I’m having difficulty with my memoir at the moment … I just don’t want to be in it. – Jessica Bell from an interview with Zoe Courtman, 3 June 2010
Writing, it seems, like the bringing up of children, can’t be done without damage. – Helen Garner
When Freud first asked one of his patients to tell him about their mother (assuming he ever actually did) I wonder in all seriousness if he realised the can of worms he was opening up. Mothers, even non-Freudian analysts will admit, play a huge role in children’s lives, but we know well from painfully-honest memoirs like Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novels – notably Postcards from the Edge – the damaging (and long-lasting) effects living with a larger-than-life mother can have, let alone, as in the case of the painful-to-imagine, Sybil, what can happen if that mother is actual abusive.
Towards the end of an interview, promoting her actual autobiography, Wishful Drinking, Carrie talks also about her relationship with her own daughter:
The only time Carrie becomes upset is when talking about the effects her drugs and mental health crises have had on her daughter. ‘How many eight-year-olds have to visit their mum in a mental hospital? [Carrie was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder in the early eighties but had a full psychotic break in 1997.] I’m not one for regrets, but I do regret anything I did that made life hard for my daughter. But after thinking I’m an idiot, she now thinks I’m funny, which is great. She’s just really bright and pretty and hilarious and has a great voice. She’s a DNA jackpot!’ – Linda Das, ‘My Hollyweird life! She was every teenage boy’s fantasy yet her husband left her for a man...Amazingly, Carrie Fisher still sees the funny side’, Daily Mail, 16 April 2011
I can’t relate to that but I know someone who probably can: Jessica Bell, daughter of German rock singer, Erika Bach. Okay, Erika never achieved the level of fame that Carrie Fisher did (or Carrie’s mother, Debbie Reynolds) but she never let that stop her embracing the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. In 1984 whilst living in Melbourne, Erika, originally a cabaret singer, decided on a radical change of career and formed the gothic rock band Creature Creature (not to be confused with the Japanese rock band – think more an antipodean Sisters of Mercy) with her then partner, the Greek-born bassist and guitarist, Demetri Vlass. Apparently back then Melbourne's post-punk scene was more experimental and vibrant than any of Australia’s other capital cities and the place to have a band. Creature Creature survived until 1986 when the couple decided it was time for a new group, Ape the Cry.
Jessica was four when this video was made. She appears at the very end.
When Ape the Cry disbanded in 1992 the couple established their most successful line-up, the grunge band Hard Candy, which Erika fronted until 2000 when, grunge having run its course and with the live venues starting to close, they disbanded. During the eight years Hard Candy was together they released five albums at first under their own record label, Loud Record – so essentially self-publishing – before getting a record deal with Mushroom Records, a sub-label of Warner Music Group, with whom they recorded two more albums. Once her daughter graduated from La Trobe University in 2002, the family emigrated to Greece (Ithaca, specifically, which Jessica has described as “like stepping foot into an enchanted pop-up fairytale book”) where Erika continued making music under the name Lola Demo and Jessica taught English privately for two years until her residency permit eventually came through and she could move to Athens where she still lives.
Jessica was twelve when this video was made.
For Jessica the years 1984 to 2000 represent her entire childhood, from four until nineteen. It was, as you might imagine, an interesting childhood:
[I] have been writing songs since I was 11 – in Melbourne I had a small indie band called Spank. We played locally for about a year until exams and travel split us up. … I was brought up by underground musicians who took me through Goth to grunge to thrash to pop and had me spending my early years in the corners of recording studios using a Gibson Goldtop as a table for my colouring in – roadies and drummers were my babysitters, music is in my bones and in my blood… – Ash11 biography
[A]ll I can remember about uni was sitting at the cafe and socialising with crazy looking punk chicks and dreaming about my next gig and the awesome electric guitar I won in a band competition and how I was going to go to its manufacturer to get them to make the body purple and sparkly. – The Alliterative Allomorph, 9 March 2011
It was not all fun and spotlights though:
Sometimes I wish I was brought up living on a little farm and all I knew how to do was milk the cows and collect eggs. I wish all I ever knew about the outside world was what I read in the out-of-date second-hand school books I had as a child because that’s all my parents were able to afford. If I lived on a little farm, I would grow up to be so loyal to my family that I would take over the farm when they died simply to keep it in the family. I would then teach my kids how to milk the cows and collect eggs and when it would be time for me to die, I would die content and satisfied with my achievements, because I would have achieved what I had set out to achieve. My kids would then take over the farm to keep it in the family too and it would continue like this for generations. – 29 March 2010
