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Canberra Writers Festival 2018, Day 1, Pt 1: A memoirist in conversation

August 25, 2018

It’s the last weekend August which means it’s the Canberra Writers Festival. This could become a habit. Wouldn’t that be nice – to have a regular writers’ festival here again, I mean. The Festival’s ongoing theme is Power, Politics, Passion, which is particularly appropriate this year, given last week’s shenanigans in Australian politics. (For those of you from elsewhere, we – though I use the term generally – managed to ditch yet another Prime Minister mid-term … but let’s not go into that now. The Festival is far more interesting.)

Do oysters get bored: A curious life: Rozanna Lilley in Conversation with Karen Middleton

Karen Middleton and Rosanna Lilley

Karen Middleton and Rozanna Lilley (against a bright background)

My first session was a conversation with Rozanna Lilley about her memoir Do oysters get bored: A curious life. The interviewer, political journalist Karen Middleton, has appeared here before when she was the “participating chair” of a panel at the Festival Muse in 2017. It was good to see her again.

Now, this was an interesting session because Lilley’s book caused quite a flurry in the media when it was published. I haven’t read the book – and unfortunately the National Library had sold out of copies – but I understand that it was intended primarily to be about her autistic son Oscar. An interesting topic, and one very much to the moment I’d say given the increased awareness of autism in our time. But, the thing is that Rozanna Lilley was also the daughter of writers Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley, who just so happened to live a determinedly libertarian bohemian life, one in which their two daughters, Rozanna and older sister Kate, were actively included. And by actively included, I mean they were “encouraged”, in this pro-free-love household to have sex from a very young age. Given the literary reputation of her parents, and the current awareness of sexual abuse of children and women, this issue captured the interest of commentators and reviewers. The “gutter press”, Lilley said, started talking about pedophile rings, but worse, I think, is that she also became the butt of trolling.

Fortunately, Middleton took a more measured approach to her conversation, and explored the breadth of the book’s subject matter, but she did start by asking whether there was a therapeutic element to writing the book. Lilley said that it wasn’t a “therapy” book, but that she was seeing a psychiatrist at the time she wrote the book, and that that had “opened up the past as a space for reflection”. However, she laughed, she had initially conceived of the book as a gently humorous take on her eccentric family – à la David Sedaris – but that a friend had suggested it was more Augusten Burroughs’ Running with scissors! It did, she admitted, become darker in spots than she’d initially planned.

Middleton also asked whether she felt any pressure to live up to her literary heritage. Lilly agreed there was an element of that, but, she said, it was also an advantage growing up in a literary household. It gave her “good cultural capital.”

Then we got to the original inspiration for the book, her son’s autism. Lilley, who is a social anthropologist and autism researcher, talked about her son’s diagnosis, and her response to this; about the value of diagnosis (saying that clinicians will usually only diagnose autism if they see distress and dysfunction); about mainstreaming; and about the impact of (adjustments you make) living with an autistic person. There was some discussion about the whole labelling issue, particularly given Lilley’s academic work is about “exclusion and stigma.” As she apparently tells in the book, she has sometimes explained her son’s autism when he has behaved inappropriately, which results in a positive change in people’s attitudes to him. The pluses and minuses of labelling!

The conversation then returned to Lilley’s parents and her experience as an exploited young child and teenager. She laughed about going from being a “serially exploited young teen… to a perimenopausal mother … doling out unwanted sexual advice to my son.” Middleton suggested that Lilley doesn’t really describe her feelings in the book about what had happened to her as a young girl. Lilley responded that it was “just the times”, but admitted that “men benefited” from the “strange sexual competition” between the mother and her daughters. She said that she has always stressed her agency, not liking to be seen as victim, but that in working through it with her psychiatrist she’s come to see it a little differently. But, she said, she is perhaps more generous about it all “on the page” than she is in real life.

At this point, Middleton asked her to read a poem, “Coming of age”, from the book. It ends, pointedly, on the line ”tangled in my billowing broken girlhood.” During the Q&A, Lilley said the voice of the book’s memoir pieces is more humorous, while the poetry comes more from pain and reflection.

Middleton asked more about Lilley’s parents and their impact on her. Her parents had, Lilley said, “enormous personalities”. She described her autodidact father as having “an unusual perspective on life”. In other words, he could be enormously kind but he could also be hard and cruel. However, she doesn’t like to see people as heroes or villains. Life is more complex, she said.

There was more, including in the Q&A, about

  • her son’s attitude to the memoir (she had discussed it with him);
  • the writing process (it took 7 years, she grew up in a family looking to for stories in their experiences, and she had kept diaries having being trained, as an anthropologist, in taking field notes);
  • the increase in diagnosis of autism (partly because the definition has been expanded, and partly because past mental retardation diagnoses are now diagnosed as autism, but definitely not because of vaccination, as the questioner wondered.)

She explained that some of the pieces in the book had been published before – including in Best Australian essays – but that these were all pieces about her father, not about her son. Publishers shy away from mothers writing about autistic children, fearing sentimentality – the-autistic-child-is-a gift-that-taught-me-a-lot trope. There’s some of that in her book she said, but she doesn’t believe she’s sentimental!

Finally, explaining why she had written the story of her childhood experience now, she said that she didn’t feel free to talk until her parents had died. Now, I know this is a touchy issue for some. It is of course the stuff of many memoirs, but is it fair or right to “air” such stories about one’s family or friends? I think it can be (with certain provisos), but what do you think?

All in all, a well-moderated, warm-hearted but thoughtful session that got my Festival weekend off to a good start.

