Australian Biography

Anne Deveson - full interview transcript

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... [interruption] ... You'd said that you'd used this personal experience in your book about resilience. How did you do that?

I brought Robert in from the very beginning. I talked about our meeting. I talked about his work, and I suppose I used that as a kind of spine running through the book ... I finished with his death and I talked about — obviously that's one area, one place, one experience where you need resilience. So it rang throughout the book and his philosophies also came into it. ... it was quite difficult to do that in a way, it was almost as if there were two halves of the book ... I think at times. ... but I felt I needed to do this. So I did.

Anne, at various points in your life story, you've said in a small voice, when I've asked you what happened, what made this happen, you've said ‘I fell in love.’

... [laughs] ... I know!

I know this is an impossible question, but if anybody can articulate an answer to it, it would be you. What do you mean by that?

There's a long silence, Robin. I think it is that ... I think it means different things to different people. Ah ... I think it is that ... that awareness that there is an enormous attraction of the mind and the body and the spirit. That there is a sense of ... of excitement with this person. There ... there should be a sense of knowing of this person, ... but that doesn't always happen. ... I think it's a feeling that this is a beginning of something you want to explore and take further. I don't think you particularly intellectualise it either. And that's half the trouble with falling in love, in that it can sometimes take you to places where it might have been wiser not to go ... I think being in love is ... is different from loving. And I think loving comes out of being in love. And probably being in love is something that people in relationships need to work at. But the loving becomes more important.

And what's the difference?

Well, I think the loving is that deep knowing of someone. That respect of someone's ideas and being. That ... that acceptance of the person totally so you're not trying to change them to be something that you want them to be ... and I think often relationships founder on that, where you're saying if only he wouldn't be like that, if only he wouldn't be so impatient, if only he wouldn't wear his hair like that, or ... I mean, it can range from quite profound wishes that you have to manipulate somebody's whole being to quite trivial things. I've known friends who've planned how to, you know, cut their husband's hair off or throw away their daggy t-shirts. And this is sort of the trivial stuff. But I suppose what it's doing is reflecting a sense of aesthetics that maybe for them is very important. And their partners' aesthetics don't fit in with theirs. And alright, you have to ask yourself, is this really important? Is this what matters to me? And maybe it is ... but I think it's like in deep friendships, loving ... you can love people deeply in friendships, and it is an acceptance of that person as they are and ... and a wanting to spend time with them. [Otherwise] it's no use being with somebody — except your children. I think that's a ... children are probably the only people we love unconditionally. We mightn't love their behaviour but we love them. But with friendships, I think you can have that kind of deep loving that's very strong, and just wanting to be with them.

I was going to ask you how important relationships had been in your life, but what I notice from what you've told me, is that each time you've fallen in love, it seems to have involved a major life change. A journey to a new place.

Well, I've fallen in love at other times that I haven't made major life changes. I think in what's now, you know, a long life, I've had numbers of relationships. And the older I've got, probably the wiser I've become in recognising ... this one is very exciting but I'm not going to go and live the other side of the world because it's not going to work. Or this person is ... it's really going to be a very destructive relationship I think for both of us, so ... so I'll accept this as an affair or a fling in certain times in my life when I've had the freedom to do that. ... so that I think ... it's been three times that I've done that. That's quite a lot.

Your first relationship with a man was with your father, and you mentioned that at times you actually got quite angry with him. Looking back now from this point in your life, what do you think was the significance of your relationship with your father for the rest of your life?

I think for a long time I was always seeking approval and engagement from men because I think I ... although I hadn’t had that from my father (even though I knew later when I'd grown up that that wasn't the case) ... but there was this sense as a small child that he wasn't a man who could handle ... affection and demonstrativeness very well, even though he longed for it. He was the one who pushed us away, out of awkwardness, I suspect, a lot of the time ... because he was also a very whimsical, kind and playful person inside, and he always used to remind me as I grew older of that Thurber cartoon, or that Thurber saying, that ‘inside every fat man there's a thin man trying to get out’. And in my father, inside a really rather acerbic and disappointed man, there was actually quite a joyful eccentric trying to get out. And indeed he found that and released that joy in his life in the last 10 years of his life. Up ‘til then he ...he really had been quite a killjoy at times. He'd say ‘let's go to the movies’ or ‘let's go to the cinema’, he'd say. This was when I was growing up ... we'd all be dressed up ready to go out and then he'd say, ‘I don't know what you're all dressed up for. I don't think I want to go. I've changed my mind. There isn't anything that's any good on anyway.’ So there were always these constant letdowns which used to upset my mother a great deal. And then I would get very angry with him ... and he couldn't talk to me, and I couldn't talk to him.

