On the surface Jessica Bell’s life seems like an envious one, being born into a house of indie rockers and growing up to become a writer, publisher and artist. But a closer look at her life, at least the one that she offers readers in her memoir “Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel” (Vine Leaves Press, 2017), reveals it to be one big fucking mess (to put it lightly).
The book is arranged in five sections; the first three are the strongest and make for delightful reading. Unlike Lena Dunham’s character in the TV series “Girls,” who seeks out misadventure to help fill up a memoir while she is still in her 20s, Bell’s early life is extremely eventful and required no extra effort to find anguish. Her mother battled prescription drug dependency; Bell is a rape survivor who occasionally binged alcohol. At the end of the memoir readers may wonder how Bell emerged from it all so strong and capable.
I read the book around the time the TV series “13 Reasons Why” was released on Netflix, an adaptation of the young adult novel by Jay Asher, in which a teenage girl named Hannah narrates the reasons for her suicide in great detail. It struck me that that Bell’s narrative was the exact opposite of the fictional events depicted in the “13 Reasons Why”: her anger and despair were hard to put into words or make sense of. The inability to explain things seems more relatable, more realistic somehow.
Halfway through the memoir Bell befriends a guy named Cash. They grow close because of their mothers’ drug habits. She breaks down in front of him at one point:
I finished telling Cash how I’d thought about killing myself. I blamed it, out loud, on not being able to deal with my mum’s behaviour. But when I uttered those words, it felt like a mammoth lie. Mum’s behaviour was not the reason I wanted to kill myself. Yes, it may have heightened it, but it wasn’t the reason. I didn’t know the real reason why. Was I mad?
Can one really quantify a suicide like Hannah does in “13 Reasons Why”? Bell feels desperate like the fictional character Hannah and wonders how the world around her would react like after her death. Yet Bell lives on. Her story ends on a note of optimism, of finding a sense of self amidst extreme chaos, a dysfunctional family, teenage rebellion, and isolation.
Bell guides us through her life by talking to her reflection in the mirror and voices in her head. The “reflection” pieces are more introspective and read as if they serve a therapeutic function for Bell herself. Bell’s main narration style is precise and succinct, without the use of flowery language or overt emotional indulgence. It’s a breeze to read.
That is not to suggest that the text lacks depth. The relationship between Bell and her struggling mother is rich and remains at the heart of the story. It is their relationship that drives the narrative of Dear Reflection forward. The book includes an epilogue, a letter written by Bell’s mother about certain prescription drugs.
Bell moved from Australia to Greece after university, to be with the family of her partner. Her mother followed her to Greece eventually. In many ways the Mediterranean becomes a place of calm, of healing and starting over for Bell and her family. Moving from one side of the equator to another, as if mirroring the rhythm of the climate, changed the pace and tone of Bell’s writing about her life.
Readers do get some answers and clarity, eventually. By the end of the memoir Bell’s teenage life doesn’t really look like a string of unintelligible choices, but tell the story of a girl trying to fit in, find a place and people to belong with.
Debarun Sarkar is a writer currently based in Calcutta, India.