A God of Nowhere, a Prophet of Nothing

I have been asked the question, several times, ‘why did you set a novel about medical error up in Wittenoom?’ It’s a fair question really.

I have to answer this a little blind. Most novels arise from some odd place; they spill forth from the subconscious organ, wherever that is. Brain? Behind the spleen? Who knows. As most neuroscientists admit, we do not understand the creative process in the slightest.

All I knew is that a mistake I had made in the infancy of my career had stayed; fashioned itself into something solid, grew a little bit each year, beyond all the other mistakes, and started courting words. It wanted to be written.

So we faced the blank page, me and my brain, not really having any idea how to do this novel-writing business, and began. And the moment I did, needing to send my fallen doctor, somebody who had made an unforgivable mistake and was slowly dissolving in the acid of her own contempt, somewhere, the image of the abandoned, ruined hospital of Wittenoom flared true and bright in my head.

I’d travelled to that far-flung ghost town, which stayed clawing on for life with talons of ego and madness, battling all attempts by the Government to shush it out of existence, when I was a soft, unscarred intern. I had found myself alone and lost in the crumbling wreck of the hospital, the walls falling down, but gauze still on the floor and journals stacked and waterlogged in the corner. It was the strangest place I had ever seen. Eerie beyond imagining. The bricks from the walls were toppling, perhaps releasing the ghosts trapped in there, one by one. Relics of equipment were untouched, covered in dust. Dingoes howled nearby. Asbestos fibres floated in on the desert breeze.

But, life needed to move on. I shifted back down to Perth, and folded away anything that was not needed to survive a lifetime trying to become an Emergency Physician. However, when the book began to wriggle out of me, here it was. This hospital. This image. This place. And with this came the research. Which is why Dustfall came to be about the story of a brutal chapter in Western Australia’s history, but even more so, the story of the contempt that some corporations and Governments have for human life. The victims, the dead, those who suffered at the hands of others, they deserved a voice. It was a tough book to write, but through the extraordinary help of others, it is now on paper. In stores. People occasionally read it, and for every soul that takes the time to do so, I will never be able to express the extent of my gratitude.

I’m also asked, once in a while, whether the process was cathartic. Well here’s the bad bit. Right now, I’m not entirely sure whether I have survived. At the moment I’m taking a few months away from the hospital. Away from Emergency Medicine. God, I hear you say, not another one.

I don’t particularly want to write about this blindsiding vulnerability – (oh how wonderful is it to appear invincible, in control, untouchable) – but, I am a writer, and the only way I can truly think is with these things; these words, sentences, thoughts, coming from my fingertips.

After all this time, to feel a tiny bit broken, feels the truest kind of failure. We hear a lot about failure – how it is the only way to learn, how it allows us to rise up and grow, like we are some kind of gaseous villain in a superhero movie. But I’m not sure it’s always like that. For some, it’s a pervasive, long term ‘not good enough.’

Medicine, we are beginning to learn, has been a powerful force amplifying that message. You are not good enough.

The compassion equation no longer adds up. While we know that we must reach deep, every single day, into our well of compassion to be half-decent clinicians, the same cannot always be said for those who stand over us, with their administrative roles and executive titles. An unexpected culture of mutual disrespect and suspicion about motives has somehow infested many of these relationships, and it is not clear how to find our way out.

We know the health dollar is limited. We know that agitating for individuals is sometimes at cross-purposes to the greater good when it comes to budgetary allocation. We know we must work to make our systems as efficient as possible. But to come away believing that one’s efforts are not good enough, is, over time, damaging.

I am no stranger to the not good enough mantra. I am, after all, female. I see the same wounds from the same words in others – people whose first language is not English, in the voices of our First Nations people whose lives intersect mine, those with illness/disability. Not good enough. For what, one could rightly ask? Who knows, but we have a society that, more and more, seems to enjoy empowering the voices of the strong – those who feel entitled to make others whisper such words to themselves. Have current global events contributed to this anti-mantra? Where oppression of any voice other than that of wealthy white people goes unfettered? I would like to say wealthy, white men, as it mostly is, although it seems to be the first two adjectives that appear the most in this picture.

I’m not good enough on social media. I’m a fool, at my age, to even care. But I do. I see all the things I should be doing, particularly in critical care, to be a decent clinician, and I know I can never be that person. Why am I not that person, I ask? I also watch the mob-think, the pile-ons, people tossed into the colosseum, and I sit back, aghast. What have we unleashed?

But then, as I look outwards for reasons why I’m sitting here, writing this, I wonder, is the enemy simply  inside myself? Am I the cruel prison-guard of my own bruised worth?

There is, though, something rotten going on outside.

When I started writing Dustfall it was 2011. I thought I was writing something historical. That crushing individuals who are on the lower end of the power relationship see-saw was slowly becoming a thing of the past. The world was progressing. Tolerance, globalism, respect, although moving in fits and starts, was heading in the right direction. But I look at our planet now and wonder. I look as countries leak refugees, the result of war-loving men who wear their murderous decisions like epaulettes, the millions affected fleeing to countries which lock up wide-eyed children or push their boats away hoping they might silently drown. ‘Jobs’ trumps climate change, coin beats species loss, tourism beats Indigenous treaties. Women are not believed, lies from the top are.

What are we doing wrong? How do we fix it? Apart from trying to keep a tiny beacon alight, trying to show others the respect you believe is fundamental to our connectedness as humans, I’m not sure. Maybe this is my only advice. If you’re feeling not good enough, then chances are somebody else is too. And those personal connections, not advertised, not instagrammed, where you find yourself in the company of trust and respect, are kind of amazing. And if all else fails, write.


(as a post script, in the light of the inconceivable horrors going on in the US – just for one example, the slaughter of peace-loving Jewish people in their synagogue during a baby naming ceremony – I am re-reading Primo Levi’s If This is a Man. I needed some perspective on the world. What is a man, indeed? I highly recommend it.)


Plus – on the topic of ‘not good enough’, a recent post by the beautiful Shahina Braganza https://shahinabraganza.com/blog/wellness/was-i-enough/

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About the author

Dr Michelle Johnston is a consultant Emergency Physician who works at an inner city hospital. Mostly her days consist of trauma and mess. Also, she writes.

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