Historical Figures, Archives and Australian Disability Life Writing: Reading Jessica White’s Hearing Maud and Writing Hysteria


Through examining Jessica White’s hybrid memoir Hearing Maud and my own work Hysteria: A Memoir of Illness, Strength and Women’s Stories Throughout History, I explore how archival research shapes a disabled writer’s work and written representation of the self. I particularly focus on how memoirists convey the embodied experience of disability through writing lived experience, as well as writing about disabled women they have found through archival research. I consider how writers’ conceptions of the self and body coalesce and depart from the women they are researching. I am intrigued about how, for writers, archival research shapes contemporary disability hybrid memoir writing. In addition, I suggest that imagination accompanies encounters with archival material. Writers imagine the past life of their historical subject(s), and in doing so, imagine beyond ableism. Further, a theme of institutions and how they impact individual lives throughout historical periods emerges.

‘As a writer, it’s my job to go into the underworld, to collect the stories of the dead and bring them back to the living.’ Jessica White, Hearing Maud (11)

In ‘Crippling the Archives: Negotiating Notions of Disability in Appraisal and Arrangement and Description’, archivist Sara White aligns the theory of complex embodiment in disability studies – that is, specific knowledge derived from particular disabilities – with archival practice. White writes that because understandings of disability have ‘evolved’ over the past century, ‘only recently have people with disabilities been recognised as an underrepresented group. As a result, archivists have just embarked upon documenting them’ (110). This mirrors the feminist archival reclamation that occurred during the 1980s and which, as Maryanne Dever, Sally Newman and Ann Vickery write in The Intimate Archive, mostly focused on ‘rescue missions in order to install past women writers in the archival record’ (15). These were often centred on nondisabled women’s records. In recent time, archival research has moved towards examining ‘how individual archives are constructed, manipulated, policed and experienced by those who oversee them and who use them’ (15). In ‘Crippling the Archives’, White refers to Catherine J. Kudlick, a researcher of the archives of blind and low vision people, who feels that ‘the vast majority of people in the modern world think that history is useless and irrelevant. And fewer still give one iota about the blind. So the history of blind people seems like a Venn diagram that pinpoints the epitome of insignificance’ (110). Yet while archival representations of disabled people may still be contested, disability life writing has increased exponentially. G. Thomas Couser charts the rise of disability life writing in the twentieth century in ‘Disability, Life Narrative, and Representation’. He writes that in recent time, ‘disabled people have initiated and controlled their own narratives in unprecedented ways and to an extraordinary degree’ (456) so that he views disabled life writing as ‘a cultural manifestation of a human rights movement’ (457).

In this article, I explore the use of archival research in Australian contemporary disability hybrid memoir to examine where archives and memoir coalesce. Specifically, I focus on where the use of the archives blends with memoir to chronicle the lived experiences of disabled women. The relationship between biography and autobiography is also explored, asking to what extent biography is an act of autobiography and how these genres connect and overlap. Within this questioning, a theme of institutions and how they impact individual lives throughout historical periods emerges. For these purposes, I turn to Jessica White’s Hearing Maud as well as my own work Hysteria: A Memoir of Illness, Strength and Women Throughout History. These works are approached not from an archivist’s perspective but through the lens of a disabled writer.

In Hearing Maud, Jessica White charts her early life to adulthood as a deaf woman,1 blending a discovery of writing as a balm with encounters of ableism and, as a result, isolation. The memoir pivots on a research trip that White takes to the UK: she searches for details of the life of Maud Praed – the daughter of Australian novelist Rosa Praed – who lived as a deaf woman in the nineteenth century. White writes about her own lack of access to sign language in rural Australia, while Maud is denied access by her family who prioritise the ‘oral’ method – a method which ‘taught deaf children to speak’ (White 68). These two narratives intertwine, with White reflecting on communication and how it is affected when community and sign language are taken away from deaf people.

