Burnished: Burnside Life Stories, compiled by Kate Shayler

Book Review by Dee Michell

Kate Shayler is one of my Real Life Super Heroes. Her mother died when she was 4 and Kate went to live at the Burnside Presbyterian Homes for Children, located in North Parramatta, New South Wales. Burnside started life in 1911 as the Burnside Presbyterian Orphan Homes, and was founded by Sir James Burns (1846-1923) who migrated to Australia from Scotland in 1862. He initially made money as a storekeeper supplying Queensland goldfields but branched out into trading in the Pacific Islands and into a diverse portfolio which included insurance and shipping.

Burnside was a pioneer of cottage homes in Australia, taking the lead from the development of these in the UK. Cottages homes were an alternative to the large congregate style of accommodation for orphaned children and those from impoverished families. Rather than all children being housed in the one building, children were separated into smaller groups and cared for by adults, often called a ‘house mother’ or ‘house parents’ when a married couple was employed.

At Burnside there were 14 cottages, all quite large and housing up to 50 children, according to Kate Shayler. Plus, there was a farm which supplied the cottages with food and milk, a hospital, swimming pool, and gym. Kate writes: “During the period Burnside existed as a residential care facility, approximately eleven thousand children passed through its doors, with up to five hundred living there at any one time” (p. v).

The school at Burnside—Burnside Public School—was built in 1922 to “overcome the problems of transporting the Burnside homes children to North Parramatta School”and until 1962, provided education up to the “intermediate level”, or about Years 9 and 10 now.

Not all students at Burnside Public School was Burnie kids. Richie Benaud (1930-2015), a highly esteemed Australian cricketer and cricket commentator, was there too, as his father, Lou, was a teacher at Burnside.

After 12 years of living at Burnside, Kate Shayler left, moved home with her father and took up paid work as an administrator. She later went to university and became a teacher, work she thoroughly enjoyed for 20 years. In 1996 Kate retired after she met her partner, Dave, who had also grown up in an institution, and 3 years later she published The Long Way Home. The Story of a Home Kid (Random House Australia).

Kate received an unexpected response to The Long Way Home, including from former Burnside children who were not there because a parent had died—as she had assumed—and who had a much more difficult time than Kate. In turn, Kate decided to publish a book of stories from “ex-Burnie kids” and advertised for participants.

A few agreed to but when it came to reliving the pain, they withdrew their offers. A few said their spouses were going to write their stories as best sellers one day. Many have no contact at all with Burnside now and would not have seen my requests”, Kate writes in the introduction to Burnished: Burnside Life Stories.

For Burnished, Kate Shayler has gathered together the life stories of 25 people who at one-time lived in Burnside during the 20thcentury. Most stories (17) are from men and they are placed in the book in chronological order, beginning with George who was born circa 1917 and ending with Dee, born in 1961.

George went into Burnside because his mother—effectively a single mother since his father was an alcoholic—could not continue to look after her 7 children. Mum and the eldest daughter took the 2 youngest children to the onsite hospital to be “checked over before we could be accepted” and disappeared. After he left Burnside, George went on to do a range of work, including serving in the Air Force during WWII and working on Sydney trams and driving buses. He raised a family with his wife of 60 years and was actively involved in his local RSL (Returned & Services League). George was, as Kate Shayler says, a success.

The remaining stories follow a similar format (except for Roy’s (b. 1942) who writes little about life during and after Burnside except to say that after 9 years of living in Burnside with 30 odd boys, he prefers the company of women). We learn why children ended up in Burnside – most often placed their voluntarily (rather than through state intervention) because of poverty, but also because of the desertion of fathers, no single parent pension, abandonment of children, being shipped to Australia from Scotland, ill health of parent/s, death of parent/s). We also find out something about their post-Burnside lives—paid work, relationships with friends and family, and their reflections on their time in Burnside. Some of the ex-Burnie kids thought there were benefits to living there; it made George self-reliant for example. Others, such as Michelle, were left with high levels of conformity and compliance they were still struggling against decades later.

There were 3 themes I found striking across the 25 stories.

First, even though siblings went together into Burnside, they were often separated and did not know each other. Analise (b. 1946) writes:

Frank and I were put into different homes. He went to Reid Home, away up the road from Ivanhoe, where I was, so I could never be with him. I couldn’t bear that sometimes. I’d look into the distance and see a little dot that could have been him. Remembering that still upsets me. I just had to watch him from a distance for eight years. I hardly saw him at school, either, because he was in the Infants school and I was in Primary and those departments weren’t allowed to play together at recess. (p. 183).

Children being beaten is the second theme, girls and boys.

Peter (b. 1938 in Estonia) says:

You learnt fast. The alternative to ‘whack’ was being sent to get the ‘sock’. The ‘sock’ was a razor strap applied to the bum or the backs of the knees with enthusiastic strokes. How many strokes? It depended on your crime. Alternatively [house parent] Ma might tell you, ‘Go and stand in the hall,’ or ‘Get the polishing cloths and polish the hall,’ or some other senseless task.” (p. 117).

And Stan (b. 1938):

“This man was cruel and in his ‘care’, there would be boys lined up for the strap every evening at bedtime. He would make you bend over the bed with your pants down and flog you several times on the bare backside. It was so bad I had bruises and broken skin for up to two weeks. I would show my mother when she visited but she was terrified to say anything for fear of repercussions.” (p. 135).

