A Mother’s Disgrace could loosely be termed autobiographical. As well as providing entertaining information about his own life story, Robert Dessaix’s writing takes the form of both a quest and a reflection. Raised by adoptive parents, Robert Dessaix embarks on a quest to find his biological mother and both before and after he has found her, he reflects on the nature of his own identity and identity in general, as well as many contemporary western society’s preoccupations such as sexuality, religious belief, family relationships, discrimination, social injustice and systems of government.
NB: The text that this unit is based on is: Dessaix, R. 1994. A Mother’s Disgrace. A & R Classics, Australia.
Begin with a class discussion about the term ‘identity’. What do we mean by this term? What is your understanding of this word?
- Students could do this individually as a conceptual map, before sharing with a colleague. Finally a summary conceptual map could be filled out as a full class activity in a central place, such as a whiteboard.
One of the ways Wikipedia describes identity is as follows: ‘In psychology, sociology and anthropology, identity is a person’s conception and expression of their own (self identity) and other’s individuality or group affiliations (such as national identity and cultural identity).
- The conceptual map could perhaps be added to after considering this definition.
‘To recognise or establish as being a particular person or thing‘ (The Macquarie Dictionary, 2009).
- With this narrower definition in mind, ask the students to think about the title of this book and also a quote from page 120 where the author states. ‘I am a disgrace, you see.’ In juxtaposition, Dessaix describes his biological mother, Yvonne, as being a ‘woman of . . . much grace’ (p. 187).
- What could make someone identify as being a disgrace? This activity is a general one – not based on the text yet. Think-pair-share.
Activities while reading the text
All of the following reading activities relate to on-going components of the unit as well as to relevant activities and tasks.
- As a class, read the dedication at the front of the work. Robert Dessaix quotes Jeanette Winterson, ‘I’m telling you stories. Trust me.’ Then read the last two sentences of the book. ‘I have told you the truth. Now trust me.’ Ask students to hypothesise as to why these two statements containing the word ‘trust’ should bracket the entire text.
- The first chapter is particularly relevant to the nature of ‘identity’, which has been discussed already as a general concept, and which is a preoccupation of Dessaix, and consequently a focus of much of this unit. This chapter could be read (and the bullet points discussed) in class time or it could be set as several nights’ homework and the students’ insights could be shared during class time.
- As students read the first chapter, they need to make brief notes about:
(i) Dessaix’s use of italics;
(ii) His thoughts while he was writing his version of the crime in his hotel room (p. 9);
(iii) His awareness that ‘. . . Sergeant Mustafa must not know the difference’ (p. 16).
- Dessaix prepared a ‘version of his story’ for the Sergeant. As a class discussion, consider the following questions:
(i) What does it mean to prepare a version of something for someone? Give an example.
(ii) Is ‘giving a version’ the same concept as fictionalising?
(iii) Do we fictionalise our lives in order to make them more interesting and more believable? Give examples.
(iv) Could it be that our very identities are a mixture of fact and fiction?
(v) What is the difference that Sergeant Mustafa must not know about?
(vi) If we know that we all prepare versions of events, how do we know what/who to trust? How can we trust that this author is telling us the truth?
- General reading activities – these early notes will be required later as students work through the various exercises and activities contained in the unit.
(i) Ask the students to make notes (as they are reading) about what sort of mothers are being referred to in the chapter titles: Motherlands, Mother Russia and Mother.
(ii) By finding his own mother at the age of fifty, Dessaix discovered an entirely new identity history. Ask the students to do quick character sketches on Jean, Yvonne and Yvonne’s mother – as they are reading.
(iii) Robert Dessaix grew up as Robert Jones. Why did he change his name and was it before or after meeting his biological mother?
(iv) Robert Dessaix seems much more interested in finding out about his mother than his father. Why do you think this is?
Reflections on identity – having completed the text
We all originate out of somewhere. Obviously we come from our biological parents but we are also born into families and into a web of stories (sometimes called discourses) that sustain these biological families and give them meaning and identity. These stories or discourses involve notions of class, gender, ethnicity, occupation, beliefs, values, obligations, affiliations and so on. In other words, our discourses provide us with a way of being – ourselves.
