Everything Harder Than Everyone Else – Jenny Valentish

“There’s still a part of me that wants to be validated through doing things that other people don’t.”

Charlie Engle, an ultrarunner

In this book, Jenny Valentish introduces you to people who push themselves beyond what most people are capable of or even want to do. She interviewed endurance athletes, performance artists, a rogue scientist, bodybuilders, those who participate in BDSM, martial artists, porn stars, wrestlers and fighters.

Sometimes fascinating, sometimes sad and sometimes disgust inducing, their stories took me into their worlds. They attempted to give me some understanding of why people do things like running in heat that can melt your shoes, attempt to overcome your “notions of disgust by eating what many would consider to be inedible” or putting your body in situations where extreme physical pain is to be expected, not avoided.

Some flog their reward pathways like dopamine jockeys; some careen towards injury because of an unwillingness to slow their pace; some goad themselves on to ever-greater heights or more depraved depths; some explore new frontiers of physical pain as a form of self-flagellation; some have knitted their identity so tightly to their pursuit that they risk tumbling into an abyss if it’s taken away.

In some instances, trauma seems to have provided both the impetus to attempt the activity in the first place and the ability to endure, when body and mind are both screaming at you to stop. A need to prove something, to yourself or other people, is a motivating factor for other people. Others simply went for a run one day and discovered they loved it.

The final chapter also addresses what can happen when you have worked so hard to reach a goal and finally achieve it, leaving in its wake a void as you wonder where you go from here. I found the discussion around having your identity so closely linked with an activity or job and how difficult it can be to find your bearings when that is taken from you unexpectedly particularly relatable.

One word that I absolutely adored, which I haven’t specifically come across before, was ikagai. It’s a Japanese concept that is all about your reason for being; what gives your life meaning, worth or purpose.

Some people might read a book like this and be inspired to take up running or wrestling, but that’s not me. Although I marvel at the people who are able to push their bodies so hard, you’re definitely not likely to see me running anywhere anytime soon. Unless, of course, someone’s chasing me, and even then I’ll be stopping as soon as it’s safe to do so.

While I read some books because they mirror my life in some way, I read books like this so I can get a glimpse of what things like bodybuilding are like without having to actually do it myself.

Content warnings include mention of addiction, alcoholism, bullying, child abuse, death by suicide, domestic abuse, eating disorders, mental health, self harm, sexual assault and suicidal ideation.

If you’re squeamish, don’t want to read about the variety of animals people have eaten or what they have done to their bodies for ‘art’, or don’t want to experience someone making a mockery of COVID, maybe don’t read the second chapter.

There is also a doctor, who prescribes performance and image enhancing drugs, that I found extremely problematic. They’re speaking to the author about their blood test results here. “In fact, my immune system is so good, he says, that the coronavirus won’t stick; at which point I wonder if the phrase ‘with a pinch of salt’ ought to apply to everything.” You think COVID doesn’t have serious impacts on previously healthy people? Seriously, doctor?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

When Jenny Valentish wrote a memoir about addiction, she noticed that people who treated drug-taking like an Olympic sport would often hurl themselves into a pursuit such as marathon running upon getting sober. What stayed constant was the need to push their boundaries.

Everything Harder Than Everyone Else follows people doing the things that most couldn’t, wouldn’t or shouldn’t. Their insights lead Jenny on a compulsive, sometimes reckless journey through psychology, endurance and the power of obsession, revealing what we can learn about the human condition.

There’s the neuroscientist violating his brain to override his disgust response. The athlete using childhood adversity as grist for the mill. The wrestler turning restlessness into curated ultraviolence. The designer who hangs from hooks in her flesh to get out of her head. The performance artist seeking erasure by manipulating his body. The BDSM dominant helping people flirt with death to feel more alive. The bare-knuckle boxer whose gnarliest opponent was once her ego. And the porn-star-turned-fighter for whom sex and violence are two sides of the same coin.

Darkly funny and vividly penetrating, Everything Harder Than Everyone Else explores our deeper selves and asks: what are your limits? 

See What You Made Me Do – Jess Hill

We talk a lot about the danger of dark alleys, but the truth is that in every country around the world the home is the most dangerous place for a woman.