Food is the 3rdtheme. Children were forced to eat whatever was on their plate, even if the food made them sick. Michelle writes:

Eat everything on your plate or you will get it again for the next meal. If you vomit up your Brussels sprouts you will still be made to eat them and the vomit, too. Still to this day I cannot eat broad beans or Brussels sprouts. I got to the stage where I would sneak them onto someone else’s plate and let them get into trouble for not eating their veggies.” (p. 244).

Children were also resourceful in filling up empty bellies with whatever they could find outside, reminding me of Jae-Dee in Goodwood Orphanage in South Australia.

Helen (b. 1942) tells of eating ‘plum puddings’:

They were the tiny bulbs of a particular weed for which we searched diligently. We sucked them and ate them and some were really sweet.” (p. 156).

And Stan (b. 1938) writes:

When we were hungry we used to eat a lot of strange things that nature provided: sour grass, plum puddings, which were small pods growing in the lawns, lilly pillies, nasturtium leaves and the gum from the wattle trees. The Moreton Bay fig sap provided us with excellent bubble gum.” (p. 130).

Even George, for whom Burnside was largely a positive experience, says that the food (or absence of it) had an ongoing impact as “the only bad effect Burnside had is that I still knock food off whenever I can.” (p. 13).

Burnished: Burnside Life Stories is an important addition to the stories about Burnside we have in the 2004 Federal Government report on Australians who were in institutional care during the 20thcentury, and the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants Oral History Project. Because these are life stories, we can appreciate that, despite the stigma and low expectations of ‘home kids’, and despite their negative institutional experiences, the ex-Burnie kids are, as Kate Shayler says, “all successes”. They have made invaluable contributions to the Australian community through their paid work—as technicians, trades people, running businesses, teaching, and administrators—and through their unpaid work of caring for families and volunteering in their communities.

Burnished: Burnside Life Stories is recommended reading for anyone interested in the history of child welfare in Australia and in making cross-country comparisons. It is also a significant challenge to those who think kids who have been out of home care do not amount to much.

Burnished: Burnside Life Storiesis compiled by Kate Shaylerand published in Australia by MoshPit Publishing.

Thanks to Kate Shayler for a review copy of Burnished: Burnside Life Stories.

 

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 with Nell Musgrove (Australia Catholic University) on a 3-year Australian Research Council funded project on the history of foster care in Australia. Their book, The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia. Just Like a Family?, was published in 2018.

Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell

 

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Stories Shared with Amanda Knowles MBE

Screenshot 2019-09-22 at 08.42.29

When Janet Rich, founder of The Care Leavers Foundation, approached me about running a writing event for care leavers during National Care Leavers Week 2017, I jumped at the opportunity.  My business partner and I were long-time supporters of The Care Leavers Foundation and the year previously, at Janet’s request, I had organised the National Care Leavers Week Conference.

I had, by this time, already met Rosie Canning, co-organiser of Your Life Your Story 2017 and 2018.  Rosie was raising funds to finance her research into the representation of orphans and care experience in literature.  I made a small donation to her cause and suggested she apply to The Care Leavers Foundation for a grant as I had wrongly assumed her to be a young person, not a woman near to my own age who had lived a life beyond the care system.  Our separate journeys had brought us to this meeting place in 2015 and as soon as we began talking, I knew we were on the same page.

In 2016, Rosie spoke about her research into the impact of living in care on the construction of identity and the representation of this in fiction, at a conference jointly organised by The Consortium for Therapeutic Communities and Glyndwr University.  A reading from her autobiographical novel ‘Hiraeth’, finding a fictional home, left barely a dry eye in the room and later that year Rosie presented a keynote speech at the National Care Leavers Week conference ‘Handle with Care’ hosted by London law firm Farrer & Co.

The conference name was used with permission from investigative journalist Harriet Sergeant, who had conducted an inquiry into the care system ten years earlier, it was taken from her report title, ‘Handle with Care’.  I was at the commissioning conference in 2006 when Harriet presented her findings to a room full of professionals, many in fractious denial of what I knew to be true as this was my thirtieth year as a caregiver and I had witnessed first-hand the failures so well documented in her report.

Ten years later I could think of no better title than, Handle with Care for the National Care Leavers Week Conference and when it came to ‘naming’ a writing event for care leavers the following year it could only be ’Your Life, Your Story’.

Children I cared for over the years lived on in my memory and I often wondered what had become of them.  I knew from my own experience that too many had been failed and that efforts to expose negligence had all too often fallen on deaf ears and too many wrongdoers had escaped justice.  At the same time, however, I also knew of the unrecognised efforts of caregivers to protect and defend the rights of children in their care.  Not least those who followed girls taken by men in cars from children’s homes, whose calls for assistance were refused by the police and even of one such occasion when the girls were sending text messages begging them to stop following because there was a gun on the back seat of the car, police called this a lifestyle choice.  It wasn’t until nine men from Rochdale and Oldham were jailed for sexually exploiting girls as young as thirteen in May 2012 and reports surfaced later that year indicating that Jimmy Saville had sexually abused victims throughout his career that attitudes began to change.

I had found the year before the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales was announced in 2014 unforeseeably challenging. It was my 10thanniversary of working in the private sector, in many ways the best and the worst years of my career.  I was professionally compromised, contractually trapped in a position where I no longer remained by choice and in need of some respite.  It was for this reason that my husband and I were in the Lake District enjoying a weekend away with my brother and sister in law in a lovely period hotel.  We had arrived early to take full advantage of our bargain ‘Groupon Deal’ and had spent the afternoon exploring the ruins of a nearby abbey and admiring the celebrations of a wedding party.  In the evening we tucked into a splendid three course meal in the impressive dining room of this grand house that boasted King George V and other members of the royal family among its guests in a past life.