To assist students to understand the concept of how our stories/discourses shape us, the following bullet point activities should be completed in class, pausing at the end of each section to discuss their responses, as a class discussion.
- Working in pairs or singly, students are to re-visit their concept maps where they reflected on the meaning of the term, ‘identity’ and add to it any of the stories they grew up with – stories large and small – in fact anything they can think of that made them who they are today. Ideas: nationality, state alliance, regional alliance, city/town alliance, family networks, religion, education, politics, sports, clubs, hobbies, groups, interests etc.
- Direct them to create a Venn diagram and in the overlapping part, put in the discourses/stories that they share with their parents. In one side of the individual circle put in the large stories that have shaped them and in the other circle, put in the small stories that shape them. For example, ideas ideas about nationality and religion could be in one, and smaller, more temporary influences such as cultural groups or sporting groups could go into the other.
- Ask the students to think about these influences on their own notions of their own ‘self’. Do these various influences create different ‘selves’? For example, are they the same self when listening to music with a group of friends as they are when in the principal’s office at school? In his interview with Ramona Koval, Robert Dessaix talks about his many selves. ‘So many Roberts’. Are there many selves or just one true self which adapts to different situations?
- Points to ponder: Does the self exist when there is no one else around to recognise it? If we believe in the one true self, is it the same self from birth to death, regardless of circumstances? What is the core of this self? What is personality? Can personality change? What sort of things would make our personalities change? Is the self consistent or inconsistent?
Our stories influence the way we view the world and the way we feel about certain things. For example, the child of a timber logger in Tasmania would probably have different ideas about conservation issues than that of the child of a Green Party supporter living in inner Melbourne.
Bearing in mind the idea that discourses have shaped their own identities, students are to write a one page reflection on an issue about which they feel strongly. Students may wish to reflect on the big issues/topics/stories which influence their thinking such as: patriotism, conservation, climate change issues, to name but a few, or they might wish to reflect on much smaller concerns such as: bullying, school rules or their own family traditions.
They might wish to examine some of Dessaix’s reflections to give them an idea as to how to go about this task. For example:
- the nature of language and naming things (p. 33)
- Christianity (p. 45)
- Communism (p. 67)
- masculinity and femininity (p. 147)
- romantic and obsessional love (p. 163)
As reflective writing is one of the tasks in the ‘Informed reaction’ section later in this resource, students could be encouraged to keep this writing and perhaps add to it as they work through the unit.
THE WRITER’S CRAFT INCLUDING SUCH ELEMENTS AS:
This autobiography does not have any semblance of a linearly-lived life. Dessaix begins his narrative with an event that happened to him when he was forty. In the second chapter he reflects on his childhood. In chapter three he takes his reader to Russia and only in chapter four does he finally get to meet his biological mother. He himself, on page 103, states that he likes to live ‘swoopingly’. The selection of memoirs he has (sometimes seemingly randomly) chosen for A Mother’s Disgrace seem to support this assertion.
In class, either teacher led or individually, students are to read the opening paragraph of the book. It is intensely dramatic – a magnet to draw in the reader. Ask the students to reflect on an episode from their past and try to introduce their own memoir in as dramatic a way as possible. They could do this by remembering a vivid flashback and beginning from there, or they could evoke the senses and try to remember smells, sounds etc. from the time. Maybe they could begin with direct dialogue. To prompt them to get started ask them to describe the time in their lives when they have been the most frightened/amused/sad, etc. This could be done as quiet class work or homework. Invite them to share these opening paragraphs, and to keep them for future reference.
- growing up
- search for origins
- search for self
- human rights
- social justice
- theosophical beliefs
These themes are listed randomly. Re-list them in the order of importance that you imagine they were to Robert Dessaix at the time of writing this.
Students are to make a list of their own themes or preoccupations in order of importance. This is not for sharing and can be done as a homework activity or done in class and deleted/scrapped immediately.
