Gillian Mears often likened herself to a Clarence Valley butcherbird, a creature filled with beautiful song who could also peck out the eyes of fledglings.
I have put off writing this book response for weeks now. Reading Leaping Into Waterfalls: The Enigmatic Gillian Mears by Bernadette Brennan was such a tremendous example of how to write a compassionate biography, that I wanted to do it justice. However a combination of our Covid Christmas and a strong desire to be done with 2021, has led me to realise that the thing I really want, is for all of you to be convinced that if you only read one biography in 2022, then this is it!
Leaping Into Waterfalls is a fascinating exploration of the indefatigable life of Australian writer, Gillian Mears. I read it during AusReadingMonth in the middle of my Australian women writers biography binge. It was heady stuff, compelling and mesmerising, in much the same way as watching the proverbial train wreck. Gillian made many curious, odd and often self-destructive choices throughout her life, but she made them with gusto! Nothing was half-arsed. Whatever disaster may have been in wait around the next corner, she ran into full pelt.
However, those of you across the waters may be asking, who on earth is Gillian Mears?
Mears (21 July 1964 – 16 May 2016) was a writer of short stories and novels, who tragically died young after seventeen years of living with multiple sclerosis. She was only 51.
Everything about Gillian was intense, which is maybe why, in the past, I have not responded well to Mears’ writing. (A couple of times in my life, I have been temporarily sucked into the orbit of someone who lives for intense drama. A peaceful soul like me can only go through someone else’s (often self-inflicted) dramas so many times before the need to protect myself kicks in). Yet, I found Mears’ life story enthralling. Safety at a distance perhaps?
Brennan has done an extraordinary job bringing together all the material archived in the 154 boxes at the State Library of NSW as well as the many interviews she did with 65 family, friends and colleagues. Gillian kept everything – paintings, letters, cards, photos, diaries, bird feathers, dingo fur, hours of recordings, family history notes, text messages from her phone plus notes to her future biographer!
In October, I had the good fortune to sit in on a zoom conversation, hosted by Readings Bookshop in Melbourne, between Bernadette Brennan and Ramona Koval (for a full recap of the talk check out Lisa’s post here). One of her comments was about how Gillian kept everything close as it gave her a sense of control of her life. Yet she regularly played hard and fast with other people’s boundaries. Many of her friends and family were deeply hurt when she sold her first lot of letters and papers to the State Library, including ones they had written to her, without permission. Others were upset when she wrote about them in one of her stories.
She had an incredible ability to rub people the wrong way, then forget about it. She also had an incredible ability to draw people into her charmed circle. Brennan felt that Mears clung onto her childhood understanding of herself and that the ego she often displayed covered up a deep fragility. Traits many creative types seem to share.
Her adult life consisted of many intense, co-dependent relationships, even as she pushed against and away from them, desperate to be comfortable with her independent self. This was just one example of the many contradictory impulses at play in Gillian’s life.
When she was diagnosed with MS, she believed that she could beat it. This strong sense of denial led her into many self-destructive ‘health’ programs that almost killed her. As I said earlier, a train wreck in the making, but still, I couldn’t help but admire her bravery and determination.
At the end of the interview with Koval, Brennan was asked if she would have been friends with Gillian if she was still alive. Brennan’s carefully worded response was that she respected Gillian ‘but wouldn’t want to get to close to her‘. I suspect Mears’ fierce energy could drain that of those around her. Filtered through Brennan’s compassionate gaze, this intenisty was palpable but benignly diluted.
One of the fascinating aspects of Mears’ life and work, was the who’s who of the Australian literary world that she rubbed shoulders with. Drusilla Modjeska, Bruce Pascoe, Gerard Murnane, Helen Garner, Kate Grenville, David Malouf, Tom Flood, Gabrielle Lord, Dorothy Porter, Fiona McGregor, Stephanie Dowrick, Beth Yahp, Jill Hickson, Gaby Naher, Beverley Farmer, Tom Carment, Ivor Indyk, Jane Palfreyman, and Inga Simpson….just to name a few! These friendships and connections are worthy of an entire post on their own.