Hysteria also uses history as a lens to examine my own diagnostic experience of non-epileptic seizures: a diagnosis that can be categorised as either neurological or psychiatric. Hysteria sees the history of women associated with the idea of ‘hysteria’ – Edith Jacobson, Mary Glover, Blanche Wittman, Katharina – and how they navigated a patriarchal medical system. The memoir juxtaposes my own story alongside that of historical women and so illustrates how women experiencing mental illness have lived and been treated over time – and how this has ongoing ramifications for women today.

Analyses of both memoirs suggest complex threads of coalescence between archive and writer, drawing me to the question: How might archival research into disabled lives both act as a means of self-reflection for the disabled writer and map the patterns of ableism within historical and contemporary life? I examine this question by exploring archives as a reflection of the self and exploring how imagination constructs past ableism and new encounters with institutions. Self-reflection in both texts emerges from encounters with archival materials where the individual’s story is reflected but also illuminated by what is found. These reflections and illuminations are emotional and experiential points of connection that emerge between writer and subject. As each writer reflects on their own and their subject’s experiences, imagination shapes how the writers’ lives would be different without ableism. In these ways, coalescences emerge from what is discovered and explored in archives and writing about disability through the lens of a writer with a disability. Hence, for both writers, writing and researching disability is personal and political, highlighting historical patterns of ableism in institutions that continue to shape daily living. Both texts are framed as a lifeline rather than a therapeutic act – an identification and connection with a collective or community of people who share similar lived experience. This, in turn, extends the potential reach of disabled community as it allows the readership to also engage and connect.

Archives as a Reflection of the Self

Arlette Farge, in Allure of the Archives, writes about a feeling of connection in the archives: ‘Each time, the person who reads, touches, or discovers them is at first struck by a feeling of certainty … As if the proof of what the past was like finally lay there before you, definitive and close. As if, in unfolding the document, you gained the privilege of “touching the real”’ (11). Janet Malcolm also addresses the biographer's encounter in The Silent Woman, her meditation on biography and the representation of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes: ‘only when he reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers his sense of life retrieved’ (110). Both Farge and Malcolm use metaphors of connection, ‘touching the real’ or a ‘life retrieved’, to describe the experience of encounter in intimate archival documents.

Farge is researching police archives to develop a narrative on the social history of crime in eighteenth-century France; I am exploring the use of archives within Australian hybrid disability memoir/biographies and I have used archives in my own autobiographical work. In particular, the depiction of a sensation of connection throughout history in Hearing Maud between the writer, Jessica White, and her subject, Maud Praed will be explored. This will be approached from my own perspective as a memoir writer, one who is discovering and then writing about the discovery of and ‘encounter’ with archival documents on my own biographical subjects throughout Hysteria. Despite the divergence between the roles of historian and creative writer, my own, White’s and Farge’s approach to archival research is about searching for the realities of the life of our chosen subjects using the sometimes formal (birth records, census records), sometimes intimate (letters, interviews) documents that remain in the archives.

In Jessica White’s Hearing Maud, the central thread of searching for Maud connects to White’s search for historical documentation of the deaf community; there is a tension between the dissatisfaction of limited records and the joy at finding any detail. White writes:

For me, deafness led to writing, which assuaged a persistent loneliness and gave me a sense of purpose. It also led me to Rosa and Maud. Through them, I learned that I had been assimilated into the world of hearing people and that the deaf part of myself had been ghosted, to the point where no one knew that I was deaf until I told them, to the point where I barely even knew it myself. (11)

White is able to learn more about herself through the reflection of Maud she finds in the archives. She charts a connection between herself and Maud: born to parents who were not deaf and knew little about deaf people (68), going to ‘mainstream’ schools where sign language was not used (71) and facing barriers in communicating. Through the archives, White connects with Maud and is able to see herself – specifically the deaf parts of herself – through a new lens. She writes: ‘deafness was also a cure: it led me to writing and it helped me to become good at my craft’ (213).