Working in pairs, students brainstorm one of these issues/themes: theosophy, communism, capitalism, mental illness, Alzheimer’s disease, human rights or anti-discrimination legislation are some suggestions.
Homework: further individual research on their chosen theme.
In pairs or small groups, either prepare a five minute talk, or design a web page promoting an organisation connected to your chosen theme. Students would need to have a position on the topic in order for this to be effective, otherwise it will just amount to information. Suggestions: ‘The Young Communist Movement Homepage’, ‘Young People Standing up against Racial Discrimination’ or whatever appeals to their thinking.
Obviously as this is autobiographical, Robert Dessaix is the central character. Other major characters include: Jean, Tom, Yvonne, Peter, Yvonne’s mother, Elizabeth plus a host of minor characters.
- Students are to create a table in which they compare the impact of each of the following women on Robert Dessaix.
|Yvonne||Jean||Elizabeth||Yvonnes’ mother||Mrs Z|
|Relationship to RD|
|RD’s reaction to this person|
|Lasting legacy on RD’s life|
|Example using textual evidence. Page/quote|
Australia, Russia and Egypt are the three main settings in which this narrative is played out, although the author is well-travelled and a host of other countries are mentioned. Dessaix also describes at length his own imaginary lands, cities and languages. Pure Land (p. 27) is one example.
- Students to read pp. 27–32.
- As a think-pair-share, describe the importance of this mythical construction to the growing boy. Would this sort of fantasy be common among youths and teenagers? What does it say about Dessaix that he preferred to construct and dwell in these imaginary places than in his real world? Ask the students if, either in their own reading or in their own lives, they have ever come across anything similar.
In the blurb at the back of A Mother’s Disgrace, The Canberra Times describes this book as, ‘A journey of identity by a virtuoso in language and master of narrative control . . . ‘.
One of the powerful techniques that Dessaix employs in his narrative is his creation of original metaphors to vividly illustrate the point he is making.
In groups locate the following metaphors in the text:
- Rorschach effect (pp. 161–163)
- shaft of silence (p. 21)
- kaleidoscope (p. 103)
- ‘She loved me as a kind of exotic plant . . .’ (p. 41)
- ‘In secret ways these two boundaries – the primly mown buffalo verge on the street and the bush at the back, dense with night sounds and animal possibilities – still function as boundaries to my sense of who I am’. (p. 10)
In groups of three or four, discuss and explain how these metaphors illustrate and highlight what it is the author is saying in these sections. Allocate a scribe and a speaker for each group and report back to the class.
Robert Dessaix describes his own style as conversational (Wheeler Centre – Robert Dessaix: As I was Saying (YouTube).
- Watch the first ten minutes of the YouTube interview where Dessaix is reading from his book, As I was Saying.
- Do the students agree that A Mother’s Disgrace could be described in a similar fashion? Give examples of where his tone is conversational.
- Is the art of conversation over? If so, why?
- What is meant by the term ‘Seminaries of Sedition’, which is how salons are described in As I was Saying?
One of the devices that Dessaix employs in order to engage his reader in conversation, is to talk directly to him/her. He uses the second person – “you”. ‘I’d copy it out here for you if I’d kept a draft of it, but I didn’t – there was nothing in it you ought not to read.’ (p. 105).
- Who is he addressing?
- What is the effect of this device?
Use of third person when talking about himself – “he”. ‘On the other hand the hero of my tale was standing up quite well, I thought, and Sergeant Mustafa must not know the difference.’ (p. 16).
- What is the effect of using the third person to talk about himself?
A sustained symbol throughout this entire text is that of a mother.
- Students are to make a list of any words or ideas that they associate with ‘mother’, whether it be connotations or associated words. This could be done as a concept map. (Suggestions include words and combinations such as motherhood, mothering, Mother Earth, motherland, mother ship, smother, nurture, love, Mother of God – anything). As the class works through the list it should become obvious what a powerful construct this word is.
- Ask the students to ponder the following questions alone, or talk them over with a friend:
(i) What is the most iconic mother/son image in our western and Judeo-Christian society?
(ii) How would it feel being forced to give up a child and know that you would never see him/her again?
