The link below is to an article reporting on the winners of the 2020 James Tait Black Prizes for Fiction and Biography.
Many of us enjoy writing in a diary, reading autobiographies or nostalgically reflecting with others about past times.
Why is remembering our past so important? Are there downsides? And what can we do if dwelling on the past bothers us?
Explainer: what is memory?
Memories make us human
Over several decades, researchers have shown remembering your past is fundamental to being human, and has four important roles.
1. Memories help form our identity
Our personal memories give us a sense of continuity — the same person (or sense of self) moving through time. They provide important details of who we are and who we would like to be.
2. Memories help us solve problems
Memories offer us potential solutions to current problems and help guide and direct us when solving them.
3. Memories make us social
Personal memories are essential for social interactions. Being able to recall personal memories provides important material when making new friends, forming relationships and maintaining ones we already have.
4. Memories help us regulate our emotions
Our memories provide examples of similar situations we’ve been in before. This allows us to reflect on how we managed that emotion before and what we can learn from that experience.
Such memories can also help us manage strong negative emotions. For example, when someone is feeling sad they can take time to dwell on a positive memory to improve their mood.
Memories help us function in our wider society
Dwelling on our personal memories not only helps us as individuals. It also allows us to operate in our socio-cultural context; society and culture influence the way we remember our past.
For instance, in Western individualistic cultures people tend to recall memories that are long, specific, detailed and focus on the individual.
In contrast, in East Asian cultures people tend to recall more general memories focusing on social interactions and significant others. Researchers have seen these differences in children and adults.
Indeed, the way parents discuss past events with their children differs culturally.
Parents from Western cultures focus more on the child and the child’s thoughts and emotions than East Asian parents. So, there are even cultural differences in the ways we teach our children to dwell on the past.
People from Western individualistic cultures tend to recollect specific unique memories that reaffirm someone’s uniqueness, a value emphasised in Western cultures. In contrast, in East Asian cultures memories function to assist with relatedness and social connection, a value emphasised in East Asian cultures.
Memories and ill health
As dwelling on the past plays such a crucial role in how we function as humans, it is unsurprising that disruptions in how we remember arise in several psychological disorders.
People with depression, for instance, tend to remember more negative personal memories and fewer positive personal memories than those without depression. For example, someone with depression may remember failing an exam rather than remembering their academic successes.
People with depression also have great difficulty remembering something from a specific time and place, for instance “I really enjoyed going to Sam’s party last Thursday”. Instead they provide memories of general experiences, for instance, “I like going to parties”.
We have found people with depression also tend to structure their life story differently and report more negative life stories. They also tend to remember periods of their life, such as going to university, as either distinctly positive or negative (rather than a combination of both).
Disturbances in memory are also the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is when unwanted, distressing personal memories of the trauma spontaneously pop into the mind.
People with anxiety disorders also tend to have biases when remembering their personal past. For instance, all of us, unfortunately, experience social blunders from time to time, such as tripping getting onto a bus or spilling a drink at a party. However, people with social anxiety are more likely to be consumed with feelings of embarrassment and shame when remembering these experiences.
Explainer: what is social anxiety disorder?
Finally, an excessive, repetitive dwelling on your past, without generating solutions, can be unhelpful. It can result in emotional distress and in extreme instances, emotional disorders, such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
I don’t want to dwell on the past. What can I do?
If dwelling on the past bothers you, these practical tips can help.
Set aside a certain time of the day for your memories. You could write in a diary or write down your worries. Writing about important personal experiences in an emotional way for as little as 15 minutes a day can improve your mental and physical health.
Practice remembering specific positive memories from your past. This can allow you to engage differently with your memories and gain a new perspective on your memories.
Learn and practise mindfulness strategies. Instead of dwelling on painful memories, a focus on the present moment (such as attending to your breath, focusing on what you can currently see, smell or hear) can help break a negative cycle
When dwelling on past memories try being proactive and generate ideas to solve problems rather than just being passive.
