Book Review by Dee Michell
For days I have been haunted by Jae-Dee Collier’s story, Jae-Dee Survives the Home of Many Mothers.
Partly the haunting comes from memories when I lived close to the Goodwood Orphanage in Millswood, an inner southern suburb of Adelaide, South Australia; Jae-Dee spent most of her first twelve years in Goodwood Orphanage
During the seven years I lived in Millswood with my family, we would take our dogs and young children for walks in the grounds of the former orphanage. By then the property was owned by the South Australian Education Department, although it is onto another incarnation now as Tabor College. Tabor College is a tertiary institution “infused by a Christian ethos”, as Goodwood Orphanage was. Goodwood Orphanage began its life as a St Vincent de Paul establishment in 1866. Between 1872 and 1889 it was run by the Sisters of St Joseph, and then by the Sisters of Mercy (or, as some say, the Merciless Sisters) from 1889 to 1975. At first, we were oblivious to Goodwood’s dark history, but over the years we met and chatted with women who had grown up there. And I met a woman who felt ill whenever she went past any building which resembled Goodwood.
Since we left Millswood, there have been more stories about the abuse of girls in Goodwood Orphanage. From 2004 to 2008, Ted Mullighan QC led an inquiry into the sexual abuse of children in South Australian state care and 15 women came forward and said they had been sexually abused while in Goodwood. “The alleged perpetrators included staff, other girls, outside carers, visitors to the orphanage and family members” (p. 75). The 2004-2008 Senate Report into the experiences of Australian born children and young people in institutions and foster care during the 20th century includes 9 submissions from former residents of Goodwood. In 2008, Flinders University social work academic, Carol Irizarry, published the results of working with a group of former British child migrant women at the Loss and Grief Centre in Adelaide. Women began meeting in 2001 to talk about their experiences at Goodwood—including harsh discipline and humiliation—and the losses they sustained through forced migration, for example, the loss of extended family in England and the loss of their British citizenship. Another Flinders University academic, Robert Moles, includes stories of abuse at Goodwood on his Networked Knowledge site, such as that by Mary whose memories of Goodwood are of “cruelty, misery, tears and sadistic nuns…”
This is the larger context for Jae-Dee Collier’s 2018 book, which she calls “A Fictional Story Inspired by a Memoir”. The book forms part of Collier’s Master of Professional Practice (Creative Writing); she already had a Master of Public Health and has a continuing concern about the “ongoing public health effects on the victims of child abuse and children who grew up in ‘Care’”.
Collier has written her story from the perspective of a small child aged 3 when she first goes into the orphanage during the 1950s and age 8 when she returns after a couple of years back home with her parents. She writes compellingly about the 3-year-old who must negotiate a foreign, adult-sized toilet by herself for the first time, the child who almost constantly wets her bed (nocturnal enuresis this is called) and is chastised, punished and humiliated for this, despite bedwetting being a common childhood problem. (According to the 2008 Senate Report mentioned above, there was an “overwhelming number of submissions” which featured the harsh punishments children received for wetting the bed, and which often exacerbated the problem).
Unfortunately, there are frenzied “thrashings”, especially from “Sster Grace”, for reasons other than bed wetting too. This is the same “Sster Grace” who transforms herself into a “lovely kind person to be fervently admired and respected” on visiting day.
There were pleasurable moments in the orphanage too. Jae-Dee’s friend, Nina, pops up to help her out occasionally. There are rare visits during inclement weather to the “big playroom on the third storey”. In this room—which has an abundance of toys, puzzles, games, dolls, etc.—Jae Dee feels trouble-free and happy. And there is the holiday with Mr. and Mrs. Walsh which is “an exciting adventure” with people who are kind, even when Jae-Dee has done the wrong thing.
The adult perspective insertions along the way help us find out about the circumstances which precipitated Jae-Dee being taken to the orphanage—her mother’s ill health—and needing to stay there from the age of 8—her mother’s death in a house fire. Jae-Dee is in the 3rd generation of her family to be in “out-of-home” care – her mother (and siblings) were in an orphanage and her grandmother was in foster care—and as an adult, she becomes aware that her mother was “a classic victim of our systems. The medical system, the welfare system, the mental health system, the housing system.”
The images of Jae-Dee being brutally punished for wetting her bed, eating sour sobs and almond tree sap to allay hunger, and her yearning to go home to her parents stayed with me for days. As did the tiny pictures of a witch throughout. Jae-Dee concludes her book by saying that her “witch hunt for the nuns is complete”, she now understands through her research that they were “unskilled, unprepared, overwhelmed, burdened with grieving, traumatised children.” The witch metaphor reminded me that I’d used it years ago, too, to get the carping, critical voice of my foster mother out of my head.
Jae-Dee Survives the Home of Many Mothers, adds to the collection of stories we have about the Goodwood Orphanage. But it does more than that too, it hints at what can help others in their therapeutic journey – to tell the story, to do some re-parenting, to understand oneself in a wider socio-historical context, and to grieve one’s losses.
As Jae-Dee Collier says in her Prologue, “Many of those [who] survived to become adults have a lot to offer in teaching society how to support disempowered children”. It is worth reading her book for this very purpose and I commend Jae-Dee Survives the Home of Many Mothers to those working with children and those working with adults who carry a much-wounded child within them.
Jae-Dee Survives the Home of Many Mothers by Jae-Dee Collier is published by Balboa Press, a Division of Hay House.
Dr Dee Michell is an academic at The University of Adelaide. She was made a Ward of the South Australian State in 1960 and remained in foster care for 15 years. She worked as an administrator for a multi-national corporation before going to university in her 40s, when she combined study with primary care for her three children. From 2013 to 2016, Dee worked on a 3-year Australian Research Council funded project on the history of foster care in Australia (with Nell Musgrove, Australian Catholic University).
Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell