In 1996, just a week before Christmas and after a life long struggle with mental illness, a woman named Jacqueline killed herself at the age of fifty. Tragically, her body remained undiscovered in the small Melbourne flat where she lived alone, for more than a fortnight – the exact date of her death remains a mystery to this day.
Almost a decade later her sister, Australian born journalist and author Gillian Bouras, took on the challenge of writing Jacqueline’s story. To coincide with mental health week, we have chosen Gillian’s touching memoir of her sister’s life and tragic death as our book of the month.
Gillian Bouras, the author of several books, told Australian Women Online that writing the memoir of her sister’s life was the hardest work she had ever done.
“I often see writing as a means of solving problems and I knew I would write about Jacqui’s life one day. I tried to write it as a novel first, but that didn’t work too well. So then I tried to write Jacqui’s story as a straight account,” Gillian said from her home in Greece, where she has lived with her husband and children since 1980.
No Time for Dances begins and ends with the tragic death of a woman who led what was essentially an unremarkable life. Jacqui’s experiences were not unusual in the circumstances and for the times in which she lived. But in the hands of a skilled writer like Gillian Bouras, Jacqueline’s story becomes a lesson in Australia’s social history.
“As I went along, I realized that among other things, I was writing social history,” said Gillian Bouras. “The world and the world of women has changed so radically since Jacqui and I were born in the mid 1940s.”
Up until Jacqui’s mental illness first appears, No Time for Dances is a tale of two sisters growing up in Australia during the post-war years. But as Jacqui’s illness begins to take hold, the relationship between the sisters who were once so close, becomes strained. As an outsider, the reader’s sympathies naturally gravitate toward the tragic figure of Jacqui and at one point, I did consider Gillian’s criticisms of her sister to be a little harsh.
“I don’t think Jacqui acknowledged the effect of her illness on the family. One of the features of the disorder she suffered from was an enormous sense of entitlement. She obviously wished she were not the way she was and she dreaded the crashes, but she really did not understand the extent to which she exhausted our mother and affected the state of our parents’ marriage. She made immoderate demands on my brother and me, and then could not understand our objections when our patience ran out,” Gillian Bouras said.
As Jacqui’s illness begins to impact upon every single aspect of the family’s lives, it isn’t hard to see why Gillian believes the family was as much a victim of her sister’s illness as Jacqui herself was during her life time and in light of this, perhaps Gillian’s apparent resentment toward her younger sibling is understandable.
Although I read No Time for Dances several months ago, I can recall particular sections of this book in as much detail as if I had just turned the last page this morning. But what will remain with me long after every last word has been erased from my memory by the passage of time, is what Jacqui’s life might have been had mental illness never played such a significant part in her story.
Gillian Bouras wrote most eloquently on this point in the opening chapter of her book:
“I also feel a profound regret for the waste of talent, youth and beauty, and feel terribly, terribly sorry that she found happiness so elusive. For as a child and as a young girl Jacqui seemed, like a beautiful princess in a fairy story, to be made for happiness.”