In a large regional town like any other large regional town in Australia lives a woman in her 60s. One of those battlers – you know them, the people who life has kicked around a bit but they get back up and make the best of things.
She works 2 days a week, volunteers at an animal shelter and loves having her grandchildren over to stay. Except she won’t let them come to her house anymore.
Over the years the public housing where she lives has become more and more disturbing and frightening.
In the townhouse adjoining hers lives a drug dealer. Most nights she’s kept awake by the continuous parade of clients slamming the front gate and doors, yelling out to each other, and roaring down the street in hotted-up cars.
The guy in the end townhouse comes down regularly for his ice. And at least once a week he bangs on the poor woman’s door in the early hours of the night screaming to be let in.
The woman on the other side of her is an alcoholic. She is feuding with a family across the road and has been caught defecating in their front yard. Or she exposes herself to men and boys walking past, summoning them inside. Night or day she’s out in the street screaming obscenities at the world.
Last year another woman desperate to leave burnt down her townhouse and damaged the others next to hers so the commission would have to place her somewhere else.
The police were there again this week when the ice addict was out waving and threatening people with a large kitchen knife.
Every night the woman my friend knows lies alone in bed in the dark, rigid except for a hammering heart, listening to every scream, every cry, every crash, every one of them a potential threat.
The housing authorities know how traumatic and terrifying the woman’s life has become. She has told them. She’s repeatedly begged them to place her somewhere else. The woman can’t afford to live in housing that’s not subsidised, yet if she leaves to live in a caravan park, for instance, she’s lost any chance of getting back into the system if a new placement does come up.
The police know all this. They’re frequent visitors, but nothing has changed.
I was upset when I heard this woman’s story because I had met her. I wanted to believe that if we could tell her story to someone in authority, with the real details of what it’s like to live her life, then they would be moved to do something about it.
Then I started thinking about all those other broken lives: the alcoholic aboriginal woman and the African family she terrorizes, the ice addict, the drug dealer. Tragic personal stories that make up a part of the great family of humanity we belong to. No matter how unpalatable the stories are, or how much we turn away from the telling of them, they will still continue to exist.
As a writer I know the power of story. Like the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith back in 1759, I believe that ‘the source of our fellow-feeling for the misery of others’ is activated by ‘changing places in fancy with the sufferer.’
Fiction allows us to change places with another person in a way that expands our experiences and understanding of their lives. When we know what it feels like to be that ‘someone else’ in detailed and unflinching truthfulness we’re more likely to develop sympathy and compassion for others like them in the real world.
This is fundamental to fiction at its best. And from that real changes are possible.
Remember To Kill a Mockingbird.
There are so many stories we can write.