Westerly – Review of ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’ by Fiona Place

Portrait of an Artists Mother

Review of ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’ by Fiona Place

Place, Fiona. Portrait of the Artist’s Mother. North Geelong: Spinifex Press, 2019. RRP: $29.95, 312pp, ISBN: 9781925581751.

Alexandra Pilling


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.

Review by Debra Adelaide of Portrait of the Artist’s Mother

Uplifting and quietly triumphant: Debra Adelaide launches ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’ by Fiona Place

Portrait of the Artist’s Mother by Fiona Place, Spinifex Press 2019 was launched by Debra Adelaide at The Shop Gallery, Glebe on 3 May 2019

I first saw — though not met — Fiona in the early 1990s at a premier’s literary awards, when her book Cardboard received a prize. At the awards the minister for the arts, Peter Collins, announced that Fiona would not appear to fetch her prize given the sad fact that her mother had just died. However, someone whispered in his ear that Fiona indeed was there to receive her prize, and so she stepped up to the stage.

I remember this tall elegant composed woman, saying something very simple but very moving: that she was here because her mother would have been very proud of this award, and would have wanted her to come along and receive it in person. What struck me — aside from the courage of this woman — was the voice, the dignified, honest voice, of someone in grief but managing to find a way to express that grief without falling into pieces.

That voice is the same one I heard when I read this new book of Fiona’s, this remarkable book, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.

I’ll come back to this voice, but I just want to take another detour into the mists of time. A few years after that literary awards night, I was lucky enough to be able to include Fiona and her story ‘Apocalypse Now’ in my edited collection  Motherlove, published way back in 1996 – so long ago I had to think hard while writing these notes. 1996 was of course also the year Fraser was born. And I know this because I remembered that Fiona and her husband brought baby Fraser, just a few months old, along to the launch of that book.

Motherlove was a collection of stories, fictional and memoir, about giving birth and having babies. Just want to read a passage from Fiona’s story, which comes near the start:

I sat next to my grandmother in the nursing home as I had ny mother in the hospital. In death the two women took on an even more striking resemblance: their faces almost indistinguishable. I held my grandmother’s hand. She’d outlived both her children; her son dying while still a boy – a soldier in the war. Now she could join them. And with the afternoon sun fading, and only the distant sounds of birds to disturb us, I farewelled her.

Darkness was approaching. I packed the few belongings I wanted to keep and thanked the staff. Minutes later, battling with the traffic, I was overcome by an enormous sense of responsibility – with both women  gone it was I, the daughter, who must keep alive the strenght and beauty of their spirits. I accelerated out of the corner and down onto the freeway, the seatbelt hugging my bulging midriff; being a mother, I realised, was now up to me.

That passage expresses something very important about the story of Fiona’s personal and writing life, a story that is essentially continued here in this new book, written so many years later.

Because this is the story not just of being the mother of someone with a disability, but the story of being a mother full stop. And it’s also the story of being a daughter, a sister, a wife, the story of someone very much connected with what it means to be part of a family, a community.

And, this book is as much about others, about all of us, as it is about Fiona and her son Fraser and her family. It confronts what it means to be human in a social sense and what it means to be perceived as being different in a world that expects conformity, a world that imposes categories, definitions, and labels on everyone who’s judged as not fitting in.

In this book we hear that same voice of dignity and honesty that I mentioned: it’s a clear voice, a confident one, a compassionate one, a courageous one.  A lot of sadness, suffering and grief are confronted here, but this is balanced by love, joy, and clear-eyed examination of a host of issues that we as a society in our constant quest for perfection often prefer to ignore.

Coincidentally, while reading this book I have been watching the ABC’s Employable Me program. Anyone who wants to bash the ABC should take a good hard look at programs like this, which are created on a shoestring budget. Employable Me presents people with disabilities as ordinary people because they are. It presents their voices, their words, their real, exposed, unadorned, ordinary selves. It shows us that the things we take for granted, like having a job, become so tough and challenging for people who do not happen to fit the mould.

In Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Fiona has represented the ordinary chaotic, unpredictable domestic world that involves juggling work and children.  It is all so familiar, but with the added challenge of having a child and then young man with a disability in the mix. This entire story is told with frankness but never bitterness, and often with great humour. For example, Fiona paints a picture of organising her three boys into and then out of the car to childcare, pre-school and school in the mornings, then back again in the afternoons. In those military-style operations, the exhaustive and exhausting planning involved, the time and motion checks needed, the inbuilt risk factors to accomplish an everyday event, all made me groan and smile at the same time, and I only had to have fractious toddlers to wrangle.

