Facing up to it

My heart has been gladdened by the words of two honest, wise women this week.

The first is Wendy Harmer, comedian and journalist who was featured this week on Julia Zemiro’s ‘Home Delivery’.  It’s available on iview until 24th December 2014.  In ‘Home Delivery’, comedian Julia Zemiro drives around with fellow comedians and media personalities, revisiting childhood places and reminiscing and reflecting on what has made them the person they are. Wendy Harmer, like me, is a ‘woman of a certain age’ and, like me,  has a cleft lip and palate.  She has appeared on Australian Story in the past, talking about the experience of growing up with a cleft and her career as a stand-up comedian- surely one of the most naked,  ‘look at me’ and razor-edge occupations there could be.  In this episode, there she is, being driven to the Last Laugh theatre in Collingwood where she made her stand-up comedy debut and Selby and Upwey in the Dandenongs, where she spent some of her childhood.


The second is the writer Paddy O’Reilly’s  whose article  What it feels like to always be stared at by strangers appeared last week. Paddy O’Reilly who has gathered acclaim over recent years for her books The Colour of Rust and The Wonders, suffers from Graves Disease, and before she had surgery on her eyes, it made her look as if she was staring at people, who often stared at her.   “Yep, female Marty Feldman” she would joke pre-emptively, using humour, as she says “as the refuge of humiliation as well as of adversity”.

There is a particular pain that comes with looking and sounding different.  It’s completely intractable, no matter how many people assure you that they didn’t even notice.  In the very core of you, you don’t believe them.  It’s right there, as a little jab that can dart out to prick you with each new person you meet. Sometimes.  You think that you have it under control but it bursts out when there’s the look that lingers just a second too long , or the hot burning stare that you’re aware of, off to your side or behind you that, perversely, makes you feel shame.  It’s worse as a child because children don’t filter it, but it’s still there even in middle age.  It’s there when you hear yourself on tape, or as I’ve experienced just recently, in podcasts talking about a topic I know well, with work I’m proud of.  It gives extra power to that little gremlin of self-doubt that I know everyone carries around.  For us, no matter how good we might feel in that new outfit, or with that good haircut or how happy we might feel in our expertise and knowledge, that too-long look somehow makes it all fall away.  Not always, but sometimes.

And so, I knew the layers of pain that would have built up when Wendy Harmer spoke about shifting from school to school because her father was a school teacher.  A new start each time, but yes, a new scab to be picked off as well. And I know what her memory of pashing with boys up on the railway bridge would have meant.  And what her father meant when he praised her diction after her first television performance. I know her feeling of gratitude for husband and children, and the silent rage inside that dammit, I shouldn’t have to feel grateful.

In her article, Paddy O’Reilly quotes an American comedian, David Roche, who has a severe facial disfigurement from a facial tumour.  Everyone stares, she says:

… that accidental, snagged way we do when we see something different. It’s hard-wired into us to stare at novelty. Novelty stimulates the brain and the dopamine rushes in, causing pleasure. Yet we’ve been told since we were children that it is wrong to stare, so as adults we pull our gaze away, feigning nonchalance or indifference.

This initial stare is beyond our control. David Roche, an American comedian with a severe facial disfigurement, says that the first stare is not the time of hatred or prejudice or judgment. It’s about getting used to difference. The second look is what counts – what we choose to do once our initial curiosity has been satisfied.

That second look- what a powerful idea, and one that had never occurred to me before.  I wish I could go back and tell seven-year old me about it.

Thank you, my courageous, honest ladies.  I’ve hesitated about posting this –why???– but you’ve been brave, and I want to be too.

4 responses to “Facing up to it

  1. artandarchitecturemainly

    It was always difficult when the children of three classes of fathers were moved from one school to another, from one country to another – church clerics, military men and ambassadorial staff. Their children lived uprooted, lonely childhoods, never making deep friendships because after 3 years they would be moving again.

    Worse still when there was the old, ongoing scab to be picked off as well 😦

  2. I read Paddy’s article too – but you know, it didn’t occur to me to connect it with you having a similar experience. I’m going to say this even though you’ve said you don’t believe it: I don’t think I noticed until we’d met many times and I knew you well. I have another friend with a faint hint of a scar on her lip that may have been a cleft palate too, but it took me a long time to notice that because I look at people’s whole faces not their separate bits. And I hope they’re not looking at my flaws either!
    BTW I don’t agree with the comment above. My father was a research scientist and for one reason and another we moved around a lot when I was a child, but I can’t ever remember being lonely. There are lots of positives with moving about. Security is over-rated IMO, it makes people paranoid about losing it and takes away a sense of adventure. Thanks to my childhood travels, I became a self-sufficient, independent, adaptable and resilient child. I learned to value different ways of doing things and to enjoy different languages and cultures. That’s not to say it was always easy: I was teased mercilessly about my accent, about being too thin, and about being too clever, especially in Australia, but I learned to deal with that – and I’m grateful to the little bitches who were so horrid because it made me impervious to their nastiness, which is a handy life skill to acquire!

  3. Trite perhaps, but having seen photos of you and heard you speak, I did not know. While not wanting to lessen what you have told us, I expect there are similar people who have not ended up being high achievers in life, who may have had their confidence so stymied by what they see as a terrible affliction. When I see Wendy, I only think, well you’ve stacked it on love, which is very much a case of the pot calling the kettle vermilion.

    I suppose because I wasn’t effeminate, I was not teased because I was gay, although I didn’t really know that at the time but I was teased because I was skinny and I was teased because I spoke ‘posh’. I don’t why I spoke posh because only my estranged grandmother spoke like that, but I did from the age of four. But if you think I sound like a posh English person, I don’t. I just speak differently. Just recently at work someone asked me why I don’t talk like a normal Australian. All I said was, Good morning Mario. I don’t know. I have always spoken differently to my parents and siblings. I can self correct, but is it like correcting my normal speech. But then also I am not an eloquent speaker and you were on the radio, but then isn’t public speaking part of your job.

    Sorry, rambled on about myself way too much. Let me have another read and see if I can say even more. So you say to yourself after the look that lingered .5 of a second too long, they have noticed. I my case they may linger for .5 of second on the bags under my eyes. It is in the genes. No, I am not tired and slept quite well, but thanks for asking. Oh dear, it is all about me again.

    Ha, maybe I write clever words or not, but I know what you are saying.

  4. Yup. This post is brave Janine. I thought you sounded great on radio. I have never been subject to the stare but your comment about I can relate to how conscious you are about how you sound. I have an auditory processing problem which renders me deaf in crowds such as in pubs or busy restaurants. I started school not being able to speak properly, incapable of learning to read and having fingers pointed at me when the teacher asked who mispronounced the letter ‘x’ – I’m still self-conscious saying that sound. That bad early start led me to become terrified of public speaking. And I’m not being rude or racist when I ask someone to repeat their unusual name three times and give up when I still don’t get it right. I have tried asking people to write their name down but it is a bit weird asking a stranger to do that. It’s got worse in the last couple of years so I had a hearing check and felt like crying when they told me I had excellent hearing and that nothing much can be done for my issue.

    It might sound trite but those difficulties have led me down a different and probably more interesting path.

    I’m glad the producer of your radio program didn’t tell you that you don’t have a ‘radio voice’. I wasn’t even putting myself forward as an interview candidate but he thought he needed to make sure that I knew that his listeners would not want to listen to me. I enjoyed listening to you and even without this post I thought you were very brave and you succeeded.

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