder to myself. But I feel okay with how things played out for me. It is my past cruelty towards myself that led me to a sense of what psychologists call unconditional self-acceptance.
The arrows I slung at myself along the way were misguided, but they both toughened my hide and taught me to put down the bow.
So pumped to share the latest installment in my blog interview series, Holden’s Heroes.
Firstly, I should mention that sometimes I get overwhelmed by simple things in life. This has led to me developing habits like responding to text messages five days later as if nothing has happened and it’s only been five minutes. For today’s post, I’ve decided to take the same approach. It’s been a few months since I posted my last Holden’s Heroes interview, and I’m just gonna strut back in here with my Oakley sunnies on and my shirt collar popped and a cigarette dangling from my gob and act like that’s what I planned to do all along. Okay? Sweet as.
So, this interview series focuses on fellow writers, and I’ve spent 2019 chatting with members of my #5amwritersclub. This month’s terrified abductee legally willing participant is my mate Alicia Tuckerman – a talented YA author, talented mother and talented lesbian (I’ll take her word for it) who is also a raging coffee addict and dad joke enthusiast. Let’s dive in and find out more!
Holden’s Heroes ~ July 2019
Holden: Alicia Tuckerman, welcome to my house! Um, look, first up, sorry about the mess … there is seriously just crap everywhere. In fact, I probably haven’t cleaned properly since Raihanaty A. Jalil came to visit … looks like the dregs of our peppermint tea is still in the bottom of those tea cups, ecch. I’d like to say I usually clean for guests, but I’d be lying.
Alicia: That’s alright mate! I had all my booster shots when the kids were small!
H: Booster shots? You underestimate the biohazard that is my house, I’m afraid … but please, make yourself comfortable. Okay, let’s jump in. You’ve had so much going on lately, I almost don’t know where to begin! I’ve really been enjoying your guest blogs for Margaret River Press during July. What have you enjoyed about that process, and is blogging something you have done on a regular basis previously?
A: I’ve had my Facebook page going for a couple of years now and while the posts aren’t typically “blogs” they do have that feel about them. Where I really just monologue about random stuff! I’ve really loved the opportunity to write for a different audience with the MRP blogs. The idea that other authors and writers would be able to relate to anything I have to say still blows my mind. I have to admit that the weekly deadlines have not been my favourite thing and I’ve seen a couple go rushing by, but I’ve really enjoyed it.
H: In your latest blog post, you referenced that famous Douglas Adams quote about loving the sound deadlines make as they go rushing by … I think we can both relate, ha! I believe the MRP guest blogging gig came about because your short story “Glass” is appearing in an upcoming anthology they are putting out later this year. “Glass” is a really moving short story and I feel privileged to have had the chance to read an early version of it. Can you talk about this story – what’s it about, and what was the inspiration?
A: Writing a short story was so ridiculously hard! And I tried really hard to not write “Glass”. I had a few different ideas and I tried to write those stories and they were good stories but Glass… well, it just wouldn’t bloody leave me alone. Pass the chips would ya?
H: As long as you don’t eat the last ones, or I’ll have a food tantrum. There ya go, enjoy the Doritos. And please, go on.
A: “Glass” demanded to be written and so the day before the deadline I gave in and it just fell out of me. “Glass” is kind of a break-up story and I didn’t want to write it because I went through one myself recently and I was worried people would assume the story was mine. It’s a story about what happens after a break up, when everything is so raw and fresh and jagged. When you’re terrified about what comes next but you can’t stay where you are and you’re learning what it is to heal. It explores that moment you start believing that maybe one day you won’t feel so broken and you might even be whole again.
H: That’s intense, and dealing with an adult break up is quite different to say, dealing with YA relationships like those in your first published novel, If I Tell You. Glass is probably more pitched at an adult audience. Was there any shift in your writing process, or thinking process, when you crafted “Glass”?
