Into the depths of de­spair, and back again Emily Laid­law

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Things That Helped: Es­says By Jessica Fried­mann Scribe, 272pp, $29.99 Jessica Fried­mann’s bro­ken fig­ure hov­ers over a choppy sea on the striking cover of Things That Helped. And right from the open­ing essay, the reader is plunged into the depths of Fried­mann’s de­spair. This deeply af­fec­tive de­but book chron­i­cles the birth of her first son and the post­na­tal de­pres­sion that nearly sent her un­der.

Ecofem­i­nism is a through line and, in what be­comes an over­ar­ch­ing theme of the earth’s heal­ing pow­ers, Fried­mann opens by de­scrib­ing a par­tic­u­larly dark time in her life when she longed to aban­don her re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as a wife and mother, and drown her­self in the river near her home in Mel­bourne’s western sub­urbs: “I thought of the wa­ter as I lis­tened out for the baby’s breath, in and out, lightly bro­ken.”

The per­sonal essay is a fer­tile genre and Fried­mann’s use of the essay struc­ture, over a more lin­ear me­moir style, is worth not­ing. In North Amer­ica, es­pe­cially, at­ten­tion sur­rounds es­say­ists such as Mag­gie Nel­son and Eula Biss who sim­i­larly meld me­moir and crit­i­cal the­ory to ex­plore topics that also ap­pear in Fried­mann’s book: gen­der, class and mother­hood.

Closer to home, Fiona Wright’s 2015 essay col­lec­tion Small Acts of Dis­ap­pear­ance makes an in­ter­est­ing com­pan­ion study as she and Fried­mann use the essay struc­ture to work through their di­ag­no­sis (in Wright’s case, anorexia ner­vosa). Like Wright, Fried­mann doesn’t of­fer a con­ven­tional re­cov­ery nar­ra­tive; both au­thors con­cede life is too messy for that. Writ­ing, how­ever, is one way to gain con­trol, or as Wright says in her book, to “pro­scribe, and pre­scribe a mean­ing” to ill­ness.

Writ­ing is also a way of ex­ter­nal­is­ing in­ward pain. ‘‘What does it mean to look at a work of art?’’ It is a ques­tion Fried­mann asks through­out this book, as well as be­ing the sub­ti­tle of Em­bod­ied Vi­sions, an essay by Amer­i­can writer Siri Hustvedt. In con­sid­er­ing her own em­bod­ied re­sponses to art, Fried­mann de­con­structs Hustvedt’s essay and at­tempts to un­der­stand how inan­i­mate ob­jects have the power to move her.

It is one of many in­stances where Fried­mann turns to other the­o­rists and cre­ative prac­ti­tion­ers to make sense of her state of mind. Where con­ven­tional psy­chi­a­try fails her, art be­comes an ex­per­i­men­tal form of ther­apy.

In Fried­mann’s world, art is ev­ery­where, and its ef­fects are vis­ceral. Each essay fo­cuses on a dis­crete thing that helped her through a bad time. Gripped by sad­ness, she feels joy while ap­ply­ing lip­stick, or drink­ing her favourite pho. When the fog de­scends and makes it hard to think, she es­capes into the pleas­ing three-act struc­ture of a Hol­ly­wood ballet movie. Else­where, she finds or­der in ab­stract paint­ings and cathar­sis in lis­ten­ing to sad mu­sic.

Art­mak­ing is also a cop­ing mech­a­nism: she is soothed while work­ing her hands over a loom or when pur­su­ing her pri­mary art form — writ­ing — only to be­come dis­traught when ill­ness robs her of the abil­ity to do so.

De­spite the heavy sub­ject mat­ter, there’s a de­ter­mined ef­fort by Fried­mann to re­sist the temp­ta­tion of self-pity. She re­flects on her ado­les­cence, not­ing that while her Jewish fam­ily has its own gen­er­a­tional trauma to deal with, life has ul­ti­mately been good to her.

“I know walk­ing out over a ledge that there will most likely be some­body there to catch me,” she writes, ac­knowl­edg­ing that she is the ben­e­fi­ciary of an in­ner Mel­bourne up­bring­ing and a ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion.

Such mo­ments point to a self-aware­ness in her per­sonal es­says — a genre that is of­ten crit­i­cised for be­ing the op­po­site. Through­out, she worries about an un­der­ly­ing priv­i­lege to her sad­ness; that her story will be yet an­other ad­di­tion to what she la­bels the “suf­fer­ing women’s canon”. She writes: “Vir­ginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Wi­nona Ry­der in Girl In­ter­rupted: the tragic and cre­ative white woman is such a well­known fig­ure that our fragility and need for pro­tec­tion is au­to­mat­i­cally as­sumed.”

Through adopt­ing the lens of in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity, Fried­mann avoids be­com­ing a cliche. She

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