See your GP or health practitioner if you’re distressed about dwelling on your past.
If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
This is a story about stories. Who writes them. Who owns them and what happens when the two things get muddled. It’s a story about true stories, life stories, stories written by amateurs and professionals. It sounds a warning to the growing number of readers who aspire to publish their own memoirs, and those who write the lives of others.
“Who owns the story?” is the question that lies at the heart of Sonya Voumard’s new book The Media and the Massacre, published this month to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Martin Bryant’s murderous rampage at Port Arthur in Tasmania.
In it, Voumard ponders the case of Bryant’s mother, Carleen, a woman widely reviled by genetic association for the sins of her son, but driven as a mother to tell her side of the story.
It goes like this. After two suicide attempts triggered by the reporting of the 10th anniversary of the massacre, Carleen Bryant writes a 15,000 word memoir of her life before and since that terrible Sunday, April 28th 1996, when Martin Bryant slaughtered 35 men, women and children.
She is not a fluent writer, so friends suggest she seek help from professionals. A literary agent is found, and a journalist, Robert Wainwright of The Sydney Morning Herald is recommended. A $200,000 book deal with a major publisher is mentioned.
Ms Bryant forwards a copy of her memoir to Wainwright, but there are hiccups early on when he passes it on – allegedly without her knowledge – to her daughter, seeking the daughter’s involvement in the project.
A June 2007 meeting in Hobart, at which Wainwright’s wife – another Herald journalist Paola Totaro – joins the writing team, smooths over the trouble. However, when the journalists’ nine-page draft outline of their proposed book – entitled Martin My Son – arrives, relations deteriorate rapidly.
In Voumard’s words, Carleen Bryant became “convinced that the story they (the journalists) wanted to tell was not hers but theirs”. In October 2007, Bryant withdrew from the project, and requested that Wainwright and Totaro return her personal documents and other materials. They did so some months later, by which time all contact between the parties had ceased.
There was, therefore, as Voumard tells it, considerable surprise on the part of Bryant and her friends when, in May 2009, Wainwright and Totaro published Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: the making of a mass murderer. In it, they included at least 29 extracts from her as yet unpublished memoir, allegedly without her permission.
The ins and outs of the legal proceedings that followed cannot be briefly summarised. They are, in any case, subject to the confidentiality clause of an out of court settlement. Bryant also complained to the Australian Press Council, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), the Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Books claiming breach of copyright. But the publication and sale of Born or Bred? was not impeded.
Voumard, a Sydney-based former journalist and now a writer and academic, and some of the people she quotes in her book, including the criminal lawyer Greg Barns and Ms Bryant’s lawyer Steven Lewis of Slater and Gordon, feel that an injustice was done. Wainwright and Totaro reportedly claimed they were given the memoir “freely and without caveat”, but in Voumard’s view, Bryant had simply agreed to the preparation of a draft outline.
The literary intersections of journalism, creative non-fiction, book publishing and “ghost-writing” are crowded, with a variety of conflicting interests but no single code of ethics.
Is a journalist bound by copyright laws when someone eager to tell own their story hands them their unpublished account of a highly newsworthy subject without conditions attached? Are they bound by their various journalism codes of ethics when writing books, rather than news stories?
As Wainwright and Totaro wrote in the preface to their book, it was Carleen Bryant who withdrew from “their” project, not the other way around. “When she withdrew, the project turned instead into a hunt for the truth and answers.”
This statement, however, sits awkwardly with what appears to have been a lack of any attempt at fact-checking with their albeit uncooperative star source in the months immediately prior to publication.
Voumard’s book, though far from perfect – neither Bryant nor the journalists could be persuaded to talk to her – it is a useful contribution to our understanding of these important issues and the questions they raise.
Although primarily focused on the Bryant-Wainwright-Totaro conflict, she engages with a range of other journalistic and literary approaches to reporting on violent crime, including Carol Altmann’s After Port Arthur (2006).