As White finds with Maud, and as suggested by Dever, Newman and Vickery in The Intimate Archive, connecting to a person’s life through archival research creates intimacy. There is a sense of discovery and when sifting through images, letters, birth and death records, a biographer can feel close to knowing whom they write about. Yet in a key complication for a biographer, due to the very nature of writing a biography, there is a barrier to a writer truly knowing their subject. Jenny Coleman speaks to this in ‘Vested Interests: The Con Artist, the Historian, and the Feminist Biographer’, where she charts her experience researching and writing about ‘convicted criminal fraudster’ Amy Bock whose life has been exaggerated throughout history (18). Coleman states that ‘institutional records, however, only tell part of the story. Knowing dates, names, and places of births and deaths and marriages provides skeletal details of family make-up but cannot tell us what it was like for an individual growing up in that family’ (25). She refers to Leon Edel’s concept of ‘mask of life’ versus ‘life myth’ where there is a tension between what an individual experiences and who they are (Coleman 19). This tension sits beneath a biographer’s work; it is both a loneliness and a connection. In the archives, you cannot understand the person you search for fully. They will always be out of reach. You may know where and when they were born or the names of their brothers but you can only know as much as archival documents convey. Do the documents reveal whether their sense of humour was warm and subtle, or cruel and acidic? There is much the biographer cannot know, but, as White does in Hearing Maud, it is possible to acknowledge the reality of writing biography and instead frame Maud’s life as a lens for the self – as Lamb writes, an ‘autobiography in biography’(2).

Maud allows White to see her own experience of deafness within a history of disabled ancestors. For the disabled writer, it is worth noting that this encounter between subject and self is of higher stakes; our identities tie us together in understanding. And within this relationship, there are ethical considerations of who has the authority to tell another’s story, particularly when a history, like those of disabled people, is marginalised. Here, I draw attention to a slogan of the disability rights movement: ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ (Charlton). To tell a disabled history, to create policy or to speak publicly on being disabled, one needs to centre disabled voices. This is a key aspect to the disability writing movement known as #OwnVoices (Duyvis; Own Voices 15). In centring disabled voices, nuance is key as there is greater stigma and violence enacted on some identities more than others; it is essential that these identities represent themselves. As Duyvis writes, #OwnVoices, ‘centre[s] the voices that matter most’. White, in Hearing Maud, connects her own identity with the experience of Maud. Similarly, in Hysteria, I connect my disability with the women I researched. As both of these works use imagination and creativity as a result of the limits of archival record (this is discussed in detail under the heading ‘Imagining Past the Life of the Subject/Imagining Past Ableism’), it is important that it is only disabled people who write these stories of disability throughout history. Particularly in the writing of hybrid memoir, where biography is a part of the autobiography, it is vital that the memoirist shares a disabled identity with their subject.

The possibility for archival research to bring meaning to a contemporary life experience permeates both Hearing Maud and my own work, Hysteria. Farge writes on the use of archives by historians, saying the goal is ‘for the historian to use the archives as a vantage point from which she can bring to light new forms of knowledge that would otherwise have remained shrouded in obscurity’ (54). White embodies this goal in writing towards an understanding of her own deafness and how deaf women have been historically treated (and as a result, isolated) in Australia and England. Maud is, as Farge might say, White’s ‘vantage point’ to unpack the lived experience of disability. Indeed, White frames her experience of writing Maud’s life and of writing in general throughout the book with the ancient Greek term ‘pharmakon’ – it is both a poison and cure (10).

But, of course, White is not acting as a historian alone. Her primary purpose is as writer, and within that, memoirist: a writer of her own experience of deafness. With Maud as a ‘vantage point’ – a lens to see and understand the self – there is an intertwining of White as biographer and memoir writer. White inhabits both roles within the same text, undermining traditional thought that a biographer can be removed from their subject. This refutation of traditional thought is particularly clear when, as with White and Maud, the identity between biographer and subject aligns. Yet within this alignment, there are both connections and divergences; these complexities are rich territory for an (auto)biographical writer.

