Jessica Friedmann’s account of postnatal depression touches on race, gender, creativity, and mental illness — and does not shy away from the gritty, often unspoken realities of new motherhood and modern womanhood. We spoke to the Canberra-based author about her debut book, Things That Helped.
By Grace Jennings-Edquist
Unravelling is a painful process, one that rapidly outpaces my ability to repair the damage. When Owen is born, the vocabulary lost to the pregnancy doesn’t suddenly flood back, as I had half expected, certainly hoped. Instead, the process of deterioration speeds up, leaving me exhausted by attempts to keep up with the train of my most basic thoughts. Unravelling itself is a trick, with ravelling its synonym and antonym. You can reconcile them by thinking of a loom; the unravelling threads, becoming unwoven from the fabric, are ravelled, tangled up. I can’t think of anything much in particular. I can keep up the flow of social conversation, a beat behind the others who come to coo at the baby, but it exhausts me, leaves me cranky and tired. I am tired physically, tired emotionally, sick of not being able to find the right word at the right time, and terrified that I will never be able to find it again. Language is where I have lived for so long, I am lost without it. When I read, the words make no impression on my brain, vanishing before I finish a paragraph so that I have to read it again and again to glean its meaning. It is like my life before glasses; language becoming, with strain, simply a grey blur across the page. It is truly fucking horrific, and the irony is that I have no words left to describe it.
– Extract from Things That Helped
You share so much of yourself in this book, including your darkest thoughts while suffering PND. What was it like to decide to put yourself out there in such a frank way?
It’s something I’m starting to think about just now, with the book coming out; funnily enough I didn’t worry about it at all while I was writing the essays, because that frankness just felt completely necessary to the work. I wasn’t interested in artifice, I wasn’t interested in beauty; I was interested in using mental illness as a lens through which to examine my own personal, social, cultural, political life. And so I just wanted to write and speak as plainly as possible, so that no aspect of that framing was obscured.
Plainness is the only thing that made writing some of that subject matter possible. For one thing, I didn’t want to romanticise any aspect of the darker or less comfortable side of mental illness, because I worry that the ‘mad creative mother’ can be quite a glamourous figure. But a lot of that plain speaking came, too, from the fact that early motherhood is often still spoken about in really fatuous and euphemistic ways. I didn’t want to contribute to a literature, ostensibly confessional, in which the key facts are still obscured. I’m sure it’s going to feel strange when the book is published, but I’m also really glad that my experience in the years I wrote about is going to be in the public sphere, and not something I have to carry by myself anymore.
You’ve written about losing your creativity for a time after giving birth [see extract above]. Any advice to other creative-type new mums who are experiencing the same thing?
I wish I had had more faith in the resilience of creative capacity, and taken some of the pressure off myself. I genuinely believed that I had ruined or wrecked some innate part of myself by giving birth, the part of myself where creativity lived, when in fact it was just being squashed under sleep deprivation and breastfeeding and depression and anxiety and fear.
If I had another baby – which I won’t – I think I would try to treat the first six months at least as a residency, in which the only things I were allowed to do were think and sleep and slowly develop fragments. I’m a pretty fragmentary writer. Most of the essays in this collection started off as fragments in the Notes app on my phone, which was a lifesaver when I was at the park or the supermarket and needed to get something down while still rocking the pram with my foot. So – keep notes, but don’t pressure yourself to develop them. And just inhabit restorative physical spaces as much as you can.
Things That Helped documents your recovery, but – since you struggled to write when you were unwell — was the decision to write a book also part of your recovery?
It was something I could only do once I was significantly recovered, but it did help clarify some things for me. I had to really reckon with how I inhabited language, and how to write and think in a way that wouldn’t be too consuming; I had to think about how I construct and reconstruct memory, what details I’m prone to repressing, which sensory experiences brought up strongly visceral resonance, and why.
I wouldn’t have dug into some of those things without seeing a therapist. I was lucky to be working with someone really lovely who I liked and trusted, and she became a kind of unofficial guardian angel of the writing process. I still go back mentally into that room to sort things out with her when I’m having a hard time with something on the page. It’s been good; it’s given me a really healthy framework.
Who are your favourite Aussie writers?
There are so many! And it’s a hard question also because a lot of my friends are writers. In terms of essay and criticism, I really love what writers like Hannah Donnelly, Rebecca Giggs, Gillian Terzis and Eleanor Robertson are doing right now. Quinn Eades is somebody whose poetry I find tremendously exciting, and there are writers I’ve studied under, like Tony Birch and Kevin Brophy, whose work has impressed me deeply. Australian writing’s a rich culture; you kind of can’t throw a stone in any direction without hitting a book that is genuinely exciting.
Things That Helped (Scribe, 2017) is out now.
Digital illustration: Nina Abrahams