An excerpt from Rage, a memoir-in-development.
I feel like I don’t belong, like I don’t know what anything means and I don’t know how to be. I feel depressed. This is phenomenology; this is the result of using a method that instructs you to suspend your belief in everything you thought was true. Total utter fucking confusion. Do I sit and chant all day, chant and walk all day, chant all the time under my breath carrying mala beads and wearing a red dash of paint on my head like a devotee, do I practice slow breathing, making myself stay awake while listening to commentary on a CD meant to literally change how I think, what do I do now? No fucking idea. I’m fat as fuck and my witness state left me within a few days of being out of the ashram. All that work for a few days’ pay-off. Ugh. What a load of bullshit. And lies. The Swami at Rikihia wasn’t at Woodstock, it was someone else entirely! And our mantras are all the same. I can’t forget or forgive that one, especially with their whole honesty is integral to being spiritual line. I spewed up my first glass of red wine and I’ve started hearing voices. Dead people.
It’s March, I’m back in Melbourne, but I’m still recovering from my ashram stay in India two months later. I’m officially malnourished and overweight—is this even possible? I look like an African child with a bulbous stomach after I’ve eaten. Except mine is half fat and half something else altogether. My newly acquired naturopath says I’ve got candida. Not of the vagina (phew) but of the stomach, so I’m on a cocktail of probiotics and other supplements. I’ve been prescribed a diet of no sugar, alcohol, grains, gluten and pretty much every vegetable that I would normally eat. So it’s all eggs, cabbage and herb mix from here on in. How bloody boring.
My dad’s partner leaves the light on in the good room for her dead mother every night and I know when she arrives at our Melbourne family home. I can feel her. Yesterday my dad’s best mate came over and his dead wife spoke to me and told me to tell him they would always be Shiva and Shakti and it was time for him to move on. I thought I was having psychotic flashback withdrawals from India and all the acid I’d consumed years earlier. But it turns out they did worship Shiva and Shakti—a construction worker with a beer gut and a penchant for gambling on horses and a skinny chain smoker who worshipped Hindu gods and goddesses. Wtf?! I was (almost) speechless. It’s great to be back hanging with my brother, we play happy families as if we believe it, I get everyone healthy again, my dad loses so much weight he has to get his pants taken in. His partner says he’s much happier when I’m around. I nod and smile. It’s all for show I think, all for the status of people believing he is the ideal man. She drinks too much. He works too much. There is no intimacy there, just greetings and him falling asleep on the couch.
Next to me is an aspiring actress. The teacher who sits across from the two of us, Sally, is a large woman with sparkling blue eyes and silver-white hair. I’m about to begin a twelve-month psychotherapeutic acting course called Character Creation in the lounge room of her apartment in suburban Melbourne. We have met once before when she interviewed me for a place in the course. I sat across from her at a white plastic table with wonky chairs in an Asian restaurant on the corner of Elgin and Swanston streets in Carlton. Her eyes slicing into me making me feel naked, unsheathed, seen. She told me I was playing a part, that my persona held my emotion in. She’s good I think to myself, very fucking good. But perhaps I’m pretty easy to read. A child’s picture book in large lettering.
I’m nervous and excited all at once. Ready again to attempt to get out of my head and further into my body and my emotions, to grow myself up. Sally’s place smells like essential oils and the faint aroma of her little dog, Luke. She gives me her self-devised booklet called Character Creation that will guide me through the next year. The first page is emblazoned with the words: Challenge yourself to explore the full range of your expressive potential. It’s Sunday, and from now on all my Sundays will be spent in this room from 9:45am sharp until 7:00pm. Eight hours. Three semesters. Thirty weeks; $2,650. Over the year, I will be given six characters I’ll have to learn to embody; six, because according to Carl Jung, there are six character types. I think it will be challenging, but I’ll rise to the occasion. I always think that. Sally says no matter what we may think, everything in life is about ourselves, the self and our relationship to the self. I nod in agreement but I’m dubious. Life isn’t just a solitary experience.
The first part of the class is psychoanalysis. Sally isn’t trained to psychoanalyse me but my best friend David did her course and he raves about it and her. Sally’s credentials are the usual pick-and-mix of new-age courses. She trained in voice dialogue and change consultancy which are based on various kinds of legit therapies like Gestalt but are run by people without the certified qualifications. Gestalt focuses on the here and now of experience and the self in relation to others. While Sally is not qualified to counsel or unravel me, she is a NIDA graduate—though in tech production, not directing as I expected. After NIDA she went on to study at the Drama Centre in London where she completed two years of the full-time actor’s course. Following that, she came back to Australia and set up the Drama Studio in Sydney in the late seventies. After twelve years there she moved to Melbourne and she’s been teaching Character Creation for the past ten years.
David—who is also Sally’s best friend—is my lover now, not just my best friend. We’re in an open relationship so he can be with men and I can be with women. It’s complicated, but so far it’s working out. I know I’ll never desire him like I desire women, which makes me feel guilty, but I do love him deeply, more than I’ve ever loved anyone. I always wanted to be in an open relationship but before David I was never with anyone willing to forgo monogamy. This way I get the best of both worlds. The beautiful women and the intimacy of a best friend turned lover all rolled into one. But I’ve got to admit our sex life isn’t the greatest. We have sex and it’s fun. I’m just not passionately engorged with lust so it leaves me feeling too in control, too conscious, too human; not enough animal. ‘Fun’ isn’t my definition of great sex, despite all the orgasms. Sally encourages us to have an open discourse about it and as a result we do more talking than two lesbians deciding on a sperm donor.
