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Jocelyn Moorhouse, Unconditional love: A memoir of filmmaking and motherhood (#BookReview)

August 31, 2019

Book coverAlthough it is quite a traditional memoir, style-wise, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Unconditional love: A memoir of filmmaking and motherhood is particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, she’s an artist who had a happy childhood. Who knew that could happen? Secondly, while most memoirs focus on one aspect of the writer’s life – such as their career (sport, for example), their trauma (childhood abuse, perhaps), their activity (like travel) – Moorhouse intertwines two ostensibly distinct parts of her life, her filmmaking career and her life as a mother.

Jocelyn Moorhouse will be known to many filmgoers as the director of the critically successful Proof, How to make an American quilt, and The dressmaker. She is also the wife of PJ Hogan who directed Muriel’s wedding, My best friend’s wedding, and Peter Pan. This is one amazing couple. Not only have they each made critically successful films, but they are lifetime creative and life partners, working on and/or supporting each other’s movies, negotiating the logistics of parenthood, and so on. They have made it work for over 30 years, in a way that few do. That’s impressive.

It could all, then, have been pretty idyllic, but life rarely turns out that way, and for Moorhouse and Hogan it didn’t. The reason is that of Moorhouse and Hogan’s four children, the middle two are autistic. This resulted in an 18-year hiatus in her filmmaking career, although during that time she kept her hand in, mostly working in some way with PJ on his projects. The book, then, tells both stories, the development of her career from her early studies in media and drama at Rusden State College and then at the Australian Film and Television School, where she met Hogan, and her very particular and demanding life as the mother of two autistic children.

She shares the emotions of giving birth to two gorgeous children only to have them regress around two years of age, as is apparently typical with autism, into unhappy, and therefore difficult children. I say unhappy because it is clear that the children suddenly find the world confusing and frustrating. Their language and communication skills regress so they resort to screaming and crying, and other difficult behaviours. Moorhouse talks about the shock of diagnosis, the therapies they try, including the ones that work (for them), and the logistics of running a family whose life is peripatetic and dependent on the next film job coming along.

Moorhouse, the experienced storyteller (and in fact problem-solver), tells her story carefully. It’s not until halfway through the novel that she brings us to her growing uneasiness about her second daughter, Lily, and Lily’s diagnosis. It’s a tough chapter, because it was a shock to her. She realises that her discussion of causes, not to mention possible preventions and cures, could upset some readers:

I am aware that some of the readers of this book may be autistic themselves and could possibly find this chapter upsetting. Please understand that I wasn’t rejecting Lily because of her autism. If you keep reading, you will discover that I love her autism and her brother’s too. But twenty years ago I was afraid for Lily’s future …

It is tricky to write about issues like this, without offending unintentionally. It’s a long “journey”, to use current terminology, that she and her family go on. And it’s a hard one. Late in the book she says that it took her years to realise that a lot of the pain she was feeling stemmed from “an internal war between my instinct to cling to the dreams about life, and my need to accept the truth”. By the end, she and PJ learn to rebuild their dreams for Lily and Jack, and she learns to balance her need to work against the family’s needs.

This brings me to her career. I enjoyed reading about that, about her own films and the insight she gave me into a film director’s work in general. I worked with film – from an archival point of view – and met various film industry people over the years, but I still learnt much about just what a director does from this book, such as the amount of script work they (might) do, the work involved in casting, choosing location and designing sets, and so on. Each director has his/her own way of doing things, it’s clear, but I greatly enjoyed reading about Moorhouse’s experiences – the wins and losses, the need to be philosophical about those that got away or didn’t go to plan.

Style-wise, Unconditional love is a straightforward chronological memoir, told in plain language, making it an accessible read. A lovely, though not unusual thing she does, is to begin each chapter with a quote. They come from diverse sources, including filmmakers (like Ingmar Ingmar Bergman and Frederico Fellini), writers (like Virginia Woolf and Maya Angelou), people who treat or have autism (like Oliver Sacks and Temple Grandin), and artists (like Marc Chagall). The opening quote, for the introduction, comes from Margaret Atwood, saying that, “in the end, we’ll all become stories”, which seems perfect for both a memoir and a filmmaker.

This is a generous memoir, rather than a tell-all one. There’s little name-dropping, though of course names are dropped because that’s the business she and Hogan are in. There are references to relationship and financial challenges – you’d be surprised if there weren’t any – but these aren’t dwelt upon. She also seems careful to not intrude unnecessarily on her children’s rights to their own lives, particularly as they get older.

Unconditional love is a book that will appeal to readers interested in Australian filmmakers, to those interested in families with autistic members, but most to anyone interested in a story that shares the challenges of a life but focuses more on the solutions.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeJocelyn Moorhouse
Unconditional love: A memoir of filmmaking and motherhood
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2019
296pp.
ISBN: 9781925773484

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

22 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2019 11:43 pm

    Your own review, WG, is as tender as I expect is Moorhouse’s book.

    Last night (Friday) I attended a History Illuminated session opening the week-long event in the City of Lake Macquarie. Storyteller, historian, biographer, TV presenter, sports journalist and famous former Australian rugby international, Sydney University Senate member – two metre tall Peter FitzSimons held us in his gaze – bedazzled us with the humans interest stories representative of his style designed to capture the readers interest – but as good when voiced in his clearly dramatic and practised way. Worra Worra! “Go away!” The words he says were recorded by James Cook as his dinghy was rowed towards two men holding spears as if in preparation for throwing – in Botany Bay in 1770. Later a question from an audience member sought to know if Peter had asked Alan Jones to “Worra Worra!”. The place erupted in the laughter of agreement.

