Memoir writing asks for the same kind of intimacy between reader and writer that comes with friendship. Unless a memoir is genuinely trusting of its readers it ends up lacking sufficient openness and risk for connection. While I understand their motivations, I am well and truly done with memoirs written by authors who are so guarded about themselves or so protective of others around them that there is nothing much left to hang on to.
Boomer & Me: A Memoir of motherhood, and Asperger’s by Jo Case is a really lovely read because while Case is kind-hearted and considered, she is also willing to share some spiteful and irritable tales from the heart of motherhood. By far, Case’s most enjoyable and endearing complaints in the book are about an overly pious and judgmental school mother, Vanessa, who consistently demonises Case’s son, Leo while that mother’s boys try to both befriend and scapegoat him.
‘Leo said a bad word,’ says Angus.
I give Vanessa a questioning look.
‘I think he might be upstairs. In Angus’s room?’
I nod crisply and climb the stairs. The door is locked. I knock. No answer. I call his name. Vanessa is close behind me. She pokes a wire into the lock and gives it a deft twist. It seems she’s done this before. Leo is glowering behind the door, arms crossed
‘I have had the worst day in my entire life.’
‘What’s wrong, Leo?’ asks Vanessa, bending so her eyes are level with his and putting a comforting hand on his arm. ‘Don’t exaggerate, now.’
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘We’ll talk on the way home,’ I decide, grabbing his hand and leading him downstairs. He grunts out a goodbye to Angus, under duress.
Angus waves cheerily as Vanessa gives Leo his lolly bag and follows us down the hallway and to the gate, waving us down the footpath. They had a fight over footy cards. Angus said his were lame. He said they weren’t. They bickered.
‘And you said a rude word?’
‘What did you say?’
‘I said Angus was an idiot.’
‘And that was the rude word?’
‘Did you get sent to time-out?’
‘Vanessa shut you up in Angus’s room?’
‘What did she say to you?’
‘She told me never to use that word again.’
Vanessa runs across the schoolyard to catch up with us, greeting us with white-hot charm. She launches into a monologue about a headache and her annoying mother and reading George Monbiot. I focus all my conscious attention on not being rude. Which translates into curt nods and lots of ‘yes’ and ‘really?’.
‘Have you recovered from yesterday, Leo?’ she asks.
As we near the end of the cul-de-sac, she turns her attention to our dogs. Doug lurches at her, barking. Leo looks her in the eye. ‘He doesn’t like you,’ he says.
I’ve read and loved rather a lot of motherhood memoirs over the years. But this book, I’m surprised to admit, is the first one I’ve read that is written by a contemporary, urban mother of Australia.. and it was refreshing. I realise, once again, how important it is to include books in your shelves describing lives you recognise. It was both compelling and comforting for me to read about summer rain during Christmas Carols in the park, attempts to find an affordable house in an inner-city suburb, and making the time to write one’s personal blog. While we live in different cities, so close are our experiences that Case reads the same literary journal I read, spends similar evenings alone at the computer writing articles to deadline, and is even friends with some of the same writers as me.
But Case’s story is also a very different tale to mine. Hers is the path you take from finding your child sometimes very difficult, and the guilt and doubt that comes with that, to the ambivalance you experience in eventually getting a medical diagnosis for them. Learning her son has Asperger’s is a relief and a validation for Case, but it also means facing prejudice in herself she’d not known she had towards disability. This is further complicated when Case also finally accepts the same diagnosis of Asperger’s for herself.
Case and her son have the pattern of exclusive time together that single parents with only children have and the depth of connection that reflects this. (Although, during the book Case re-partners with a new man who becomes an unnaturally astute step-parent). Her son, Leo is an adorably quirky, intelligent boy with an earnest desire to oblige, so he is a child you easily warm to in the book. Some of Case’s most charming descriptions of them together are the many bicycle commutes they share around Melbourne.
Boomer & Me is not a dramatic story, there is no great tragedy nor quest for a cure, this is just life meandering through the years. Big shifts happen but they do so through small, deceptively ordinary moments – work, love, travel, ex-partners, family, friends. However, Case is a skilled writer – engaging and crisp while also being unpretentious and self-aware – so the book moves gently but with pace. And in many ways, Boomer & Me is simply the story of an intimate relationship, that between mother and child.
In accordance with disclosure guidelines, please note that I was sent a copy of this book for review by the publisher.