My tenth book and first non-fiction, The Fictional Woman, is part memoir, part social commentary, exploring some of the issues facing women and girls within the culture I know best. In the book I analyse the stereotypes, or ‘fictions’ that define and in some cases limit women’s roles in society – The Body, The Femme Fatale, The Mother, The Crone, etc. This is not a confessional autobiography, far from it, but in order for me to authentically discuss the issues women face, I had to also write about some of the issues I have faced, and how those experiences fit into the larger statistical pattern. Essentially, in order to address the fictions about other women, I had to also address the fictions about myself. One of those fictions is that I am ‘Teflon Tara’ and nothing has chinked my armour; my life has been as smooth and unmarked by pain and loss as one of those shiny advertisements I have posed for over the years while making my living as a fashion model.
The wonderful Susan Wyndham, literary editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, was one of the first to get a copy of The Fictional Woman and she conducted the first interview for the book. I knew the memoir component would not have gone unnoticed by her. When the day arrived to discuss it with her, I was anxious. She came to the house and we spoke about the arguments in my book, my reasons for writing it, and eventually she asked about the more emotionally difficult experiences I touch on in the memoir components of the writing. She was respectful, professional and well-informed, and I’d had time to mentally prepare, but all the same, when discussing things I had not spoken of for 20 years my throat seized up. At first I thought it might simply be that it was a lengthy (5 hour) interview, and my throat was dry from speaking, but it soon became clear to both of us that whenever she asked about my mother’s death, or the violence, rape and loss I have experienced, an uncanny physiological response prevented me from speaking freely. Over the two years it took to write the book in the dark solitude of my writing space I could get these things on the page, albeit after some tense, private deliberation and procrastination, but to speak them aloud? It seemed my body tried to stop me from speaking, as I had so often stopped myself.
The article, Under The Skin came out on Saturday in Good Weekend.
I have been deeply moved by the heartfelt support from many dozens of friends, colleagues and strangers since the piece was published just two days ago. In addition, my publisher HarperCollins, who also did not know these details about my life until the manuscript arrived, have been incredibly supportive. Thank you to everyone who has shown such incredible and unexpected solidarity.
Though there are a number of serious issues I discuss, many of the messages of support this weekend have focussed on my being a survivor of sexual violence twenty years ago. What strikes me most profoundly – the reason I had to write this brief blog – is that this support was not my experience at the time. Not even remotely.
I am acutely aware that the level of support I have received in the past two days is not the experience for 99% of survivors of intimate violence when it occurs and in the weeks, months, and years that follow. They won’t be told by friends and strangers that they are ‘brave’ or ‘inspiring’. They will often be told to be silent. They will be told they are making it up. They will be told they brought it on themselves.
Of course, not all reactions to the memoir components in my book will be so nice as the private and public messages I received over the weekend. Already there’s the (different) journalist whose opening interview question about the book was posed as ‘Just playing devil’s advocate…’ and mentioned something called ‘The Sympathy Card’. It’s hard to know how to respond to such questions, or how to process the inevitable online comments, and the surreal reality of headlines like ‘The day I was raped’, ‘The Rape Tara Moss Kept Locked Up for 20 Years’ (and puzzlingly on The Age website front page ‘The Rape Tara Moss Kept Locked Up For 2 Years’) that naturally sprang up across news sites after the publication of the Good Weekend piece. And I know I can expect more of all of the above, thanks to the conscious decision I made to reveal the less-than rosy details of my life, along with the positive experiences. These briefly outlined experiences will inevitably be a focus for some, for a time, before many of the broader issues and arguments I outline in The Fictional Woman become – I hope – the main focus for discussion. I know that. (And what of these cards? ‘Gender Cards’, ‘Sympathy Cards’…so many cards. Who keeps printing these darned cards?)
The reality of the uncomfortable and sometimes negative responses such revelations will prompt is something many survivors anxiously consider when deciding whether or not to speak out. Sadly, no one is immune. A friend of mine was subjected to a comment about how it was her fault she was raped, because of the way she dresses. This was last year. She is ten years old.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 1 in 3 women will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime, most likely by someone she knows. Other studies put the rate at an even more alarming 45%. This touches all of our lives, at all levels of society, in every country of the world.
When I think back to the young woman I was at the time, I wish I could reach out to her and tell her that she will be okay, that this too will pass. What worries me is not my own situation, decades on, but the absolute certainty that the young woman I once was is out there right now in the form of a child, woman or a man who has just been assaulted.
She is out there right now and she needs us.
Please, let’s not let her down.