Review of ‘Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel’ by Jessica Bell

In the spirit of this remarkably honest book I must admit I don’t read many memoirs, either because of the way they’re written or because of the form. I have no such reservations about ‘Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel’. It is car-crash compelling, if I can say so as a compliment. Fittingly, such paradoxes abound in the book and don’t detract from the verisimilitude of the narrative. Instead, they express in a wholly believable fashion the experience of a girl growing up in suburban Australia in the 80s and 90s as she negotiates the difficulties of having a bona fide rock star mother, who becomes increasingly ill over the course of the book, and the conservatism of the world outside their home. 

We meet Jessica aged four and sense she is already broken. Her parents have divorced and she lives with her mother and her mother’s new partner. There is contact with her father and although he has less presence in the narrative Jessica at least has an idea of who she is biologically, not that it seems to help her much. This is a book that invites all sorts of pop psychology, which I will do my best to resist. Instead, it’s worth asking a fundamental question: would Jessica have been the way she is regardless of her environment?

Her mother is the most powerful presence, closely followed by the ‘reflection’ of the title, a harsh internal voice that is no less pleasant for speaking brutal truths. It is to the latter that Jessica turns when, under the influence of misdiagnosed painkillers, her mother’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. The writing style is clear throughout, which given some of the events depicted shows how much effort the author has put in to being even-handed. It is yet another reason to empathise with her.

Inevitably, truths leak through. Some are critical of the mother, like when she smashes Jessica’s ornaments. Others reveal a deep resentment of the dull environment the family find themselves in. For example, when the very young Jessica is dropped off at school she thinks her mother is the most beautiful, exciting person there. She dresses differently and is clearly, unapologetically creative, while the other mothers come across as bland and infuriatingly judgemental. However, it is to this latter condition that Jessica eventually aspires simply to fit in. That she never manages it despite compromising her already confused identity could have inspired ranting in a lesser writer. Instead, the book expresses a kind of existential bewilderment that is no less troubling for being polite. Certainly, these experiences don’t give Jessica any useful grounding in negotiating relationships. She has one true friend, a more overtly angry rebel from a poorer background, but the girl dies while they are still at school. As with Jessica’s mother, everyone after that seems nondescript.

The inevitable sexual confusion is rendered in bleakly terrifying terms. The teenage Jessica loses her virginity in a manner that strongly suggests rape, although she is too drunk to remember what happened. None of the kids at the party knows what to do, although hindsight suggests the rapist could have done with a good kicking. Instead, Jessica goes on to experiment with bisexuality, although this sequence had less visceral power, suggesting that her heart belongs to… not daddy obviously but at least some sort of male. Unfortunately, she has even less luck here, with one man being so passive aggressive that he is, after the rapist, the most loathsome person in the book. Frustratingly, it’s a relationship that goes on for three years.

Jessica is frank about how sex doesn’t do it for her, a calm yet blisteringly honest admission that’s very useful in our hyper-eroticised age. Anyone of a similar sensitivity reading that passage will be comforted to know they are not alone. It also helps that the cover of ‘Dear Reflection’ illustrates the author’s physical beauty, which is significant in this context because cultural mores dictate that everything should just fall into her hands. It doesn’t of course, but it helps to know from the person herself in such an unambiguous fashion. Instead, Jessica channels her energies into art, especially music; although here again Jessica is like her mother, who still releases albums now.

Nature or nurture? My feeling inclines to the former. Creative people are difficult and will always struggle to fit in, no matter how much they want to. Isolation from and resentment of others does not diminish the creative individual’s love for them, no matter what the relationship.

As Jessica finds her own way far from her native Australia in Athens, Greece, the question of whether she meant to be a rebel or not matters less and less; she simply is. By the end of the memoir, the author is 35; one of those unacknowledged staging points in life where things are in balance, yet also edging towards the unknown with a degree more confidence. On the evidence of this excellent, simple but elegantly written memoir, I for one wish her the best.

‘Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel’ is released on 1 May 2017 and is available for pre-order here:

Pre-order

Jessica’s website

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