The reason? With the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle came the (inevitable?) drugs:
[My mother’s] never-ending drug withdrawal basically prevented me leading what most would call a ‘normal’ childhood. Hate going back to that place. – Zoe Courtman, Ultimate Interview with Jessica Bell, 3 June 2010
Through all her difficulties surviving benzodiazepine withdrawal when I was a kid, [my mother] still managed to drill ‘If there’s a will there’s a way’ into my head practically every day. For a mother who was never in the right frame of mind, she did a pretty damn good job of pushing me in the right direction. Yes, I strayed for a while, but eventually pulled myself together. So I guess my mother is responsible for both my rebellion and getting my priorities straight. She was an awfully brave woman, and she is living proof that if there’s a will there’s a way. If you knew what she went through, you’d understand, but it’s a REALLY long explanation. – Zoe Courtman, Ultimate Interview with Jessica Bell, 3 June 2010
Many meaningful memories meander through my mind, but as I jot them down, I fear they will subconsciously mutate, malfunction, morph into fiction rather than fact. Especially when I retrace the times that made me miserable, I frantically fight off fate's fundamental message to me, in fear that I may feel its familiar unfathomable fiery force again. If only there was a way to write these memories down, and maintain a fictitious distance from them, my memoir wouldn't make me miserable, it would make me motivated to tell others my story. – The Alliterative Allomorph, 15 March 2010
Honesty fascinates me because I think it is the most difficult human value to portray realistically. In my writing I endeavour to create a real world, an honest world, a world where imperfection is beautiful merely because it is real. Imperfection cannot be masked. One way or another, a person’s imperfections will be revealed, no matter how hard they try to hide them. In fact, I believe the more one does try to hide their imperfections, the more they show. So why try to hide them? – Alesa Warcan, Interview with Jessica Bell, Part Gilt – Part Gold, 30 June 2010
The slippery nature of truth is something that has also been a major preoccupation of mine for year and so, although our backgrounds couldn’t be more different, I did recognise as something of a kindred spirit when I first encountered her. Unlike some authors whose sites I visit whose writing also focuses on the autobiographical, I really had to search for the quotes I’ve used above.
When you read articles about Carrie Fisher’s writing one expression that crops up with some regularity is “brutally honest” or some variation thereof. It is an expression that Clarissa Draper used when writing her review of Jessica Bell’s collection of poetry, Twisted Velvet Chains, and I can understand totally why she would say that. The blurb on Jessica’s site describes the book as follows:
Twisted Velvet Chains is a collection of poems which follows the experiences of one woman growing up with a bipolar, drug addicted, gothic musician mother. Each poem represents specific moments of their life that embrace vivid rich imagery, and illustrate the turmoil of emotions both experience while together. The collection is divided into four parts that flow one into the other from childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and post-death.
and anyone who has followed her blog for any length of time would be forgiven for assuming that the poems and short prose pieces contained within are autobiographical. They are not. But that doesn’t mean they’re not honest:
I'd probably say 10% to 20% is autobiographical. The only 'true' thing about these poems is that my mother was a musician who played in a very dark rock band during the 80s and early 90s. She's not bipolar and she's still alive! :o) The content of these poems, however, stem from my experiences with her when she was going through Valium withdrawal. Some days were very hard on the both of us; they were very emotionally taxing and I guess I just summoned that emotion in the same way I do when I write music. But because there is no music to go with the poetry, I have to be more creative with the words. In each poem, the essence of the emotion I felt at some time or another remains, but expressed through alternate channels. For example, take the poem entitled ‘Nailed’, for instance. The only truth in that is, that I took Woodwork in High School and sawed a big gash into my finger. The rest of the content is fictional. But the essence of emotion behind it is autobiographical – the way, as a teenager, I felt like my mother was a monster, when the fact remains she was just suffering and couldn't control the way she reacted to it, whatever that reaction be. But as an angry teenager, how I saw her was completely different to the truth. – Interview with Angela Felsted, My Poetry and Prose Place, 17 May 2011
Here’s the poem she was talking about:
In Woodwork when
I nailed my thumb
to a handmade spoon
I thought of you.
I thought you’d enjoy
watching me scream—
watching the blood
gush—stain my brown
leather school shoes—
the ones I punctured
with bass clefs in Textiles.
I imagine you trying
to push my blood
in the holes.
