Literature Opinion

From love to politics, Kerryn Phelps' memoir tells all

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Dr Kerryn Phelps' new memoir doesn't hold back on details of an extraordinary life lived (Screenshots via YouTube)

A brand new autobiography by Dr Kerryn Phelps recounts the struggles faced in her life of politics, marriage equality and gym aerobics. Rosemary Sorensen reviews this tell-all memoir.

READING Dr Kerryn PhelpsPower of Balance, you might get to the end of her account of the battle for marriage equality and feel vicariously wrung out.

From the moment Phelps and her partner, Jackie Stricker, were outed in The Daily Telegraph for exchanging vows in New York, the crass, vicious, ignorant judging began for these two hardworking talented women, destroying Jackie’s teaching career and curtailing Kerryn’s media roles.

Shoved into the relentless spotlight, they chose to turn the personal damage into a public stance, becoming important role models and eloquent spokespeople as Australia made the gruelling trudge towards the ultimate success of the marriage equality campaign.

In fact, as you relive with Phelps that heady, joyous moment when the result was announced – a moment when it seemed people could unite for a cause and feel good about it – you’ll only be halfway through this memoir.

You’ll need to sit back down in a comfy chair to spend more time with Phelps, as she negotiates a stint on the Sydney City Council (and falls foul of ruthless Clover Moore), wins the Wentworth By-election as an Independent (against an odious Liberal campaign), is ousted in the definingly hysterical Election the following year (possibly because of her successful Medevac Bill for refugees), then retired to lick her wounds.

Phelps couldn’t stay down, however, emerging to champion the cause of Independents and sticking her head above the parapet to demand attention be paid to COVID’s continuing issues (including honestly confronting vaccine injury as well as long-term health effects).

“Outed”, nevertheless, is the word and event that dominates this memoir. At a time when journalism is itself being outed for vulgar disrespect of basic decency, Phelps reminds us of the cost to both individuals and to social cohesion when those who will use any tactic to destroy reputations are allowed to let rip.

Phelps quotes this shamefully pompous judgement as an example of what was published:

‘By choosing to reject the responsibilities of the traditional family lifestyle at which so many homosexuals sneer... Dr Phelps and her girlfriend relinquished the right, by community standards, to marry.’

Equally obnoxious columns were penned to attack Phelps for her conversion to Judaism. Astonishing behaviour that is unfathomably wrong.

Young Kerryn, growing up on Sydney’s northern beaches, was supported by parents who saw her capabilities and nurtured them, to a point. One of the early standout moments in a book full of them is the image of her mother spending time at the end of each weekend to go through the previous week’s schoolwork with her clever daughter, to ensure errors were corrected and not likely to recur.

This gentle memory makes the later revelation that her parents never accepted her marriage or, indeed, her sexuality all the more poignant.

Not by nature comfortable with talking about herself, except when it comes to describing how she behaves in leadership roles, Phelps sketches the childhood years tentatively, admitting that her memory pulls up images rather than narratives.

Prefiguring her political career as an Independent of her time at Pittwater High, she writes that she hadn’t found it easy to find her group:

‘Social success depended on acceptance into one of these groups, and it required conformity in attitudes, appearance and interests.’

Phelps prides herself on her ability to listen and to debate without resorting to ad hominem attacks, but it could be added, perhaps, that she’s also very sure of her own attitudes, appearance and interests and that she’s hardly what you’d call a radical non-conformist.

Schoolyard politics aside, Phelps was good at responding to support; when it was suggested she join the board of NSW’s Australian Medical Association (AMA) board, then backed to become the national AMA chair, she took these and other opportunities in her stride. Ambition is not unknown to Kerryn Phelps.

Her first marriage and the birth of her two children, as well as the adoption of her third (complicated by her same-sex union), are recounted more or less chronologically.

Along the way, we read about surprising details such as when Kerryn, a young mother with a new medical practice, decides she’d like not just to participate in her local gym’s aerobics class but to train to become an instructor — quite a memorable image: Phelps in a leotard and woolly leg warmers, punching the air to the strains of a thumping techno beat.

She notes with pride how fit and strong she was at that stage of her life, a memory that then backgrounds the episode when, about to board a plane as part of her advocacy work in her role as AMA president, she has to head instead to hospital where pulmonary embolism is discovered. In the wake of this serious scare, Phelps begins to include integrative medicine in her skill set — and is viciously sneered at in the usual-suspects media for doing so.

The need to recount the events of her life chronologically sometimes clashes with Phelps’s desire to address the issues that have been so important to her, so there’s some repetition of facts when she loops backward and forward in time. She also has to tread delicately as she negotiates her way between what she wants to share and her respect for privacy.

Phelps does not appear to be interested in spilling beans for the sake of titillating headlines. There are many shocking moments, for sure, but they are told efficiently, not dramatically.

I think you could deduce that Phelps does hold grudges against those who have wronged her, and she puts lots of records straight in Power of Balance, but, like all her work described in this book, she sticks to her own rules of propriety and decency.

She is, above all, lucidly pragmatic:

‘You need to know the territory, be prepared to speak the truth in a balanced way without embellishment or minimising, back what you say with evidence, gather allies and reflect the real-life experiences of members of the public.’

Most sensible.

Then she adds:

‘Governments respond when they realise that the people who elected them are supportive of an issue.’

Depends on the issue and the government these days.

If the unconscionable “outing” provides Phelps with the bones of this body of work, it’s Jackie, her love, who is the flesh, blood, heart and soul. Before she’s there in the story, Phelps relies on that patchwork of recollection, like a kaleidoscope image that shifts without definition. Once she finds Jackie, there’s a shape within which the story develops.

It’s a very fine love story, told with Phelps’s characteristic conservative caution and care, but told nevertheless because that energetic optimistic part of Phelps – the part that had her stamping the ground to a disco beat while a crowd of kids tried to copy her every move – cannot, it seems, be repressed.

Power of Balance by Dr Kerryn Phelps AM is published by Hardie Grant, available for $49.99 RRP.

Rosemary Sorensen was a newspaper, books and arts journalist based in Melbourne, then Brisbane, before moving to regional Victoria, where she founded the Bendigo Writers Festival, which she directed for 13 years.

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