Voumard talks to a number of senior Australian journalists who reflect on the fact that Port Arthur inspired a new and more mindful approach to the impact of their craft when interviewing traumatised people – a theme later expanded on by Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center Asia-Pacific.
As a journalist herself, Voumard knows where to look for the Fourth Estate’s ethical weaknesses, and is critical of her own.
“Not all journalists are the same …,” she writes. “At our best, we do good work – bear witness, seek truth, give voice, explain. At our worst we exploit our subjects.”
For Carleen Bryant, having her say via the agency of professional writers was a once in a lifetime chance to achieve a longed for public understanding of the cross she has had to bear.
As one of her close friends tells Voumard, Bryant
wanted to establish herself in the minds of the people of Hobart as she was, rather than as others believed. She wanted them to know that she wasn’t a terrible mother, or the mother of a monster, that she did her best in every way for her son, that she had a loving husband.
But when a story involves hot button issues like mass-murder, journalists’ ethical compasses veer toward the perceived “public interest”, an approach that is not known for its sensitivity to the feelings or views of anyone associated with the killer.
Journalists remain publishers’ first pick for ghost-writing assignments because they write quickly and colourfully, are not afraid of imposing a given meaning on a set of available facts, know what makes headlines and meet their deadlines. But for some stories, that is not the ideal approach.
As Voumard writes,
Carleen Bryant lost the ability to say to others who she was. Her life story and that of her family had been appropriated, attacked, raked over and profited from by so many media organisations for so many years that her identity effectively disintegrated.
Ms Bryant, whose only son was sentenced to 1,035 years prison without parole, has spent most of the past 20 years living alone in a caravan park an hour’s drive north of Hobart. She eventually published her own book, My Story (2010), with a small, but empathetic Hobart-based publishing house
The publisher, Michael Ludeke, took the unusual step of inviting his new author to collect her book from the printers, telling her,
You should come and see this too. This is your book. The people at the printers would like to meet you.
A happy, if not perfect ending to an amateur life writer’s long struggle to be heard.
Several years ago, Oxford professor and Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate decided to write a biography of the British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. Initially it seemed he had the support of Hughes’ widow, Carol Hughes – who had inherited copyright of her deceased husband’s writings, along with those of his more famous first wife, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963.
Jonathan Bate embarked on his biography with great seriousness. Yet somewhere along the way, Carol Hughes became worried he was going to chronicle her late husband’s personal life, in addition to his poetic one. The result? In order to avoid a lawsuit, Bate was forced to give up all hope of being allowed to quote more than a token number of words from Hughes’ – or Plath’s – diaries, letters, manuscripts or jottings. He ended up contorting his original vision into a pretzel.
Bate recently published “Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life.” Now Janet Malcolm, the venerable journalist and essayist of the New Yorker, denounces Professor Bate in The New York Review of Books for daring to write openly about Hughes’ private and public life.
Malcolm’s review is full of insult and a kind of Victorian outrage in defense of Hughes’ second wife Carol, a nurse whom Hughes married in 1970. It’s meant to wound not just Bate, but all those who attempt to write about the private lives of major figures.
In fact, Malcolm adds to a rich tradition of censorship by those who have deemed themselves the arbiters of what can and can’t be written in biographies – even those of the dead.
Tastelessness or truth?
Malcolm’s review is titled “A Very Sadistic Man” – a reference to the accusations of a distinctly sadistic, often violent and rapacious approach to adulterous sex that some of Hughes’ mistresses have detailed in recent years. Malcolm argues that Bate, by including these previously published anecdotes, has blown Hughes up “into a kind of extra-large sex maniac.”
Beyond Bate’s “tastelessness,” there is, she writes, “Bate’s cluelessness about what you can and cannot do if you want to be regarded as an honest and serious writer.”
Malcolm excoriates his “squalid findings about Hughes’ sex life,” and his “priggish theories about his [Hughes’] psychology.”
