An interview with Henry von Doussa: The Pink Book
Henry von Doussa is Satellite Foundation’s family and community engagement person, and a social researcher at The Bouverie Centre. His second published book, The Pink Book, is a memoir that speaks to sexuality, gender, grief, and loss, and growing up as a gay man in Australia.
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. Here, Henry shares more about the process of creating The Pink Book and what its publication has meant to him.
The origins of The Pink Book can be traced back to 40 years ago.
Tell us about its first iteration, 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. Mum was in and out of hospital and we had different people looking after the farm and the five kids. My mum and dad both did a terrific job of raising us, but with Mum’s mental illness it was very difficult at times.
The original Pink Book was created when I was about seven or eight years old and I had to make a book for Book Week – it 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.
How did you find the process of reformulating the memories of your younger days into this book?
I loved thinking about the stories I would tell and how to shape them. 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.
Creativity is a central theme of the book – why do you think it 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. 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.
The original Pink Book allowed me to express myself without words. I was able to tell a 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.
What has its publication meant to you, and to your family?
My siblings, who I am very close to, just love the book. The book tries to put parental mental health difficulties into a social and historical context; I write about the fact that in the ‘70s, a woman couldn’t get a bank loan in Australia without having a man going guarantor; 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 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 readers will 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 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. •