I’m at the airport in Brisbane, on my way to Melbourne for a writing event when Mum calls.
‘So that’s why you wouldn’t tell me the subject of your next book,’ she says right away.
Her tone tells me she’s seen the video my girlfriend shared on Facebook.
‘What do you mean?’ I say, trying to put off the inevitable.
‘You’re writing about your life growing up here. About your family.’
‘Yeah. That’s part of it.’
‘And when were you planning to tell me about this? It’s all over the internet so I’m the last to know as usual. Does your father know too?’
I can’t think of a response that doesn’t sound like I’ve been trying to hide the subject of my next book from her, so I say nothing.
‘Low socio-economic? Do you know what that word means, Rebecca? It means housing commission. Trash. You did not grow up that way. You grew up in nice houses, my house was always clean.’
I try to reason with her. I tell her that I have a different understanding of the term, but she won’t listen.
‘Low socio-economic!’ she laughs. ‘Wait until your grandmother hears about this.’
I have the phone half pressed to my ear, looking up at the departure board, figuring out how much longer until I can politely excuse myself from the conversation.
‘Why would you want to write about some of the worst parts of my life?’ she says, exasperated. ‘I’ve moved on, I’ve gotten over it. Why would you make me relive it all again?’
I can tell now that she doesn’t understand. She has no idea. This story isn’t hers, it’s mine. She just happens to be one of the main characters. And at this point, she’s shaping up to be a fine antagonist.
I tell her that I have to go, that my flight is boarding.
Later that day, after I’ve spent my flight fretting, after I’ve debriefed with my girlfriend, I realise that Mum is scared. Someone in her life has the power to force her back to places that perhaps she’d rather not return to. By writing about my childhood in Western Sydney, I will almost certainly stumble across some of the darker memories of that time. Mum is in all of these, physically or not. I am writing a version of our lives that she may not wish to acknowledge. That she can’t acknowledge.
How do you navigate around the fact of other people’s lives? All those lives that are happening in and around your own, all of those stories that bear similar and absolutely no resemblance to yours. Some people say you have no choice but to filter out all that noise, that the minute you let someone censor your story, it’s gone.
The next day I’m sitting in a café at Tullamarine, waiting for my return flight when Mum calls again. She’s prepared herself for another round while I’m still recovering from the last one.
‘If you’re going to write this book then you better make it good. Watch your words my girl,’ she says and laughs a little, but I know it’s not because she finds it funny. ‘You know your sister will never talk to you again. Don’t you?’
‘Fine. I won’t write it,’ I say, trying not to cry into my frappucino.
‘You can write it if you want, but watch what you say.’
‘No, it’s fine, I won’t write it. I’ll write something else,’ I say. But do I believe it? I’m not sure.
As I’m walking to my gate I see a sign at the newsagent that reads ‘Some of the most important stories are the ones people don’t want you to tell’. I stop and stare at it for a moment. This seems important but I don’t write it down. I know I will remember.
When I get home that night I text my younger brother but he ignores me. When he finally responds it is only to say ‘Don’t ever talk to me again.’
The next evening my teenage sister texts me.
‘I can’t wait to read your other book,’ she writes. ‘I saw a video? It said it’s about your teenage years? Does Mum even know about it cause Mum wanted to know what the book is about can I tell her?’
I reply, ‘Yeah, Mum knows about it…now.’
‘Mum didn’t even tell me what a bitch.’
‘That’s because Mum was angry, she reckons I’m going to write bad things about her. So she told me not to write it.’
‘Well what’s it going to be about?’
‘I don’t know, I haven’t written it yet. About my life, I guess. I probably won’t write it now.’
‘Why wouldn’t you? Is it bad?’
‘It’s not bad. It’s just my life. Maybe Mum thinks it’s bad. Anyway she said if I wrote it you would never talk to me again.’
‘If it’s about my Dad and Mum it better not be bad but you should write about the good times. Like growing up how strong Mum was and how she supported us on her own. Write how you watched all these memories turn into a good story! But I reckon you should write it. Just don’t bring up the past too much okay. But I would support you.’
