Australian Biography

Anne Deveson - full interview transcript

Tape of 15

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Of the various things that you've done, which do you think is the most influential? In other words, when you're deciding whether or not you're going to write an article, do a film, write a book, if you think about it, which of those is going to have most influence in the community?

I think it's a very ... I think it's an impossible question to answer because it depends on what the subject is; what the context is at the time. I know that ... ... during the Year of the Disabled ... [interruption] ... sorry about this.

I think it's a really difficult question to answer because it depends on the subject and the context of the time. But I know that during the Year of the Disabled there was a study done at Macquarie University to see ... which medium had the most ... was the most effective in helping to shift prejudice. And it was found that the documentary film was the most effective. I think the only way in which I might question that is that I think sometimes the one-off program ... and yes it is exceptional ... is quite soon forgotten. And that sometimes it's the dripping tap stuff that can also be very effective. But you know ... and I think you have to tailor your choice of medium to your subject. You know, some things lend themselves quite well for filming, and other things you can deal with much better, much more succinctly and probably in a more political way, through an article.

Which brings you most kudos?

... [laughs] .... I don't ... I mean, again, I don't know, probably a feature film — if it works. If it doesn't, you've spent an awful lot of money ... spend a huge amount of time and no-one's any the wiser. ... but again it would depend on ... in which area. If your ... if you want to get kudos amongst intellectual or academic circles it may ... it may well be ... a book. Or if you want to be known by the general public then it could be a ...

A commercial.

A commercial, that's right.

Of the various activities, I mean, it really is a range that's you've done, which has brought you personally most satisfaction?

I'm not ... I don't like answering questions like that because it depends on ... on how I'm feeling at the time. I think I got enormous satisfaction out of that royal commission. Just huge satisfaction. I think it was a great turning point in my life because it opened up ways of thinking and ... disciplines that I might otherwise never have engaged in ... it brought depth to my work and it brought a sense of possibility, I suppose, of other ways in which I could work. And I made one or two very deep friendships out of that experience. So that was very profound. I think all the many years I've spent working in mental illness have been very rewarding. It may have been very difficult at times, but again I think back and I'm surrounded with memories of just extraordinarily brave people, and very generous people ... and also that enabled me to recognise that there are a whole range ... there's different ways of being in the world, and that we tend to be very condemnatory of people who ... who perhaps don't think and talk and act the way that we do ... and dismissive.

So that for a long time I recognised that I was subconsciously perhaps sometimes dismissing things that people with a mental illness might say, because they had a mental illness. I think this happens ... is quite common, and it must be terribly frustrating and very demeaning. Whereas in actual fact what ... I discovered was that I learnt a lot from many people with a mental illness. They taught me a lot about thinking laterally, about ... about acknowledging that there are different ways of being in the world. And that was an important ... an important aspect of my life. It's been a very big part of my life. And ... those are probably the two biggest areas I think.

In the course of your life, have the values you were taught as a small child changed very much?

I don't think so, no. I wasn't very conscious of being taught values, in that my parents weren't churchgoers, except in the latter part of his life, my father went and sang in church ... [interruption] ... are you stopping or ... sorry ... [interruption] ...

What's happening? Was it my tummy rumbling that you could hear? ... [interruption] ...

Have the values you were taught as a small child changed very much?

Probably not. I mean, I wasn't conscious of being taught values except all those maxims ... that never a borrower nor lender be, and a stitch in time saves nine, and never go out of a room empty handed. All those sorts of early childhood stuff. But in terms of ... of more kind of fundamental values ... my parents were not churchgoers. My father did join the local church in the later years of his life because he loved singing in church. And I think he came to have a belief in God and some kind of afterlife. My mother didn't ... but I think you often ... you imbibe the values of your parents and ... and how they behave. My mother actually was very strong on not knowingly hurting anyone. And ... and of ... and of being truthful. But I think her ... her concept of truth wasn't ... wasn't the little truths or the little lies. It was much more about being true to yourself ... that came through very strongly from her. My father gave me a sense of what it might be like to live ... in a country or in a culture that wasn't the dominant one because where you are colonised by someone else or occupied by another country, or where your culture is dismissed or denigrated or scarcely acknowledged ... I think that was a message I actually got very strongly from him. And he would talk about it quite a lot.