    This afternoon (Saturday) it was Monash U academic Robin GERSTER reflecting on his (recently re-issued plus new Afterword) 2008 history of Australian involvement in the post-WWII Occupation of Japan – Walking in Atomic Sunshine. An excellent review of that period coming out of a decade or more of engagement with and in Japan from 1996 onwards. What a privilege. And coming up on Wednesday “Meet the Mob” stories of Indigenous people/writers from around the Hunter Region.

    • September 1, 2019 8:28 am

      Thanks Jim. Sounds like you are attending some great events.

      Love that audience question.

      Have the Hunter writers published a book?

  2. September 1, 2019 5:38 am

    Absolutely delightful, ST: I shall seek it out as an audiobook. I heard nothing but good reports of her from those lucky enough to work with Jocelyn as Director.
    “It is tricky to write about issues like this, without offending unintentionally.” This business of Offending … I understand exactly what you mean in this example, and it’s relevant; but I so detest the word in the general connotations of today that the second I read it I flung my head back in rage, before collecting myself and remembering whose writing I was reading. 🙂

    • September 1, 2019 8:41 am

      Phew, thanks, M-R, I was wondering about you as I wrote and really hoping that’s what you’d say about Moorhouse, that how she comes across is how she is.

      As for offending, thanks for being honest about your reactions. I love it and it helps me! I know you’ll call me out! But as you probably worked out from the context, I was really talking about deep personal hurt that can happen when you say something (in this case an autistic reader feeling she’s diminishing his/her life), not that more political offence people sometimes take, which can be useful in the right place but can be taken to extremes sometimes too. Does that makes sense.

      • September 1, 2019 9:00 am

        Oeuf course ! – but I did realise all that. You are never careless in your marvellous writing.

        • September 1, 2019 10:07 am

          I assumed you did, M-R, but I thought for anyone reading the comments, I’d do the clarification. One can be unintentionally careless!!

  3. September 1, 2019 6:58 am

    I enjoyed the episode on Australian Stories, on the ABC, about Jocelyn and PJ and the challenges of film-making and parenting children with autism. It was a story that resonated very closely as I have an adult son with autism. The diagnosis can come as a shock, but it is the ongoing journey which lasts many, many years that can be the most difficult to reconcile with our own dreams. I will be definitely adding this one to my bookshelf. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    • September 1, 2019 8:43 am

      Thanks Karen. Yes I saw that too, and nearly mentioned it. It was excellent. Sounds like you will like this, though it will probably be painful in places, bringing back memories? The dreams/expectations issue is a big one isn’t it.

      • September 1, 2019 4:24 pm

        Everybody’s journey is different but there is a shared pain that we experience that creates an immediate connection with those who have walked the same path and with those who are just beginning. You do eventually come to terms with the change in dreams/expectations, but I would like to see Carers recognised more. It is a big ask to put your career on hold, and it is usually mothers who make the sacrifice, and sometimes there is no way back. But I would still make the same choice again.

  4. September 1, 2019 12:49 pm

    This is an excellent post. You really seem to have conveyed the essence of this book. The book itself sounds very much worth the read. I know several people with autism and I also know their families. I think that like many books that reflect different aspects of life and families, memoirs like this are both helpful and important.

  5. September 1, 2019 1:06 pm

    Sounds interesting and one I should read.
    Often parents getting a diagnosis for their child (autism or other) fail to recognise they’re grieving – although they might not have had specific dreams for their kids, the shock of a label/diagnosis changes that.

    • September 1, 2019 2:36 pm

      Exactly, Kate. The same thing crossed my mind. People forget I think that you can grieve for all sorts of losses, not just death. Even if you don’t have specific dreams – you might want them to have their own dreams – you still have assumptions based on the fact that they’re healthy and you’ll just help them on their way to finding a life that’s generally like yours, don’t you?

      • September 1, 2019 10:37 pm

        Agree. I have seen friends go through this experience and all have had a very distinct grieving period.

  6. September 1, 2019 5:04 pm

    It’s a long time since I saw Proof. Are movie directors artists? Or craftspeople or managers? Reminds me of a recent discussion along the lines of ‘can Literature be happy?/can happy writing be Literature? I don’t read biog.s except literary biog.s, certainly not how-I-overcame-adversity biog.s. But lots of people do, I know. I’m not sure you should honour these curmudgeonly grumblings with a response.

    • September 1, 2019 8:24 pm

      Oh you Bill! You always ask the challenging questions! But yes, I would definitely call directors artists. They are the ones with the overall vision of how the film will look and be. They work with other artists, but yes, they are. You might argue that producers aren’t, though I think it can vary with the producer.

      Can Literature be happy? Hmm … I think it can, though I’m struggling to think of an example right now! The operative word is “can”! I’ll never say never!

  7. September 3, 2019 8:42 am

    Thanks for this insightful review. I’m really interested in the relationship between motherhood and art-making, so I’ll have to check this out.

    • September 3, 2019 1:02 pm

      Thanks Magdalena. I’d love to know what you think if you read it. She doesn’t dwell on her decisions but anyone reading it will see the challenges they posed and the impact on her.

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