A FRIEND OF mine who suffered from schizophrenia once told me of her intention to write a travel guide to the world’s psychiatric hospitals. This plan both was and wasn’t a joke: travel guides necessarily assume a certain agency on the part of the traveller and, although my friend had seen quite a few of the world’s big hospitals from the inside, these were generally not the kind of excursions she took of her own free will. Perhaps precisely because of these complications to do with power and responsibility, hers would have been a great book. I’ll never know for sure because the book never eventuated, and many of the big old psychiatric institutions have since been closed down – for better or for worse. In any case, my friend has since died: she was killed many years ago in a single, senseless act of violence.
I was thinking of my friend’s planned but unwritten travel guide last winter as I left the Supreme Court of Tasmania and faced the cold southern air on Salamanca Place, pulling up the collar on my heavy grey coat and feeling, well, a bit intrigued about the human dilemma, and especially about this notion of so-called free will. I was in Tasmania for three weeks as part of the Island of Residencies program, a scheme that enables writers from interstate or overseas to spend an intense and (hopefully) productive period in the idyllic Tasmanian setting to produce new work. During my first week in town, I worked furiously on the beginnings of a new novel, but after 15,000 words I came to a bit of a standstill and so I did what I usually do when that happens: background research. One of the main characters in my new book is in a jail on the outskirts of Perth and I needed to invent for him a plausible, if convoluted, criminal record. So, at the beginning of my second week in town, I set out for Hobart’s courts, intending simply to sit and listen.
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