How do you yourself feel about formal religion?

I have no formal religion. I'm aware that many people have and I respect that. I haven't felt any need for a formal religion. I have ... I don't know what is the meaning of this life. For me it's always been enough ... life itself has had its own meaning. However I am quite happy to ... to say that a lot of life is very mysterious. A lot of things that we still don't know. If you look back to the things we know now, that we didn't know 100 years ago, there's been huge leaps in knowledge, not necessarily in faith. And ... and that for me is enough, to have a sense of mystery ... and I can sit quite happily with that.

Do you have any religion at all?

Probably not, no ... I mean you can ... No, I don't think that I have. I read quite a lot about religion. I read quite a lot about philosophical developments or ideas about the nature and meaning of life. It interests me. And fairly recently ... I was speaking at a conference in Brisbane on suicide and spirituality, and there was a lot of discussion towards the end about spirituality as a concept, what does it mean? What is happening now to people who don't perhaps believe in a formalised religion, or don't belong to any religious institution, but have a sense of a spiritual being? I don't think anyone ever really succeeded in describing what that actually was, but ... a sense of something beyond the kind of bodily life that we have, or a soul, whatever again that is. And there was a lot of discussion about that and what that meant to people. There was some quite interesting writing there. However in the ... on the final session when there were about eight of us in a panel ... on the stage, and everybody was talking ... and ... [interruption] ...

In the final session there was a panel of about ... actually it was about 12 people, and people came from different religious backgrounds, and a man in the audience who was obviously known to the Brisbane community that were present and quite loved ... a man with a rather wonderful, rather raddled face. A man who looked as if he probably belonged to the brigade of the homeless, maybe through alcoholism, stood up and he said in this very educated voice, that he'd sat there and looking at this august panel and he was wondering if ... wasn't there even an atheist or agnostic among them? And then he looked at me and he saw, ‘Ah ... there's Anne Deveson. She's the token heathen’ ... [laughs] ... Well, whereas that's not how I would describe myself, I think it is important that in our discussions we do entertain people who don't know. I feel sometimes a tendency for some members of the church to be rather smug about the fact that you can only have real true values if you ... if you belong to a church. I used to get a lot of questions and still do, about resilience. Ah ... and they relate sometimes to some research that's come from fairly fundamentalist institutions in the United States, which show that if you belong to a church and you're a true believer of whatever faith, then you're more likely to have more resilience. And that sort of irritates me because I don't think the research is very full, and more to the point I don't think that you have to belong to a church or have a religious faith to be resilient. I think you can find resilience out of the community of man and each other. And out of the world in which we live.

You've said that you think the meaning of life is life itself. And you've said that particularly in relation to understanding the meaning of Jonathan's life, and so on. But you have put an awful lot of effort into improving people's lives, and so just being in a life that looks fairly rotten and difficult and hard seems not to be actually quite enough for you, Anne, otherwise you probably wouldn't put your shoulder to the wheel to so many causes and efforts to try to improve life. I guess what I'm after is, what do you see as being a really good life as opposed to a life that only has meaning because the person is alive?

But, you see, I challenge that because when I said the meaning of Jonathan's life was his life, I wasn't ... I wasn't saying that this was a good life or a bad life. I was saying that like most of our lives it was a life of enormous complexity, probably much more if we were Genghis Khan or Hitler. But ... but you had ... he'd ended his life ... [interruption] ...

Anne, you've worked very hard in the course of your life to improve the lot of various people in the community whose lives looked as if they could do with some improvement. What do you see as being the ingredients, the requirements, the environment needed for a really good life?

