Australian Biography

Anne Deveson - full interview transcript

Tape of 15

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

You described how when you became a journalist, you suddenly realised you'd come into your own, and that this was the field you wanted to be in. Why do you think that was? What was the match between you and this area?

I think because it took me into an involvement with people. Ah ... I think I'm very curious ... an intensely curious person. I like knowing how society works. I like trying to understand how people's lives unfold. Ah .. I enjoy ...

... [interruption] ... Yes, we'll ask it again because there was that one moment that the car came.

What do you think was the match between you and journalism that made it so right for you?

I think two things. I think, one, because I'm an intensely curious person. I like understanding or trying to understand how life works. I like trying to understand and appreciate how people's lives unfold. I'm interested in ... in what's happening, what's going on around me. So it gave me a chance to move into places that I might otherwise not have been in, and meeting people I might otherwise not have met. And then I think there was also the excitement and the challenge of trying to put down what I'd ... what I'd absorbed, what I had taken in. How do you make this ... how do you make this interesting for people who are going to read about it? Why are you doing it? What are your responsibilities when you're writing a piece? So it's not ... it's not something that ends when you've, you know, when you've gone and talked to people or interviewed people. And I think there's also ... then there was the excitement of never knowing what was happening ... going to happen next. You know, I like change in my life. So there were a whole number of reasons that came together.

Why do you like change in your life?

... [laughs] ... Probably because I can ... I don't get bored actually. I've never been bored in my life, but I like the excitement of going on to something else. I like that challenge of finding out about something else. And sometimes I think I've probably done too much of it in my own life. ... I might have been better had I stayed longer in one area. For example, I knew a lot about mental illness and I still do, but I made a decision that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life ... involved in that area. I come into it now and speak about it sometimes, if I can be helpful. But I didn't want to become ... you know, an activist in mental health for the rest of my life. I wanted to go and explore something else.

Was that because you'd got bored with it, or simply because you felt that it was time for the change that you always seem to look for?

I don't think I was bored with it. I think I recognised that in public speaking I was often doing and saying the same thing. And that if you're going to keep in an area, you have to keep up to date. You have to continue reading the literature. You have to know what you're talking about. And I no longer wanted to do this, which doesn't mean to say I don't keep a kind of weather eye on what's happening. But I don't know nearly as much about it as I used to. No, I wanted to explore something else.

When you moved from print journalism into radio, what differences did you notice, particularly in relation to your own capacities?

Well, in the beginning I was very shy. I was very awkward. Ah ... my voice wasn't particularly good. It was quite clipped and it sounded a bit like the Queen. And ... I didn't enjoy it as much in the sense that I didn't have the fluency that I had when I was talking to people for print journalism. As I became, you know, a bit more skilled in that area ... and this is ... I go back to Ellis, where he actually taught me a lot, and working in Hobart particularly for a while, until I was stopped. I then ... I then discovered the pleasure of editing. I discovered the whole process of radio, and ... and that I found a challenge and interesting. And in a way I began to enjoy that more than writing because it was perhaps more immediate ... although that's not necessarily true. You can go back and edit a radio documentary, you know, for days and days. It's not more immediate ... it was just ... it was something new.

The difference between the two in terms of expressing an idea — can you characterise how that is? What you're doing that's different?

Well I think in radio you are having to be ... talk at a more personal level to engage the listener, who's perhaps doing a whole lot of other things as well. Who ... who doesn't want a lecture ... and who has to feel you're a person. It depends on what kind of radio. But I'm talking about feature radio or documentary, really, which I still do sometimes ... I think in radio you can bring in sound and ... and use pauses and there are a whole number of ways in which you can make a radio piece ... not necessarily more creative, but creative in a different way ... and there is a sense of the media there, a sense of intimacy that radio has, that you don't perhaps have when you're writing. I mean, when I'm writing, I'm not thinking there is one reader sitting at their kitchen table or in their study reading this. I'm actually much more writing for myself. Although as I say that I recognise, I've also said, that I want to write in ways that make often complex issues accessible to people. But in radio I'm more aware of the person. It's like ... it's like having, not exactly, a conversation with someone ... although all this is quite hard because there are so many different kinds of radio programs, and so many different kinds of writing. I find in all ways impossible to say I prefer this to that.

