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Whose Story Is It Anyway?

Memoir and ethics

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I didn’t set out to write a memoir. Above all, I didn’t set out to write a memoir about my mum. If anything, when it became clear that this was what I was doing, I recoiled. Mum, with her anxieties and demanding behaviour, had taken centre-stage for too long. It was Dad I wanted to write about — and even then, only for me. I was recovering from his death from a brutal cancer that had metastasised at an alarming rate. I needed to write about that just to process it. I needed to use writing in the way I had always used it from childhood — to help me get my emotions out of my head, out of my body, and down on to the page where I could see them and begin to make sense of them. This writing act was about me and my feelings and it didn’t impact on anyone else. Did it?

I had kept a journal all the way through Dad’s illness, just as I have been keeping a journal almost every day for as long as I can remember. The journals have always been for my eyes only, and to that extent I have always assumed that they are ‘my story’. They contain all the day-to-day musings, grumblings, observations and celebrations that you would expect from private journals. From 2013–2018 they also contained an awful lot about grief and death and mental illness and late-diagnosis autism, some of which is my story, some of which arguably belongs to others.

If you had read my journals before I published my memoir, you would have thought they belonged to quite a different writer: I had spent twenty years building a career writing children’s books which mainly concerned themselves with fictional friendships and puppies and vampires and sea-swimming and how to make miniature gardens. Most of my books have been described as ‘funny’ (which is a relief, as that is how I intended them to turn out). So how did I come to write a very un-funny memoir about my very non-fictional mother who was sectioned at the age of seventy and finally diagnosed as autistic after losing her husband of nearly fifty years to cancer? And what made me think I even had the right to do this — to write about someone else’s very real experiences? Why did I write it at all, when some people would dispute my mother’s diagnosis and others would think me wrong to write about a person who is no longer here to defend herself? Is it ethical to write a memoir that focuses on someone other than the author?

I certainly asked myself these, and many other questions, during the process of writing the book, and I still reflect on my motivations now. I find that, although the book is most definitely finished – it’s out there, in black and white with a cover on and everything! – the memoir is not. I find I continue to revisit it and redraft it in my mind. Sometimes I think I wrote it too soon and that I didn’t give myself time to pause after Mum’s death. But in reality, because of those journals, I have been writing the memoir since I could first pick up a pen and start to string sentences together.

The process didn’t go from journal to book in one fell swoop. As I say, initially I didn’t intend to write a book at all. The memoir started life in a blog, Good Grief, which I wrote in response to Dad’s death. I had been writing about it in private, for me, but in the year after he died, the grief was so overwhelming that suddenly the journals were not enough. Suddenly there was an urge – a physical urge – to write it out; to have others read my story.

If you’d asked me at the time what my motivations were – even for the blog – I wouldn’t have been able to articulate them. I was too deep in my grief. But now, with the benefit of distance, I would say that I wrote the blog because when my dad died strange things happened to friendships. My friendships. Many people I had counted as close friends could not deal with my grief. They wanted it swept under the carpet. One friend even said, ‘It would be nice to see the old Anna back.’ But didn’t she understand? The old Anna – pre-grief, pre-facing-up-to-cancer, pre-watching-her-mum-be-locked-away-under-section Anna – was as dead as her dad. She had vanished and in her place was this new, wretched, battle-scarred Anna who was never going to be able to do the one thing she wanted more than anything: to re-write the story so that it had a happy ending.

These feelings served to stoke a fire that had been kindling in me for years; a fire that built into a raging furnace of frustration that erupted one day in a small white room in a hospital in Watford where Dad was told he had to go home to die, just as his wife was being put under section. Out of that fury came words — for me, yes, to try to express how awful this situation was, and to find some relief. But it wasn’t a purely selfish act.

I felt a huge responsibility, too, to tell the world how awful our country’s health system is at joining up the dots between physical and mental healthcare; to highlight how terrible things are when you are given the label ‘geriatric’ and therefore seemingly put to one side; to show that only in finding the right tools, the right information the – oh, the irony – the right words was I able to get close to securing the care my parents needed in the last years of their lives.

I was lucky that the blog attracted the attention of writers, some of whom I knew well, others not so well, and they were instrumental in encouraging me to keep writing. They recognised what it was that I was trying to do even before I did – that I wasn’t simply writing chapters of a ‘misery memoir’ to get attention, but that I was giving a voice to people who could not speak out for themselves, namely my dead father and my poor mum who had shut herself off from the world that terrified her so deeply. I also wanted to turn my personal experience into a universal story, which is what we all want as writers in the end.

The trouble is, to turn it into a book, I needed to know whose story it was. If it was mine, where on earth did I start? If it was Dad’s, then where did Mum fit in? I couldn’t find a way in and through, even though I had a lifetime of stories and a ton of words with which to tell them. It was as though something (or someone?) was stopping me from writing a book. I was struggling with the fundamental storytelling question that we come up against every single time we try to find a narrative thread: whose story is this?

And then Mum died. I wouldn’t say I exactly had an epiphany, but I did feel, very deeply, that Mum had given me a permission of sorts. Because it was her story all along. And she had never been able to tell it because of the autism that was misdiagnosed and misunderstood all her life. She had spent her whole life trying to be understood; in her tears and her tantrums and the way she would hold us tight and apologise after a meltdown. She didn’t know – and nor did we, until far too late – that she saw the world through a lens that was so different from her friends’ and family’s that we would never be able to see things the way she did.

So, much as I do understand that telling Mum’s story for her might seem self-indulgent or even wrong to some people – and some have told me so – to me, my sister, and to the wider family, both the diagnosis and my exploration of it have helped us to understand Mum better. We have been able to put things into a context that has enabled us to forgive some things and to love other things even more. Mum may have had autism, but first and foremost she was Gillian: daughter, sister, wife, mother and friend. And this is what I hoped to convey in telling her story for her.

Anna Wilson has written over fifty books for children including picture books, fiction and nonfiction. Her memoir, A Place for Everything: My Mother, Autism and Me (HarperCollins, 2020), concerns her mother’s autism diagnosis at the age of seventy-two.

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