Thank you for listening

By Rebecca Lister

By Rebecca Lister. This article is part of our April and May focus on Arts and Human Rights.

The first thing I notice about Karen* is her smile.  It is wide and open and when she smiles you can see her even, small teeth.  Karen smiles a lot.  At first I wonder if she smiles because she is nervous, but then I learn that she smiles because she is generous.  But life is not always generous in return, even if you do have a beautiful smile and an external cheery demeanour.  Karen is good at many things: photography, film making, speaking Japanese, stage managing for theatre companies.  At times I wonder why she is doing writing workshops with me – she seems already so accomplished.  But slowly, through her writing I discover that all is not as it seems.  Behind the wide smile is a young woman who is trying to come to terms with her many fragilities:


Things you should know


You should know how to tie your shoelaces.

Can’t get outside the house without shoelaces,

without shoes, without protection from the world.


You should know how to walk so that others

can’t see your fear, see your hatred, see your



You should know how to sing.  Sing and free

your soul, release the pent-up worries that

trouble your sleep.


You should know how to sleep.  How to fake it

and how to sleep for real, to avoid the lonely

inky blackness of night.


You should know how to sip, to not drown

yourself from the inside out, but slow down

and satisfy yourself.


(From Write On  – zine produced by the Artful Dodgers Studios)


Alice* is small and thin like a whippet and moves with the same amount of speed and dexterity.  I have known her for a number of years and seen her deal with all sorts of adversity.  She has a steely will and a strong resilience especially for survival.  But like Karen her outside demeanour hides her fragile interior.  She makes no bones about the fact that she has struggles with her family, her mental health and her addictions.  She’s an honest young woman with things to say:


Mum had a hard life

Mum tried her hardest to keep us safe

Mum failed but never fell

Mum held her head up high around us

But there was a deep sigh lingering around

Mum tried to cover up her sadness

But come on

We heard it

All those screams, all those thumps

Did you think you could really hide

All those bumps?


(From Write On  – zine produced by the Artful Dodgers Studios)


When I first meet Anita* I am struck by how contained she appears. Slowly we get to know each other and over time her story is revealed. In 2002 Anita lost her sister to suicide; in 2003 her husband. Inside her calm and containment is a huge understanding of life in its most fragile and minute form:


One Sunday morning, 6.15, Spring


Nothing prepared me for this

though I felt it coming

in my bones

brooding, tumorous, rumbling


gathering pace

a fury

inside your soul

taking up the space where YOU once were

sticky oil spill despair

sucking you up


Can’t look

won’t believe

not happening

to you

to us


The howl of death came

and time stood still


Ribbons of ibis curl through the sky

banjo frogs jam

blue tongue sunbakes

hay smells sweet

you became the earth you loved.


(From publication/project Nothing prepared me for this  – Support After Suicide)


Kevin* has a beautiful Irish accent but sometimes I can’t quiet catch what he is saying. I have to say, “could you repeat that please?” Kevin generously repeats his words and I notice that he has a cheeky smile and sparkly eyes. I think of a song that my father used to sing “When Irish eyes are smiling”, but I know that Kevin does not smile or sparkle all the time.  He is a policeman and has no doubt seen a lot but didn’t ever see the death of his son to suicide coming:


Let me shed my tears


They come to my eyes but falter there

an inner secret stranded where

I let no one in to see my hurt, my fears

a broken heart but still no tears.


I long for tears like torrential rain

to clear the air and cleanse this pain

tears for you and all your notions

bring on my tears like a swelling ocean.

Emotional strain, stress and grief

let the psychic motion bring relief

nurse this wound cut so deep

unwind my soul and let me weep.


I unveil my plight with one who cared

conscious of the burden shared

tears of love and joy and gain

I long to shed those tears again.


(From publication/project Nothing prepared me for this  – Support After Suicide)


The common link between Karen, Alice, Anita and Kevin is that all in some way feel closed off from the world – be it from depression or fear or through social taboo.  Their other common link is that they have found a way to be heard and that is through writing.  These four people all need to write and it is through writing that they can make sense of the world.

Using writing as a therapeutic form, for self-expression or in order to share experiences is neither new nor novel.  It’s been happening for decades in all cultures and civilisations.

Using writing as a therapeutic form, for self-expression or in order to share experiences is neither new nor novel.  It’s been happening for decades in all cultures and civilisations.

But for some people the desire to share and communicate has been robbed from them – be it due to incarceration, addiction, mental illness, grief and loss or social taboo such as the loss of a loved one to suicide.

This is the impetus behind the Thank you for listening project. I am currently the artist-in-residence with Jesuit Social Services and over 12 months will develop and produce the project.  The residency is funded by the Australia Council’s Community Partnership fund through the Creative Producer scheme.

During my residency I will devise, create and produce three writing, publication, spoken word and recording (audio and video) projects with my partner organisation Jesuit Social Services ( Jesuit Social Services work with people who require focused attention due to their specific critical social and cultural issues.



The three projects are:

The Studios provide innovative and creative spaces for young people aged 17 – 28 who experience marginalisation due to substance misuse, mental health, homelessness, involvement with youth justice, unemployment and any other risk factors that cause disadvantage or social exclusion.

Tarrengower is a low security transitional facility with a reintegration focus.  Women are supported with their transition back into community life through a series of directed and specialist programs, community work and engagement.

Support After Suicide provides counseling and support for people who are bereaved as a result of suicide.

All three projects will be produced as stand-alone projects but will be thematically linked through the exploration of the issues people experience when they feel silenced. A number of guest artists will also work on the project including writers Cate Kennedy and Alicia Sometimes, poet Terry Jaensch, musicians Andrew McSweeney and Jesse Hooper and playwright Mari Lourey.

I have been exploring “silence” through my artistic and community cultural development work for over twenty five years.  I have worked extensively with those who have been “locked out” of our society – be it via incarceration, mental health, drug and alcohol misuse, grief, social isolation, shame and/or loss.  The work that I make and produce is driven by a belief that words, language and expression are vital to our understanding of the world; this belief holds at its core the tenet “without words we are nothing.”

My work as a community artist over many years has led me to know that people have a great urge to communicate but often don’t have the avenues or platforms in which to do so.  My work to date has also led me to know that these same people frequently turn to the written form as a therapeutic tool to understand, process and share their experiences.  With the Thank you for listening project I hope to give voice to community members who feel silenced.

And lastly – Jan* has spent time in prison.  I have no idea why she was there and do not ask.  It is not my business to know.  It is evident from my first meeting with Jan that she is very bright; she has great vocabulary and can express herself clearly and thoughtfully.  Jan likes to write and has had experience with a theatre company and as a musician.  She has a cheeky energy and is the sort of woman that you want to listen to.  She is a good story-teller and writer.  Her life experiences have led her to know that often the simplest of things are often the most important:


Things you should know


You should know, when to be quiet.

You should know, not to lick a knife.

You should know, not to hassle me,

you should know I wouldn’t hassle you.

You should know, I know.


You should know that politicians sometimes lie,

I don’t know if they do,

that’s just what I think.


You should know when to go home.

You should know when I want to go home.


I try not to blame you.

You should know, not to blame me.


You should know to watch out, when I’m on my bike.

You should know, I can watch out for myself.


You should know

you should know.


For more about the Thank you for listening project click here.


* all names changed to protect privacy

Rebecca Lister is an animateur and has worked for 25 years in the theatre industry and the community cultural development sector. She works as a playwright, director, dramaturge, performer, project manager and teacher. She has worked as a professional artist in Queensland, Victoria and the Northern Territory. She is currently artist in residence with Jesuit Social Services.