Thursday, April 18, 2013

Stephanie Dowrick reads two brave new books

Anne Deveson
Anne Deveson is one of Australia's wisest elders - in fact, she is one of our global wisest elders. Any new work from her is precious and worth reading. She has just published a memoir, Waging Peace, that focuses on her many years as a tireless human rights activist and peace-maker. It also focuses our attention on the innumerable ways in which, as a global family, we need to get our house in far better order when it comes to giving up war and waging the peace Anne longs for.  Peace is not, she makes very clear, simply a "gap" between wars: peace is a way of living that demands and needs new strategies and, above everything, new thinking.

That so many leaders (and their followers) could, in this 21st-century world, still see state-sanctioned violence - including war - as a "solution" to human problems and conflict is nothing short of tragic. This is something I also wrote about at length in Seeking the Sacred and I, too, feel very deeply about it. In fact, I have come to think that peace making is our most fundamental challenge because it depends so entirely on how we see "others", value their lives...and also see our own lives and values. What we are facing, and what Anne so powerfully and directly addresses, is nothing short of a crisis in consciousness, shaping and affecting countless other private actions and public policies.

Anne is a great story-teller, a very natural communicator and the book is immensely engaging to read as well as persuasive. She has decades of experience to call upon as well as vast writing experience and does this with exceptional skill, never overloading us with too much detail but nonetheless bringing some key situations in her lifetime vividly to life. The subtitle of her book is "Reflections on peace and war from an unconventional woman". Anne Deveson is unconventional. But I hope and pray that her views will become mainstream in our lifetimes. When it comes to peace and war, a radical change in thinking is urgently needed. Waging Peace can be read at so many levels. What matters, is that it is read.

You will find my video review of Anne's book in this month's video, and also of another quite different book that brings our attention not only to the devastation that violence causes but to how more intelligent re-thinking - and plain common sense and compassion - could save us from so many of these travesties.

Juliet Darling's book is also a memoir: A Double Spring: A year of tragedy, grief and loss. Juliet and Anne share a strange link too in that Anne's best-known book, Tell me I'm here, described the years of her gentle son Jonathan's loss of mental and emotional health (and then his life) to schizophrenia. In Double Spring, Juliet is also describing the devastation caused by mental illness, but in a far more tragic and sometimes horrifying way. Her partner, well-known Sydney art curator Nick Waterlow, was murdered two years or so ago by his mentally ill, violent son, along with Nick's daughter, Chloe. Chloe's children were also wounded in the savage attack. What is inescapable in these pages is that the reverberations of that day will continue until the end of the survivors' lives - and those who love them.

Juliet Darling Photo: Jane Campion
Juliet Darling has written a book about the worst nightmare one could imagine, but her focus is throughout on the quality and depth of the love she and Nick shared and celebrated in their ten years together. She is a highly visual, poetic writer, and her reflections are restrained, often unexpected, and memorable. If this book was "only" about the death of Nick and Chloe it might be unbearable to read or unbearably sad - not least because she writes so well. It is not. There is lots of beauty here, including the beauty of mature love, and of sustained and sometimes quite miraculous friendship. I found myself totally absorbed in the poignant story of Juliet's love for Nick, despite years of difficulties with his family who appear to have had great difficulty in accepting her or legitimizing their relationship. The story of her continuing friendships is also rare and moving.

Nick Waterlow, beloved partner of Juliet Darling
There is more, too, in these pages. This writer also uses her first-hand knowledge of the inadequacies of our mental health system (and those who work in it ) to point to a double and doubly inexcusable failure of responsibility. A mentally ill person is entitled in law to plead a lack of responsibility for their crimes due to mental illness...while those who work in mental health services need not, apparently, take responsibility for protecting society and the families by insisting on sectioning those who threaten and frighten their families (as Nick's son did, for many years) - and adequately, even forcibly treating them.

This is controversial, but if we take it as a basic human right that each of us has a right to safety - and both these books implicitly argue that - then a severely mentally ill person's "right" to choose not to be treated must surely be secondary to the "right" to safety of those around them, and especially for those who persist in loving them.  Juliet Darling must have required huge courage to write her book. It is intimate, sometimes lyrical, and also fiercely determined. With this book, too, I hope and pray that decision makers will read it. A a memorial to a great love and a great loss, it deserves nothing less.

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