Tag Archives: identity

Radio Face, Elizabeth White

Ebony Janssen was walking from the train station in her school uniform. She could feel a clammy glide of sweat lubricating the movement of her thighs. In a modest attempt to firm her thighs and put an extra shield between the world and her underpants she wore bike pants underneath her dress. They had rolled up and were now like thick tubes around her legs.

The black lycra soaked the salty moisture and alleviated the premature signs of chafe. She tried to adjust them by pulling at their hems through her uniform.

She had been walking for ten minutes since stepping out of an air-conditioned train and onto the steaming black asphalt platform at Bowen Hills station. She didn’t know anyone who caught the train to Bowen Hills. The surrounding streets were lined with industrial buildings and mid-rise office blocks without many windows. She hadn’t walked past anyone since leaving the train station, but felt a pang of fear every time a car drove by. She kept her school hat on her head and pulled it down at the front to obscure her face. Her parents thought that she was working on her history assignment in the library after school. Although it wasn’t likely that they would drive past her, she kept worrying that someone that she knew might. What would they think about the way she was walking, trying to keep her thighs separated, causing her steps to angle out diagonally?

Two incidents in Ebony’s life had taught her that other people noticed her faults. One morning in Grade 3, Ebony had been sitting on the carpet with the rest of her class while Mrs. Wilson shared with them the daily news. When Mrs. Wilson asked Ebony and the other students to return to their desks, Ebony put her hands on the carpet in front of her, uncrossed her legs and got up from her hands and knees. Brandon Francis noticed the way she used her hands to get up instead of swiftly powering up in an unsupported motion, the way he did with his own lanky frame. Once Ebony returned to full height Brandon sniggered at her, ‘That’s how fat people get up.’ A new concept began to shape itself on Ebony’s unmarked psyche. Brandon had just brought it to her attention that she was fat, which was not something she had noticed or believed about herself before, but he had. She now understood from things she had heard in the playground, that fatness equated with ugliness.

The second instance had occurred on the train home one Friday afternoon earlier in the year. Now in Grade 10, Ebony had been standing inside the door of a train, gripping the handrail that hung down in the centre of the carriage entryway. Olivia Johns stood opposite her. They weren’t usually companions on the train trip home, but on this particular day, all of their friends had been picked up from school by their parents. Ebony was conscious that Olivia was cooler than she was, and therefore she made an attempt to appear up to date with the latest gossip circulating through their grade. ‘Did you hear about the party that boy from St John’s had? Apparently some guys from Macarthur High gatecrashed, and then the cops turned up.’

‘Yeah, I was there,’ Olivia replied. She avoided looking at Ebony by watching some schoolboys sitting down the other end of the carriage. Ebony tried to keep the conversation going. ‘Do you know many guys from St John’s?’ she asked. The only boys Ebony knew were on the soccer team she played on. But she never really spoke to them unless they said something to her first, which wasn’t very often.

‘A few. I went out with one for a while,’ Olivia said, still watching the boys further down the train.

‘That’s cool.’ Ebony hoped that one day she’d go to parties and hang out with some boys.

‘Hey, why don’t you wash your face?’ Olivia turned back and centred her attention on Ebony, looking at her through the metal handrail.

‘What? I do.’ Ebony’s face started to feel warm. The train came to a halt at a station. Losing her footing, she tried to grab onto the handrail and rebalance. She turned back to Olivia and mentally chastised herself for her inability to remain balanced on the train.

‘No you don’t. You’ve got blackheads on your nose and pimples on your forehead because your face is dirty. You should start washing your face.’ Olivia’s eyes scrutinised Ebony’s appearance.

‘But I do,’ Ebony tried to vindicate herself.

Olivia didn’t know that every morning and evening Ebony showered and washed her face with Clearasil. She rubbed the tips of her fingers over the small bumps that littered her face. Each spot was a tiny embodiment of her imperfection. Ebony prayed, she pleaded, and she bargained with God. ‘Please make my skin perfect. I’ll believe in you if you do.’

Ebony’s mother had told her that she would eventually grow out of her pimples, the way she had when she was a teenager. But Ebony couldn’t stop the feeling of disappointment that she experienced when she looked at herself in the mirror, a haunting reminder that what she saw was ugly. If she noticed it, she was certain that everyone else did too.

Now, on this hot afternoon, standing on a corner, Ebony pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket and checked the address she’d scrawled on it. 14 Brookes Street.

Looking at her surroundings she concluded that the place she was looking for was just a bit further ahead. She was going to see Dr. Hayward. She wasn’t positive that he was a real doctor. She was only positive that if she had any other options she wouldn’t be walking down an industrial road on her own with her birthday money in her schoolbag.

The front of the building was plain and undistinguished. There were no signs and the windows were all blacked out from within. Ebony noticed three pot plants that were lined up beside the front door. Their leaves were green and supple, signs of excellent care and attention. This was a good omen for her appointment. Ebony walked through the door and saw a man sitting behind the reception desk. She assumed that he must be Julian, the receptionist she had spoken to when making her appointment. Until she spoke with Julian, Ebony hadn’t made an appointment for herself before. When he answered, his voice has been friendly and approachable.

‘Good afternoon. Skin-Deep Clinic. Julian speaking.’

