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Rochelle Siemienowicz, Fallen (Review)

September 12, 2015

SiemienowiczFallenAffirmBeing a reader who focuses more on “truths” than “facts”, I’m not averse to writers playing around with fact in their fiction or fiction in their fact. This issue raises its head most frequently in historical fiction of course, but it’s also present in autobiographies, memoirs and even biographies. And so, here I am, having just reviewed Kate Grenville’s biography-cum-memoir of her mother, talking about another memoir, Rochelle Siemienowicz’s Fallen.

“It is a story …”

Siemienowicz’s memoir commences with – well, a literary in-joke – “Call me Eve”. What? It’s a memoir the front cover tells us, and the author’s fist name is Rochelle. Who’s this Eve? Rochelle explains in her brief introductory note, a note that precedes the Prologue, that her parents would never have named her for “that original sinner” but that it’s the name she gives herself when she thinks back to that time when she was a young wife, “so very young, so very hungry”, when she “picked the fruit and ate and drank until I was drunk with freedom and covered in juice and guilt”. The name Eve then has a symbolic meaning that forces us, as we read the book, to consider the idea of “fallen women”, but it also enables Siemienowicz to distance her present self from that young woman she once was. This reminded me of Kate Holden’s memoir, The romantic (my review), in which she chose a different path to create that separation – the third person voice.

Anyhow, having explained the name issue, Siemienowicz continues with the point that interests me, the form of her memoir. She writes that “it is a story, with parts made up and fragments rearranged like a dream half remembered now that twenty years have passed”. In the Epilogue, she mentions, almost in passing, that she’d originally written the book as a novel.

So, in Fallen we have a memoir that has strong novelistic elements, including a tight cast of characters, a deliberate narrative structure, and dialogue. You don’t find dialogue in traditional autobiographies. We readers would not believe that the writer could remember verbatim conversations held so long ago. But, dialogue is increasingly being incorporated into memoirs. Dialogue can engage readers, and while it may not represent verbatim “fact” it can convey the “truth”.  If you are starting to question by now whether this really is a memoir, I should confirm that it is fact-based, at least I believe it is, unless Siemienowicz has pushed artifice so far that her apologetic-cum-warning phone-call to her ex-husband in the Epilogue is fake! But I don’t think this is the case. There does come a point where you must suspend your disbelief and go with the writer after all.

“I feel something breaking inside of me”

Now, having spent paragraphs on introductory discussion, it’s time to say something substantial about the book’s content. Fallen is the story of a young woman raised by devout Seventh-Day Adventists (SDA) who believe, among other things, that premarital sex is a sin. To satisfy her intense sexual longings and remain “clean in the Lord’s sight”, Eve, who feels a freak in a freakish religion, marries Isaac, another SDA, in 1992 when she’s only 20. She’s deliriously happy. They love each other, and they’re free. They rebel – drink alcohol, eat meat, spend hours in bed – but then, within a couple of years, Isaac starts to withdraw, losing interest in their sexual relationship. The solution – because they love each other, and are committed to their vows (to stay married, at least) – is to have an open marriage. There’s only one rule, they must always ask permission first.

Most of the book is set in Perth in 1996, when Eve returns home to attend a conference and catch up with old friends. Her lover, Jay, is to follow for a week, followed by her husband the week later. Before Jay arrives, she reconnects with her first love, and has a fling with another conference attendee. Oh what tangled webs! Things, in other words, start to unravel, and Eve’s faith in her marriage and her vows starts to break down under the weight of secrets. She begins to question whether their rules can work “in the real world” – but the alternative, and its implications, are confronting.

“Can the centre hold …”

Memoirs are interesting beasts. Why do we read them? Sometimes it’s obvious. The memoirist is famous, or is writing about something we love (like literature, for example, for me). Sometimes it’s less obvious. It might be that the memoirist has experienced something we are experiencing like, say, grief. With Fallen, however, neither of these reasons really apply for me. So why read this one? Well, for two main reasons. One is that while the circumstances – a young woman of a strict religious upbringing trying open marriage – are rather narrowly specific, there are some broad themes. One has to do with sexual freedom. What does it mean, before, within and without marriage? How does it affect relationships? What has it to do with sincerity, intimacy and honesty? How do principles fit with feelings? There’s a broader theme too – the formation of identity. The subtitle of the memoir, “marrying too young”, hints at this. How easy is it to sustain a marriage made before you have fully formed your identity?

I feel myself spread all over the nation, with loyalties and loves and lusts from the east coast to the west, and no idea what to do with them. I’m a girl with no qualities and no boundaries, with legs wide open and a beating heart exposed. I’m appalled by myself, but also intrigued. How many tiny pieces of myself can I give away before there is nothing left? How curiously exhilarating. It feels like vertigo.

The other reason for reading this memoir is the writing. Siemienowicz knows how to tell a story. She structures the memoir around a trip back home, which she tells chronologically, but into it she weaves the story of her life and relationships to that point. We see a young woman who can be confident and brazen one moment, and vulnerable and uncertain the next, who throws herself wholeheartedly into life but doesn’t always think about where she’s pointing. And we see all this through a focused narrative and clear, direct but spirited language.

Fallen is, at times, an uncomfortable read but Siemienowicz’s honesty, her angst about her “fraying code of honour” versus her desire to fully engage in her life, captured my imagination and had me wanting her to find an honourable conclusion to a painful part of her life. This memoir is testament, I’d say, that she does.