A: As I said, I had a few other stories that I was going with for the MRP collection and they were YA or New Adult stories. And I had wanted to write those (and who knows maybe I will turn them into something). But “Glass” had other ideas and once I stopped fighting the words, they just came and I didn’t really have to do much at all! I wish it was always that easy. Maybe I should give an adult novel a crack?
H: If by adult novel you mean full-blown erotica, I’m down for that. I’d also be okay with a grown-up contemporary fiction, which is more likely what you actually meant. Speaking of being a grown-up, I recently saw you on stage at the Centre for Stories interviewing YA author Mark Smith. Your delivery was so funny and perfectly timed and it definitely got the audience on side.
A: You’re being kind mate! I reckon I tanked so bad at that event! But thanks for boosting my ego.
H: You totally didn’t … this is one of those “writers are their own worst critic” scenarios. Are panels and public speaking gigs like this something you’d like to do more of in the future?
A: Yeah for sure! You know I love to talk and I love the chance to talk about things I’m really passionate about. You and I have an event later in the year at Crow Books and I’m doing a gig with your better half, Raphael, in October talking about the books that changed our lives. And really I’d love to do heaps more speaking gigs for sure! So anyone reading this—hit me up!
H: Go ahead people and book her, she’s stellar. Alicia, speaking of things that are stellar (my segue skills are off the charts today), let’s talk about your debut novel If I Tell You (Pantera Press, 2018). You’ve received some amazing reviews for this book, and it was even shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Congratulations! What does it mean to get such recognition?
A: It’s so wild! And unbelievable to be shortlisted. To go into the State Library and see a sticker on my book was a dream come true. And whilst I didn’t take it out, it was an honour to be named alongside the other amazing shortlistees. Renee Pettitt-Schipp’s book was so poignant and a very deserving winner.
H: Absolutely, huge congrats to Renee – great recognition of her book and as I said, the shortlisting itself is a real achievement for If I Tell You. Your novel was one of my favourite novels of 2018 and I talk about it a lot, just so you know. This is a bit of a Sophie’s Choice thing to ask, but who were your favourite characters in the book? For the record, I had a crush on Justin (but only in the early parts of the book), and found Lin to be the funniest part of the book.
A: Well Justin’s a hot guy (so I’m told)!
H: He is. I like my bogan boys.
A: And despite his … opinions … he’s not a bad guy. That was important to me, that he wasn’t completely irredeemable.
H: Yeah, I really liked this – there was nuance to Justin, even if he was a bit of a douche at times.
A: But I loved them all, they lived inside my head for ten years and that makes me sound like a crazy person but sometimes I miss them a little bit now they’re out in the big wide world on their own. And of course I have big soft spots for Alex and Phoenix and their love story but one my favourite characters to write was definitely Lin.
H: Yesss. I am a big Lin fan club member. Lin for PM.
A: I think everyone needs a mate like Lin, who will defend you to the end but also tell you when you’re being a dick. I also really loved Alex’s Dad, Andrew and Gilly and Van… And I think I’ve mentioned them all now which was probably not the point of the question!
H: Um, yeah, you’re kind of cheating now, but I’ll roll with it because hell, we make the rules here. Tell me, what’s your favourite thing that someone has said to you about If I Tell You?
A: I love a good ego boost as much as anyone. I love hearing anything good about my book, that someone has enjoyed something that came from my head and heart. But what really gets me in the feels is when someone goes out of their way to message me and tell me that my book has helped them or that they have seen themselves in my book. I’ve had so many messages from young people who are struggling with their identity who have said that my words have given them strength and that’s more than I ever dreamed of.
H: I totally get that. It’s what we hope for when we send these hyper-personal stories out into the world.
