Owning the past: Author Rebecca Starford on bullying and sexuality
CREATED ON // Friday, 07 August 2015
Stephen A Russell talks to Rebecca Starford about bullying, sexuality and family.
Rebecca Starford, Melbourne author, editor at Text Publishing and founder of insightful literary magazine Kill Your Darlings, suspects our school days leave more of an indelible mark on us than we realise.
Thinking about the thorny topic of bullying, her mind drifted back to the remarkable year when, at 14, she packed her things and left the family home for a one-year retreat to an all-girl boarding school in the bush called Silver Creek.
Tasked with physically demanding cross-country runs and held in a spartan dormitory, the retreat was designed to inspire resilience and leadership, but what actually occurred was more like a gender-flipped Lord of The Flies, as deeply ugly and aggressive traits surfaced amongst the girls. Starford, only just beginning to grapple with her own adult identity, was easily sucked into the maelstrom.
Starford says she felt drawn to go back to that time in her life due to where she found herself as an adult.
“I felt compelled to go back there because the kind of relationships that had begun to form patterns for me as an adult, in my friendships, but particularly when it came to romantic relationships with women, they had become, for me, unhealthy, and I was unhappy,” she says.
That was the kernel for Starford’s debut memoir Bad Behaviour: A Memoir of Bullying and Boarding School, which she will discuss on several panels at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, including the Queer Literary Salon alongside writer Benjamin Law and novelist Sarah Waters.
Drawing on the diary it was compulsory to keep at Silver Creek was helpful recalling forgotten details, to a point. “The quality of the writing was very bad,” Starford laughs. “That girl who was writing it was familiar to me, but also a stranger. It was a bit of a weird experience.”
"I think that’s very common with teenagers. You see that now I suppose in social media, where everyone puts all their attractive pics up online and only talks about all the great things that happened, so you’re sort of shaping your own history."Rebecca Starford
The things that were consciously left out were often more informative than the recollections put down on paper. “There were great moments of unhappiness or moments where I’d behaved badly and felt really ashamed and none of that was in the diary at all,” Starford says. “I think that’s very common with teenagers. You see that now I suppose in social media, where everyone puts all their attractive pics up online and only talks about all the great things that happened, so you’re sort of shaping your own history.”
Starford had built the year out into an unrealistic expectation. “I imagined this amazing experience, making amazing friends and having this very idealised version of a year away. Because of that, I don’t think I’d prepared myself emotionally or psychologically. I was homesick and also really afraid of this environment and the other girls, and of not fitting in.”
It was in this moment of dislocation that Starford fell in with the games of one abusive girl in particular. “It was a bit of a toxic combination. I felt myself drawn to these very charismatic figures who offered me a sort of feeling of safety and camaraderie, but I was also drawn to their power. To put it frankly, that was very alluring for me, and I was too immature to distinguish between what was right and wrong in that situation and before you know it, you find yourself participating in some pretty awful behaviour.”
There are moments of erotic tension, as Starford’s burgeoning sexuality begins to unfurl. “When I was 14, I didn’t even really know that there was another way of being, that being a girl you could be with another girl. I wasn’t even familiar with the language.”
There is sadness, too, as an older Starford reflects upon her estranged relationship with her mother since coming out. “To be honest, I’m not really sure where it comes from. It’s very hard to get to the heart of the issue. There’s a breakdown in communication. It’s very difficult to engage and that of course affects the whole family.”
It’s not an easy burden. “I carried around a lot of confusion, shame and sadness for a really long time and it’s the sort of feeling that never goes away,” Starford says. “It was important for me to let go of a lot of the feelings of responsibility, as though I had actually done something wrong. I think a lot of gay people already feel a little uncertain or uncomfortable in the way that they’ve come out, and for some it takes a really long time to reach that point.”
Starford married her partner in the British consulate and looks forward to the day their union will be recognised as equal at home. One day she hopes her mother can share that celebration with them.
“I guess everyone is different and I’m not angry at her. I just want to try and understand why it is, but it’s hard when it’s impossible to communicate in that regard. I don’t know if her reading the book is something that will happen any time soon, but I’d like that.”
Rebecca will appear at the Melbourne Writers Festival event ‘Queer Salon’ - a night of interviews, readings, true tales, live illustration featuring Jack Andraka, Rebecca Starford, Sam Wallman and Sarah Waters, hosted by Benjamin Law for more details go to mwf.com.au
[Image: Melbourne author Rebecca Starford. Photo Samantha Jarrett, samanthajarrett.com.au