Hybrid Memoir and Disability

Life writing is not homogenous; within the scope of ‘life writing’ there is autobiography, biography, memoir and – as discussed in this paper – hybrid memoir. These subgenres are not stagnant but can blend and overlap. For reader clarity here, I use Anneliese MacAdams’s definition of hybrid memoir:

any memoir in which its author purposefully disrupts standard memoiristic convention in the telling of his or her own life, by using significant transgressions in content, style, or structure. As a result, the author will likely push generic boundaries, creating a text that may ultimately be difficult to categorise. (16) 

In the context of Hearing Maud and Hysteria, these hybrid works ‘transgress’ by blending memoir with biography. Similarly, in Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood, Adriana Cavarero addresses philosopher Hannah Arendt’s work, arguing that ‘biography and autobiography are bound together in a single desire’ and that ‘a life-story … is not totally foreign to the protagonist, as Arendt would have us believe’ (33). As Cavarero says, biography and autobiography are bound in one another. I argue that this is especially clear in hybrid works, like White’s, where memoir and biography reflect the same desire: to search for understanding a reflection of one’s experience. For White, this is in the isolation she has felt due to access requirements not being met around her deafness. For me, it is the lack of understanding and care within the medical system for women experiencing mental illness. In each of these narratives, there is a seeking. There is, as Cavarero writes, ‘a single desire’ to share what we view as our/our subject’s life story (33). This desire has a particular potency for disabled writers telling disabled stories; where our archives have been forgotten or suppressed, there is an urgency to discovering our shared history.

On autobiography within biography, writer Karen Lamb argues that through the ongoing relationship of biographer and subject, biography is in itself an autobiographical act. In ‘Will the Real Subject Please Stand Up? Autobiographical Voices in Biography’, Lamb writes that ‘there is little of my life that has not found its echo in Astley’s writing’ (3). Lamb’s idea of an ‘echo’ is, to me, a refraction of the self through the life of the biography’s subject. In Hearing Maud, White records these echoes. She writes about intersections and divergences of her life with Maud’s: ‘This girl, I come to learn over the next decade, is a key to unlocking my understanding of my deafness and of myself’ (67). Later, White says: ‘I sense that there is something more to Maud’s story, that she has been ghosted, or rendered invisible, the way I am when I can’t hear enough of a conversation to join in and I stand on the edge of a group, straining for sound’ (76). Maud is a key, an echo, a ghost. In White’s language here, Maud is obscured but clearly important. Neither a key nor a ghost is quiet. Maud is no longer forgotten to history; archival sources on Maud may be limited but her presence permeates the book, and within this, it changes White’s life experience.

In Rosa Bonheur: Her Life and Work, Maria Tamboukou writes about Cavarero’s idea of the narratable self and discusses the blend of auto/biography. Specifically, Tamboukou draws out what it means to write and listen to others’ stories and reflects on how to position the self within this. She writes:

biographical subjects can become inspiring examples that move beyond their actuality and transcend their historicity. It is … the responsibility of the biographer to write about a life, creating forceful connections between life histories and the discourse of history. (187)

Using Tamboukou’s ideas here, Maud as White’s subject moves beyond actuality and represents the history of how deaf people were taught language in the nineteenth century. Maud was taught the ‘German’ or oral method over the ‘French system’, which teaches sign language: an approach White calls ‘a far easier method’ (68). White charts how the ‘desire to mainstream deaf children had a long and sinister history’ (71), relating this back to the mainstream education of both Maud and herself. ‘[Maud] would have undertaken hours of difficult practice to transfer the shape of a person’s lips to the page, to objects around her, and back to her writing. If I, who had some hearing, found it tiring to lip-read, then Maud must have been utterly exhausted’ (174). This is just one strand where White uses Maud to create a connection between their lived experience and the history of deaf people in the education system.

