I was at dinner with a group of women recently, all either authors or columnists, and we began to discuss the pressure that writers, female writers in particular, feel under to tell their story.
Men are allowed to talk about their art as a separate entity from themselves, as something that can and should be critiqued on its merits rather, than the authorial intention behind it.
But all too often women are conflated with the characters in their work, as if they are incapable of creating fictional worlds.
The questions I’m presented with in interviews are often brutally blunt, journalists asking me about my issues with eating and experiences of sexual violence with as much ease as if we are discussing the weather.
“When you had bulimia, how many times did you make yourself get sick every day? “
I’m not going to answer that.
“Tell us exactly what happened that night.”
I don’t want to talk about that.
“What message do you have for young women who are struggling with eating disorders or to those who have been the victim of sexual violence?”
I am sorry, I want to tell those women. I am sorry for your pain, I am sorry for what you are going through.
I wish I could make it better, I wish I could tell you that everything will be alright.
But we both know that’s not always the case.
I don’t blame the journalists.
They want an easy hook that will grab the reader’s attention and I chose to be complicit in that.
I chose to give the public a part of myself when I told my story but I didn’t anticipate how easily it could be used to define me. This is who Louise O’ Neill is.
This is what she is.
But I am more than just a single story.
“You’re so lucky,” I was told at a panel event a while ago.
“Not everyone is fortunate enough to have such an exciting past as you have had.”
I think of myself at 19, my bones so thick with grief that they feel too heavy to move, silenced by my own inability to say no.
I don’t cry.
Any tears are caught in the back of my throat, congealing with guilt and shame.
I think of myself at 21, sitting at a table in the hospital’s dining room with other girls who are as whittled skinny and red of knuckle as I am.
We grasp cups of steaming-hot tea in our hands.
We drink it black.
And we watch each other pushing lettuce leaves around a plate, seeing who will eat the most today.
Wondering which of us will be weak. I continue to breathe.
My lungs will not give up.
My body refuses to wither away.
I live and I live and I live.
I look at myself in the mirror and I marvel at how young I am, and I say to myself, over and over again, this should not be my life.
But yes, yes. I am so very lucky.
Clearly I knew that one day that it would be the perfect springboard from which to launch a career in writing.
It was a long game, sure, but it’s sensible to be prepared.
I’ve heard variations on that comment since then, people accusing me of exploiting my past, or feminism, or cases of sexual violence in the media to increase my profile and it baffles me that my intentions could be so misunderstood.
When my first novel was about to be published, I made the decision to be honest about my own life experiences, because I refused to believe that my past was anything to be ashamed of.
I’m not stupid, I understood that talking about my eating disorder would draw more attention to the book and I wanted that.
I wanted both novels to be widely read and discussed, as I hoped that I could be play a small part in the conversation about how our culture treats and views women.
I did not do so as a cynical ploy to monetise my own suffering.
I don’t particularly like having to re-live trauma, wading voluntarily into the quicksand of sorrow that I spent years clawing my way out of.
I don’t enjoy the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach as I walk away from an interview, the dread the morning that the paper or magazine is published and you know that everyone in your life, your friends and family and neighbours, will be reading about your unhappiest moments over their morning coffee, the times you didn’t think you could go on, the moments you wished your heart would stop beating, so you could finally have some peace.
Yet, I know I’m not alone.
So many of us have those feelings. So many of us carry our pain, nursing it, and we act as if it doesn’t exist.
We are polite to one another, we smile and we tell each other that we’re grand and we’re looking forward to Christmas and we don’t mind the cold, as long as it doesn’t rain.
We don’t tell each other our secrets, because that would make us vulnerable and being vulnerable is dangerous.
So, we don’t talk. We stay quiet. We stay alone, because it’s easier to be alone and to pretend that we’re fine.
And we stay sick.
I don’t tell my story because I want to. I tell it because I have to.
I tell it because I want other women out there to feel free to do the same. I see them, queasy with fear, their mouths sewn shut with their want to be good and nice and likeable, and I want them to know that it’s okay to be honest.
Horror might have visited them, a spectre at their feast, but it’s not their fault. I want them to know that they have permission to tell their stories.
I want them to know that those stories are worthy of being heard.
I’ve told you my story.
Will you do me the honour of telling me yours?
So, we don’t talk. We stay quiet. We stay alone, because it’s easier to be alone and to pretend that we’re fine
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