My heart has been gladdened by the words of two honest, wise women this week.
The first is Wendy Harmer, comedian and journalist who was featured this week on Julia Zemiro’s ‘Home Delivery’. It’s available on iview until 24th December 2014. In ‘Home Delivery’, comedian Julia Zemiro drives around with fellow comedians and media personalities, revisiting childhood places and reminiscing and reflecting on what has made them the person they are. Wendy Harmer, like me, is a ‘woman of a certain age’ and, like me, has a cleft lip and palate. She has appeared on Australian Story in the past, talking about the experience of growing up with a cleft and her career as a stand-up comedian- surely one of the most naked, ‘look at me’ and razor-edge occupations there could be. In this episode, there she is, being driven to the Last Laugh theatre in Collingwood where she made her stand-up comedy debut and Selby and Upwey in the Dandenongs, where she spent some of her childhood.
The second is the writer Paddy O’Reilly’s whose article What it feels like to always be stared at by strangers appeared last week. Paddy O’Reilly who has gathered acclaim over recent years for her books The Colour of Rust and The Wonders, suffers from Graves Disease, and before she had surgery on her eyes, it made her look as if she was staring at people, who often stared at her. “Yep, female Marty Feldman” she would joke pre-emptively, using humour, as she says “as the refuge of humiliation as well as of adversity”.
There is a particular pain that comes with looking and sounding different. It’s completely intractable, no matter how many people assure you that they didn’t even notice. In the very core of you, you don’t believe them. It’s right there, as a little jab that can dart out to prick you with each new person you meet. Sometimes. You think that you have it under control but it bursts out when there’s the look that lingers just a second too long , or the hot burning stare that you’re aware of, off to your side or behind you that, perversely, makes you feel shame. It’s worse as a child because children don’t filter it, but it’s still there even in middle age. It’s there when you hear yourself on tape, or as I’ve experienced just recently, in podcasts talking about a topic I know well, with work I’m proud of. It gives extra power to that little gremlin of self-doubt that I know everyone carries around. For us, no matter how good we might feel in that new outfit, or with that good haircut or how happy we might feel in our expertise and knowledge, that too-long look somehow makes it all fall away. Not always, but sometimes.
And so, I knew the layers of pain that would have built up when Wendy Harmer spoke about shifting from school to school because her father was a school teacher. A new start each time, but yes, a new scab to be picked off as well. And I know what her memory of pashing with boys up on the railway bridge would have meant. And what her father meant when he praised her diction after her first television performance. I know her feeling of gratitude for husband and children, and the silent rage inside that dammit, I shouldn’t have to feel grateful.
In her article, Paddy O’Reilly quotes an American comedian, David Roche, who has a severe facial disfigurement from a facial tumour. Everyone stares, she says:
… that accidental, snagged way we do when we see something different. It’s hard-wired into us to stare at novelty. Novelty stimulates the brain and the dopamine rushes in, causing pleasure. Yet we’ve been told since we were children that it is wrong to stare, so as adults we pull our gaze away, feigning nonchalance or indifference.
This initial stare is beyond our control. David Roche, an American comedian with a severe facial disfigurement, says that the first stare is not the time of hatred or prejudice or judgment. It’s about getting used to difference. The second look is what counts – what we choose to do once our initial curiosity has been satisfied.
That second look- what a powerful idea, and one that had never occurred to me before. I wish I could go back and tell seven-year old me about it.
Thank you, my courageous, honest ladies. I’ve hesitated about posting this -why???- but you’ve been brave, and I want to be too.