When my children asked me to write the story of my early life, I put off the task for many years. Did I really want to revisit that traumatic time when, as an adolescent in the fifties, I suffered from what was then an unknown disease? But their interest touched me, and woke a long-held urge to confess.
I decided to write my story after taking part in an international study of anorexia nervosa, the illness that had plagued me in my teenage years. When the study results revealed that anorexia is a genetic disease, I realised two things: a) one is not responsible for having this illness; b) other people besides my children might benefit from knowing my story.
A further catalyst that gave me the courage to reveal my story was when I miraculously found a long-lost letter from the psychoanalyst who had treated me as a child. Her voice reaching out through the decades was a call to arms. I owed it to her memory to write about how she had helped me fight my illness, in an effort to save my life.
So I set about to write a memoir about my exile from a small town in NSW, where I lived with my family, across the continent to Perth. My parents hoped that my removal to different environment might cure me. What had made my situation worse was that I came from a conservative Jewish family who saw my illness as a mark of shame. Even the rabbi’s wife (the rebbitzin) in our small community reprimanded me for upsetting my parents.
I hoped that by putting my story into words in my own voice, I could exorcise the demons that had plagued me for almost my whole life. Writing down the truth, I hoped, would free me from the shame and blame that still lived somewhere inside me.
Yet when I began to write my memoir, the words simply wouldn’t flow. I made several attempts, trying different starting points and experimenting with different styles. Finally, defeated, I shut the aborted manuscript away in the proverbial bottom drawer, and told my children I would write it “one day.”
But while I was working on other writing projects, the need to tell my own story wouldn’t let me go. I had to find a way to write my truth, simply to stay sane. Then came a breakthrough. It was only when I stopped thinking of myself as the narrator of my story that something clicked. Why, I thought, couldn’t I narrate this story at one remove, so to speak?
I decided not to write my story as a memoir. Instead, I would use the craft of fiction to weave a coming-of-age story to reflect the truth of my early life. This was partly to protect those members of my family who might be distressed by the factual representation of events, and partly to make the process of writing less painful to myself.
Another reason I chose fiction over memoir was that many of my memories had been erased after I was subjected to a course of shock treatments (now known as ECT) as a teenager. Thus I needed to invent some scenes, where in my memory there were only blanks.
As soon as the character of my protagonist, Ivy Morgenstern, a teenage Jewish girl, came to me, I was off and away. Ivy was definitely not me; she was feisty, brave and cheeky, whereas I was a “goody-two-shoes” as a child, compliant and nerdy. Perhaps my protagonist represented the person I would have liked to be. In any event, the writing started to flow. I had found my voice in Ivy’s.
The resulting novel, A Dangerous Daughter, is about Ivy, who lives in rural Australia in the nineteen-fifties. She develops anorexia nervosa and starts to waste away before her parents’ eyes. The title of the book, A Dangerous Daughter, is ironic – Ivy is seen as dangerous to others, whereas she is in fact a danger to herself. All around her believe she can control this illness, and therefore impose on her the full weight of their disapproval. Her consequent guilt is a burden to add to her still unnamed illness, which, contrary to public opinion, she cannot control. She is sent far away from her birth family in the hopes this would bring about a cure.
Today it is known that separation from family is the least effective way to manage childhood anorexia. Medical experts recommend the opposite: family therapy where every member of the household takes part in the patient’s recovery. However, nobody knew about family therapy in mid-twentieth century Australia.
Fiction gave me the freedom to invent characters, and to disguise those family members who might otherwise be recognised. For example, I conflated my two sisters into one, creating a character who could not be mistaken for either actual sister. I invented a love affair for my protagonist, which was a pure fantasy. Ivy has other adventures along the way, some invented, some from resurrected memories. I was even able to use some magic realism, which might not have worked in a memoir. In these ways I could enhance the story, while the bones of the narrative were based on truth. I wrote in close third person to keep Ivy’s voice always present.
Through fiction I was able to explore themes of racial and religious discrimination, family dysfunctionality, and mental illness in a more creative way than I could in non-fiction or memoir. For example, I showed how anti-Semitism in the post-war years in rural Australia was alive and well by narrating a story about Ivy’s first day at school, when she was beaten by older children because her father was a Jew. I believe this was a more powerful way to show, rather than tell, because I used the strategy of invention. I described Ivy’s psycho-analytic sessions by imagining her dreams and free associations, of which I no longer had a clear memory. I even enjoyed a small revenge on the rebbitzin by making her a nastier character than she was in real life. Without the inhibition of thoughts like “what would Aunt so-and-so think” I felt liberated to let my imagination roam while telling a deeper psychological truth through fiction.
Rather than exorcising my demons, the creative process pulled me back into a painful time best forgotten. Reliving the trauma was sometimes agony, but the thought of helping other young people and their parents gave me the courage to write on. Still, fictionalising my truth proved to be therapeutic to some extent. Shining a light on those dark years helped me to acknowledge that my illness had been no fault of my own, and to forgive myself for the long-held belief that I had caused irreparable harm and shame to my parents and sisters, simply because I had anorexia nervosa.
Dina Davis is an Australian author of Jewish descent. She is the Vice-President of the NT Writers’ Centre. Her début novel, Capriccio, was shortlisted for the NT Chief Minister’s Fiction Award in 2020. She has twice been shortlisted for the NT Literary Awards. Dina’s short stories, articles and poems have appeared in several anthologies, including the literary journal Borderlands. In 2019 Dina co-authored and edited a non-fiction guide for writers, Sharing Writing Skills, published by Ginninderra Press. Her second novel, A Dangerous Daughter, was published in 2021 by Cilento Publishing under their Author First Program.