Izzy Roberts-Orr reviews My Friend Fox by Heidi Everett
by Heidi Everett
Reviewed by IZZY ROBERTS-ORR
At night, I can hear the foxes screaming. Nothing is wrong, this is just what they do, particularly during mating season. The first time I heard it, I thought something was seriously wrong – that a small child was being chased through the bush, or that I was at the epicentre of a B-grade horror movie. That I might be next. There’s always something a little disconcerting about seeing a fox on this continent. They have been here longer than my ancestors, but they don’t belong here either. Introduced in 1855 for ‘sporting purposes’ (i.e. ‘to be hunted’), foxes had become rife across the mainland within just 20 years.
My Friend Fox begins and ends with a fox. The book opens with a Tswana proverb, “Phokoje go tsela o dithetsenya!”, and while the author’s connection to Botswana is not clear, the translation and sentiment carry throughout the book. “Only the muddy fox lives!” – or in other words, you must rough up your coat and get a little dirty to truly experience life. Heidi Everett grew up in fox country, in a village in the Welsh countryside, and is keenly aware of how misplaced the fox is in our environment – that, “here in Australia, they arrived without ancient ancestors inviting them onto the shore and they will never be welcome.” (116) They are beautiful, and they are highly destructive to their environment. This duality makes a fox the perfect metaphor to carry Everett’s story of surviving trauma and mental illness as, “just like my psychic distress, he is a symbol of both disease and determination, of a curse and of hope.” (p. 176)
Part memoir and part parable, My Friend Fox is Heidi Everett’s account of her experiences within the mental health system and her path toward learning to live authentically. The first scene in My Friend Fox brings us into the world of the psych ward, which is populated with staff and psych patients, and pigeons who watch the, “strange birds in the psych ward cage.” (p 14) There is a particular texture to the stretch time can take on when you’re unwell. Time can feel like it’s sped up, hyper galactic light speed paces, or like soup but stretchy. Everett writes, “The meds make me sleep too much and, for some reason, night-time becomes daytime. Someone once told me that it’s known as schizophrenia-time.” (p 53) My Friend Fox echoes this unmooring, and follows a narrative arc that is episodic rather than linear. The early chapters of the book look at the dehumanising experience of the psych ward – Everett is no longer seen as herself, she is, “psych patient number 25,879* (or part thereof). Age 24. Primary diagnosis: schizoaffective. Comorbidity: major depression, juvenile autism. Seems to enjoy music, art. No dependents. No further use for a name.” (p21)
Interspersed between accounts of Everett’s experiences in the psych ward, the book traces her experiences growing up in the Welsh countryside, in a, “300-year-old stone cottage sat at the last stitch on the hem of a tiny village on a sliver of road between two country towns.” (p43) then transplanted to Doveton. Everett is relentlessly bullied throughout her schooling, and finds more comfort and a sense of self in the company of animals than with people. Her experiences of social isolation are compounded by a family who were, “an island on an island surrounded by moats of jagged rocks and raised drawbridges.” (p40) Everett takes a compassionate view of these circumstances however, seeing the stretch of her inheritance as, “no fault or gift of my parents, but just like any diverse ideology, our tribe tasted the earth a little differently from that of the meat-and-three-vegetables kind. We were a bowl of bananas.” (p45)
Living with mental illness can mean being cast as an unreliable narrator of your own experiences, or feeling as though you exist in the spaces between gaps in your own memory. Whether because of existing in altered states, or through the memory loss that can be a common side effect of many medications used to treat various forms of mental illness, having access to your selves over a span of time can be a real challenge. What may exist of these periods are the testimony of others – of case files, doctor’s notes, and what the people around you are able to tell you. Something Everett balances incredibly well within the text is a commitment to the truth of her own reality, whilst also understanding the points at which her experiences diverge so far from the reality of those around her as to be detrimental to herself and others. Everett’s experiences are drawn with a fine eye for detail, and though her depictions of the psych ward are as starkly fluorescent-lit and brutal as the space itself; heart, poetry and humour are hallmarks of this book, despite its dark subject matter. Even in bleak moments her probing mind pulls observation and insight to the fore. The psych ward is a terrifying and unfriendly place, where, “within this chemical straightjacket I am the final tiny babushka.” (p6) yet equally, I laughed out loud at the, “blue plastic mattress that farts if you sit down too quickly,” (p8) and her cataloguing of all the details in the room. “Familiar Air Vent, oh how happy I am to see you there!” (p15)
Esme Weijun Wang writes in The Collected Schizophrenias, “Schizophrenia terrifies. It is the archetypal disorder of lunacy. Craziness scares us because we are creatures who long for structure and sense.” My Friend Fox is unwieldy, and difficult to categorise – which fits the subject matter perfectly. Everett’s prose gallops from the page, full of allusive language and metaphor – and this brimming is intentional, is part of the experience of living through and with mental illness. The non-linear structure and movement between non-fiction and fiction, with animal voices and illustrations interspersed throughout the book create a text that is bursting forth with life, rich in metaphor and unafraid to sit with complexity.