And I remember right towards the end of his life when he had lung cancer, and he was clearly dying, he came to me in the middle of the night when I was staying in London, and he was coughing and he pretended he was just wandering the house. And I actually think he was very frightened. And I did go and make him some tea and I came with him back to bed and I sat on the side of the bed, but I didn't say, ‘Are you frightened?’ I didn't open or give him that bridge to walk across because I just wasn't able to do it. I think I could now but in those days I just couldn't ... and yet in the very last period of his life I think he managed to achieve that with my brothers ... [interruption] ... and looking back now on my father, I think of him with great affection, and an awareness actually ... of the whole person. I think he was quite important in my life ... I think he was important in that he gave me a joy of words and a love of reading. ... and a love perhaps of a quieter life, which might sound rather strange coming from me, because a lot of my life has been very active. But I am a person who needs to spend time alone. And I think in many ways I was ... in some ways I was quite like my father. I think he was an important person.

From your memories of him when you were a child, do you remember the ways in which ... do you remember ways in which he showed that he was actually disappointed with his life?

Oh, yes I do. He was ... I think I've said earlier that he was a procrastinator and he was somebody who, when he was living in Malaya, he used to quote Hilaire Belloc and talk about Sussex and the Downs and he would want to be there. And when he was living in England, then he'd be reading Somerset Maugham and he'd want to be living in Malaya. So he was always ... he was ... life was never exactly as he wanted it to be. And I think he had a chip on his shoulder, a social chip on his shoulder, in what was then a very class-ridden society because he ... he hadn't come from the kind of family background ... that would have enabled him to get to the very top of his career, in ... as a rubber planter or whatever. He probably hadn't wanted to do that anyway ... so for a long time I think he was disappointed in that kind of way. He was a very witty man but ... his wit was astringent. And then this extraordinary thing happened ... he found out he had lung cancer and he had one lung removed or most of one lung removed, and for the last 10 years of his life he must have decided to go for broke.

And suddenly he became this quite sort of jovial and at times embarrassing eccentric. You know, he'd go skipping ... when he came out to stay he'd be skipping across the Harbour Bridge and he'd go down to Bondi very early in the morning. And everybody wanted him to come to their parties when he was here. They wanted him to come to dinner. And it ... it totally threw my mother's nose out of joint because she was always the outgoing one, the person who was gracious and beautiful, and everybody wanted to be with my mother. But suddenly it was my father who was in huge demand ... and for a long time I remember ... also being quite cross with him about that and thinking well, if you could blooming well behave and be like this now, why couldn't you do it earlier when we were children. And then I let that go and ...

You also mentioned being angry with him because he didn't look after you all properly. That you ended up being scattered and so on because he wasn't there earning a proper living and keeping the family together.

Did I say that?

You did say that at the time you had to go off to boarding school. You know, when the family fractured, you felt quite angry with your father about that?

Did I say it on this interview?

Yes, you did.

I don't remember that.


... Maybe I expressed it clumsily. I don't remember feeling angry with him. I remember feeling a whole mixture of things ... I think I was aware of how hard he was trying to get a job. But I remember feeling he was being pretty useless because my mother was carrying the burden, yes I do remember that. And then when ... we were all together in London ... and she was working very hard to keep the family together and to send my youngest ... my younger brother to school, my father still couldn't get a job and he became quite depressed and then finally she had what I think was like a breakdown. She ... she felt she couldn't go on any longer, and she cried for about three weeks which ... we'd never seen my mother cry. And the doctor next door said to my father, who was a friend, you know, ‘for God's sake go and get any kind of job.’ And what he did then was snap out of that torpor and I suppose self-pity, and lack of confidence, and he went and found himself a job, first of all selling horrible Christmas cards, which he hated, but at least it was bringing money in.

And then he ended up working for a man called Gordon Fraser, who'd been head of UNESCO, who had a publishing house that published sort of art books and Christmas books, rather attractive books. And who ... all his sales staff were eccentrics like my father. They were all sorts of misfits and ... they used to have their meetings in the monkey house at the zoo in London in winter because it was warm. So he actually enjoyed this work because he enjoyed Gordon Fraser's company.

