Rebecca Butterworth

Suicide; Melbourne to Mildura

Rebecca Butterworth

Saturday, June 06, 2015


Why am I here?

It’s dark, and it's cold, and I have no idea why I’m here. 

It’s been dark for the last three hours on the road, so I don’t even know where here actually is. Apart from that it’s Mildura. So yeah, I mean, I know it's Mildura. That’s where I am. 

But I'm talking about the 'why?' in 'Why am I here?'

There are a lot of ways to ask that question.

A lot of people ask it and, not coming up with a good enough answer, decide to disagree with the premise. A lot of people decide to die by suicide. 

Twice as many people in the country as in the city.

I mean, I know why I’m here. Or I know why I'm here, in Mildura. I got a grant from the UNESCO Melbourne City of Literature, and Fellowship from the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, to write about country versus metro culture, with a focus on rural suicide. People other than me thought this was a good idea (I know -- I'm as surprised as anyone.)

Any writer will tell you, however, how little such a validation reassures you that you have the right to write about anything that should obviously be covered by someone much more talented and capable. 

But that's not really what I mean by the question, either. 

Suicide outstrips homicide as a cause of death in Australia (as well as in the U.S., FYI). Around four times as many of our First People — people of Australian Aboriginal descent — die of suicide, than city people. Their suicide statistics are way, way more than the national average. 

So we’re getting somewhere. In general terms, I don’t believe there could be anything more important, more urgent, more worthy, to write about, than suicide, and in particular, rural and regional suicide.

Also, country people are my people. So the fact that they’re still killing themselves at a much higher rate than others disturbs me in a place I can’t identify; it’s so far into my core that it’s invisible to me. It’s hard to describe, something so terrible happening to your people. Unless I ask you to identify your people. Your group. Whoever that is. And then I ask you to imagine many of them wanting to die, because of how their lives are. Perhaps that’s the case for you. Perhaps you’re gay, or Aboriginal, or a young teenager, or from the country. But even if you’re not, I imagine that you get why I want to write about, ‘the cultural divide between country people and city people, with a focus on rural suicide’. I just need to.

Fun fact, and a little 'writer' aside: that particular wording was given to me by Helen Garner. 

I think that fact needs a paragraph all of its own. I certainly find it hard to believe. Nevertheless, it’s true. When I was applying for grants at the Melbourne City of Literature and the Wheeler Centre, to fund my trip around Australia to write about what country people are like, I thought about why I’m a writer, and why I want to write. 

I sent Helen Garner an email.

I’d sent other writers emails, some that I had met and whose work I admired, as well, before Helen. They had responded really well (some of them didn’t respond), but in general said that they weren’t comfortable giving me a recommendation. Which is not only completely understandable, but also what I expected. They gave me advice about how to proceed, and in some cases pointed me to books that really helped, and such. I only emailed Helen because she’s the epitome of writers. She, and her collected writings True Stories, are it for me. So the email was more of a flare into the ether, a statement of intention, to myself. 

She responded within the hour. She wrote me the best testimony I’ve ever seen written about anyone, ever. Included in the testimony was a re-write of my own topic sentence, a re-write I've used ever since. ‘The divide between metropolitan and rural people, with a focus on rural suicide.’ It was both a better way to phrase it, and a better way to think.

Not only was it a great recommendation, but in the end, it was probably a cheat. Who would disagree with Helen Garner? How could the grant judges not approve my application if she thought it was a good idea? Garner’s approval of my desire to write about rural suicide means both that I feel justified, and rather unjustified, in equal measure, for receiving these grants. I feel rather like an expelled school kid who wants a written recommendation to Harvard, whose parents make a call to the headmaster suggesting that they could either pay, or not pay, for a new school wing. What're ya gonna do?

The country. The place I grew up in. The city. The place that my father, a dairy farmer and patriarch, thinks of as a rat race that must surely drive more people to distress and than the country — which is without doubt the most wonderful place to live. Which it is, really. I grew up in a valley between Corryong and Khancoban, near the Murray hydro power station, right on the border — literally, our farm ended on one side on the river that snakes its way between New South Wales and Victoria, a vivisection between states — on a dairy farm. As the only girl in a family with five boys, who wasn’t really thought of as a ‘farmer,’ I also understand what it is to be an outsider. 

There is a theme that is colouring my understanding of rural and regional suicide, as I start this trip through the remote parts of this big country. The theme is many things. It’s outsiders and insiders, real or imagined. It’s community, and what happens when people get together — what happens when people are set apart. It’s about belonging, and not belonging. (I read recently that the heart emits a magnetic field about two metres outside the body, so that when you stand that close to another person, you're affected by their heart's magnetic field, and them, yours.) 

It's about isolation, and what it does.

It’s about value, and what that is.

No matter how I look at it, the thought occurs to me that suicide comes down to value. Value as it is felt, value as it is expressed, or indicated by the people that surround you. I think that as Australians, we use the country as a totem, who we 'are,' but we don’t value it. Our celebrities go on talk shows and brag about our country toughness, our poisonous things. Our politicians woo it, but don’t really fund it. Not enough, anyway. Out of sight, out of mind. (And proper health care, etc.) I don’t think that we value the country, or the people that inhabit it.

I think that’s why they’re killing themselves. It's got something to do with value.

I think value has something to do with why I'm really here, too. I'm yet to identify why. 

In the end, after weeks of trying to plan my trip, I just left. I packed my borrowed car with a nerdy amount of canned food and drove 600 kilometres from Melbourne to Mildura, hardly stopping, like a madman. I fell in love on the way, like I knew I would, like I always do, with the landscape. A massive storm tried to head me off at the pass. Then the sun came out and almost glared me off the road for an hour. Then the paddocks softened, and rainbows lead me the rest of the way west. Then it got dark. Ink well, gothic dark. (I'll tell you more about that, later.) My imagination switched on, and it hasn't yet switched off. I don't know what's driving me yet, but it's a strong thing, and it's eating my insides. It could be that thing that starts to eat people when they're no longer in their twenties -- something to do with working-out your childhood. Most people just have children. But I'm heading toward the country, with all the emotional pull of what I imagine, in a normal person, is a biological clock.

This is the first leg of a trip that will take me from my parents' home in the Indi Valley, to Darwin and the Kimberley, down through Aboriginal communities in Ceduna, west SA, through Victoria and New South Wales and Queensland, to find out what people feel and think about living in the country, and why things have gotten so bad. After weeks of planning, and things going wrong, and the lack of credibility that comes with being a 'freelance' journalist, and twenty new potential interviewees asking me whether I'm a student today, I packed my things and just drove. Without a concrete plan. More to get away from the city, to not be there, than to get anywhere in particular.

(In hindsight, it's probably something I should have talked to my psychologist about before I left.)

Mildura, the place in Victoria that at times has had the highest rates of suicide in the state, seemed like a good place to start. 

It’s cold, and it’s dark, and I’m still not quite sure what I’m doing here.