Having reviewed Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha woman Ali Cobby Eckermann’s poetry collection, Inside my mother (my review) for Lisa’s ANZlitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 2017, I decided to also read her 2012 memoir, Too afraid to cry. It filled in a lot of gaps, which is not necessary to appreciate or comprehend the poetry but which does deepen the understanding.
The memoir’s dedication starts with the lines:
this is a poetic memoir
a story of healing
not burdened by blame
And that is pretty well what it is. It’s not an angry book, so much as a sorrowful one. Sorrow about the abuses and losses that affected her childhood and early adulthood, in particular. The sorrow starts early, when she’s young, and abused. She writes of her uncle rubbing her leg inappropriately, and progressing to assault, though she doesn’t say that because she’s only 7 years old. However, while she may not have the language to analyse what was happening to her, she does have the language to describe the feelings:
I felt the icy wind inside my head begin to blow. I could not move. The icy wind is very dangerous.
This “icy wind” becomes a metaphor throughout the book for the abuse, for her memory of it, and for its impact on her psyche until she can no longer cry – “the ice block had turned to stone, and now there was no moisture left inside me”. Hence the title of the memoir.
So, to summarise the book before I delve any further, Too afraid to cry is the story of a young indigenous baby adopted by a non-indigenous family. It’s a good loving family, with parents who, unable to have children, adopted four – two from the mission – and fostered another. But this family, as loving as it is, is a deeply religious one which does not understand the pain experienced by children from a different culture to its own. The result is that Eckermann is left to contend with racism and abuse that she, too, does not initially understand. Here, for example, is a schoolyard experience:
[I] didn’t notice that they had begun to form a circle around me, but I did notice that the icy wind was blowing inside my head and was starting to freeze my guts. Someone held me while other hands pulled my underpants down. There was a strange noise in my ears, like a faraway scream, but I could still hear the sounds of those doing the laughing and teasing. They said they wanted to know if I was the same as other girls. Someone laughed, saying they didn’t know if ‘boongs’ were different. I was frozen with the icy wind roaring through my body. I didn’t want to know what a ‘boong’ was.
Note the “icy wind” again. As childhood turns to adolescence, Eckermann, who had been an excellent student, begins to withdraw from her family and turns instead to alcohol and drugs to cope with the pain and sense of disconnect. It’s not a surprising story, but it’s a useful one for those who don’t understand what disconnection from one’s own culture can do, particularly in a society where difference is not tolerated. Eckermann learns much later, apparently, of the ridicule her adoptive mother had faced for having aboriginal children.
Anyhow, gradually, after many experiences, painful ones, risky ones and some more positive, Eckermann finds her way to her own culture, and healing begins:
Slowly the stone inside me turned to ice and then the ice began to melt. I felt real tears on my face for the first time in my adult life.
What’s remarkable about the memoir – something you may have guessed from what I’ve written – is her ability to get into her head at the time, to write from the point of view of the age and person she was when the things she describes happened, rather writing them as memory that she is now reflecting and commenting on. Of course the telling of the experience, the choosing of which experiences to tell, is a form of commentary, but I’m sure you get my point.
The memoir is remarkable for other reasons too. It’s told in 92 short anecdotal chapters, which are divided into four parts. The style is spare, with short, simple sentences. This is a book which shows rather than tells. Much of the commentary is conveyed through poems inserted between some of the chapters, such as “Heroin” between Chapters 45 and 46. It’s a short poem, like most of hers, and uses repetition and powerful wordplay on the word “arms”, to invoke prostitution, loving and heroin. The last stanza reads:
in their arms
a modern world.
Some of the poems appear again – the same or sometimes changed* – in Inside my mother.
Another aspect of the memoir, which adds to its sense of almost mythic universality, though is probably also done to protect individuals, is her minimal use of actual names. Her siblings, for example, include Big brother, Foster brother, and some relations are Aunty and Uncle. She does though name her mothers.
Too afraid to cry is an innovative and evocative memoir, which manages to convey hurt and pain, truthfully, but with a generosity that is humbling.
* Changed, I think. I’m writing this in California, and my copy of Inside my mother is back in Australia.