Your first two major relationships, your first two relationships with men after that were with older men. Do you think this had anything to with the fact that your relationship with your father had seemed unsatisfactory to you?

It's possible, you know. I certainly tended to be attracted to older men ... I tended to find them more interesting. But it may just have been the luck of the draw. They may have been more interesting than the younger men I was ... I was with ... I tended to feel they would give me security which of course often wasn't the case. And so yes, there must have been this longing for some kind of stability and security, and ... probably being looked after ... and ironically that often didn't happen. Not necessarily their fault but it wasn't the pattern of that relationship.

Did you ever, do you think, get over this early desire to please men and if so how did that happen?

Yeah, I think I did, because I think it was quite destructive. It didn't stop me from working but it did keep me always on the seesaw of rushing down that end to keep this person quiet and ... and being okay and not being angry, and then rushing up the other end to do my work. And in a way, being grateful when they were quiet and where they were loving and when they weren't in a bad temper or whatever it might be. ... I think that I did when Jonathan became so ill, and ... when I went to ... to psychotherapists in Adelaide then, who were practicing a kind of humanist psychotherapy, where you bang the beanbag and hit your mother and hit your father and have tantrums and then out of all that you emerged free of any kind of traumas. They were particularly clever. They were very good psychotherapists. They were clinical psychologists who'd worked for 14, 15 years in this field.

And I went to say, ‘Can you help Jonathan?’, which was pretty obvious they couldn't, because Jonathan refused to come with me. And they said, ‘No but we can help you. You know, it looks to me that you can do with a bit of help.’ And I went along and they were running group therapy sessions then with about a dozen people. And I remember going in rather smugly. It's the good girl syndrome that, you know, all these poor people are having all these terrible traumas in their life, and aren't I lucky because I'm managing mine ... which was really a lot of codswallop. And what they did was confront that kind of rather smug myth that I carried around which kept me really ... cocooned from really feeling what was happening in my life. And the fact that I was and had often hurt quite a lot and that I had better start looking after myself. And they were very robust sessions that I went to for a long time. I think I was the kind of oldest groupie on the block because I kept going away to work. And ... so I'd ... I'd come back and that group had graduated and I'd join another one which meant that I constantly was meeting these people in a whole range of difficulties and circumstances, and finding through that an awareness of a common vulnerability and common strengths, because what comes out of those groups and out of that kind of work, if the therapists are any good, is not that you stay wallowing in your misery but you're made to turn around and look at what are you going to do about it. How are you going to get out of it, and how you're going to make sure it doesn't happen again.

And I think, really, that was very profoundly helpful in my life because it kind of made me aware of myself. Who I was, and why I behaved in ways that sometimes were very destructive to me, and how I could stop that happening in the future. It didn't stop me from ... perhaps falling in love with the walking wounded, with people who would say ‘I need you so much’. But it put me in a position where I could say, ‘Well, you may do but ... I'm not going in that place because it's not going to be good for me.’ It made me much stronger. And less smug. And much more open. It ... it enabled me to reach out to other people. And to be aware of that ... thing that people often write about and talk about, that common humanity, that thread that links us all where you find that no matter where people come from, what cultures, what kind of background, there are very strong commonalities that we have. We have the same desires, the same needs for love and for shelter, and for something to do in life that's useful. All these kinds of things that I certainly was aware of when I was filming quite often.

But in order to do that, you had to give up what Nanny would have called your privacy. She probably would have called it your privacy.

Yes, she might have done.

And that meant a sort of personal exposure, which happened in the group and also in your books, of what some people would regard as absolutely private matters. Was that an issue for you?

I don't think it was because I think I was so desperate that I grabbed anything that came along, and I ... you ... you can tell if ... something is working for you. I think also probably the storyteller in me ... grabbed this and I probably always had had that rather English self-deprecatory sense of humour, where you're not really being self-deprecatory but you're telling these funny stories about slipping on the banana skin. And that's a trap because you can of course continue to have that kind of humour, that gallows humour, even where you're not really confronting the reality of what's happening. But if you're in the groups that I was in, someone would say, ‘That's not funny Anne!’ And ... it was a challenge all the time. It was ... it was also very lively. And I think it kept me really managing to cope. I was going to say sane and maybe it kept me sane at a time when there was absolute mayhem going on all around me, because I was with people in a city where I didn't know very many people, with people who were able to hold me ... literally hold me, when I was very frightened at times. And where I felt safe because ... that was a safe group, a safe place to be. And I think there's times when we need that. We need safe friendships, and safe places.

