A young ballerina stands on the stage, poised in position. The opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker swell, as do the lights, and the starry-eyed lead character Clara begins to dance—lost in her body’s movement—separated from reality.
Actress Anna McGahan was always conscious of her body. From her ballet performances to her casting as a young prostitute on Underbelly: Razor, her body was valuable, a necessity to succeed. But throughout the years, she also learned that her body was a tool for meaningless sexual experiences and for gaining power, a reality that left her feeling empty. Anorexia, bulimia and substance use didn’t change that reality, they merely expressed it in a different way.
Metanoia is McGahan’s memoir, a story about a search for meaning in a lonely world—but it seems simplistic to call it just that. The book introduces us to her journey in all its messy glory. We see her numerous romantic partners, some who damaged her and some of whom she damaged, all tumbled together in a mix of acting jobs, religious encounters and recreational substances. We see her spirituality, ranging from experiences studying reiki and tarot cards to her conversion to Christianity in 2012. And we also see her pain expressed in self harm, her eating disorders and her tears. As I said, it’s messy—and readers need to be prepared.
McGahan is an excellent storyteller (not that one could expect anything else from an actor), recalling her experiences with warmth and clarity. Her story of hiking to Everest’s Base Camp in search of Buddhist enlightenment paints a vivid picture, giving the reader a sense that they are feeling the cold and altitude too. She’s mature, insightful and honest with her thoughts—displaying an exceptionally detailed memory for all the incidents in her life that shaped her into the woman she is.
She’s also incredibly candid about her struggles and the struggles of those around her. We see in her story an inquisitive, questioning mind, which makes the journey all the more engrossing. What I found refreshing was that her conversion to Christianity did not suddenly make her life perfect; indeed some of her major struggles came after she accepted Jesus. She is just as open about her character flaws after she accepted Christianity and there’s no superiority in her tone. Rather than grandstanding about her religion, she simply explains how her faith has impacted her personally.
Metanoia is not a light read. McGahan tackles issues of religion, sexuality, creativity, femininity and body image in an honest, upfront manner that will be confronting for some readers. Even her retelling of incidents from after her conversion—vivid discussions of speaking in tongues, visions, healings and other Pentecostal phenomena—may be uncomfortable for some. The forthright way she talks about her faith may come across as aggressive to others. And some of her responses to faith and sexuality may raise more questions than answers.
But no-one can doubt her sincerity, and no-one can doubt the metanoia (or “transformative change of heart”) we see in McGahan as her story progresses. As a young female artist myself, I appreciate her ability to be vulnerable about the challenges she has had. Her discussion of body image is one I believe many will relate to, especially those involved in the arts. And the way she addresses misconceptions around Christianity is also intriguing, as she comes face-to-face with a God who loves her, and is willing to meet her where she is and grow her further.
It’s not a perfect story (no story is), but it reflects a warmth and integrity that inspired me to read on and to begin to see the truth of McGahan’s own realisation of the overwhelming love of God. As she puts it, “It changes everything”.
Jessica Krause is currently completing a law/media degree at Newcastle University in NSW.