‘Hi. I want to see Dr. Hayward. Please. I have pimples.’

‘Darling, of course. Let me see what I can do for you. I need your name first, please.’

‘Oh, sorry. I’m Ebony. My name is Ebony Janssen. Can Dr. Hayward fix my pimples?’

‘Lovely. Ok Ebony. Dr. Hayward is booked up for the next few weeks. What time of day works best for you?’

‘Umm…I need to see him one day after school. And I have soccer training on Tuesdays and Wednesday afternoons. Oh, and games on Fridays. Is he free on a Monday or a Thursday afternoon? Please. Thank you.’

‘You’re a sporty little thing Ebony. And has anyone ever told you, you have a lovely phone voice? Maybe you could be on radio.’

‘No. They haven’t. Thank you.’

‘Now, I can fit you in to see Dr. Hayward on Thursday 6th November, 4:00pm. Does that work for you Ebony?’

‘Yes. Yes it does. Thank you.’

‘Wonderful! We’ll see you in a few weeks. Take care till then Ebony.’

‘Ok. I will.’

Now, she could put a face to the nice man on the phone. He wore a white shirt, unbuttoned at the top, underneath a navy suit. His glasses were tortoise shell and round, his hair brown and combed back in a perfect wave above his forehead, and he didn’t have any pimples. Ebony approached the desk the way she’d seen her parents do when they arrived at an appointment.

‘Hi, I’m Ebony. I’m here to see Dr. Hayward at four,’ she said.

‘Hello Ebony, you’re the girl with a voice fit for radio. It’s lovely to see you. Take a seat. The doctor will see you shortly.’ Julian’s warm reply lightened Ebony’s apprehension about her appointment.

Ebony found an empty leather chair with wooden arms. In the centre of the room was a large fish tank that stood from floor to ceiling. Ebony watched the fish swim around in their bottled blue ocean while she waited for Dr. Hayward. A harmonic progression of classical music sounded from two speakers that sat on a filing cabinet behind the receptionist’s desk. Ebony didn’t pretend to know about classical music, but she listened to Classic FM frequently. She believed that the calming sounds might relieve the stress that was probably causing her pimples.

Ebony kept a record of the different methods she had used to try and makeover her skin and outward appearance. She started with different soaps, noting which made her outbreaks worse, or which brought slight improvements. She attempted to eliminate soft drinks and lollies from her diet, but very often failed to say no when they were offered to her. She tried drinking more water, but that only made her have to go to the toilet all the time. She tried to be a better person; hoping people would think she was nice. But none of these approaches rid her of her blemishes.

The waiting room was deserted except for one other patient, a woman asleep with her head crooked back. She was dressed like Ebony’s mother: a pearl necklace, white denim skirt with a red polo shirt and matching red loafers. Shortly after Ebony sat down, the woman let out a low moan and slouched back into her chair. The receptionist whispered, ‘Never mind Mrs. Tyson, Ebony. She’s just coming to after a little procedure.’

‘What was her procedure?’ Ebony asked, feeling uneasy about how she might find herself after her own appointment.

‘I’m afraid I can’t say. Patient confidentiality. But really, she’s fine.’ He stopped working on his computer and looked over at her with reassurance.

Ebony didn’t get time to consider Mrs. Tyson’s situation any further. Dr. Hayward appeared at the doorway beside the receptionist’s desk and called her name. She slung her school bag over her shoulder and followed Dr. Hayward into his office. He ushered Ebony into the seat in front of his desk and sat down opposite her.

Like other doctor’s surgeries that Ebony had been in, she noticed that Dr. Hayward had his certificates of qualification hanging on the wall. He looked younger than her parents, but old enough to be an experienced doctor. He was the best-looking man she’d ever spoken to. Ebony thought that Dr. Hayward had probably never had any trouble with pimples on his skin, or if he had, he had obviously been able to cure himself. He had smooth, faultless skin.

Dr. Hayward pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket and held it ready to write. ‘Ebony Janssen,’ he said, reading her name off the manila folder on the desk between them. ‘Yes?’ she said, looking at him.

Ebony sat on the doorstep outside her house. The sky was dark and her phone began to buzz in the bottom of her school bag again. She didn’t answer. She’d been sitting in the dark for fifteen minutes trying to deny the consequences of her pursuit for beauty. Finally, she resigned to her situation and opened the front door. Her mum rushed down the hallway towards the stairs. ‘Ebony? Is that you?’

‘Yes Mum.’ Ebony kept her head down and took off her school shoes, leaving them beside the door with her school bag. Her mum reached the top of the stairs and looked down at her.

‘Ebony, it’s eight o’clock! Where have you been? God! What happened to your face?’

‘Hi Mum,’ Ebony looked up at her, ‘Sorry I missed your calls. I went and saw a doctor about my pimples. I want to get rid of them.’ Her mum rushed down the stairs, reaching out her hands to hold Ebony’s face.

‘Who? What doctor? Where? How did you get an appointment? What happened to your face? Ebony, it’s all red. Does it hurt?’ She looked at Ebony’s face closely, examining the moist blisters that had appeared.

‘Sort of. I heard a girl at school talking about this doctor, apparently he helped her. I just called up and booked in.’ Ebony, shook herself free of her mother’s hold and started to bend down again, this time removing her socks.

