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I never meant to be a rebel: an interview with Jessica Bell

“I don’t have to publish this when it’s finished,” Jessica Bell told herself as she began writing. “Just write it completely honestly, no one has to read it.”

Bell began writing what would became a memoir titled ​Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel (A Memoir). She needed to get everything out of her system—and by everything, she meant a life full of rebelling against her own feelings of inadequacy. Bell grew up in Melbourne, Australia, with her mother, Erika Bach, and stepfather, Demetri Vlass, who together formed Ape the Cry and Hard Candy, two popular indie bands in Melbourne.

“I was an only child,” Bell says over Skype (she now lives in Athens, Greece). “So when my parents were working in their band, I was always alone and playing alone and struggling to get along with school kids, which caused me to sort of become very withdrawn. I spent a lot of time playing on my own. That exacerbated in high school when I felt very different from everybody else, and I suffered depression, and I drank a lot of alcohol. Eventually, one day at a party, I passed out from drinking too much alcohol, and I was raped. So, that also affected my future relationships with people. I’ve always pulled away from them. It took until I was around 20 or 21 to realise that I was destroying myself.”

After finishing her manuscript detailing, she sent it to her mother. “Look, read this,” she told her. “If you don’t want me to publish it, I won’t.”

“But she read it in one night, loved it and convinced me to publish it,” Bell says now. “So I went ahead.” What unfolded was a touching account of learning to love yourself again after having hated yourself for so long, which, Bell believes, is the most powerful takeaway for other people — “I think everybody experiences a period in their lives where they hate themselves or feel they could be better.”

She continues: “I think that a lot of people have been able to relate to various things in the book as well, so it’s touching people’s hearts and maybe helping them understand a little bit more about themselves, which is all anyone can ask for really with a memoir.”

Her most important review came from her mother, who has become her good friend after a rocky adolescence in which Bell blamed her for so much. “It wasn’t that she was a rock star,” says Bell when asked why she rebelled. “She was sick all the time. She was on prescription drugs, and she had basically a reverse effect syndrome. So what was supposed to relax her made her hypertensive and in pain all the time, and she just kept taking more and more drugs. So she was sick from pharmaceuticals for very many years, and I hated her for that. I blamed her for that.

“As a teenager, I basically blamed her for ruining my life when she had no control over what was going on. So it was her sickness and inability to be a proper mother to me because of that sickness that I resented her for, and it took until my mid-20s to really understand what went on and how she felt about the whole thing.”

But even through the tumult, Erika encouraged her daughter to express herself. At 13 years old, Bell used her mother’s 12-string guitar to write her first song. She continued writing music with the guitar throughout her teens. Music and writing used to be her way to escape, but now she has arrived at a place where she doesn’t feel a need to escape—she can just enjoy the craft and act of creating.

“I’ve spent the majority of my life not expressing my emotions, and I think that was part of my healing process as well,” she says. “That it was OK to say how I feel, and now that I’ve sort of turned that corner I feel that honesty and complete openness is just the only way I can be now.”

In March, Bell officially quit her day-job as an editor. She is the lead singer for band Keep Shelly in Athens while also working on her own music project. She still writes and runs a small publisher called Vine Leaves Press, which publishes about 10 books a year. She also designs book covers for indie authors.

“I’m really enjoying right now just taking day by day and enjoying the things I create and enjoying life because you really don’t know that tomorrow’s gonna be there,” Bell explains. “I spent a lot of my life thinking about the future, and I just find it depresses me. I’ve really sort of trained myself to make every day as best I can and enjoy every day as best I can.”

Words by Megan Armstrong

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