It is typical of the no-holds-barred approach you would expect from a woman who described herself as “an in-ya-face Aussie who likes to rant and rave and not feel pressured to censor my thoughts.” (9 December 2010)
And yet here we have her admitting that only 10 or 20% of what is contained in this volume is historically accurate. Does that stop it being true? In her blog, Angeline Schellenberg writes about two authors, David Elias and Sandra Birdsell, who both, within the space of a few weeks, told her that they “believe writing fiction is more truthful than writing fact.” Birdsell tries to explain:
She said it was like putting a puppet on your hand: a character to hide behind while you uncover yourself in complete honesty. – Angeline Schellenberg, Peek, Platitudes, 3 December 2009
Clearly there is a difference between ‘honest’ and ‘factual’. I asked Jessica to give me her thoughts:
Yes, there certainly is a difference between ‘honest’ and ‘factual.’ In TVC, I’ve really amped up the ‘tragic’ quality of the poems and although the content stems from ‘real’ feelings I had at some point or another, they do not necessarily stem from the events in the poems. Notice I say ‘stem from’ real feelings. As writers we have the freedom to embellish. There’s that common saying, ‘Write what you know.’ Well, what I know is what it’s like to feel so depressed you don’t even want to lift a finger. I also know what it’s like growing up with rock musicians as parents. I also know firsthand what it’s like to be a musician and perform in front of an audience. I know that when someone is suffering from Valium withdrawal, the symptoms mimic the symptoms of bipolar disorder. I also know what it feels like to hate everyone in the entire world as a teen – teens tend to feel that way, and teens tend to exaggerate those feelings, too. I know what it feels like to love, to hate, to envy, to regret, to feel so passionate about something that you don’t care what is going on around you. Put all these ‘experiences’ together, and wham, you’ve got something that is ‘honest,’ but not necessarily ‘factual.’
There is a rough narrative structure to this collection. The poems in Part I have clear references to childhood: we see a young girl washing the dishes with her mum, playing doctor with her stuffed animals, peeing behind a bus, having a birthday party, blowing bubbles, skipping up and down the drive way – all ‘normal’ things, the kinds of things you would expect every little girl’s childhood to contain. But there is more. The poem ‘Scratch ‘n’ Smell’ starts of innocently enough with the girl playing with her stickers:
Stickers—scratch ‘n’ smell.
moments of heaven
when I’m alone.
but as the poem progresses it becomes clear that the girl is using the stickers to override what’s happening in the rest of the house:
I block out his moan—sniff!
You stabbed him again.
Please stay away
from the bathroom.
In ‘Carpet Stinks of Gaffer Tape’ the girl accidentally scratches a new bass guitar with a Stanley knife. Apart from wondering how the child managed to lay her hands on one in the first place what was the punishment?
She whips me with
no TV for two months
no playing with the stupid snotty girl
across the road
It wasn’t even hers.
I hate you.
If witnessing her mother’s meltdown in the kitchen in ‘Gothic Neanderthal’ and seeing her playing “with a plastic dick” in ‘Phallus Stiff’ – a clever poem presented like a children’s rhyme (the kind of thing girls chant while skipping) – isn’t bad enough, this finally happens:
mania, I vomit
in my sleep.
Something is not right here.
Part II continues with more of the same – ‘Nailed’ is one of the poems in this group – but, as you would expect from a teenager, the tone here is more aggressive and openly resentful:
Make Me A Star
I want to sing
on Young Talent Time.
I want to learn
I want you
to teach me.
You train me.
Are you trying
to protect me?
Or saving yourself
from being upstaged?
When you read this a few pages on from ‘Tears Like Ethanediol Part III’ . . . well you tell me:
She lifted my lids. Dug her jagged nails into my skin. I whispered, Empty. She’d engraved it in the wooden frame of my bed. I began to cry. My tears stung. Now you’re like me, she said. You may live –
but within …
you’ll feel dead.
I found this poem particularly striking because this is what Erika has to say about her latest CD:
The Construction of Truth is a journey through deception that left me questioning the truth as a lie and the lie as a truth. This album was written on 'empty'.
I think that statement could be applied with equal accuracy to Twisted Velvet Chains. The concept of emptiness is something that Jessica returns to in Part III of the collection:
There is No Emptiness
Emptiness is not
the flush of flat
chords in your sigh.
Nor is it the tenor
ache; the hum of hope
Or fertile pain
becoming serum in
an ominous syringe.
Emptiness is fullness,
Some of the imagery in the collection is predictable – so much has been written about drug addiction that it would frankly be a challenge for anyone to write about it and steer clear of every conceivable cliché – but to her credit Jessica avoids many of the pitfalls by not resorting too often to well-worn metaphors still a few slip by like talking about being “drunk on sex” or comparing drugs to poison. Mostly where she excels are in images. In ‘Not Better Late Than Never’, for example, the mother decides to bake cookies:
– the kind
that Mummies make
for working bees
When the daughter suggests she add some hash the mother hums and haws only to be reminded of the day her daughter came home from school to find her mother unconscious on the floor:
Where were the cookies [then]?
