Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up show Nanette took the comedy world by storm and turned her into an international success. Some critics claimed it groundbreakingly genius, while others panned it for being no more than an unfunny rage-fuelled rant about misogyny and homophobia. In examining the pivotal and everyday events in Gadsby’s life, as well as the very make-up of her biology, Ten Steps to Nanette shows us how both sides of the criticism are basically correct.

Like the show Nanette – which Gadsby calls “stand-up catharsis” and “an experiment in the transmutation of trauma” – this memoir is also not-so-hilarious. How can it be, respectfully, when such serious topics as hate crimes, sexual abuse and depression are at its core? But it is funny, and Gadsby’s ever-likability as the narrator of her life plays out in unpretentious writing, thoughtful judgments, and a generosity of human spirit.

Gadsby’s upbringing – as the youngest in a large family in the very small Tasmanian town of Smithton – provided her a layer of protection, but not enough to keep away the predators. That she was abused at a young age is not something she chooses to dwell on in her memoir; it’s a fact, it happened, and though it must be stressed as a defining lead-up to Nanette, the specifics belong to her.

She also barely depicts the next major ordeal that a man inflicted on her body, and the next. In our time of memoir-as-trauma-porn, most current autobiographies are likely to exploit such incidents to get readers fully on-side, but not Gadsby. As she writes midway through the book: “I want the world to stop demanding gratuitous details in exchange for empathy.”

Some of the most interesting moments in the book are hindsight ones. Having gone undiagnosed with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder until she was an adult, older Gadsby wishes she could explain to younger Gadsby what neuroatypical brain-processing means, and why it’s okay she didn’t react to the Port Arthur massacre, for instance, in the way that was expected of her.

“Unlike social interactions,” she writes of stand-up comedy, “I knew where I stood in relation to an audience. I understood what was expected of me.”

Lingering pointedly on Tasmania’s anti-homosexual legislation and the general homophobic attitude of the ’90s, and, more recently, on the gay marriage plebiscite, Gadsby shows she is clearly a fighter. If her political opinions aren’t leading discussions in this book, it’s definitely her mum, in pure anecdotal brilliance. Family is clearly the antidote to Gadsby’s trauma, and comedy – thankfully – its expression.

Well-written and quirk-filled, Ten Steps to Nanette is a fiery memoir of the times.

Ten Steps to Nanette, by Hannah Gadsby, is published by Allen & Unwin.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.