Our first class exercise with Sally is to identify our ‘super-objective’, what she defines as our reason to be or life goal. Every character we will inhabit over this course has one, she says. I decide that my personal super-objective, my reason to live, is to evoke change with my words. I feel way out of my depth next to the other student who attended the famed Victorian College of the Arts acting school. Sure, I’ve done spoken word poetry a few times, but I’m no actor, not even close. I tell myself that this will help me get into my emotions, that it’s the logical next step. Sally tells me I need to learn to breathe into my body. At first I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about. But as I’m talking she stops me and says, ‘Where did you go, what just happened? Why are you holding your breath?’ And I look down and notice that I’m clinging to the couch. Fingers clenched. Breath held in. Her questions make me hold my breath tighter but when I realise what I’m doing I let out a laugh. At least here, I’m actually learning to feel my body, rather than control it like I did in India, or how I’ve learnt to do it as a rational thinker my whole life.
Sally’s methods are unorthodox, to say the least. She uses her intuition and visual cues to unravel you, to get to the core of your dysfunctional patterns. Patterns that don’t allow the actor to access any part of their being, whether it be emotional, psychological or physical. She says she’s a transformational facilitator who enables the actor to recognise that every character lives inside them and that as human beings we have chosen to show up, to perform particular identities. We chose particular identities because they worked for us, our parents wanted us to be good at Maths or English, praised us for our dramatic skill and so we honed some parts of ourselves and put other areas aside. It makes sense to me.
When you’re a thinker you learn to inhabit and embody your self in a particular way. If you’re looking for it, it’s easy to see when people are in their heads or don’t want to be with what they’re feeling. At least that’s what Sally is teaching us. If I hold my breath, or cling to the couch, clip my words or my voice gets higher, I’m not here, I’m not in what she calls ‘current reality’; I’m not fully in the moment. Other people tap their foot, or the colour of their skin changes, their eyes get narrow or wide, some cry, others play with their nails or watch. Anything to distract themselves from the intensity of the emotion they are feeling. The fact that we are taught we are not our emotions, but are often aligned with our minds, means—in the words of philosopher Glen A. Mazis—that a lot of people at this time in history experience their emotions as alien forces which are very powerful and before which they are helpless. I’ve always felt like this, always been pushed to feel this. And laughed at when I eventually crack. Ha ha, you are weak. You’re pathetic. You’re just like your mum. And my mum is a total fucking powerhouse.
The first character out of six I am given to embody is a woman called Mona. Sally tells me I need to get user friendly with not-knowing. Translated to plain English, this means I have to get out of my habit and desire to always want to know intellectually and be OK with just being, and not knowing. To let myself, as philosopher Judith Butler would say, be in the thrall of my emotions and others. Not an easy task, let me tell you right now. Sally chooses the characters she gives us based on what she thinks you need to embody, to get us feeling into the places we keep at arm’s length. There’s a lot of trust involved and I’m a control freak. And I’m also, on reflection, always looking for someone else to tell me the answers, the way, who I’m meant to be. But this, this deferring to another is on purpose.
Mona is an uber feminine, delusional woman who thinks she fathered James Dean’s baby and is intent on making her community believe her. Think Marilyn Monroe-esque feminine. In acting parlance, her action is to make everyone believe she had James Dean’s baby. Her objective is to be remembered as James Dean’s greatest love and her super-objective is to live in a world where she is destined for fame and the fairy-tale of a one true love. Sally gives me this character to get me out of my masculine default position, to allow me to lose control. She orders me to start wearing dresses. To pretend I have oil everywhere so I roll into my skin, and to breathe into my body so I can start feeling all my emotions again. I revise my super-objective to be: To live as though life were a beautiful woman wrapped around my face coming across my cheeks as I scream. It sounds full on, I know, but I like full on. It makes me feel alive. And I love the taste of women. Sally talks about David constantly. If she were twenty years younger, they’d be together, I think silently to myself every time she mentions him… which is at least once a week.
Sally is constantly telling me to breathe into my body; that when anything challenging happens and I have to feel anything other than happiness or joy, I stop breathing. All so I feel as little as humanly possible. I leave my body, the flow of my breath for the safety of my head. When I get into this space, into my head like this, it’s as if I am watching myself exist. So it’s not that I don’t feel, it’s that I don’t let myself feel much. Just like I was taught. Just like thinkers should be. Mind-centred and emotionally detached.
‘Where did you go,’ Sally asks?
What do you mean, I’m here, nowhere. I’m here, I say. And then I freeze up, my face drops and the tears come.
Brigitte Lewis is currently writing her memoir of her travel and spiritual journeys, including her time in ashrams and exploring body works and other methods. She is a scholarly, literary and poetic writer. She has written on a range of diverse topics including feminisms and feminist digital activisms, lesbian and other types of sex and desire, and cosmopolitanism.