A: There’s this one message that sticks with me from a girl who contacted me on Instagram after Sydney Writers Festival last year. She’d come to hear my panel and she had my book with her and wanted me to sign it but she was with her mum and she was too afraid to come over to me in case her mum made some sort of connection between me and her. Because I wear my identity on the outside. Then she messaged me again a few months later to say she’d come out and everything was okay. Not great but okay—and sometimes okay is enough. It’s a start. And that, that right there really is enough to make up for my one star reviews or people not getting it. If I can help one person feel better, to be brave when they don’t know what is waiting for them after the fall, then I’m happy.
H: That’s unreal – this shit changes lives. You’re right to feel special about that. Okay, let’s shift gears, because I know you’re working on a second novel, because we’ve both bitched and moaned over coffee this past year at how hard second novels are. Can you give us a hint of what kind of book it will be, and how it’s progressing? Apologies in advance if this question sends you into a full-blown shame spiral and/or nuclear meltdown.
A: You got anything stronger than these cans of export mate? Might need a whisky to get through this one, haha!
H: Answer the question, Tuckerman, and you can have all the whisky you desire.
A: Well, it’s safe to say it’s taken far longer than I thought it would, but it’s getting there. It’s about a sixteen year old girl learning to accept the changes and challenges in her life following a pretty brutal car accident. Before the accident she was a soccer player with dreams of playing for her country and well, now that won’t happen. It explored grief and jealousy and the idea of participation. The idea of not needing to be the best at something to be able to love it. There’s a good handful of LGBT+ characters and themes but this isn’t a “coming out” story. And there’s some love/lust thrown in for good measure, because I love writing kissing scenes! Now… where’s that whisky!?
H: Terribly sorry to pull a GLaDOS on you, but the whisky was a lie. I need you relatively sober to answer my remaining questions. One thing I’ve noticed is that you write about lesbian characters in an authentic way that is often grouped in with the #ownvoices movement. What would you love to see more of when it comes to lesbian characters being represented in literature/culture?
A: There’s no argument that If I Tell You was a coming out story. It’s a book about being young and gay in rural Australia and what that can be like. But what I hope to write more of now and see more of, are YA books about sport or crimes or drugs and sex where the characters are gay, but it’s not about being gay. Or not only about being gay.
H: Totally agree. I kind of feel like us gay authors in particular sometimes need to write the coming out story – or some version thereof – first, maybe, because we can move on to those more nuanced depictions.
A: Being gay is no different to being straight and I think people—including myself—can sometimes be attracted to the drama of a coming out story or a story about overcoming adversity because those stories allow for us as authors to really take the character on a journey. There’s a lot of scope for drama and it’s tempting to write in that space. But teenagers—gay or straight—have a whole lot of other crap going on I’d love to write about.
H: Agree. Let’s touch on process now. We are both part of the same #5amwritersclub though we’re both, uh, a little lax about attending regularly. What made you join the club, and what made you stay? Was it my constant gym selfies?
A: Hahahaha! Well, we both know that every time I see you I get a front row seat to the gun show!
H: *kisses his own biceps*
A: It’s definitely your hot bod and constant innuendo that keeps me coming back for more!
H: Innuendo? You mean in your endo. Okay, go on, we have people reading this who are probably less vapid than us. Maybe. What keeps you coming back to the #5amwritersclub?
A: I think it’s the collegiate feeling I get, even when we’re just pissing about on Twitter instead of being productive. I stay because we’re family. Up until I released If I Tell You I didn’t really have many writer mates, people who I could talk to about stuff that non-writers just wouldn’t understand in the same way. I craved that community, that connection with people—my people—to provide friendship and support and cameraderie while we all go along this crazy ride of self-loathing, rejection and a tiny bit of success.
H: More than a tiny bit, in your case! What’s something you’ve learned in the past year or two about writing that you wish you’d known before getting published?
A: I think it’s the pressure I wasn’t prepared for. Not external pressure but internal and self-imposed. See, I had my whole life to write my first book but now I’ve done it I feel I need to back it up with more books quickly so that people don’t forget who I am! There’s a lot of pressure in my head and that doesn’t lead to very good writing. So I think I need to relax a little and let it happen more organically. I’ve also learned that you can’t actually survive on coffee and zero sleep!