The next morning at breakfast my husband, who has always had a better long-term memory than me whispered, “I think I know that man over there, I think it’s David…”, as I turned to look it was evident that our attention had been noticed, an explanation was necessary… Thirty years before this by ‘pure chance’ meeting, my husband had been working in a teenage boy’s hostel and David had been moved there from a children’s home after reporting the woman in charge for cruelty and abuse – he was barely thirteen.  David had prepared a dossier of evidence in support of his allegations, but it was not enough to secure justice!  And, if this was not enough, he experienced even more wrongdoing at the hands of the alcoholic hostel manager who took a bottle of whiskey to work in his overnight bag and sent the boys to the off-licence to replenish it when it ran out.  David could not have known at the time that my husband had reported this and other serious offences to senior managers or that he too had been penalised for speaking out.  By welcoming us back into his life he had awarded the greatest accolade a caregiver could hope for… the opportunity to share the story.

By the time I was organising Your Life Your Story in 2017, I couldn’t think of anyone better than Rosie to ask for guidance or anyone more obvious than David to turn to for support. Rosie planned the events and enlisted the support of Lisa Cherry who ran a trauma informed writing workshop and Paolo Hewitt who gave advice on becoming published and which added a little bit of ‘celebrity’ to the event whilst David’s presence, like a ‘kite mark’ signalled trust and safety. He was the only person at the event who had known me as a caregiver in the 1970’s and 80’s and able to validate my authenticity.

During the four decades that I have been a care giver I have witnessed the impact of neglect and abuse on children and its long-term effects.  A few of the children I looked after have remained in my life and over the years we had been able to revisit shared memories, bridge gaps and explore responsibility.  It was with this legacy that I accepted the responsibility of organising the first Your Life Your Story and when I look back I realise the idea had activated the truth seeker in me, but it would not have happened in the way that it did without this series of events.

Your Life Your Story had provided an opportunity for stories to be validated and shared, for knowledge to be passed down and supportive relationships to flourish.  By the end of the first event it was obvious Your Life Your Story must live on.

The third Your Life Your Story takes place Friday 25th-Monday 28th October 2019 – more details YLYS-PROGRAM-2019. If you are care experienced and would like to attend this event contact Amanda Knowles – all costs are covered by the generous support from David L. Jackson‘s book, Saira-Jayne‘s #orphanstones; Future Horizons, Amberleigh Care and crowdfunding.

 

 

 

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My Fantasy Father

Imagine if some higher power decided that on a specific day at a specific time, doors -and we’re talking the ten foot reinforced steel type – that had for all your life held secret information were suddenly and without warning opened for a short while and you were given knowledge that made you break down.

This is what happened to me some weeks ago. And I can remember the day, the evening because I had already been given overwhelming news that day. I was going to be working at Oxford University. Surely a day couldn’t get any more strange or exciting than that?

In her PhD thesis, Backstory:Writing and Not-writing on the Cusp of Life and Fiction (2012), Josie Pearse talks of discovering a different life history:

…when I became aware of the circumstances of my birth, a kind of cognitive dissonance occurred for me. I had thought I was one person with one history and now I was another with another history. I was no longer the granddaughter of a wheelwright grandfather.’[1]

I had never met my father and had long ago given up hope of ever finding him. Psychically, I sensed he was dead and that he had died of a heart attack.

I had sent off a DNA sample some weeks previous and had almost forgotten about it. Not only were the results live but there was an email from someone saying that the DNA sample indicated we were half-sisters!

I was given details of the half-sisters’ mother and father. I did not recognise the names. I knew it couldn’t be a link through my mother. Though for a few moments I wondered; had she had another baby that had been given up for adoption? I checked the dates; half-sister was born in Wales in 1969. I knew where my mother was in 1969 and she was alive and living in Willesden, looking after my three-year-old sister and ten-year-old brother as best as she was able. So, I surmised that it was a paternal link. From my new sister’s family tree, it looked as though strike up the band, Johnny Long, the man I had thought was my father, was in fact not.

My real father it seemed was more of a ‘do Ron, Ron’. Ronald Richard, with a surname that was both unusual and relatively rare; a medieval name. He was twice married, had three children from his first and two from his second – it was the eldest girl, M from the second marriage who had contacted me. He died in 2008.

Pearse (2012) refers to Lavone H Stiffler who wrote Synchronicity and Reunion[2](1992), about the phenomena that can occur when in the state of searching for one’s family even if in my case that involved writing a fictional history. Pearse goes on to say: ‘Instances of coincidence in the search for birth families by adoptees and their parents are well documented.’[3]

At five years old when I was staying (temporarily) with my mother. She showed me a photograph of a soldier. I remember it to this day. I’ve written about it many times. A rifle slung over his shoulder and holding a dead rabbit by its ears in the other hand.

It is possible that when I was younger, I had a photographic memory – I could never watch a film or read a book more than once as I knew it by heart. Regardless, I memorised the photograph of my ‘father’. I became interested in war films and watched them whenever I had the chance. When I was a bit older, I’d go to the fairground every year. I would practice shooting at the firing range, always hitting the bullseye. I felt close to him at those times. He was my fantasy father and men like Cary Grant were my fantasy look-a-like daddy-figures. As I got older, actors like Dirk Bogarde, were fancied in my flights of fancy – oooh those dark-haired moody men.