This book is both a handbook and a memoir. It also covers a great range of topics and is extremely informative without sacrificing its narrative strength and its consistent flow of voice. All through it’s like having an intimate conversation with a hugely informed and sympathetic friend. We are given information on science, eugenics, disability, family life, mothering, parenting, creativity, education, history … the list goes on.

As I said, this is all told with humour, warmth, grace, intelligence and honesty.  Perhaps the greatest achievement of this book is the fact that Fiona manages to argue a case and assert a position with passion and conviction but without even once being polemic, and without lapsing into rancour about the numerous difficulties and the discrimination that she and Fraser and her family have had to endure.

This is a book that is uplifting and quietly triumphant. It is deeply moving to read of Fraser’s achievements, his artistic career, his development into the full personhood he deserves like every one else. In fact, it is a privilege to be given this insight, and we should all be grateful for Fiona for this.

When, many years ago, my youngest son Callan was bald from chemotherapy, my family and I encountered prejudice and resistance and in one shocking instance, abuse, that, until then, I never imagined could be directed at a child.

Having experienced this myself, I know that, to produce this story, this book, Fiona has reached deep into herself, into memories that are and will always remain confronting, into some vulnerable, grief- and pain-filled place.  But from first to last page this book is both reasoned and passionate, an argument for embracing difference as normality, for focusing on ability, not disability, and it gives us all a family story that every family can relate to.

In chapter 32  (page 273) Fiona tell us this: “no words. No words that can express the exquisite joy’ …

What then follows details in the simplest yet most effective way, Fraser’s contribution as an artist and his many successes, with lists of his numerous exhibitions and awards and shortlistings, from 2009 to the present day. These few pages  — just a list — actually speak volumes.

And elsewhere Fiona has indeed found the words, and as I said the voice, to tell this story.  I have just one complaint about this book: there are not enough samples of Fraser’s art work! But then perhaps there is an entire other book in this; I hope so.

Congratulations to Fiona, and to Fraser, for this wonderful book. Make sure you buy at least 2 copies because you will definitely want to give one away.

– Debra Adelaide

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Debra Adelaide is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at UTS where she currently oversees the postgraduate coursework program. She is the author or editor of 17 books including several best-selling anthologies (Motherlove, Motherlove 2) and four novels: these include the critically acclaimed The Household Guide to Dying (2008) and The Women’s Pages (2015). Her two collections of short fiction, Letter to George Clooney and Zebra have also been widely praised. Her research and teaching interests include the culture of reading and the writing life, both reflected in the edited collection The Simple Act of Reading (2015) and in her latest book Innocent Reader (2019). She has been the judge of numerous literary awards and has been shortlisted or longlisted for several herself and is a member of Sydney PEN, an author ambassador for the Sydney Story Factory, and the fiction editor of Southerly, Australia’s oldest literary journal.

Portrait of the Artist’s Mother is available from http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=318/

 

Review in August Voice 2019

9781925581751.jpg

In the print journal we ran a review from Jackie Softly of the fabulous book Portrait of the Artist’s Mother by Fiona Place. This book was so popular that we received an extra review!

Place,F. (2019) Portrait of The Artist’s Mother, Spinifex Press, Australia.

You can purchase the book through Spinifex Press

Read both reviews below:

Review by Jackie Softly

Fiona Place is a national-award-winning writer and poet, a mother and an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities. In Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, she writes about her experience as mother to a son with Down syndrome in today’s Australia. Her son, Fraser Pollock (23), is an acclaimed visual artist.

Portrait, ten years in the writing, takes readers from Place’s pregnancy with Fraser and through his life so far. Portrait, is far removed from anything I’ve read on parenting children with Down syndrome before. Described as ‘one of our great truth tellers’ and as writing ‘glorious prose’, Place’s turn of phrase is why this book is so compelling.

Portrait is far more than the story of one person, one mother and one family. While we get to share in this family’s often hilarious and sometimes terrifying child-rearing experiences, the book explores motherhood and what this means when you have a disabled child in today’s society.