Moreover, she declares that it is “excruciating for spouses and offspring to read what they know to be untrue and not to be able to do anything about it except issue complaints that fall upon uninterested ears.” After having read only 16 pages of the 662-page biography, Carol Hughes put the book down and released a statement through her lawyer, saying she found the tome “offensive” – and demanded that Professor Bate apologize.
Malcolm claims that biographers should simply not be permitted to address the private lives of their subjects.
“If anything is our own business,” she declares, it is privacy – “our pathetic native self. Biographers in their pride, think otherwise. Readers, in their curiosity, encourage them in their impertinence. Surely Hughes’ family, if not his shade, deserves better.”
The beautiful and the base
Impertinence? Biography has been here before. For thousands of years, the genre – like great fiction – has been contested.
And dating back to Suetonius and Plutarch, there have been almost endless examples of its antithesis: anti-biography, and attempts at censorship.
The Roman historian Suetonius was, it is believed, exiled from Rome for daring to research and write his “De Vita Caesarum,” or Twelve Caesars. British explorer Sir Walter Raleigh was executed, in part for having annoyed King James I by his impudence in his “History of the World.”
Lady Bird Johnson took exception to Robert Caro’s series on LBJ, refusing to speak to him for decades after Caro portrayed Johnson as something of a sexual and political monster in his first volume. As a result, Caro was not allowed to speak at the presidential library, a federal archive – and the papers he wished to see were withheld until 2003.
We should not be surprised, however, that Malcolm has chosen to attack Hughes’ posthumous biographer – for Malcolm’s review of Bate’s book reprises her infamous attack on biography while Ted Hughes was alive.
Twenty-two years ago, Malcolm wrote a series of New Yorker articles that became a book – “The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.”
There, she openly challenged biographers and readers of biography with the argument that private life should henceforth be off-limits.
“The biographer at work,” she wrote in 1993, “is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.”
She refused to accept that there was more to biography than a pretense “of scholarship.” In her view, biography was simply about scandal, with biographers no more than peeping toms “listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail.”
Those of us who knew anything of the history of biography were appalled, even then, that Malcolm would so disregard the words of the great 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson, the father of modern biography.
Johnson had decried the stilted approaches to life writing of his own time by mocking whitewashed accounts that failed to get behind the public facade. As he put it, “more knowledge may be gained of a man’s real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative.”
The greatness of biography, according to Johnson, was in tackling “the beautiful and the base,” and in embracing “vice and virtue,” rather than relying on the “sober sages of the schools.”
His most famous put-down of the puritanical approach to biography was to his own biographer, James Boswell. If a man wants to indulge in a spotless eulogy or “Panegyrick,” he told Boswell, “he may keep vices out of sight, but if he professes to write A Life he must represent it really as it was.”
Is the journalist’s goal to protect or reveal?
Why, then, has Malcolm been crusading against serious biography which embraces both the beautiful and the base for more than 20 years?
Malcolm claimed she had spent years interviewing and corresponding with serious biographers for her Plath project, “The Silent Woman.” Why, as a professional journalist, was she content not to interview Hughes himself, or even speak to those men and women who actually knew the real Ted Hughes? What kind of a journalist is that?
In her new review, Malcolm pours scorn on Professor Bate, but she fails to reveal that in her earlier book, she’d defended Ted Hughes against the many biographers attempting to reveal the truth about him, and about the tragic story of Plath’s suicide.
In Malcolm’s view, Hughes had every right to use libel, property and copyright laws to protect his reputation as a husband and a poet by threatening legal action against anyone who snooped – or threatened to spill the beans – about his louche, often manic private behavior.
Though the law of libel ceased its protection of Hughes upon Hughes’ death 18 years ago, Professor Bate’s book has aroused Malcolm to new fury. Now she is determined to defend the second Mrs. Hughes; no snooping, revelation or even literary criticism of her late husband without her inherited copyright authority – and certainly no revelations of what Hughes was doing on the night of Sylvia Plath’s suicide.
