NOVEMBER 30, 2014
IN 2005, WHEN JULIA GILLARD was a Member of Parliament to watch, and not Australia’s first female prime minister, a photograph of her sitting at the kitchen table in her suburban home illustrated a weekend newspaper story. The counters behind her are extremely clean and the large glass fruit bowl on the table is empty. As she rose to the top job in Australian politics, Gillard’s critics filled that empty fruit bowl with nasty homilies about career women. “Even if she were busy” — at the time Gillard was Shadow Minister for Health, Manager of Opposition Business, and, it must be added, up to her ears in factional politics — “what kind of woman lacked the instinct to buy a bag of bananas to fill her fruit bowl?” they asked. It didn’t help that Gillard was not married to her long-term partner, or that she was childless and very ambitious.
In 2010 the caucus of the Australian Labor Party voted to ditch their floundering leader, Kevin Rudd, who also happened to be prime minister. In his place, Julia Gillard was named prime minister. Three years, one difficult election, and hundreds of news items speculating about party leadership later, that same caucus gave Gillard the boot and reappointed Rudd. As he led the party to a shuddering defeat in the 2013 federal election, Gillard stepped out of the public eye and signed a deal with Random House to write a memoir of her time in office. Not much more than a year later, My Story appeared in Australian bookshops under the Knopf imprint, with a book jacket that reveals a more cautious approach to image management: Gillard gazes back at us from a stark white cover, her chin resting on her hands in a classic up-close-and-personal pose. The designers have blended her clothing into the affectless void behind her. There is nothing to distract us: no fruit bowl, no kitchen table, no indication of personal preferences. The no-frills title, My Story, floats demurely by the author’s right ear. Nine years after the empty fruit bowl, My Story is a highly calculated act of self-presentation.
These are boom days for the female first person. Moreover, the rising cultural profile of first-person narratives by women continues to challenge assumptions about what stories are worth telling and who can tell them. In particular, female essayists have renegotiated Montaigne’s form to accommodate their own experiences with startlingly varied results: compare, for example, the work of Chris Kraus, Roxane Gay, Leslie Jamison, Susan Orlean, Lena Dunham, and Joan Didion; or in Australia, Helen Garner, Anna Funder, Chloe Hooper, Robyn Davidson, and Anita Heiss, to name but a handful. In the works of writers like these (and so many others) the porosity of the boundaries between the private and the public, the personal and the professional, is revealed at the level of form.
Readers of contemporary nonfiction have therefore become accustomed to strategies of self-presentation that involve digression, eclectic habits of association, an antipathy toward totalizing reductions, and the disruptive throbs of desire, pain, and anger. In this oversharing era, we may wonder whether there are any stories that cannot be told, any sentiments that cannot be expressed: and yet, as the career of Julia Gillard — or Hillary Clinton, Gabby Giffords, or Wendy Davis — demonstrates, the personal remains a vulnerable front for women who live their lives in the public eye. Doubt and equivocation are particularly dangerous for female politicians, the stakes around disclosure are extortionate, and affect must be carefully managed.
All public figures are subject to scrutiny — but the assaults on Gillard when she was in office were especially malicious. Her personal life was savaged. She was painted, as she writes, as a “heartless and dishonest shrew.” No insinuation was left unvoiced. One of her opponents questioned her capacity for office on the grounds that she was “deliberately barren.” Tony Abbott, the leader of the conservative Coalition in Opposition, wisecracked that Gillard’s recently deceased father had died of shame over her “lies” about carbon pricing.
Early on in My Story, Gillard delivers the equivalent of a stump speech for the book (these words are embossed on the back of my hardcover):
For three years and three days I was prime minister. Three years and three days of resilience. Three years and three days of changing the nation. Three years and three days to give me a unique perspective of our future. Three years and three days for you to judge.
The invitation to judge is a gutsy move. For those three years and three days in office, a battalion of public-spirited people, mostly men, kept the prime minister in the dock. Here, Gillard gets to present her side of the case. Of that “ridiculous carry-on” about the fruit bowl: “the fact that a Labor leadership crisis had forced me to urgently return from overseas and there had not been time to shop somehow never worked its way into the story.” There are plenty of correctives in this vein, some poisonous barbs for her opponents — but no new ammunition for the haters.