Ah ... it depends on the mood I'm in. It depends on the subject. I mean, some ... some subjects lend themselves to radio far better than film. For example, I did a couple of radio documentaries that went around the world about RD Laing, who was a man talking about ideas. And I didn't want to do a whole film about RD Laing. I found his voice and his presence ... very ... I was going to say engaging but that's not quite the right word ... infuriating in a way. But he was such a terrific personality. And I found it interesting trying to get that across. Not just through the interview but also in describing him. So I suppose in the radio that I do best, or have done best, it's where I'm able to combine the interview with ... word pictures of what's happening. So to try and make it come alive.

You met RD Laing, the psychiatrist, at the time that you were looking into schizophrenia and his views had been the ones that had perhaps caused you the background of problems with the blaming of the family and so on. How did you decide out of all the people that you interviewed for your book on schizophrenia ... how did you decide that RD Laing was the one you wanted to make radio programs about?

Well, it was only after I met him. I decided I wanted to see him and it was with some degree of militancy that I went to see him, because I wanted to find out what's happened to this man. I want to find out if he still believes those ... extraordinary theories that he had which was ... which were that ... that a lot of mental illness comes about through aberrant communication between the parent and the child. Through double-blind messages ... although that was Gregory Bates. But there was a whole school of ... psychiatrists and anthropologists and people working in that area at a time when the institution of family was under threat. So ... I found it interesting looking at different theories in medicine or in psychology, and citing them in the socio-political context of the time. So that RD Laing now with the same intellect and the same personality might have been saying very different things.

But RD Laing at that stage was part of that 1960s anti-family, anti-institution ... you know, a huge turmoil happening particularly in England. And I think he reflected that. What I also was aware of that I responded quite warmly to ... his ... to the fact that he was able to approach the context of people's lives. Their suffering, their fantasies, their ideas. He gave these an importance which conventional psychiatry wasn't giving at the time. So I had mixed feelings about him. I mean, he was the one who said listen to people's voices. Listen to what they're trying to tell us, even though the metaphors may seem very strange. And that, curiously enough, I found very helpful when dealing with Jonathan because ... and that's why I wrote down such a lot of his conversations because it would appear to me at the beginning, absolutely gobbledygook, but when I wrote it down or when I learnt really to listen, I could tell that beneath these sometimes extraordinarily creative metaphors, and quite wild metaphors, that underneath he was saying some very sad and ... or angry messages were coming through those.

And there I think Laing was ... a genius. I think he was ... his work was extremely important. And we're only just beginning to return to that awareness. That when people have mystical experiences, even though we might think that it's nonsense, that God wasn't a yellow chrysanthemum or that they didn't meet the Virgin Mary in the delicatessen or wherever, that that was ... that that is important to them. And ... and that we need to validate that otherwise we're ... we are dismissing them as people. We are confining them within their madness. And so I went to see RD Laing with... with two ... sets of awareness about him. One, there was the anger of what he'd done to families, and the second was the appreciation of the other part of him. And when I met him and I found this man, who was quite drunk the first time I met him, and suffering a terrible hangover the second time I met him ... so much so that it took days and days to edit him because his voice was ... so slow because he had such a bad hangover. And he was ... he was curious.

He ... what he ... what he said was that yes, of course, mental illness is ... is relates to our biology, but as he then added hastily, and I suppose quite rightly, that everything relates to our biology, but yes there is a biochemical or some ... or physiological component to people's madness. But there is also their persona. Who they are, their psyches. And I think that's right. He also went on to say that ... that research that he did which was so significant about these families — where the children were receiving such mixed messages from their parents and where the relationship was so skewed, that this is what gave them schizophrenia — that he went on to do another study where he used the same approach for another set of families and children who were not ill, but who were being very successful at school and in their work or wherever they happened to be, and he became almost suicidal with depression at the fact that in these families he found that on his scale and his method of working their communication and relationship was even worse than the ones with the schizophrenia. They never published that which, you know, was a pity that he never published that.

You've worked in print, in radio ... what did television offer you that was different?

Television I probably found the least satisfying and I separate out television from film, that appears on television. Ah ... television was a performance in the kind of television I was doing ... even in television documentaries ... which you know are film documentaries or they were then — that was more satisfying. I still found I wrestled with television in that the ... the use of words is so truncated that you have to switch to images. You have to use those words very judiciously and sparingly. And ... and I get less satisfaction from that because I enjoy words. I enjoy ideas I want to explore. And it's harder for me to try and channel those ideas and those presences and those emotions into images. I have directed a number of documentaries. I'm not very good. I'm fairly prosaic and I talk too much, or I get too much language into it.

So you've never felt the power of the image. Is that why you've never moved into making ... you've never made a feature film? It's about the only thing in the whole area that you haven't done.