I think ... I think people need ... to belong to a community of other people with whom they can relate. I think it's very hard to have a good life on your own ... although people go away and spend a long time as hermits in caves and maybe that is part of their gaining a good life. ... I would not like to be prescriptive about this but I think a life that ... that does not have other people in it ... is a very limited and limiting life. I think that a life that doesn't have love in it ... I think this is a very necessary and rather wonderful part of being alive. I was going to say conscious human beings, but animals have love. Look at how elephants relate. Look what ... look what happens to all manner of animals ... it ... I think that's very important. And then I think people need shelter. They need food. They need meaningful work. They need all those sorts of things as well.

But ... to me our lives are ... it's like we're on a rollercoaster and we never know quite what's going to happen to us next. We can't really plan our lives. We think we can. We talk about ... we take out insurance policies. We talk about permanent employment. We don't any longer because it's going out the window. But life isn't like that. Life is constantly changing and I think we have to ride with that change, and we had to ... we have to do this with ... with an open heart, with love, with reaching out to other people and with all the intelligence that we can muster. I think you can be somebody, however, with very limited abilities and still have a meaningful life. I can remember seeing a very young girl who was obviously born ... I don't think I'm going to use this story because it's a bit ... only because it doesn't make sense. Does that not ...

That's okay, go on.

... I need to pick it up, sorry.

Well, in thinking about what is a good life, how do you feel about your own life. Do you think that that's been a good life? A lucky life?

See it depends how you define good, doesn't it? I think I've had a very rich life. I think I've had a life full of extraordinary experiences and opportunities to be with people. Opportunities to learn ... contribute in a whole range of ways. To be given as well. So I think life is about ... is about that ... that growth. I think that you ... you ... we come into this life with a ... with an opportunity, no matter what happens to us, to learn from those experiences, hopefully to be a little wiser and a little kinder than maybe we were at the beginning. And I think it does in the end, is very much involved with love. How we ... how we are able to love ourselves and each other. How ... how we are able to be generous to one another. How we're able to have compassion in our lives. And how we're able to engage with that life. I keep coming back to that.

I think a lot of people are frightened and that's particularly true now in this present time that we're living in. People are very concerned with ... with their safety. And that safety just doesn't ... evolve around ... evolve around themselves. It's also about safety for their ... their possessions, their things. And I think they don't really matter all that much. Alright it's good to have a nice house and good clothes and all that sort of stuff. Ah ... I like it as much as anyone else, but it's not actually what makes you ... you happy. And I've seen enough people now dying, both people who are very close to me and in countries where there's been massive famine or wars, to recognise that what people really care about at the end ... it comes back to that little circle of people around you, who love you. And I think that's important. If you haven't been able to give love ... and to receive love, which is just as important in your life, then I think you have been deprived of a great deal.

Yes, you've seen a lot of death, some of it up very close. How would you like to die yourself?

Sometimes I think I'd just like to go ... you know, not to wake up in the morning. The rather ... more flamboyant part of me ... [laughs] ... would like to have the farewell death bed scene. But of course I'd like not to be feeling ill while I'm having that ... [laughs] ... I'd like to be having a glass of champagne and hear some wonderful music and have a few friends and hope that there weren't too many because otherwise I would get exhausted and might die. I'm being flippant but ... I would like to be able to die ... knowing that I was at peace with myself and with those around me. I would like to be able to die at home. I don't want to die in a hospital. I'd like to be able to die looking at the sky outside my windows. I'd like to be able to die looking at trees ... and I'd like to have friends around me holding my hand when I die. That's how I'd like to die.

How do you see your future now?

We've just talked about death ... [laughs] ... How do I see my future? I see myself probably not changing things very much until ultimately ... maybe I get too old to do the sorts of things I'm doing now. I want to go on writing. Ah ... I probably want to make another film.