‘Where?’ Her mother bent down, trying to reconnect with her daughter’s gaze.

‘A place in Bowen Hills.’ They both stood up again and looked at each other.

‘Bowen Hills? Ebony! What specialist practices in Bowen Hills?’

‘Dr. Hayward.’ Ebony picked up her bag and started moving up the stairs.

‘I thought you were at the library!’ her mother followed after her, ‘You should have been home hours ago! I’ve called your school! I’ve called your friends! Your father is driving around trying to find you. And you were in Bowen Hills seeing a doctor, who’s burnt your face! Ebony, I’m going to have to take you to a hospital. What else did he do to you?’ Ebony walked into her bedroom at the end of the hallway.

‘Nothing. It’s fine Mum. He said it would be a bit red for a few days, then new skin will form and I won’t have pimples.’ Ebony pulled out her school books and placed them on her desk.

‘A bit red? Ebony what did he use? What possessed you? Why didn’t you tell me? I could have gone with you.’ Her mother took Ebony’s lunchbox as she handed it to her.

‘Mum, I’ve asked you for help before, but you just said it would be fine. It’s not fine. I hate my face. I hate the way I look. And you don’t seem to care.’

‘Ebony, what am I supposed to do?’ Her mother reached out to move strands of hair that had become stuck to Ebony’s blisters.

‘Whatever.’ Ebony brushed her away, sat down at her desk, and started flicking through her schoolbooks to do her homework.

She was copying notes from the blackboard at the end of her German class when someone placed a note on her desk while they walked past. A lined piece of paper had been folded to half the size of a business card, and her name was written on the front in a fancy cursive. She grabbed it and put it in her pocket, and quickly scrawled the last of the notes into her exercise book.

Once she was back at her locker, Ebony opened the letter and glanced first at the bottom to see who it was from. Olivia Johns. Unease gripped Ebony’s stomach. She couldn’t separate herself from the shame and embarrassment the thought of Olivia caused her to feel. Ebony didn’t have pimples anymore, what would Olivia say was wrong with her now?

Hi Ebony,

How are you? You must be really good at German, you write down all the notes! Frau Martin is so boring. Anyway, we haven’t really chatted in a while, but I wanted to tell you I think you look really pretty lately. I’m not sure what you’re using on your face, but it’s really working for you! My friends and I sit in the second train carriage from the front on the way home, you should come and join us this afternoon, it would be good to catch up!

Don’t dog me!

Xo Olivia J.

Ebony folded up the letter and put it in her locker. She turned around and surveyed the lunchtime commotion in the locker room. Girls were rushing in to drop off their books and grab their lunch. Everyone wanted to make the most of the break with their friends. Ebony saw Olivia over the far side of the room. She was leaning against a locker, eating an apple while she waited for one of her cool friends to get her own skinny girl lunch. Ebony thought of the sausage sandwich in her lunchbox that she’d been waiting all day to eat. Olivia and her friends existed on a diet of fruit and vegetables. But if ever they strayed, it was common knowledge that they’d go and vomit up their indulgences in the bathroom. Olivia was looking at Ebony. Ebony looked away and then looked back at her. Olivia was still looking at her. Ebony felt like it was a challenge, a new chance to prove she was cool. Ebony wondered if she should walk over and say something. She felt awkward and hesitant. What would she say? ‘Thanks for your letter. It’s nice that you think I’m pretty now. I went through a lot of pain to look like this. There are parts of my cheeks that I can’t feel anymore and my parents think I need to see a counselor because they don’t know how to handle me.’ Or, ‘Hi Olivia, I guess you know I wash my face now. Can you introduce me to some of the boys you know from St. Johns?’

No, she thought, that would sound too desperate. Ebony was still scared of Olivia; her clear skin hadn’t changed that. Olivia continued looking at her. Ebony turned back towards her locker and got out her sausage sandwich. When she turned back Olivia was walking away with her friend. Ebony felt relief. She couldn’t be Olivia’s friend; she’d have to give up her sandwiches, and her friends. And somehow, she felt that would only be the start.

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The Wave that Breaks, Tanya Davies

The beach curves away from us, limber and inviting. But you don’t want to walk.

If I was alone now, I would wander and remember the times of beaches. The people. Their scents slotted into the salt, the crushed shells and tea trees.

‘Let’s make a pattern,’ you say. ‘Then we can look at it from up there.’

You try to engineer wavy lines, like sets of sound waves that surge and cross, but the sand spills, gets chopped up, and you give up. You ask what we can play.

The first time we came here you were five months old – you slept for a full half an hour and I felt a shard of myself, my old self, cut through. And I loved you; soft, pink, breathing so deeply. The rest of us, the three of us, tried to be a family, but the shoreline was garlanded with a slew of bluebottles, a string of whimsical blue, and your sister refused to swim and your dad sulked in his usual humid cloud of anger.

He proposed to me on a beach in Cornwall, which sounds just as I would like my life to sound, but it was only the location that was right. I had told him I didn’t love him, and he had cried, and held me more tightly, refused to let me go. So I said I would be proud to be his wife, which was true.