H: Yeah, that shit will catch up to you. I remember you talking once about how your idea for a novel was shelved for many years until you were injured and had so much time on your hands you decided to write it. Do you think that Alicia would recognise the Alicia of 2019? And I guess my biggest question: where does Alicia Tuckerman want to be five years from now, in 2024?
A: I don’t think the Alicia then is too fundamentally different to the Alicia now. I’m definitely older now and not just in years. Since then I’ve had relationships and kids, I lost both my parents. I’ve experienced heartbreak and loss but also great happiness and joy and I think the Alicia then is still the Alicia I am now, just different. But I change and grow every day, that’s what makes life interesting. As for the future, there’s a plan. In five years I’ll have finished at least another two books and Netflix will have brought them all and I’ll be living on a farm in the Swan Valley with heaps of cool outbuildings that I’ve converted into little writing retreats. My kids will be running wild and I have a pet miniature donkey called Switch [don’t ask me why Switch because I literally don’t know—that’s just his name].
H: That is … oddly specific. The donkey’s name, I mean. And the existence of the donkey at all, actually. The rest sounds relatively in line with what I might have expected in your answer.
A: Well, that’s the dream plan. Reality probably doesn’t look quite like that, but really the only plan I have is to do more of what makes me happy. Write more, spend time with my kids and people I care about.
H: Sounds solid. Okay, like a true investigative journo, I’ve saved the hardest-hitting question for last. 1990s pop group Alisha’s Attic had a hit song called “Alisha Rules the World“. Tell me honestly, have you ever listened to this song to boost yourself up before a public speaking gig?
A: Oh you know I have!
H: I KNEW it!
A: But I wish they’d spelt my name right. And it totally pumps me up, but let’s be real here, the song’s about a badass heartbreaker and I don’t think I’m fooling anyone in that regard, hahaha!
H: Alicia Tuckerman, it’s always a blast shooting the shit with ya, mate. Thanks for coming round. The whisky’s up for grabs now – wanna stay on for another drink, maybe some light spooning?
A: Sounds great, but you know I’m the big spoon!
H: Well, this conversation has taken an unfortunate turn. Maybe with some whisky in me I won’t mind being the little spoon …
~ Social Media Links ~
I hope you enjoyed this interview with the amazing Alicia Tuckerman. She’s a true talent in the YA literature space and not just fun to chat to – she’s even more fun to interact with on the socials, so here’s where you can give her a like and a follow:
I even type the word “gratitude” hastily, almost looking over my shoulder in case someone catches me doing it, because I think I was raised (socially/culturally/familially) to see this concept as a bit granola-y, you know?
Like, if I talk about feeling grateful (ecch), it’s a slippery slope to aura cleansing and essential oils and crystal therapy. From there, of course, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to having a man bun and drinking kombucha.
Worse than that, I was scared that if I ever wrote about feeling grateful for what I have, I would lose it. It sounds superstitious to write this, and is probably a chunky insight into my shattered-glass psyche, but even now as I write this, I am scared that when I hit “publish”, the universe or God (or the therapy crystals, those malevolent fuckers!) will turn on me and take away everything good in my life.
I wasn’t raised to talk about the good things, because that’s showing off and attention seeking, and I grew up learning that pride comes before a fall. No pride, no fall, right?
However, I also wasn’t raised to talk about the bad things, because that’s dwelling on the negative and navel gazing and also, somehow, attention seeking. You just get on with it.
Sidebar: when I look at these two statements, I can only conclude that I was essentially raised not to talk.
But talk I do, now.
In any case, I think I’ve learned over the past few years – through writing my blog posts, through being more open on social media, and of course through my writing of novels and short stories – to talk about the hard stuff, the darker side, the bad shit. It’s been cathartic and revelatory and a constant undulation of learning that it’s okay, and survivable, to feel the full spectrum of human emotion.
