At home with Lucia Osborne-Crowley

Lucia Osborne-Crowley is a journalist, essayist, writer, and legal researcher. Her debut was the 2020 memoir I Choose Elena, a work she has followed up in 2021 with My Body Keeps Your Secrets.

Her news reporting has appeared in ABC News, Guardian, Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Women's Agenda. Her long-form writing has appeared in The Lifted Brow and Meanjin.

At home with Lucia Osborne-Crowley


ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Lucia, I am so thrilled to be talking to you today.

LUCIA: Thank you for having me. I'm very, very thrilled to be here. I love the podcast and I'm really honoured to be a guest. So, thank you.

ASTRID: I have been looking forward to speaking to you for a while. You are currently in London.

LUCIA: I am. Yes.

ASTRID: That feels very adventurous and exotic given that I am in lockdown in Melbourne right now. Well done on your life choices.

LUCIA: Oh, thank you.

ASTRID: You have published two books. I Choose Elena, and My Body Keeps Your Secrets. Now, My Body Keeps Your Secrets is just out in August 2021, but before we start to speak about that, I feel like we can't jump right in there without acknowledging and remembering, I Choose Elena. So, can you tell us about your debut memoir, which I have to say, Lucia, made me think and made me Google and really stuck with me.

Oh, well thank you for saying that. I really, really, really appreciate it and it means a lot to me. So, I Choose Elena is something that I never ever expected to write, especially in book form. It's one of these weird things where I've always wanted to be a writer and I've always wanted to write books, but I never expected that it would be this one. So, when I was 15, I was sexually assaulted on a night out by a stranger in Sydney. And at the time I was so convinced that I would be blamed for this having happened, that I immediately, almost without thinking about it, decided not to tell anyone.

And I was quite badly injured and I went home and I took care of my injuries on my own and I didn't tell my friends who were out with me that night. I didn't tell my parents. I didn't tell the police. I didn't go to a doctor. And I just immediately was so ashamed of it. I was also a gymnast at the time. I was a elite gymnast. I was training seven days a week. That's my first love and was the most important thing in my life. But the injuries I got from the rape stayed with me in a way that I didn't realise. So basically, I tried to keep training and ignore what had happened, but a few months later I started realising that I couldn't do my tricks anymore. I couldn't balance the way I used to. My handstands were off. My landings were off. Something had changed and I couldn't communicate with my body in the way that I had been able to before.

And somewhere in my mind, I knew that something had changed that night, but I didn't want to acknowledge that, I was quite afraid of it and losing my gymnastics career at that time seemed like the worst thing that could happen to a person ever. I was 16 and so in love with that part of my life. So, I kept going and I ended up having a catastrophic injury in a trial competition for World Championships, would have been my second World Championships, and I fell very badly and injured myself. And it turned out that that injury is something that I never recovered from. I still can't run or jog or do anything on that injured ankle.

So then fast forward 10 years, I still haven't told anyone what happened. I haven't processed it at all. I frequently have dreams about that night. I have flashbacks. I have nightmares. But apart from that, I don't acknowledge it. And then in that time, I also got very sick physically, when I was 17, I was admitted to hospital for the first time. And that turned into, I was hospitalised every five or six weeks for about two years with acute abdominal pain, bleeding, vomiting, loss of consciousness, all these really weird symptoms that seem to have come on really suddenly. Because until then my health was very good, because it was the only thing in my life was keeping my body at peak performance.

And then I got sick and I was diagnosed with endometriosis and then I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, both of which are acute and chronic inflammatory conditions, and that really changed my life. And then when I was about 25, I got really much sicker than I had ever been. I couldn't stay out of hospital. I was losing loads of weight. I was physically just, everything was falling apart. I couldn't work. I couldn't keep myself out of hospital for more than a couple of weeks. And my doctors were just saying, ‘Your Crohn's disease is really out of control and it's actually quite dangerous’.