Place has produced a work with a number of layers, beautifully executed to create the final portrait. Fraser is always at the heart of the book, but Place also explores her family history and her personal experiences to understand their influence on her approach to motherhood and attitudes about disability. Her family’s history, the characters, the reminiscences, the family’s secrets laid bare and Place’s own family relationships and her experience as a young paediatric nurse, come to life on the page in beautiful storytelling.

Another crucial layer to this book explores why today’s society sees people with intellectual disabilities as less worthy of life, as people not wanted, needed or welcomed.

Place skilfully shows how the terrible history and politics of disability still influence modern-day Australia, explaining why a society that claims to welcome diversity chooses termination of babies with Down syndrome at a stunningly high rate, and excludes more children with intellectual disabilities from regular schools than it did 20 years ago.

In all the layers of Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, there is a fundamental truth; if we want to understand the present, we need to see where we have come from. Fiona Place has done this with courage, honesty, passion for change and clearly, much love. Portrait is rich, raw and complex but immensely readable.  I have highlighted so many passages and am bursting to read them out loud to anyone!

Portrait of the Artist’s Mother has enormous potential to bring about change. As a mother, I want to share this book with all parents of children with disabilities, so they can understand why they and their children are treated as they are, and know how to create change.

Portrait should be read and shared far and wide; not only with parents, but on school and university curriculum and on reading lists for health and allied health professionals, educators, service providers and community decision makers.


Review by Margaret Booker

Fiona and I are parents of young adult sons with Down syndrome. Our experiences of raising our sons in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney have overlapped for more than two decades. Reading Fiona’s memoir brought my experiences in all their lows and hard-won highs rushing back.

From the early fights to have our sons recognised as being entitled to mainstream services. Neither of us were ‘allowed’ to enrol our sons in mainstream public education; I can still visualise every detail of the room in which the Principal of the school first ‘appealed to my understanding’ then firmly ushered me out (her time being wasted). My shock and sadness as I registered my son and I were beyond the pale.

Fiona’s insight in to how this outsider status impacted on us over the years is startling. How we, because of our love for our sons, haven’t felt entitled to lament what we have sacrificed of our own lives. Friends fall away (tired of our attempts at justifying, long after the toddler years why we still can’t reliably commit to social engagements) our careers are never what we had hoped for. And we feel tired, a different tired.

Fiona looks back now at the true cost of her son’s education (the only school offering mainstream); an expensive independent school. The ripples and waves impacting the rest of Fiona’s family are felt.

This book has so much more. Fiona writes like her son Fraser paints; Sydney and it’s history come alive.  Please look at Fraser Pollocks work on https://fraserpollock.wordpress. Fiona’s visual descriptions of Sydney meant I enjoyed locating them in my own mind and felt myself back in a Sydney through seven generations of one extraordinary family. I was a witness to the complex grief of her own immediate family’s tragedies.

We also see the changing (and remarkably fixed) attitudes and ideas about disability. We are brought into how these ideas are to help us with our new challenges of the NDIS. I want Fiona to keep writing her and Fraser’s life story, as our challenges are always exceptional.

Selena Ewing reviews ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’ The mother of an award-winning artist with Down Syndrome narrates her fraught but joyful journey

Fraser Pollack with his drawing ‘Whimsical City’

Portrait of the Artist’s Mother   
by Fiona Place
Spinifex Books, North Geelong VIC 2019

Fiona Place gave birth to Fraser Pollock in 1996. Fraser is now an acclaimed Sydney-based artist. He also has Down syndrome. This joyful and deeply moving book interlaces the many aspects of Fiona’s and Fraser’s lives to craft a compelling story. It leaves many varied imprints on the heart of the reader. It is not difficult to move through the short chapters, and wonderful lessons are learned through Fiona’s skilful storytelling.

The tone is set with that wounding jab from a midwife; “Didn’t you have the amniocentesis?” The battle lines are drawn.

In one sense, it is a book about prenatal testing and the pressure to terminate less-than-perfect lives. But then, it is so much more. Ultimately Fiona reveals that prenatal testing and termination are a crucial but hidden element of a contemporary community. The ripple effect from these discrete “simple” procedures is vast in scope and quality.

Yet even her condemnation of the medical profession and much of the wider community, with its “biology as destiny” attitude — a recurring theme — seems generous. Perhaps this is because the unconditional love of a mother for her child was easily a match for that “professional” attitude. Love conquers all; Fraser proves it.