I grew up beside the beach – a world-away beach in a town of wind and rain, an ancient town that’s now spoiled and shamed by its crumbled stone and muddy tides. Cold walks on the promenade on Sundays. Water lashing the sea wall every November, throwing bricks into the road.

It was a beach for windy walks with dogs, tangled hair, gloves and woolly hats; a muddy ocean with a tide that receded right out to France, or hurled itself at the sea wall, spraying onto the road. In all those years we only sat on the sand twice, in swimsuits, sun on our pale skin. Some friends came to visit from London, and we ran down to the shoreline where my brother flung a scoop of wet sand at me, plastering my eyes shut with sodden grit, and I howled as my mum hauled me to the first aid tent, ashamed that he had embarrassed us once again.

When I was older I lay beneath the pier, on that hard sand and fucked a man I thought I loved, desperately digging for my identity and coming up empty.

On the honeymoon we went back to Cornwall. I had forgotten my shoes and had to course the cliff side in your dad’s too-large slippers and I forced myself to laugh as I slipped and slid. I thought of falling, the marital metaphor of not knowing where I would land, and the wind bit into my cheeks. But no man had taken me away before, even to a freezing windswept shoreline. I’d only been to Brighton with a boyfriend, which of course I had paid for. And only then a day trip on the train. Fish and chips, and making your sister into a sand mermaid, then back on the train into Hackney – to the kitchen sink drama and window envelopes – before bedtime.

Apparently, some people like the mountains or the rainforest or lakes. I suppose that must be fair, true, though I can’t think what pulls them there. Perhaps it’s the peaks that reach closer to the sky, or the canopy closing in like a blanket that protects them from people.

I could say I like to stand at the intersection of land and sea but I think I just like the noise, the hard vibrations, the infinite shine of mirrors on the water, or, like now, the noiseless crackle of raindrops pricking the blue skin.

We weave along beside the water. The weather is awful but I shouldn’t be surprised, it’s only September.

‘You know, Christian and I used to watch a TV show when we were really young. Grandma would always sleep in late on Saturdays, and we’d watch these weird Saturday morning programmes. There was one about beachcombers. They collected driftwood and shells and bones and things off the beach, and then I think they sold them or something. I can’t really remember.’

It was some American thing at the end of the seventies. A schmaltzy theme tune, probably. I dreamed of picture book idylls, strips of colour torn from paradise, bone-coloured beaches, peridot bays. I would be a beachcomber, collecting washed up treasures.

You are just months from puberty. You smile at me, still interested in my stories. ‘Did you want to be a beachcomber?’

‘I did.’

‘What did Dad want to be?’ Although you’ve asked before, of course.

‘He wanted to be a superhero. Fighting baddies.’ I can’t say that he wanted to be a bank robber and an assassin. This is why I tell you about me, because I have to lie about him. Sorts of lies, anyway.

‘We can walk a bit more if you want to,’ you say.

But I know you’re not impressed with the rhythmic and relentless pushing and breaking of the waves, the wait and watch for the swell, the small disappointment of the feint, the satisfaction of the grand roaring break, collapse.

You’re not impressed by the scale, the depth, the improbable way the land drops away and is filled with a bowl of salted water that urges, clamours, crammed with the odd and uncanny, in colours whose names cry out to be stated: cerulean, cyan, bioluminescent.

The rain is coming down harder, and the wind sloshes my breath about in my throat. Your dad would have loved it today, with the flat grey sky bottling above us and the rain crackling. He’d say it reminded him of Cornwall, when we ran into the sea and ran out frozen-numb and grinning.

Your friends are growing taller, their voices scraping and gravelling, and their skin becoming shiny.

‘No, I’m okay. I can walk anytime. What do you want to play?’ I get the soccer ball out and begin creating a set of rules, trying to just talk rather than think. If you hit my legs I have to run to the steps, if you hit my torso I have to run to the steps and up and down them twice, and if you hit me above the neck you get tickled, so you’d better run! This seems to please you, so we begin. I’ll add in new things as the fears, memories, regrets, fade. As I run, with the cold salt air in my throat. As I hit upon another thing that might make you laugh, keep you talking to me, keep you looking at me, before you grow another inch or two, shifting, moving, and I lose you too.

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The Migrant, Pooja Biswas

I know these silences of which you speak.
they emerge as if from a womb, and recede into the spaces
behind your eyes (concave; green-lit), spaces you do not recognise
for strangers have trampled upon them
& long since left their marks.

I know these silences of which you speak.
they curl, quiet animals, beneath the dusk of noonday automobiles
& sheltering hands: heat-softened, quiescent, in untroubled sleep.
no voices wake them, nor thoughts disturb
as the hours pass darkly by, distant as marching feet.

I know these silences of which you speak.
restive as the untilled earth, heavy as the unborn, pale
as the unwritten. upon the stone & hew of plough & sickle,
between the creases of callused hands, these silences
coagulate, stubborn as old sweat or new blood.

I know these silences of which you speak.
the silences of crowds, of bees, in which no single speech
can be discerned; the silences of foreign streets, an exile’s dreams.
the rush & turn of wheels & wind, of dust & departing things,
the subtle loss of passing by, of passing on, becoming history.

I know these silences of which you speak.