Ruby Hillsmith writes in, ‘The problem of living: Dispatches from deep psychiatry’ (Griffith Review 72: States of Mind), “The psychiatric ward is gravely ill. The psychiatric ward doesn’t want you to know this. The psychiatric ward is in deep denial. Heads down, thumbs up.” My Friend Fox is in a way writing against the psych ward, kicking back at a system that all too often strips those who use it of their individuality. Hillsmith comments, “It’s up to the patient to cling to their identity in a context engineered to break it.” Memoir as a form provides Everett an opportunity to witness herself – or selves, evolving over time, as the case may be – to cement her own narrative in her own words. It blew my mind when I was first introduced to the idea of history as plural – that capital ‘H’ History wasn’t only something to be mapped and pinned down, attached to a series of dates or verifiable facts according to whatever documentation was available. That it was a living, breathing thing – a collection of narratives that intersect and contradict, and that of course there are power dynamics, inequalities, biases and inaccuracies at play within the records and accounts we have to make sense of what has happened. Our own histories are plural too – growing and morphing as we age, adapt, re- or mis- remember, and My Friend Fox acknowledges this through its experimentation with form.
My Friend Fox is punctuated by Everett’s illustrations, which depict scenes from the text and offer a visual entry point into her perspective, in a very literal sense. The style and level of detail in these images varies throughout, correlated to where Everett’s state of mind is at within the narrative. Some illustrations are breathtakingly photorealistic, some figurative, with close attention paid to shadow and where it falls, and some are rough sketches. The drawings of animals in particular carry the most detail, in contrast to the loosely depicted faces of people. Art and animals are ultimately the keys for Everett to find more balance. From the old man who plays the guitar on the psych ward and inspires Everett’s own love affair with the instrument, to the songwriting group run by the Bipolar Bears and a local TAFE course in illustration, the healing influence of the arts cuts through like no other treatment within the book, and sits in start contrast to the terrors of the psych ward.
Animal voices are central to the text – from the field of cow, and seashore of her eponymous friend fox, and a final letter from her dear friend Tigger; the gorgeous mutt who was Heidi’s best friend for almost sixteen years. Tigger, “the calm, regal, little red dog,” who is “immediately exposed as a young tearaway canine backpacker scamming the system to escape,” (117) the moment Everett leaves the pound with him, is a central figure within the book. Everett describes their relationship as “a symbiotic friendship,” herself, “a human scraped out, empty of any affection. Yet I became lovable through his animal eyes – so much so that I could really feel that love. Tigger became my muse for everything.” (p. 118) This deep affinity for animals is a healing influence, and one I – and I’m sure many other readers – can relate to. When I was catatonically fatigued in my late teens and could rarely move from my bed, the terrier I’d grown up with was my constant companion. David Stavanger’s poem ‘Suicide Dogs’, from his 2020 collection Case Notes, comes to mind – “They will never abandon you. They will forever hold / the slender bone of hope, tender in their jaws.”
Nuanced representations of mental illness that make space for the positive elements that can come with altered reality as well as the destructive, dysfunctional or painful aspects can be difficult to find. In My Friend Fox, much of Everett’s path to healing comes through creativity, in contrast to the traumatising experiences of the mental health system. This little book carries with it a lot of wisdom, and Everett manages to carry a lot of compassion for herself as well as others.
IZZY ROBERTS-ORR is a poet, writer, broadcaster and arts worker based on Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung land in regional Victoria. Currently completing a book of elegiac poetry, Raw Salt, Izzy is a 2020-2021 recipient of the Australia Council Marten Bequest Scholarship for Poetry.