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Vale Anne Deveson (1930-2016) and Georgia Blain (1964-2016)

December 14, 2016
Anne Deveson 2013

Anne Deveson, 2013 (Photo: Courtesy Mosman Library, using CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

If you are a person of a certain age in Australia you will know Anne Deveson. She was a radio broadcaster first, then filmmaker, activist and writer. Her death this week after suffering for some years with Alzheimer’s Disease is the saddest thing. She was 86, but sadder still is that just three days before she died, her daughter, novelist Georgia Blain, died of brain cancer, aged 52. We knew it was coming, she’d written about it, but she ended up with less time than the general prognosis she’d been given. These are big losses.

I’m going to focus here on Anne Deveson, partly because Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has written on Georgia Blain and partly because I so admired Deveson. She was one of those people you could rely on to be honest but warm, to fight for the people who needed fighting for – though her own life was not an easy one.

She popped up in the most interesting places, including, controversially, advertisements for Omo laundry powder in the 1970s!

We all knew her face from these ads – I wonder why she did them? Money, I suppose, but we soon came to realise that social justice and the well-being of humans were her real passions. She was a member of the inspiringly conceived (by one of our most visionary prime ministers, Gough Whitlam) Royal Commission on Human Relationships, from 1974 to 1977. This Commission was charged with gathering “a wide range of information about the private lives of Australians in order to better inform public and social policy”. An obituary for Deveson in the Sydney Morning Herald described the Commission as being instrumental in areas like “the legalisation of homosexuality, the decriminalisation of abortion and the establishment of women’s refuges”.

I became aware of her, though, through other means, such as discovering her work in film when I was working as a film librarian. The main films I remember were Who Killed Jenny Langby? , a 1974 docudrama about a woman/mother/wife who commits suicide; Do I Have to Kill My Child?, a 1976 documentary about child abuse and desperate mothers who need help; and then  Spinning Out, her 1991 documentary about schizophrenia. You are probably getting a sense now of where her heart was.

Anne Deveson, Tell me I'm hereAnd then there were her books. Her memoir, Tell Me I’m Here (1991), about life with her schizophrenic son, was the first book I read with my reading group upon my return from a posting in the USA. It is imprinted on my mind – and not just because it was so lovely to be back with my reading group! It’s, dare I be clichéd, a raw book. We need people like Deveson who are prepared to not sugarcoat the darker sides of human experience. She speaks of the love, the desperation to find a solution, but also of the shame, the violence and the fear. Best, I think, if I share an excerpt with you, from the first page I randomly opened today:

10 November. Georgia [Blain, of course] was to have her first exam, English, the following day. English was her best subject and she was expected to do extremely well; she had studied hard against big odds. Poor child, I thought as I looked at her taut face.

We went to bed early. At about ten thirty I heard a banging sound downstairs. Jonathan had forced himself in through the cellar door and was climbing the stairs. I sat bolt upright. At all costs he must not wake Georgia. I put on a dressing gown and ran downstairs. Keep calm. Make some tea. ‘No thank you,’ he said, he didn’t want any tea. His eyes followed me as I moved around the room, and even now as I write this I feel you might be thinking I am being melodramatic. But madness is sometimes the stuff of melodrama, and if you don’t take it seriously it can become tragedy. Jonathan had one of the kitchen knives in his hands and he waved it at me and ordered me to sit down …

And so she continues to describe the horror – his terrible appearance “three safety pins dangling from one ear” and wearing jeans that were “dirty, tattered and at half mast”,  as he continued to wave the knife and threatening “I’m going to get you before you get me”. She manages to give him tea and cake, and says she’s going to let the dog out. She goes to the GP who lives up the road, but whom she doesn’t know, to ask his help to get Jonathan to hospital. The GP clearly doesn’t want to get involved, but does come back with her. Deveson continues:

I introduced him to Jonathan and told Jonathan I thought he needed to go to hospital.

‘No sir, no sir, I am not sick,’ Jonathan said in a whining voice. He continued to spin the knife. ‘My mother only thinks I am sick and she’s got the army trained against me.’

Dr W said he couldn’t see any army and suggested that Jonathan might feel safer in hospital.

Jonathan disagreed, ‘I’ve got the PLO on my side.’

At this point the doctor draws Deveson into the hallway and tells her, confidentially, tgat she has a “dangerous young man there”! Deveson, relieved, assumes this means he’ll help get Jonathan to hospital. What does Dr W say but “He doesn’t want to go.” Helpful, huh? After further discussion, the doctor decides to call the police:

Dr W looked relieved and rang the police. He said that I seemed to be an educated sort of woman, even though he didn’t know me. What was the implication from this? Ignore all women if they don’t have an education?

Ckear-eyed about the bigger picture, while describing an intensely personal experience. The book won the Human Rights Non-fiction Award in 1991, just one of several awards Deveson won over the years for services to media and the community. She wrote other books too, including Coming of age: Twenty-one interviews about growing older (1994) and Resilience (2003). Both of these, as was her wont, blended the personal with the political, with the social implications. She was a tenacious and influential Australian about whom we can truly say she left the world a better place.