What about the women's movement? What affect did that have on the way you saw life and relationships, and what was your relationship to that huge movement that swept through a major part of your life?

It had a strong affect on me ... I came into it late and I was probably one of the older group of women who ... who were swept up in the women's movement, involved in the women's movement. We had been away in Italy for that ... for a whole year. ... when I came back, Germaine Greer had been and gone and galvanised a lot of people. Although I recognise that the women's movement didn't start with Germaine Greer, that people including me had been reading Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, and we talked about the shifts, the changes that need to be made. But Greer ... my impression was, that it was a very different Australia for a lot of women ... when I returned than it had been beforehand. So I came back to find my ... my friends who admittedly were mostly urban ... not all middle-class women at all, but they were thinking women who suddenly were looking different and talking quite strangely. You know, they were calling each other sister. They were quite fierce. I remember a lot of them had cut their hair off. They were wearing dungarees. It was ... it was quite a fierce and potent mix.

And they were talking a language that I didn't fully understand. I did intellectually ... when they were talking about their relationships with men and their need to express themselves, and the need for equality, and challenging so many different aspects of life, that ... I know in the beginning, very early on, I ran a series of programs for Sydney University, television programs, interviews on the changing face of women. And I heard myself say ... they were talking on the difficulty of women working and how many men then resented it, and I heard myself say, ‘Well I'm quite lucky because my husband encourages me to work.’ And everybody of course jumped on me ... [laughs] ... and I recall from that, I went through that phase of recognising that I was shifting from intellectualising what people were saying and what I was reading to that sense of ... of a whole sense of being which permeated my whole ... my whole ... through my skin. I felt I changed from within. So that I no longer wished to be limited in the roles I chose or in my sense of self just because I was a woman and should stick to certain prescribed views and roles in life.

And not long after that I went to the royal commission where we had ... you know, research staff who were men and women, but they tended to be more women than men, and this was an area we looked at very strongly. So although I wasn't there at the beginning of WEL [Women’s Electoral Lobby], I was a member of WEL but my kind of ... policy-making and my work and my thrust came through the royal commission. And through my whole private life because there was this extraordinarily ... extraordinary kind of mayhem all around us, of so many couples questioning their relationships. And sometimes very painfully. And sometimes with great exhilaration.

Do you think that the experience of being in the women's movement and rethinking a lot of those things was a necessary part of your finding the strength to leave your marriage?

Yes, I think it was ... I think it enabled me to realise that I didn't have to stay where I was because I was married, and although it's usually very painful to break up a marriage, particularly if there are children, I was aware that at that time, I was ... it was a very destructive marriage for me, and that ... I had ... I had the need to leave it. I had the need to move away from that. And I also had the need to do it in a way that actually wasn't ... that didn't tear us both apart. And I managed to succeed in that. But I had support then from other women, which I hadn't had before. At the time ... when Joshua was born so premature, I really couldn't find other people to talk to, and suddenly there were women talking about their lives and about the changes they felt needed to be made. And doing so in ways that sometimes were destructive, but often in very supportive ways. And that to me was hugely important. It was very important and very helpful ... yeah.

When you say that a marriage is destructive, what do you mean by that? What is it destroying?

I think it destroys your sense of self. If it destroys your inner kind of peace. If it ... if you're living in apprehension because of the tension in a relationship, and alright, every marriage goes through difficult times nearly always and, you know, there will always be times when you have periods of great tension. And you need to try and work through these. But ... I think we'd both tried often to do that. I think it was also very destructive for Ellis. It's not just one person who's feeling awful about this. It's both people. You know, a relationship ... it's not ... is about the interaction between two people and I think that if ... if it doesn't look as if anything is going to budge or shift ... and you've tried and tried and tried. And you don't know what else is going to make it different. And I remember being asked ... are you ... does that mean that you're prepared to live the rest of your life like this? And I was horrified at the thought.

This was when the friend who was a psychiatrist had come in because I was very distressed, and ... I remember her asking me this. And I said, ‘It may get better or it will probably be alright when I stop working,’ or I was this little Pollyanna again, and she said, ‘Well what's going to be different? You know, what else is going to happen that's going to make it different, Anne?’ And ... I took that to mean this is how you're going to spend the rest of your life, and ... I think that was the beginning of recognising that it wouldn't shift any other way than my moving away. So I think you can move away ... I think you can end a relationship and still care for someone, someone whose ... with whom you've had children, with whom you've had a great many happy times in your life ... and I think you can say and feel quite genuinely, ‘I still care for you. There's times when I might hate your guts but I still care for you. But I don't want to live with you any more. I don't want to go on living like this.’ And ... I think that's quite hard for couples to do sometimes.

