Henry von Doussa is Satellite’s former Family and Community Engagement Person, a social researcher at The Bouverie Centre, and a published author.
‘The Pink Book’ is Henry’s second book, a beautiful collection of images and essays, collages and memoirs that speak to sexuality, gender, grief, and loss, and growing up as a gay man in Australia. Designed by award-winning book designer Sean Hogan, ‘The Pink Book’ was launched on 28 April at Our Community House in North Melbourne and is published by Clouds of Magellan Press. Woven throughout the book is the exploration of creativity as a tool to understand the mental health challenges that formed part of Henry’s family life. We speak to Henry to find out more about the process of creating The Pink Book and what its publication has meant to him.
‘This is a book with stories of youthful suffering. But it shows how the struggle for creativity and originality can contribute to healing.’ — The Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG
The origins of ‘The Pink Book’ can be traced back 40 years ago. Tell us about the first iteration of this book, and what inspired you to write ‘The Pink Book’ as it is now?
When I was a boy there was a lot of mental health trauma in my family. There were suicides in more than one generation. Mum was in and out of hospital and we had different people looking after the farm and the five kids. Dad had a house in town where he stayed during the week and then came back on the weekends. My mum and dad both did a terrific job of raisings us, but with mum’s mental illness it was very difficult at times. I also have dyslexia and school was hard for me.
The original Pink Book was created when I was about 7 or 8 years old and had to make a book for Book Week to be displayed in the classroom. I made a book that only had beautiful pink pages, no words, no story, not on the surface at least. My dad saved the book, and I have always treasured it. About two years ago I had the idea of filling those pages to free the waiting story of what was happening for me and my family in those early years of my life.
The current Pink Book is really like a glamorous scrapbook. It is not linear in the narrative and has writing and artworks, as well as the photographed pages of the original Pink Book. I’m really proud of how beautiful it is.
How did you find the process of reliving and reformulating the memories of your younger days into this book?
I loved thinking about the stories I would tell and how to shape them. The book has been therapeutic, and it has been terrific hearing people’s responses. One person who read/looked at the book said the book showed how much I loved my mum and my family. That was a good thing to hear because while writing the book I had to have a lot of conversations with my family that were deeper than we had ever talked before. A few edits had to happen to make sure everyone was ok with what I wrote. There are some very difficult and somewhat private times I write about. But a lot of good times and laughs are reflected too. I think I did a bit of mental compartmentalisation to write the book. I sat back somewhat from the emotion to write what I needed to and then on reading it back, I could access some of the grief, and the joy. I think that has been a bit transformative for me. Grief and loss are so fundamental to who I am that I feel I release little bits at a time, and recovery – making meaning of life – is an ongoing journey for all of us.
Creativity is a central theme of the book – and is reflected in its beautiful compilation of elements and within the design itself – why do you think creativity is such an important tool when it comes to mental health and wellbeing?
Overall, I think the book is about pressure. The pressure on a family when there are mental health difficulties, the pressure to get it right and perform at school, the pressure to conform with sexuality and gender. For me, creativity has always been a way to release pressure; a quick-release mechanism, if you like. Without knowing it, that’s what I was doing when I made the original Pink Book in primary school, releasing pressure. All my life I have loved creating things. The book has pictures of flowers I have grown and arranged, bits of artwork I made from Coke cans, creating these things has allowed me to calm my mind and be present. In the book are photographs of a paper ‘quilt’ I made about HIV/AIDS on the 1980s. It’s made of hundreds of tiny paper triangles stapled together. I made it during Lockdown and the creative process was important to calm my worry and make a distinction between work and home life when everything was happening in the one space.
The original Pink Book allowed me to express myself without words. I was able to tell as story without feeling ashamed that I couldn’t write or read well. Creativity works against shame. I took that same shamelessness into making this book. It is unconventional, like many of us who have life with trauma.
What has the publication of this book meant to you, and to your family?
My siblings, who I am very close to, just love the book. They have described it as a gift. The book tries to put parental mental health difficulties into a social and historic context. I’ve tried to show how mum and dad, and by extension their kids, got tapped at a point in history. For example, I write about the fact that in the 70s when mum had five young children and a lot of struggles, a woman couldn’t get a bank loan in Australia without having a man going guarantor. I also talk about how many of the mental health treatments of the time had awful side effects and were harsher and less understood than they are today. I hope what the publication has done has been to help my family see that we did well, we got through, and that no one in the family was to blame for the difficulties. Really, given the constraints – and we were a family with a bit of money because dad had a good job – it was almost bound to turn out the way it did, with loss and grief and childhood confusion leading me and my siblings to have some adult uncertainties about feeling we have a really solid life base. I think the book has helped acknowledge to my siblings that our childhood was incredibly tough, and that it has not been talked about enough, what we witnessed, what we survived.
What do you hope that readers take from away from ‘The Pink Book’?
In the book I use a quote from Albert Camus, “To create is to live twice.” I hope people take that away. That regardless of your struggles, doing something creative can be healing. I hope too that they see how hardy and resident people are. I hope that people take love from the book, and, to be honest, I hope they see that regardless of the mental health struggles in my family there was joy and hope for the future. And that my mum was a tough and beautiful woman.