Situating the reader as adjudicator is also a bold rebuke to the incessant jibes about her honesty. The unshakable “JuLIAR” meme had its roots in carbon politics, in fact. In the 2010 election campaign Gillard gave a straightforward sound bite: “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.” In 2012 she negotiated a deal to put a price on carbon. Her opponents went to town about “the prime minister’s lies.”
Also in the 2010 election campaign, at a moment when Labor looked likely to lose government, Gillard told a journalist about a change in tactics: “it’s time for me to make sure that the real Julia is well and truly on display.” But who the hell was the Julia who’d been on the hustings up until this point? If the “real Julia” moment was an effort to present an authentic face to the electorate, it fell flat. Memoirists may revel in the protean nature of the self but this on-the-fly acknowledgment that a public self may be constructed and, worse, malleable, was a disaster. The fun and games around the “real Julia” converged with attacks on her personality: she lacked authenticity, she was a political pragmatist, she was a dishonest woman. When Gillard signed the book deal, inevitably, talk about the “real Julia” started again.
The first, and most interesting, section of My Story deals with key moments in Gillard’s political career: her ascent to office in 2010, the nail-biting formation of minority government later that year, her 2013 ousting by Kevin Rudd. There are general chapters on party politics, the media, gender, and resilience.
The second section of the book is a record of legislative achievements and covers the policy areas to which Gillard dedicated herself while in office. If Gillard is reticent elsewhere, here she is wholly unrestrained in a tedious panegyric on the accomplishments of a devoted political operative that is as self-serving as it is overblown.
Talking points abound. Frequently, the narrative voice gets stuck between the impersonality of a policy document and the banal repetitions of a press release. Extraordinarily convoluted phrasing obscures her convictions. For instance, on higher education reform, Gillard writes: “When the best brains are put with the right equipment and resources, the magic that is the birth of new knowledge can happen.” Confusing as this is, the reader might forget that Gillard actually presided over a large overall funding cut to higher education (which is substantially state-funded in Australia). There are plenty of such directionless metaphors throughout, a sign of a book that’s been rushed into print. But syntax aside, how do we locate Gillard in these tangles? Whose story is this?
There was at least one high moment of Gillard’s prime ministership: her so-called “misogyny speech,” delivered in late 2012 in response to goading by Tony Abbott, the leader of the conservative Opposition, about the behavior of the speaker of the House, a conservative MP who, in one of the many convulsions of a difficult and undisciplined minority government, had crossed the floor to become Gillard’s Speaker.
“I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,” she thundered. Gillard called Abbott to account for his “repulsive double standards,” his comments about abortion (which he described in 2004 as the “easy way out”), his glib references to “the housewives of Australia doing the ironing.” And on this occasion, she spoke of the personal toll of sexism: “I was offended when the Leader of the Opposition stood next to a sign that described me as a man’s bitch.” It was an explosive, effective speech, and it went viral. In My Story, Gillard recalls,
On this day, getting ready, I was fired up. I do not normally think in swearwords but my mind was shouting, For fuck’s sake, after all the shit I have to put up with, now I have to listen to Abbott lecturing me on sexism. For fuck’s sake!
I didn’t cheer at all of Gillard’s policy decisions during her tenure, but the misogyny speech left me exultant, as did her blazing account of the event in My Story.
And yet, obviously Gillard is not an uncomplicated feminist hero. As many have noted, on that same day in Parliament, welfare reforms were passed that seriously eroded the entitlements of single mothers. Still, that speech, that extraordinary breach of self-control, released a valve. It brought into the spotlight the colossal sexism, the “gendered claptrap,” with which Prime Minister Gillard had had to contend.
Three weary years later, Gillard lost her job.
According to the media, Gillard lacked the common touch. She couldn’t sell her policies — she couldn’t convince people she was speaking from the heart, and that, somehow, was tantamount to a failure of femininity.