And someone had asked me when I was 17, in one of my hospital admissions, a doctor had asked me, ‘Have you ever been sexually assaulted?’ Because that can lead to this kind of auto-immune disorder. At the time I lied because I was very committed to keeping it a secret and I said, ‘No’. But then it was niggling at me and so when I got very sick at 25, I told someone and then I started telling all of my doctors and I said, ‘I actually was quite violently assaulted when I was 15 and could that be connected?’ And they all said, ‘Yes, there's very, very strong evidence to suggest that an assault like that, particularly if your body is not treated afterwards, can become these kind of permanent illnesses’.

And I was going to all these appointments and I have been a journalist for eight years now, and so my coping mechanism was just to take notes as if I was reporting a story. I just went into all these doctor's appointments and I gave the person in this story a name, and I was just writing about her. I was like, this is interesting, this medical stuff is interesting and I didn't know this. And my first job as a journalist was for Women's Agenda, and I was covering sexual assault all the time and I didn't even know that there could be this connection. So, how could people who aren't reporting on gender based violence know about this?

And so, at the time it was just something I was doing to put some distance between myself and what was happening, but then I got to the end of the ... Well, there's no end to the recovery process, but I got to the end of that acute phase of illness and I had all this information from all these doctors and psychiatrists about how rape affects a person and a body and a life. And I thought, this could be useful, this information could be useful and I'm lucky to have been able to get it because I live in a place where you can mostly see doctors for free and I also had some income, so I could see psychiatrists, and I'm very lucky in those ways.

And so, I just felt like I wanted to put it into something that might be able to condense this information and say to people, ‘If you have been assaulted, these are the people that you can call’. And so, I wrote this essay about it and started tentatively speaking to people about publishing it. And I had an editor at the ABC and at The Lifted Brow, both of whom I trusted very, very much. And I sent it to them and they both said, ‘You should definitely publish this’. And so, I decided to do that. I was going to publish it under a pseudonym and then I thought, if I'm saying that I shouldn't be ashamed of this, then I should either publish it under my own name or not at all. At the last minute, I was like, ‘Oh, actually, I should publish this under my name’. And then, I did, and then it seemed to connect with people.

And because of that, a publisher in the UK read, I think it was The Lifted Brow piece that she read and she offered me a book deal, to turn that story into a book. So, I Choose Elena is a book length essay, so it's a very short memoir. So, the original piece that I wrote was about 6,000 words. And the book builds out on all the research that I couldn't include in that piece and all the parts of my story, that physical and mental breakdown that came after the rape, all the parts that I couldn't include in that original essay. And that was published by Allen & Unwin in 2020.

And yeah, so as I said, because I kept this a secret for so long and then wrote it in a book, where anyone could read it, it is really the last book that I ever thought I would write, but I'm very grateful that I got to write it. And I feel like it's really helped me as well as hopefully other people, to keep having this conversation about assault and gender-based violence and what it actually does to us.

ASTRID: I am very glad that you wrote, I Choose Elena, Lucia. Thank you.

LUCIA: Thank you.

ASTRID: Now, the act of writing a memoir like this, it's a testament to your experience and for the reader the experience is one of witnessing. You are sharing and the reader is witnessing your experience, but also the experience of so many people in our world. It's now been out for about 18 months. And before we dive into My Body Keeps Your Secrets, I guess I wanted to ask you, obviously you've had good feedback, but did you achieve your goal? If I can ask that question, you put your story out there and you have affected so many people for good, did it do what you thought it would do?

LUCIA: No, that's a great question and I'm very glad you asked it because it's something that I've been thinking about a lot recently, especially with the second one coming out. And yes, it did. And I say that because I try and tell myself this a lot, which is that I am a perfectionist and I'm very critical of myself. And I still have a lot of shame about my own ability and talent and all that kind of thing. So, I spend a lot of time thinking to myself, ‘Your writing is bad and the books are bad’, and all of that stuff. And I try and tell myself, and I believe this, and these are the only moments when I can calm the voices in my head that want to be really self-loathing. The only thing that's important to me really is if it connects with people and if people read it who maybe needed to, and maybe needed a story that felt true to them.

And I've had people write to me saying, ‘I went to my GP and got a mental health plan and have 10 free therapy sessions, and hadn't done that before’. Or, ‘I hadn't understood before what certain events had meant to me’. And if that happens even once, then my original goal, the most important goal has been achieved, I think. I say that tentatively, because it's hard for me to convince myself of that because I'm constantly finding things that are wrong with it or finding things that I could have done better. But I do think with that first book, I have achieved what I wanted to, which was only just to even just have one conversation with a survivor who it might've meant something too.