As in her “Silent Woman” articles and book, Malcolm once again declines to question this utter misuse of copyright. (The world’s first copyright act was originally passed in 1710 to protect income, not reputation, for a maximum of 14 years – and especially not to protect posthumous reputation.)
With continuous, almost annual lawsuits and moves to amend copyright law, the battle between “authorized” and “unauthorized” biographies will thus go on, more than half a century since Plath’s death, and almost two decades since Ted Hughes’. Any “unauthorized” biographer of either Plath, Hughes or both must continue to write with his or her arm tied behind the back, unable to quote more than a few authentic words without Carol Hughes’ express permission.
Samuel Johnson would be appalled. And it would be a sad day for biography if Malcolm’s injunction were to be followed, given the major contributions to critical interpretation, history and memory that the genre has become in the many centuries since Suetonius.
Last year more than a dozen political memoirs were published in Australia. From Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister to Greg Combet’s The Fights of My Life, from Rob Oakeshott’s The Independent Member for Lyne to Bob Brown’s Optimism, one could be forgiven for thinking Australia is a nation of political junkies.
Or that we’re fascinated by the personalities, policies and procedures that shape our political landscape. But are we really, and if not, why so many books?
The deluge shows no signs of abating, with a similar number of titles expected this year. Already we’ve seen the release of Shadow Minister Chris Bowen’s The Money Men, reflections by Federal Labour members Mark Butler and Andrew Leigh, with former Victorian Labour leader John Brumby’s practical “lessons”, The Long Haul, in press.
Liberals, once laggards in this genre, are stepping up in growing numbers. Federal Minister Christopher Pyne’s “hilarious” A Letter To My Children is out, and Peter Reith’s The Reith Papers is underway. Also in press is the genuinely unauthorised Born to Rule: the Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.
First nurtured by John Iremonger of Hale & Iremonger, Melbourne University Press now leads the way with the genre. MUP Director, Louise Adler, is notorious for her enthusiasm and her efforts to contract politicians of all parties and persuasions. But even Adler has reservations, writing in September’s Meanjin that “the political memoir is unabashedly myopic, subjective and reflexively partisan”.
One argument for the proliferation of political memoirs is that they enable the public to engage with politicians outside the frenzy of the 24/7 news cycle. Certainly the popularity of Annabel Crabb’s ABC show Kitchen Cabinet suggests there’s some weight to this “getting to know the person beyond the sound-bite” theory.
Some argue the 24-hour media cycle has debased politics to such a degree that voters are searching for a depth of focus missing from parliament and mainstream media coverage and finding it through other channels.
Based on the sales figures, a publisher can safely bet that an Australian political memoir or biography is likely to pay its own way, at the very least. Even the slow ones mostly sell more than a few thousand copies.
But do sales say anything meaningful about these books’ impact on our political process or cultural debate? And how to measure the impact of the political memoir on democratic process?
The genre has been trending for a few years now, propelled in no small part by the success of Bob Hawke’s The Hawke Memoirs (1994) which sold 75,000 copies, and John Howard’s Lazarus Rising (2011), which sold upwards of 100,000.
As far back as 2007, David Marr in his analysis of John Howard’s prime ministership, His Master’s Voice: the corruption of public debate under Howard, despaired of the increase in public “chatter” and the sabotage of free speech. Paradoxically, it was during this period, and subsequently, that political memoirs and biographies increased in number.
Thanks to the introduction of Nielsen BookScan in 2002 and its collection of reliable national book sales figures, metrical research into the book industry and reading patterns is now possible.
But what readers make of the content of these books, and how they contribute to Australian culture, is difficult to accurately discern.
Dr Jan Zwar conducted a close analysis of a range of narrative nonfiction books and their contribution to cultural debate during the Howard years 2003-2008. In an essay for the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature she observed that “experiences of the actual readers remain a mystery behind the wall of data”.