What are you engaged with at the moment? You talk a lot about being engaged with life. What are you engaged with in your life now?

Well, I'm engaged with rather a large project ... [laughs] ... I'm engaged with writing about peace, which is a very big subject. And you don't write about peace without also looking at war, unfortunately. So I'm engaged with looking at the shifts that have occurred in peace in our ... in my lifetime. And in spite of all the mayhem and trauma around us, and wars that we live with, as indeed we always have. I'm interested in the people who are peacekeepers. Who work at every ... all kinds of levels trying to secure peace. So I'm still grappling with that. But that's what I'm engaged with. I started off with a much smaller subject. I was going to be engaged with my childhood in Perth, and somehow or other I got diverted. So I'll go back to that when I'm finished this one. So I want to go on with my work, with my friends. I want to probably look after myself a bit better than I have, and by that I don't mean I've been ill. I have very good health. But I do get ... I do push myself too much. So I want to try and be a reformed character as far as that's concerned.

And what are you learning?

Now? I'm learning to be a reformed character. I'm learning ... I'm probably learning increasingly the importance of solitude. I find more and more that if I'm ... if I've got too many people around me for too long that I get quite distressed. I need more time on my own. That may be part of that process of withdrawing, but I don't feel I'm withdrawing at the moment. I'm aware ... I'm learning the importance of music in my life. It's always been there but it's increasingly important. And I ... I'm also very much aware that there are all these wonderful books. There's ... there are films I haven't seen. There are painters whose work I ... I want to look at. Not so much places I want to go, although I enjoy that. But time to feast my mind still. And time to work ... I like gardening. I only have a very small garden, but I like that. I mean there's a lot. Life is very full.

Throughout your life, what have you done for fun?

For fun? Well, I fell in love in Venice at the beginning ... [laughs] ... And then I fell in love with somebody else in America at the ... not at the end, but ... I have a lot of fun in my life. Except this last year I recognised that I had actually become rather dreary. Not this year but the one before. And I think that may have been ... I just kind of lost my balance after Robert died and ... and I think I felt ... I know what my work ... what my work is like for me. It keeps me secure, it keeps me involved. And I started to work more and more and harder and harder and I suddenly realised that I actually wasn't having fun. I wasn't ... I wasn't going to the movies. I wasn't going out. I kept working. And I've stopped doing that. So I went away for a long holiday to Europe and didn't work at all and it was most engaging.

Loss has played a very big part in your life. And this loss of somebody that you found, that you thought you could spend the rest of your life with, must have been a huge thing for you to take on board and such a short amount of time to do it. How do you personally deal with loss in your life?

I try and let myself feel it. I think we run into trouble when we try and deny our grief ... and I don't mean by that that I want to fall into that ... I remember hearing a friend saying he'd been to the therapist and he'd been told he'd ‘done his grieving', because I think when someone dies, who's been important in your life, you go on feeling that loss. It becomes a part of you. It is a part of you for the rest of your life. So that I can still feel sad about Jonathan. I can still cry if I think of Jonathan. But it's not that raw grief that keeps coming up all the time when somebody has immediately died. I find that I'm able, I think, to appreciate the life that I've known with that person. I think of Jonathan a lot. He's kind of with me a lot. And I’m no longer thinking or ... or living through all the awful times. I'm aware much more of the essence of Jonathan. So he's still a presence in my life. A part of my life.

The same goes for Robert, probably not as strongly because he wasn't my child, but he's still ... and I have an awareness of a great ... of a great gift that I had. That this was a very tremendous thing that happened to me. I think it was for both of us. You know, I think he was pretty lucky as well. And so that ... I don't ... I don't live in that grief all the time. Except there was that kind of revelation ... a little bit earlier when I recognised, hey, why am I working so hard? I think what ... one thing that I've probably learnt to do is to ... is to be much more aware of what's happening to me. So if I start getting depressed which very, very rarely happens to me, then I am now aware of when it's happening and I'm able to find out why it's happening. I'm able to explore that. If I suddenly realised, hey, I really haven't been out anywhere, then I will take time to think ... to think through and feel through why is this happening? Why am I like this? And then try and ... then move through it.

