Books

Cover of book: Diagnosis Normal: Living With Abuse, Undiagnosed Autism, and Covid-Grade Crazy

Emma A. Jane
Diagnosis Normal: Living With Abuse, Undiagnosed Autism, and Covid-Grade Crazy

Where to start with this memoir by the Sydney journalist, writer and academic Emma A. Jane? Perhaps here: “On a good day, I can pass as normal but not for too many minutes.”

Or here: “ … having considered my time on the planet with as much perspective as I can muster, my conclusion is that the toughest parts of my life – child abuse, mental illness, undiagnosed autism, school and workplace bullying, cancer, family estrangement, relentless rape and death threats from strangers – are not isolated phenomena but complexly related.”

Diagnosis Normal is Jane’s attempt to explain this and much more, including her self-harm, suicidal ideation and hypersexuality. It’s a confronting book that moves at 100 kilometres an hour from the opening page to the final one. A lot of readers will want her to slow down, for her own good.

“I know people like me can seem alien and alienating. I realise we can be difficult, and discomfiting, and sometimes outright demented,” she writes at the end of chapter two, titled “Hello”. “Please don’t go.” She is right to ask that. This is an important book because, difficult as it is to read, it asks “normal” people to think about mental illness and sexual violence.

Despite the smorgasbord of horror, grief, regret and self-doubt, there is humour. This one, from her time as a cadet journalist, makes me laugh out loud. She writes about a triple murderer and a subeditor says “Nice work”, an “event on par with hearing a fire hydrant recite a haiku”.

I know Emma Jane a little, from when she wrote a column for The Australian newspaper. Diagnosis Normal gave me the same feeling I had on reading One Hundred Years of Dirt, the 2018 memoir by Rick Morton, who also worked on the paper. I wish I had known.

“We need to speak these unspeakable things,” Jane writes. “We need more unpretty stories.” She delivers the unprettiest personal stories I’ve read in a while. There is a marriage to a rock star, relationships with both sexes, multiple cancers and a now-teen daughter who has her own mental-health challenges.

But the heart of her lifelong darkness is a man, a family friend, who sexually abused her from the age of seven. The author does not name him, partly because of fear of litigation, partly because he told her he would kill himself if she did. At the start of this book she does not know if he is alive or dead. By the end she does and this knowledge only continues a story that should be read.

Stephen Romei

Ebury Australia, 336pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 5, 2022 as "Diagnosis Normal: Living With Abuse, Undiagnosed Autism, and Covid-Grade Crazy, Emma A. Jane".

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Reviewer: Stephen Romei

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