‘Music wasn’t something I did, but something I was’
Nina Dillon Britton and the Sydney Symphony’s first female double bassist, Jan Gracie Mulcahy, talk trauma, Spoverty and the magic of clothes driers
Warning: this article deals with accounts of abuse, assault and trauma and may be triggering for survivors of abuse.
Sitting here, probably too close to my editor’s deadline for comfort, I’m trying to find a way to actually capture who Jan Mulcahy is. I could tell you she’s a prodigy, an author and poet, the first female bassist for the most prestigious Australian orchestra – the Sydney Symphony – and I could tell you the list of traumatic events that shaped her early life. That her first husband Eamon died in a car crash that she survived on the way back from their Tasmanian honeymoon, that her grandmother was sexually abusive, that she grew up in Sydney’s west through wartime poverty.
All of that is true, and it is important.
But none of it speaks to the fact that Mulcahy is not just a survivor or a successful musician – though both are commendable – but also an individual who has bluntly faced the traumas of her life and moved past it.
To understand Mulcahy, her childhood in the neglected backwaters of Macquarie Fields and Cabramatta and the poverty of WWII are crucial; in this context, women were solely relegated to domesticity.
“I met a lot of women that were livid about it, there were so many women who were squashed,” she tells me. “At school I was reading stories about Madame Curie and Eileen Joyce, and I thought, that’s what I want. I want to be a musician.”
“I felt driven to have not just a career, but a calling. It was more than a career.”
“This was all before the women’s movement. But I wasn’t going to be a housewife. That’s why I left school. I was sent to Liverpool Girl’s Home Science School where all those girls were being channelled into home duties and it was making my skin crawl.”
At the age of 15 she left school to join the Conservatorium of Music (“the Con”) and, though beginning as a pianist, quickly found a love of the double bass, an instrument typically played by male musicians.
Here, Mulcahy was forced to straddle two worlds: one, the elite, insulated, highly-educated culture of the Con, and the other, her impoverished homelife in Western Sydney.
When she talks about how she and her mother would return from her performances in the city, the contrast is stark. “We were both dressed in evening dresses, because you used to do that when you went to Sydney Town Hall. You’d wear your sparkling earrings and then we’d go home on the train and get out at Cabramatta and we’d be back to dodging puddles in our high-heeled sandals.
“There’s a lot in me I recognise as being dual. There’s the part of me that’s highly educated in music, poetry, literature, psychology, to an extent musical philosophy. And then there’s the other down-to earth part of me that has a couple of dogs that sleep on my bed, that I live in a farm house that’s pretty scraggy. But it all lives rather happily inside of me: this wild Aussie kid and this educated person.”
Beyond school, pursuing music professionally became no easier.
“When I first announced to my mother and my North Shore girlfriends that I was going to put the kids into pre-school, [my daughter] was only two years and 10 months, they were horrified, abso- lutely horrified. But I didn’t take any notice of it, I just said well that’s what I’m doing and blow you.
“I learnt a tremendous lot from the women in the orchestra however. They said “You hav- en’t got a clothes drier? You’re still ironing your husband’s shirts? Good heavens! Get yourself a drier! You’re still doing the housework? Get cleaners to come in and do it for you!
“And I did all of that, and it was marvellous. I used to have the cleaner coming in every fort- night,” she laughs.
Mulcahy’s professional achievements, impres- sive enough as they stand, are remarkable in a context where low expectations for women, cou- pled with structural barriers to pursuing careers, suffocated women’s ambition. Driven by her own dream, the support of her peers – Mulcahy par- ticularly emphasises the support of male colleagues – and having seen women like her mother denied the opportunity to achieve their own, Mulcahy asserted herself as an extremely talented bassist.
But what strikes me about Mulcahy is her reflections on traumatic events. When I want to write about her expressed “self development” it feels, at least for a cynic like me, as if it doesn’t capture the significance of what she has done.
“I went right into the process,” she says of the beginnings of her memoir, Running in Stilettos with a Double Bass. “I was on a trip back from Mel- bourne. That was the first time I had the oppor- tunity to visit the place I lost [her first husband] Eamon. At that stage I was with Barry Mulcahy,” she tells me. “I left him at home to look after the pets,” she chuckles.
“On the way back I just thought ‘I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to do it this time. I’ve got to go back to Jugiong Hill and complete with Eamon.’ It was cathartic,” she pauses, thinking, then laughs. “…And I think I was really quite off my head for the whole of that evening!”
“The whole of that evening, I drove through to Canberra to a motel, and I just wrote and wrote this poem and cried over it. I just let it all out and just talked to Eamon like he was sitting there with me, telling him of all my pain and anguish, and telling him about all the dreams we’d had to share, but never came about.”
“It took a long time to realise that I could find love again after Eamon, but you can recover and learn to love another.”
Her writing also helped her work through the alleged childhood sexual and emotional abuse she, like her own mother, received at the hands of her grandmother. Abuse so intense that, at the age of 10, she escaped from her grandmother’s home to return home. Now, she speaks frankly about it.
“The business with my grandmother, I had surpressed so deeply, I never mentioned it to my parents when I went home. I totally put it right
down to the bottom drawer of my consciousness. Supplied That only surfaced after I started my degree in psychology where we were doing family therapy and the teacher pointed out to me that, ‘You didn’t have two parents, you had three.’”
“And the light came on that I had had a lot of abuse from my grandmother. A lot of it was psychological. I was often locked out of the house, and that was the pits. That was the even worse than the sexual abuse quite frankly,” she chuckles. “I have forgiven my grandmother. And I can see now that she was probably also sexually abused in her childhood.”
This resolution, more than anything speaks to the woman Mulcahy is today. In regards to her book, it wasn’t only a cathartic process for herself. “I wanted to show everyone who’s suffered trauma that you can overcome it. You can really become the person you were meant to be, not some awful caricature of what society wants you to be.”
Jan Gracie Mulcahy’s book, Running in Stilettos with a Double Bass, is available through Boolarong Press.
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