But I don’t know if I’ve ever learned how to write about feeling good.
I realised this recently when a wave of the much-maligned gratitude smacked me in the face with the force of a tsunami, and I could barely hold it together.
It happened, of all places, at Disneyland.
This was over a month ago, when I was on my honeymoon in Europe, and we arrived in Paris for the final week of our holiday. I mentioned something to my husband about following him around France to various pop concerts of his choosing, and he suggested I should choose an activity for us while we were in Paris.
The first thing out of my mouth was, “I wanna go to Disneyland.”
This was unexpected, because Disneyland has never been on my radar. I’ve been to Paris twice before and never had any intention to visit it. In fact, in 2013 I was at the train station that takes people from Paris to the theme parks, and I remember seeing the parents with their prams and kids hanging off them like saddle bags and thinking, “That seems like actual hell on Earth.”
And to be honest, I’ve always been fairly critical of the commercial apparatus behind the Disney machine: I don’t like how that studio has taken over so much of Hollywood, how its influence and control sweeps over so many franchises. My first thought of Disneyland was the No Doubt song “Tragic Kingdom”, taken from their hit 1995 album of the same name:
Once was a magical place
Over time it was lost
Price increased the cost
Now the drawbridge
Has been lifted as the millions
They drop to their knees
They pay homage to a king
Whose dreams are buried in their minds
His tears are frozen stiff
Icicles drip from his eyes
The king being Walt Disney; his frozen tears a reference to the urban legend that he was cryogenically frozen upon his death in 1966. (Which, holy crap, I only just discovered was not actually true(!?!), but that’s a discussion for another day.)
The point was: I was a bit cynical about the Disney corporation and yet, when I was given carte blanche to choose anywhere I wanted to go in Paris, I chose Disneyland.
Because, being on my honeymoon, I was in a five-week long permanent good mood, and honestly, fuck the cynicism and shit, I just wanted to go have some fun.
So, the husband and I finally arrived at Disneyland Paris on a cool June day. As soon as we got off the RER train and walked out into the open air, I could feel the sense of excitement building in my limbs.
“I want to explore the village first, before we go into the theme park,” I said, like an absolute geek, but I just needed to know that I had walked around every square inch I was allowed to.
So we did: briefly exploring the retro restaurants and cafes and sports bars of the Disney Village like the kid who keeps his shiny collectible in the box and presses his nose to the plastic, scared to ruin the anticipation of finally opening the new toy.
And while we were still in the village, in one of the giant shops filled with Disney merchandise, the wave hit me.
It was partly the nostalgia factor of seeing so much Aladdin and The Lion King merch on display in the shop. They were the defining Disney animated films of my childhood; Aladdin was the first movie I ever saw at a cinema when I was 4 or 5. I remembered the first time I’d heard of Disneyland. Back in the days of VHS tapes, they used to have advertisements for Disneyland before and/or after the film, so in that moment in the World of Disney shop, it came flooding back.
The memory of being five years old, and seeing all these kids and families having an epic time at Disneyland, and knowing that would never be me.
It would be misleading to pretend that I grew up in some impoverished situation, because I didn’t. But I grew up in an isolated town and we weren’t the kind of family who could afford to fly overseas and go to Disneyland. So, I think I grew up learning that lots of things in life were out of reach for someone like me, and Disneyland and Europe were two of those things.
I had never realised it had imprinted on me in such a way until this moment.
So while my husband was blithely scoping out the merch, I felt a tidal wave of happiness splash over me, gently at first, almost like a fresh dew.
The wave said to me:
Sometimes, we do eventually get what we want. Isn’t it nice?
And then, suddenly, there I was, choking back tears in the Disney shop, surrounded in all directions by those stupid fucking overpriced mugs and Mickey Mouse-embossed glassware while A Whole New World played over the speakers.