I've written scripts for feature films but I've never made a feature film. No, I enjoy the image. I mean, I'm quite a visual person. I love ... I love pictures, and I love going to the movies ... probably I've never made a feature film because, I don't know ... by the time I got to that stage it was too big a task for me to encompass when so much else was happening in my life. Also in films ... kind of spin out of control. You know, there's so many people involved in films that you can lose control. ... and I don't mean by that I'm particularly a control freak. I probably ... I like being in control, but ... but you ... it can often end up quite differently from the way you initially envisaged it ... it doesn't have to. When you think of some of the quite wonderful documentaries that have been made, or feature films that have been made. It's when people have managed to keep hold of the artistic control that it doesn’t happen.

But I think in ... a lot of the television I worked in ... put aside the documentaries, tended to be ... mass entertainment stuff. Now I learnt from that how to be a performer ... I learnt how to use my voice. I learnt the value of timing and all those other accoutrements which are quite useful ... and I think I learnt that because commercial television, of the kind that I was doing, was very demanding and quite brutal in the sense that if you didn't perform you were out immediately. And the first person I worked with was a man called Eric Baume, who was a very clever man but who made ... his career out of being very opinionated, and very rude to people. And he was extremely rude to me quite often and it was probably quite good for me because I learnt ... you know, I had to stand up to him or be out on my ear.

So you describe yourself ... if you were linking all this together, and that technique you were using, or the objective of what you were doing, was communication. You were a communicator and you used that very much too in an advocacy role, in relation to various causes that you took up. Was it important to you, particularly when you became really a very prominent advocate for schizophrenia and mental health issues ... was it important to you that you had that background in the media? Did that help you?

It helped me because that's what I knew about. So that ... now, for example, I'm on an advisory group on drugs and alcohol. I'm not there because I'm an authority on drugs and alcohol. I'm there because I can be helpful in communicating some of the messages that are good to get across. So that ... yes, that media experience has been good for me. I mean, has been helpful. Yeah.

How did you find the role of advocate for you? Did that come very naturally to you?

Probably not ... yes and no. Again, I don't want to be an advocate per se. I don't see that's my role, otherwise I might have gone and stayed in mental illness a lot, that needs advocating about and for ... and become a public advocate. But I made that decision, no, that I'd come back to ... to that creative part of communicating. I think that's important to me, that opportunity to use ideas and unfold them in a creative way. That's what excites me ... being an advocate I think is quite tricky if you're a writer or whatever you are ... all the things I am, in that you can easily become a propagandist, and then you lose your balance, your perspective ... you can do, you don't have to. ... and people switch off with propaganda ... so it's ... there is always a balance there. I mean, some films I've made, I've been very much an advocate. I mean, Spinning Out, I was very much an advocate in that. I might on the other hand ... for example, now, have made a film about somebody who has schizophrenia and let that story unfold itself without being an advocate myself ... so out of that person's life comes ... issues that might hopefully disturb people or relate to them or make them question what's happening in the world.

You've also had roles in leadership, and ... when you went to the film school, but also in governments and various boards and councils, and really a great many of them, but associated with interests and causes that you've believed in. But what did you ... what have you learned about leadership and management from all of those experiences?

Well, I learnt about leadership very quickly when I went to the film school, that it's no use telling people what to do just because you're the leader and expecting that they'll follow you, because ... unless they understand and are in accord, and unless you've involved them in that decision-making process, you've got Buckley's of getting what you want done. Ah ... there might even ... people might even do it ... just at the moment but you're going to be sabotaged afterwards. And I think I learnt a lot from the film school. In the beginning I learnt that I didn't know much about managing. I knew far less than I thought. You know, I thought, well I've chaired boards and done this and I understand the film school, and then of course ... I remember on the first day, when two of my most senior staff came to me and had programmed in a two-hour interview with me, and in which they threw a whole long list of questions guaranteed to, or aimed at unsettling me ... because I wasn't a particular popular choice with them ... in which they used terminology I'd never really heard of in a management sense. They asked me what my view was about delegations, and I hadn't a clue what they meant.

Ah ... and when I realised ... and this was the very first day, and the very first morning, that I was being challenged, and that I had to get out of this quickly, and I did this by excusing myself, going to the lavatory outside, looking at myself in the mirror, and thinking, ‘Well, you've got this job. They didn't. And you have to stay in control of this situation.’ And I remember going back and saying, ‘Thank you for your interesting questions, but I'm really ... having listened to them now, I'm not ready to answer them, any more of them at this stage, and I'll let you know when I am. Thank you’, and I showed them the door. Now, I probably had never done anything quite like that before, but it was that kind of learning process that I had to engage in, in the sense of managing people who were quite hostile to what was happening ... learning to distinguish between those who might change and those who would remain hostile for whatever reason.