If you only ever read one book about domestic abuse, please make it this one. While I’d like everyone to read it, I think it should be mandatory for so many professions, including anyone involved in the judicial system, medicine, politics, teaching and counselling.

Domestic abuse is not just violence. It’s worse. It is a unique phenomenon, in which the perpetrator takes advantage of their partner’s love and trust and uses that person’s most intimate details – their deepest desires, shames and secrets – as a blueprint for their abuse.

I thought I knew a lot about domestic abuse already. I’ve experienced it firsthand. I’ve read plenty of fiction and non-fiction books that talk about it. I have a psychology degree. I worked in a women’s refuge for a short time. Yet I learned so much from this book.

What should surprise us about domestic abuse is not that a woman can take a long time to leave, but that she has the mental fortitude to survive.

When the author introduced Biderman’s ‘Chart of Coercion’, saying there are parallels between the experiences of returned prisoners of war and domestic abuse survivors, I admit I was a tad wary. Even as someone well versed in the experience of domestic abuse, I wasn’t sure how the two would or could line up. The way the author outlined the techniques, step by step, sucked me in though. It all made perfect sense and it was horrifying, but I was learning something new and I needed to find out more.

Accompanying extensive research are stories of people who have perpetrated and been victimised by domestic abuse. Prepare to brace yourself as you read these accounts as they are invariably brutal and heartbreaking, but please don’t bypass them, even though that would be easier. (Or else you risk missing out on aha! moments, like when emotional abuse is explained as someone bashing someone with their emotions instead of their fists.)

If you’ve experienced domestic abuse yourself, you will easily recognise the truth of these accounts. If you are fortunate enough to have made it this far without being impacted by this type of trauma, know that these stories are representative of so many people’s lives. Friends, family, neighbours …

I can’t imagine reading these accounts without having a visceral reaction and if you’re struggling to ‘witness’ them on the page, please be sure to practice self care. I don’t know if what helped me will apply to other readers but each time I came across something that was too difficult, I told myself that my discomfort wasn’t even in the same ball park as the horror of actually experiencing that firsthand.

The people who have told their stories have courage beyond my comprehension and I feel we owe it to them to not shy away from their words. It’s too easy to maintain the status quo; maybe what we all need is a wake up call to spur us into action.

There’s so much we still need to do. A recent Australian survey, conducted by White Ribbon, found that

Four in ten young men do not consider punching and hitting to constitute domestic violence

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald 25/10/2020

In NSW, Australia, coercive control is not even a criminal offence. Yet. Hopefully this will change, if proposed coercive control laws aren’t squished by the powers that be. You can find Women’s Safety NSW’s proposal here.

I want people to stop asking ‘Why does she stay?’ and start asking ‘Why does he do that?’

SURVIVOR, QUEENSLAND

Content warnings include mention of death by suicide, domestic abuse, mental health and sexual assault.

P.S. There’s going to be a three part TV series in 2021 hosted by Jess Hill.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

At the office of Safe Steps, Victoria’s dedicated 24/7 family violence response call centre, phone counsellors receive a call every three minutes. Many women are repeat callers: on average, they will go back to an abusive partner eight times before leaving for good.

‘You must get so frustrated when you think a woman’s ready to leave and then she decides to go back,’ I say.

‘No,’ replies one phone counsellor, pointedly. ‘I’m frustrated that even though he promised to stop, he chose to abuse her again.’

Women are abused or killed by their partners at astonishing rates: in Australia, almost 17 per cent of women over the age of fifteen – one in six – have been abused by an intimate partner.

In this confronting and deeply researched account, journalist Jess Hill uncovers the ways in which abusers exert control in the darkest – and most intimate – ways imaginable. She asks: What do we know about perpetrators? Why is it so hard to leave? What does successful intervention look like?

What emerges is not only a searing investigation of the violence so many women experience, but a dissection of how that violence can be enabled and reinforced by the judicial system we trust to protect us.

Combining exhaustive research with riveting storytelling, See What You Made Me Do dismantles the flawed logic of victim-blaming and challenges everything you thought you knew about domestic and family violence.