“And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength” – Audre Lorde

The question people have most consistently asked about my memoir, A Place for Everything: my mother, autism and me, is “Why did you write it?” It’s a reasonable enough question: why put yourself through telling such a personal story? Why expose yourself in this way? (I also can’t help feeling that behind it lies the implied criticism, which most likely comes really from my own inner critic: why expose your family in this way?)

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It has given me pause for thought, though. Why did I write it? Was it first and foremost to spread the word about missed and late diagnoses of autism in women? Was it to reach out to people who have cared for and lost elderly relatives? Why does anyone write about their own lives? A few may do it for self-aggrandisement, but I doubt the majority does.

I read a lot of memoirs while I was writing my own, and the feeling I got from all of them was, “This is a story that has to be told”: whether it was Alys Fowler writing about her realisation that she loved another woman in Hidden Nature, or Cathy Rentzenbrink pouring out her love for her deceased brother in The Last Act of Love or Alexandra Fuller chronicling her childhood in the chaos of 1970s Rhodesia in Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight or Tara Westover writing about her incredibly dysfunctional family in Educated – they all had stories that seemed to pour out of them as though there were no stopping them. And therein lies the power and the authenticity of what they have to say.

So why did write about my life? If I am honest, and I really face into the question, I have to say that the reason I wrote it is because I wanted – needed – to be heard. I needed people to understand that my relationship with my mother was difficult as I grew into an independent-minded young woman, because my mother found the transformation of her daughter from small, compliant girl, into opinionated, adventure-seeking woman, very difficult herself. And the main reason that she found this so hard, I now understand, was because she had autism.

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In the words of psychologist Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, people with autism have “a profound difficulty in appreciating another person’s different perspective, as if one’s own perspective were the true, correct view”. So when I wanted to live in London rather than down the road from my mother in Kent, as she had chosen to do, she couldn’t understand and she was angry and upset. And when I wanted to write books instead of use my language skills to teach as she had done, she couldn’t understand why I would want to waste my time in this way. And when I wanted to spend more and more of my time in Cornwall because the place tugged at my heartstrings, she took it as a personal rejection of my Kentish roots – and of her.

And so we fought. We fought and we fought and we fought. And at times I felt as though she hated me. And I hated her.

I knew, deep down, of course, that we didn’t really hate each other. It was just that something wasn’t right – that something in Mum had gone undetected and unexplained. Other people didn’t have these battles way into their 30s and their 40s with their mothers. Other people didn’t spend hours on the phone trying to convince their mothers that, yes I want to live life differently from the way you envisaged, but that doesn’t mean I love you any less.

So when Mum finally got the diagnosis, it made sense. And it gave me and my sister an enormous gift – the gift of being heard. Yes! Your mum is different. Yes! She sees the world in a completely different way from you. Yes! She doesn’t always understand where you are coming from. And it’s no one’s fault.

And yet, there were many people – still are – who did not believe it. These people had always seen my mum at her best: the charming, intelligent, engaging, charismatic woman who was immaculately dressed, smiling and accompanied by her adoring, equally charming and intelligent husband. These were the people who looked at my mum and thought, “This is a woman who has everything”. They didn’t see her have meltdowns when playing the part of the charming intelligent friend had taken its toll. They didn’t see her sink into depression and talk about “ending it all”. They didn’t spend hours on the phone listening to her say that “all I can see is misery”. So they didn’t have the full picture.

Writing the memoir, then, goes some way to trying to provide the full picture. It is me, standing on a mountain and shouting, for all the world to hear, “My mum was not the person you thought she was – she was like this!”

But it is also my attempt at reconciliation. It is my chance to say, “I loved you, Mum, in spite all your traits and tics and tempers and tantrums. I loved you because of them too.”

The feminist writer Audre Lorde wrote: “And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that is always fraught with danger”.

This is what it is to write a memoir. I was afraid – I am still afraid – of how the book will be received. I am afraid of what my friends and family will think of me and I am afraid of how strangers will react to the book. Because yes, it is an act of self-revelation. In writing the book I couldn’t get away from my own traits and tics and tempers and tantrums. But, as Audre Lorde’s daughter told her, you have to speak out because if you don’t, “if you keep ignoring [that little piece inside of you] , it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter and if you don’t speak it out, one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside”. To which Audre Lorde responds in her essay with the words, “And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength”.

So why did I write the memoir? To be heard, yes. But in doing that I had to confront my worst vulnerabilities. I had to be truthful and show myself in the worst light as well as showing Mum how she was – I had to show how I was too. And in doing that I hope I have gone some way towards earning forgiveness.

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With thanks to the London Writers’ Salon for inviting me to their Writers’ Hour and sharing these quote from Audre Lorde this morning.

(quotes from Audre Lorde, ‘The transformation of language into silence and action’ from her book, Sister Outsider)