My mother died in 1971 just as the May blossom was at its most beautiful. I was 13, she was 36. She took her own life and left behind two sons and two daughters. It was no age at all and we still had so much to talk about. Including my father. Since that time, nearly 50 years ago; I have had no way of finding out who my father was or anything about him. So apart from the fantasies I had built in my head, that daddy space, like the blank on my birth certificate was a void.

Old voices floated past; I remembered comments: your father is not who you think he is. I didn’t know what that meant. Who was he then? I don’t think your mother knew who your father was. My mother was ill, stamped, filed and classified: manic depressive. Never stepped outside the door the whole nine months she carried you. I held onto the photograph in my mind’s eye: This is your father. I thought he was dead. I knew she loved him and I knew my step-father knew that too.

When I was about twelve years old and hanging out in a local youth club, a boy who had the same dark hair and moody features as my fantasy father, threw a peanut at me. I fell deeply in love and as we grew older and met at other youth clubs I stared at him longingly. We met up a couple of times, kissed but it fizzled into unrequited love that lasted years.

I bumped into my peanut lover, thirty years later and discovered he was a racist, the lighted candle was snuffed immediately. What a relief not to carry that yearning – the bricks in my backpack were chucked.

As well as being a love sick teenager, I was also known as a stroppy mare with a big mouth. This is what I have been told. I would speak out if there was injustice. And I demanded my rights before I knew what rights were. I wanted to see my files. I wanted to see some of the shit that had been written about me. I was all front and bravado really.

In 1975, at seventeen, I sat in a dirty beige room with a faded green door and read words written about a fantasy child in care. I wasn’t allowed to take the files them away. You have to read them here. Using my super-powers, I mentally photographed what I saw. There it was in typewritten clarity, Father: John Long. It seemed he was married.

I’d been brought up relatively well in the children’s home. We had morals! Church in our Sunday best; roast lunch and bible reading in the afternoon. The housemother, as she was called back then, was strict but fair and occasionally even kind. To read that my father was married was a huge shock. The prim and proper me came out in full force. What had my mother been thinking of? But it was also another piece of the puzzle – this then was why they couldn’t be together.

Many years later I found myself living next door to a lovely old couple. It turned out after one of those doorstep conversations that her son was in the Middlesex Regiment, the same regiment as Johnny Long. Oh, could he, would he, get me a photograph? He would and he did and one fine morning there it was. Another photograph. It was the same man in the photograph my mother had shown me; I was sure of it. Older but still with that stern, moody look.

So at least I had a photograph even if I never met him. I had proof I existed because of him. And up until a few weeks ago, that story had stayed the same. DNA was about to prove otherwise. And you can’t argue with scientific fact.

Suddenly I had real proof of who my real father was. I discovered he had gone to grammar school and been an engineer in the RAF. Both he and my mother were twenty-one when I was conceived in the summer of 1957. And he lived in a nice area of Mill Hill, very near to my grandparents’ house where mum lived too.

There was more and some of it spooky, unexplainable. As mentioned, I always felt that my father had died of a heart attack. It turned out this was true. A fateful heart attack aged seventy-two in 2008. My paternal grandmother and father’s oldest child were called Victoria, sadly the daughter died in 2009. The same name as my daughter. Coincidence? Genes?

At 61, I have discovered who my father was.

After a few days of correspondence, my sister sent me a photograph of ‘our dad’. As I looked and looked, I could see a clear likeness to one of my sons. And his eyes were mine. And through the mists of time, conversations I had heard as a baby, came back to me: she’s got his eyes. I knelt on the floor and sobbed for a long time and even now I am still very emotional. The coincidences continue – the day my father died, is my eldest son’s birthday.

Altogether there are FIVE other siblings, only four are still alive. On my mother’s side I have two brothers and a sister. This makes my total sibling family to a humungous NINE! I am one of nine. Unbelievable!

Not sure where we will go from here, it is a shock for everyone. I am finding out more about our dad through my own research and from M who I hope to meet one day. She has welcomed me with love. We are taking things slow, the healthy way. No instant meet-ups and subsequent disappointments.

To have had the confirmation of who my father was has had an astounding effect on me. I have seen many long-lost family shows and cried heaps. I always wondered when the found-family-member would say, I now feel whole – how that must feel. I don’t know that I would describe the feeling like that but there has been a shift and I feel different. There are siblings out there with my father’s blood running through their veins. It is good blood. I am looking forward to meeting the rest of my family.

 

 

[1]Josie Pearse, Writing and Not-writing on the Cusp of Life and Fiction. (Cardiff University, 2012)

[2]Lavone H Stiffler, Synchronicity and Reunion (Hope Sound: FEA Publishing,1992).

[3]Pearse, (2012) Op cit.

 

 

 

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Shaped by Silence: Stories from the Inmates of the Good Shepherd Laundries and Reformatories by Rie Croll

Book Review by Dee Michell

Rie Croll is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, a province of Canada. Her background is in therapeutic counselling where she worked with sexually abused children and women. Croll first became interested in the Good Shepherd institutions during the 1990s through a song written by Canadian Joni Mitchell, “The Magdalene Laundries”. Later, when doing research about sexual abuse in the Mount Cashel Christian Brothers orphanage in Newfoundland, Croll came across more references to the laundries. The lack of records about “these lonely places” prompted her to speak with former inmates.

Shaped by Silence is the result of interviews Croll did with five women who were in Magdalene institutions between the 1930s and 1960s. Two of the women were in Australian laundries (South Australia and Tasmania), two in Canadian ones (New Brunswick and Toronto) and one was in New Ross, Ireland.

