Books Alive is an Australian Government initiative developed through the Australia Council for the Arts, the Australian Government’s arts funding and advisory body. Its aim? To encourage Australians to pick up a book and read.
As an ex-English teacher and avid reader, I love books. They feed me – intellectually and emotionally. I was delighted to share my family’s passion for reading in the Sunday Telegraph last wekeend (if you click on this jpeg image below you should be able to read an enlarged version).
When did my love affair with books begin?
When I was two years old I was badly burnt. I received third degree burns all down my right arm and neck. As is often the case with burn victims, I also suffered two major secondary infections – german measles and the potentially life threatening golden staph.
My Great Grandmother burnt me when I went with my Grandmother, her daughter, to visit her in Tasmania. She poured hot cooking oil down me as I set nearby watching breakfast being prepared. As a small girl I was always told this was an accident, yet I questioned why no one ever spoke of this women again, let alone saw her. Why hadn’t we forgiven her I wondered, after all, accidents do happen. It was only when I was older that the truth emerged. Great Grandma had been unstable and had shown signs of violence towards my beloved Grandmother when she was a small girl too. Everyone felt instinctively that she had done this to me deliberately.
I don’t remember whether it was done to me deliberately and ultimately, it does not make any difference. It happened.
What do I remember? Despite being so small, I do remember moments of this event, in particular my Grandmother’s face as she came through the doorway in response to my initial screams. I recall thinking I must be very badly hurt as she looked stricken.
I remember my Doctor too, as I was hospitalized for almost 6 months he became a central figure in my life. Dr Jemisson was kind, gentle, and doting. In his eyes, I could do no wrong. I was his special girl. Heaven help any nurse who dared keep me waiting! I remember gifts: in particular books. Perhaps this was the start of my love affair with words, as words so often soothed me to sleep -literally. I loved being read to. I escaped pain and boredom through tales of Princesses with power and through hearing about the adventures of other little girls who faced great dangers and emerged triumphant.
I soothed myself with words too. I could not yet read of course but I would talk to myself when frightened, repeating over and over the mantra “You’ll be ok, you’ll be all right.” It was my secret spell – and I would caste it to give me strength.
And my strength pulled me through. And I kept my arm. It just looked different to those of my friends with its red, raised, twisted flesh. It’s flap of skin near my elbow that looked taunt when my arm was stretched out, and hung loose when my arm was bent. Yet as a small child this difference did not concern me – I was so much more than my body!
I was a busy, bossy little girl. I had a younger sister to organise, lollies to eat, Barbies to collect and of course, once school started, more books to devour. Childhood for me was not about my body. Rather my body was merely and instrument to carry me from one adventure to the next. When I wanted to join my friends at the beach, I just had Mum cut the toes out of one of my father’s socks and popped that on to protect my arm from the sun. Problem solved!
Yet by the time I turned 10 years of age, things definitely changed. I started noticing boys. And I started noticing the girls the boys noticed. At school the boys preferred the alpha girls – popular, pretty, often good at sport. I was a pretty enough girl and had a few close friends, but as I was more interested in reading than netball, I was definitely not alpha material. It wasn’t just at school though that I received messages about what defined beauty and sexual attractiveness. My Barbies, Charlie’s Angels, ABBA…all taught me that to be a desired woman, I would need to be thin, beautiful and immaculately groomed. No scars allowed.
I entered adolescence and, like most girls, began a new internal conversation. I was no longer casting spells to heal myself. Instead, I was engaging in darker, self destructive thoughts and telling myself that I was not enough. Not pretty enough, not thin enough, not popular enough. Growing up into an adolescent girl, my feelings of inadequacy due to my scarring became quite overwhelming; I was still a bright and ambitious but my main preoccupation was with my scars and how best I could hide them from the world.
And as we choose to believe we are less because of how we look, and our inability to conform to a perfect image, we become less.
I hid. I hid my arm. I wore skivvies underneath my summer uniform, wore jumpers all year round, I avoided pools and beaches. My arm no longer seemed small – it seemed enormous. A huge, horrible, disfigured limb I would be forced to drag through what had been my oh- so promising life.
Yes, teenage girls are good at drama.
I vividly recall by the time I was 15 day dreaming about what my life would be like if I had not been burnt. I was tall, had very long legs and fancied that I could have been a bikini model if it had not been for my arm. How telling that as an adolescent my dream job was to be a bikini model! For many adolescents being some type of model is the dream job. It is not the actual job itself that appeals; it is the kudos, the knowledge that your body has been declared special. Worthy of attention. “If I looked that way, then they would love me…”
It was only in my adult years as an English teacher that I finally explored ways in which I might come to terms with my burns, indeed in many ways teaching forced me to come to terms with them as I was now a role model. If I could not accept myself, how could I possibly ask my students to accept themselves?
I searched once again for soothing words. And found them in the writing of women. Women like Naomi Wolf in the Beauty Myth – “We don’t need to change our bodies, we need to change the rules.” In women like Sofia Loren. “Nothing makes a woman more beautiful than the belief that she is beautiful”, and in the words of the young women I now taught, “I love how you wear your scars Miss, you don’t let them wear you.” Words healed me. And my self-talk became, once more, focused on my strengths rather than my perceived weaknesses.
I was ok. It did turn out all right.
In fact – life is magnificent. And I am a shiny girl. So here’s to all the writers who have healed and inspired me through their words.
Books can do more than merely entertain. They can help shape us.
So, this week my dear readers, if you have not already done so, check out the professional library link (“My Library Thing”) on this blog and indulge in some of my favourite writers on all things girl related.
Read. And read to your children.
P.S I’d love to hear which books have helped shape you…