This paper explores the representation of ambiguous loss in a recent Australian memoir, Learning how to breathe by Linda Neil (2009). My reading of this memoir focuses on the way presence and absence are manifested in the text and the way acts of creativity— making music, recreating family history and writing the memoir—are invoked as a way of tolerating ambiguity and reconfiguring the narrator’s sense of identity. I suggest that memoirs about ambiguous loss give an important voice to an otherwise silenced, though common, form of grief.
The pressure for commercially published memoirs to offer a tragedy-to-triumph redemptive arc is exacerbated when the memoir is about disability. I explore how I attempted to contest this narrative arc, using a thematic rather than chronological approach and adopting the personal essay form. I also unpack the role of metaphor in representing a disability such as autism and the complexities of writing from a socio-cultural (rather than symbolic or medical) paradigm of disability. I examine one of the key dilemmas of writing a relational memoir and the creative judgements that the author must make.