“High Noon”, by Fraser Pollack 

I loved Fiona’s earthy and very real descriptions of pregnancy and birth. She brims with penetrating observations of both herself and others. At the same time, she knows the point at which she can no longer understand another’s thoughts and emotions. Without presuming anything about anybody else, her perspective is fully grounded in reality, both emotional and material.

So that when she writes this, I am listening intently:

“I have to uphold my belief it is a woman’s right to abort but it feels sad and deeply ill-advised. Perhaps if Fraser were unable to walk, unable to talk I might feel differently, I might support termination without thought. Without a worry. I don’t know. “

As a writer she is both confident and ambivalent. And as a mother, both capable and vulnerable. Aren’t we all?

The birth story, the first chapter, brought me to tears. I recognised those emotions and experiences. Yet what she was put through was galling, particularly the intrusion of the social worker, sitting by Fiona’s bed as she recovered from birth, who insisted on lecturing her about all the “nevers” for her son; he would never cook, never drive, never live independently. It was a “disturbing mix of pity and condemnation.” Wanting to be left alone to shape her own experience of her new baby (what a beautiful expression!), she requested that the social worker be banned from visiting her.

But this was just the beginning of what she describes as “a negativity that knows no bounds.”

Her searching questions haunt the book: could prenatal diagnostic services be making some lives, such as her son’s, more difficult? Is the increasing medicalisation of women’s bodies really about “choice”? She describes in detail the endless demands on mothers to “get it right”, the endless suggestions and opinions that are masquerading as “facts”. The “myth of the subhuman, the substandard” that has been perpetuated through medical opinion. And she speaks with authority; she trained as a nurse and her husband, Fraser’s father, is a psychiatrist.

These “choices”, these “facts” that confront women during pregnancy and throughout motherhood are not necessarily signposts to progress. Oftentimes they weigh heavily on women’s shoulders and threaten to cut them off at the knees. “So, you’ve had a mongol?” — this was spoken by a nurse at the baby health clinic. These comments are etched into Fiona’s memory. I wondered if Fraser remembered them too.

So when it came to her third pregnancy (Fraser was the second of three boys) the “choices” and “facts” continued to weigh on Fiona as she was forced to consider whether or not to accept prenatal testing. It was a decision she did not want to make. It brought her and her husband to tears. Both parents were highly educated and resourceful, yet tender-hearted and acutely aware of all the contradictions and frailties of the situation.

The unfolding of her identity as the mother of a child with an intellectual disability was like watching a portrait being painted. But the reader has the advantage of hindsight. She fought for her place in the world as a regular mother, and I emerged with a deep admiration for the resilience and courage with which she simply mothered her children. You see, to many outsiders her son’s birth was an avoidable tragedy. Some expressed that sentiment openly.

And because it was “avoidable”, Fiona describes that she “felt the need to continually stitch myself back into what it meant to be a mother… this made it extremely difficult for me to find my way into the club known as ‘motherhood’…”

She is at all times real and unpretentious. A low point in her life is described here, and I apologise for the long quote but you will not regret reading it:

“You don’t know what it is like,” I crumpled. “You don’t know what it’s like to have mothers out there who think I brought my difficulties on myself. That I ‘chose’ to have a child with a disability. I do know I do a reasonably good job, an OK job, but it never looks like that. It only ever looks to them like I am a failure. A woman who is constantly struggling, a woman who only ever says no.”

No, I can’t do that, no I can’t join you. I can’t go to the park, to the movies, to the restaurant, to the beach. All I ever say is no. No, no, no …

“I’m always on the outer, always different. And I hate being different,” I whispered, tears beginning to roll down my cheeks, “I just want to be normal.”

“But I am sure of one thing — I do know my situation confronts other women. That I always remind them of what can go wrong. Of what they’re glad they’ve escaped. And they don’t like me reminding them.” I paused, sniffled and wiped my cheek. “I don’t like always having to play that role,” I told him.

“And it’s made doubly difficult by the increasing availability of prenatal screening. It’s not like having a child with autism or cerebral palsy. No, my having a child with Down syndrome is seen as a ‘choice’. And because I chose it, I don’t deserve any help, any support.”

