Rozanna Lilley, Do Oysters Get Bored? A Curious Life (UWA Publishing 2018)
Do Oysters Get Bored? is in two parts, a series of essay-memoirs followed by a selection of poems, both dealing with the same two main themes, the author’s life as a girl and young woman as the daughter of Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley, and her life now as the mother of Oscar, who is high functioning autistic. It’s a bit like a big haibun – the Japanese poetic form that’s made up of a piece of prose and haiku, usually a single haiku coming after the prose as a kind of distillation of its meaning or a related epiphany.
When I read one of the essays, ‘The Little Prince, and other vehicles’, in a 2014 Southerly, I wrote this:
[Rozanna Lilley’s essay] would be wonderful reading whatever her parentage: it’s very funny on the subject of inter-generational bad driving and builds to bitter-sweet reflections on her relationship with her father. But as Lilley’s parents were Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley … it makes a substantial addition to the lore about that magnificent couple. For example, the passing mention that Rozanna had hidden her father’s rifle away from him in his erratic old age is particularly chilling in the light of Merv’s book, Gatton Man, which argues plausibly that Merv’s father was a serial killer, and convincingly that he was capable of murder.
In the context of the whole book, ‘magnificent’ is quite wrong. The essay is still funny and bitter-sweet, but it’s also chilling. The dark side of Merv’s erratic behaviour, and of Dorothy’s sexual libertarianism are brought to the fore when seen through the lens of their impact on their daughter. Two chapters, ‘Fear of Flying’ and ‘A Bitter Pill’, tell of young Rose’s early exposure to sexually explicit conversation, her participation in the ‘mildly pornographic’ movie Journey Among Women, and her experience of sexual abuse. These are the chapters that have received a lot of attention in the press, especially from right-wing culture warriors (Jeff Sparrow’s excellent commentary here), and I think they bear significant witness to aspects of our cultural life. The book names no perpetrators (though Lilley has named names in press interviews), gives no salacious details, indulges no ‘Mommy Dearest’ self-pity or outrage, but it pulls no punches. Her mother, she says, did not intentionally hurt her by – at best – turning a blind eye to sexual assault, but in effect she was ‘propping up a predatory patriarchal sexual economy’, a judgment that would certainly have shocked Dorothy to her core, but which, I hope, she would find impossible to reject if she were alive to read it.
The other main subject of the essays is Lilley’s experience as the mother of Oscar, who was diagnosed with autistic disorder at age three. There are no high profile cultural figures here, but a loving, joy filled, often hilarious portrayal of a young boy that shatters negative stereotypes of autism on every page. Lilley is described on the back cover as an ‘autism researcher’ and mentions occasionally that she works in universities: she wears her academic garb very lightly here.
One of the most appealing qualities of these parts of the book is the way they highlight people who behave well around Oscar, while making it very clear that his behaviour can be testing. There’s a wonderful account of the family of three attending an anxiety clinic – at the end of which one of the clinicians confides in Rozanna that they all think Oscar is hilarious (as do we readers). And there’s a searing account of a prolonged hospital experience. But my favourite episode is Oscar’s tenth birthday party, where his autism is clearly not a social disadvantage:
The afternoon passes in a blur of play and pizza and ice-cream brain freezes. Oscar sometimes turns the TV on, momentarily disengaging from the festivities. His friends simply join him on the sofa, chuckling away at the same Tom and Jerry gags we used to laugh about at primary school. As I’m baking the chocolate cake, kids take it in turns to come out to the kitchen and tell me their favourite story about what Oscar said or did at school. It seems that his oddities and social incomprehension have landed him a starring role. ‘Last year Miss Malady said, “If you’ve finished, just read a book and don’t call out.” Then Oscar put up his hand, and called out, “Finished.”‘ Or ‘We were looking at machines on the computer. And Oscar yelled out, “Boring!”‘ The stories pour out, each one punctuated by laughter and followed by headshaking at his wondrous behaviour. Indeed, these small acts of classroom indiscretion appear to have made my son a local hero.
As the party continues, Oscar’s non-neurotypicality meets with a lot of delighted squealing. It’s Rozanna’s parental attempt to join in the merriment that produces the only awkward silence.
The book touches my own life in two ways. First, in my mid 20s I worked for Currency Press in an office just down Jersey Road from the Hewett–Lilley household, and met them regularly, though I knew very little of their domestic or social lives. I was in awe of Dorothy, mildly terrified of Merv, and intimidated by the poise and sophistication of Kate and Rosie.
Second, a young friend of mine, whom I’ve known all his life, is on the autism spectrum. I know at least a little of the difficulties that he and his mother have had in navigating the sometimes hostile neurotypical society.
These real-life connections give me some inkling of the extraordinary courage and intelligence that has gone into the writing of this book, both the remembered daughter story, and the current mother story – the courage, intelligence, and pervasive good humour. I haven’t said anything about the poems. Let me end with the final lines of ‘Dream Mother’, in which the poet’s mother comes to her each night in dreams:
It turns out none of it was true__she was
never heartsick__crippled__cancered__she never betrayed her daughters__and
when I finally tell the despairing-all___she is my comfort
Do Oysters Get Bored? is the thirteenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.