You've taken on often a bit more than anyone might have been happy to chew. What do you do for energy? What do you do to keep your energy up when you've got lots and lots on?

Particularly now, I have less energy and I ... it's only been in about the last six months that I've admitted that. I ... I'm very good at flopping. I'm very good at lying on the floor, and I can take five-minute cat naps, and that's very fortunate. And that will revive me. Not for very long but it's like the pot's burned dry and I can top it up just a little bit and keep going for a bit more. I find my ... I find my energy through ideas. We get back to that again. That I can be very ... slack and very ... without energy, and then I can get engaged in an idea that I'm working on and the energy bubbles up again ... however, you know, it's a bit like if you're not careful ... I'm aware of the parable ... the story of the racehorse that ... you know, it runs the race and then it falls down and then you whip it and it gets up again, and then it falls down again. And so, I know that I don't pace myself well. I never have. I know that it's important that I do this better in the future if I want to keep on going for much longer ... so that ... and I'm also ... I'm also aware that when you do stop it is important to stop. It's important to have reflective time. It's important for me now.

You said that one of the reasons why you went into this sort of area that you went into was because you were a very curious person, and ... well, we know, curiosity killed the cat. But are you still as curious?

Yeah, I think I am. Yes I am. I find ... I find when I meet somebody new or I go to the dentist ... a new dentist. It might be a ploy to stop from working but I hear myself asking questions about what's happening and what's that and what's the new technique, and ... yes, I still have a very strong curiosity.

In terms of ... [laughs] ... I think actually I've asked enough. There's a little warning saying, ‘there's no more, don't go any more.’

... [repeat of earlier questions due to interruptions] ... Why did your parents go from Malaya to Perth?

My father had leave coming up. He'd decided ... that my brother, who wasn't at school in Malaya because there wasn't a school that was right for him, and because I was at this boarding school which I hated, but I'm not sure that that came into it as much, but they decided probably it would be better for us if we went to Perth, and we went to school in Perth, to boarding school in Perth. And so the four of us went to Western Australia ... just towards the end of that year, before Pearl Harbor. And we were placed in school there, and then my parents were there for about a month while we were there, and then they went back to Malaya. And we were due to go back to Malaya for the holidays ... I think I had better start that again because I got the dates muddled then. Do you see what I mean? We went ... we went to Australia in about ... seven months before Christmas, and they left us at boarding school at the end of a term. And then we were to go back.

Okay, start it again then. We'll do it again. What made your parents decide to take you to Perth from Malaya?

Because my father felt that we'd get better schooling and it was better for us to be [than] in Malaya, particularly my brother, who wasn't going to school at all because there wasn't a school that they felt they could leave him there ... in. So they took us from Malaya. My father had leave and they found a flat in Perth, and they found two schools for us, and they left us there as boarders, and they went back to Malaya after they made sure we were settled in.

And it was their intention that you should come home for the holidays?

It was their intention we should come home for the Christmas holidays, and then out of the blue we got a letter from our father saying that he didn't want us to come, because he felt sure that there was going to be trouble, indeed there might even be a war. And he was ... kind of ... almost alone. I mean, others ... I don't mean almost alone, but certainly all the other children were going home for the Christmas holidays. But because he had a lot of friends who were ... Malay, Chinese, ... Japanese, he ... he was aware much more of what was happening amongst the non-white brigade. And I think it was the ... first of all, the Japanese laundry woman, who'd said don't bring the children home. You know, don't bring them back. There's going to be a war, there's going to be trouble. And then he probably started ... he used to ... he was well aware of what was happening politically, and I think he felt quite strongly that it would be dangerous, as indeed it was. And he was right because many of the children who went home ... did get sort of caught up in what happened immediately afterwards, after Pearl Harbor. And you know, it was quite dangerous.

