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Writing & researching for impact : Associate Professor Gemma Carey

We love celebrating inspiring women leading in their fields - so we're excited to profile Gemma Carey, Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales' Centre for Social Impact.

Tell us a bit about yourself.


Where to begin! I’m a social scientist who does policy research. I run a large research team focused on addressing social inequality at UNSW, Centre for Social Impact where I’m one of the youngest female Associate Professors in the country. And then I wear this other hat, where I do a lot of narrative non-fiction writing on the side.

I think for contextualising my other responses, it’s important to know a few personal things about me. I come from a family of limited educational experience and poverty, that moved to fully tertiary educated (three PhDs between the four of us!) in two generations and this is 100% down to free education.

So everything I do, professionally and in my writing career, is about addressing inequity - I wouldn’t be where I am without free education. The other thing to know about me is I am both cursed and blessed. I have an amazing career, beautiful partner, dogs that are so gorgeous they have a huge twitter following, and I get to live in an eco-house to die for.

But I also have some weird bad luck in my life. When I was 30, my immune system sort of ate my nerve system and I couldn’t use my arms or legs for two years. I’ve struggled a lot with chronic pain since then, but through a lot of rehab I managed to regain most of my functioning - though I’ll never be the over-achieving sports fanatic I once was.

I’ve also experienced a lot of loss in my life. I nursed my mum through an aggressive and soul destroying form of breast cancer. She died beside me 12 months after diagnosis. Last year I lost 60% of my blood to internal bleeding from medical negligence and very nearly died in a storage room in a Sydney hospital. I have lost a baby in the second trimester. These types of things just tend to happen to me, this isn’t even close to the full list.   So I work and write from a place of extreme privilege and extreme suffering. 

What drew you to research and academia as a career path? 

I think I was born into academia. My father is a Professor, my sister is an academic too. It’s the family business. But more seriously, it’s because I need to always be learning… and I’m competitive. I read a quote once that said ‘what would you do if you couldn’t fail at it?’ And my honest response was, ‘well, nothing’.

In academia, I can fail at everything, with a an audience. And there’s something about that that drives me - unhealthy as it may be. There is no end to things you have to learn, to being put out of your comfort zone, to mess up on an international stage, and to work on really fixing inequality.

I realise the latter goes against the ‘ivory tower’ rhetoric of academia, but I always say I’m a weird academic and I lead a team of weird academics. We get our hands dirty - we’re there in the trenches with government, with NGOs, working on the really tough stuff. At the moment my work is about inequities in the National Disability Insurance Scheme. I sit between the amazing people in government working so hard to make the scheme work, and the participants who aren’t coping - and ring me to tell me so. It’s emotional and challenging and I’m humbled to be not only in the middle of it, but someone people look to for answers. 

Your writing is very powerful, and touches on some very personal and at times traumatic material - how do you balance the political objectives of your work with your own wellbeing? 

This is such an excellent question and it’s one I’m still trying to find my way through. In around 2017 I decided to start writing outside of academia. At first I wrote a few pieces in The Guardian about the experience of overwhelming grief in watching my mother die relatively young.

I then wrote a deeply honest and personal account about finding out my baby had a devastating genetic disorder in the second trimester, and losing him. More recently I’ve been writing about being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.

It was grief that took me to the page. Writing these stories was the only way I felt I could survive them. I honestly don’t think I could have kept going if I didn’t find that outlet. But, sometimes this comes home to roost in ways I don’t anticipate.

In my mind, I’m wearing different hats - there’s Professional Gemma who runs a research centre and takes meetings with government. And there’s just Normal Gemma, who experiences and writes about these complex issues. Of course, life is never so straight forward and my name isn’t common enough for people not to draw the connections.

I’ve had colleagues in the University react badly to me sharing personal narratives publicly. That’s been hard and really distressing when it’s happened, and really made me question if I should continue to ‘create’ in both spaces. Other times, I’ve been in serious meetings and someone unexpectedly reaches out to me to say they were deeply moved by what I had written. While it always catches me by surprise (because I’m in Professional Mode), these are the ones that remind me it’s okay to be a whole person as we move through the world. And perhaps that’s the only way to move through the world when so much has happened to you. 

What's one of your proudest achievements? 

My proudest achievement has been taking all the difficult things that have happened and spinning them into something beautiful. When I write, even about difficult things, I try to make every sentence moving, startling, entrancing. That can be confronting for people to read - it takes you to the absolute heart of human suffering. But it can still be beautiful and moving. My goal is to give words to the unspeakable, the experiences other people have also had, but perhaps can’t articulate. 

Is there anything exciting coming up in 2020 you'd like to share?

2020 is going to be HUGE. My memoir ’No Matter Our Wreckage’ will be published by Allen and Unwin in mid 2020. The memoir tells two intertwined stories: taking a man to court for child sexual abuse and grooming when I was a teenager, and watching and caring for my mother while she died, and the dark unsettling connections between these two stories.

It’s a book that has taken me twenty years to write and I’m both out of my mind excited for it to see the light of day, and utterly terrified about having decades of ‘secrets' out in the open. But, like my academic writing and other personal writing, I created it with a distinct purpose - to show people that you can survive these things. And maybe more than that, maybe you can find ways to be stronger because of them. I always say I wrote the book I needed when I was young, and I hope it helps people like my younger self understand grooming, betrayal and that we can change the way we narrate our own stories of abuse. Strip away the shame, and put the blame where it belongs. 

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