I enjoy reading memoirs, but they are a strange beast. First, there are the events that the memoirist decides to include or exclude. Second, there’s the voice that the writer adopts, and here Heather Rose adopts a present-tense, unadorned voice with short sentences. And then there is the structure that the writer chooses to shape their memoir. Heather Rose’s memoir is subtitled ‘A Memoir of Loss and Discovery’ and she uses the loss/discovery dichotomy as the fulcrum on which her memoir balances. Despite the title, you have the sense that for sure something bad is going to happen here.
It starts idyllically enough. Born in the 1965, Heather Rose grows up in a new subdivision, close to the River Derwent and under the watchful shadow of Mount Wellington. Her earliest memory, as a two-and-a-half year old, is of her mother climbing a ladder to hose down the roof during the Hobart Black Tuesday fires on 7 February 1967. Their house was spared, and she continued to grow up in Hobart, ensconced in a family with loving and present grandparents. Her maternal grandfather, Grandad Burgess, built a tiny shack on the Tasman Peninsula, 120 kilometres from home, five minutes from the beach and on the shores of a tidal bay. They spent all Christmas holidays, Easter, long weekends and school holidays at the shack where they ran wild, going fishing with their Grandad, and rather intimidated by their intelligent but imposing Nan Burgess. They had even more contact with their paternal grandparents, who lived across the road from the primary school they attended. As the family lived more than a kilometre from the school, the children would go across to Nan and Pa Rose’s house for a home-cooked lunch every day, and return there after school until their mother picked them up. When Heather Rose was eleven, her grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack, and she learned that
Grief is when nothing can be done and there’s no going back to fix it, and there’s no going forward without knowing that it can never be fixed.p.15
She is to learn even more about grief the following year. A boating tragedy sees her family rent apart after her brother Byron and Grandad Burgess drown when their fishing dinghy overturns in Lime Bay, half an hour from their beach shack. It is in the wake of this tragedy that she has her first visitations – or whatever you want to call them- from the spiritual realm. The morning before the tragedy, she dreamed that her brother was drowning, and she blamed herself for years for not rousing her parents, convincing them to do something – that it could not be fixed. On seeing her brother leave for the fishing trip, she saw a white light around him as if he were glowing; after his death she saw Byron in their house, sitting in the chair by the bookshelf, standing in the open door. But the family is broken: no-one mentions Byron’s name; her remaining brother becomes moody and volatile; her sister becomes quieter. And
A bitterness sets in between my parents. There are silences at the dinner table, arguments, fights and long cold spells in which Mum and Dad do not speak to one another. I want everyone to be happy. If only, I can make everyone happy, maybe it will be okay. Years later, when my own marriage unravels, I experience the same sense of defeat. I have failed to keep everyone happy.p. 28
The shack is sold, her parents separate, her mother remarries and her father ‘retreats into a monkish solitude’.
She leaves Tasmania in 1984 to travel around Asia; the backpacker’s rite of passage. She catches typhoid in Java, heads into Thailand, visits opium dens in Malaysia, then becomes addicted to heroin in Thailand. It is the midst of a heroin stupor that she goes looking for death, finding it as an old door mounted in the wall of a cave, that she only has to push open. Then she hears a small voice that says “No. Not this way. Not here. Go back. Go back. Not now.” It is this experience that propels her towards a monastery in Bangkok, opening up the second pillar of her memoir: discovery.
Then follows a long section on her spiritual journey, which takes her from monasteries to Native American sweat lodges and the grueling Sun Dance ritual. Here I felt as if I should be enjoying this memoir more than I was. I am a spiritual person, and attracted to that yearning and questioning that hums under my day-to-day life. But I found myself recoiling in bemusement from the physical extremity and bizarreness of the rituals she describes (appropriates?) as part of her spiritual source. Perhaps there’s a reason why words fail in the face of spiritual experience. How to distinguish the earnestness of this spiritual search for the sublime and transcendent from an unhealthy obsession with the self and the sidelining of other people and issues?
This emphasis on the ineffable dissipates in the chapter near the end of the book titled ‘Elephant’. She has mentioned in passing her diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis, a crippling hereditary chronic arthritis that brings flare-ups and periods of remission. She uses her hard-won skills in meditation and supplements, but also drugs, supplements and medical cannabis. After many pages describing her own spiritual journey, she becomes frustrated by the remedies, diets, rituals and meditations prescribed in books by Eckhart Tolle, Louise Erdich, the Dali Lama and a long list of other authors. She spells out a long list of forty-nine therapies she has undertaken over the last forty years, from physiotherapy to a whole shopping list of New Age rituals, and any number of food regimes: no starch, low starch, paleo, candida elimination, vegetarian, vegan, no fruit, no sugar no fats, no red meat, raw food, the fast diet. (p 214) As she gradually has fewer flare-ups, perhaps associated with age and menopause, she takes nothing for granted. This chapter, although it seems inconsistent with all the spiritual exegesis that takes up the central part of the book, almost gives the sceptical reader an escape-route: she has undergone all this mortification of the flesh but she needs to heed it, in the end.
She returns to the theme of loss in the closing chapter. Some forty or more years after Byron and Grandad Barnett’s drowning, she tracks down a copy of the coroner’s report on their deaths. Her parents had never seen, or requested, it. She resists the word ‘closure’, but she notes that reading the report eases something in both her parents, to know that there had been multiple attempts to save them. It is when she returns to swim in the bay where they died that she realizes that, for Grandad and Byron, it was what happened. But nothing bad ever happens; that every life is perfect in its own way. She closes with some learnings about memories and their place in our life that reflect, although couched in a bit of ‘woo-woo’ery, both age and experience:
There are memories to acknowledge if we are to learn to live with ourselves, events we revisit over and over, wondering who we are, and why we made those choices. There are always parts too painful to either forget or surrender, and parts that remain unknown until something or someone comes along who offers an invitation. Trauma is a form of haunting. In the darkness of life, there is an invitation for expansion…I’ve come to accept that what I perceive as myself is actually something malleable, prone to change, to shed and reconstruct, and to blossom at unlikely moments and for unlikely reasons. That seems to be the nature of being human. We become what we are story by story, piece by piece.p, 233, 234.
My rating: A bit too hardcore spiritual and flaky for me. 7.5/10
Read because: I had read ‘Bruny’ and was interested to see what she would do with memoir.