Guest Post — ‘A design of beauty and significance’: Rachel Robertson’s Reaching One Thousand
Guest Post by Elizabeth Bryer
I have been waiting for this book for four years. Not that I knew that it would come into existence; I just hoped, quietly confident, that it would.
Rachel Robertson’s ‘Reaching One Thousand’, joint winner of the 2008 ABR Calibre Essay Prize and later published in Black Inc.’s Best Australian Essays 2008, was the sort of piece that – with its measured pacing, vivid imagery and carefully narrated moments that gesture at so much – stays with you long after reading. It is, I think, one of the most deftly written essays to have come out of Australia in the past few years.
Now her book, Reaching One Thousand: A Story of Love, Motherhood and Autism, expands upon that essay; although it’s billed as ‘a story’, which to me evokes a chronological memoir, instead it’s a series of interlinked essays that rotate around the author’s experience as the parent of an autistic child and, importantly, as the writer of their story.
Robertson is especially interested to explore the notion of perception, sometimes culturally motivated, but often simply neurotypical-centric. She works hard to tease out purported facts (for example, the one about autistics lacking empathy) until the facts start to look like perceptions and, after further exploration, like dangerously misguided ones.
She writes in a voice that is calm and measured, which makes the revelations – once a topic has been edged around, brought into focus, unpicked, and then considered from a different angle or in different circumstances – seem like small, profound gifts. The narrator is intelligent and searching, and self-conscious in that she interrogates herself and her motives, which contributes to the book’s strong moral core.
Robertson’s broadest narrative strategy, while used repeatedly, is highly effective: each chapter begins with an everyday scene lifted from Robertson’s experience with Ben, which the narrator then analyses, expands upon with further scenes, and otherwise mines for meaning. She draws on a wide, eclectic array of sources and seamlessly integrates them into her narrative. It’s worth quoting her at length to give a sense of this erudition, and of how beautiful and revelatory her writing is:
I have been reading Out of Africa by Karen Blixen and come across a story that she says was told to her as a child. It goes like this. A man, who lived by a pond, was woken one night by a loud noise. He went out and ran towards the pond, but in the darkness, running back and forth, guided only by the noise, he stumbled and fell often. At last he found a leak in the dam and plugged the leak before going to bed. The next morning, looking out of his upstairs window, he saw with a surprise that his footprints had traced the figure of a stork on the ground.
The real point of the story, I suppose, is the gift given to the man at the end. He saw his own story. His frenzied and haphazard running back and forth became a design of beauty and significance.
Some people may see motherhood as an act encompassing beauty and significance. In some ways it is. The experience of it, however, is much more like the man running in the dark, trying to follow a noise. I didn’t think much about the future, the shape of things to come, until I found myself holding Ben’s hand, standing before a word that howled past us like a great wind. Autism. What it meant was unclear, but the crack of the wind echoes in my ears even now.
At the end of the book, Robertson mulls over the tension between life and life writing, over how the latter can actually mean you find yourself tempted to ‘manipulate your life as you live it’. As an example she posits that a nice closing would be the repetition of a scene detailed at the beginning – a walk to the park – to show how far Ben has come. It wouldn’t be hard to orchestrate, she imagines, since Ben would probably be obliging, and thus life would be lived, in that moment, for the sake of the story.
While she resists the temptation in that case, I couldn’t help wondering if the introduction, in which Ben tastes a pomegranate for the first time, was one such orchestrated occasion, given that it neatly allows for a kind of tick-the-box account of Ben’s behaviour as an autistic, as well as permitting a comparison of the narrator’s pre-Ben pomegranate associations (Song of Solomon: Garden of Eden: sexual desire) with her post-Ben pomegranate ones (a memoir titled Pomegranate Season, about raising a son with disabilities). Yet in a memoir with not such a strong moral compass, I probably wouldn’t stop to wonder about this – Robertson’s self-questioning has set the bar high for herself, which can only be a good thing.
No doubt Anthony Macris’s 2011 When Horse Became Saw, a father’s memoir about his autistic son, has thrown a shadow over Reaching One Thousand. Don’t let it. It would be a great shame if their shared topic and the fact that only a year separates their publication dates meant that Reaching One Thousand didn’t find a large audience because Robertson has created something that transcends its topic in a way that non-fiction books rarely do.
The picture that Reaching One Thousand paints is one of an intelligent, humorous, loving boy who must navigate a confounding, unsympathetic world that is not simply unsuited and indifferent to his needs, but often actively works against them. It’s a loving portrayal, delivered with a set writerly skills that don’t appear often and should be savoured when they do.
— Rachel Robertson‘s Reaching One Thousand: A Story of Love, Motherhood and Autism is out now through Black Inc. RRP 29.95
Elizabeth Bryer is a young writer whose pieces have appeared in HEAT, harvest, Kill Your Darlings, Griffith Review Online and Mascara. She is based in Melbourne and blogs at Plume of Words.