Wrongs and Rites: An interview with Rebecca Starford

[First published in The Big Issue No 479, March 2015]

We’ve all indulged in a little bad behavior now and then, even if we don’t like to admit it – no more so then during the rebellious teenage years. As Melbourne writer Rebecca Starford will warn you, though, the bad deeds of adolescence have a tendency to follow you into adult life. Starford’s memoir, Bad Behaviour, is a fiercely honest and intelligent look back at her year of boarding school when she was 14, a time when she experienced being both the bully and the bullied.

While bullying is something readers will be familiar with, boarding-school life is usually encountered second hand through old-time novels. Starford even notes in her book that her experience as a lodger very quickly failed to live up to the quaint Enid Blyton fantasy.

Starford, now 30, describes Silver Creek – the made-up name for the remote campus she attended in the Victorian Alps – as “boot camp meets adventure camp.” At Silver Creek, Starford shared a dorm with 15 other girls. In between her normal Year Nine classes, she was put through gruelling, daily marathon sessions, and forced to adapt to the simple life: from chopping wood and lighting fires to braving solo camping expeditions.

For all the survival skills Starford learned at Silver Creek, the biggest lesson had to do with friendship. “We all know the qualities of a good friend, it’s the friends who are always there for you, who know you best and who love you despite your faults and for your true self,” she says. “It’s an obvious definition, but when you’re fourteen and trying to find your place in this environment it’s really, really difficult. I allowed myself to be drawn towards girls who were not so nice. My own behaviour changed when I became not a very nice girl.”

Talking to Starford and reading her book, it’s clear she’s been processing her year at boarding school for a very long time: “I was very much shaped by that environment. I went to Sliver Creek as a very different person to the one that I came out at the end. It was only as an adult when I reflected on my year there that I came to understand some of the patterns in the way that I form friendships and, of course, later romantic relationships with women,” she says.

Bad Behaviour is told in two voices: intertwined with Starford’s memories of boarding school are the meditations of her as an adult, eager to learn from the past and develop more meaningful friendships. For Starford, this yearning becomes all the more poignant when she realises something she was unable to articulate as a teenager – that she is gay. For Starford, the difficulties she faced at Silver Creek mirror the difficulties she experienced in coming out.

As she explains: “We talk a lot more about bullying now than we ever used to, which is fantastic. But we don’t talk about the way that these relationships that we form as young girls evolves into the relationships that we establish as young women. Being a young gay woman, who was very conflicted – initially at least – about my sexuality and fearful and afraid, that all became embroiled in a way that was quite toxic. I internalised a lot of shame and then I was drawn to the kind of women I was drawn to as a teenager. And that, of course, spelled disaster.”

Society’s ideas about what it means to be ‘bad girl’ is a sticky concept, and the gendered aspects of bullying are something Starford tackles sensitively in Bad Behaviour. As Starford says: “We don’t really talk about girls’ aggression very openly or at least in a way that’s particularly nuanced because I think girls’ aggression – and when I say aggression I don’t just mean physical aggression but also emotional and psychological ­– I think it’s very much bound up in the fabric that is female friendship. So the best friend, or the loved friend – because it is this kind of passionate love that we have as a teenager – invariably becomes the enemy and the heartbreak. And that aggression is turned in on itself.”

Bullying aside, there’s a lively energy to Bad Behaviour, with many cheeky scenes of misbehaviour, from girls streaking through the woods, to raiding dorms and stealing alcohol from teachers’ lodgings. Above all the fighting and lashing out, the bond of female friendship is celebrated in all its messy glory.

Another important life skill Starford developed at Silver Creek was endurance. Starford, who currently juggles the roles of book editor at Text Publishing and publisher at literary journal Kill Your Darlings, appears to push herself to the limits in her professional life. “Writing a book is a lot like running a marathon,” she says. “You have to be disciplined, it’s pretty gruelling, and you have to train for it. But it’s very rewarding when you’re holding the book in your hands. Of course, you’re exhausted at the end,” she says, breaking into a wide grin – her laughter the joy of someone who, after much struggle, is relieved to have reached the finish line.