In the introduction to this important book, Rie Croll provides the contextual information for the five stories which follow. She overviews the history of the Magdalene institutions which were operated by the Roman Catholic Order of Sisters of the Good Shepherd. The Order commenced in France in 1835, in Canada in 1844, Ireland in 1848 and Australia in 1863 and operated laundries which took in “fallen women” and girls and used their labour to run lucrative businesses.

In the Good Shepherd reform institutions [schools as well as laundries], supposedly convertible souls became a coerced workforce, performing hard, unpaid, and relentless physical toil. Physical labour, isolation from unseemly forces, and prayer were a large part of the nuns’ strategy for converting their charges into the Christian image of pure womanhood.(p. 3)

Croll also provides background for ongoing revelations about the experience of girls and women incarcerated in the Magdalene Laundries. Irish inquiries into their operation did not begin until the Kennedy Commission in 1970 which investigated Irish industrial and reform schools. From the next decade, church authority in Ireland was challenged by ongoing sexual abuse scandals, films which told women’s stories including The Magdalene Sisters (2002) by Peter Mullan and Philomena (2014) starring Judy Dench, and inquiries such as the Martin McAleese report which resulted in an official government apology and implementation of a redress scheme.

Rie Croll’s compelling book is another of these exercises in “defying silence”. Girls and women for generations, she argues, disappeared “while hidden in plain sight”, often not even telling close family members about being in the laundry or what had happened to them there. Those breaking the silence—a silence indoctrinated into them while in the laundry—risk public disapprobation and disbelief. One of the women in Croll’s book, Autumn, did not want to be identified because of the ongoing stigma associated with her background.

All five women whose stories Croll tells had already begun defying silence. Maureen Sullivan has been outspoken about her experience in the British media; Chaparral Bowman published autobiographic work under the name of Georgina Williams; Rachael Romero has painted her story, made a documentary, and written about it; Janice Konstantinidis contributed to the Inside Exhibition held in Australia and published her story; and Autumn, too, has published under her legal name.

By bringing the five stories together in the single volume, Croll has exposed themes which cut across the women’s experiences despite the diversity of time and place. The loss of identity is one example. Rachael Romero was able to choose her new name, but Chaparral, who was in a laundry from birth to adulthood, was called multiple names.

I was baptized Georgina, I was baby Jane, I had Jean, I had Loretta, I was Gemma, I was Maria, I was Bernice, back to Jean, back to Loretta and when I finally left, I had been Jean for about five years…(p. 63).

Maureen did not adapt quickly to the assigned name of Frances, which meant she was physically assaulted whenever she did not respond.

“…I’d get a box in the ears, and after a good few boxes, you learned to answer. You know, when your ear is sore and your hair is pulled, and your head is sore, you’ll answer.” (p. 177).

The women as girls lived a regimented, routine life with little if any contact with the outside world, even items of clothing they wore into the laundry were confiscated. They did dangerous work in the laundry without pay, received a minimum of education, were put into isolation as punishment for minor transgressions, and learned to conform in order to survive.

Once they left the laundry, the women struggled in similar ways to each other too, including with stigma. Rachael, for instance, talks about thinking others can see she was in the institution. Because “incarceration was in her and on her and with her” (p. 120), she withdrew socially.

Despite the horrors of their girlhood experiences and the painful difficulties they faced when leaving the laundry—and the legacies of the laundry they continue to live with— each woman has managed to make a positive contribution to society. They have all refused to remain silent and thus assisted in breaking a long-held collective quiet into the abuse of girls by nuns, abuse in which the state and parents were complicit. And they have all worked to assist others. Chaparral encouraged at-risk Indigenous Canadian young people, Rachael teaches art to marginalised populations, Janice serves as a board member of a writer’s group in California, Maureen and Autumn are activists and supporters of Magdalene survivors.

By ensuring she included accounts of where the women are at now, Rie Croll has more than defied silence, she has challenged the view of anyone – including nuns – who thought that the once incarcerated girls “would not amount to anything”.

Shaped by Silence is recommended reading for anyone who has been incarcerated, as well as for Gender and Women’s Studies students, historians and sociologists.

Shaped by Silence Shaped by Silence: Stories from the Inmates of the Good Shepherd Laundries and Reformatoriesby Rie Croll is published by ISER Books.

Thanks to ISER Books for a review copy of Shaped by Silence.

 

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

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Through the Wardrobe

The day before I started my new role as Aoife O’Higgins‘ Research Assistant at University of Oxford; I stayed at St Stephen’s, a theology college founded in 1876.

In the room was a huge wardrobe and I couldn’t help but step inside, just in case it was the entrance to Narnia.

Ever since I was a child and read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (1950), I have never been able to resist checking the backs of wardrobes and being a little frightened if they happened to have fur coats and moth balls in them – though that has been quite rare.

I’m usually staying somewhere and they are empty.

I slept well and as far as I remember there weren’t any ghosts, though I thought I might have met a bishop or two. I shared breakfast with lots of silent people until I was joined by a German chap from Bavaria and his son who had just finished studying medicine. They were on a flying visit to Oxford and then on to the Cotswolds. They asked about my research and I explained the background, my care experience and the public and private attitude towards unmarried mothers in the 1950s and 60s. They didn’t think that unmarried mothers in Germany were forced to give their children up for adoption, but they couldn’t be sure.

Time flew and I left to meet Aoife, at Magdalen College.