In her final media conference, she made a cryptic remark about gender: “it doesn’t explain everything; it doesn’t explain nothing.” One episode demonstrates the acuity of her assessment. Disastrous floods hit the state of Queensland in 2011. Gillard joined forces with state Premier Anna Bligh to visit affected communities. After spending the day in evacuation centers meeting people who’d lost their homes, Gillard appeared with Bligh at a joint media conference. She wore a dark suit, stepped back, and let the state premier speak to the details. No footage from the evacuation centers was shown. And so it ground on: Gillard was too coiffed, too cool, she didn’t look like she cared. “My clothes on one day,” she recalls, “sparked a thread of commentary that ran for six weeks.” She continues, “For a man in a time of crisis, I think it will be received as enough if he appears to be across the situation and authorising the necessary responses. He is not automatically looked to for a channelling of the emotion of the moment.”
There have already been a number of excellent long-form and book-length studies of Gillard’s prime ministership — such as The Misogyny Factor by Anne Summers and The Making of Julia Gillard by Jacqueline Kent — and there’s no shortage of feminist analyses of the many incidents of this nature on the record. But I wanted to follow Gillard into deeper deliberation on all the claptrap. I wanted her to stop being so measured and patient, to show us how the hypocrisy riled her. What did she see when she looked back at the press pack — a bunch of drunks in crumpled shirts? Did she and Anna Bligh roll their eyes at each other? Did she watch the talking heads on television later that night and think to herself, you are fucking kidding me? It was true: I wanted her to channel the emotion of the moment.
Gillard’s frequent reminders of how she was castigated in office for being too cold, too professional, too focused gave me pause to reconsider my own expectations about disclosure and emotional authenticity in memoir. I began to wince at my curiosity about the hidden life of Julia Gillard. Why was the author of this memoir so distant? Was the whole text written by Gillard or had a team of ghostwriters stepped in to speed it to press? Had she been drafting legal briefs and legislation and policy documents for so long that a more intimate approach was beyond her?
The theme of resilience is hammered loudly in My Story. It’s shorthand for the self-control that allows a private person to appear in public and withstand monstrous pressure. As Gillard writes, the “capacity to keep at bay feelings of too much stress, too much worry, too much hurt, too much anger, stood me in good stead for political leadership.” In a striking passage that follows this claim, Gillard wonders whether she should have let herself feel more: “I will never know. In the middle of it all, it seemed to me as though if I gave an inch, if I let it hit me, then I would be drowning in the emotional reaction before I knew it.” Again, the reader is left wondering about “the real Julia”: where is she in this string of sentences disavowing feeling? It’s not hard to believe Gillard when she argues that if she had put more of her self on show, her resilience might not have been enough to protect her. Who would advise her to abandon those defences on writing a memoir? And why should a politician be judged first for her feelings rather than her actions?
Even so, overall, the strategic selectivity of her narrative undercuts any gestures toward candor. It is as if the specifying details have been sucked into the blankness on the cover of her book. When regrets, contradictions, and second thoughts are logged, they are quickly rationalized. Facts are dispatched briskly, timelines are conveyed with economy. Often, the first person evaporates into an omniscient and detached persona who has seen it all, an anonymous textual facilitator who has forgotten she has a self to doubt. Those areas of Gillard’s life that she was able to shield from her critics are not exposed here.
For this reader, the rare moments when we glimpse a more private Gillard are the most compelling. That fuck that shit before delivering the misogyny speech. A dry aside — “apparently my arse was newsworthy.” Late in the book, when she quotes emails written to her friends and advisers as her authority was being sabotaged from within the party, we hear a more relaxed, droll voice. But, as a whole, Gillard’s memoir implies a critique of the desire for authenticity. It ultimately tells two stories about self-representation: one, about the hard slog of crafting a retail political self, a “narrative” to present to the public; and another slightly more subtle tale, about the perils and costs of honesty. Perhaps, her book jacket challenge aside, this tremendously guarded foray into the first person in My Story should not be cause to judge Gillard (yet again) as cold and withholding, but rather to reflect on the risks, for a woman in power, of writing the self.