The idea of history as echoes in contemporary experience carries through in my own work, specifically my book. Hysteria follows four women – Edith Jacobson, Mary Glover, Blanche Wittman, and Katharina, whose lives have intersected with the diagnosis of ‘hysteria’ – and explores how their experiences mirror and diverge from my own of non-epileptic seizures. The similarities with Katharina, a woman Sigmund Freud wrote about in Studies on Hysteria, include even our name. In the book, I write: ‘I’m intrigued to discover someone with a name so close to mine. I was combing Freud’s work for shared symptoms, but my disoriented brain wonders if Katharina was – is – somehow me’ (102). Writing Hysteria, I was looking for an experience in the past that echoed mine. I reasoned that if I could find symptoms that matched my own, I would be able to find a cure. Instead, I found ancestors – women throughout history whose strength and tenacity I am guided by.

Like White, it is through being ill that I also feel a connection to writing. I wrote in Hysteria that ‘despite the book I have created, I remain sick. Yet I don’t think of writing as a failed cure; it has been a lifeline. Like a telephone wire, it runs between me and the outside world’ (191). Much as White does in Hearing Maud, in Hysteria I address the embodied experience of living with disability and how that affects how I communicate and share my lived experience. Living with seizures and dissociation where at times my ability to speak is affected – in addition to how difficult it can be to voice mental illness due to a lack of understanding and stigma – writing became a lifeline to form a community with my disabled ancestors and to communicate my daily existence.

Imagining Past the Life of the Subject/Imagining Past Ableism

At the end of Hearing Maud, White writes an imagining of Maud’s life if she had been born later. White composes a kind of eulogy for what might have been; the words are paired with an image of Maud in her twenties. The reader sees a photograph of her profile in which Maud looks poised and strong, with her hair pulled back and wearing a frilled dress; there is a hint of a smile.

What would Maud have been like had she been born a century later, when the deaf community was so much stronger? Perhaps she would have grown into a winsome woman who liked collecting trinkets, who told a joke and made a person laugh, who could ride a bicycle upon the footpaths without fear. She might have learned sign language, her hands making poems in the air. She might have taught sign to her family and stayed with them, stayed ‘darling Maudie’, as her grandfather Thomas Murray-Prior called her. She might have sold some drawings, enough to buy a ring with a sparkling stone. She might have remained ‘Birdie’, her mother’s pet name for her after the Bird of Paradise. She might have spread her large, lavish wings and flown. (White 223)

The question ‘what might have been?’ threads through this paragraph and White’s book as a whole. White ponders what Maud’s life could have looked like if she had access to sign language, to the deaf community and to thoughtful care instead of being institutionalised for years. Yet this pondering is equally for herself. What might have happened if White had had access to the deaf community and to sign language as well?

It is this questioning that runs through my own archival work. What might the life of Mary Glover have looked like if she was not seen as possessed in 1602, but as ill? How would Blanche Whittman’s life have been altered if she had not been rewarded for embodying Charcot’s framework of hysteria (and punished for defying him)? Perhaps like White, I see the women whose lives I research and question what their lives might have been like if they were not living within a patriarchal medical system where the stigma of living with mental illness borders on unbearable. I, too, do this for myself and my own daily life.

Fiona Wright writes about this sort of imagining of an alternative past in The World Was Whole. She talks about a writer friend with chronic illness who spoke ‘about feeling stalked by the woman she had planned to be, the woman she feels she could have been if she didn’t get ill, who she calls the ghost woman: the ghost woman she compares herself to, who she still thinks she might grow up into, who she cannot quite let go of, even though she knows this woman is nothing more than a phantom’ (213–14). This ghosting of women – their embodied and felt absence – runs throughout these works. The images of ghosts speak to the complexity around feelings of loss and the body; a ghost, while lost, is still present to witness and speak.