ASTRID: I'm so glad.

LUCIA: Thank you.

ASTRID: Can you introduce us to My Body Keeps Your Secrets?

LUCIA: I'm glad we started with I Choose Elena, because this book is built upon that one, I think, in important ways. And so, I think it's much easier for me to introduce it now that we've talked about the first one, so thank you. So basically, when I finished, I Choose Elena, I knew that that had to be a very short book and it had to be about that specific story, the specific series of events that led to me understanding physical and sexual trauma for the first time in my life, even though it had been such a big part of my life. And when I finished it, there was just so much that I couldn't say in that book because it didn't relate directly to my story.

And I really wanted to expand on the research and also the feelings and the emotional landscape that trauma leaves us with. And in some ways, because I kept that secret for so long and because the assault itself was relative to others, easy to understand as rape, for example, because it was committed by a stranger and there were weapons involved. And even though I found it very hard to understand for years and years and years, in the grand scheme of things it's quite clear cut, and that is not necessarily useful because that's not most people's experience. And we know that the vast majority of assaults are much more nuanced than that, things like coercive control coming into it. We know that most assaults are committed by people we know.

So, it just felt like there was so much more to be said about how these things affect us, that couldn't be captured by that story, because that story is just statistically not very indicative of most people's experience. So, I spoke to all my editors and we came up with a plan to activate my skills as a journalist and just speak to people and interview people over months and in some cases, years, about things that had happened to them and how it had affected them. And my main goal was to produce something that could speak to more people's experiences and take that initial goal that we just spoke about with I Choose Elena, and make that a bit more accessible to a wider range of people. Because I think in these conversations, the most important thing is to be inclusive and to try and get the message across that, and this is the thing that I never understood about my own life, is that different things affect us in different ways. Trauma can be so many different things.

I want everyone to be able to see that all their traumatic experiences, big and small, and continued and runoff, and all of them, are valid and affect us. And the more we understand that, the more empowered we will be to be able to have more self-compassion and understand where these parts of us come from and the fact that they are actually external. These things that have been done to us that we so often blame ourselves for. I sometimes call it a nonfiction novel, I don't know if it's worthy of that categorization, but what I wanted to do was bring all these characters together who are all real people and who have real stories, and put them together and make connections between them in a way that shows that even though their experiences are so different, our experiences of abuse or violation, or anything that compromises our integrity and our humanity, has effects on us that we share.

And so, these things that make us feel so isolated and so alone, because they are necessarily things that we feel ashamed of, because of the way society works. Society tells us not to talk about them, so we can't talk about them with anyone. So, we feel these symptoms, which is what they are, and these side-effects, we feel them alone in our own heads, and we feel so isolated in them, but we're actually all feeling them at the same time. And so, I wanted to create a sense of that conversation happening between all these people that I interviewed, even though these people will never meet each other or even know who each other are, because most of the people are anonymized.

And the reference to secrets in the title is this idea that what I figured out ... The more I read and the more I spoke to people, what I figured out was that trauma and shame are so linked to each other because trauma is firstly things that happen to us and secondly, the way we process them. And so often the things that we can't process and that end up manifesting in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, those are so often the things that we feel we can't tell anyone, and we feel we can't get help for. They are things that are attached to shame. And I think rape is the big example because it's easier for people to understand, we know that we, as a society, have made survivors feel ashamed of sexual assault.

And then, there are so many other examples, different kinds of coercive intimate relationships, or sexual relationships and emotional abuse and coercive emotional relationships. There's so many different elements of it. But the thing that connects them is that we feel ashamed of these things and that both causes and reinforces trauma and the symptoms of trauma. And so, it seems to me that if there is that link between them, then trying to be more open about these experiences seems to be one of the things that will help.

