‘Autotheory’ is a buzzword that’s been bouncing around the literary sphere in the last few years. A combination between autobiography and critical theory, it was introduced to readers early on in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and has been used to describe works by Eula Biss and Chris Kraus, as well as Fiona Wright’s 2015 essay collection Small Acts of Disappearance. It is under this ambiguous umbrella that Jessica Friedmann’s debut work, Things That Helped, falls.
In this stunning essay collection, Friedmann, a Canberra based writer and new mother, chronicles her lifelong struggle with depression and in particular, the debilitating postnatal depression she suffered after the birth of her first son. Deeply intimate and intensely personal, Friedmann’s essays weave together seemingly disparate threads combining them with her lived experience of postnatal depression and the challenges of being a woman, a mother and a writer.
Friedmann shares the comfort that she found in the small and manageable, in the things that helped. She writes with a great depth of feeling about Centre Stage, her brightly coloured lipstick, a painting given to her by a friend, and eating her favourite pho, juxtaposing these near-banalities of everyday life with discussions about the intergenerational trauma of the Holocaust, post-structuralist psychoanalytic theory (leaning heavily on Lacan) and Siri Hustvedt’s theory of art.
Each subject is explored with subtlety and great depth of feeling and Friedmann is always careful not to speak for all women and to point out her areas of particular advantage. She takes the personal as political and pays close attention to intersectionality, to gender, race and class and to the ways that these factors affect experiences of the world, of womanhood, of mental illness.
Always careful not to alienate her readers, whether that be through clear and considered explanations about complex points of theory or by admitting her own privilege where it arises, Friedmann has produced an engrossing and fiercely intelligent work, easily digestible by all. In this regard, the only fault that readers could find is that, while her commitment to ‘bearing witness’ is admirable, merely acknowledging one’s own entitlement or pointing at someone else’s lack of it, does very little to address that imbalance. A lack of positive action (either recorded in the book or demanded of its readers) in a mire of intersectional awareness rightfully leaves some wondering ‘well, and what?’
Despite this, Things That Helped is undeniably beautiful: beautifully written, beautifully designed and beautifully considered. Friedmann’s candour in the face of societal expectations is breathtaking. The brutal honesty of her revelations about (sometimes) wanting to hurt her child or kill herself, of her doubts about the life her husband has chosen, and indeed, the career she has chosen, is truly impressive.
Her writing is visceral, her anxieties real and urgent. Each digression-filled essay is an affirmation of the fortifying powers of friendship, family, art and love. In writing a chronicle of her postnatal depression, Friedmann has produced an insightful and impressive debut; a book about, more than anything, hope.