On the day that Robert Dessaix first came face to face with his birth mother, he was already in his mid-forties. Adopted as a newborn baby in 1944 by a couple who loved and cared for him through his childhood and adolescence, he had grown up in Sydney, had invented his own imaginary land with its own language, had been married for twelve years, divorced, negotiated a reorientation of his sexuality, and eventually met and made a life with his partner Peter. He was a seasoned, experienced traveller and a speaker of several languages. He had made his way through two successful careers, first as an academic scholar, teacher, and translator of Russian literature, and then as a well-known broadcaster on the ABC's flagship literary program 'Books and Writing', to which, in the days before podcasts and digital radio, thousands of thoughtful people all over the country would listen every Sunday night.
By the time he met his biological mother, at the end of the 1980s, he had a settled life, a wealth of experience, a vivid and dramatic physical presence, and a strong reputation as a warm, witty, erudite voice on the radio. He was, in Australian literary and intellectual circles, a name to conjure with.
The phrase 'a self-made man' is commonly used to describe someone who has achieved success in the world through no accident or advantage of birth or inheritance, but rather through his own efforts in life. You might use it to describe Robert Dessaix. But he is also a different and more interesting kind of self-made man, someone who in his early childhood began the process of inventing himself and his ideas and beliefs. In an interview with Lee Gutkind in 2012, he said:
When you're adopted and an only child, you just do not feel any obligation, from the moment you are conscious, to be anything you don't want to be. You don't have to be like your parents or Uncle Harry or anyone else in the family because no one knows exactly who you are. You can reinvent yourself ... I don't really feel I was born. I feel I was invented.
In the previous year, Dessaix had delivered the 2011 Seymour Biography Lecture, later published in an edited version as 'Pushing Against the Dark' in Australian Book Review, in which he reflected at length on this process of self-invention and on his long-standing conviction that he had made himself up. The notion of self-invention and self-reinvention is central to A Mother's Disgrace (1994) and it is an idea to which Dessaix keeps returning, in interviews and later in books, essays, and talks.
As the unplanned, 'disgraceful' offspring of a teenage single mother in the 1940s, he was almost literally rubbed out by his mother's family, spirited away for adoption and ignored as though he had never existed, except in Yvonne's own mind and memory: 'every year on my birthday she would try to spend the day alone, unencumbered, if possible, by any distracting duties, and think about me' (Chapter 4). With his existence subjected to this kind of erasure, it's not surprising that he felt he needed to invent a self to take the place of that absent baby:
So from the day I was born, in February 1944, until the day in 1990 Yvonne told her mother she had met me, my embarrassing existence was never referred to. For forty-six years the subject of my existence was never once raised. (Chapter 3)
With the writing of A Mother's Disgrace, full of revelations and self-revelations, the act of writing itself has become another stage of self-reinvention, as had the active search for his mother: 'while knowing nothing of this silence, I began to plot ways to break into it' (Chapter 3).
It can be difficult for anyone born after about 1960 to imagine what life was like for single women and girls in Australia in 1943. To have sex before marriage was regarded as a shame and a disgrace. There was no formal sex education and nothing that we would now think of as reliable contraception, and even if that had existed, unmarried women would not have had access to it. There was no single-parent pension and nowhere for a pregnant girl to go except home to her parents, and if her parents threw her out, as they often did, she might well end up on the street.
Dessaix's book seems at first glance to be about his own life, but in fact it has more than one main subject. This book is about someone called Robert but it is also, and almost equally, about someone called Yvonne. The most poignant moment in the entire story is the one that looks directly at the moment of Robert's conception, a moment at which it seems that Yvonne has no idea what she's doing or what might come of it:
She tells me that as a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old girl from a good background, she had no sexual knowledge, or sense of lack of knowledge, at all ... Falling pregnant, as Yvonne might put it, came as a shock to her. From what I can gather, she really does not seem to have made a strong connection between what had happened with Harry and pregnancy. (Chapter 4)
There is no quicker or better way to get a sense of how women and girls fared in wartime Sydney than to read Dymphna Cusack and Florence James's novel Come In Spinner (1951). This novel charts the lives of a group of Sydney women over one week in 1944, and the unabridged edition of 1987 would make ideal background reading for a broader understanding of A Mother's Disgrace. Another useful book in this respect is Nadia Wheatley's The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2001). Clift was an Australian writer and an almost exact contemporary of Yvonne's, who also survived the disgrace of a wartime Sydney teenage pregnancy, gave birth in the same hospital over the same summer, endured the same pressures from her family, and lost her newborn baby to its adoptive parents. The whole episode was surrounded by the same terrible silence that Yvonne experienced, and Clift agonised over it, privately, for the rest of her short life.
