I shook Marlene Cooper’s hand for the first time ten minutes ago. Now, she is baring her soul, telling me about some of her most deeply felt pain and fear. I’m learning things about her that would take months, maybe years, to discover in the course of normal social interaction. But this is no ordinary conversation. Marlene is a “Living Book” and I am one of her “readers”.
The Living Library to which Marlene belongs is run by the Wollongong City Council in New South Wales (NSW); there are dozens of similar programmes around Australia. The concept originated in Denmark nine years ago. Community organisers, trying to counteract youth violence, had an innovative, risky idea. They would gather people from a wide range of backgrounds, ages and life experiences, and set them up at Northern Europe’s largest summer festival, Roskilde, to talk to all comers, and to answer any question put to them.
The risk paid off, and the event was a resounding success. Police officers talked – really talked – to graffiti artists; women activists to football fanatics; and many more unlikely connections were made among the “books” and their “readers”. Both sides spoke afterwards about how the experience had changed them, breaking down prejudice and fear, replacing it with understanding and respect, if not always agreement.
Vimala Colless, a Wollongong community development officer, heard one of the Danish books speak in 2006 and was captivated.
The concept is stunningly simple: for between 30 and 45 minutes (depending on the event) a book sits down with between one and four readers and opens him- or herself up. In Wollongong’s Living Library, each Living Book has its own title and catalogue entry, with a chapter-by-chapter synopsis. A book may start by telling his or her story, but it is far from a monologue. Readers are encouraged to ask questions and can choose to focus on a specific chapter if they like.
Marlene Cooper’s Living Book title is An Enlightened Life, in which she tells of losing her sight 18 years ago, at the age of 42, to the condition known as benign essential blepharospasm. She tells how, early on, she steeled herself to make the independent outings she once undertook so effortlessly before her blindness, only to scurry home in fearful despair.
When she meets her readers, she also describes the crippling anxiety and depression that kept her in her home for a year. She talks about finding the courage to re-enter the world and the reserves of strength she discovered as she remade her life. Then she recounts the truly awful incident in 1998 in which she was attacked and her seeing-eye dog, Jean, abducted by an assailant who had been stalking her from a car as she walked alone on a quiet street. “I still have post-traumatic stress,” she says. “When I hear a car door slam, my stomach still churns.”
But Marlene wouldn’t be part of the Living Books programme if her story ended there. Trauma and grief feature, but resilience is the keynote. After the attack, she again rebuilt her life. Most people who meet her socially, or in her role as a disability-awareness trainer, now see a good-humoured, capable optimist.
Yet why reveal so much to strangers? “It tells people it doesn’t matter what happens in life, you can overcome it. I want people to see that you can rise above something that seems soul-destroying.”
Marlene is typical of Living Library participants, all of whom are unpaid. As Colless notes, “The common thread in all our books is they’ve reached that point where they are highly motivated to help others. They make a huge emotional investment in this project and it’s a wonderful gift to the community.”
In northern NSW, Lismore area librarian Lucy Kinsley agrees. The city had the first Living Library in Australia, starting in November 2006 as a one-off event. It now runs monthly in the library and occasionally at schools, nursing homes and local events such as the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival. She says the biggest benefit is how much it nurtures a sense of community.
“At the launch, one reader came up after speaking to one of our books, an Aboriginal elder, and said she hadn’t realised there are Aborigines who aren’t alcoholics. Another time we had an older lady who wanted to read a particular book that wasn’t available right then. The only available book was a representative of the gay community, and she did not want to talk to him. But I encouraged her and she had a really good conversation. I heard through the grapevine she had gone back to her church group with positive reports. So it does have an effect on the wider community.”
It flows both ways, say the Living Books. Radda Jordan, 54, who works at ACON, Australia’s largest community-based gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender health and HIV/AIDS organisation, is another of the 29 Living Books in Wollongong. Her story, Celebration of a Life, takes in the early days of Australian feminism and her life as a lesbian. “What I get out of it is the opportunity to speak to young people about the importance of positive choices . . . and celebration of difference.
|Nancy on 23 July 2010 ,10:56 |
I really love how they share their live and inspire other people. Nice article!
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