Aoife, took me through the long, stone corridors where I expected Inspector Lewis to pop up at any moment. Up a tiny stairwell past the Senior Common Room to a space for refreshment. From there we climbed more stairs and sat in a room both ancient and modern with glass doors and talked. Aoife wanted to make sure I felt welcome and to reassure me I belonged. If ever my confidence gave way, I was to speak to her.

From there we crossed the quad towards her office in New Building, built in 1733!

Joy of joys, we were located in what was once C.S. Lewis’ study. The magnificence, the splendour, the history -I was suddenly overcome.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, had been such an important book in my childhood. I knew it was a powerful story. I loved Aslan. When I eventually found out the book was an allegory of the crucifixion of Christ, it made sense. In those days I was a made-to-practise Catholic. I confessed my sins every week. And I knew about Christ’s suffering.

All the characters from the novel still have a place in my heart. They helped me through sad days. I’ve never forgotten them and occasionally they still enter my thoughts and I think of the story. And now, I was about to enter the author’s rooms. To stand at the window where he would have stood and stared at the beautiful deer only half seeing them whilst his mind drifted through furs to Narnia.

After I’d recovered, we spent some time in the recently built, Longwall Librarywhere we discussed our project Conversations for Care. We plan to facilitate conversations around improving the way research is carried out with care experienced people as well as investigate what support works for children in care in education. We will do this by bringing together young people, social workers, foster carers and others, and researchers.

In some ways it felt as if I’d come full circle. I remembered my first day at university in 1992. I was 34 years old and completely overwhelmed. The previous year I had gone to college to take GCSE Maths and English. I could not speak without blushing bright red. And yet, without education I would not be the person I am today. Without education I would not have been a Research Assistant at Magdalen College.

I thought of my lovely friend who owned a bookshop and night after night he would take me through my essays, line by line. Explaining what I could do or might have missed. He introduced me to ‘quintessential’ and many new words. He went to Oxford but sadly never finished. Things went wrong for him and were never really put right. I hope that quintessential gentleman was with me as I entered the gates to Magdalen.

After many amazing discussions with Aoife, it was time for lunch. There was a choice: Thai, sandwiches, salad, or pie, mash and mushy peas with or without gravy. We settled in Pieministerand had organic pies – I was ‘with’ and Aoife was ‘without’. They were delicious.

Lucky for me Aoife has a sweet tooth and so we walked the streets of Oxford until we found one of her favourite cake shops. I had chocolate pecan tart and she had a gigantic cookie.

From there we headed to the Department of Experimental Psychology. I had imagined another Hogwartian building, but it was in fact, a prefab; the washrooms were very nice.

HR gave me lots of forms to fill out and did lots of photocopying of certificates and ID things. The usual difficulties of why do you have so many different names had all been smoothed over and explained beforehand. So there were no awkward questions and I felt for the first time relaxed and able to get on and do what I needed to do, like have my photograph taken and *excitement*, complete my application for a library card. I would be going to the Bodleian the following week, for training so I can learn to be Aoife’s, amazing Research Assistant.

The day ended and I took a short cut back to the station. Only it wasn’t a shortcut. I passed a lamppost – could it I wondered be the one that inspired Lewis?

I eventually found my way and ended up puffing along the canal pathway, all the time hoping I would make the train in time and not have to spend horrendous amounts on a replacement ticket.

I made it, just; red-faced and sweaty, but with a table all to myself in the air-conditioned carriage and time to reflect on my first amazing day at University of Oxford.

 

First published 26/6/19 via https://conversationsforcare.org/2019/06/26/blog-feed/

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Working Class and Proud?

Over the last 18 months, I’ve noticed a lot of comments and discussions particularly on Twitter about working class writing and how this is an area within publishing that is still under-represented.

Kit de Waal, author of My Name is Leon (2016) and The Trick to Time (2018), has become a kind of working class champion talking at various events about the missing literature on our bookshelves. Kit left school at 16, in the mid 1970s and says “No one from my background – poor, black and Irish – wrote books. It just wasn’t an option.” In her essay ‘An Open Invitation’, published in Know Your Place (2017), Kit says, the more marginalised you are, the less likely we’ll hear those voices.

And what Kit says, is very true. On a personal level though, I found myself reading articles and wondering why I was keeping schtum when usually I’d be in there contributing. I realised that being brought up in the system and not identifying with my Irish w/c family or any family come to that, meant I was confused. I also had many mothers and fathers throughout my time in care. From 0-16 years of age, I was looked after by middle class social workers/carers English, Scottish, Welsh and Afro-Caribbean. I had piano and ballet lessons. And yet, I was stared at, ridiculed, stigmatised for being in care. My working class friends in their council homes with their mums and dads were definitely on a higher social strata than me.

My Anglo African-Celt sister was adopted by white m/class parents; she trained as a teacher and would describe herself as living a middle class life with children attaining an all star education. When I think of who I am, I get in such a pickle and often describe myself as a Heinz 57* kid. Anyway, I dislike labels. Why do I even need to be classified?

When the Guardian in one of its ethical conundrums asked: How should we define working class, middle class and upper class?

There were some interesting and funny answers that included the size of the television you bought. J. Nieman from Muswell Hill, where I grew up had this to say:

“THE difference between the classes is in their relationship with society’s institutions. The working classes do what the system sets out for them. The middle classes invent, operate and belong to the system. The upper classes tolerate the system but know the right people to speak to if they feel the need to bypass any part of it. The underclass (often overlooked) don’t have any relationship with the system at all.”

As far back as 2008, Nick Jackson, in the Independent, when discussing why a rising number of care leavers are now going to university, said “Young people in care and those at university can seem to belong to very different worlds. The lazy assumption is that university creates the management class, care the underclass. Until now, there has been very little crossover between the two.”

