A Voice That Is Not My Own

I was told, prior to beginning this project, that we should welcome the chance to be challenged. That we, as academics, historians, teachers, gatekeepers to knowledge, will be resisted. That we may find ourselves in a position where we must cautiously navigate the work we are doing. Working with an all-female rehabilitation and recovery centre, Jarrah House, I was conscious that I may be somewhat out of place. That I may even represent an intrusion into a safe space. That I would be a would inspire suspicion, apprehension and a disruption to routine: routine which is central to feeling safe, secure and stable. These feelings of being challenged are important: they remind me of the role I play in promoting change.
In this space, I am emblematic of a system which, in part, has restricted the voice of these women. I am the dominant voice, in a space where we are all conscious of my privilege.
I was originally going to title this blog post “A Moral Oral Tale”; I was going to write about the importance of my historical method, my purpose, the ethics of talking about and with, women with addiction. I was going to write about the importance of oral history in understanding our history (PSA: it still is!). It took me a while to realise that this frame of thinking – objective, treating the people I work with as ‘subjects’ or conduits of the past – is entirely counterproductive to the work Jarrah House does. It is counterproductive to the shift we need, as a society, to reshape our understanding and stigmatisation of, and relationship with, physical and mental illness. I was going to conduct an historical approach which distanced myself, and my voice, from the lived, often traumatic experiences that Jarrah House works with. Yet, we need some of that subjectivity which History is often afraid of. We need the humanity, the empathy, the desire to understand. In doing so, we can be a part of change.
Thus, we come back to voice. Agency, autonomy and control over voice are vital to the ways we navigate our social landscapes. By all means, I will be using oral history at the crux of my project. But, it won’t be to methodically report on objective facts, statistics around addiction, or quantitative measures of lived experience. It won’t be to distance myself from potential traumas and hard realities. It won’t be to accomplish something easy and safe.
In short, it won’t be to deliver my historical platform, or my voice. This project is more than a Moral Oral Tale. It is a platform to promote the vision of Jarrah House: social justice, de-stigmatisation, the gendered experiences of addiction, feminism. A vision which should be a vision we all are striving for. It is a platform to engage with the voice of the people in this space most silenced. Silenced by systems, by bureaucracy, by their addiction, and if we’re being honest, by men.
I was talking to my father about this project and the nature of addiction itself. Let me make it clear now: I’m no expert about addiction. But it was significant to see the conversation of addiction (read: a conversation about social justice) having relevance in my life. Having relevance in the lives of others. He asked me, “Why would it help to read other people’s stories? Don’t they just make you miserable?”
Whoa. It struck me how relevant this question was in everyday conversations around this project; why would we want to share in someone else’s experiences, when it can make us sadder? This question, since then, has remained with me. Why does it help to read others’ stories?
It cannot be the old saying, that ‘misery loves company’. Misery is too self-absorbed and all-consuming to want much company. We don’t read stories for the sake of reading of them. We don’t have a vested interest in other people’s lives – the high and the low – to make us sad.
I don’t have an answer yet. Maybe this project will take a step closer to answering that question. Hearing someone’s story is, in essence, an oral history. So, in acknowledging I have no answers, I would take a stab at answering the question:
This is the way that misery does love company: People, when reading something this significant, are relieved to learn that they are not alone in suffering. That they are part of something larger. In this case, a societal plague – an epidemic of children, an epidemic of women, an epidemic of families. It promotes voice. Agency. Autonomy. Respect. It validates emotion; it reminds us of our human histories. In speaking with people at Jarrah House, it is evident that others’ experiences help with an emotional struggle. In writing these histories, we are promoting empathy; in reading these stories, we are wanting to empathise and understand. And, if you ask me, this has such a beautiful opportunity for us as historians, as teachers, as learners, and above all, as humans.