So, if we start these conversations and we say, ‘I'm actually not keeping these secrets anymore because it's bad for me, it's making me sick, it's making me anxious, it's making me afraid. I've always been taught that I have to keep these secrets for other people. I have to keep this secret for my first boyfriend who did this thing, but in fact, I don't, that's not my job, even though I've always been taught that it is, and I will be able to heal from some of these symptoms if I stop keeping these secrets’. And that kept coming up again and again and again, in the interviews that I did.

And so, I think it's just an interesting idea to link all the stories and to try and understand trauma better, I think, and why we have as a society, associated some forms of violence with shame, and gender based violence in particular, why that has become something that is shameful and other forms of being a victim of violence are not, and how just that difference causes a ripple effect and can really, really, really damage people's lives, even more so sometimes than the violence itself.

ASTRID: One of the things that I was struck by with both of your works but particularly, My Body Keeps Your Secrets, is the idea that not only if we refuse to accept shame and are able to begin to share our stories and tell our stories and reclaim our own narratives, that actually helps us all develop the language with which we can continue this public discussion and hold perpetrators to account and hold people who don't understand or refuse to believe, to account. Because the problem is with them, not people who have violence or abuse inflicted on them.

This is a book where you weave other people's stories together, as you have just so beautifully articulated, but for readers who come to My Body Keeps Your Secrets, after they have read, I Choose Elena, there is still a great deal of your own story and your own continuing story in this book and that means that you have shared more with us. You are clearly continuing to think about and gain control over your own experience in a way that you choose. Can you talk me through the process of knowing how much you want to share with the world?

LUCIA: Yeah, that is another fantastic question. And it's very much an open one in my mind, which is to say, I haven't landed on an answer yet. With this book, I went back and forth on this a lot, because on the one hand I really wanted to de-centre myself because as I was saying earlier, in almost every single way with this story, I'm very, very lucky. And when I approached doctors, I was believed and I did get treatment and that's because I'm white and middle-class, and statistically that makes me more likely to be believed. And as I said, I had a job that meant that I could spend money on private psychiatric help and things like that. And those things make my story unusual because I have privileges that most people don't have.

And so, a big part of me wanted to take myself out of it and I want to be really clear about the fact that a lot of other people's experiences need to be shared much more than mine. So, I really wanted to take myself out of it. Then there were a lot of editorial conversations about how that wasn't really working. So, part of this is an emotional answer and then part of it is a craft answer, I guess, which is a bit of a weird combination. But how it happened was that some of my editors were like, ‘We need your voice to tie it together’. And I guess, the first manuscript I wrote felt like I was really trying not to put any of myself in there, probably because that is what I was doing, and it didn't work from a writing perspective.

And this is my first full length book, so I had to find a way to make it feel like a book and keeping myself completely out of it wasn't working. So then, we went back and forth on how much to put in there, partly as a way to make the narrative a bit coherent because I'm then the person who stays consistent throughout. I don't think I ended up doing that very well. I think some parts of this aren't very coherent, but putting myself in there was a way to do that. And I wanted to do well from a writing perspective. I wanted to create something that made sense. And in some ways that was driving me more than thinking about what I wanted to share and what I didn't.

So, then afterwards I did have a few months of being like, okay, I have actually ended up putting a lot of stuff in this that I am quite ashamed of, and I'm working on it every day, but I do still struggle with shame all the time. And there's stuff in here about how my assault impacts my relationships and my adult sex life and all this stuff that some part of me thinks is useful and then another part of me is worried I shouldn't have put in there. Again, I feel like I should have a better answer to this, but this is the honest answer, which is that I still struggle with it a lot. I worry sometimes that people will read this and think there's more than they wanted to know about me in there. That's a big worry that I have, like I've exposed too much. So, I do worry about that a lot.

And then on the other hand, sometimes I think that it is useful to put my own experiences in there, because it's such a weird cognitive dissonance. Because the thing is that even though I am ashamed, I also know, as we've been talking about, that talking about these things openly is the way to fight shame and therefore, the way to fight the effects that shame has on us. So, I want to be honest. I want to be honest and exposing, and I want to put myself on the page as clearly as possible, so that I can, in a way, walk the walk as well as ... I can't say, ‘We should be talking about this more’, and then not be willing to do it myself. That was eventually what won out, I think, that I needed to be able to show that I could do what I was saying we should be doing. But then as I said, when I read parts of this, sometimes I'm like, ‘Oh God’.

