In 2021, with the support of the Copyright Agency‘s Cultural Fund, and in partnership with Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre, Westerly Magazine was proud to publish writing from our inaugural Mid-Career Fellowship. Two Fellows—Maddie Godfrey in poetry and Annabel Smith in creative nonfiction—were selected from a competitive pool of applications and celebrated in features, one in each issue for the year.
Sharing the material now online, we congratulate our inaugural Fellows and thank them for their wonderful contributions to the Magazine. Work from our 2022 Fellows, Scott-Patrick Mitchell and Caitlin Maling, will be published in issues coming this year.
Annabel Smith’s ‘Defective’ was published in Westerly 66.2.
Defect (noun): something imperfect or faulty, lacking or deficient.
Defect (verb): to rebel or break faith, renounce or repudiate.
If you kiss beneath Magere Brug in Amsterdam, you will remain in love forever. Or so they tell you on the canal tours.
Get ready! the tour guide said as we glided through the calm waters of the Amstel River.
My husband turned to me. Do you want to? he asked.
When I try now to find a word to describe the spirit of his question, I struggle. A thesaurus offers me unenthusiastic, disinclined, grudging, resistant. None of these words convey the emotional depth I’m seeking. Half-hearted comes closest, with its reference to the heart. But if I had to assign a fraction to the portion of my husband’s heart that wanted to invest in a gesture which conveyed his desire for our love to endure eternally, it would be much less than half.
Do you want to? he asked, quarter-heartedly.
The writer in me thought: if this was a novel the narrator would say, That was the moment she knew her marriage was over.
Two months earlier, we had ‘celebrated’ our twelfth wedding anniversary. At the restaurant I had booked, my husband chose to sit at the bar, more interested in making small talk with the bartenders than engaging with me. We argued, left the restaurant without eating, and were back in our hotel room by 8 o’clock, where I took a sedative and cried myself to sleep.
Shortly afterwards we began weekly sessions of relationship therapy. In our seventh session, my husband, who had appeared to engage in the process but revealed little, said that the biggest problems in our marriage were my depression and my eating disorder.
My depression. My eating disorder.
The fault lines within our marriage were an extension of the fault lines within me: my foibles, my failings; the broken parts of myself I had failed to fix.
I broke my coccyx giving birth. I couldn’t stand up or sit down without assistance, or lift my son from the trolley-crib they had placed beside my hospital bed. On the first night of his life in the world, his life outside my body, he was cared for by the midwives in the night nursery.
I have heard mothers speak of anguish at being separated from their newborns, but I felt only relief that I might be spared responsibility for his wellbeing for a few more hours.
When I woke the next morning and heard the cribs being wheeled from the night nursery to the ward I thought, Not yet. Please, not yet.
In the early weeks of breastfeeding I felt hungry all the time but had neither the energy nor time to prepare food. Holding my son in one arm, I ate dry crackers washed down with milk, rows of chocolate squares broken off a ‘family-sized’ block. I bathed my son and sang to him; pureed organic grass-fed beef mince with sweet potato and broccoli. Some days I wrote about the good parts in a journal, for him to read when he was older. Many days there were no good parts. My son cried or fussed incessantly, and barely napped. I felt I was failing as a mother. Sometimes, eating chocolate felt like the only pleasure in my day. I cried and swore and shouted. One day I knocked my own head against the wall in despair.
When I took my son to Baby Rhyme-Time at the library, loading the pram with carefully selected pop-up books and board books with inserts of fabric and sandpaper and shiny plastic for sensory stimulation, I always brought home something for myself: books on parenting, self-help, pop psychology. When he was eight months old, and I was diagnosed with post-natal depression, I thought about the ‘still face’ experiments I had read about in one book, conducted by a developmental psychologist named Edward Tronick in the 1970s (Goldman), in which caregivers briefly stopped responding to their infants’ cues, causing obvious distress in the children. I lived with perpetual anxiety that my mental health was affecting my son’s development. Eventually when he was two, I asked my psychologist if I could bring him with me to a session, to have him informally ‘assessed’.
In the first session she gave him two plastic dinosaurs to play with. He shoved one as far as he could down the other’s throat. Was he failing the test? Was I failing the test? At the second session he spoke to her about ‘fightin feelins’, but also, thank god, about ‘jokin feelins’.
She said he was a happy, healthy, developmentally normal child.
Some years later, when he was seven or eight years old, I discovered a note on his desk, on a scrap of paper, in his childish handwriting:
I hate myself—I never get surprise playdates—I’m always ashamed—that’s all.
After my grandfather died, when I was in my late twenties, I began exchanging letters with my grandmother in the UK. Sometimes she added newspaper cuttings, memorabilia. In one letter she enclosed a school photograph of herself aged five or six which, as an older child, she had defaced with the words, She is daft.
Two things I remember about my grandmother from my childhood: she was fat and she liked sweets. I don’t remember her size ever being discussed, but as a child, when I thought of her, fat is the word that came to mind. This was in the 1970s, before euphemistic terms like overweight, or medical terms like obese, came into popular use. She was the only fat person I knew, the only person I cuddled who was soft.
