Under The Skin

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.

Fiction.

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.

* Image above is a snapshot of the Good Weekend article, Under The Skin, written by Susan Wyndham, with cover image and inside portraits taken by photographer Peter Brew-Bevan.

20 Comments

  1. Honestly I don’t know where to start or what to say. The fact that people still have the horrific mentality of rape and ‘its your fault because of what you wear’ or that somehow you deserved its utter bullshit. Its no-one’s fault but the rapist. END OF STORY

    I think more women need to share their stories. Rape seems to be the white elephant in the room, friends and family don’t want to hear about it because it brings up issues of shame or irritation. It happens and it needs to stop. Rape is not okay. NOT now , not ever.

    I highly recommend support services: The rape crisis centre in NSW ( http://www.nswrapecrisis.com.au/ ) is just one of many and there are services available Australia wide.

    For those that choose to seek counseling. Please choose a Councillors whose area of expertise is in Sexual assault as this is a specialized area and not all support workers are equipped to deal with what can arise

    Remember Rape is never your fault. It is the Rapists.

    Thank you for being so candid

  2. I have NEVER understood the ‘it’s your fault’ thing. It is NOT acceptable in this world and it never should be. Hopefully your courage shall help improve things.

  3. Shalailah

    Hi Tara,

    My name is Shalailah and five years ago I was held at knife-point and bashed in an attempted rape by a taxi driver. After the attack, I became slightly obsessed with reading accounts of famous/successful women who’d survived sexual assaults. I think I needed reassurance that this horrible thing that happened to me wasn’t going to be the still point around which my life revolved.

    Reading your article in the paper this weekend reminded me about why I needed to go through this stage, and how healing it was. So thank you for sharing the story with us. I know it must have been very difficult, but it’s so, so important for the hundreds of survivors who are still coming to terms with the horror of sexual assault.

    Regards,
    Shalailah

  4. Tara,

    All I can say is “Bravo!” I have been an interested party in the goings-on that you share on FB and in other forms of media. I am very sure that I will be reading this book and we shall be stocking it in the store.

    All the very best with your work,
    Paul

    A Reader’s Heaven

  5. Lyn

    Thank you for your candid interview.
    From someone who has experienced rape (I believe they call it “date rape”), I know how difficult it is to keep a secret like that. I did tell one other person. The incident happened many years ago. It is only now, I can look back, and know it wasn’t my fault. It was his.
    We must never remain silent. We must tell any woman, it is her right to speak out about this.

    Sincerely,

    Lyn

  6. veronica

    I really appreciate Tara’s speaking out. I am one of the three, or one of the 45%, however you wish to say it. I too chose to write about it, but in the form of a novel, rather than a non-fiction. Why? Maybe it was a little cowardice, but I did make the decision that if my book was successful I would admit to the fact that the rape which occurs in the story, happened to me. But I also chose to write about it in a fiction form because I thought it would be more accessible, more readable if you like, by more people. This is important. We need to be aware, we need to support and we need to be non-judgemental about the way the victim of this kind of crime chooses to deal with it. Thank you.

  7. Sharon

    Tara,
    I’ve just seen your appearance on Q&A and heard you say some of the things you’ve written here. I really want to thank you for making yourself so vulnerable by sharing your own life experiences. You eloquently give a voice to those of us who are also survivors of sexual violence, and I hope with you that the silence and toxic societal perceptions will have to change in the light of the growing evidence of survivors’ disclosures.

    I too have been blamed for my abuse. I have family members who insist that as a 10 year old I seduced my 16 year old abuser. He has been wrapped in understanding while I have been accused and ostracized by my own father and sisters. Why? Because I finally spoke out 35 years after the abuse, when I felt strong enough and when I had convinced myself that I was foolish to think my family couldn’t handle such news. I was wrong, and 10 years later I am still seen to be the trouble maker. Getting rid of me made the abuse go away.

    I felt supported and validated when I heard you speak tonight, and I applaud your work. Thank you!

  8. Mary-ann

    Hi Tara

    I saw you on Q & A last night and felt compelled to let you know much I admired your intelligent, articulate, respectful and beautiful contributions to the panel s discussions.

    Best Wishes

    Mary-ann

  9. Catherine

    This morning my 17 year old son said to me, mum I just realised why #feminism makes me uncomfortable – it’s because they make all men out to be bad – we’re not are we? I felt myself sadden, no son, there are many masculine qualities that are wonderful; caring, protective, strength, bravery, mateship to name a few – look at the men that gather to help others in emergencies – this exemplifies the wonderful qualities of masculinity. But male violence is a characteristic shown by some men and violence against women, whether physical, verbal, emotional, is a characteristic shown by more men. You are fortunate to be surrounded by men who model love, equality and respect. My son watched Q&A last night and listened to you Tara. He wanted me to listen to you and I watched the replay today. I applauded your response – sitting alone no-one heard but it felt good to do. Later today I read a poem called the rape joke. My husband emailed it to me with the subject title, “this is a bit disturbing but you may find it interesting”. I did. I also realised how deeply hidden, and still seeping, are the scars of humiliation and shame from male violence of more than three decades ago.

