Julia Gillard’s autobiography sees her wading through her career as Prime Minister of Australia and examining what she’s learned, her successes and how it all shaped her life and future. Less confessional and more brushing-the-chip-off-her-shoulder, Gillard tries to talk candidly about as many aspects of her time in government as possible, some more successfully than others.
The most interesting parts were discussions about leadership and gender – in particular how the two are often chained together for women and the limitations this causes. Gillard talks frankly about the rock and hard place of the subject – not talking about being Australia’s first female prime minister is keeping gender out of a discussion where it is noteworthy and special, but talking about it frequently is also seen as playing the “gender card”. These moments in the book shine through for me, because she briefly sheds the veil of cool and you can feel her frustration simmering off the pages. In one passage, she seems resentful (and rightly so) about being denied the same respect of her male peers received:
“Common sense would tell you that if schoolchildren filed into a classroom every day and instead of saying ‘Good morning, Ms Smith’ to the teacher, said ‘Good morning, fat, ugly, dumb bitch’ that it would impact on their levels of respect for the woman in the front of the class. Somehow that common sense fled the scene while I was prime minister.”
These are the women leading our worlds, and yet we diminish their intellect with incessant comments about the ill-fitting pantsuit she wore to that conference, or the frizziness of her hair at that summit. It is this honesty of opinion Gillard should offer more of in her book, as it would have made a more consistently relatable read.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments of truth. Many of her insights into politics are quite refreshing, and I really enjoyed her shedding light on the harshness of politics: the quiet pain of watching your once close allies carry on without you when you’re voted out, the isolation of the work, the relentless scrutiny, constant battles with the media and most of all, the complexity of interpersonal relationships in government. Through countless stories, Gillard reveals that you can have a mate over for dinner but completely disagree with their policy, and alternately the adversary you loathe can turn out to be your most trusted and reliable confidante. It is also from the success and failure of these relationships she learned what’s essential in a government role: delegating, acknowledging faults and weakness and most of all, knowing when to leave in order for your team to succeed without you.
At times these tales can feel a little too political, and I could’ve done without the countless backstory and full names and dates of every politician to feature as a supporting character. She’s certainly thorough, but it’s an autobiography not a history book. The same problem occurs when she starts delving into Australia’s political history which again feels less like ‘My Story’. The more intimate moments are where her story shines – especially the “1961 Kids” where she paints an image of herself, John Key and Barack Obama as a funny little high school clique where bonding extends outside of their daily job. Again, this candid tone is what’s missing elsewhere.
In this way, the biggest flaw in My Story is its very absence of flaws. Gillard’s account of her own career excludes all the stumbles and instead she depicts herself as jumping every political hurdle. Accomplishments are certainly something to draw attention to, but in an important job like, say, running a country, missteps are inevitable which makes Gillard’s constant resilience feel untrue. There are no confessions of feeling downtrodden and exhausted to balance out the rewards, in fact the worst for Gillard is feeling “challenged”.
In this way it feels like she’s trying to win over the reader rather than simply reflecting on her career. She is not shy about her great “purpose” for politics, and regularly quotes herself and promotes her policies in every chapter. After a while it starts to feel a little too self-aggrandizing for my taste. This was her chance to write her own history, but it doesn’t feel real and, instead, like it was written with an advisor peering over her shoulder ordering what to leave in and take out. For someone who keeps insisting they don’t care what the public/media makes of them, My Story feels very constructed, but I guess that’s the nature of political autobiographies – always playing it safe and never ending up as the tell-all they promise to be.