Because the wave was right. It was really nice to, eventually, get something that you always wanted. It was a childlike, redemptive state to be in: that I had accessed some hitherto hidden pocket of joy that I had absolutely ruled myself out of experiencing when I was a young boy.
What a lucky doer.
I managed to contain myself, so when the husband decided he was done and we moved on to the next part of the village, I cracked jokes about how this place was so capitalist and how “moichandising” was “where the real money from the movies was made” (quoted in the voice of the character Yogurt from the 1986 parody flick Spaceballs).
But the wave wasn’t done with me yet.
As we walked, the gratitude just kept building inside me. The tidal wave was slushing through my body, a cleansing flood washing out all these other things in my life I had told myself I would never, ever have – except now, miraculously, I did have them.
I felt gratitude to be at Disneyland as a 30 year old man when I’d once believed I’d never have the chance.
I felt gratitude to be walking there, hand-in-hand with the man I love. The first time I came to Paris in 2006, I was with a man and later told myself this would be something I would never have again. I remember returning to Perth Airport after that backpacking holiday and squeezing myself back into my straight guy body, the spectral snakeskin of my old self that I would continue to wear for two years. I thought I would never get what I wanted – but now, here I was with my husband.
I felt gratitude that, after all the campaigning and trauma, I was now legally married to the bloke, something I grew up never even imagining as an option.
I felt gratitude to be in Paris, my favourite city in the world, a million miles from home.
I felt gratitude that my book had just won another award, that people were congratulating me and saying they wanted to read it, that it was actually finally getting published, when I’d been working on that dream since I was seven years old.
I felt gratitude that I was on my honeymoon and having the best five weeks of my goddamn life.
I felt so much gratitude I just wanted to get on my knees and thank God, or the universe, or the essential-oil-crystal-kombucha-auras, for letting anything this good happen to me. I didn’t feel like I deserved any of it, but I was so, so glad it was happening.
While all this was happening, my husband said he needed to pee. While he was in the toilet, I found a quiet corner at the side of a sports bar and let myself shake and cry tears of utter, unfettered joy. I had come to know pain and struggle intimately, but this feeling of being really, truly happy was brand new.
Crying finally let that tidal wave out of my body – and it swept away with it all the junk and detritus a man can build up in thirty years of hating himself, of being afraid, of thinking he will never get what he wants.
When my husband returned, I said I was ready to head into the theme park and enjoy our day at Disneyland. In fact, I decided I was ready to go on a real rollercoaster for the first time ever – something my anxiety had always held me back from until that point. But, in my freshly flooded state, I thought, “to hell with you, anxiety”.
No, more than that.
To hell with everything that ever held me back.
To hell with my own negative thoughts.
To hell with my fear that, if I’m grateful, and enjoy the moment, something will go wrong.
To hell with everything that ever stopped me just being a kid and having some fucking fun.
So I found the biggest, fastest, scariest rollercoaster there was – the famous Space Mountain, of course – and I went on it. We were seated right at the front and we hurtled through a pitch black tunnel at breakneck speed for two minutes, faster and faster, the force of the wind almost solid against our faces, the adrenaline giving me permission to shout and say the word “fuck” a lot.
And it was sick as, because with my arms strapped to my sides, there was nothing I could do but live in the moment and revel in it.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to kill myself because I was gay.
Growing up gay in country WA was a uniquely isolating and traumatic experience. I found my homosexuality completely at odds with my identity as a man, and trying to reconcile the two identities seemed impossible.
I have finally shared my story, for the first time, as part of the Bright Lights, No City storytelling project at the Centre for Stories.
You can listen to the audio of my story at the link below. Since the story was created as an oral story – meaning I just practiced the story verbally and have never written a word of it – I am encouraging people to listen to the audio, rather than read the transcript. The story was meant to be heard, not read.
