In 2013, I wrote my first “personal essay”. I told the world that I frequently felt acutely lonely. Even then, two years before Slate declared there were too many of these “solo acts of sensational disclosure” and four years before Jia Tolentino wrote a piece for the New Yorker carrying the headline “The personal-essay boom is over”, I feared there was something potentially unseemly about airing my private agonies.
The author of the Slate article, Laura Bennett, called essays such as How I Came to Forgive My Rapist (Vox) and My Gynaecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina (xoJane) “professional dead ends, journalistically speaking”.
The subject of loneliness seemed safer ground. Nevertheless, I buttressed my personal narrative with research, interviews with experts, and the stories of multiple others who had also felt loneliness’s stab of despair.
I was nauseous for weeks before its publication in Good Weekend magazine (headline: “All the Lonely People”). After all, what sort of crazy person was I, revealing such a thing? The stigma attached to loneliness remains immense. By admitting to it, wasn’t I admitting something else too — that I am a social failure, a human failure?
If I’m a crazy person, at least I’m a crazy person who struck a chord: the response to the article was extraordinary. Hundreds of people sent messages thanking me for telling their story, for making them feel less alone in their own dark, cold bunkers.
Three years later, Good Weekend carried my second piece of personal journalism on the cover. Again, I’d agonised over whether I should write it or not. As with my piece on loneliness, I threaded interviews and research through it. As with the earlier piece, it seemed to me that, by writing it, I was admitting I was a failure. The headline was “Childless: how women without kids are treated in 2016”. I wrote of how I had very much wanted to have children but it had not happened. Wrong men, bad timing and insufficient courage when I finally started to think about having a child on my own.
Our society has strong feelings about women who do not have children. There exists an invisible line that estranges us both emotionally and, often physically, from the rest of the society. We are other. We are “selfish” for having chosen not to have children. We hear, again and again, an exclusionary clause at the start of other women’s sentences: “as a mother, I …” Our opinions are devalued, our worth as a woman unconfirmed, our stake in the future non-existent. It is impossible not to take on some of that external narrative as our own.
The essay was again met with enormous reader feedback. Again, the message was “thank you: I feel less alone”.
On a Friday afternoon in mid-2017 I nearly fainted on the floor of the Sydney Morning Herald newsroom when I realised my third personal essay had gone live. I had thought my piece on being a childless woman would be the last I would write exposing myself; I wanted to pull myself back into privacy.
But this was a next-level story. I had recently come out of a 15-month relationship with a con artist. This flim-flam man had led me to believe he was an affluent farmer and property developer. He had spurred me to think we might have a future together. He turned out to be nothing more than a fantasist, a small, hollow man with a great capacity to inflict suffering. After I dumped him – his constant cancellations and bizarre, contradictory stories had driven me into an unsustainable state of high anxiety – I discovered he had been with another woman for the duration of our relationship. I discovered he had a criminal record, was at the time bankrupt, and had left a trail of grief and broken relationships behind him.
I had not lost money – he never asked for it – but I had lost my trust in myself and the world. The Good Weekend article – again a cover story, “Love lies bleeding” – did not include expert voices, research or other people’s stories. It was my story alone. It became a sensation. For weeks after publication I was assailed with messages from readers. Many told me their own devastating stories of relationships with such characters.
That third essay became my book, Fake.
I have joked with friends about my tragic trifecta of essays. Get the violins out, I say. Look: a lonely childless woman who fell for a con artist. Look at the label I’ve affixed to myself. I really am crazy!
But midway through writing Fake I came to understand something: my three essays were actually one, separated only in time. They form a continuum. They tell the story of how one woman’s life has unfolded at a point in the 21st century. Mine has not been an uncommon trajectory.
In my 20s and 30s, I spent too long in relationships that were doomed to fail (who hasn’t?). I travelled for work. I lived in multiple cities as I built my career – Brisbane (twice), London, Melbourne (twice), Hong Kong. In each city, I knew no one and battled loneliness as I built social circles. It was years before I realised how detrimental that transience had been to the growth of substantial and stable relationships, to the sense of belonging in a community, to the chance to meet a man with whom I could establish a family before it was too late.
By the time I landed in Sydney I had not met a partner. I had just turned 40. By then, most of my contemporaries were busy with young families. My childhood friends, my school friends, my university friends, my first-job friends were all in other cities. Establishing new networks at that stage in your life as a single woman is a challenge. Sydney is a transient city. Friends I have made since I arrived have moved elsewhere.
And to meet a partner? The statistics are grim for women who have hit 40. No woman in the western world doubts the existence of a demographic black hole: there is barely an available heterosexual man over the age of 30, never mind an available decent man.
I had been single and lonely on and off for years when this unsavoury character contacted me on a dating website. Is it any surprise I should have been more vulnerable to his manipulations, to stick with him for longer than sensible?
I see now that my three essays have been one story told in chapters. The label “lonely childless woman who fell for a con artist” may be factually correct but texturally, not so. It does not tell the truth of my story at all. I am anything but a poor damaged soul. My story is not one of failure. I have a rich and interesting life. I have work that I adore. I have dear friends, although too many in other cities.
As I wrote Fake, all the while grappling with the sanity, or insanity, of exposing myself again and on a grander scale, I started a document I titled “Why Do This”. I threw thoughts and quotes into it as I came upon them. Writers, of course, provided the greatest wisdom. I loved what Anais Nin had to say: “Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities.” And I found solace in the words of Jorge Luis Borges: “all that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”
But Oprah Winfrey encapsulated everything for me, and more succinctly: “Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.” I may not have written my last personal essay. There is much more to be said.
• Stephanie Wood is a journalist and the author of Fake, available now through Vintage (PRH)