Other forms of media mediate the relationship between the memoir, its author and the wider readership. Syndicated publication of extracts, the author’s appearances through radio, television, online and print media to discuss the book, and appearances at writers festivals and festivals of ideas are all channels key to ensuring the possibility of the memoir’s broader ideas being promulgated.
In her 2012 essay More than Michael Moore: Contemporary Australian Book Reading Patterns and the Wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, Zwar proposed that it is through these “longer term, less obvious ways” that these texts have discursive impact.
Former PM, Julia Gillard, by way of example, has appeared at half a dozen writers festivals in Australia and New Zealand alongside her memoir, My Story (2015), although no one I spoke to nominated the memoir as being influential or contributing to the debate. Yet, with large live audiences, Gillard clearly is contributing.
The memoir is the prop for the event, and contributes to an already existing discussion of broader “Gillard” topics such as women in politics and education reform.
Similarly, Anna Bligh, former Premier of Queensland, speaking on the ABC program Q&A in August, firmly linked her memoir, Through the Wall: Reflections on Leadership, Love and Survival (2015), to her key message of encouragement to young women to pursue a career in politics, and not to be fearful of the walls “built of the solid bricks of prejudice” (to quote from the book).
Mark Latham’s Latham’s Diaries, originally published in 2005, eclipses all other political memoirs and autobiographies in my research for impact, in terms of readers recalling and engaging with its dissection of the Labor Party in the post-Keating years, the Australian political system more broadly, and its insistence that there ought to be serious debate about political philosophy.
Whatever one may think of Latham today, this memoir has contributed to debate and critiques of Australian democratic process in the new century. Natalie Mast recently argued on The Conversation that, ten years on from its publication, “the flaws in our political system that Latham highlighted continue to affect us”.
It is both the specialist and the general reader that the politicians are appealing to, with general readers contributing the bulk of sales, and thus the economic viability of the genre. But it is the political analysts and historians, journalists, lobbyists, festival directors, politicians and would-be politicians who are the most critical readers of these books and who enable a memoir’s impact.
Laura Tingle, the Australian Financial Review’s political editor, has possibly read them all. According to Tingle, the “young things” in the current caucus are “hoovering up” Gareth Evans’ Inside the Hawke–Keating Government: A Cabinet Diary (2014) to gain an understanding of how the government worked.
Knowing what happened is not of course equivalent to energetic debate and discourse, but it is a starting point.
Tingle nominated three other books of influence from recent years. Tony Abbott’s Battlelines (2013) continues to “reverberate” as readers realise it has not clarified Abbott’s beliefs, but just added to the mix. Malcolm Fraser’s Dangerous Allies (2014), which followed on from his Political Memoirs, is having impact because of the quality of its insights and argument, though strictly speaking it is not a memoir.
Tingle also nominates Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister (2014), despite it blowing up across social media over Carr’s love of activated almonds and other personal nonsense about his abs and pyjamas. But from Tingle’s perspective, Carr’s diary holds value for its uniquely positioned observations of the Gillard cabinet.
You effectively had an outsider/ journalist reporting on what he saw in a government that was crumbling. For that reason, I think it is going to be an on-going source for many years on what happened in the Gillard period.
Margaret Simons, Director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism and co-author of Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, pointed to other works as influential, but again, they’re not wholly memoirs, nor all recent: suggesting the genre does indeed have limitations.
Simons identified the Latham Diaries, the late John Button’s 2002 Quarterly Essay, Beyond Belief: what future for Labour (part memoir, part critique), and thirdly, Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts’ 2015 Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment.
Too young to be documenting their political lives through memoir, this pair are not looking back, but forwards.
Jane Messer, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing
The link below is to a listing of Amazon’s 100 biographies and memoirs to read in a lifetime.
For more visit:
The link below is to a listing of ten biographies of Christian men.
Be sure to look down towards the comments for further biographies of men.
The link below is to a listing of ten biographies of Christian women.
Be sure to look down towards the comments for further biographies of women.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at yet another Amazon venture – ‘Icons.’