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Ketchup, Evangeline Hester

‘Did you know that a fifth of the world’s ketchup comes from Xinjiang?’

‘Mmph?’ Jonah’s mouth was full of hamburger.

‘Ketchup,’ Abigail repeated, ‘a fifth of it is from Xinjiang.’

Jonah swallowed. ‘Huh.’ He took another bite.

When she was thirteen, in the second term of her new school in Australia, Abigail wrote a play for Musical Theatre: Romeo & Juliet style. Lu Shan, a Han Chinese boy, (sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif), had fallen in love with Parida, a Uighur girl (my child, my child, my life, my life), but the riots of 2009 had their fate star-crossed yellow on red. Huang Hua, in unrequited love, gave her own life to save Lu Shan, but at the cost of Parida’s life when the riot police turned tear gas on the crowd.

Abigail paused for breath. ‘In hindsight, it’s more like Les Miserables.’

The class blinked slowly up at her. Dust twisted through the double-glazed windows and drizzled across the carpet.

A Fascinating Story, I’d love to see it in action! 14/15.

Jonah had never come to any of Abigail’s plays, even later when they were dating. For her final HSC piece, he had promised he would be there, then didn’t have any money for the train ticket down from the Central Coast and was too embarrassed to ask his parents. He got to the auditorium in time to watch her performance through the glass window that steamed his breath.

Her monologue was about a woman who fell in love with a dying man.

‘So little has changed.’ Abigail squinted at the sky of Smiles.

Abigail’s Dad flapped his arm over the road, sweat beading on his nose. Tuk-tuks rattled past, irritated by the pair’s much-too-accurate bargaining. Tourists were better fair. Although they were tourists now too.

Do you remember do you remember do you remember

This—this was the Yok where they shopped for groceries, for caramelised rice drizzled with palm sugar. And this was the road that was gravelled all the way up to the hotel and dust thereafter that flicked mud onto your calves as you shuffled in flipflops back from the pool. And this was how it felt to ride on the back of a cherry red Songtheaw—she had never been allowed to ride them as a child.

And this, oh, this was the Mekong Centre.

She ripped through the air-conditioned office corridors, kicking up memories with the dust. Here’s the kitchenette stacked with tea-stained ceramic mugs from too many afternoons of fika. Here’s a haphazard stack of post-it notes full of names embellished with asterisks. Here’s the dozens of posters on the walls—trailing borders around Central Asia, North-East Asia, and A-Muslim-Majority-Country-in-South-East-Asia.

Ever made up a secret code when you were a child?

Up and down humid flights of stairs and around and behind and over railings and up trees, playing freeze-tag with her past.

Abigail and her father slip into the meeting room on the wicker veranda above the resort’s pool. This is the reason they are here. It is Spring Conference, like they used to go to every year, back when they were one family.

But now a large agency had pulled out of the Mekong organisation, sparking a chain of withdrawals, and now a gathering Abigail remembered being 300 was down to 30. The organisation was closing, and this was the very last Spring Conference. This was why alumni were invited. Abigail is the only alumni child present.

The Kashgar markets, like in most desert cities, were a maelstrom of colour and noise, scent and sound. Guttural cries advertised coarse bundles of work-shift coverings and silken chains bearing silver talismans. Anointing oils bearing various spicy scents mingled with the sharp odour of camel dung and dusty sweat. Melons brushed with gleaming oil leaned against plucked carrion feathers, strewn beneath hanging carcasses of scavenger birds and their prey, wrapped in dirty cloth to deter flies or perhaps to conceal the age of the flesh. Women wandering through the throng boasted baskets of desert flowers and cacti needles. One stall displayed dozens of jars each filled with a different hue and texture of sand, another claimed medicinal mushrooms of richer spirit than the standard fare. A man with no beard and a breathy accent advertised sea shells all the way from Calsorme—a popular stall for men attempting to impress their jaded wives, or perhaps longing for a world of translucent waves that moved with the moon rather than the wind.

So went the tales of Momas to their grandchildren, wrapped in grey school-coats with scarves of red tied round their throats.

 

‘And now, an old favourite of Spring Conference—Storytime with Jean!’

Smiles blossom across the room as a woman, creaking with age and good humour, settles in the wicker chair, calling the children to her.

‘Now, this is the story of a Little Princess who lived in Nepal.’ Her voice quivers with smoky enthusiasm. ‘Now, do you know why she was a princess?’

The children chortle in agreement.

‘That’s right, because her father was the King!’ Jean points to the sky with one crooked finger.

And everyone followed that finger as it drew our protagonist down steep crags, up swirled tree houses, and, most riveting, across a flooded glacial river during the monsoon.

‘So the wind was rearing up! Like a tiger! And the rain was coming down in sheets! Crash, crash! And then I said- I mean, the Little Princess said—’

The adults chuckle. This is how it was every year. Jean would always start off intending to be clandestine about the source of her story, but in all the excitement (I mean, it was a monsoon) she would forget herself, and then forget that she had forgotten herself, and then, just in time for the finale:

‘And that is the story of how I—oh!—I mean the Little Princess, got to church in time for m—her friend’s baptism.’

‘Hey Jean,’ Abigail asks her later.

‘What, chicken?’

‘Why don’t you tell any stories from Tibet?’

