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You Are What You Read: The Terrible

Izzy Hall looks at the impact of sexualisation on girls and women in Daley-Wards emotive memoir.

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Image Credit: Penguin, 2018

*This article contains references to sexual assault. *

A true memoir, The Terrible spans the whole of Daley-Ward’s life. Beginning with simple and broken prose she speaks as an infant, introducing her little brother Roo and mother Marcia, the central figures of not just her childhood, but her adolescence and beyond. Despite the child-like qualities of these early chapters, it is obvious that Daley-Ward was incredibly, and often painfully, perceptive of those around her from a very young age.

This deep and true perception is a characteristic of hers which wavers and becomes polarised to her own understanding of self. It appears that the more she learns about the world and others, the more unable she is to understand the terrible things inside her own head.

Daley-Ward captures the discomfort of female childhood formidably. Her personal commentary on the sexualisation of young girls, writing from  a  seven-year-old's perspective, is like finding a scar that you never knew you had.

‘... so very fast, says Mum, getting nervous. She works night after night at the local hospital and frets and tells me to wear big T-shirts over my nighties - especially the long silky blue one, which is so low cut that it needs three safety pins. Remember, Linford is not your dad, she says, be mindful. What is mindful?’

The author’s own experience of  victim-blaming is a theme that runs throughout the book, and her life. Continuously we see the complex relationship between a mother’s desire to protect and the constant invalidation of Daley-Ward’s struggles. Reinforced countless times by men in her life - clients and friends - The Terrible takes on a voice that emulates the shaming nature of her loved ones’ comments. Small but relentless comments; ‘a man gets to see what he likes and asks for it - that’s the way it goes’.

More adults in her life add to her feelings of guilt and shame surrounding her body.  We see the bitter manifestation of the sexualisation she has been subjected to; a never-ending longing to shrink, to be petite, for smallness. At ten years old, she prays for beauty. She believes it is the thing that makes people stay. The thing that makes people listen.

‘Fear filled’ as she enters her early teenage years, Daley-Ward’s voice becomes even more questioning and afraid. Though all the poems are from her perspective, we are highly  aware that no adult figures in her life are allowing her or Little Roo to be children - to be innocent. In this era, the poems reflect the battle she undertakes with determining reality; clouded by her grandparents’ fables from church, her questioning of the concept of time and her fear of the night, mirrors and her own bed.

Daley-Ward’s sexuality is touched upon in the poems throughout the memoir, however, a ‘conclusion’ about her sexuality is never actualised in the text. I found this refreshing - too many queer memoirs centralise this peak or climax of ‘self-actualisation’ where happening upon a term for your sexuality solves all.

For Daley-Ward, this was not the case. We see her desire for same-sex partners is present from a young age but is never centred; this is homogenous with her inability to pinpoint the direction and desires of other aspects of her life. The memoir is about her trying to keep her head above water, trying to knock back all the things The Terrible throws at her. She doesn’t have the time, nor the energy.

The overwhelming pain of sexual violence at the hands of men occupies much of her reality - from as young as fourteen she is aware of the ‘powerfear’ that exists together in being viewed as a sexual object. The power/fear dynamic Daley-Ward describes is painfully poignant. I resonated hugely with the feeling of wanting validation from men, because that is what girls are taught to aspire to and desire, and concurrently hating it. Being afraid of it. When we are young it feels like a power, but it’s never a power used on our terms and conditions - it is there for men to take and transform into fear whenever they please. In her memoir, Daley-Ward describes it as an ‘almost-power’ and something that she doesn’t entirely recognise as her own. She is not in control of it.

Trying to break into modelling while facing discrimination from agencies, Daley-Ward navigates the world of sex work. Commanding the power from her ‘powerfear’ over her body, the passages about the bland, rich, old men she encounters are one of the only times we see her completely in control - and I love this. So often when sex work is described by bystanders, or even by the writer themselves, it is told as a woeful tale of degradation. But here, she commands the room, taking on a mistress role, and exercises her power in a consenting and financially beneficial manner.

The theme of loss in The Terrible was all-consuming. Loss of loved ones, and loss of self dominates even the rare moments of joy she happens upon. As she experiences more loss, her writing becomes more factual and blunt . You can feel the fatigue she has with life, even at such a young age.

‘Ah the ticking time bomb of the body. You try to live life. And work for your children and hustle and sweat and fuck and work and call out for love and cry out for love and have children and work and study and sleep in bed and save and worry about your bleeding gums and you still go, in the end.’

For me, the poems individually are full of pain, and yet, together as a whole piece of work there is something serene and complete about it. The journey of figuring out how to ‘move on’ from trauma and depression doesn’t have a secret key that you have to find to unlock the door to the rest of your life. It doesn’t have to have a magical moment of realisation where all problems are solved. It’s about moving through. It’s about finding ways to navigate these experiences.

Although Daley-Ward in the closing poems of The Terrible becomes personified and is regarded as an otherworldly being outside of her, she never finds the magic cure to banish it. But the memoir as a whole shows her evolution to accept the terrible things that have happened to her.

‘You may not run away from the thing that you are because it comes and comes and comes as sure as you breathe. As certain. The thing deep inside your linings, way down in the marrow. People have a lot of words for it.’

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