MEMOIR: My Friend Fox, Heidi Everett, Ultimo Press, $27.99
Heidi Everett has an exquisite turn of phrase. Reading this book for a second time, I was often caught short by the sheer poise of her sentences and paragraphs. She drops a disconcerting word at the perfect moment but never expects it to do more than its job. She probes raw emotion without ever needing to be shrill or histrionic.
Heidi Everett has written a profound account of debilitating mental illness. Credit:
You get the impression that here is a writer accustomed to observing the world while herself being largely overlooked. The result is more profound than many accounts of debilitating mental illness. Even in its darkest moments, of which there are many, My Friend Fox is somehow uplifting. The book holds the reader tenderly by the hand whilst at the same time looking you dead in the eye.
My Friend Fox begins in a residential mental health facility. Anyone who has visited such a place, or been admitted to one, must wonder why their physical environment needs to be quite so bleak. “I have one white sheet covering a blue plastic mattress that farts if you sit down too quickly.” Everett daubs her canvas with these bright blotches of misery: even her mattress is a form of discomfort. She is enclosed rather than held: “within this chemical straitjacket I am the final tiny babushka.”
The description of mealtime in a psych ward is scarcely human. Is the cuisine, if you can call it that, in such places made deliberately worse than other hospitals as a kind of incentive for people to get well? I have no idea. Surely if you want people to be comfortable within the human community, the place to start is treating them as humans. Everett does not find healing so much as she learns to play the system well enough to get released. Mental illness, let’s not forget, is seldom evidence of a lack of either intelligence or self-awareness.
Everett shares the personal story (“quite a few circles round the sun”) that brought her to the brink. It is not a diagnosis. Part of the power of this book is that it doesn’t settle for explanations and spends precious little time on the technical terms that have blanketed the author. Her story is a series of confusions, a list of places where Everett does not so much live as where she does not quite fit in. There is a deep emotional homelessness in this book.
Her family came from a small rural community in south Wales and emigrated to Australia, eventually landing in the struggling Melbourne suburb of Doveton. Everett observes wryly that there wasn’t a dove in sight. She was bullied at school. Then a rare turn of financial luck enabled her to have a small horse, Bobbi. Later there will be a dog, Tigger. On many occasions, a bond with nature is the most significant and life-giving connection in Everett’s life.
This is where the fox comes in. Some of Everett’s writing sent me back to the American poet Mary Oliver (1935-2018) who chose a solitary life in which nature became a kind of primary community. She wrote a number of poems about foxes, creatures that are surely real and, at the same time, point her imagination beyond the real.
An example is the poem Fox in which a fox that “opened like a flower” is present to her mind as she chases words as they run across her page. Everett writes “if we all started viewing mental ill-health as a little red fox, perhaps we could find ways to tame our unease”.
The fox helps her accept the wild places her health has driven her and to celebrate self-acceptance in her “battle for peace”. Do not be deceived by the size of this book. It is big in all the ways that matter.
Michael McGirr works for Caritas Australia. His new book, Ideas to Save Your Life, will be published by Text in November.
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