Review: ‘Shameful Autobiographies: Shame in Contemporary Australian Autobiographies and Culture’ by Rosamund Dalziell

Reviewed by Gillian Whitlock

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The Australian intelligentsia – writers, critics, academics – have turned to autobiographical writing as a means of self-expression and cultural and social reflection in increasing numbers in the last decades. Germaine Greer, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Robert Dessaix, Ruby Langford and Bernard Smith are each located very differently as Australian intellectuals, and yet each has a major role to play in Rosamund Dalziell’s discussion of contemporary autobiography. Dalziell’s approach is thematic. She argues that shame, although seldom discussed, is a recurring element in Australian social history. This relates most obviously to racism as is evident in the debates about shame and guilt as a response to the dispossession of indigenous peoples as a result of settler colonialism. Dalziell also connects distinctively Australian manifestations of shame to the cultural cringe produced by colonial status, to the shame of illegitimate birth, and shame in the immigrant experience.

What is shame? “The basic experience connected with shame is that of being seen, inappropriately, by the wrong people, in the wrong condition.”(7) Dalziell draws on Erikson’s theory of the “eight ages of man”, which identifies shame as a formative emotion in early childhood, associated with self awareness, and prior to the development of guilt: “Shame supposes that one is completely exposed and conscious of being looked at, in one word, self-conscious. One is visible and not ready to be visible.”(6) For Dalziell, the autobiographical act is an opportunity for the mature self to confront shame, and re-evaluate self-worth. Shame is, then, fundamental to the autobiographical process, and the association between shame and autobiography goes back to its origins in the religious confession. Can psychoanalytic approaches to shame be equally appropriate for reading such different cultural expressions as, say, Bernard Smith’s account of illegitimacy and the discussion of Daisy Corunna’s reluctance to identify as an Aboriginal in My Place?Dalziell associates the first with the narcissistic forms of the confessional, the second as a more communal act, associated with testimony to suffering and injustice. Both ways, the writing and the reading of autobiography, are seen as therapeutic, as a process whereby the autobiographer and the implied reader are brought to a confrontation with shame and its legacies in the individual life, this “can lead to a deeper self-knowledge and a greater recognition of shared humanity. Reading autobiographies is one way this can be achieved.” (11)

However the assumptions of this humanist approach become evident from the first chapter, an extended study of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s autobiography Solid Blue Foundations.This is read in terms of the shaming of Australian culture by the myth of British superiority, a shaming which leads to the response which A.A. Phillips called “the cultural cringe” and its opposite, identified by Chris Wallace Crabbe as the “strut”. Dalziell begins with this in part for chronological reasons, and also for personal reasons, this autobiography allows her to resolve her own legacy of shame by interrogating her Oxford experience in new ways. This is the most extended and sympathetic reading in the book, and it contrasts sharply with Dalziell’s impatience with Bernard Smith’s The Boy Adeodatusand Germaine Greer’s Daddy We Hardly Knew You,for example. However for readers who do not share these generational, regional or institutional locations this first chapter becomes an indulgence. Fitzpatrick’s autobiography is, it is true, a popular book, with a second edition published by Penguin in 1986 and a new edition recently published by Melbourne University Press. It has received little critical attention, a neglect this chapter attempts to redress. Perhaps the question here is what is the purchase to be gained from this autobiography if one is not in a position to find its discussion of cultural cringe personally therapeutic? This question might be put differently: in the wake of contemporary (feminist, postcolonial and poststructuralist) interventions into ways of interpreting the past, what are we now to make of that tradition of Anglo-Australian nationalism which shaped the careers of Fitzpatrick and her peers W.K. Hancock, A.R. Chisholm and Martin Boyd, for example? Dalziell’s interpretation of how Australian universities were part of a “shaming culture” needs to be brought alongside Leigh Dale’s discussion of this issue in her book The English Men.Dale’s institutional approach has a sharpness, a critical edge which needs to be brought to bear here, for it sutures together institutional power and authority with the formation of subjectivity in a way which pulls memoirs such as Solid Bluestone Foundationsinto larger circuits of social and cultural debate.