I found the photograph of her—along with the note from my son—a few months after my marriage ended, when, riddled with feelings of self-loathing and unworthiness, I was engaged in the process of investigating my schemas, or sets of ideas about the self and the world and/or the self in the world. My psychologist believed my sense of identity and worldview was governed by a schema she called defectiveness, a persistent sense of being not good enough, ‘bad, unwanted, inferior, or invalid in important respects’; a fear that if people knew the real me they would not like me.
As my son grew up I began to cope better with being a mother. Most of the time, I did not feel depressed. But when I attempted to come off antidepressants the depression would swiftly reassert itself and I continued to see a psychologist, though much less frequently. I was still using chocolate to self-soothe, and gaining weight, year by year. As I became fatter, my husband began to monitor my eating.
Are you sure you want that? he would ask, when I took a second helping.
For a few brief periods I managed to control my eating and lose weight. But in time, my cravings would overwhelm me and I would return to my pattern of compulsive eating, regaining the weight I had lost, and inevitably some additional weight. It was not until my son was ten that I came to understand that my cycles of restricting and bingeing formed a pattern of eating which could be described as disordered.
My husband did not accept that I had an eating disorder. He believed I was simply greedy and lacking in willpower. After many arguments he stopped commenting on my eating choices. Instead he watched me as I put food on my plate, as I lifted a fork to my mouth. One day, over lunch, I challenged him again on his behaviour.
It’s my body. It’s my choice, I said. What makes you think you have a right to monitor me?
It’s unattractive, he said.
When I was growing up in England, Nanna and Grandad lived only a few miles from us and we saw them often.
Do you want some ju-jus? she would ask when they came to visit, and me and my brothers would each be given a packet of sweets from her handbag. When we went to their house, we would go straight to the junk drawer in the kitchen, near the back door. We didn’t have to ask. We knew the sweets would be there for us.
Nanna had her own ju-jus, fruit-flavoured jellies coated with sugar crystals; rough on the tongue, but soft in the middle. She kept them in an ornate crystal jar in a glass-fronted cabinet in the living room, beside a wind-up ceramic ornament of two white doves which played the theme from Love Story. I never saw her eat them but somehow I understood that she did; that there was a relationship between her ju-jus and her being fat. What I didn’t understand was the relationship between love and food; between food and the sense of self; between love and the sense of self.
Now I wonder: Did Grandad tell her she was unattractive? Did she eat them in secret so he wouldn’t watch her lifting the heavy lid of the jar, count how many she put in her mouth?
When Annabel was a baby, she was so ugly, we called her Alfred Hitchcock, my Dad said in his speech at my 21st birthday.
I laughed. When I laugh my left lower lip refuses to pull itself down to mirror my right, making me look lopsided. From as early as I can remember having a sense of self, my crooked mouth was part of that sense. The story goes like this: When I was six weeks old, Mum took me to her doctor to show him. You mothers! he said to her. Go home and look in the mirror, see if you’re perfect.
When I was two, my mother’s dentist suggested she take me to a specialist. When I refused to open my mouth for the specialist, he pinched me to make me cry, and told my mother it was nothing to worry about.
I have no conscious memory of the specialist. But that does not mean I don’t remember it. Pre-verbal memories, experiences we cannot use language to make sense of, are housed in the limbic system, the ancient brain. Is it from an implicit memory that I became so conscious of my crooked mouth, of this part of me that was not right and could not, or would not, be fixed?
When I was perhaps six or seven, my older brother told me Nanna was a bastard. Bastard was a swear word; a word for a bad person or a person who had done something bad. My dad explained that Nanna hadn’t done anything bad, but when she was born her mother was unmarried. I now know that Nanna was put into foster care at birth, in 1925. Her biological mother went to work as a housekeeper for an antiques dealer with an ailing wife and three young children. After the wife’s death, she married the antiques dealer and reclaimed Nanna from foster care.
Like many arts undergraduates, I encountered Sigmund Freud in first year psychology. More recently, I learned that Freud was one of the first psychoanalysts to hypothesise that, in an attempt to deal with information that is incomprehensible to them, young children perceive themselves as responsible for everything bad that happens to them. At four years old, Nanna not only had to relinquish her foster family—the only family she had known—and adapt to life with a new ‘mother’, step-father and three older step-siblings grieving their mother’s recent death, she also had to make sense of the fact that if her mother had ‘come back for her’ she must first have abandoned her. She almost certainly internalised the notion that if her mother had given her up, it must have been because there was something wrong with her; she was defective.
