It’s hard to imagine that an event centred around the themes of trauma, shame and loneliness could be uplifting. Yet, this week’s gathering of hundreds of Future Women members and avid Penguin Random House Australia readers, proved to be exactly that. An evening filled with raw realities, honest storytelling – and even a few tears.
Our local Australian panellists were Rebekah Robertson, author of About a Girl, mother to actress Georgie Stone, and advocate for transgender kids and their families; Stella Prize shortlisted author, Caro Llewellyn, who has written Diving into Glass, an autobiography about growing up with a father with disabilities and then being diagnosed with MS herself.
And of course, our audience was treated to the company of internationally acclaimed New York Times best-selling author Chanel Miller. Chanel’s remarkable book, Know My Name, explores how she survived sexual assault, fought her way through the court system, came to terms with her own story and reclaimed her voice.
Here is just a tiny taste of what these authors shared with our crowd.
The truth of trauma turns on who is telling the story
Rebekah Robertson admits to having found writing About a Girl excruciating. She says: “It was like wringing blood from a stone. At the time events are happening, you don’t have time to process what’s going on, you’re just dealing with the next crisis. While writing the book, I felt the pain I hadn’t allowed myself to feel”.
Feeling that pain, Caro Llewellyn agrees, is essential to writing trauma authentically. “I was particular about that because I wanted to tell the real story,” she said. “There is a tendency in our modern world and our Instagram moments that we put on a happy face all the time and pretend everything is great… I didn’t want to sugar coat it. I wanted someone who was going through what I was going through to think, ‘Wow, I feel like that too’.”
It’s not only about words but pictures too, of course. During the court case over her assault, Chanel Miller’s name was anonymised. “Since I was anonymous, I was always curious about what images they would use in articles,” she explained. “There was a lot of a silhouette of a girl crying, or with duct tape over her mouth or curled up in the corner…”
The media relies heavily on stereotypes and those stereotypes paint pictures of what we think someone is, or what they should be. Chanel criticised this othering of assault survivors. “Yes, survivors sometimes look like that, but they are also the girl who just handed you your coffee, they’re teaching your kid first grade, they’re having dinner with you and laughing. What’s striking is how ordinary trauma looks, how good we are at keeping it hidden”.
Writing may not always be such a lonely pursuit
Rebekah Robertson told our crowd about the loneliness that came from having her family’s story wrestled from their control by the media. “Our story got bent out of shape and moulded and re-told and ceased to feel like our story anymore. [Writing was] about reclaiming the truth and nuance that was missing in the media. It was all bold and primary colours… We were lonely. I felt isolated”.
For Caro Llewellyn, isolation was at least partially self-imposed after she was diagnosed with MS. “I didn’t have the tools to reach out and talk to people, so I withdrew completely”. It was through the written word that she was able to reconnect with those around her. “The strange thing about writing is that it’s a lonely process but somehow you are reaching people out in the world with what you’re saying”.
Being anonymised was a lonely experience for Chanel Miller, and also left her with a sense of longing to be seen and to tell her own story. “I would go to book readings all the time and sit up the back and cry because I thought I would never have, well, this”. Chanel gestured to the packed Future Women crowd, with a smile on her face. “I thought I would always be confined to this life of being anonymous. I wanted to give that to myself. I thought I deserved to be connected back to the world”.
Releasing yourself from shame is like coming up for air
The shame and stigma of sexual assault, of disability, and, as experienced by the trans community, were consistently mentioned by our authors. Chanel Miller says that for a long time after the assault, she felt like a personal failure. “Over time, as I saw more cases appearing and talked to more people, I realised it was what’s wrong with him and what’s wrong with society. Being able to zoom out let me breathe a little more and get out from underneath the shame”.
When asked how we protect children from shame about who they are, Rebekah Robertson is despairing and unflinching. “So, how did I protect [my] kids during the really vicious vitriol of marriage equality, and how trans kids were attacked during that time? I don’t know how we protect our kids from the harm adults purposely, directly and wilfully inflict on them. We haven’t managed to protect them so far.”
“There is a lot of shame around disability,” said Caro Llewellyn. “I had a double whammy of my father’s disability growing up, which as a child I was ashamed of, and then dealing with my own shame of having a disability. MS is a funny disease… I couldn’t even tell friends I had MS without bursting into tears for a long time”.
Leadership looks different for everyone
The last word of such an extraordinary evening belongs, of course, to our guest of honour, Chanel Miller. Chanel reminded our assembled crowd that leadership doesn’t have to be the cookie cutter, white-man-in-a-suit version. “Leading looks different for everyone,” she said. “I never identified as an activist or an advocate. I never envisioned myself as a leader until I realised there are different ways of leading. Putting pen to paper is my way of being loud. It’s not being out on the streets with a megaphone.”
This special event was a reminder that speaking boldly, bravely and honestly of the challenges and complexities humanity encounters, is always worthwhile. Sharing women’s stories – as told by the women themselves – allows us to consider what they reveal about our world and ourselves. And what more magnificent way could we have celebrated International Women’s Day?
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