Reaching One Thousand: a Story of Love, Motherhood and Autism, is a new memoir by Rachel Robertson. Published by Black Inc, it will be launched in early March. I had the privilege of reviewing this book for a state newspaper; here, I want to comment on it a little more loosely and diffusely (it’s always hard to encapsulate your response to a book in less than 300 words!)
Rachel happens to be a colleague and friend of mine, from our days as life writing researchers at Curtin University, so I declare a bias. But that bias is, dare I say, irrelevant, for Rachel writes memoir that is a model of accessibility, intelligence, and good writing, as is evidenced by her winning of the Calibre Prize for essay writing (Australian Book Review) in 2008, with a memoir that forms part of this book. She has also been published in other prestigious literary outlets, such as Best Australian Essays, and Griffith Review.
Memoir is an art that requires a fine balance between the personal and the public. As Rachel says, in this book, there is a fine line between writing a life as you live it and living your life as you write it. And if you write about your life AS you are living it, not in retrospect, as she has done here, this becomes even finer. It is, as she says, like waking from a powerful dream and finding that your bedroom in the half-light of dawn is thin and weak in comparison to your dream. So memoir writing can become a magic cave we enter, a retreat from the pressures, pains and messiness of everyday life, a place where we can (perhaps) perfect our life, if only in words and their reverberations. That is the enchantment of life writing, which is a two-edged sword, as life never turns out how you want it to, you are constantly surprised and disappointed and confused, but there is always that enchanted place you can go to, a more real world than the real world you inhabit. Yet in memoir, as distinct from fiction, entry into that world can give you understanding, meaning where there was mess, perhaps healing.
Healing there is here, for disappointed expectations, the shock of realising that your child is not “neurotypical”, that he is different and always will be. The journey is one of understanding, guided by love, and the discovery of ways of relating to that child that accept and respect his difference and allow intimacy, trust and love to develop and flower. This is a very beautiful story, but it is also funny, touching and thought-provoking. It raises a thousand questions about the self, the way the mind and emotions work, and about how we relate to each other.
And it is beautifully written; in a sense, co-written, the partner in the story being Ben, who, as he develops, becomes a very able story-teller in his own right, creating many handwritten and illustrated stories about the adventures of some funny characters, based on stories he and his mother have read and shared over the years. There’s the Frog and Toad books, the Rowena Smithtwinson books, and the Frog and Girlland books. And in the end, Ben has the last word in the memoir.
When I read the last page, I felt regret; I wanted to know more, what happens next, how Ben develops as a teenager (he’s 12 at the end of this book).
Read this one, you’ll be delighted, moved and wanting to know more.