TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains discussions about intra-familial sexual abuse (incest), suicide and other topics that you may find uncomfortable.
Mostly people just want to run away. The subject is too difficult, too dark, too troubling to cope with. So it’s something of a surprise to find a crowd of almost 200 people at Addi Road in Marrickville on a cold winter’s evening for the launch of the third season of No Laughing Matter, a podcast dedicated to telling the stories of ‘victim-survivors’ of incest.
Tanya Lee, the producer behind No Laughing Matter, understands unease around the subject. It’s why she came up with a unique answer to the fears and silence: getting well-known public figures to voice the stories, with each celebrity the personal choice of a victim-survivor, a narrator they trusted and admired.
It’s no easy bridge to build. But over the last three years Tanya has rallied figures as varied as Ray Martin, Adam Hills, Hugo Weaving, Jennifer Byrne, Andrew Denton, Annabel Crabb, Richard Fidler, Jean Kittson, David Field, Sam Mostyn, and Zoe and Gia Carides (who did a sisters’ story) to read for No Laughing Matter. The use of comedians initially gave the podcast its deliberately ironic name. No Laughing Matter quickly morphed to involve actors and other major media presences. Much to Tanya’s delight, it was recently cited among the Top Ten Podcasts in Australia by the Grace Tame Foundation.
The path to promoting No Laughing Matter has not been straightforward. Just recently, Tanya had to cope with yet another rejection when a radio station cancelled her interview at the last minute due to the conversation suddenly being deemed “not suitable for our program” and “triggering”. She’s still upset by that, but not surprised. “I called them cowards.”
There are times when the silence around the subject becomes something that “destroys me”, she admits. “But it also makes me keep persisting.”
“There’s a new language around it all now, they call it ‘intra-familial child abuse’. I prefer to call it what it is: ‘incest’. It’s become like the new ‘C’ word. You can say ‘c__t’ on just about any television series these days. But talking about incest is still the ultimate taboo. My language might be too hard hitting. But I am not going to call incest ‘intra-familial child sexual abuse’. Because everyone knows what ‘incest’ means. Everyone.”
It’s this clarity and raw directness that helps define No Laughing Matter (NLM). But Tanya is not so zealous she can’t see how the subject matter requires strategic and persuasive ways of bringing people to it. “Talking about incest can become overwhelming for everyone involved,” Tanya says. “It’s why the approach with No Laughing Matter is so carefully structured. It’s a way of keeping everyone safe. I’d see victim-survivors at charity events brought out to tell their story and I felt they were like lambs to the slaughter. It was painful and intense. My way of doing No Laughing Matter protects the victim. It protects the audience too.”
Tanya and her team “help write the words with the victim-survivor. To make it more listenable, more palatable, and less… I can’t think of a word,” she says, reaching and turning quiet.
“It takes a lot too, to get someone well-known to read the story. And especially to get the person the victim-survivor wants. Sometimes I feel very proud of the outcomes. You get the person they want,” Tanya says, “and you feel like a hero!”
Tonight one of the readers for No Laughing Matter, Craig Foster, serves as the MC for the the season three launch at Addi Road. Fellow NLM narrators Andrew Denton and Bryan Brown work as a Laurel-and-Hardy double-act, helping to run an amusing auction of donated artworks to raise thousands of dollars so that the podcast can continue. Comedians Luke Heggie and Julia Wilson, who’ve also read for NLM, blow through the night with raucous humour, keeping the crowd buoyant. Guitarist Peter Northcote, who co-produces NLM with Tanya, closes out the evening with a daring and beautiful instrumental version of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’.
Peter exhorts people to find the podcast online and tune in. “People say, ‘I don’t want to deal with that. I don’t want to know about that.’ Yeah, okay. But it’s important to understand there are two groups of people involved with this program: the victim-survivors and their stories; and then the arty side of it, the narrators, who have all been fucking brilliant. I swear to you, they have been incredible. Just go and listen to each episode of No Laughing Matter: they are little pieces of artwork, I think.”
