Adele Dumont reviews The Girls by Chloe Higgins
By Chloe Higgins
Reviewed by ADELE DUMONT
The title of Chloe Higgins’ debut memoir is shorthand for her two younger sisters, victims of a fatal car accident when the author is aged seventeen. Her family avoids using their individual names, explains Higgins, so that ‘they are separate from us, an abstract thing on which we need not hang our pain’. In her frank depictions of drug use, sex work, mental illness, and her fraught relationship with her bereaved mother, Higgins might be described as unflinching in her approach. But the telling of this story is equally characterised by a flinching: from the memory of her sisters; from her own pain.
‘In reality, you speak of everything except those who have just died’, says Higgins of the immediate wake of her sisters’ deaths. This reality is mirrored structurally in Higgins’ narrative: the girls themselves are notably absent figures until late in the book. According to Higgins, ‘The most painful part of grief isn’t immediately after the unthinkable happens, but a little later, once the space empties and other people go back to their normal lives’. Her focus is squarely on the aftermath of the accident: how this single cataclysmic event has reverberated through her own life. In this, it bears comparison to Roxane Gay’s Hunger or Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s I Love Elena. The violence at the heart of those memoirs is inflicted, and not accidental, but all three are compelling accounts of how trauma can manifest not only psychologically but also bodily.
In what Higgins calls her ‘descent’, ‘slowly, the line of what I will and won’t do moves further and further from my pre-accident self’. She fleshes out this gradual unravelling in meticulous and moving detail. In chapters which shift back and forth in time, and which traverse continents (Kolkata, Manhattan, Wollongong) we follow the narrator as her ‘attempts at escape turn into obliterations’. Drugs allow her to live ‘in a world separate from the one the girls have been taken from’, one where ‘everything is all extremes and opposites’. She uses sex as distraction; as an attempt to satisfy her ‘skin hunger’, but ultimately this behaviour leaves her shrouded in shame, and further disconnected from her own body. Eventually, she is admitted into a psychiatric ward. Higgins closes her account of her time in the ward with a skilful shifting into conditional tense; a technique Lisa Knopp calls ‘perhapsing’(1). Here, she draws together what could have been; foreshadows what is yet to come; identifies her incapacity to express her pain as catastrophic ; and deems such expression critical to healing. ‘If I had my time on the ward over’, she writes:
I would have shown them what I couldn’t tell them.
And then when someone came to me, unable to express themselves, I would know what they needed: the space to perform their emotions.
And maybe this story would have ended more appropriately than injecting heroin into my veins and letting strangers insert body parts inside me because I didn’t know how to say please, someone hold me.
This is what grief looks like: an inability to speak. (p.131)
As well as charting the author’s gradual unravelling, The Girls traces her incremental growth. Higgins rejects the idea that the grieving process is innate or linear, instead framing grieving as something that we need to learn; like learning to ride a bike, it involves ’falling over and fumbling as we go’. She must learn how to perform her grief; ‘to teach myself to cry at the appropriate times’. Slowly, she learns how to navigate her shame and guilt, and to balance her own need for space with her mother’s competing need for closeness. She learns how to be gentle with herself, and how to live healthily. While the book’s temporal and geographical transitions might indicate a certain vitality, part of Higgins’ growth in fact comes from moving away from this restlessness and towards a place of stillness. Sitting still, she says, is ‘the hardest thing to do’; she finds it is ‘little things’ that allow her to anchor herself: reading, walking, running, swimming in nature. This recalls Jessie Cole’s memoir, Staying, in which the natural world is grounding, stopping Cole from surrendering to a state of grief that has the power to destroy her.
All memoirists must grapple with the fallibility of their memories, but this dilemma is all the more acute for Higgins, since her own too-painful memories have been the object of her concerted attempts at a ‘forgetting verging on obliteration’. How then to depict her experience on the page? It is a convention of narrative nonfiction to reconstruct scene and dialogue for dramatic purposes, and mostly, Higgins succeeds in rendering her experiences viscerally. ‘Trauma and time erode memory’ though, and this basic truth means sometimes her prose loses precision and colour. A scene, for example, in which she wields a kitchen knife against her mother (‘It will be easier this way… We can all be with Carlie and Lisa again’), no doubt contains a concentration of feeling for the author, but falls oddly flat on the page. Swathes of dialogue feel stilted, and at times veer into the expository:
‘Are you friends again yet?’ Dad asks the morning after, as he and I are on our way to see the therapist.
‘Yes, of course. Why?’
‘Because you were so angry at each other. You came to me in tears’.
‘Oh yeah, but we’re friends again now’. (P.86)
Perhaps in an attempt to patch over the cracks in her memory, Higgins includes lengthy excerpts from her father’s diary; her mother’s Facebook posts; correspondence with her editor. This approach feels piecemeal however, and where Higgins is strongest is actually where she straightforwardly admits to the gaps in her memory, and the shame attached to this. One of the most powerful lines of the entire book: ‘The thing is this: I hardly remember anything about my sisters’. Honouring the murkiness of her memory makes the glimpses of her sisters that do return to her all the more tender. She does not remember being physical with her siblings for example, but then, looking at a photo, she observes how her and Carlie’s bodies are ‘pushed up against one another, our arms meeting in the centre’. ‘This makes me happy’, she says, ‘to know I hadn’t always pushed her away’.
Of the violence inflicted upon her, Osborne-Crowley says: ‘by far the most dangerous element of my assault was the fact that I lived in a world where it was unspeakable’(2). Maria Tumarkin, writing about the deaths of highschool children writes: ‘No place until recently in our Western anglophone culture for overflowing, unpushawayable grief. Big grief. Long grief’ (3). Higgins is acutely conscious of the unspeakability of what she has experienced. In her Author’s Note she says some people advised her to publish her story pseudonymously, or to leave out the ‘scandalous parts’.
But I’m sick of people not talking about the hard, private things in their lives. It feels as though we are all walking around carrying dark bubbles of secrets in our guts, on our shoulders, in our jumpy minds. We are all walking around thinking we’re the only one struggling with these feelings. And the more I open up about them, the more I realise I am not the only one struggling with my secrets and my shame. (Pp. 305-6)
We might see The Girls as what Laurie Penny calls an attempt at ‘unspeaking’: when it comes to experiences rendered ‘almost unsayable by any number of forces, external and internal’, unspeaking is important in ‘walking ideas and experiences back from the ready-made language and the ready-made audience for their telling’ (4). Higgins’ heartfelt memoir is testament to the power of writing to express the unspeakable, and to help heal.
1. Knopp K, 2012, Perhapsing: The Use of Speculation in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity.
2. Osborne- Crowley L, 2019, I Choose Elena, Allen & Unwin.
3. Tumarkin M, 2018, Axiomatic, Brow Books
4. Penny L, 2014, Unspeakable Things, Bloomsbury.
ADELE DUMONT was born in France and moved to Australia before her first birthday. After studying Australian Literature at the University of Sydney, she spent two years teaching English at the Curtin immigration detention centre. She is the author of No Man is an Island (Hachette). She is currently in residence at the Booranga Writers’ Centre.