The Secret Cure, Sue Woolfe

| 15 January , 2010 | Reply

Paula Grunseit

The bulk of The Secret Cure is presented as the diarised memoir of our mute narrator, Owen. Despite his late mother\’s instructions not to do so, he leaves the safety and comfort of his apartment to venture outside to study ‘this tiny and pitiable world\’. His mother has told him ‘to expect nothing\’ from the world, ‘especially love\’. Because he has always been ‘different\’, Owen has suffered greatly and although his life experience may seem limited, he is deeply insightful and sensitive to the suffering and feelings of others.

He takes up a job as a ‘grey man\’, carrying out repairs and maintenance at the district hospital and it is here he meets and falls in love with the talented Eva. Eva, employed as a cleaning lady in Professor Mueller\’s science lab is actually an aspiring scientist and will embark on a mission to find a cure for her autistic daughter Tina. The latter part of the book takes the form of a letter written by Eva to her daughter.

The historical backdrop to The Secret Cure refers to the Nazi regime\’s extermination program which targeted seventy thousand ‘incurables\’ – children, old people, sick people and amongst them, children like Owen and Tina. In 1994 Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger published a paper identifying symptoms of autism in a group of boys in his care, his aim being to save them from being murdered but in a tragic twist of misunderstanding which had him associated with Nazism, this groundbreaking paper which envisaged a future for these children was not translated into English until 50 years after it had been written.


During the seven years it took her to write The Secret Cure, Woolfe became ‘stranded\’ and obsessed with the cleaning lady Eva who would not let her go. She had written tens of thousands of words over a twelve month period about Eva and did not know how to move forward. This inspired her to write her fascinating next work

The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady: A Writer Looks at Creativity and Neuroscience.

In desperation Woolfe turned to Neuroscience, hoping that if she could understand the workings of creative minds from a scientific perspective and could mimic techniques posited by researchers, she could rescue herself.

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system at the forefront of exploration into the brain and mind. Woolfe\’s essay explores her own psyche in a very personal investigation into the process of writing via the inter-connecting strands of neuroscience, creativity and the imagination.

Eventually employing the technique of ‘loose construing\’, a form of ‘letting go\’, she found a solution. Describing this method as a discipline she says: “It requires you to admit that you don\’t know. It requires you to cease the chatter in your mind, a bit like the way people do when they meditate. In that state, you lose your sense of self.” The opposite of this is ‘tight construing\’— where the voice of our inner critic is loud and we self-edit, plan and analyse.

Woolfe\’s scientific research also identified the fact that creative people tolerate much higher levels of anxiety than non-creative people. “Writers live with as much anxiety as farmers waiting for rain”, she said. She believes this anxiety is a crucial driver for the creative process.

Now a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Sydney, Woolfe always felt that she was not ‘a proper author\’. She explains:

“The reason I wasn\’t writing a novel at 20 was that I was waiting to be the grand hero with the great plan for the novel and it just never happened so I wrote my first novel in all sorts of bits and pieces and I didn\’t feel so ashamed because I was hiding on a Greek mountainside and nobody would know that I was doing it in such a mess.”

This inspired her to get together with Kate Grenville, who was having similar dilemmas about her own work, to write Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels were Written (1993). The book shows that all authors have their own, individual method of structuring and writing a novel and there is no ‘right\’ or ‘wrong\’ way.

Of her teaching methods, Woolfe says:

“I teach students writerly skills, which are not just the practising of those old chestnuts such as character development, but also the basic skills of creativity, such as learning to trust and follow one\’s own intuitions, learning to seek and tolerate ambiguity, learning to be provisional, playful and experimental, and losing self-consciousness.

I do not encourage students to read out their work in the workshops largely because this can inhibit that most essential of skills, the loss of self-consciousness. Anecdotal reports corroborate this: certainly, no published writer would read raw work aloud.”

Woolfe made various stops along the path to publishing her first novel. She worked in journalism, advertising, film subtitling, wrote textbooks, and then produced and directed around 40 documentaries.

What about the moment when she realised she had to be a writer?  “I knew that the only place for me was in my own silence, the only sound my red typewriter purring, waiting on the movements of my mind. So I stopped procrastinating and started writing.”

Sue Woolfe\’s other novels are The Painted Woman (1989, also made into a stage play) and Leaning Towards Infinity (1996). She gained her DCA in 2006 from UTS for her novel The Secret Cure and her accompanying dissertation The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady: A Writer Looks at Creativity and Neuroscience.

Quotes from Woolfe are taken from her discussion at the 2007 launch at Sydney\’s Gleebooks of The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady: A Writer Looks at Creativity and Neuroscience which I attended.

Available now:  UWAP RRP$26.95

Paula Grunseit is a freelance journalist, editor, book reviewer and librarian.

Her blog is at and you can follow her on Twitter.

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