White also touches on the idea of ghostliness, using it to frame her experience of disability as ‘liberation’ (212). The image of White as a ghost recurs throughout Hearing Maud (‘the deaf part of myself had been ghosted’ (12); ‘I’m more like a ghost than a human being’ (167)). Yet in the following passage, White subverts this idea as a negative, writing:

Like a ghost, I was deprived of a place to settle, as I belonged neither to the hearing nor the deaf world … Yet is being a ghost so entirely impoverishing? Does not a ghost, in failing to belong, in travelling between worlds, in being forced to question and readjust, have a sensibility that is eerie, richer, more unearthly and extraordinary? Does not trying to reach another world make us more creative, more receptive to things that other people don’t realise are there? (213).

White connects this with her passion for writing: ‘moving between worlds’ is what ‘nudges [her] towards the creation of a story’ (213). The sensibility of ghostliness that White writes about connects with the concept of complex embodiment – through being ‘richer’, ‘more receptive’ and ‘extraordinary’, White is speaking to the knowledge she has gained from her own embodiment as a deaf woman. This is what Tobin Siebers refers to as either the ‘tacit or embodied knowledge associated with particular disabilities’ (289). Further, this language replicates disability pride. White speaks of her how her lens has enabled her to see more. It is the gift, as she says, of travelling between worlds. This language is reminiscent of that of Jenny Morris, who in Pride Against Prejudice: Transforming Attitudes to Disability discusses how stigma can be counteracted with pride, writing: ‘we can celebrate, and take pride in, our physical and intellectual differences, asserting the value of our lives’ (189). White writes that due to ableism she was ‘deprived’ of belonging, yet this ghostliness allowed her to be ‘receptive to things that other people don’t realise are there’. It is this receptiveness that, in turn, led White to Maud and within this, a sense of belonging. This connection between biographer and subject, too, is like a haunting. Ghosts manifest from unfinished business, so this metaphor for White is particularly fitting in her work learning about Maud’s life – a life that was not fulfilled as it might have been due to the ableism of the time. White’s desire to search for details of Maud in archives could also be classified as a type of haunting. Like a ghost, White’s desire is for history to be uncovered.

This thread of disability pride and reflecting on the ‘extraordinary’ that comes from complex embodiment is also within my own work. Particularly, like White, in how this connects to writing. In Hysteria, I write of the experience of dissociation: ‘Perhaps it takes being stripped down to nothing, losing all sense of self, to find the joy in living. Feeling outside of myself may allow me to connect better with who I am; that is, when I feel present’ (30). It is this embodiment (or perhaps ironically, what feels like a lack of embodiment) that allows me to reflect on who I am and what is important to me – within this, the gift of writing as expression within my life. Like White, I see this as the ‘extraordinary’ that comes from lived experience. While there is a sense of ghostliness that runs through both works, fittingly – like an encounter with the supernatural – there also is wonder.

Encountering Institutions in Life Writing

In ‘In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction’, Margaret Atwood addresses her experience of using archival research to write her historical novel, Alias Grace. She writes that ‘history may intend to provide us with grand patterns and overall schemes, but without its brick-by-brick, life-by-life, day-by-day foundations, it would collapse. Whoever tells you that history is not about individuals, only about large trends and movements, is lying’ (1505). History is made from individual lives, and when looking at Hearing Maud and Hysteria, it is clear that lived experience reflects the history of institutions, too.

Hearing Maud not only charts Maud’s experience within the education system, but White’s. In the chapter ‘Be/Longing’, White is being interviewed for a PhD scholarship to study at the London Consortium. She writes that upon sitting, she is glad to be close to the interviewers so she can ‘hear them without straining’ (13); one interviewer has a lower pitched voice so White has to ‘piece together what I’ve heard’ as ‘his sentence unfurls’ (14). The interviewer is an audiology lecturer and says to White at the conclusion of the interview that ‘the problem with people like you is that you make deafness look easy’ (14). White writes in response: ‘this tall, spare man has understood the years of standing by myself against a wall because I don’t know how to start a conversation; the days of picking up one book after another to alleviate my loneliness; the hours of speech therapy and coaching in small talk’ (14).