‘I don’t know. I wasn’t going to say bad things about anyone but Mum doesn’t believe me.’
‘I want you to write it. And I know you wouldn’t write bad things. But Mum is crazy! Do whatever you want because Mum will read it no matter what. Write whatever your heart and soul wants to lol. I feel weird tonight lol.’
‘You funny girl. I’ll see. I don’t want to hurt anyone but it’s not about them.’
‘I know. I think Mum just doesn’t want to relive what she has lived through like all the bad memories. But you wouldn’t do that so write.’
‘I know and I understand. It’s hard sis.’
‘Either way you’re a great writer and you should write whatever comes to your head.’
‘You’re sweet, thanks sis.’
‘I’ll always be here for you. I wouldn’t ever stop talking to you. Unless like I die, lol. But that will never happen. Anyways, you’re my inspiration.’
The exchange with my sister helps. Mum knows she can get to me through my siblings; threatening loss of contact is the easiest way of making me more obedient.
In the month that follows, after the fallout, things settle back into a familiar routine with Mum. She calls most days, and some of those days she thinks to ask how my writing is going. Before she knew I was writing a memoir she never asked about my writing. She couldn’t have been less interested. She would’ve rather had a daily weather update, or to know what I was eating for dinner. Now, she wants every detail.
She calls one calm, unassuming day and says, ‘How’s the book going?’
‘It’s not, really,’ I say. Which is sort of true. I’ve been writing short pieces for my blog, but nothing concrete, nothing that made it feel terrifyingly real like a whole book.
‘Well,’ she says, taking a puff on her cigarette, ‘If you’re going to write it, then I want input. I want to help you write it.’
For a moment I say nothing. The suggestion would almost be amusing, if it weren’t so unnerving. If I didn’t know my mother so well. If I didn’t know that she was being serious.
‘Okay,’ I say. Because I am a coward. Because I often struggle to say what I really want. Especially when it comes to my family.
When we get off the phone I sit for a while and consider Mum’s proposition. Mum, whose weekly reading consists of The Sunday Telegraph. Mum who, when first reading my verse-novel Gap, asked if it was written ‘that way’ so it would be easier for her to read. Because she doesn’t like long books.
Mum rings me up one morning a month or so later. It’s not a good time but I answer anyway. I’m already curled up in bed, crying with the January blues.
‘So, I read something interesting last night,’ she says.
‘What’s that?’ I ask. By the tone of her voice I can tell it’s something I wrote. Something I wrote about her and she doesn’t like it.
‘I think you know,’ she says.
‘Hmm,’ I pause. ‘No.’
‘Well, your Aunty Jenny called me up last night, didn’t she. Said she’d been reading all about me on your blog. Said it was really interesting.’
‘Okay,’ I say.
‘So I went and had a look, didn’t I.’
Suddenly the huge spike in my blog stats makes sense. Just a day earlier I had 71 views but only two visitors. It seemed inexplicable. An error, most certainly. On a good day I’m lucky to reach ten views on my blog.
I’m cautious these days, looking nervously for any patterns in my blog stats that might indicate my mother has paid a visit. Luckily, it seems she is one of the two people in the world who uses Bing to search. When it shows up in my stats, I think to myself, she’s been here again, I knew it.
‘How long have you been writing about me? Is this going to be in your book?’ Mum demands.
‘It’s not about you,’ I say. ‘It’s just about my life.’
‘Well I’m in your life, Rebecca. I showed your brother and sister. They weren’t too impressed either.’
I say nothing.
‘And, for your information, we didn’t live in a tin caravan. It was a brand new mobile home. And your brother never went to Dad’s funeral, he was far too young.’
When she gets like this, accusing, I crawl further and further into my shell.
‘If you’re going to write about us then you should get your facts right.’
‘I can’t remember every little detail, Mum. It’s just my version of the story. That’s what memoir is. It doesn’t have to be a hundred per cent accurate all the time.’
‘Memoir? Isn’t that something you write when you’re dying?’