‘Oh, well, I’m still working with those people you know. Perhaps one day when I leave. Stories about Nepal are, you know safer because they were, oh, twenty, twenty-five years ago!’ Jean winks. ‘I’m showing my age!’

The Exodus was brief and sharp, the edge of a knife held to the throat of a culture.

The first people to leave were the foreigners. The ‘m’s and the ‘mk’s, diplomats and diplomat’s wives.

We didn’t understand that we were the lucky ones. That this was only the beginning of Tibet 2.0.

Don’t tell the Party I said that.

 

The compressed air leaking out of the plane in a soft whoosh felt familiar, but it was one of the last times Abigail would feel it in her childhood.

She doesn’t remember much about that time. Was Dad seated somewhere else on the same plane, or did he take the next flight? Did we check overweight luggage, like we always did? What was the name of the woman we gave our dog away to?

The tails of planes on the taxiway shimmer like corners of a flag.

On the last night of the last Spring Conference Abigail catches David Penrose following the timeline of photographs across the walls. His first OC was all the way back in 1983, grainy in cutting-edge colour technology, and with a full head of hair.

‘Will you stay in Xi’an indefinitely?’ she asks. Abigail thinks ‘until you die’ would be a bit brusque.

‘God, no. I don’t want to retire in China. I’ll go back to England.’

‘Do you have connections there?’

Daniel nods. ‘Some.’
Abigail’s mother got into creative writing a lot before Abigail. Not because she was interested first, but rather because she was older, she flounced straight into a masters while Abigail was ‘stuck in drama queen year 9’.

‘What is your book about, Mother?’

‘It’s about… the… It’s about the response of a extended family to childhood sexual abuse. It’s about XinJiang… It’s about Uighurs… It’s about Muslims…’ Mum turns to Ray for help, ‘What else is it about?’

‘It’s about the impact of the political power over a culture,’ he says.

‘It’s a survival story, as well, focusing on one matriarch and her family,’ she says.

‘It’s a story of loss.’

‘Loss and survival.’

‘Drugs. The impact of drugs.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Powerlessness, of being… help me…’

‘Well just, family life.’

‘Control.’

‘Isn’t it? Yeah.’

The room is decorated with framed tapestries from XinJiang that have survived half a dozen cities. Pride of place is a Dutar. Abigail knows one song on the Dutar, but she doesn’t know the words because she never learned Uighur.

Abigail’s house has three Uighur items. A skirt (too small), a tiny model dutar (from Spring Conference in Chiang Mai), and the family carpet (won in an argument). Only the skirt was ever truly hers. It hasn’t fit for years.

I—I mean Abigail—used to write poems on stormy nights two years after her father remarried, three years after her mother remarried, five years after leaving Thailand and seven years after leaving China.

She had never spent more than two years in XinJiang; she had never spent more than two years anywhere. But everyone needed a home, right? A place to long for, to miss, to call heritage to, to boast about, my child, my child, my life my life—she whispered a Uighur proverb, but she did not remember it from XinJiang, no, she had asked her mother for a Uighur proverb to spice up her story, to give it authentic flavour.

Oh, don’t tell her I told you.

‘Did you know that a fifth of the world’s ketchup comes from Xinjiang?’

‘Mmph?’ Jonah’s mouth was full of hamburger.

‘Ketchup,’ Abigail repeated, ‘a fifth of it is from Xinjiang.’

The man I am calling Jonah swallowed.

‘Huh.’ He took another bite.

‘It’s one of the reasons that China values XinJiang so much. It’s full of coal and oil and natural gas, and a fifth of the world’s ketchup.’

He nods considerately. He’s always open to learning more about my home culture.

I don’t tell him that I learned that fact this morning from a Facebook video.

 

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Identity, Fractured, Anna Van

It’s been almost eleven years since Ruth Tulloch was treated at the Royal Adelaide Hospital following a suicide attempt. Earlier in the year, Ruth had experienced a nervous breakdown and was treated at her local hospital for depression and chronic fatigue. She was discharged after two weeks in hospital, and started seeing a psychologist who noticed that instances of ‘child-like’ behaviour during their sessions. It was during this time that Ruth also began having strange ‘dreams’ at night, though she knew was still awake. She attempted suicide and was flown to the Royal Adelaide Hospital where the psychiatrists similarly noticed periods when Ruth didn’t seem ‘herself’. ‘Yes, she dissociates, but keep her in the here and now,’ they relayed to each other.

At the milder end of the spectrum, dissociation is a normal mental phenomenon that all of us will have experienced. Who hasn’t ‘spaced out’ during a boring lecture or meeting, or conversely, been so engrossed in a movie or book that we simply lose all self-consciousness? Another common form of everyday dissociation is known as ‘highway hypnosis’ where, as a driver, you travel a familiar route and arrive at your destination with no recollection of the journey just undertaken. It’s when the phenomenon defines our lives that it is no longer seen as normal, but a mental illness. This illness, known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), is probably better known by its old name, Multiple Personality Disorder.