The tributes have started appearing, including one from Wendy McCarthy, ten years Deveson’s junior and for whom Deveson had been an early role model. There will be many more over the coming days, so I’m going to leave it here, having paid my little tribute to a woman I admired. Vale Anne Deveson – and vale, too, Georgia Blain. Brave women both.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2016 8:14 am

    Oh well said, Sue. She did indeed make the world a better place.

    • December 14, 2016 8:18 am

      Thanks, Lisa. I was pondering writing this when I saw your lovely one on Georgia Blain, which made it easier for me to know how to do mine.

      • December 14, 2016 8:27 am

        To be honest, I did it almost on autopilot because I was so shocked. I know I shouldn’t have been, but coming so soon after the untimely death of Cory Taylor, and sooner than we expected from reading her pieces in The Saturday Paper, I found the sadness that underlies all her novels flooding back to me and it was really hard. I know that we readers don’t ‘know’ an author like her family and friends do, but still we feel an awful loss at the death of someone we ‘know’ intimately through a body of work.

        • December 14, 2016 8:34 am

          Yes, agree… And I gather she was told possibly 2-5 years. How hard her last year must have been with her mother’s illness too.

  2. December 14, 2016 11:08 am

    Thank you, Sue, for this wonderful tribute to Anne Deveson who was such a brave mother and trailblazer in tackling important issues. Thank you, too, for the extracts from Tell me I’m Here, which I haven’t read, but will now. Her book Resilience is one of my favourite books in 50 years of reading.
    Georgia Blain’s last novel (I want to keep saying ‘latest’) Between a Wolf and A Dog is one of my top reads of 2016 and, I think, the pinnacle of her career. I will always treasure the conversation I had with her (at the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival) for my book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors.
    To lose both within days was a shock, and both will be sadly missed.

    • December 14, 2016 11:34 am

      Thanks Annette… And you’ve inspired me for my next Monday Musings. Georgia Blain, based on your book, if that’s so’s ok. I don’t want to overplunder it but was thinking of doing one or two more. I had identified the one, if I only did one, but perhaps she’s the one. Ok?

  3. December 14, 2016 11:12 am

    What a beautiful post about a brave lady and then on top of it the tragedy of both her daughter and her son. The trouble with emigrating to another country at the age of 40 is the first half of our life we have no knowledge of the country we are determined to live in. It takes awhile to figure it all out and I am sad to say the literary geniuses of the country are not the top priority of the time. I would have loved both of them and I am now going to go to the library and see what is available about both of them. You are right. I would loved what they stood for. Thank you again for my literary education in Australia. 🙂

    • December 14, 2016 11:36 am

      Oh thanks Pam… You are doing amazingly well at catching up, but I can see how Deveson would have slipped under the radar, as she slipped from view, particularly in the last decade.

      • December 16, 2016 8:34 am

        I had my Senior’s group Christmas party and a couple of the ladies at my table knew of her and her daughter. We live and learn.

  4. December 14, 2016 11:18 am

    Well said. Anne Deverson is one of those inspiring women who have accompanied me, through her writing and work, through most of my adult life. A great contribution.

    • December 14, 2016 11:38 am

      Why thanks Galivanter! She was a bit of a beacon for her generation (also my mother’s) and mine, want she?

  5. Jim KABLE permalink
    December 14, 2016 1:01 pm

    The thing about Anne (and I caught part of the Wendy McCarthy tribute/interview on one of the ABC program’s yesterday – I am in Canberra house-sitting driving a friend’s car – unfamiliar with the radio tuning) was that she did not just – though very importantly, nonetheless – represent women. She was the fully rounded human being that we can nowadays take for granted – across that formerly rigidly-defined gender divide. She closed that gap – her stories – her investigations – on television and on radio – allowed us all to feel human. I did not know that Georgia BLAIN was her daughter – but knowing it now explains some things – nor that Anne had herself in recent years suffered dementia/Alzheimers. Blessings on her presence in Australia – how lucky were we to have this woman in our midst to properly and with humanity stir us out of our former torpor! Yes, Vale to you Anne DEVESON! And to your daughter, too! And to Jonathan! (With the PLO on his side.)

    • December 14, 2016 8:02 pm

      Oh dear, the PLO! That was interesting wasn’t it – and so locates his life in time.

      Yes, you’re right about Deveson – she was a feminist but she was also for all people in need. And I had missed her Alheimer’s diagnosis too, though when I did some research for this post I found a few articles dated around 2014 about it.

  6. ian darling permalink
    December 15, 2016 12:47 am

    That is very sad news. I must try and look up Tell Me I’m Here which does sound like a book that is necessary to read.

    • December 15, 2016 2:54 am

      It’s getting old now Ian but I think it would still hold up. A very moving read.

  7. December 15, 2016 3:10 am

    What a lovely tribute. So very sad her daughter died too. A double whammy.

    • December 15, 2016 3:14 am

      It sure is Stefanie. Strange how these things happen sometimes. Tough for the remaining family to have two funerals to manage and go through.

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