I could have eaten those
instead of nails and hair.
Part IV is clearly fiction because as Jessica states above her mother is still very much alive. Why kill her off here? I think the answer is fairly obvious, because that mother has been killed off, the one who made her childhood so miserable. I don’t know exactly when Erika became clean – Jessica tells me it was about fifteen years ago – but there must have been one day when that Mummy went away and never came back. I suspect this is one of the reasons Jessica decided to make the fictional mother bipolar. There are a lot of good poems in the book but, for me, the one that stands out is the opening one (the one before Part I that introduces the collection):
Excuses abuse trust
my mother said
and my mum said
They all said
Excuses abuse trust
the sanest thing
she ever said
because they all
It came from her,
not the ones
that spoke in
bipolar tongues …
I asked Jessica though and this was her answer:
The reason I killed her off is because I wanted to explore the feelings someone might have when the chance to make peace is suddenly gone. All sorts of emotions would come into play then, the guilt, the attempt to justify one's feelings of hate, the desire to rationalize past actions, or make them seem less tragic in order to validate forgiveness, etc.
Most critics trace the beginning of the genre misery lit to A Child Called "It", the 1995 memoir by American Dave Pelzer, in which he details the outrageous abuse he suffered at the hands of his alcoholic mother. It may have got its name then but books that focus on the mistreatment of children are nothing new – Sybil came out in 1973. They exist because the source material exists. Some British publishers use the term inspirational lit presumably to get away from the negative connotations of the other popular terms like misery memoirs or, worse still, misery porn. The Independent in an article in March 2007 called misery lit “book world's biggest boom sector.” It continues: “At their core, most are chilling tales of childhood abuse with some form of redemption and triumph against adversity at the end.” In Jessica’s book salvation only comes with the death of the mother and I have to wonder what the book’s message is? So I asked Jessica:
Even though the commercial market likes to promote redemption and triumph against adversity, it does not always mean every person who suffers achieves this in the end. Yes, some stories have happy endings. Some stories offer life lessons. Some stories encourage others who have gone through some form of misfortune to learn how to get past the emotional obstacles it haunts you with. But sometimes all that can ‘save’ us is acceptance, understanding and forgiveness. That’s what I wanted to show through TVC. More often than not, there aren’t happy endings, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
There are lots of reasons for writing poems. Therapy is certainly one of them and there is a definite feel that, albeit in a somewhat fictionalised setting, Jessica is working out her demons on the page. Most poetry-written-as-therapy that I’ve stumbled across is not very good poetry. Occasionally it’s striking but technically it sucks. The poems in this collection don’t. Haiku purists won’t be terribly impressed with a piece like ‘Freckles’:
sun tattoos your pain
through rain in your open pores
freckles of failed dreams
but it has a certain charm I suppose. I don’t like it. I’m also not especially crazy about the prose pieces but they’re not my thing either. The four concrete poems I did like and that surprised me especially the poem ‘Crossed Wires’ which consists of three columns of words that can be read from top to bottom or side to side. There’s a genuine appreciation of poetic technique here. She’s also not averse to a little rhyme as you might expect from a musician:
I relish rhyme. Being able to rhyme and reveal a story makes me revel in self-satisfaction. – The Alliterative Allomorph, 20 April 2010
although she has a tendency to overdo the alliteration:
Fire foreshadows failure. Have faith you say? You find me fickle. In this field of vision faith is fundamentally favourable. Fearlessness is frightful. I’m failing Frankenstein!
(from ‘Failing Frankenstein’)
but I can see where that came from. This is the opening to her very first blog:
Settled and sitting safely at my desk, I have delicately decided to ditch the dimwits on TV, and attempt to blog using as much alliteration as possible. It's a tricky challenge. – The Alliterative Allomorph, 7 March 2010
It’s cutesy but a little goes a long way and there was too much here for my tastes. Similes and metaphors are not overused and there are some interesting ones, like:
Your beauty spot moves like your eyes flit at lit wicks.
Though you say it’s a mystery mole, I don’t think it is.
