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Dark Descent: Female Anti-Heroes in the work of Jessica Bell

Updated: Feb 15

I began reading the work of publisher/author, Jessica Bell after I signed a contract to have my first book, Ostraca, published by Vine Leaves Press. Bell is not only the founder of Vine Leaves Press, an Athens, Greece based publishing company, she is an author having published a memoir, three books of poetry, and five novels, and a best-selling series, Writing in a Nutshell. If that were not enough, Bell is also a remarkably accomplished singer-songwriter. She is the front woman of the Athens-based duo, Keep Shelly in Athens whose songs have been described as “an enchanting fusion of ambient pop, and downtempo electronica, characterized by melodic beats and dreamy vocals” and have been lauded by The Guardian and Clash magazine, amongst others. As I listened to the periodically underworld sounds of Bell’s music, I could not help but connect her music to the terrains of her memoir, GO, a dark march through a Melbourne girlhood riddled with addiction and punk-esque Kathy Acker time bomb capsules of transgressive rebellious behaviors, based on childhood trauma and unabashed, at times antisocial sexual mores reminiscent of one of Asia Argento’s worst falls from grace. 

In GO, Bell takes us through her own deeply personal journey down the River Styx in a manner most deceptive, initially recounting a near emotionally idyllic childhood, cocooned in the warmth of a protected and nurturing relationship with her mother, and stepfather. The child of two bohemian musicians, Erika Bach and her stepfather, Dimitri Vlass, founder of the bands Ape the Cry and Hard Candy, Bell recounts her parents’ struggles as young musicians in the hard-scrabble years before the commercial success of their bands which dominated the Australian music scene in the late 80s and 90s. Bell’s mother, Bach was an early, seemingly eternally supportive presence, loving, ever-present, defending her daughter against school bullies, but the memoir takes a deeply disturbing turn when Erika Bach develops a valium addiction. In the throes of this prescription enslavement, Bach turns into the classic anti-hero mother, the mother you would never want, subject to irrational and obscene drug-induced fits of rage. By the time we have reached page one hundred of Bell’s memoir, Bach has given Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest a run for her money. As readers, we are swept up in the perpetual hell of what becomes a violent, bloody, and tragic mother-daughter battle. Not long into the narrative, Jessica succumbs to a years-long teenage descent into binge-drinking which manifests in a rape (her first sexual experience), and then there are a series of bloody pummellings between mother and daughter that end in screeching, hair-pulling, and a incredibly macabre episode which results in a severed finger. I read Bell’s memoir, well aware of the courage it must have taken to recount episodes that seemed to be culled from the life of a teenage Courtney Love – so dark was the terrain of her underworld. I spoke with Bell about her memoir, about the bravado it took to pen such, and asked about her relationship with her mother today. One which healed after each had recovered from their mutual addictions. 

Today, Bell is the grounded, incredibly productive, and proud mother of a four year old who shares her dancing eyes and coy disposition. Despite the dark nature of Bell’s music and writing, she is shockingly open in person, lively with a fringe of thick chestnut coloured hair, and a wide open smile which I liken to one near Californian, sans the patina of pretense. In real life, Jessica is refreshingly, almost stereotypically Australian, for lack of a better expression, she is down to earth.

I asked Jessica how she came to write the memoir, she tells me, “I wrote it, never expecting that I would put it out there. I guess that's why I was able to write so honestly.” Bell says she started the memoir as an experiment. Truthfully, the way she describes it, the writing of GO, surfaced almost as a highly personal exorcism. She never intended to set the demons free in a public place. What then motivated her to move forth with publication? She said after completing the narrative, she sent the manuscript to her mother. She was obviously somewhat reticent, but was shocked to hear Bach read the whole narrative compulsively, from start to finish, in one night. Erika Bach encouraged her daughter to publish it. Her mother’s blessing, despite the unsavory nature of the excavation, was all the writer needed. Thus, Jessica Bell's journey down the River Styx has now become ours, Cerebus hounds and all. Though now, those hounds have been tamed and banished, and Bell has, like all anti-heroines who have confronted their shadows, been transformed, and that lead-to-gold process, appears to have brought Bell her present day relative happiness.

For this, I salute her.

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