Books

Sarah Walker
The First Time I Thought I Was Dying

Researchers have shown that the less you know about something the more you think you know. There is even an apparatus for measuring this correlation between ignorance and confidence: the Dunning–Kruger graph.

It’s useful to have such instruments for curbing false confidence, but there are more proactive methods of addressing ignorance. That’s where a book like Sarah Walker’s The First Time I Thought I Was Dying comes in.

Walker is a Walkley-nominated essayist and multimedia artist, but this collection of essays is her debut book. And what a remarkable debut it is: a triumph of informed thinking, simultaneously bold, nuanced and deeply reflective. For the reader, it is transformative. Let me illustrate this by focusing on one essay.

“Stage Directions” charts the author’s journey from being a young actress who believed that art was about inflicting “suffering on ourselves and on our audience” to a mature performer thinking through the lens of Me Too. The essay begins, “I was seventeen when I first pretended to be raped onstage.” Inspired by Antonin Artaud’s 1931 First Manifesto for a Theatre of Cruelty, and working with scripts, directors and actors committed to “an art of annihilation and rebirth”, the aim of her theatre group was nothing less than a “ritual of transcendence”, necessarily traumatic for everyone. Walker’s mother, after coming to a show, refused to go again. Actors were unsettled too. After being in character, one actor could not remember how he used to walk. As Walker says: “The theatre is not a standard workplace.”

Only after establishing this context does Walker introduce the recent scandals in Australian theatre. That’s not to say she exonerates the perpetrators.

“It is difficult for the audience to comprehend the doubled mind of the performer, roaring with grief while taking care to articulate each word, being sure not to breathe aloud before the first syllable of the monologue, keeping in the light, following the blocking. Difficult, too, to conceive of the possibility that an actor can be both transported and present, both metaphysical and corporeal, both a good actor and an opportunist.”

Yet suddenly, thanks to Walker, we understand precisely this.

Other essays in the book address the “sorcery” of photography, the gross but wondrous ecosystems of our bodies and the possibility of a “utopian sex ed” that educates young people about pleasure as part of responsibility.

Pleasure is also part of thinking. This thought-provoking and engaging book reminds us of that.

Maria Takolander

University of Queensland Press, 240pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 21, 2021 as "The First Time I Thought I Was Dying, Sarah Walker".

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Reviewer: Maria Takolander