Now let's fast-forward because we're doing these pick ups. Let's fast forward to Sheffield High where you were doing very well at the beginning of your last year at school. And then things happened in the family that affected that. Would you describe what happened?

I can't think what happened? Do you mean that whole story of falling through the bath. That whole long story. You don't want that ...

No, I don't want the long story. I wanted summing up about how the family got scattered and who went where.

Okay ... my mother decided that because we were sinking deeper and deeper into penury — my father still hadn't been able to sell any tractors, there was no money coming in — that she had to go to London and try and get a job. She did this. However this then meant that ... we couldn't move instantly to London. Ah ... my father was still with the tractors, unsuccessfully, but he was still going to try. And therefore I went and stayed with a school friend in order to finish my final year at school. My two-year-old brother went to stay with some cousins of my parents who lived also in the north of England, and they looked after him for several months. So that when he finally came home he spoke with a very strong Yorkshire accent. My older brother was in the army, in the British Army. He'd ... he'd ... volunteered and he was in Africa at that stage. And so we were all scattered. So my mother was in London. My father was in the north of England. My little baby brother was somewhere else in the north of England. My brother was in Africa and I was in Sheffield. And it was quite a diaspora, and I think I felt ... not again, because ... and I think this was part of being a child in ... at a time of war. Lots of people got scattered, often far more harshly than we were. ... but for me I just thought I was set to do my high school certificate, go to university, and I stopped working again. I didn't behave with the same degree of delinquency or cunning that I had earlier. But I didn't try very hard.

When you were later in London ... and now we're going forward to the period where you were still trying to work out what you were going to do with yourself, and you hadn't done well enough to get to Oxford and to do the subjects you wanted. And you went to London and started in a science course. Where did you do that and how did it work out for you?

Well, I had a place at London University, so I'd done well enough to get in, but not any ... not beyond that. And I knew I had to earn money because my parents hadn't any. I mean, my mother had this job and she was trying to get a house, but there just wasn't any. So then I found myself a job at the Holloway Polytechnic and the idea was ... my idea was that I would work there. I think I was on shift work, sometimes I worked at night but mostly it was during the day, as a lab assistant. And I would go to what lectures that I could ... at Bedford, and I would then try and sit a scholarship from there. It wasn't very well thought through because ... I really didn't do either very well. I hated the job. I realised I wasn't very interested in ... in the sciences surrounding me there. And I didn't go to many lectures. I went to one or two and they weren't ... they weren't grabbing me. It may well have been different had I been a full-time student at the university studying. And at that point I just dropped out.

Given that you'd always been good at writing, and indeed your father had told you that he thought you should be a writer, why were you late in deciding that you were going to do journalism? What worried you about journalism?

I think I was very shy in ... now I look back, I think most young people, or many young people, are very shy. But I was very shy. I used to disappear at parties and avoid meeting people and so on. And I felt that I didn't have the confidence to bowl up to people and ask them questions about their lives. I ... I just didn't feel I could do it. And it wasn't until I was quite desperate and ... I recognised that I was doing all these odd jobs, and that staying in bed for three months with depression and eating vast quantities of food so I got very fat, wasn't a very engaging way of living my life, that I thought well I've got to break through this. And I've got to ... I've got to apply for jobs and I've got to go for them. Because if you are shy, you're not going to move that or change that unless you go out and start engaging with people. That's the only way to break down shyness.

What brought your partnership with your mentor Barbara to an end?

Because I'd met Ellis who was on furlough from the ABC and he was working in London, partly doing some work for the BBC, and he'd had an introduction to me from a elderly woman painter in Perth, who'd travelled on the cargo boat with him to Europe, and had said, ‘You must ... Darlink [sic], you must meet my very good friend Anne,’ and so I had met Ellis this way and over a period we fell in love.

[end of tape]

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