Note: One of my blogger mentees attended this session too, and plans to explore another aspect of this “story”. When her post is published, I’ll share it with you.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Glen Hunting permalink
    August 26, 2018 12:49 am

    Hiya Sue,

    You might imagine that, given Dorothy Hewett’s West Australian roots and her place in the WA literary pantheon (if such a thing actually exists!), not to mention her name being latterly ascribed to a major literary award in the West, the recently reported goings-on of yesteryear that have been attributed to Hewett have attracted their share of attention over here.

    Amongst the multiple invitations to be informed of and to understand the contexts and the impacts of “what went on” back then, one statement from your account of Rozanna Lilley’s interview particularly caught my attention: “…it was ‘just the times’, but…’men benefited’ from the ‘strange sexual competition’ between the mother and her daughters.”

    Now, at the risk of invoking the ire of various quarters, my feeling (as a member of a privileged and protected race and gender, born and bred after the fact) is that a recently recognised, though as-yet unquantified (unquantifiable?) degree of harm, was done in the course of various practices carried out under various informal social licences that were commonly enacted throughout the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, for (perhaps) not-altogether sinister reasons, notwithstanding the universal selfishness of lust when certain power structures unfairly enable its satisfaction for some (predominantly men) at the expense of others (predominantly women). I don’t believe Ms. Lilley’s account of her experiences denies that sexual activities and relations can, if not necessarily should, carry practical and emotional responsibilities amongst consenting adults who are not unreasonably hampered or coerced, either within or without the immediate context of the ‘relationship’. But what strikes me, in the midst of all of this, is the sadness inherent in the notion that, at that time, Ms. Lilley was unable to explore and choose FOR HERSELF her own modes of sexual expression, in her own time and in her own ways, and to fully apprehend and act upon (or not) the relational and practical implications that would arise from these explorations and choices. It would seem that, instead, certain sexual experiences were strongly encouraged if not irresistibly enforced, via unfair persuasion and quasi-acquiescent coercion (at least as I understand it), and she was left to somehow process their meaning or significance or, worse, to repair or just somehow cope as best she could with the emotional damage that such experiences caused her.

    It is no longer a new or even novel idea that “men benefited more from the so-called Sexual Revolution than women”, as Lilley’s account implies. At least, it isn’t a new idea within current literary and sociological discourse. But I think the double-standard is still striking; the sense that the terrain of sexual relating, and the testing of its boundaries, was not accessible (or at least not as freely available) to women like Ms Lilley in the ‘seventies in the way that it supposedly was for men. And it’s fair (and certainly regrettable and indictable) to say that at least a degree of this same disparity persists between the sexes right up to the present day.

    I’ve tried very hard to be even-handed and empathic, notwithstanding the gaps in my knowledge, the sensitivities of affected parties, and my own less-than-hard-done-by status relative to so many others overall. My social-media crash helmet is now firmly On. 🙂

    • August 26, 2018 1:42 am

      Good for you Glen for having a go. Yes, the point is that she was very young, around 14 if not younger when encouraged to have sex with visiting men. She wasn’t old enough to understand the ramifications, and even if she did it sounds like it would have been hard for her to say no as an ongoing thing to the life. So, as you say, she didn’t really have choice, and she didn’t as I understand it have the knowledge to make a choice anyhow.

      It’s telling I think that she left home at 16, albeit to live with a man much older than herself, but at least it was with A man. She tries to be even-handed about it I believe … partly because she loved her family and partly because it was the milieu she was in, the 60s and 70s as you say. There was no pedophile ring, but by today’s standards at least she would have been below the age of consent. I don’t think your crash helmet will get too much of a bashing here!

  2. August 26, 2018 1:07 am

    Hi Sue, hopefully will see you at some of the events tomorrow! I’m going to Who Killed Maria James, Irvine Welsh and the Girl’s Night In one!

    • August 26, 2018 1:44 am

      Oh dear, Angharad, I’m not going to any of those, though they all interested me, when I was looking. I’m only doing two tomorrow, working around other commitments – the book designer one and the Andrew Ford one. (Can’t remember their names.) Were you there today?

      • August 26, 2018 10:26 pm

        I only went to the Sunday events this time around. How was the book designer one?

        • August 26, 2018 10:55 pm

          It was such fun and I learnt a bit … I’ll probably write it up tomorrow. How were your events?

  3. August 26, 2018 5:02 pm

    Thanks for sharing this, Sue:)

    • August 26, 2018 6:24 pm

      A pleasure Lisa. I managed to suss out some sessions that interested me!

      • August 26, 2018 6:26 pm

        I remember that you were a bit doubtful, but it’s all turned out well.
        But did you see this?

        • August 26, 2018 7:16 pm

          Yes, it did in fact, as my friend and I both felt. I hadn’t seen that article. Very interesting. My friend did go to conservative Greg Sheridan and I went to the musical Andrew Ford.

          I do like the point that “Ultimately writers festivals are festivals of ideas, so it gives you great scope to take some wonderful writers of different kinds, be they journalists, or fiction and non-writers, and have them address contemporary current issues.” I think that is what we want to see more of – it depends as much on the moderators, though, I’d say as on the authors you invite or feature? Can the moderators tease out important ideas or issues?

  4. August 27, 2018 10:15 pm

    Great report of a very difficult subject (age of informed consent, not autism). I guess I’m Lilley’s age but while it was written about sometimes, not just Lolita, I don’t remember any of my age cohort thinking sex at 14 was a good thing.

    • August 27, 2018 11:05 pm

      Thanks Bill, many of the sessions were difficult in fact!

      • Glen Hunting permalink
        August 28, 2018 12:35 am

        My earlier mansplaining seems to have scared most other potential commentators away. Much too wordy of me. ‘Twas late at night, and that tends to make me ramble, too…

        • August 28, 2018 7:45 am

          I suspect my wordy post did the job first Glen! I’m glad you commented.

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