Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Jane Caro
Paperback, ISBN: 9781743534847, 29 Sept 2015, 400pages, $A34.99
Jane Caro is a natural storyteller. Her effusive, gregarious nature comes across perfectly in this funny and surprisingly lighthearted autobiography. It’s surprising because its subject matter isn’t always so light. Through the lens of her experiences, Caro explores mental illness, misogyny, sexism, bullying, the difficulty of being a working parent, the cut-throat nature of the advertising industry, and many other topics, but never does the book become self-indulgent, confessional, or depressing. Instead Caro maintains an overwhelming sense of gratitude, of humility, and of generosity towards her readers. As the title makes clear, the book is written in a very plain, clear English, and doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. Caro is completely open about the things she went through, including being run over by a car, her own abortion, her experiences in education, her experiences with the medical system, and the criticism she received while working as an advertising “creative” for not deferring:
The agency didn’t want professional; they wanted brilliant. We were damned if we did and damned if we didn’t. If, like the blokes, we stood up for our work and tried to force it through, we were seen as unacceptably difficult to work with. If we accepted rejection and feedback graciously, our work suffered and we were seen as not as talented as the blokes. (204)
The story charts a fairly standard narrative arc that moves from Caro’s birth, through a series of progressive and critical events that shaped her as she grew up in North Sydney in the 1970s. Right from the start, Caro’s chutzpah, determination, her ability to read and respond to a situation quickly (eg think on her feet), and her shrewd intelligence seem to be innate qualities that persist even when she is at her lowest. Despite her audacity, Caro develops deep anxieties that become almost unbearable around the time she finished high school. The contrast between her chaotic inner world and her tightly controlled outer world is portrayed with the delicacy and wisdom of deep hindsight. Though Caro doesn’t stray far from her own perceptions, they’re so clearly and contextually expressed that they become universal. As Caro struggles through her own debilitating OCD, her daughters’ premature births and illnesses, the ongoing sexism in nearly all aspects of her life but particularly with respect to her advertising work, her post-advertising work as an educator, a public speaker and commentator, author and television personality, she provides a series of rich nuggets of wisdom:
What have I learnt in my fifty-eight years on this planet? Just this: safety is an illusion and danger is reality. Terrible things can happen and they can happen to anyone. You are not special and nor is anyone else. Once I accepted the truth of that – not just intellectually but viscerally – I gave up trying to stay safe. I stopped battling to control the uncontrollable. (372)
It strikes me that one of the key themes of this book is that silence is toxic and at the root of all sorts of problems: “silence merely passes on shame” (157). Caro doesn’t spare herself – she makes mistakes and takes risks and not all of them work out, but the whole thrust of the book is about opening the lines of communication, and speaking without fear about those things that confuse, hurt or stifle us. Regardless of how deeply Caro looks within for answers, what she never does is apologise. There’s absolutely no shame here—not of her mental health issues, her parenting, her outspokenness, her relationship choices, her political affiliations, her atheism, her engagement in public conversation or her career choices. By not apologising, even as she shares her worst mistakes, Caro encourages her readers to show compassion to themselves. For that alone, this witty, enjoyable, open-hearted and plain-speaking book has the potential to be life changing for many readers. Easy to read and utterly clear, Plain-Speaking Jane is a delightful book. Those who have struggled with any kind of mental illness will particularly value the frank, fresh way that Caro works through her own issues through a combination of mindfulness and therapy (not all of it professional), but it’s a book that will speak to all readers in a way that is as entertaining as it is generous.