Rochelle Siemienowicz
Fallen: A memoir of sex, religion and marrying too young
South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2015
263pp.
ISBN: 9781922213655

(Review copy supplied by Affirm Press)

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2015 9:50 pm

    It sounds a bit like Lee Kofman’s memoir, The Dangerous Bride, in which she explores non-monogamy.

    Like you, I’m interested in the identity part, too. You can see how someone barely out of their teens and basically brainwashed could feel as if they don’t know who they are. And marrying so you have permission to have sex wouldn’t help either. (Nor does it augur well for the marriage!)

    We are sexual beings, whether some religions care to admit it or not. Nature has ordained it so: it’s the only way for the species to survive (bar IVF, etc). Nature has placed it at our biological core, a drive in need of fulfilment as much as eating and sleeping. As one who was brought up Catholic and told (I’m paraphrasing here), ‘Thou shalt not copulate without wedding ring’, I scratch my head when religions can’t accept physiology.

    With respect to identity, I’ve noticed that many people who are lost or who don’t know who they really are often discover themselves through sexual exploration. I suspect it has something to do with sex being integral to our identity, but maybe, too, it has to do with another need integral to our species survival that hasn’t been fulfilled—the need for love.

    • September 12, 2015 10:40 pm

      Thanks Louise. I’ve heard of Lee Kofman’s book but haven’t read it. I was reminded as I read this of other memoirs or autobiographical novels by women brought up under very strict religious regimes – Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the only fruit, and Francesca Rendle-Short’s Bite your tongue. That sort of upbringing can be so damaging, and can skew the development of self and identity. Sex can loom out of proportion, perhaps because it hasn’t been part of the growing up. Your love point is significant too I think. Often, in those sorts of households love can be a little skewed too. There can be so many rules that you have to follow to be a good person that love can be withheld from or not apparent to the child. Hmm … getting tricky here. In Siemienowicz’s case love and acceptance was forthcoming, but she still felt and knew the rules and felt the conflict keenly even where she rejected the rules. Because in the end we do need some sort of rules of social engagement don’t we? Her challenge was working out what rules SHE felt were reasonable for her, and for the people she was with.

  2. September 12, 2015 10:25 pm

    I really enjoyed this review, even though I’m not one for reading book reviews and appreciated your comments and insights into writing memoir and the possibilities for breaking the rules. I am working on a motivational memoir and am currently working my way excruciatingly slowly through the Proust Questionnaire because I really want to explore develop a fully-fledged character and move beyond simply what happened and develop a rich, complex story. I have actually noted down comments by my kids over the years and snippets of conversation mainly because I didn’t think I wouldn’t even be here now let alone later on. I’ve used diologue fairly extensively in my creative writing and didn’t realise that it wasn’t usually a part of memoir.
    I also come from a fairly strict religious background of sorts and have family members in the SDA. The whole sex before marriage thing is an issue for Christian Churches, although that doesn’t meet the flock plays by the rules. You just needed to wear the floral dress!
    Thanks very much! xx Rowena

    • September 12, 2015 10:46 pm

      Thanks Rowena. I’m impressed by all you people, Louise too, who are writing. The blog is the limit of my writing. I do think memoir is a fascinating form and almost anything goes, in a way, as long as you are honest with your reader about what you are doing.

      I’ve had a bit of involvement with SDAs over the years, partly because I spent my years living within a mile of Sydney’s big SDA Hospital. And then, I remember having an SDA friend at university, I’d forgotten until I read this book about the discussions we had, and how she lent me a book called Evolution and the Modern Christian. (I didn’t really know about creationism then. I always – even in my practising religion days – saw the bible in metaphorical and symbolic terms. Perhaps that’s because I was always a reader. I believed in God and Jesus, but I didn’t believe the Bible literally. It wasn’t even an issue that gave me bother. It was just stories with “morals” at the end!)

      Anyhow, good luck with your writing.

      • September 12, 2015 11:37 pm

        My husband actually worked at the head office in the IT department for many years, long after he left the Church. We use to live off Fox Valley Road and I worked for a dotcom down there. Both our children were born at the San. So I know that area very well.
        Thanks for your wishes. I need them at the moment. I get so many distractions. What I’d call serious detours. I’ve just got over bronchitis and my daughter auditioned for the Sound of Music last week for the part of Marta, the second youngest Von Trapp child, so it’s been crazy here…just when I really decided to get disciplined!! xx Rowena

        • September 13, 2015 8:12 am

          Haha, but how exciting for her. Family life and writing are a tricky mix!

          BTW I lived ON Fox Valley Rd. My parents were there from 1966 to 1988 when they moved to North Turramurra.

  3. September 13, 2015 8:06 am

    It interests me to read about another woman’s writing of her ‘lost’ days. I did that briefly, but only because I needed the reader to understand me at the point of meeting my husband. To write about them as a standalone … well … no wonder there’s so much introduction !

    • September 13, 2015 8:19 am

      Haha MR! Yes, I remember your writing about that. For you your book was about Chic and the successful love you had, whereas for Rochelle it was about the struggle of that love.

      Interesting how people can go out of control – Rochelle refers to being out of control – when they are unhappy/confused in themselves. Not surprising.

  4. September 15, 2015 2:16 am

    Sounds pretty interesting. Is she still married to the same man by any chance?

    • September 15, 2015 7:56 am

      No, Stefanie. I don’t think that’s a spoiler as it’s pretty much given away on the back cover,

  5. Jim KABLE permalink
    September 15, 2015 9:10 pm

    I was raised a Seventh-day Adventist. The backdrop to this entire story rings with honesty and truth – the writer and her writing outstanding!

    • September 15, 2015 9:38 pm

      Thanks Jim … it certainly felt honest so I’m glad it came across that way in my review.

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