This description is borne out by a three promos scanning across the content of each series. The audience hears intense and steady fragments directly drawn from the incest experience – along with how the distinguished and compassionate narrators voice them and give them a second life. It’s a hell of a surprise: you are taken in by something compelling rather than repelling; something strangely liberating rather than oppressive.
The alchemy of that rising, positive energy is sown into the community experience of the night itself. And witnessed in a powerful panel conversation chaired by Sam Mostyn that involves Tanya Lee, Professor Catherine Lumby of the University of Sydney, and Addi Road Chief Operating Officer Melissa Holmes (formerly the Program Coordinator for Stepping Out, a service that supports female survivors of childhood sexual abuse).
Catharine discusses how coming forward is “truly difficult thing”. It’s not simply because many people don’t want to hear the stories, or the flat out trauma of victim-survivors either. “Adults want to protect children. But children also want to protect the adults who love them. They want to protect the good people around them.”
Tanya understands. “My story was my dad. I will always love my dad. Years later, [I know] he would have loved to not have it done it.” She then speaks of the dual burden of having to live with her pain and “the burden of my father’s guilt”.
Melissa Holmes describes these terrible paradoxes as “betrayal trauma. It produces very wounded children. They can’t run away. They are in their own home. They freeze. It can break the brain a little bit. It doesn’t just happen once. Because you are in the family home you can never quite sleep with both eyes closed. The grooming and the manipulation then end as feelings of powerlessness and worthlessness, that somehow you deserved it, you wanted it, you liked it.”
Catharine Lumby nods in agreement and admits to awful nights, her husband “accepting me always getting up and bumping into walls because I can’t sleep. I am still scared of the dark.”
The aftermath of incest, the vulnerabilities to domestic violence and coercive control, the problems with mental health, anxiety, bullying at work and other forms of abuse… they inevitably run on. “Even the capacity to just make friends or keep friends,” Melissa says. “There’s an incapacity to form bonds that can lead to social isolation, addiction, self-harm, even homelessness.”
Melissa would love to see the conversation about incest continue, out in the open. “Much like domestic violence was once a dirty little secret but, given oxygen, we now have a language around it and legislation to reflect the nuances. The shame and secrecy around incest mimics the abuse itself.”
As a victim-survivor who does so much in public, Tanya admits finding it very hard to reconcile the shadows in her personal life despite all the high-profile work she does with No Laughing Matter. “It’s not all rosy. I’m considered reasonably well. But I can tell you I am not.” She turns and looks across the room and without naming so many figures here who are well-known, thanks the many victim-survivors who sit quietly among us and “the narrators, all of you so respectful and appreciative of the stories we brought to you. Thank you for being here again with us. You just didn’t do the narration and disappear.”
The night is ending. Addi Road volunteers have cooked up a fine main meal of chili con carne and home-made recipe of bread-and-butter pudding. Eating together in such circumstances feels all the warmer and restoring on this winter night. Staff and volunteers are cleaning up. A collective spirit of storytelling and giving at a big community gathering has made the night a success on many levels – for the podcast and for everyone lucky enough to have come along and take some of its compassionate energies away with them. An understanding of this comes with Sam Mostyn’s description of Addi Road as “a small place with a big heart”.
Afterwards, Tanya thanks Rosanna Barbero, the CEO of Addi Road. She’s effusive to a point near tears about their working friendship, though there is no sign Tanya will actually cry. “Rosanna came to my soft launch a few years ago,” Tanya says. “We got to know each other through Craig (Foster) and Bryan (Brown). Rosanna is a driving force behind my continued confidence. She really backs me on this and she really backs me. I sing her praise. I sing it and I want people to know it.”
Privately, Rosanna shares a past experience of working with children rescued from brothels in Cambodia. “I had this day where I tried to get them to talk about any dreams they had for another life. We were just talking. But they were mystified. I realized these kids did not have dreams.”
In her keynote address in recognition of No Laughing Matter and Tanya Lee’s dedication to giving so many survivor-victims and the stories the light they want and need, Rosanna alluded to the way incest “thrives in the shadows”. She also spoke of the right to imagine another kind of life: “Through compassion, understanding, and collective action, we can create a future where every child grows up free from fear, free from pain, and free to dream.”
You can find out more about the No Laughing Matter podcast here