  10. Thanks Tara. Yes, to talk about any traumatic experience is not the same as actually experiencing the emotional affect!!! And, all this raised the question of who are the victims of all abuse? Can we simply blame the wounded persecutor brought up with a certain worldview. Or is the reality far more uncomfortable, perhaps we are all at times, both the perpetrator & the victim, in a deeper unconscious psychological sense. We are all “victims” of the sins of our ancestors or the wider Culture in which we are all a part of.. Yes, its true not everyone turns out the same. And, yet perhaps, we not at Conscious as we would like to think we are. And, even those that consider themselves highly intelligent or on a Spiritual path, can find ourselves deeply bound up with far deeper unconscious psychological complexes that are not so simply unravelled as many seem to think. Whever we try & fit the enourmous complexities of life into some kind of “black & white” or “good versus evil” view of life.. Life will continually remind us that life is never quite so simple as it seems…

    I recently read a blog by Jennifer Wilson “On the Unforgivabilty of Child Sex Abuse”.. along with also then writing a blog about all this at my own blog, at http://whatsitallmeanthen.blogspot.com.au/2014/05/on-unforgivablity-of-abuse.html#!/2014/05/on-unforgivablity-of-abuse.html

  11. Caroline Norma

    Dear Tara, you must be receiving many of these messages of thanks, but just also to send my gratitude and solidarity for your comments on Q&A last night. Your intelligent intervention in the public conversation is very needed, and very welcome. Thank you. Will order your book right now.

  12. “The transformation of silence into language is an act of Self revelation”.. Audre Lorde. And so everything we do, feel or say, is an act of Self revelation. And this is an extremely vulnerable thing to do, since we are all Wholly dependent upon others for our survival from the moment we are conceived, up to & beyond the moment we are born into this world. Yet, we have tried to create a world as if that is no longer important any more…. And, all this introducing a Philosophy, Consciousness & Cosmology Forum talk, at http://pccforum.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/jessica-garfield-kabbara-trusting-psyche-a-dialogical-inquiry-into-the-archetypal-depths-of-our-moment/.. also dealing with the underlying themes of the distortions of the Patriarchy.. And of course there is “light & dark” within all things…

  13. Caro

    Dear Tara,
    Thank you for your brave comments. Reading the SMH article brought up a lot of memories, emotions and empathy. The shame and blame of victims is something so many women have experienced, and yet is little discussed. i’m saddened to hear about some of the trolling / reactions, but please be assured there are many more who appreciate and support you. Thank you for standing up for victims. Looking forward to reading your book.

  14. Shannon

    Thank you Tara for turning the spotlight on these devastating issues in society- sexism and violence- by so generously sharing your own experiences.

    It does make me wonder, though, why this (sexism and violence) continues to be perceived as a “female only” problem? Why aren’t more men incensed and passionately taking up the cause?

    And why do we think it acceptable to tolerate, if not use, language that puts-down and degrades our mothers, sisters and daughters, eg “Life’s a bitch”? Our society so vehemently rejects the “N” word, but the “B” word is fine? If I was to bring up the latter point in my workplace, I’d be called a political-correctness freak!

    Kudos to you Tara. May every moment of your, your dear little (and brave!) daughter’s, and your wonderful partner’s lives be blessed with grace, love and dignity.

    Shannon.

  15. Kate

    Dear Tara

    Like others here I was also moved by your appearance on Q & A and disturbed by the negative feedback….on the plus side, an indication of the power of your words to the weak and pathetic, diminished mind.

    I am involved in giving evidence to the Royal Commission into Childhood Sexual Abuse and I periodically can plummet into very black despair. Listening to you speak empowered me Tara and gave me strength. Powerlessness is a dangerous state of mind…almost takes on a life of its own.

    Best wishes to you.