Dalziell’s discussion of the dynamics of shame in recent Aboriginal autobiographies includes a lengthy discussion of the politics of collaboration, in the inter-racial relations involved in the production and the reception of these texts. Does this kind of inter-racial relationship in the production of the indigenous autobiography perpetuate the shame of dispossession? Kevin Gilbert has argued that it does. Dalziell on the other hand introduces the concept of the testimony to suggest that these autobiographical narratives, whether collaborative or not, bear witness to suffering and loss and stand as revelations of shame. The position of the implied reader here is an interesting one, and therapeutic in a very different way. The white, middle class reader of these narratives becomes aware of their own racial location through reading Aboriginal testimony, and the inter-racial relationship between autobiographer and reader is, in this event, a confronting one. This, Dalziell suggests, can be an important part of the reconciliation process. The introduction of testimony, which has been the subject of critical work by John Beverly and Doris Sommer, among others, leads Dalziell into what is arguably the most interesting and polemical discussion in her book. She suggests that testimony is a vigorous, emerging form of narrative which departs from the tendency to eschew “grand narrative”. With this in mind, Dalziell goes on to read recent indigenous autobiography with particular attention to the ways that Christian and other social, political and cultural grand narratives can play an important part in developing an emancipatory impulse in testimonial writing.

For Aboriginal and immigrant autobiographers in particular autobiographical writing is presented as a means of healing through the cathartic expression of shame, an expression which produces “psychic release”. In this way Dalziell brings together Aboriginal autobiography and recent autobiographies by Morris Lurie, Amirah Inglis and Andrew Reimer, all of whom are “wounded by history”. As a “linguistic expression of therapeutic renewal for the narrating self”, writing and reading autobiography is associated with individual and social regeneration. It is no surprise that Dalziell argues that her work meets with positive reader response, and revelations of shame, for she stresses a deeply personal and humanistic response to autobiographical texts, a response which is decidedly out of kilter with current debates in autobiographical theory and criticism in its emphasis on self-knowledge and shared humanity. The grounding of Dalziell’s work on autobiography is in psychoanalysis rather than literary theory, and it is no coincidence that most of her references to postmodernism are in passing, and dismissive. The capacity of the autobiographical text to be a reliable vehicle for the expression of emotion and truth by a narrating subject is not in question here.

Given this, Shameful Autobiographiesis not a ‘must read’ if you like discussions of autobiographical writing to be theoretically astute, or even theoretically informed. Other critics of autobiography McCooey, Smith, Eakin for example are in the bibliography but not evident in Dalziell’s thinking about autobiographic writing. The arguments of critics such as Gilmore, who approach autobiographical writing with a strong sense of its role in constructing notions of truth and authenticity, are not in evidence, as we might expect given the brief dismissal of Foucault in the chapter “Mapping Selves”. Surely this book runs the risk of being abandoned by all but the most persistent readers, as Dalziell memorably remarks of Germaine Greer’s Daddy We Hardly Knew You.This is not because of its interest in therapy rather than theory, or that it persists in the tired division of Australian autobiography into “immigrant”, “Aboriginal” and “Anglo”. It is because this book, more than any I have read for a long time, bears a close relation to the doctoral thesis which is so obviously its precursor. Readers for Melbourne University Press should have encouraged a rewriting which broke through the hermetically sealed divisions between textual and contextual analysis, and the rather descriptive and sequential discussions of individual texts, which organise this book. Dalziell’s theme is an interesting one, and obviously of importance in thinking about contemporary Australian society. It deserves a more sophisticated expression.


Gillian Whitlock is an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities at Griffith University, and editor of an anthology of Australian autobiographical writing,Autographs(UQP,1996). Her bookThe Intimate Empire: Reading Women’s Autobiography will be published by Cassells, UK in December 1999.

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