Even via email, it’s clear Ruth gets upset recalling the attitude of the chief psychiatrist at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. He told her, ‘I don’t believe there is such a condition as Multiple Personality Disorder. You must have researched it on the internet. You’re just putting it on.’ This attitude is illustrative of the divide in psychiatric circles toward this illness. On the one hand, we have psychiatrists who think the disorder is a form of attention-seeking, built up by media popularisation and legitimised, even created, by credulous therapists. On the other, lies some who think the incidence of the disorder may be as high as one percent of the population.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), oftentimes billed as the ‘bible’ of psychiatry, devotes an entire chapter to dissociative disorders in its latest edition. DID is described as ‘the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states that recurrently take control of behaviour’. These states are called ‘alters’, which together form a ‘system’. A person with DID switches between alters with no conscious control. In many cases, each ‘alter’ performs a particular role for the person, for example, one may emerge to deal with fear, another with anger, and so on.

Sceptics point at the inordinate rise in cases of DID, calling it a medical ‘fad’ and likening the condition to the ‘fad’ of hysteria in the 1900’s. A 1995 study noted that there were only 200 cases of DID reported before 1980, but this had exploded by 20,000 by 1990. This leap in diagnosis, some say, is the direct result of works that popularised the condition. The most cited example is Sybil, a best-selling psychiatric biography about a woman with ‘16 personalities’ whose condition was traced to perverse childhood abuse. Sybil, the main presenting identity, had no memory of these terrible events. But her alters remembered, and Sybil could even love her mother, while some of her alters were full of hate.

Psychiatrist Frank Putnam hypothesises that we are born with and develop in infancy ‘discrete behaviour states’ that become linked over time. These states might be referred to as ‘alert activity’, ‘alert inactivity’, ‘crying’, ‘fussy’, and so on. Over time, these states become linked, leading us to believe that we are a unified self. This belief is what underpins the confidence we have to navigate our lives, by imagining that we are in control of our hearts and minds. However, DID may result when something continually interrupts this developmental process.

Dr. Doris McIlwain, a personality researcher at Macquarie University, explains that a repeated split in an ‘object’, such as a parent who alternates from being loving and abusive, may cause a split in the ‘subject’, that is, the child. The child survives by compartmentalising the intolerable aspects of the relationship, leading to two identity states that Dr. McIlwain refers to as ‘S1’ (Subject 1) and ‘S2’ (Subject 2). ‘In other words,’ she explains, ‘when I’m in my S1 state – my dissociative identity called S1 – all I can think about is my loving parents. If I went into therapy with you and I came in and was ‘S1’ today, you would say, ‘How’s your dad?’ and I would go, ‘He’s so loving, he’s amazing.’ And then the next day I might come in and I’m in ‘S2’ state and you go, ‘How’s your dad?’ and I go, ‘I don’t want to talk about him. He’s horrible.’ Because that part of my personality has a system of remembrance (as it’s called), which includes an exploitative, violent and abusive father who doesn’t protect. But my way of solving the problem, if I’m a dissociative person, is that I actually split within myself to keep separate the two fathers, as it were.’

While the DSM doesn’t specify the etiology of the mental disorders it classifies, most studies have found that patients report extremely high rates of childhood sexual or physical abuse. My four interviewees, who I find over the internet, are unanimous on this point: each of them experienced chronic trauma in childhood. Laurie et al., as she refers to herself, was sexually, physically and emotionally abused as the youngest child and only girl to an ‘alcoholic father, valium-addicted mother and four older brothers who were deeply addicted to drugs.’ In 1983 Laurie et al. was in her early twenties, and working at a local hospital. Working in the admissions department, she canvassed the patients to find the best doctor and sought his help for her depression as well as a lifetime of ‘‘blank’ spots that blotted my existence.’ The doctor performed regressive hypnosis on her but became frustrated because he seemed to be talking to several people during the hypnotic sessions. After some months, the doctor called in a consulting psychiatrist who specialised in DID, and she was given the formal diagnosis.

Hence lays another criticism of the sceptics. As Dr. Joel Paris writes, ‘the use of hypnosis, and the memories it creates, is a particularly worrying element. It has long been established that hypnotic trance is, in some ways, a form of socially constructed role play. He argues that patients may provide memories of trauma on demand and increase their number of alters over time ‘possibly because of a wish to keep therapists interested.’ It is noteworthy that Sybil and her psychiatrist became friends, went for long rides in the country, and even lived for a while in the same house. Her treatment added up to a staggering 2,534 office hours – her psychiatrist said it took so long because there was simply no knowledge about the disorder in the 1960’s. Paris says that transcripts of the therapy sessions ‘clearly show’ that Sybil’s therapist imposed the abusive childhood narrative on her, and that she may have been willing to go along with it because their relationship was the most important one in her life. This narrative of childhood abuse, in Paris’ view, is what catapulted the condition into the limelight. ThreeFacesOfEve

More than 15 years prior to Sybil, two psychiatrists treated a woman who seemed to have three personalities. They published a book about the case, The Three Faces of Eve, in 1957, but after Sybil came out, the woman reneged on her doctors. a book by the name of The Three Faces of Eve, was published. The book was written by two psychiatrists who treated a woman with three personality states. Only after Sybil did ‘Eve’ renege on her doctors and announce she had actually discovered more than 20 personalities as well as her own hidden history of abuse.

