The last decade has seen a significant growth both in the number of motherhood memoirs and in books about autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. Australia is no exception to this trend, and Jo Case, in Boomer & Me, makes a contribution to both fields. As someone who has written a motherhood memoir about autism, I am a sympathetic reviewer but might also be considered too close to the topic. I have certainly read many memoirs about autism and Asperger’s in the ten years since my own son was diagnosed. I was pleased, then, to find that Case’s memoir offered two interesting points of departure from other Australian motherhood memoirs and Asperger’s stories. It is also well-written and engaging, as expected from Case, who is a literary reviewer and a former deputy editor of ABR.
Case was twenty-three years old when her son, ‘Leo’, was born. Most of the action of the book occurs when Leo is between the ages of seven and ten. Case describes herself as around ten years younger than most of the other mothers at Leo’s school and notes that, unlike them, she uses public transport and doesn’t have a mortgage. She turns to the blogging community for online support and networking. Thinking of the published motherhood memoirs I have read, I realise that the majority of these are written by older mothers and that Case offers a different perspective, partly because of her age. Hers is the voice of a woman who became a parent not long after leaving home and then quickly became a single mother. It is the voice of a young woman who takes Leo to school on her bicycle in rainy Melbourne and to football on the train; whose network is online as much as face to face; and who lives among many varieties of blended family, something that gives rise to some challenging and humorous moments.
The other interesting aspect of this memoir is Case’s relationship to Asperger’s, a form of autism-spectrum disorder. Halfway through the book, Leo is diagnosed with Asperger’s. Like many parents, Case worries about labelling Leo but also sees the benefit of having a term to describe his difference from other children and to help his school teachers understand his needs better. She is clear from the start, though, that Asperger’s is a difference, not a deficit, an approach in line with contemporary thinking about neurological diversity. Leo’s diagnosis also prompts Case to consider whether some of her family have Asperger’s, including herself. The passages where she explores her own self-understanding in the light of this new possible diagnosis are some of the most interesting in the book. Remembering how she taught herself to be less shy in public, she says: ‘I am starting to wonder if this life’s work of constructing a self, or analysing it and how others see it, might be relevant to this question of Asperger’s. Or is that what goes on under the surface for everyone?’ At other times, Case is embarrassed by the notion that she might have Asperger’s and admits that she must still harbour some of society’s stigmatisation of difference. She finally does a kind of self-diagnosis when she hears a description of how women with Asperger’s tend to parent, and that Asperger’s mothers are great mothers but often unconventional in their approach. It is a satisfying moment when she feels ‘that click of identification deep in my core in a way I never had before’.
I found the latter half of the book more engaging because of this exploration of the self. While much of the book is a classic example of ‘show, don’t tell’, Case occasionally gives rein to the voice of retrospective reflection that memoir allows and that I feel is one of the pleasures of the form. I would have enjoyed more of this reflection and the work of making sense of the material in the memoir and fewer stories of daily life. Other readers may value more the everyday Melbourne scenes.
Another particular pleasure of memoir is getting to know the narrator’s family, and in this book there is a diverse range of characters. Case’s relationships with her husband, Tony, and with Leo’s father, ‘Mark’, develop and change through the book. Leo is the star, though, with his good nature and quirky, learned conversation. When he has some good news about being able to join a football team, he notes he ‘hasn’t a care in the world’. After a pause, he says:
I suppose I do have a couple of cares. I care about global warming, of course. And wars and people not having enough to eat and running out of water. But everyone cares about that ... But I don’t have any personal cares.
It is easy to find Leo adorable and to see that his mother has done a terrific job. Toward the end of the book, Case seems to let go of the anxiety and guilt that she, like so many other mothers, carries around the role of mothering. She recognises that mothering isn’t ‘a job description you learn or a persona you adopt’. It doesn’t need to take the shape of ‘the other mums in the schoolyard’ because ‘[i]t takes the shape of you’. Hurrah to that!