The book moves effortlessly between themes, sometimes providing a deeply personal narrative, and at other points explaining the science and epidemiology and history of disability. A fascinating history, disturbing at times. She talks about the global feminist movement to resist prenatal testing and the eugenic terminations that are intended to follow it. She pays homage to the resistance movement against the “industrialisation of baby-making.” And mentions, in what I believe is an allusion to a looming crisis for women, that there are many things we could test for and “prevent” by termination: autism? childhood leukaemia? schizophrenia? breast cancer? heart disease? myopia? average IQ? Where does it end?

Yet it is not Fiona’s way to criticise. Every time, she offers an alternative. Even at Fraser’s birth, she was digging for new streams. She and her husband were searching for the “possibility of some path other than that mapped out by a chromosomal study… We needed a space with possibility, a space with hope.” I think they found it, through the power of unconditional love, and with much perseverance.

It seems, then, a radical understatement when she writes that the way we think about disability as a community directly affects her son, his opportunities, and his life choices. It feels almost trifling when she writes; “I believe it is time we reassess what it means to live with a disability, to critically question the ways in which we portray and understand disability.” That is to put it mildly.

Pro-life advocates would talk about “search and destroy”, eugenic abortions and ableist medical professionals, and I believe this language is appropriate. There’s no space for mildness here. Disability advocates would denounce “inspiration porn” — inspiring stories of people with disabilities who do great things (with the subtle message that those who don’t do great things just need to try harder). I waited for her hard-hitting analysis of maternal health policy, disability services, the healthcare industry. It never came. I thought that polemic would have been well justified, given her story. Yet she steadfastly provided a gentle, generous narrative.

In the end, Fiona is not a social critic or policy analyst. Nor is she angry or bitter. She is an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities, and she is a writer and a mother. She doesn’t seem to be “against” anyone at all. In fact her remarkable powers of introspection made her an even more credible witness to the powers that we have within us all, rather than looking outward to blame others. She dares to write about shame and to call us to understand ourselves:

“It is only when we can acknowledge all aspects of ourselves — the good and the not so good – that we can hope to live peacefully, both now and in the future.”

While she laid no blame, I somehow felt a stinging accusation, perhaps unintended by the author. A kind of guilt, maybe, that I have not always used my own powers for good.

Women have great power to affirm and support other mothers. Conversely, we also have the power to tear each other apart. I stood condemned when Fiona wrote: “I was definitely still not fine with the looks of pity from other mothers. Not OK with the way they would give me a wide berth whenever I took Fraser with Angus to childcare. Not OK that most would not even acknowledge Fraser. Not OK about the way my birth outcomes seemed to elicit the worst from many mothers, many members of the wider community.”

Was I ever one of those mothers? Did I avoid, ignore, comment cruelly? Have I been self-absorbed and self-interested, judgmental or pitying? Have I conducted my life merely as an autonomous individual rather than a person in community? Probably yes to all. May there be much forgiveness for women like me who do not have a special needs child and who just do not understand. May we avoid the trap of idolising individualism and “success”.

Individual and autonomous choice is a modern myth. The idea that we are self-contained moral agents is a deception that serves the economy. It does not serve humanity. It is a deception that we use to absolve ourselves of our mutual responsibility, and to blame others for their troubles.

Radical feminists, unlike liberal feminists, are committed to questioning the social context of women’s “choices” like prenatal testing, cosmetic surgery, prostitution, reproductive technologies, and so on. Spinifex Press, the feminist publisher of Fiona’s book, enables women to authentically tell their stories alongside a robust analysis of the broader circumstances and histories. We are irrevocably connected to everyone else. No woman is an island.

I end this review with a chunk of Fiona’s conclusion, so powerful that it deserves quoting.

Perhaps one day Down syndrome will no longer be considered a condition that requires routine termination of a pregnancy. Perhaps one day it will be a considered a condition with which you can bring new life into the world. And not an experience to avoid at all costs.

With advances in medicine I hope there will come a time when our current public commitment to detecting and terminating lives with this genetic difference will be seen as misguided. As a wrongfully exclusive practice. And that the narrative of what it means to have this genetic difference will change, that more hopeful and life-affirming narratives will emerge and the current detect-and-reject narrative will lose its currency.

This is a joyful book. Amongst the difficulties of having a child with Down syndrome, in the end nothing remains but love and joy for her son and her family and her life.

Selena Ewing is a freelance researcher and writer with 20 years of experience in the field of public health, bioethics, and women’s health. She blogs maybe once a year at www.selenaewing.com.