If my story resonates with you, please share it – with your friends, colleagues, students, and with gay people but also with straight people. I told this story partly for myself (catharsis, healing) and partly to help others out there going through the same stuff. Too many LGBTQIA+ youth go through hell, in silence, trying to come to terms with their identity. Too many don’t survive.
One day in 1995, I rocked up to primary school to see a whole bunch of classmates gathered around an enclave behind the Year 2 classroom. Someone had scrawled an angry message in black Artline texta on the otherwise non-threatening beige bricks. The message read:
“Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?” – Alanis Morissette
Keep in mind we were all seven years old, so we were mystified by this strange message which actually contained One Of The Really Bad Swear Words. Now, one of the other kids alerted us that the teacher was coming, so we raced back to line up for class, and I suspect for everyone else that was the end of the mystery.
But my curious little sponge-brain kept churning. Who was this mysterious Alanis Morissette? Was he the dodgy guy who roamed around in the bushland next to our school? Was he a killer? Was he threatening to fuck someone, whatever ‘fuck’ actually meant? I was quite convinced I’d found a clue to some kind of local murder case. Of course, being seven, I eventually forgot about the brewing criminal investigation, failed to inform the Geraldton Police, and went back to learning my times tables.
I was too young to place the name – but looking back, I can clearly recall that was my first exposure to the woman who would, some years later, become my favourite musical artist of all time.
Over the next decade my awareness grew a tiny bit. I had a vague knowledge of Alanis Morissette as some angry chick with a harmonica on the radio. I heard her thank India on the radio when I was ten years old but never knew it was her song.
It was in 2004 that something significant happened. I was draped over the couch one Sunday and my dad was reading the entertainment magazine that came inside the weekend newspaper.
“Hey, you know that Alanis Morissette?” he asked me. (Everyone’s name has a “that” before it when my dad uses it.)
“Yeah.” The local bushland killer guy. No. Wait. Famous singer-songwriter bird. “What about her?”
“She says in this interview that she wanted to kill herself back when she was younger. Can you imagine? All that fame and money and she still wanted to top herself.”
And that little factoid got stored in my brain. I didn’t dwell on it that day – I went back to whatever I spent my weekends doing at sixteen, which was probably either working on my awesome Pokemon fanfiction (it was super cool, thanks) or planning how to sneak away for my next wank.
A few weeks later, maybe, I heard Alanis’ single “Out is Through” on the radio and watched the video on Rage with my little sister. I liked it enough to wait for it to come on the radio and tape it on a cassette to listen to later, and it ended up as a mediocre track on one of my many top 40 mixes.
In 2006, a German girl I met while backpacking through Europe burned me a mix CD for my discman (I’d got with the times). Track 4 of that album was Alanis’ song “Everything”. It was a nice enough song.
The reason I list all these little touchpoints is because even though I knew who and what Alanis was by this point in my life, she was always just another singer-songwriter. Pleasing to the ear; lyrically skilful; beautiful voice. But nothing groundbreaking. I was quite heavily into Killing Heidi and The Offspring and The Darkness and solo artists didn’t really enter that equation.
It was in 2007 that everything changed. I was on a trip to Melbourne with my family to see Collingwood play at the MCG, and at some point later that week we wound up in a record shop. I had grown my hair long and my face was covered in typical eighteen-year-old bumfluff and I was in a moody depressive haze, and suddenly while flicking through CDs I came across a purple disc with a hand on the cover.
Alanis Morissette: The Collection.
And immediately, I heard my Dad’s voice from three years before. She wanted to kill herself.
It meant nothing to me in 2004, but everything to me in 2007, because by then, in that very moment, I was a rage-filled, repressed, suicidal timebomb and I was ready to explode.
Compelled, I bought the album and went straight to the hotel, put my earphones in and listened to it.