ASTRID: I am so glad that you gave both an emotional and a craft answer. This is a literary podcast, but I think that your voice in My Body Keeps Your Secrets, and your willingness to share parts of your experience, intimate parts of your experience, is what makes you the credible reporter, the credible sharer of other people's stories, because otherwise, if it was more reportage or nonfiction, it would be like an impersonal narrator telling intimate stories from other people. And people have come to you and shared their stories with you, Lucia, and that is a beautiful thing that they have done. And you have also found a way to share their stories.

That actually leads me into my next question. In this book, you do refer to other writers, including Bri Lee and Eggshell Skull, but plenty more, and talk about the idea of having these conversations, partly through books, but partly through our public discourse, what has reading the works of other writers, like Bri, meant for you personally, but also in terms of how you approach publishing both of your books?

LUCIA: Yeah, I'm really glad you asked this because this is something that I really, really, really want to come across as a big part of this book, because it's such a big part of everything for me. I mean, it is really the only thing that I think led me to do any of this. I mean, Eggshell Skull is the perfect example. I read Eggshell Skull just before I told my first doctor about my assault and I don't know that there's a universe where I would have done that, if I hadn't read that book. And that, I think more than anything else, is what set everything into motion. And so, other people's writing in all of this, I think is probably the most important thing. And I think that speaks to the fact that there is something, at least for me, incredibly special about the relationship you have with a book, because it is incredibly safe, for me personally.

So when I was reading Bri's book, for example, I was alone in my bedroom. I was in my safe space. I didn't have to say anything about it immediately. I could sit with it, and I did, I sat with it for weeks and I read it twice in a row. And that the time and space to breathe that a book gives you is I think, unlike anything else. And I think that's why they're so powerful. And then, I read a few other writers who had written about similar things, Leslie Jamison is a big one. She wasn't writing about assault in particular, but about other difficult emotional experiences. And just the fact that I could sit with the book and sit with her as a person on the page, and Bri as a person on the page, without them needing anything from me, I think that is what is really special about books.

And I think the fact that those works allowed me to process in my own mind, with the company of someone who wasn't needing anything from me, as I said, who was there on the page, but didn't need me to respond in real-time. That for me was what built up the courage to be able to speak. And I think about this a lot in terms of writing and speaking, because necessarily the first time I disclosed my rape to doctors, I had to do it with my voice, I had to say, ‘This happened’. And then of course, because they're medical professionals, they said, ‘Tell me what happened’. And I had to say exactly what happened, and I'd never done that before. And I think I needed to build up to that through reading and writing before I could do it through speaking.

And I'm sure not everyone is like this, but I think a lot of writers are like this and I find I have that with everything. I can't say anything that's difficult until I write it or read it first because I find that space so much safer and I'm an introvert and I find conversations much harder than reading and writing. So, I think the connection between writing about these things and the public debate is really important because I think there's a through line between them where they both feed into each other. And I think for me, at least, the writing and reading part of it is what allows the public debate to happen, because it's what builds people up to be able to speak in real life to people, about the worst things that have happened to them. Because they've had, it's almost like this time of gathering yourself and sitting with books and communing with other people's writing.

And you can read the same sentence over and over again, and you can write the same sentence over and over again, in a way that you can't when you're in a conversation, if that makes sense? I mean, it sounds so obvious to say, but I think it's a really important part of this. So yeah, the writers that I read while I was firstly in hospital, when I was having the most acute physical breakdown and emotional breakdown, the writers that I read in hospital and afterwards were, I think, the most important thing that happened in my life.

The fact that I picked up Eggshell Skull when I did, made everything else possible. That's why I said, I'm glad you mentioned that about this book because I want that to be clear, that that's such an important thing. And therefore that, that could be a super power for other people. I find sitting and reading the right book at the right time, genuinely like magic. And so to say that, maybe other people could be like, ‘Oh, I just need to find the right book and sit down for three days with it and not talk to anyone’.

ASTRID: You have just given the most perfect, if I can even use that phrase, most perfect explanation of why books matter and the power of the right book at the right time. Thank you.

LUCIA: Thank you.