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Whose story is it anyway?

Emma Forrest discusses her book Your Voice in My Head

In the space of one week I’d been timetabled to teach in the uni’s psych building, I’d been a guest on a radio program hosted by not one but four psychiatrists (intervention much?) and I finally - and kinda blindly - read Emma Forrrest’s mental health memoir Your Voice in My Head (2011); a recommendation from someone who knows me better than most.

Like that kid in Touch, admittedly I do see patterns in everything. Unlike that kid, I’m superbly apt at ignoring them.

I’m quite drawn to the psychological idea of projection. That the more you hate something the more likely it is that you see something ugly or frightening or so very well-suppressed of yourself mirrored. And I didn’t just hate Your Voice in My Head, I despised it. And I despised it more and more with every name she dropped and every song she mentioned and ever city she’d gone and visited. That Stanley Tucci - who I quite love - is attached to the film project shatters me.

My loathing isn’t an indictment on Forrest’s book. Hardly. As a writer the only thing I want to do is make people think or feel something. Encouraging them to quietly loathe my every word would certainly not be the worst thing to come from publishing.

But this piece isn’t on why I found Forrest’s book wrenchingly abrasive. Instead, it’s about memoir and story ownership.

Of the handful of relationships Forrest discusses, one is with a bloke she dubs her “Gypsy Husband”. Anyone who knows anything about Forrest would be aware that the disguise was unnecessary; from the paparazzi through to the legitimate press, Forrest’s relationship with the roguish Irish actor Colin Farrell had been thoroughly documented.

Your Voice in My Head - but the memoir genre more broadly - raises some fascinating questions about ownership and perspective and exposure.

Just who owns the rights to writing about a relationship? To outing a relationship? In history, it’s the victors who invariably write the story; who wins in a broken relationship? Does the writer get to control the narrative, the perception? Do readers assume the published version is the only story to be told; the only truth that exists? Is getting in first to tell a side motivated by patenting a version, manipulating memories or serving as a kind of public therapy?

Two of my books have mentioned past lovers. One became the nail in the coffin to a relationship which, during the writing, had been the most important of my life. Is any book worth such a loss? (For the record I’m going to say no).

I’m too wedded to postmodernism - and far too invested in my identity as a writer - not to be a proponent of multiple truths and our rights not only to own our experiences but to write about them at all costs. Doing so however, certainly isn’t without consequence.

Having the right - if not the perceived yen - to scribe it all down is quite a different thing to all that happens after the story is written, after it’s read and after the fallout.

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4 Comments sorted by

  1. Russell Hamilton


    Well, you could wait 'till they're dead, then publish. If you publish something about a living person, which damages them, you would have to wonder about narcissism, a bit.

    1. Lauren Rosewarne

      Senior Lecturer at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      I think the concept of "damages" is quite a bit subjective. On one hand Colin Farrell comes out of Forrest's book seemingly like a decent, albeit significantly troubled man. She didn't write anything awful about him. But Farrell still left her and I think for a lot of readers, that small but significant detail will have altered many people's perception of him.

  2. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Yes, I agree Lauren, you're wedded to postmodernism, which I read as wedded to yourself.

    As I think about it, that's the reason I've found your posts so troubling, narcissistic, not only sexually assertive but artificially sexualised in an attempt at glamour, as if perpetually challenging others to take you on, to argue with you, especially on the most trivial, commonplace, shared reality of being human, as if you are unique in some way and need to prove it.

    But, you see, if you have no interest…

    Read more
    1. Russell Hamilton


      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Yikes Gil, sounds like you got out of bed on the wrong side today.

      Who are you saying doesn't listen to the radio? There are fantastic things on radio - it's like the internet in general: there's too much to ever take it all in. You just have all your favourite stations from all around the world bookmarked on your ipad and then you can breakfast with the crazy crew at 96 KIS FM in Jakarta, or much more thoughtfully with BBC 4 ...

      Lauren raises interesting issues - this came up not long ago concerning Jeanette Winterson's new memoir - Germaine Greer thought is unfair that it was a one-sided account, and that her mother couldn't answer. Winterson had previously sort of fictionalised it, when her mother was alive.

      Lauren claims "our rights not only to own our experiences but to write about them at all costs". All costs? To whom?