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.
And 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.