And then actually having to get rid of people who were ... who were so antithetical to what was happening, to what was supposed to be happening because it wasn't just my idea. it was the idea of a council ... that had appointed me and that had a clear philosophy ... of existence for the film school. And if there were people who were white-anting you all the time, then the sooner you can manage to get rid of them ... which isn't always easy. And I think I was too slow about that because I kept thinking ... it sounds a bit like my marriage — if I'm nice enough and good enough and understanding enough, one day this will all come good. And of course it didn't. And so ultimately there was quite a blow up there. So that's on that side of the ledger. On the other side of the ledger, what I had to learn was the strengths of people, which might be very different from my own but which I needed. So I tended to have an impatience with people in the beginning who perhaps didn't think as quickly or ... think in the way that I might ... might think ... or people who were very stubborn and took a long time to make up their minds. I learnt that these people were important as well. And that if you had an organisation that was run by people who were gung-ho and flying off ideas hither and yon, the whole organisation would quickly fall apart.

So it was ... it was learning to be appreciative of everybody's skills, and to try to locate people in areas where those skills could be ... could really flower, rather than try and make people do things that they weren't particularly good at. There was also the fact that after a few months it was ... I hardly ever saw a film. I was so busy negotiating with Canberra then. And there always will be if you're in a government organisation, fiscal issues where you're lobbying with Canberra. And you spend a lot of your time away from the ... the institution or the organisation where I discovered that the best way of finding out what the students were thinking about me was to go to the downstairs ... to the toilet blocks and to go and look in there at the graffiti. And I would see ... I remember going in once ... I had long spells in Canberra and someone had said, ... 'Where's the Director?' and there was a sort of drawing of a figure there. And the next bubble said, 'Who's she?' and it was obvious, you know, that I hadn't been around enough. So it was ... it was a ... it was ... it was ... it was a period for the first year at least I found very tough going. Very hard indeed ... and where I actually had great support from the council that I had.

It was a period of big change in the film school's life. It was trying to open up the school to the industry. It was ... making the school much more accessible to people ... it was really extending work that had already happened but on a much bigger scale. And it was identifying that we did not have to duplicate the work that was all ... now being done in universities and schools of communications around the country. But we ... we needed to focus on that creative side of the industry ... so that it was ... it was quite an important area in terms of having that big picture, vision, and excitement for the school. And ... I think I probably was a good person for that.

However, I was not a very good person for making the trains run on time. Ah ... I was much more ... you could say chaotic if you want to be unkind. You could say very flexible if you want to look at the positive side of it. I think I managed the school in a way quite differently from ... from men who were perhaps there as directors. I wasn't better or worse. I was different. And I remember afterwards, or even at the time, staff remarking upon this. Not necessarily in a complementary way, not necessarily in a pejorative way. But I think I ran the school with a lot of flexibility where I wasn't afraid of ... making mistakes and changing course ... which some people found very difficult and some people found was actually quite ... exciting because it meant that you were responding to change and moving ... so it was a ... a challenging experience. And one I'm very glad that I did. I wouldn't want to do it again, but I'm glad I had that time there.

Why are you glad?

I look at ... because I think ... I think in a big sense the film school is important. I think the fact that you have a country that acknowledges its film industry and that is able to offer opportunities to people, really of all ages now, but particularly of young people, to be excited, to be challenged, to be trained. And it's not the only way of learning how to make films either. But it is a huge resource now, and some really exciting young filmmakers and now not so young have come out of the film school. So I'm very glad to have been a part of that. And I'm glad because I think it actually toughened me up. My life seems to have been a process of being toughened up, but it ... it taught me a lot of things ... and I think I learnt from that. And again, I made a lot of friends, many of whom I'm still in touch with.

You described a bit of the difference between writing non-fiction and writing fiction. What's the difference between writing a piece of journalism and doing a book, a non-fiction book?

Well, reviewers would tell you that there's a lot of difference. It's quite hard being a journalist and trying to switch, because often reviewers are very kind of ... look down their nose at journalists particularly in this country I think. And Rob Drewe suffered from this. He wrote book after book after book which ... and many of them were extremely fine books, and he was always in reviews being said almost, 'Well it's not bad for a journalist’, or ... the kind of inference being ... inference, implication ... anyway ... being that it was ... it was ... that he was really only just skimming the surface. It wasn't ... it wasn't something of deep intellectual value. And ... and I think that was quite tough for him. It's something that people have written about, and I think I've talked about, because in Europe and in South American countries and in America, journalists have written very fine books ... a journalist, a good journalist, has as much ability to go deeply into a subject and to show intellectual ... the capacity for intellectual enquiry and ... creativity as ... as anyone else. Equally a journalist, a bad journalist can write a very facile sort of sensationalised book, novel. And so I think we tend to label people too much. I think what matters is the quality of the writing.