– I think it’s a black hole;
(from ‘Black Hole’)
Swimming in sun – singing in dust
My bare feet in a spotlight
Varnish glitters on my toes
(from ‘Excreting Insanity’)
Green splashes sting my face with lament, as my oars push away a river of you, thick with disgust.
but the one that jumped out at me was the title of one of the longer poems (most are only a page long), ‘Gothic Neanderthal’ (which you can read here) because it is very similar to an expression she uses in her short story, ‘When She Flicks The Latch’, “antediluvian witch”, both describing a mother character. I asked her about these two:
I think it’s fascinating that when people are under the influence of drugs or alcohol they become quite prehistoric in manner. Rational thought doesn’t come into play. Existence becomes a matter of survival; you’re a hunter-gatherer, so desperate to get what you need to last another day that the ‘need’ becomes a violent, disgusting struggle, either physical and external, or emotional and internal (or visa versa). The female grotesque has fascinated me ever since reading Angela Carter’s work, and I like to play around with it.
‘Gothic Neanderthal’ began life as a piece of prose here, part of a planned memoir. I asked her why she decided to work it into a poem:
The memoir is no more. I decided I couldn't write the truth without embellishing everything. Fiction comes more naturally to me. The idea to write TVC was triggered by this piece of prose and that's why I decided to turn it into a poem.
On the whole though, this is the kind of straight-talking poetry that I like. And she also knows how to deliver a punch line as you can see in ‘By Tongues’, the only poem from the collection published online at the moment.
I mentioned that Hard Candy released its first CDs under its own label before snagging a contract and much the same has happened with Jessica. Twisted Velvet Chains has been brought out by Jessica on her own, but her first novel, String Bridge, is being published later this year by Lucky Press:
To be honest, I was hesitant to self-publish this collection of poems because of that horrible stigma related to self-publishing. Due to my debut novel coming out with a traditional publisher this November, I was worried that people were going to think that the novel will be self-published too. See? WORRIED. Why was I worried about such a silly thing? Because of the STIGMA. That horrible green worm that burrows its way into our heads to try and make us think something isn’t worth reading or spending money on.
I’m not going to beat around the bush. I’m really PROUD of this poetry collection. I believe it’s different and powerful and worth reading. People who have never even read poetry are getting into it, and I think that’s something really positive. I just want to share this book. And I also want to ignore that need to have a publisher validate my work. I don’t want a publisher to validate it. I want to be confident about it on my own. I want to trust myself. – Operation Awesome, 25 May 2011
This is not the place to debate this – the cases for and against tend to get a bit repetitious and boring after a while – but the simple fact is this book is produced to a very high standard. Since one of Jessica’s jobs when she’s not writing involves proofreading I would have expected that. I found no typos although I wouldn’t have used a semi-colon in ‘There is No Emptiness’ and I’m a big fan of them.
One last thing before I conclude. This is unsurprisingly a very musical group of poems. I thought the reason was fairly obvious but when you trace Jessica’s poetic roots back to Australia it’s easy to see why Gwen Harwood would be her favourite poet. In the introduction to Mappings of the Plane: New Selected Poems, Gregory Kratzmann, formerly Associate Professor of English at La Trobe University (where Jessica took her degree), has this to say about Harwood:
Whether the poems are written in formal metres and structures, or whether constructed in freer forms, they offer delights at the primal levels of their musicality and their ability to shift the boundaries between the verbal and the oral.
I could well say something similar about Jessica. I’d love to underline that statement in twenty years time if she manages to broaden her palette but this is a decent start; Harwood didn’t even publish her first book until she was 43. This is what Jessica had to say about Harwood when I quizzed her:
My main reason for loving her is because her poetry was the first I ever read. It made me want to write [although] I don't think any of my poems are directly influenced by her. I haven't read her work in years to be honest. I studied her work in high school, and I think as a teen, it had such a big impression on me because of her motherhood themes. A lot of people talk about how she explores the 'stifled woman.' Perhaps I was subconsciously drawn to that because I wanted to have a 'normal' mother? It's hard to know if that's true. But looking back as an adult, I imagine it might have had something to do with it.
Bottom line: Twisted Velvet Chains will not be a collection everyone will appreciate. It will offend some people and upset others. But I don’t think those are necessarily bad things. It reminds me of Lou Reed’s album Magic and Loss which was inspired in part by the illnesses and eventual deaths of two close friends. It’s not the kind of album you stick on when you’re out for a Sunday drive with the family (believe me, I tried it) but it is the kind of thing you feel the pull of every now and then to remind yourself that you’re human. Twisted Velvet Chains is like that. I will stick it on my shelf after I’ve finished this article and forget about it and I’ll maybe discover it in two or three years at which time I’ll sit down, flick through it and try and understand what I can’t possibly understand but that’s no reason not to try.
You can order your copy here.
Let me leave you with a song written by Jessica and performed by her and her mother.