I’m still not sure who I identify with and it’s often said I see the world through the looking glass. What I do know though is how I feel, whether it’s in a university setting or a working class pub setting (if there is such a thing anymore); I still feel like an outsider. Though I do want to be part of the conversation. I want to hold up my fist and say up the Working Classes and f*ck the government (the second part of which I do quite often and especially today!) as the two often go hand in hand. But another part of me is quite happy not to have any relationship with ‘the system’ at all. Does this mean I do actually belong to the underclass? I feel uncomfortable aligning with any class. I’m more attune with humanity and all that that entails.

Last year, Kerry Hudson, Kit de Waal and Alex Wheatle attended an event at Oxford Brookes where they discussed the problems they’ve encountered in being working-class writers, the creative responses they have formulated in their writing of working-class experience, and the wider issues of publishing and literary culture in relation to working-class writing and authorship.

I asked Alex Wheatle: Does your care experienced past mean you can or can not identify with being working class? And how does that look?

Alex replied: “It’s an interesting question, and not easy to answer. I guess by definition, being a ward of a local council is working class – you can’t get anymore working class than that.”

This was not something I had thought of. And I’m still not sure how I feel about this or if I even understand it.

Yesterday, I saw a comment from Lemn Sissay which encouraged me to finally put this blog together:

“There’s a lot of talk of ‘working class’ writers at the moment. Rightly so. But I was beneath them. The ‘working class’ were the lucky ones.”

And I admit, I got this. I got it big time.

And then another apple in the wagon hit me or was it a brick in the wall, I’m about to start work at the University of Oxford. I will be hobnobbing. Am I about to join the upper echelons?

I have no definitive answers. Despite my allusions to grandeur, despite being a home-owner, despite undertaking a PhD – am I really just an underclass girl at heart? I’ll conclude with one of my favourite quotes:

will not be pushedfiledstampedindexedbriefeddebriefed or numberedMy life is my own.” – The Prisoner (1967)

 

 

 

*Heinz 57 is a shortened form of a historical advertising slogan “57 Varieties of Pickles” by the H. J. Heinz Company located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States. It has come to mean anything that is made from a large number of parts or origins. [Wikipedia]

Connolly, N (2017). Know Your Place. Manchester: Dead Ink Books

de Waal, K (2018) ‘Make room for working class writers‘. The Guardian, 10th Feb 2018

Ethical Conundrums (2011). How should we define working class, middle class and upper class? The Guardian, 2011.

Ferguson, D. (2018). ‘Tracy Beaker is back… as a single mum fighting to make ends meet’, the Guardian, 10 March 2018.

Jackson, N. (2008) In the loop: Why a rising number of care-leavers are going to university, the Independent, 31 July, 2008.

Lemn Sissay’s memoir My Name Is Why is published August 27th.

Common People is a collection of essays, poems and pieces of personal memoir, bringing together sixteen well-known writers including Kit de Waal, Alex Wheatle, Paul McVeigh, and others from working class backgrounds with an equal number of brand new as-yet-unpublished writers from all over the UK.

 

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Who Cares? Scotland – Media Panel

I’d been keeping schtum for a while. It was difficult as I’d had some exciting news that unfortunately had to be embargoed due to a sudden news story that included a very negative portrayal of care experienced people. The headline read:

“We don’t want troubled kids here’ – 221 residents fight plan to turn this £300k property on one of Stoke-on-Trent’s most sought-after estates into children’s home”

In short, a petition was started to stop a house on an estate being turned into a children’s home.

The Twitterati were pretty outraged that this type of discrimination was still happening. Why was a regional newspaper being allowed to run the story in the first place? Why were children in children’s home still being portrayed as trouble?

It reminded me of the time I was researching the children’s home where I had lived from 1966-1974. I went to the local archives and found that when the council first acquired the property, there had also been a petition signed by local people protesting. The year? 1937!

The committee had before them a petition signed by residents in the neighbourhood of these premises objecting to the County’s proposal and urging the council to take immediate steps to oppose the acquisition of these premises for such a purpose.’ Clerk to County Council replied: ‘The house will be used for the accommodation of not more than 12 healthy and normal children who ages will range from 5 years upwards, who will be placed in the care of an experienced foster mother…The home will be conducted as nearly as possible as an ordinary private family. The County Council state that they have a large number of similar homes in various parts of the country and it is not their experience, neither was it that of their predecessors that the children in this type of home are more a cause of annoyance and complaint than are other children, in fact the County Council are frequently complimented upon the conduct and bearing of the children under their control who are, it may be pointed out, subject to somewhat stricter supervision and discipline, than is sometimes the case of children living with their parents.‘(1)

I could write a lot more about the stigma of growing up with loco parentis but we’d end up being stuck here for some time, so for now it’s fast forward to 2019. Kenny Murray, Public Affairs Coordinator for Who Cares? Scotland, took up the mantle and wrote an open letter about the article, that hundreds of people have signed, to the UK Government Minister for Women and Equalities to meet and challenge this stigma:

‘It would be unthinkable to see an article about other minority groups written in this way. It cannot continue to be the case that Care Experienced people are stigmatised, judged and abused by people who have no idea about their lives. Had this article been written about any other group protected in equalities law, there would be some recourse.’

The point here is that as a minority group, care experienced people are not protected under the equalities law.

Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon responded immediately:

We’ve yet to hear back from the UK government.