And for you, personally, was there a difficulty about doing a book?

Well, there wasn't a difficulty about my thinking I could do the book. There was a difficulty when I came to try, and I realised there was a whole craft that I ... actually I was going to say a whole craft I had to learn. But the reality was that there was a whole craft I had to unlearn, so a lot of people write first novels that are quite wonderful, and I think for me it was much more a case of unravelling all those lessons that I'd imbibed about being succinct, about ...

But was this the case with your non-fiction books? I'm just thinking about the difference between what you do when you're doing a short piece, and what's involved in writing a whole book with a whole conception in non-fiction ... you know, before we move to fiction. At a personal level for you, setting about that task and achieving it and delivering it, what was involved in that?

It was having the discipline to stick at it. I don't think actually that was ... hard in the sense that I do finish things. I might sometimes take quite a long time doing it. Sometimes I'm quite quick. But it was ... it was being prepared to commit myself to this piece of work which was going to engage me for months and months and months. Maybe two or three years. And for someone of my temperament who really rather likes picking the daisies as well ... that at times was difficult and I'd have to give myself little breaks, or go off and do the odd job that was different. In a way, it's why I've always maintained, even now when I've dropped many of the boards and committees I've been involved in, I've tried to keep a couple going ... because it takes me outside where I work, and it engages me in thinking in a different way. I have to make up my mind about something and bring it to a close, usually far more quickly. I think I also had to learn to structure a much longer piece of work. It ... it's not like an article where you can follow one particular theme perhaps, right through from beginning to end, but in this you're looking at numbers of different themes and how do you hold them together, and how do you ... how do you kind of not sag in the middle. I sometimes felt I'd been playing a concertina and the longer the book became, the more the concertina was sagging in the middle.

So that was quite hard for me ... now when I'm approaching a new piece of work, as I'm in the reasonably early stages of something now, part of my heart sinks at the thought of all this work that still lies ahead. But once ... once I get into something, once I'm really engaged in it, as I am now with this work ... then it's different because it achieves a momentum of its own, and I find I get excited at the thought of going down to my computer every morning. I find it's like a private communion between me and this piece of technology. And I get really very enthralled in ... in using it. It's that ... it's that finding the right words. It's finding the best way to express something. So it is a very real pleasure. But every now and again I think, oh my God, I can't ... I don't think I've got the energy to dive into that lake again, and swim to the other side.

Anne, looking back, as you've said, you've done a tremendous range of things. Do you ever wonder whether you've spread yourself too thin and whether you might have had more satisfaction and more impact if you had stuck to your last. If you had done ...

Yeah, absolutely ... I think it's quite possible I might have had more impact, but then I would have had to have had impact in one area. I would have been a kind of proselytiser ... maybe ... that's not necessarily true ... the reality is I haven't because I am who I am, and I think if you try and make yourself who you're not, then you're in trouble because you're not being true to your essence. I think for me my work has to come out of who I am and what I believe in. And if I start to do something because I think it's going to win me brownie points ... or I remember once chairing a particularly difficult committee in order to prove that I could do it, ergo I didn't have Alzheimer's. That was not a good reason to be on a committee. You know, and you have to get off then. Once you start getting bored with something, well, you really shouldn't be there any longer. Ah ... I think ... I think I have a belief that for me ... that my life has meaning if I'm doing something that kind of helps me and everyone else that I know and everyone else I don't know. If it helps make life a little fairer, a little more engaging, more interesting ... [interruption] ... Sorry, I must stop.

I think for me it's been always important to be involved in something that I think is going to ... if I say, of being of consequence, that sounds pompous, because a lot of what I do is of no consequence at all, in the sense that it doesn't last. But it does help open up life, does help us live in a world that is ... a little less gross in its brutality. A little more conserving of our environment which we're busily trashing as we speak. That is much happier for many children who live in great unhappiness, and I don't mean by that being worthy in what we do, because you can choose comedy. You can write a ... a night-time skit that can satirise what's happening in the world, and use humour in order to contribute. I think it's ... I think if you can leave this life having contributed something, no matter how small it may be, then I think you will have had probably a much richer and happier life. More engaging. More interesting.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 14