Place, Fiona. Portrait of the Artist’s Mother. North Geelong: Spinifex Press, 2019. RRP: $29.95, 312pp, ISBN: 9781925581751.
Portrait of the Artist’s Mother by Fiona Place, published in July 2019 by Spinifex Press, is a heartbreaking, honest and ultimately uplifting work of creative non-fiction exploring the social, political, and personal implications of raising a child with a disability. Place weaves together three distinct narrative threads, examining through medical, social and personal lenses the realities of being a mother to a child, named Fraser, with Down syndrome. This lends the narrative a multidimensional air, which serves to further reinforce the raw nature of her story and highlights the multifaceted approaches taken towards disability, and peoples with disabilities, in contemporary Australian society.
Intertwined with sections of history and politics are sections of autobiography, extraordinarily vivid recollections of a childhood spent in the suburbs of Sydney. Place speaks of her relationships with her family in bittersweet terms, and in a way that makes you feel as though she’s doing so right in front of you, perhaps with coffee and a plate of biscuits to share. As you close out the chapters, you feel you know her family as well as she did. You feel every inch of heartbreak, resentment, love and compassion. As such, Place manages to facilitate a very real and tangible emotional connection between the reader and the people in her life.
On occasion, the transition between a chapter of rather solemn personal reflection to one where Place (rightfully) lambasts the social, educational, and medical systems in place to supposedly care for a child with disabilities is somewhat jarring. The heaviness of some chapters weighs on you profoundly, particularly the later sections where Place discusses eugenics and the horrors people and children with disabilities were exposed to in the early 20th century. Lightening the mood after something like this with brighter and often hilarious anecdotes about her sons and the cutthroat art of the after-school pickup at times feels more like a fracture than a relief. However, the chapter arrangement could have been an intentional choice on Place’s part. Real life, especially Place’s life, doesn’t stay the straight and narrow course. There are ecstatic highs and unfathomable lows. What I may view as a jolt in the narrative may simply be representative of the unavoidable bumps in the road of Place’s, and by extension, Fraser’s lives.
In saying that, though, it should be stated that as an unmarried, childless woman living a (thus far) uneventful life, I am most likely not the demographic Place would have intended to read her book. Her story of coming to terms with motherhood and reconciling a fraught family history doesn’t speak to me in a way that it might to others. I am not in a place in my life where this book is one that I would feel compelled to begin to read, but it is one I felt compelled to continue reading once I had begun. Place has a way with words that draws you in; that makes you sit up and pay attention in much the same way you might with your own mother.
To close out, I want to quickly discuss a concept which appears often in disability studies: the development of a ‘next-to’ identity. This is a position granted to a person who has experienced the world next to a person with disabilities; who has become intimately familiar with the many and varied injustices in the world which hinder their full inclusion. In reading this text, you develop what I’m calling a ‘next-next-to’ identity. By reading this book, you start to develop an understanding, a second-hand sort of outrage on Fraser’s and Place’s behalf, of the kinds of questions and judgement Place was subjected to while pregnant, and of the way Fraser was treated in schools not best equipped to foster and nurture him. And maybe that begins to tweak your view of disability, and how disability is treated both medically and socially in Australia. However unconsciously, we all need this view modified, maybe a little, or maybe a lot. This text provides the tools required for an internal re-examination of your own personal biases regarding disability, and people with disabilities. They are our largest minority, our friends and family, our children and spouses, and we owe them that much.
Alexandra Pilling is a postgraduate student at Curtin University, with research interests in disability representation in contemporary children’s literature.