Research into abandonment trauma led me to psychotherapist Nancy Verrier, whose clinical work with adoptees explores how postnatal separation is experienced as trauma in the preverbal child, citing research which demonstrates that human infants know their mothers through multiple senses, showing, for example, a preference for their own mother’s milk. Thus, when an infant is separated from its birth mother, even if the birth mother is replaced with a loving and supportive carer, the infant is aware that the new carer, who does not smell or sound the same, is a proxy, and thus feels and experiences the loss of its biological mother as an abandonment, a traumatic event. Taking this idea one step further, in his YouTube video ‘Adoption and Addiction’, addiction counsellor Paul Sunderland explains how a break in mother-infant bonding results in a reduction of serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for soothing.
Shortly before my marriage ended, and again recently, I attended a support group for women with Binge Eating Disorder. Most of the participants had been victims of trauma, including childhood sexual abuse. Like many adoptees, most lived with a pervasive sense of shame or worthlessness. Almost all were living with some degree of depression, and over and over they talked about using food to self-soothe. Food is the good girl’s drug, one participant said.
Sunderland’s work elucidates the connection between adoption, serotonin and addiction. Given that one of the most reliable and readily available ways of increasing serotonin is sugar, it is not surprising then that abandonment trauma is a known contributor to eating disorders.
Was it abandonment trauma that led Nanna to deface her own photograph with a message of self-loathing? Was it abandonment trauma that compelled her to always have a supply of ju-jus on hand?
In the television series Counterpart, two identical versions of the world exist side by side, including two initially identical versions of every human. Sometimes, people cross the border, temporarily inhabiting an alternate version of their own lives, created by an alternate version of themselves who has made different choices. Sometimes people defect permanently to the other side, preferring this other version of themselves.
Intellectually, I knew that I was not solely responsible for the breakdown of my marriage, that my ‘problems’ were not the only thing that eroded the connection between my husband and me. Then again, hadn’t I been wrong since birth: ugly, crooked, flawed?
And yet, hadn’t I read all those self-help books? Wasn’t there some part of me that believed people could change? Couldn’t I too be one of those people? I yearned to shed the sense of self constructed for me by my family, my husband; to defect from the version of my life in which my identity was of a person irreparably damaged, unworthy of love; to cross the border into an alternate version of my own life.
I began at the source: my parent’s house, scouring photo albums forty years old. In the digital era we might take a dozen shots to get the perfect photo, deleting any in which people are eating with their mouths open, squinting into the sun, caught in awkward poses. But in the seventies and eighties, when we paid for photos to be printed, they all went into the albums. Here were all the photos of myself I remembered—with coldsores, buck-teeth, bowl cuts: boundless evidence of my ‘ugliness’. And yet, there were other photos which told a different story; photos I would need to create the back story for my new identity. I peeled away the plastic film that preserved them; prised them from the sticky pages of the albums and took photographs of the photographs. Evidence. I saved my favourite as the ‘wallpaper’ on my mobile phone. In this photo I am three or perhaps four years old, in a ruched summer dress with puffed sleeves, in a field, on a bright day, holding a long stick. I am laughing: my eyes closed, my mouth crooked.
Is that you? people asked when they saw it. You were so cute!
And I can see that I was.
A few weeks later, when my son was at his father’s and I was alone at home, I opened the archive box in which I had been saving cards, letters and other memorabilia for most of my adult life. I sifted through primary school reports, love letters from old boyfriends, birthday cards from school friends and print-outs of emails from friends travelling overseas, examining thirty years’ worth of documents for proof that I was worthy of love.
The words I read inside that box were so at odds with the way I had come to see myself, they were difficult to comprehend. I wanted to believe them. I needed to believe them if I was to successfully cross the border. I made them into a word cloud in my diary, colouring the ones that appeared most often: inspiring; unique and beautiful; all energy and enthusiasm; courageous, authentic, loving, fun.
My grandmother never had the opportunity to build herself a new identity. She did not have the freedom that I have to learn about these things, to speak about them, to bring them out into the light and examine them.
I wish I could talk to her. I wish I could tell her what I have come to understand; what I am teaching my son so he won’t repeat the same pattern. We are all lacking, deficient, flawed and imperfect: defective in our own ways.
I live in a larger body than the bodies my society deems attractive. I take medication for the neuro-chemical deficiencies that cause my depression. I have a crooked mouth.
But I am also joyous; refreshing; someone who knows the special art of listening; a bright spark; a one-woman riot.
Goldman, Jason G. ‘Ed Tronick and the “Still Face Experiment” ’, Scientific American, October 18 (2010). Sourced at: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtfulanimal/ed-tronick-and-the-8220-still face-experiment-8221/.
Sunderland, Paul. ‘Adoption & Addiction’ (lecture on YouTube). Life Works. Sourced at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3e0-SsmOUJI.
Verrier, Nancy. ‘The Three Faces of Adoptees’, Seminar for 2013 AAC—Cleveland. Posted 8 July 2013. Sourced at: http://nancyverrier.com/the-three-faces-ofadoptees/.
Annabel Smith is the author of interactive digital novel/app The Ark, US bestseller Whisky Charlie Foxtrot and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Her short fiction and essays have been published in Southerly, Westerly, Kill Your Darlings and the Review of Australian Fiction. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Edith Cowan University.