I could write an equally long discourse on her literary influences – Australian and international. But I will let you discover this for yourself.
Bernadette Brennan has written a biography that is a sensitive yet honest account of Gillian’s life and work, and I have to say, I think it is one of the best biographies about a writer that I have ever read. I hope this quick response convinces you to read it for yourself. If you love biographies that dig deep into the life of the subject plus also provide oodles of insights into the writing process for each significant work, then look no further. It may not have convinced me to attempt any more books by Mears, but I will definitely read more biographies by Brennan. This book is a keeper.
To get another author’s view of Gillian and the extraordinary work created by Brennan, check out Drusilla Modjeska’s piece in Inside Story.
Epigraphs: Brennan has include three quotes to start our journey into Gillian’s life. One Mears transcribed into her journal, one from someone who knew her and one that sums up her work.
My own belief is that one regards oneself, if one is a serious writer, as an instrument for experiencing. Life – all of it – flows this instrument and is distilled through it into works of art. How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all our complexity, self-doubt, extravagance of feeling, guilt, joy, the slow freeing of the self to its full capacity for action and creation, both as human being and as artist, we have to know all we can about each other, and we have to be willing to go naked.May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude (1973), transcribed by Mears 21 January 1997
Often the gap between the social person and the writing is great. In Gillian it was very close.David Malouf (March 2019)
In ‘life’, I don’t want to be reduced to my work. In ‘work’, I don’t want to be reduced to my life.Susan Sontag, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks 1964-1980 (2012)
Title: Leaping Into Waterfalls: The Enigmatic Gillian Mears Author: Bernadette Brennan ISBN: 9781760879785 Imprint: Allen & Unwin Published: September 2021 Format: Trade Paperback Pages: 344
- This post was written in the area we now call the Blue Mountains within the Ngurra [country] of the Dharug and Gundungurra peoples.
11 thoughts on “Leaping Into Waterfalls | Bernadette Brennan #AWWbiography”
Thanks for this thoughtful review. I was in two minds about whether I would like this book but I think you have convinced me to give it a try. I loved Foal’s Bread and The Mint Lawn.
I hope you do try it Kim. Brennan really did an extraordinary job.
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TBH I would much rather read a bio that admits a writer’s flaws than one which doesn’t address them.
I do have a copy of this but whether I get round to reading it next year I do not know… I am eagerly anticipating Nathan Hobby’s bio of Katharine Susannah Prichard due out in March and that will probably be my first LitBio of 2022.
Happy New Year, Brona, stay safe and well, and happy reading in 2022.
I probably wasn’t clear enough on that point Lisa. Brennan does indeed address Mears’ flaws; she had a lot to work with! But it was done so respectfully and with consideration of those still alive – it was not a hatchet job or gossipy or vindictive in any way though.
I also have Nathan’s bio on order at work, but I suspect the Mary Gaunt one I put on order before Christmas will turn up first for me.
No, it is me who hasn’t been clear enough. I knew that this *is* a book that addresses the flaws, and respectfully at that, and I also know that this would have taken courage because Mears has a sort of hallowed place in the literary hearts of many.
I was thinking of a couple of bios that I’ve read where they were written by friends or admirers and they lacked the rigorous authenticity that I want. But I didn’t make that clear in my original comment, sorry!
Ahhh understood! Bio’s written by sons & daughters can be very uneven indeed.
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I have this book but have not read it yet. I have MS but after 13 years of injections three times a week it never progressed much. Just some numbness. I think I’m okay with hearing her story, I have only read Foal’s Bread quite a few years ago but it and she have stuck in my mind.
My dad also has MS so I understand your trepidation about approaching this book. My dad has the slow progressing kind whereas Gillian had a more aggressive type. I found her denial more confronting than the descriptions of her MS. Glad to hear your treatment has done the job at slowing things down for you. Thank you for sharing your story.