(iii) Can you see how the word ‘Mother’ could be especially intriguing if one were adopted?
(iv) Germany is often referred to as the Fatherland, whilst Russia is usually known as the Motherland. Ask the students whether they see their own land as a motherland or a fatherland – and why?
Individual writing activity
The Head of English at your school is ordering new texts for next year’s Senior Literature course and is asking for students’ opinions. He/she is considering including Robert Dessaix’s autobiography, A Mother’s Disgrace, which you have just finished reading.
Write an email to this person in which you encourage or discourage the purchase of a class set of these texts, validating your opinions with evidence from your own close study. Note: this need not be a binary ‘buy/don’t buy’ exercise. Students could recommend with a note of caution, or discourage in the main, but still suggest strengths in the text.
Ways of reading the text
Structuralism and Post Structuralism
A Mother’s Disgrace lends itself to Structuralist and Post Structuralist readings. These are rather dense and difficult concepts but, put simply, both theories broadly posit that reality is constructed by language and therefore, for example, one’s gendered identity is largely a construction. These theories also question the straitjacket construction of linear time and the impossibility of objective history. Dessaix highlights all these issues in his autobiography. ‘I was a staunch believer in the world-as-text approach from about the mid sixties . . . until quite recently.’ (p. 143).
By his own admission he was a staunch believer that reality is constructed by language – ‘world as text’ – until he subverted his own structuralist views by bringing in biology as a factor to be contended with, both in our ideas about gender identity and the world at large.
Students are to complete a close reading of pages 140–143 and then complete the following activities:
- Re-read the passage on p. 140 where he states: ‘Freedom, if it means anything, seems to be about choosing intelligently between discourses, questioning commands, interrogating cliched propositions and making sure what intersects is what you want to intersect. You learn to distinguish between liberating and oppressive discourses.’ What does this actually mean? Try to explain this rather difficult concept to a class mate. Thrash out a meaning between yourselves and be prepared to share your insights with the class.
- ‘The idea that the world is all ‘text’ and you have a leading role in writing it is obviously appealing’ (p. 141). Who is the ‘you’ being referred to here?
- ‘After meeting Yvonne though, and watching the way she sits and walks . . . I now doubt that it always produces it in the first place’ (p. 143). This is where Dessaix is musing on his own physical/mental traits and the nature/nurture debate regarding his own identity. In your own words, describe how this passage contradicts the two former passages from this section.
Another tenet of Post Structuralist Theory is the concept of binaries within language and the power they confer. According to Jaques Derrida, ‘Meaning in the West is defined in terms of binary oppositions . . . a violent hierarchy where one of the two terms governs the other. Within the black/white binary opposition in the United States, the African American is the defined as the devalued other’ (Wikipedia.org. Binaries in post structuralist theory.)
- Students are to brainstorm ideas of binary opposition in language, beginning with obvious ones like black/white, good/bad, up/down, rich/poor, male/female etc. In pairs or groups, or as a joint effort on the central whiteboard, ask them to write down as many as they can think of. Then ask them to circle the word (within the binary) which has positive connotations, and be prepared to explain their choice. Ask them to try and explain the connection between the binary – that the one can only exist because the other doesn’t.
Robert Dessaix has much to say about binaries and the way our (unconscious) binary system confers power.
- Students are to read the following passages:It was my first conscious experience of the power that grows out of binary constructions of the world (in this case capitalist/socialist, exploiting/non-exploiting, truth/lies, enemy/friend – those were the main ones). It made me aware of the way binary constructions raise the stakes in any power game and make the thinking on both sides of the divide (the source of all power) more and more totalitarian (p. 68).In either case, regardless of the truth, you were supporting the wrong side in their binary construction of the world (p. 86).What I didn’t understand in those days, the early sixties, was that in any society ideas about what constitutes masculinity and what constitutes femininity are rigidly fixed and the boundary between them is jealously guarded. It is a binary system and one that confers power (p. 147).