In 'Pushing Against the Dark', written almost twenty years after A Mother's Disgrace, Dessaix ponders on why he chose to write in an autobiographical mode. The book is not a traditional or mainstream autobiography. It is a highly selective account of his life in which much of the detail is sketchy and events are not recounted in chronological order. Dessaix himself explicitly questions the label 'autobiography': A Mother's Disgrace, he says, 'is fragmented, a curling necklace of arresting moments, far from all-encompassing, opinionated, intimate and at least dotted, if not peppered, with scandalous disclosures'. Much of it, indeed most of it, is about the inner life: the life of the mind, the heart, and the soul, none of which are constrained by the calendar or operate in any logical progression, and all of which are inclined to swoop and circle around the high points and the low points in the story of a life. The bare facts of his life – 'birth, adoption, school, university, marriage, divorce, realignment' – were, he says, 'hardly worth chronicling for their own sake'.
While the facts of having been adopted at birth and of then meeting his natural mother almost half a century later make for an interesting human story, the best way to read this book is to think about it on two levels. At a superficial level it can be read purely for the actual events it describes and recounts, but its real meaning lies in the thoughts and ideas and abstractions to which those events give rise: about selfhood, writing, family history, social history, sexuality, motherhood – and, not least, about love. A good autobiography takes the reader from the particular to the general, from the concrete to the abstract, and explores the feelings and ideas that connect us and make us human. As Dessaix says in 'Pushing Against the Dark', 'Almost nobody is interested in what I have encountered on my journey through life, but almost everybody is interested in mothers, questions of blood, and in how selves are fashioned, particularly their own.'
The connection that Dessaix has with his readers is one that most writers would envy: when he makes public appearances at literary events, his readers always flock to talk to him afterwards. They will come up to him shyly and tell him how much his writing has meant to them, and they will tell him little stories about their own lives. Many of his readers write to him and do much the same thing in their letters, and he makes the point that the reinvention of the self can sometimes be achieved not only by writing a book but also by reading one:
Virtually every letter I have received from readers of my books begins: 'Thank you for this book' and then switches to retelling the reader's life – sometimes at great length – taking pleasure in ... the fresh perspectives on mothers or adoption or Russia or religion or some other element in my story, in the restyling of the self that a good book offers, rather than in information. ('Pushing Against the Dark')
One of the many ideas explored in A Mother's Disgrace is the question of what is actually important when it comes to identity and self-knowledge. Is it your parentage? Or is it nationality? Or gender? Dessaix is an Australian man, but he feels, and appears, neither quintessentially male nor quintessentially Australian. 'As you can see,' he says near the end of chapter two, 'the self I packed off to Russia to confront the reality ... was not an archetypally Australian male self, if there is such a thing.' When asked by interviewer Lee Gutkind whether he thinks of himself as an outsider, Dessaix enlarges on the idea of not fitting the stereotype of the Australian man. He rejects the label 'outsider' but says he sees himself as 'swimming against the current': 'I don't know one end of a football from the other. I don't know one end of a cricket bat from the other ... I don't drink ... I'm not heterosexual ... I'm not tall, the way you're supposed to be.' He could have added his lifelong fascination with foreign languages and foreign travel, things formally defined – for an Australian – by their non-Australianness. He says in 'Pushing Against the Dark' that he harbours 'a growing suspicion that being "Australian" ... means less to many Australians than barracking for the Pies does, say, or being an architect or a Christian.'
That a religious affiliation might be an important marker of identity is a more uncommon idea in the Australia of today than it would have been fifty years ago, but Dessaix has maintained an interest in spiritual matters from the days of his earliest fascination with Russian literature and philosophy. One of the most intriguing passages in A Mother's Disgrace occurs near the end, where he recalls his meeting with the novelist Fazil Iskander and the conversation prompts him to think about belief and non-belief in a new way: 'I thought seriously for the first time of letting the believer inside myself talk to the non-believer, letting the knowing part converse in good humour with the mystified and the credulous with the sceptical (Chapter 6).'
Dessaix's most recent book, What Days Are For (2014), returns to the subjects of spirituality and organised religion again and again, scornful of the latter, but open, in a self-questioning and sometimes self-mocking kind of way, to the former. As with A Mother's Disgrace, the writing of What Days Are For was precipitated by a near-death experience; in each case, the immediate possibility of death seems to have jolted him into a kind of autobiographical and spiritual stocktake.
For a man so conscious of the practice and potential of deliberate self-fashioning, of 'making himself up', Dessaix has an unusually individual presence. His voice – whether it's heard on the radio or read on the page – is immediately recognisable. His sense of having been invented or made up seems to have produced, paradoxically, a unique kind of personal authenticity and integrity, something that comes across in the narrative voice of A Mother's Disgrace. It also comes through clearly in Gail Bell's 'As Robert Was Saying', where she quotes Dessaix's fellow writer and old friend Drusilla Modjeska: 'he is so utterly himself, so unlike anyone else'.
Bell, Gail, 'As Robert Was Saying: in conversation with Robert Dessaix', The Monthly, March 2012.
Cusack, Dymphna, and Florence James, Come In Spinner (1951, 1987)
Dessaix, Robert, 'Pushing Against the Dark: writing about the hidden self'. Australian Book Review, April 2012 (no. 340).
Dessaix, Robert What Days Are For (2014)
Gutkind, Lee, 'Robert Dessaix', Creative Nonfiction, no. 46 (Fall 2012)
Wheatley, Nadia, The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2001)