It was a song called Eight Easy Steps that changed my life. These lyrics, in particular, struck a chord inside me so deep that my soul reverberated until my teeth shook:
How to lie to yourself and thereby to everyone else
How to keep smiling when you’re thinking of killing yourself
How to numb à la ‘holic to avoid going within
How to stay stuck in blue by blaming them for everything
I’ll teach you all this in eight easy steps
The course of a lifetime, you’ll never forget
I’ll show you how to in eight easy steps
I’ll show you how leadership looks when taught by the best
I was stunned. She knew. She knew what this shit felt like. Real shit. And she knew exactly how I was feeling. She had written it down and articulated it in a way I didn’t have the skills, or emotional capacity or distance, to do. I’d never heard someone sing about wanting to kill themselves in such a way.
And all I could think was, “well, she’s still alive, so maybe she knows something I don’t”.
And so, I let Alanis Morissette show me how leadership looks. I followed her songs, one by one through YouTube searches, and became more and more amazed at her lyrical and musical artistry. I found the 1998 hard rocker “Joining You” on a YouTube video about gay suicide and must have played it a hundred times before finally going to a local record shop to buy the album it came from, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie.
Junkie was the first studio record of Alanis’ I heard, and it remains my favourite album of all time to this day. It is a sprawling mess of dirty riffs, drum loops, Eastern-influenced strings and dark, experimental lyrics, and each song was – and still is – like therapy. Before long, I’d worked my way through Alanis Morissette’s entire discography.
People who know me personally already know that I am a huge fan, but they may not know the extent to which Alanis’ music quite literally saved my life.
When I describe myself as a timebomb in that era, I mean I was a mess of sparking, short-circuiting emotions and I had no way of processing or understanding them. That changed when I found this artist. Her music and lyrics helped me to get through each black day. They made me unravel and try to understand myself. They eventually made me want to keep living.
“Joining You” and “Eight Easy Steps” and “Can’t Not” and so many other songs helped me tackle the dark shit in my head.
“Right Through You” and “Sympathetic Character” and “Not The Doctor” helped me to channel my rage.
“I Was Hoping” and “Hands Clean” helped me rethink and reprocess my teenage dalliances with much older men.
And beyond helping me endure the hardest times and make sense of the mess that was my own brain, Alanis’ approach to art informed my own. I became utterly convinced that good art is honest art. Art that is unflinching and unfettered; art that speaks to what hurts more than anything else; art that yields to no sacred cows, but speaks the truth regardless of fallout.
It is a philosophy that now, in 2018, is at the very core of who I am as a writer and an artist. It’s what made me throw caution to the wind and write my novel INVISIBLE BOYS, which is, upon reflection, incredibly unabashed and honest.
This same drive is now burning anew in my chest since last night’s concert, when I saw Alanis perform at the ICC Theatre in Sydney. The way the songs connected directly to my inner self, like a lariat of healing wrapped around my heart, brought tears to my eyes again. Her voice during Mary Jane reminded me of the power of putting all your emotion into something. Her delivery of You Oughta Know recalled the power of channelling truth into art.
And so I’m revitalised for 2018 – not just to write another novel, but to write a novel that brims with honest emotion. Honest and unfettered expression is my ultimate paragon in this quest, and I can’t wait to see that spill across the page.
It’s hard being an artist and it’s hard being a sensitive person. But it’s a little easier when someone leads the way and somehow manages to understand and express your inexpressible feelings for you.
Well today has been one of the most hectic days in my writing career to date.
I wrote an article about Australia’s Same-Sex Marriage situation, which is pretty awful. Basically the whole country is going to (voluntarily) vote (by mail!) on our rights, and the results are not even binding. It’s set up so that if the ‘no’ vote wins, the government will take it as gospel and try to quash marriage equality; if the ‘yes’ vote wins, they are not bound to even consider it.
My article was picked up by the Huffington Post and received a massive response! It’s taken me hours to get through all the replies, which have been so overwhelming. I’m really glad I wrote it now.