- After completing these readings and thinking about the concept of binaries and power, students can be encouraged to see how these binaries affect their own identity and lives. It would help at this stage to add Dessaix’s list to the list they already have: capitalist/socialist, exploiting/non-exploiting, truth/lies, enemy/friend.The teacher could also add some binaries which obviously affect lives – for example, conservation/development, knowledge/ignorance, leisure/work, activity/inactivity, health/sickness, science/arts. From these lists and from their own ideas, students could be encouraged to see how their lives are affected by the power of those concepts that are privileged. For example, having a physical education program in school and our country’s obsession with sports marginalises some students and favours others. Being non-white may have the same effect. This could be done individually either in class or for homework.
After reading these passages (and if necessary refreshing their memories of the contexts around them), students are to prepare a short Powerpoint lesson entitled: Binaries in Language for a Year 11 English class. There are various ways they could go about this. They could begin with a preamble (in their own words) using insights gained during the above section, or they could begin with a list of a few pertinent binaries and go on to deconstruct them, or they could begin with a quote from A Mother’s Disgrace. It need not be a long lesson – just two or three slides would be sufficient to explain the gist of it. By doing this, and preparing an explanation, it will cement the concept into their own minds.
(ACELR038) (ACELR039) (ACELR051) (ACELR052)
Evaluation of the text
A Mother’s Disgrace raises many issues with which we are grappling in today’s Australian society. Recently our government has mooted changes to both adoption and gay marriage legislation.
- From your own class reading of this text, what do you think Robert Dessaix’s views would be on these two issues? This could be done in a variety of ways: class discussion, group discussion with provision to share or thoughts written in a class blog. Students should be able to provide textual evidence to support their views.
- Students are then asked to read the transcript on the case against gay marriage in the “Sydney Morning Herald” article – Robert Dessaix on the case against gay marriage).
Coming to terms with his own homosexuality is one of the most central themes of A Mother’s Disgrace. However, in this book, Dessaix also reflects on marriage as an institution: both his own with Elizabeth, and that of Tom and Jean, his adoptive parents. Why then, do you think Dessaix is (now) opposed to the idea of gay marriage? Think-pair-share and be prepared to share findings with the class.
Robert Dessaix talks openly in many interviews about the art of autobiographical writing, or memoir writing.
Direct students to read the interview: Australian Book Review – Pushing against the dark: Writing about the hidden self (Dessaix). An extract:
But why did was. It is fragmented, a curling necklace of arresting moments, far from all-encompassing, opinionated, intimate and at least dotted, if not peppered, with scandalous disclosures – illegitimacy, bathhouse adventures, and so on – the sort of thing that Frenchwomen of slender virtue disclosed in the earliest memoirs, although as a rule about bishops and other pillars of society they had encountered.
Autobiographical writing is a popular genre in every library. One of the best known is Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father (Text 2004). Obama is the most powerful man in the world. Everyone is interested in his life story. Given that the general understanding of the term autobiography is one’s own history, told by oneself, why do you think Robert Dessaix chose to write his own autobiography? Class discussion.
From the results of this discussion and their own reading of the text and associated secondary resources, students are to write a paragraph outlining what they think are Dessaix’s reasons for writing this autobiography/memoir.
Robert Dessaix admits he is an unreliable narrator (‘ . . . I realised that in all the stories I’d told about my own life . . . ‘ p. 21) yet he asks us to trust him.
- Students are to read Creative Nonfiction’s interview with Robert Dessaix. In this revealing interview, Dessaix touches on many of the themes foreshadowed in A Mother’s Disgrace, including his being adopted and therefore ‘invented’ and the fact that he ‘tells stories’ in order to create a good story.
- Students are to answer these questions after reading the interview:
(i) In what ways does Dessaix strive for absolute fact and why do some things have to be provable?
(ii) What is he meaning when he states, ‘I just play about in the borderland. It’s a funny business’?
(iii) In this interview, Robert Dessaix admits. ‘Yes, I’m unreliable! That’s the thing. When you read my books, I am unreliable.’ Do you think other writers of autobiographies: public figures such as Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, John Howard, Cathy Freeman – to name but a few, would claim to be unreliable? Why does Dessaix do this and how does it position his reader?
