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Memoir: personas and masks come tumbling out

Arriving to hear Robert Hodge, Victor Marsh and Sian Prior talk about the art of memoir writing, I was anticipating a reflection on childhood trauma and suffering, but these were not your typical misery memoirs.

And despite the unexpected cancellation of panelist Lloyd Jones, chair Mick O’Regan did a stellar job of keeping the crowd in their seats for what turned out to be a highly rewarding discussion.

Robert Hoge and Sian Prior

Robert Hoge and Sian Prior on memoir as a path to self-acceptance. Photo credit: Cath Piltz

Robert Hodge spoke first about his physical facial deformities, even making jokes about being the ugliest person in the room. Born without legs and with severe facial disfiguration, Hodge spoke about learning to accept his differences at an early age, and his positive outlook was literally a breath of fresh air.

Panelist, Victor Marsh was a reluctant memoirist. In fact, he never planned to write a book about himself. A self described sissy boy, Marsh described The Boy In The Yellow Dress as a warts-and-all account about growing up gay in the 1950s to a Catholic family in Western Australia.

Marsh explained that his sense of self came from the outside world; especially from the church who had cast him as an abomination, a failure and an outcast. As an adult, however, he has found peace from within, through meditation.

Sian Prior, presented to the audience as a confident, articulate, together woman but her crippling shyness is at the heart of her aptly-titled memoir, Shy. According to Prior, writers write about what troubles them and shyness has troubled her her whole life.

The difference between shyness and introversion, said Prior, is distress.

“And I always felt a sense of entrapment by this distress”.

Shy started as a short piece about fleeing a party and it morphed into an essay shortly after. She undertook the project as a sort of desensitization therapy, but when she still wasn’t cured, Prior kept writing, hoping for a cathartic miracle.

United by their shared memories of shame, the panelists spoke about personas and masks, about deeply damaged senses of self that had long been hiding.

Victor Marsh

Victor Marsh discusses the trauma of being rejected on the basis of your sexuality. Photo credit: Cath Piltz

Before writing his memoir, Marsh described himself in one of his poems as “a semblance of entities posing as I”. As a gay man, Marsh felt like his opinion didn’t count and he had to reconstruct the self, to put it back together in his writing. To do this, he started at the end, with the death of his father and now he firmly believes he has an “equal right to draw breath”.

“When the sun shines, it shines for everybody,” he said.

Writing also helped to address the shame Prior felt at her crippling shyness. She spoke about the road blocks that the anxious brain creates.  If you are shy, argues Prior, you naturally want to hide because you are afraid of negative evaluation and so this memoir was an extreme form of exposure therapy.

When Hoge’s father raised the possibility of his son’s unborn child inheriting his deformities, it kicked off a new anxiety and made him realise that he wanted a “normal child”.

“But if I couldn’t deal with a kid who was different then who could?” Hoge explained.

What shone through most among the speakers was their courage to come to terms with their own individual struggles through the art of writing. Holding the mirror up to the self is an attempt to live authentically, said Marsh, and writing a memoir helped him to achieve that.

Listening to these writers speak, I was captivated by their ability to recreate painful truths, to search for the essence of who they really are; the self behind the mask or the appearance or the stereotype. Redefining the self may be a tool used in memoir writing but judging by these writers, it is also where the shame dissipates and where the healing begins.

Misha Sim is a student at Southern Cross University.

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