I don’t hear from Mum again for days. This is unusual in our family. Every day that she doesn’t call I imagine her at home, on the computer typing my name into Bing and finding my blog. Reading it over and over, correcting my memories as she goes.
After three days of not hearing from her, I get up the courage to call. She answers. She asks how I’ve been and what I’ve been up to. Alright, and not much. When I ask what she’s been up to, she launches into a story about my older brother and his girlfriend—a story of a fight they’ve recently had, and how Mum had been unwittingly dragged into it. The phone call lasts for nearly forty-five minutes and the whole time, Mum says nothing about my blog, or the book I haven’t written. Not a single word. She acts like she never read a thing.
If this were a different family, or if I were less accustomed to my mother’s ways, I would think she were holding back, waiting for the right moment to strike. But that’s not how Mum operates. And I guess I have to admire her for that. She tells it like it is. Even if you don’t want to hear it. Even if the person in front of you at the supermarket doesn’t want to hear it.
I get off the phone feeling perplexed. I know this is how she works but I’ve let myself believe this time was different. Mum gets herself worked up about something, smokes a packet of cigarettes, loses a night of sleep and then the next day it’s like it never happened. She has a new drama to mull over. Meanwhile, I’m left standing on the side of the highway wondering if the car is coming back for me.
This is the way drama in our lives works. It’s this strange cycle that makes absolutely no sense to anyone but us. Maybe that’s how all families work. Or don’t.
A week or two passes and most days I visit my blog, not to write, but to check my stats. Then a month passes and I realise I haven’t written another word of the memoir. I pass it off as being busy. But I’m not. Every time I go to write I hear my mother’s voice saying, ‘What are you writing about me now? What version of my life are you telling?’ I’ve let the noise in and now I can’t filter it out.
At least things are back to normal between us. She still asks about the book. She tells me she’s looking forward to reading it. That it will be ‘interesting’. She says the whole family know about it now. That they’re all waiting. Relationships within our family are already strained, polite at best, but this book, or at least, the idea of it, seems to have brought the family together. Just not in the way I would have liked.
Mum isn’t upset that I’ve written about her, she’s upset that I’ve written a version of her that differs to her own. Mum’s version of herself has been carefully crafted and chipped away at over many decades, by many people, some who are still in her life, and some who are long gone. It’s startling to see yourself reflected through someone else’s eyes. To read a version of your story, told in someone else’s voice. Memory is slippery, subjective, intensely personal. My version of events is not my mother’s. And hers, not mine.
Ever since Mum found out I was a writer, writing about her was something she whole-heartedly encouraged. She once told me to write her life story, convinced it would be a bestseller. Another time she told me to write about our family, ‘It’ll be like The Bold and The Beautiful,’ she said, glint in her eye. I didn’t say at the time, that our family were nothing like the Forrester family. We weren’t rich, nor were we beautiful. And we certainly didn’t change partners like undergarments.
When Mum found out that I was really writing about growing up in Western Sydney, her reaction shouldn’t have been so surprising. When she read those pieces on my blog, she may as well have been reading completely different stories to the ones I had written. She read a line about leaving me twenty dollars to take the kids to McDonalds while she was visiting their dying father in hospital and took it as an attack on her mothering. For me it was the opposite. Mum had given us a chance to escape the chaos around us, a chance to feel absolutely normal. Perhaps this is what happens to all stories. In laying down my own version of events, it was inevitable that Mum would read these stories with her own history sitting both on the page, and just beyond it.
I know I will write the memoir, and I will write versions of stories that involve members of my family. I’m just not sure how I’ll do it and, when I do, if I’ll alert my mother to the fact. But for now, I’m still trying to remember that funny thing she said once.
Rebecca Jessen lives in Toowoomba with her two cacti. She is the award-winning author of verse novel Gap (UQP, 2014). Rebecca is the winner of the 2015 QLD Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award. Her writing has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Cordite Poetry Review, Mascara Literary Review and more. Rebecca blogs at www.becjessen.wordpress.com