Hannah Gadsby’s memoir Ten Steps to Nanette covers her life from her childhood up to Nanette, the Netflix stand-up that shot her to global fame. However, she says very clearly she doesn’t want this book to be seen as “rags to riches inspiration porn”.
As its title suggests, the book is broken up into steps instead of chapters. Each “step” is a different stage of Gadsby’s life that has informed her journey to Nanette. She takes us from her childhood ambition to become a dog, to not fitting in as a neurotypical kid and later navigating homophobia in a small town in Tasmania. And this is all before she takes the leap into comedy on the mainland and is finally diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD.
Gadsby highlights how autism is severely undiagnosed in girls, which contributed to her struggles in school as she tried to figure out her brain before her late diagnosis. Although she briefly mentions moments of abuse and trauma in this book – as well as in Nanette – she is upfront that survivors of trauma don’t need to expose their pain to legitimise or validate their experiences, a point that resonated strongly for me. “I want the world to stop demanding gratuitous details in exchange for empathy,” she says. “Entertainment in exchange for understanding.”
She writes of dealing with trauma by using comedy as armour. However, Nanette was about more than making people laugh: she wanted to use her platform to change how her audience saw the world. She briefly reflects on the hypocrisy of other comedians criticising Nanette, even going so far as calling for Gadsby to be “cancelled”, despite the long history of cis het white male comedians making problematic jokes without consequence.
In Nanette, Gadsby sought to expose abuses of power in Western art and to knock some perceived heroes off their pedestals: to not only bring laughter out of the audience, but empathy as well. She writes of transforming a platform where “harmless” jokes only serve to fuel prejudice. Instead of being emotionally reactive, like many of her comedian peers, she inspired an emotional accountability. Ten Steps to Nanette brings context to this call for audience and performer accountability in a world that really needs it.
Ten Steps to Nanette resonated deeply for me. Gadsby shows what can happen when those of us who have to navigate a world essentially built for us to fail, decide to keep going. She doesn’t only address comedians who profit from “punching down”, but calls out Australia for excluding marginalised people, including First Nations people and the queer community. These insights into her amazing mind are such a gift, and I’m really glad Gadsby decided to share them with us.
Allen & Unwin, 400pp, $49.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "Ten Steps to Nanette, Hannah Gadsby".
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