  16. Maciej Sobczyszyn

    Tara…
    Wow! Your appearance on Q&A was so powerful. Not since I first read The Female Eunuch (about 15 years ago) have I been challenged to consider the lives of women and girls. For so long we have talked about love and marriage and motherhood and the roles of women in the world (largely regulated by men). But what we need more of (above everything else) is genuine RESPECT for women and girls.
    The clarity with which you told of the struggles of so many females is all about winning respect. Individuality, empowerment, freedom and education are so important in challenging the restrictions that so many women and girls face on such a deep level in society.
    On a political level I find it astounding that a buffoon like Prime Minister Tony Abbott is the self-appointed minister for women’s affairs in this country. With only one woman given a role as a senior minister in his party, and a history of stupid comments about women, I fail to see how he can possibly understand life for females in the 21st Century.
    But your book and recent public appearances are so critical at a time when the disrespect heaped on women and girls seems to have reached a new level. Or maybe it’s just that it’s been made more public. Nevertheless, we have a long way to go when it comes to accepting or even understanding the stark reality for females.
    Tara, your voice needs to be considered, understood and respected by men and women alike.
    I admire your strength. And your eloquence.

    Best Wishes,

    Maciej.

  17. Angelika

    Hello Tara,

    I applaud you for your strength. A wonderful review and interview in SMH. I am picking up my copy of The Fictional Woman this afternoon and cannot wait to read it. I have always enjoyed reading your series of fictional books, the stories of Mak & Pandora I miss dearly, however I think this non-fiction book will definitely leave the biggest impression.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences and inspiring the rest of us to speak up.
    Best wishes,

    Angelika

  18. Paris

    Hi Tara,

    Last night my mother Sue and I had the privilege of meeting you at the Readings Hawthorn launch of The Fictional Woman.

    Tara, you are an incredibly impressive and interesting person in so many ways. The research, ideas and experiences you shared with the audience last night stimulated hours of discussion and recollections between my mother and I.

    We are both now very eager to read The Fictional Woman in tandem and share it with our friends and family.

    Thank you so much and best wishes for the continuing launch ahead.

    Paris

  19. Heather Argerakis

    Tara,
    I saw you on Q and A and if I had to use one word to describe you it would be ‘commanding’. You demonstrated poise, intelligence as you unpacked some of the issues facing women in today’s society. I had not heard of you so I went looking for information, borrowed your new book and will read you novels in time.
    In the sixties and seventies women fought heard for changes in long entrenched inequality, however, it has been concerning to see women not understand the need to continue to be vigilant in protecting those hard earned changes and to continue to challenge those that want believe inequity, in regards to gender, is acceptable at best and preferable at the worst.
    I am ashamed to have witnessed (whatever her political persuasion) the personal denigration, in the parliament and the media, of Julia Gillard rather than the rigorous debating of her policy. This denigration of a female public figure has implications for us all. Then to hear our one female, federal cabinet minister justify the lack of female representation, as lack of merit!!! Oh my, how often we let each other down.
    I was shocked to see that you had been attacked for your contribution on Q and A. It puzzles me why there are so many deeply troubled people out there. I for one am pleased to see someone as intelligent as you are, beginning the unpacking of the world us ‘girls, ladies, women’ whatever we want to be called, live in. If you ever come to Wollongong to speak, I for one will be there to hear you. Now there is an idea. Do you want to come to Wollongong and speak?
    Look after yourself.
    Heather

  20. Annabel

    Dear Tara,

    I went into a bookstore the other day to purchase Hillary Clinton’s latest novel and left with not only her’s but yours. I was unaware that you were a writer, but also quite unaware of really anything about you (forgive my ignorance).

    I have since begun reading your novel “The Fictional Woman”. I’m not very far in and have already been reduced to tears by the simple line of “she was proud of me for pursuing my dreams”. I am 23 and wanting to be a police officer. I have been trying to get in for 3 years now. I pass every test in the recruiting process, except for the unwritten test of not being a victim of sexual assault. Unfortunately for me, an incident from seven years ago which was far out of my control has now defined me in more ways than one. I worked tirelessly to overcome it and to not allow it to consume me entirely. I was successful in that part, until I decided which career path I wanted to take.

    Despite having been rejected four times now from the police force and for being openly told that it is my victim history that is “of concern” (or another way it was phrased “medically unsuitable”), I am still pursuing it as a career. I have hope that one day, these people who refer to me as an applicant I.D number, will view my life experiences as a strength and no longer treat me as a criminal.

    I would like my family to be proud of me for pursuing my dreams instead of constantly having to watch me fall to pieces each time I am reminded that I will forever be defined as “the girl who was sexually assaulted” (I’m almost considering wearing a flashing neon sign stating that).

    Your writing is giving me hope that I can break that mould and prove that a man’s actions will no longer determine my life and the course it will take. I will never give up the fight. I know you get a billion of these types of stories and probably don’t get the chance to even read half of them but who knows, maybe one day you’ll be sitting in bed, reading my book.

    You’re an inspirational to us all and I am putting you on my bucket list of people I’d like to meet.

    Annabel x

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