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Writing is a form of repair, discovery, exploration

     All memoir is a form of repair, a way of reassembling the past, word by word. Emily Laidlaw

[ In 1950, Peter (18 months) was snatched from his mother’s arms by his father, Michael. His mother Yvonne, 19, was pregnant with her second child, waiting for her train to depart in Cairns. Peter grew up longing for his mother, abused by his father. He contracted polio. Later he finds his mother, who had remarried with children. One of his other children wrote the memoir of his story. After the euphoria of the reunion of mother and son, an impasse sets in]

He [Peter] told her the stories, answered her questions, and whether he was conscious of it or not his words turned into weapons. Who could blame her if she felt it was intentional, the payback of an injured child? And who could blame Peter if he’d believed his father’s lies, if even as a child he’d absorbed a fraction of them as truth? As an adult he believes it was the reverse: that with those stories he was trying to tell his mother something about Michael, not about her, about the kind of man he grew up with. The old man was so vindictive, he says. His lies drove me towards her, not away. But at the time she didn’t see it that way. With every word and every story, she began to believe her son had found her to deliver the punishment she’d always believed she deserved.

These are the things that mother and son don’t understand, or don’t know how to manage: the shame of losing a child and the shame of being lost. The wariness and suspicion and terror in finding and being found. The moratorium on mourning they’d both endured since their separation, the unresolved grief that froze their hearts. They don’t know, now the separation is over, how to lift that moratorium. They don’t see that they are testing each other, as adolescents and parents do, needling each other for proof of their love and commitment, their fitness for the role of mother and son. And that they need their whole lives, and the mercy of good counselling – rather than denial and the limited time they’ll have – to recognise and name all this, to get past the bad abandoning mother and the damaged unlovable boy, to a place where both of them are blameless, both of them forgiven.

Neither can know the depths and complexities of the other’s suffering. How can they – how can any of us – understand this: . . .

[Peter says] You’re the writer in the family. Why don’t you write this story? And he meant the tale of the polio survivor . . . not the story of the child ripped from his mother. He didn’t know that story himself. …Peter need to make sense of it all.. .to make a recognizable shape to his life. His childhood was the stuff of myth, wild and insubstantial, hard to believe. He needed to make it all real – to pin it down by speaking it and seeing it written, by making it a story. One, perhaps, that he could believe too.

. . .    But outcomes in writing are never neat or predictable .. . Slowly, I began to see that the events that ruled my mother’s life, though hidden to me, had also ruled mine. That I too was stuck, we were all stuck, at the instant Peter disappeared. We were born into the grief of it, the shock of it, and how could any of us have known? Even our mother hadn’t known, as her arms emptied on that morning in 1950, that this moment was a fine sharp point on which all our lives would turn: hers, Peter’s, my own father’s, those of us yet unborn.

Kristina Olsen, Boy Lost: A Family Memoir University of Queensland Press, 2013.

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