THE DAILY TELEGRAPH - NOVEMBER 6, 1999
WIRED FOR LIFE
PHOTO BY FIONA-LEE QUIMBY
Artist Theresa Byrnes seems to revel in the hardships she's faced. Now the
author of an autobiography certain to shock and inspire others, she talks to
Spare the pity. Theresa Byrnes is one babe who doesn't want it. All of her adult
life, the diminutive artist has fervently fought against becoming an "against
all odds" cliché. Even her closest friends have had to be straightened out when
arguing truisms such as "greatness comes from suffering".
As a result, the moment one meets Byrnes any urge to offer pity evaporates.
It is obvious she sees beauty, not despair, in her own tragedy.
Aged 30 and beautiful, Byrnes has the rare fatal disease Friedreichs Ataxia (FA)
and is confined to a wheelchair.
She is also a successful painter locally and internationally, an Australia Day
ambassador, a recipient of a Young Australian of the Year award and head of a
foundation committed to funding medical research.
But mostly, she is a straight-talker.
So, our conversation moves straight on to topics of bondage, sexual healing and
world travels, all of which are documented in detail in her candid
autobiography, The Divine Mistake.
But while the naughty bits, which her mum thinks she has handled very
tastefully, make good reading, there is far more to the Theresa Byrnes story
than tantalising tales of sexual exploits, although Brynes stresses she wants to
debunk the myth people in wheelchairs don't have sex.
She says her motivation to write her autobiography was two-fold. She didn't
"want to bring any more crap in the world", nor did she want to be put on a
Instead, she hopes through her literary creativity she can reach people by
helping them find inspiration within themselves.
She says the book is not so much about living with a degenerative disease as it
about following one's dreams, female painters, what it means to be Australian,
relationships and hard core subjects such as the plight of Aborigines.
"To bring about something new and fresh and honest you have to really understand
life. So writing was a very personal way unravelling the whole meaning of my
existence." she says.
"I hate the notion of that ‘against all odds' crap just because I'm in a
wheelchair. I mean, get over it. Basically there is nothing
in my life that would be different [without FA]. It hasn't shaped my life at
"I think that for a lot of people the book will be an inspiration, but that is
something that makes me cringe. I think people have to recognise their own
motivation for finding inspiration."
She says writing the autobiography was cathartic and admits being reduced to
tears a number of times.
But the tears she shed were not of sadness. She explains they were tears of joy
at discovering beauty in FA and in the tragedy of it because it is a part of
Byrnes came to terms with FA, an inherited disease of the nervous system, long
ago and says it is something she has never found hard to live with.
Having never considered herself disabled, she says she simply adjusts each time
the FA steals a little of her mobility.
It is not surprising then that she doesn't fear the early death that FA may
bring or the effects it may have on her body in the future. In fact, she is
actually looking forward to the discipline the disease will force upon her
"I don't fear death because I'm so grateful of the life I've had. If it gets to
a stage where I can't [move] it might be a relief because I might be able to
focus solely on my creativity," she says.
"If I get to a stage where I can't paint, can't walk, can barely breathe or eat,
I will write. My creative vision doesn't have anything to do with the mobility
of my body."
"But I don't waste energy worrying about what-ifs. It is a very individual
disease and I could be dead in 10 years or still as I am now."
Fiercely independent, the only thing Byrnes does fear is becoming reliant on
anyone else. But she reckons if she has five "gorgeous male slaves" to help,
that might make it easier to handle.
To say hers is a passionate life is an understatement. It is with a wild,
intuitive and explosive energy she applies herself to everything including
painting, the gym, writing, fund-raising, relationships and the indigenous
An abstract expressionist, she paints fast and furiously and aims to one day
hire an aircraft hangar in which to hurl paint while rigged to a flying fox.
"I paint beyond limitations. Painting to me is practical ontology. It's
unravelling the meaning of existence," she explains.
It was her intuition that led Byrnes to Arnhem Land 10 years ago, where she was
adopted by an Aboriginal family. Having forged a close bond with the indigenous
populace, she regularly visits her family in the Outback to sleep under the
stars and learn from them.
Back in the city, she is part of the movement rallying for reconciliation. "I
hope this book will make people a little more open-minded about what is worth
celebrating, and it's not who wins in long-distance running," she says. "We
can't even apologise to the indigenous people. It's all a crock."
There is one thing Byrnes admits she has so far failed in throughout her life;
love. But after falling in love a number of times and exploring many different
relationships, she is at least certain about what she doesn't want. Marriage!
Been there, done that, didn't work, never will.
As someone who craves solitude, she admits she is probably a hard person to be
with. So, she has come up with the perfect solution: "I think I need two
"It would be nice to have a partner for three years or so [ I move on, babe,"
"I'm really questioning the whole idea of a normal relationship. I don't want
normal. Whenever I have gone to get a normal relationship, it hasn't been normal
Now the autobiography is complete, this modern gypsy is desperate to take flight
again. Unable to live in any place for too long, Byrnes is soon returning to
Arnhem Land to visit her family after the deaths of two relatives. From there
she will fly to what she considers her third home, the US, to enjoy the New York
Between moves she will work on a number of projects she has already started.
There is another book to be written, the possibility of co-writing a screenplay
for a movie based on her autobiography and maybe even a career change into film.
And, of course, there is her unquenchable desire to paint.
"I'm itching to get started on my new series of work. I already have the concept
in my head and I just can't wait to dive into it."
If there is one thing we can learn from Byrnes, it's that life is for enjoying,
no matter what it throws at us. She sums up her enthusiasm in six words: "I have
the most incredible life."
The Divine Mistake by Theresa Byrnes (Pan MacMillan), $25. The book release
coincides with the launch of her latest exhibition at Wagner Art Gallery on
November 9. Exhibition closes November 18.