Dr Rachel Robertson is Head of the Department of Communication and Cultural Studies at Curtin University. Her memoir, Reaching One Thousand (Black Inc 2012), was shortlisted for the National Biography Award in 2013. Rachel’s work has been published in anthologies and journals such Best Australian Essays, The Best Australian Science Writing, Life Writing, Westerly, Island and Australian Book Review. Her academic research interests include critical disability studies, maternal subjectivity, creative and narrative non-fiction, Australian literature, life writing and ethics.


‘The shapeless ghost’

Ambiguous Loss and Creativity in Learning How to Breathe

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.

Against redemption: the dilemma of memoir

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.