We talk to Canberra artist Angela Parragi about the traditional art of portraiture. Canberra is well…
Content warning: Childhood abuse.
I couldn’t put No Matter Our Wreckage down and read it in one sitting.
Yes, this is a memoir of childhood abuse. But it’s also a memoir of loneliness, of confusion and grief. Of emotions that ricochet through us all, at one time or another.
With powerful, raw and incisive and at times poetic writing, Gemma is unflinching in her personal investigation of family and trauma. She peels back layer upon layer to ask: What happens to our souls when we feel we don’t matter? How do we break the silence and put our broken selves back together?
This is a brave and addictive book which speaks of one life, and all lives at the same time. It also asks uncomfortable but crucial questions about children, sex and consent and a society that often chooses to look the other way.
This book had me so intrigued, I wanted to speak to Gemma herself.
Gemma, this story takes place as your mother is dying of cancer and you are trying to grapple with the fact she knew you were sexually abused as a child but never addressed this. How did you do that?
In the book, I wanted to take people through my own struggle from feeling betrayed to making peace with both what happened to me, and my mother’s actions or inaction.
In real life, this happened as my mother died, and the story flicks between the past and the present—my childhood and teenage years during the abuse and its immediate aftermath, and the present where my mother has terminal breast cancer.
In tracing these shifts in time and events, I show how the past and the present can collide in unexpected ways, at unexpected moments in our lives—forcing us to reckon with things we might have been avoiding.
Some people around me at the time of my mother’s death who learnt of my abuse and her inaction felt I should hate her. But we all hold contradictions, especially when it comes to family. Anger and love, disappointment and acceptance, sadness and understanding can all co-exist at once in us.
This is in part a story about what families do to each other, and how we love them anyway.
One of the things your book does so powerfully is it sits right in the grey—sometimes it’s uncomfortable for the reader.
Some people have questioned whether you are trying to evoke sympathy for your sexual abuser. How do you respond to that?
When you write memoir, you aren’t writing ‘characters’—you’re writing real people. And all people, regardless of the shitty things they do to us, aren’t black and white.
It was important to me to capture people in as full a complexity as possible. With my mother, this meant showing the good and the bad of her. But it also meant to doing that—to some extent—with my abuser.
One of the central themes in the book is intergenerational trauma. It is integrational trauma in two families—mine and my abuser’s—that led to the ‘perfect storm’ that was my childhood abuse.
While most of the book explores intergenerational trauma through my family, one can’t paint one side as deeply complex and yet dismiss the other. His abuse has to understood as well.
I don’t excuse my abuser, and I’m even spurious about the links between surviving abuse and the further perpetration of sexual abuse (as I say in the book, the research is pretty sketchy on this!).
But I do acknowledge he carries trauma, and that in being convicted his life has been curtailed and constrained.
His life is not a happy one, and readers can make of that what they will. Is poverty and decaying mental health ‘justice’? I honestly don’t know, and that is one of many questions the reader is asked to consider.
But posing the questions isn’t about invoking sympathy, it’s challenging us to explore and think more deeply about things—beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
Your case was possibly the first case of grooming over the internet ever to be prosecuted in South Australia and you were only 17 when this happened. How do you reflect on that now?
Yes, I’m not 100% sure but a lawyer friend in South Australia told me at the time that she believed it was the first case.
Looking back, with the wisdom of age and knowledge of how the criminal justice system treats victims of abuse honestly my story feels neary impossible. That I, at 17, was able to get my abuser to please guilty to some (not all) charges, when the case was years old, and I had no witnesses.
Sometimes I wonder about the naivety of youth. It can be a little protective, I think. When I was young, I thought an injustice had been done, and someone should put it right.
I didn’t understand how hard it is to push cases like this through to an outcome that’s satisfactory to the victim. I realise now, I am one of the lucky few to have been heard and helped by the justice system.
One of the things that enraged me while reading your book was the complete lack of empathy your abuser had for you when you corresponded with him. How do you see him now?
Ha! Now I’m going to contradict myself when I said above people aren’t good or bad, that life is made of ‘grey’!
I see him as an awful person, with an awful childhood, who did awful things to other people and is only sorry that those things made his life yet more awful again.
I spoke to him when I was writing the book, and what struck me was that he didn’t have remorse – or rather, he didn’t have the right kind of remorse. His apologies were just for what he had done to himself.
I guess what I take away from that is that people don’t always change and grow, and the very ‘punishments’ society puts in place to try and make that happen often fail.
How did the process of writing such traumatic content affect you?
I often say it took me 20 years and 20 days to write this book. When my mother was dying, I sat down and begun to write—just to make sense of the complexity of what was going on. And what I was writing grew and grew.
And then more things happened (which I won’t say here, or it’ll ruin reading the book!) and it turned into a book.
Sometimes I think I’m a little sad that my life is ‘book worthy’. It’s a hell of a tale, but I would have rather these things didn’t happen. Given I cannot have that…writing the story was cathartic.
It helped me organise things in my own mind through organising them on the page. It helped me put the blame and shame finally in the right places (rather than on myself, as I had done).
My goal, once I realised I was writing a book, was to write what I had needed when I was younger.
I hope it finds its way into the hands of every young woman, or grown woman, who needs it. Who needs to know they did not bring this on themselves, that they do not need redemption.
No Matter Our Wreckage is published by Allen and Unwin and is in bookstores now and can be purchased online.
Join Ginger and Gemma at the online launch of No Matter Our Wreckage on Wednesday 7 October at Harry Hartog. Bookings and info here.