By depicting this one interaction, White illustrates her experience of complex embodiment. She exists as both the person in the room, trying to hear and respond to her interviewers as well as the person who has encountered isolation and worked intensely during speech therapy. Through embodying both the past and present in this interaction, White shows the past and ongoing access issues she has faced within the education system.

White also connects Maud’s experience of education with her own. At six, Maud began her education at a school in Ealing, London, where the ‘German’ method – a method that taught deaf children to speak – was used (67). White writes of the later Milan Conference in 1880 where twelve speakers, including the head of Maud’s school, extolled the virtues of the oral method. Because of this, White writes that:

For the next century deaf people were forced to communicate in a difficult language, for which they were often mocked because they could not hear themselves well enough to speak. Teachers who taught sign language lost their jobs, and the solidarity and culture that deaf communities provided was eroded, particularly as these communities were formed in schools. (89)

Maud had no hearing and so to undergo the ‘German’ method and learn as she did would have required ‘huge levels of concentration’ (138). For White, ‘listening, lip-reading and the anxiety of responding correctly leave me permanently exhausted. I have no doubt that it was hard for Maud, too’(75).

White also writes of Maud’s experience within a psychiatric hospital where she spent thirty-nine years of her life until her death in 1941 (163). Admitted after the trauma of her father’s death and experiencing paranoia, Maud wrote in her letters to her family about how she wished to leave. White thinks of her living there, writing that Maud ‘would have felt lonely and abandoned in the sanatorium because it would have been difficult for her to communicate and work out what was happening to her’ (137–38).

It is the ableism within these two institutions – education and psychiatric healthcare – where Maud is rendered the most powerless and unhappy. It is clear to White that being with her mother and family brings Maud joy; White writes that, as a child, Maud ‘corresponded frequently’ (84) and that ‘For Maud, family was everything’ (130). Yet both her education and hospitalisation draw her away from her family. Within these places, Maud is not treated particularly well, nor is she happy. At one time, Maud tries to advocate for her release from the psychiatric hospital. She writes to her doctor: ‘I have written to Mr Holden of Lackford Manor, asking him who should take me away from this Sanitorium [sic] as my Mother told me that she has had nothing to do with me except the doctors, and my eldest brother’ (144). White observes that the ‘lines brim with resentment’ (144).

While the shape of their lives is vastly different, White sees the connection of Maud’s experiences with her own: ‘Born one hundred and four years after Maud, I’ve learned that the attitudes to deafness that corralled her life still enclose mine’ (133–34). Throughout Hearing Maud, White identifies the ways in which her life (and thus attitudes to deafness) have differed from Maud’s. Yet, still, there are shared experiences between them – reflections of how the hearing world has dehumanised them. This is a key example of the importance of the hybrid memoir in contrast to a ‘traditional’ biography as this form can illustrate the ongoing patterns of systemic barriers like ableism throughout lifetimes. White continues: ‘But there is a crucial difference: she helped me to recognise them, and to escape.’ (133–34). White has Maud as a sense of community to anchor her. Her connection to Maud and their shared experiences is a gift Maud did not have. Maud did not know her own community; she could not seek out a history of deaf women as White has – and as White posits, Maud’s life was worse for it.

As in Hearing Maud, Hysteria centres the individual lived experience of institutions to convey the ongoing effects of the patriarchal structures of medical care. Hysteria depicts the healthcare system, drawing on the past through the lives of Edith, Mary, Blanche and Katharina as well as contemporary Australian healthcare. In writing the book, it was important to me to show how the history of hysteria – and women’s mental illness treatment within a patriarchal medical system as a whole – connects to the lived experience of women seeking treatment today. I found autobiography within biography through connecting my own lived experience with my subjects’ and by doing this, a thread of disability activism throughout history was formed. For myself, like White, it was this connection with my ancestors’ history that made my life not only richer, but my illness bearable.