Now you've described ... while we're on the subject of relationships, you've described your relationships with your children during their early years, and then the difficult years of their growing up when you had this focus on Jonathan. How your relationship with your children now?

It's good. Ah ... it's very good. I think that we've worked through a lot of very tough times. ... I think we've managed to be pretty open and talk to each other about what's happening. Not always but ... I think they know that I deeply love them and I know that they feel the same about me. There might be times when they get mad with me, or they send me up or, you know, they get cross with me. And the reverse is true, but this is where you get back to that sense of truly loving someone ... that I feel that bond is very strong. I also have found out that you don't stop being a parent. You know, you think, oh now the kids have left home ... but of course what happens is you're still deeply involved even though maybe you shouldn't be, but you are, because you're heart's there, in any distress they might have in their lives, and you ... you sorrow for them because you don't like ... I don't like seeing my children unhappy ... and so I can still lie awake at night. I mean, I try not to and I have other friends who say let it go, and I say let it go to them at times. But I think that's part of that whole parenting role, just as they now start worrying about me and saying kindly, ‘Don't you think you'd better do less work, Anne’, or ‘Next time you'd better not have such a large dog’, and I say, ‘Don't you tell me what to do.’ So that kind of bond of affection of belonging, of being together, is still very strong.

What's it like to be a grandmother?

Oh, that's absolute joy. I had ... I know I've read about this a lot and I remember talking to an English writer called Nell [Dunne] ... I can't remember her name ... an English writer who'd written very well about being a grandparent and I was thinking she was exaggerating ... and then finding this absolute delight in ... in having this chance to be again with these little people. And from ... you know, from the moment they wake up in the morning usually, they're bright-eyed and they're alive and they're funny and they make your heart sing. And it's ... and yet you don't have the responsibility of being with them all the time. It's been a very great joy, a real joy.

Because of this way you have of writing your books, where you mix in personal experience with broader social issues, it's meant that the family life has also received some exposure, although it's mostly been about your own experience. How do the kids feel about that?

When I wrote Tell Me I'm Here I had told them what I was doing. And they didn't want me to write that book. ... they were quite angry ... I listened to them ... I'd ... sounds like I'm reading from a classic therapy manual. I listened to them and I acknowledged their anger, and I said, ‘I will only write about you when it relates to what was happening with Jonathan. I will show you what I've written before it's published, and if there's anything that really distresses you, I will remove it. So I give you complete control over this. But I'm going to write this book because I feel it's important. It's important for me but I also think that I don't want to have other families going through the same kind of experiences and feeling they're all alone. Feeling that there must be something freaky about them, feeling that they've failed. Feeling ashamed of what's happening. And that's why I'm writing it, and I'm also writing it to make sense of Jonathan's life and of everything that happened to us.’

So they accepted this ... as I think does happen if you're honest about what you're doing, and you don't say, well, I'll think about it and maybe I won't ... and then you go ahead and do it anyway. When I wrote it, when I finished it ... they totally accepted it ... Georgia I remember was very moved by it. When it was published and they came to the launch, and they came to the launch of the film that I made, they ended up by saying that they were glad I had written it ... and they knew why I had done so, and they totally supported it. So that was part of that experience. I think it's been harder for Josh because he's not a writer, so Georgia's been more accommodating, just as I'm now having to be accommodating with her, because she's been writing about me, and she wrote a bit about Ellis. So there is a kind of sense of rather dangerous cannibalism if you have two writers in the same family. And I think it's been quite tough on Josh who ... you know, can't get his own back in any way.

What was it that they didn't like about the idea of you doing this?

I think it was public exposure of something that was very painful. And ... and a sense that life had been so public with Jonathan, as it often was because Jonathan would appear outside Joshua's schoolbus when he was only 11 or 12. And there would be Jonathan, clearly quite crazy and half-dressed and safety pins dangling from his ears, and the others would say, ‘Who's that?’ And, ‘Is that your brother?’ And he would say, ‘No, no, no’ and then he'd come home and weep bitterly because he'd denied him. And so I think it was the sense that you know, let's not open it, let's bury it, let's forget about it. It was too painful.

[end of tape]

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