With the class, watch an ABC Q&A program with a panel of experts answering questions from the audience. Questions raised on Q&A are checked as far as possible before going to air. It might be a good idea for the teacher to do likewise. Using both these topics (adoption and gay marriage) and perhaps one more – by negotiation – set up a class version of Q&A with panelists answering questions. It might be a good idea to shoot a video of it to make it more of a real life situation. Students on the panel would need to set themselves up as experts in various appropriate fields such as social workers, ministers etc.
Robert Dessaix is booked as the keynote speaker in a public media event entitled ABC Open Workshop: Write and Share Your Own Real Life Stories at a local Writers’ festival. Your job is to give a five minute introduction about the author and his writing before he begins his speech. Dessaix has made it known that he wishes to talk about his own brand of autobiographical writing based on A Mother’s Disgrace. What will you choose to highlight about this particular writer and why? Prepare your speech and be prepared to give it in class.
Rich assessment tasks
Response to text (Receptive)
Note to teachers: Five tasks are provided. These are ordered by degree of difficulty. They could either all be given and students asked to choose one, or teacher discretion could be used to match the cohort to the provided tasks. All the following responses (except for the feature article – and this would still need to refer to Dessaix’s writing) require close referencing to the original text. Required length for each: 1,000–1,500 words.
Based on your close reading of the text, prepare a report on the suitability (or otherwise) of the autobiography, A Mother’s Disgrace by Robert Dessaix, for senior school student study as applicable in your circumstances. This report is to be submitted to the Education Department responsible for selecting Senior Syllabus Literature.
2. Discussion essay (1)
‘I am a disgrace, you see’ (p. 120). The title of this book, A Mother’s Disgrace, is ambiguous. Robert Dessaix, as a broadcaster, author, academic, essayist and translator, is obviously not a disgrace. In essay format and with close reference to the text, discuss how Robert Dessaix uses this word and the issues surrounding each type of disgrace’.
3. Discussion essay (2)
Dessaix implies that he has no need for a mother and that he sought her out ‘. . . mainly because I wanted depth to my story’ (p. 134). Yet his autobiography is preoccupied with representations of Mother. Referring both to chapter titles and female characters, discuss the various ways in which all these mothers add depth to his story.
4. Feature article
Working closely with the ideas you have gleaned during this unit of work and Dessaix’s own reflections on the shifting nature of identity and the way we fictionalise our own lives, write a feature article entitled: Fact or Fiction: the art of autobiographical writing.
5. Expository essay
Referring to Robert Dessaix’s expressed views on inequalities in society, explore how binary oppositions within language construct meaning and create inequality.
(ACELR045) (ACELR046) (ACELR047) (ACELR048)
Text created by students (Productive)
Length: 1,000–1,500 words.
1. Reflective writing
This year your school magazine is running a section entitled Youth Views. Students have been invited to submit an entry where they reflect on an issue which is important to them.
Students can develop further the reflective writing they did in the ‘Initial response’ section of this unit. They could model their writing on the sort of reflection that Robert Dessaix continually does in A Mother’s Disgrace and they might like to bring in some of his stylistic effects such as using rich and original metaphors to illustrate a concept, or by referencing out to their audiences using the second person narrator.
2. Autobiographical writing
Your English teacher has suggested that you enter an international writing competition, for writers under twenty, titled Short Memoir Contest.
Students look back on their own lives and write a memoir (or develop their previous ones from the ‘Close study’ activity) about a certain event or period in their lives. They should be encouraged to emulate Robert Dessaix in that their writing does not need to be linear or chronological, and they may bring in asides. Encourage them also to take risks with style: metaphors, narrative voice, dramatic present tense writing etc.
3. Editorial writing
Students are to write an editorial for a local paper in which they choose one of the topics to which this book alludes, and write a column examining and ultimately persuading the reader to embrace their own points of view. Topics could include: Gay Marriage, Adoption Policies, the Role of Christianity in a secular society – or another topic by negotiation with their teacher.
(ACELR049) (ACELR050) (ACELR051) (ACELR052)