Whatever the truth about ‘Sybil’ and ‘Eve’, sexual abuse and therapy became public issues from the 1970’s onwards, culminating in some high profile U.S. lawsuits that rested on little else but memories of abuse that had resurfaced during treatment. The tide turned when some of these plaintiffs realised that their memories were false, launching a second wave of lawsuits against the therapists themselves. At the height of the furore, Elizabeth Loftus, an American cognitive psychologist and a pioneer in memory research, demonstrated that false memories could be created by exposure to cues such as misinformation. Loftus went on to become an advocate for those who were accused of child abuse by their adult children, accusations based solely on the retrieval of repressed memories.Sybil

There was no reported link between plaintiffs and DID, but the taint of these scandals seems to have travelled over due to the condition’s high association with childhood abuse. It also seems to have left a lasting impact on the way mental health professionals deal with these sorts of issues in their practice. ‘I do think it’s theoretically quite possible for people to have been sexually abused but not to remember it until something changes in therapy, which enables them to be strong enough to be able to face and bear the facts of the past,’ Dr. McIlwain says. ‘But I think therapists have to be very careful not to put suggestions into their client’s head…If the therapist picks up that the person coming into therapy has got a bit of confusion, they’re not sure of what’s real and what’s not real, that’s a kind of clinical marker (that they’re dissociative). And then you go very, very gently, you wouldn’t be suggesting things like, ‘Do you remember any inappropriate touching in your childhood?’ You wouldn’t ask that question because they might go, ‘Yes, I do’ and you wouldn’t be sure if it was the truly the case or if it was because you’d suggested it. I think if the therapist is incredibly careful and just waits till the person gains (strength in their self and certainty about their past and if he or she then) says, ‘Do you know what? I’ve just realised that a series of dreams that I always thought were nightmares about monsters, I’ve realised that the monster was an aspect of my father,’ and the therapist has been squeaky-clean in their technique, I would say ‘recovered memory’.’

Ruth was forty-eight when she experienced the harrowing dissociative symptoms that led to her hospitalisation and eventual diagnosis. Since then, she says, it has been a gradual and often painful experience of learning about an abusive past that she was previously completely unaware of. She says that one of the hardest things she has had to come to terms with is the fact that what she thought was a ‘happy, normal’ upbringing was suddenly like ‘one big lie’. ‘It is not an easy journey and not one you would ‘make up’ just to get ‘attention’ as I have been told at times.’ Lonnie Mason, who writes about her condition online, tells me, ‘I would give anything to not be DID. Every day is a challenge; I just want to get on with my life.’ Sarah K. Reece, another blogger with a dissociative disorder, emphasises that it is a patient’s history that contains the strongest rebuttal against the notion that the condition is manufactured during therapy. The most common evidence, she says on her blog, includes journals containing different handwriting, having different names in different social networks, chronic amnesia, and hearing internal voices.

Indeed, Lonnie first realised she was different when she discovered that not everyone could hear voices. She initially joined a support group for voice hearers, but most of them had schizophrenia, whose voices affected them differently to her own. She found some information on the internet about her specific symptoms and sought professional help. Lonnie says that with the help of a psychiatrist and psychologist, her alters have started to feel safe enough to gradually reveal some of the memories they have kept at bay. Sarah’s experience has been somewhat different in that she her alters share what’s known as ‘high co-consciousness’. She is never shocked by a memory because information is shared across all of her alters, but the significance and emotion attached to certain memories are kept by different alters.

At first, the idea that a person’s identity might be splintered into parts seems like a foreign concept, but the more I mull over it, the more I realise perhaps it’s not so unfamiliar. For instance, we tend to wrestle with ourselves over key decisions in our lives, where a part of us thinks we should do something versus another part that simply wants to do something else. Sometimes we might not even be aware of why we do certain things, but we continue to do them. Peter, a middle-aged man who I meet at an informal group discussion on DID, says that he has always had an inexplicable fear of travelling over water. Several years ago, he told his sister about his phobia, who said, ‘Well, I expect that’s because of the time when our father threw you into the water and you couldn’t swim.’ Peter can’t recall this childhood incident, and his father isn’t alive to verify the story. But the story suggests that young minds are more than capable of storing away trauma. The question remains, how much more so when the trauma is chronic?

Note: The names of some interviewees are pseudonyms.

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References
• Howell, Elizabeth F: The Dissociative Mind, The Analytic Press, Hillsdale, NJ, 2005.
• James Randi Educational Foundation Forum, http://forums.randi.org/showthread/php?t=230111, retrieved 20 September 2013.
• Mental Health Information NSW Fact Sheet, Dissociative Identity Disorder, July 2010.
• Merskey, H: “Multiple Personality Disorder and False Memory Syndrome” in The British Journal of Psychiatry: the Journal of Mental Science 166 (3), 1995, 281-283.
• Paris, Joel: ‘The Rise and Fall of Dissociative Identity Disorder’ in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 2012; 200: 1076-1079. Quoted from p1077.
• Reece, Sarah K: Is DID Iatrogenic? http://skreece.wordpress.com/2012/06/10/is-did-iatrogenic, retrieved 07 October 2013.
• Spanos, Nicholas P: Multiple Identities and False Memories, American Psychological Association, Washington, 1996.

 

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