'Beware the controlling man': Nikki Gemmell's memoir is what all young women need

‘Beware the controlling man’: Why Nikki Gemmell’s memoir is the book all young women need


In 2003, I read Nikki Gemmell’s ‘Bride Stripped Bare’, originally published anonymously, as a debilitatingly-acned, insecure 15-year old teen in the suburbs of Western Sydney.

It sparked something inside me that allowed me to hold a light in my own heart, a light that shines brighter now I’m an adult woman, and one who is less afraid to say whatever I want to say. It made me braver.

When I finished ‘Dissolve’ last week, Gemmell’s latest book, it was a warm Sunday morning and I was in my backyard, sobbing uncontrollably. Within its pages, I found my 20-something year old self completely.

In her mid-twenties, Gemmell was engaged to be married to a creative and ambitious male writer in his thirties. It wasn’t completely smooth-sailing, but Gemmell was utterly and frantically in love. Her love for the man was crushing – so much that she found herself growing smaller and harbouring less space to do what she truly wanted to do – write books.

In my mid-twenties, I was also knocked over by a love for an older man which left me crumbled and wasted. It took me years to recover, that my recovery is just a statement I write perhaps to give the impression of finality. I still feel ashamed about the time I spent with this man.

‘Dissolve’ is one of the most enriching, yet debilitating reads I’ve experienced of late. My boyfriend came out to the garden that Sunday morning and asked if I was okay. I am often brought to tears by tremendous, moving writing.

I secured a chat with the extraordinary writer to talk through the impetus for her penning this book.

You’re now a few decades removed from the relationship at the core of this book, with a man named W. Why now? Why did you choose this moment in your life to interrogate that part of your past?

For years I couldn’t write about this time. Decades. I’d never written about it before. I was in shock, and devastated, for years after. It wrong footed my life. I felt so ashamed and humiliated, broken, and it’s only now, with the insight that distance and maturity brings, that I can see this episode for what it really was.

As a young woman I was dissolved by it. Dissolved by love; I lost who I really was. It felt like a massive failure at the time, but like all the times we fail, or miss out, or don’t get what we want, it was a huge learning experience. It set me on a different path. 

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

Oddly, unlike some of my novels, it didn’t feel hard. My latest novel, The Ripping Tree took almost ten years of writing, trying to settle on a particular voice. But with Dissolve the words came strong and sure. The voice was certain from the start. Also, in the light of the #MeToo movement, I thought about things differently.

So much that came out of that movement (and is still coming out, just look at Brittany Higgins) is instructive, clarifying, distilling. And then there is the anger and frustration over all the men accused of sexual harassment or assault who seemed to be weaselling their way out of a reckoning, just continuing on with their lives and their careers. So much of my writing comes from a place of anger, yet I don’t want it to be seen as “angry writing.” Perhaps “questioning writing.” 

Was there any research involved in writing this book? I made a list of all the forgotten/neglected/made-invisible women of male ‘geniuses’ you mention in your book – and I think there were more than 15! 

A lot of research. I dived into the worlds of Sylvia Plath, Doris Lessing, Camille Claudel, Janet Frame, Colette and Charmion Clift to name a few, with diversions to the likes of Alma Mahler, Martha Gellhorn and Dora Maar.

But it was immensely enjoyable as this time I was looking at creative women I’d always admired, purely from their perspective as a female in a creative relationship. Ie. how the male creative energy impacted upon their productivity, their serenity and confidence. Confidence is a big one in terms of women and the creative spirit. The headwinds are strong.

Towards the end of your book, you list female characters who’ve been killed or diminished by their love for their male lovers – you call it a kind of ‘unifying, universal, clever woman event.’ It’s an event I’ve seen in my own life, and in all the phenomenally talented, intelligent women I surround myself.

As a mother to daughters, how have you taught your daughters to stand up for themselves, and to be aware of this tendency? This history?

This is a hard one, one I feel very fragile about. I feel like it’s the one thing that will fell a strong woman. It’s her Achilles heel, and it feels like it’s all about the biological instinct embedded within us, as females. We are animals after all. The urge to find a partner – and for a lot of us, to reproduce – so often trumps however strong and independent and empowered we may feel. I fear for my daughter.

She is young but even now has such a fierce will and strength and stubbornness, it’s a spiky power and it feels magnificent.

Yet I know that love will be the one thing that will trump all that. She has a beautifully big, wide, open heart and I just hope, pray, that she falls in love with someone who cherishes her for who she is. Who doesn’t try to change her, control her or diminish her – because her power is in some way threatening to them. She needs a partner who is confident enough in themselves to not try and reduce their partner, to belittle them to an acceptable level. That would be a gift for any strong, thinking, empowered woman.

It’s a big ask, but I have great hope for the young men around me. This generation of young males coming up are strong and feel different. They’re aware. More accepting of a female’s strength, and happy to live alongside it. I think, I hope.   

What needs to change in this world for women to not have to choose between domesticity/male love and self-enriching creativity? 

Men need to change. In terms of what they expect of women and how they want to live alongside them. We need more confident men, who are comfortable with letting women be who they really want to be. My mother said to me the night before my wedding, “beware the controlling man.”

Because as a single mother she had witnessed first hand how destructive that can be for a woman. For her psyche, her creativity, career and sanity. I’ve learnt through my life to align myself with a confident beta as opposed an insecure alpha any day. The latter brews toxic masculinity, and that’s to be avoided at all costs. It’s a protective mechanism.

What are your top five most strengthening books you go to to help you persist in your willingness to continue creating and writing on your own terms?

Not so much books for me, but authors (apologies!) I seek out every book the following authors have written. Couldn’t name one within their ouvre, because all have had an impact on me. These fearless women writers teach me how to live, and I have an old wooden sandwich box next to my desk that’s full of their tomes.

So, it’s anything by Annie Ernaux, Deborah Levy, Anne Carson, Rebecca Solnit or Elene Ferrante. With a lot of Virginia Woolf, Colette, Janet Frame and Charmion Clift in there too.  

I’ve often sought memoirs by older women as a sort of lesson on how to protect myself from the threatening desire of a man. Did you set out to write this novel as a way to ‘warn’ younger women to be careful with protecting their creativity and independence? I don’t really like to ask this question myself as a novelist, but – if you did have one thing you’d like readers to learn after reading DISSOLVE; what would it be?

That you are not alone. And yes, I did write this book as a warning. To all the beautiful, smart, vulnerable, strong, bewildered, observing, thinking young women around me, my daughter included. Dissolve serves as a warning in terms of the threatening desire of men around us, but also the controlling desire, or dissolving desire. It’s a warning about the men who just don’t see us for who re really are, or what we really want to do with our lives. The men who don’t give us the space to be who we really want to be. 

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