In the final pages of Hysteria, I write: ‘Hysteria has not only connected me with my family but the other women who experienced seizures – labelled hysterical or otherwise. I found them all by accident, stumbled across through obsessive reading, but with each of them I felt an unexplained connection’ (191). This connection is distanced by time; we will never connect in person. I can look back to them, but they will never know me. Yet, as White writes, these women allowed me ‘to escape’ (134). Through them, I did not escape the ableism within the medical system but my own internalised ableism. I escaped the feeling that to live within my body is to be less. I was able to understand that my life with illness is valuable and precious. In the final pages of Hysteria, I write: ‘Sometimes I am hit with the ache of a life lost … Yet now I see this as a good thing. Perhaps I’ve stumbled into something better’ (193–94). Through the story of these women’s lives, I could understand that how you are seen by the people treating you does not make who you are; they allowed me to escape the pain of limited understanding within the medical system.

For both White and myself, it is escape that Maud, Edith, Mary, Blanche and Katharina allow. The institutions within their lives – both in education and medical systems – are inescapable. But the narratives of disability as tragedy and blame that they experienced are. This is the immense gift of escape that these women throughout history have granted; a gift that does not just reward the memoirist but reverberates throughout the disabled community. The value of representing disabled lives is an endeavour that is felt widely.


Hearing Maud constructs a narrative not only from White’s lived experience, but also through the use of archival records of nineteenth-century woman Maud Praed, to depict a lasting narrative of deaf women’s lived experience, particularly within educational institutions. For White, through Maud’s life, she sees herself. The two women are placed side by side and by this, the reader can see the strength and ancestry of disabled women.

G. Thomas Couser writes that it is through autobiography that ‘disabled people counter their historical subjection by occupying the subject position’ (458). He goes on to write that what these narratives are countering is the ‘too often moralizing, objectifying, pathologizing, and marginalizing representations of disability in contemporary culture’ (459). With this in mind, Couser argues that contemporary disability autobiography is not ‘spontaneous self-expression’ but a ‘retort to the traditional misrepresentation of disability in Western culture’ (457). I view Couser’s concept of retort much like White’s ‘escape’; both writers arguing that through narrativising disabled lived experience, we are both better able to understand ourselves and the ableist constructs we live within, and then communicate this to the nondisabled world.

I see these ideas of ‘retort’ and ‘escape’ permeating Hysteria. I found that the lives of Edith, Mary, Katharina and Blanche allowed me to confront the painful personal cost of ableism, particularly in the context of mental illness. Like White, seeing the patterns of ableism in a biographical subject’s life allowed me to recognise it in my own.

In Hysteria, I write of Katharina – a woman whose story was written by Freud and included in Studies on Hysteria. I write of Katharina that ‘while our names tie us in one way, I know we are deeply different. I live with a power that Katharina did not have and she continues to lack agency in the way her illness has been told’ (127). It is through Katharina’s lived experience that I realise she ‘is not just a reflection of me – a woman who shares my name and illness – but an image of my great fear’ (128). That is, being represented as solely an illness and not a person. This fear underpins Hysteria. And as Couser suggests, the power of memoir as retort allows me to write my own story as a disabled woman. I cannot escape ableism in daily life, but I am able to construct my own narrative of a body on the page.


  1. White uses ‘deaf’ as opposed to ‘Deaf’ throughout Hearing Maud and this is replicated here. She notes that ‘rather than identifying as Deaf (at least as this point in time), I consider myself as having a disability’ (183).

Published 23 May 2022 in Special Issue: Writing Disability in Australia. Subjects: Disabled writers, d/Deafness, Epilepsy/seizures, Jessica White.

Cite as: Bryant, Katerina. ‘Historical Figures, Archives and Australian Disability Life Writing: Reading Jessica White’s Hearing Maud and Writing Hysteria.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.867e51f1b7.