Amanda Curtin

Date of Award


Document Type

Thesis - ECU Access Only


Edith Cowan University

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Education and Arts


This thesis comprises a novel entitled 'Ellipsis' and an exegesis entitled 'Ellipsis: Ambiguous genre, ambiguous gender'. The novel blends archival records and fiction into two woven narratives, one contemporary, one historical. In the contemporary narrative, set in 2004-2005, Willa Samson, flayed by guilt and grieving the loss of her daughter, is a hermit, unable to work, communicating with the world mainly through the Internet. But her desire to research a fragment of local history that has haunted her for years gently forces her back into the world. Willa is convinced that in the story of a nineteenth-century murder she can see an unlikely parallel with her daughter: that, like Imogen, the victim was intersexed. The historical narrative is a speculative telling of the life of the murder victim, known as Little Jock.

Imogen's story, which unfolds through Willa's memories, dramatises the devastating though well-intentioned protocol established by twentieth-century medicine for dealing with intersex births: 'normalising' surgery to fashion the newborn into the sex deemed to be appropriate, followed by hormone treatment, rigid social conditioning and an aura of secrecy to silence any confusion or hint of difference. Imogen grows up suspecting that she is different, but no one will tell her the truth.

Little Jock must also keep bodily truth hidden, for in the nineteenth century intersexuals-then termed 'hermaphrodites'-were often exploited as freaks. After leaving Northern Ireland during the Potato Famine, the child who becomes Little Jock finds, in the tenement slums of Glasgow, a place to disappear. A series of petty crimes results in his transportation to Western Australia-one of the nearly ten thousand convicts plucked from English prisons and sent to the Swan River Colony. The authorities believed all of them were male.

Willa's research leads her to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and finally to Western Australia's South West, helped along the way by genealogists-people who cherish the bonds of family and history. And in the search for Little Jock, she draws closer to understanding what has happened to Imogen.

The exegesis, after outlining the provenance of the novel's research, is structured as two essays linked by the themes of ambiguity and classification. The first, on ambiguous genre, sets out to investigate the framing (that is, in the form of an explanatory note) of hybrid sub genres of fiction, novels that draw directly or indirectly on people, events and issues that are part of the historical record. In considering what authors should say about 'what is real and what is not,' the essay canvasses ethics and reader expectations, the right to speak and the freedom to create, and the ways books are marketed, classified and read. The second essay, on ambiguous gender, draws on historical aspects of the classification of intersexed people, along with gender theory, to consider 'Ellipsis' in terms of the social forces acting on the ambiguous bodies of Little Jock in the nineteenth century and Imogen in the twentieth century, and how these characters survive in bodies that pose a challenge to deeply held cultural norms.

LCSH Subject Headings

Intersex people -- Crimes against -- Western Australia.

Intersexuality -- Fiction.

Gender identity -- Fiction.

Access Note

Access to this thesis is restricted to the exegesis.