The older I get, the less I believe in coincidence – Kenny had contacted me a short while before the news story broke to ask if I’d be interested in joining a media panel to take a deeper look at the impact of past and present portrayals of Care Experienced people and of course this is partly what I’m investigating in the PhD. The Media Panel will be looking at representations in media, film and literature. I was extremely honoured to be asked and of course, said yes.

Our panel currently consists of me, Kenny and Kirsty Capes. You can find out more about the work of the expert panel & Who Cares? Scotland work on media portrayal of Care Experienced people here.

Kirsty, Kenny and Me.

If you see something about care experience that is discriminatory, stigmatising or downright prejudicial, then send us a link and the Media Panel will make sure it gets the attention it deserves.

 

Media Panel:
Rosie Canning is a Doctoral Researcher at University of Southampton, focusing on the representation of orphans and care experience in literature. She wants to examine this research through the lens of both creative and critical practice. This means writing an autobiographical novel and a critical thesis.
Kirsty Capes is a PhD candidate at Brunel University, focusing on women and Care Experienced people in fiction. She is currently writing a novel and works in marketing.
Kenny Murray is a public relations graduate, with more than five years experience of working in private sector PR and communication. He has created fundraising, marketing and advertising campaigns that have featured in mainstream news media.
(1) Taken from Friern Barnet Urban District Council and Committee Proceedings 1934-35. No.108 Sutton Road, Muswell Hill London N10.

 

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Reflections From The Care Experience Conference

#dreamteam

Home! After a hectic and mind blowing few days. Though the reality is more like a whirlwind two years. An idea from ‘the man that dreamed a dream’, Ian Dickson’s vision was to ‘organise a national conference for care experienced people and care leavers of all ages to try once more to get ‘our’ view of the care system heard at last’.

Going back in time to the latter half of 2017, the team were agreeing that the conference would be for anyone who had experienced residential care, foster care, adoption, kinship care or long-term placement away from home in a residential school or boarding school and who wanted to be regarded as care experienced.

It would be held at Liverpool Hope University and there would be workshops that would possibly lead to some sort of research. Research put together by the care experienced people of all ages, a sort of mandate for government and councils. 60% of attendees would be care experienced and 40% professionals though this soon changed after the phenomenal amount of #CEP applications. The whole way through the planning, the emphasis was on creating something special for those with a care exp past. This would be the first time a gathering of this size, a conference would be held.

I had a lovely email from Ian saying: “I want you on board, Rosie…your learning, experience and commitment are greatly valued“. Put like that, I could hardly refuse.

From the beginning my interest was in having an art exhibition alongside the main event – creative outpourings from the care experienced community. I was coupled or tripled with Yusuf McCormack and Rod Kippen, two amazing artists and an absolute privilege for me.

Yusuf McCormack, Dame Longstocking, Rod Kippen

After travelling to Liverpool Hope University for one of the early conference meetings, we decided on a format. To promote the art exhibition side of the conference and get care experienced people to submit artworks.

We were aware the organisation would be quite complex because pieces of art work would need to be in on time, moved about, stored safely, and then eventually properly displayed. We would also need a timeline, a countdown to the big day, 26th April. And the art team would meet to discuss the logistics.

Meanwhile the rest of the team were busy thinking about raising funds and a JustGiving page for £10,000 was set up. Within the core group, smaller groups were forming: research, website, publicity, pastoral care, workshops and fundraising.

Artwork Submissions were beginning to trickle in and ranged from poetry, spoken word, videos, paintings, sculpture and photographs.

The organisation of the conference was overseen by Ian. There is not enough space here to go into all the details. To understand the amount of work that went on behind the scenes, I don’t think there was a day that went by that we did not receive an email about some aspect that needed our attention whilst whatever was in the email would be being carried out by someone. I can honestly say that Ian and the team were absolutely amazing, professional, committed and an absolute delight to work with.

Coat of many labels, Yusuf McCormack

Three days before the conference I travelled to Liverpool to begin the putting together of the art exhibition. Once arrived Yusuf and I walked round the space to get a really good feel of where we could place the art pieces. I felt it was important that Yusuf’s ‘child’ and coat of many labels had a prominent position and could be seen as people entered the Eden Building.

The following morning it was all hands on deck, Rod arrived early and the three of us chatted for a while and then went over to Rose Deveraux’s room to pick up art pieces that had been posted and our wonderful selection of donated books by care experienced authors for care experienced readers. Rose very kindly stored any post that arrived.

There was a minor worry when I realised that the paintings I’d posted using next day delivery two days previously and a box of even more donated books still hadn’t arrived! The chaps at security kindly kept a look out and when they finally arrived brought them over.

We worked throughout the day and into the night. As well as art works to be hung there were author displays to be finalised and a collage of 100 books that featured orphans and care experienced characters. And a raffle that combined donated books, some artworks and some lovely goody bags supplied by Open Nest.

Books written by or about care experience.

The art display was phenomenal, so emotive . The young person I brought took home an amazing piece as his raffle prize, he was in tears over it on the way home because it was so meaningful.  What a lovely and generous gift to pass to young people.

There are particular moments throughout the actual day of the conference that will stay with me for a long time. For example when I looked up and realised nearly every seat was filled and still more people were arriving, I had an overwhelming Rosie moment.

Liverpool Hope University Lecture Theatre

The strains of ‘Don’t Stop Me Now‘ by Queen, began and Lisa Cherry danced onto the stage. The conference was well and truly underway.

The Conference for Care Experienced People

#orphanstones by Saira-Jayne Jones

The Masks We Wear – Five Rivers Council

Two lucky girls who won the paintings by artist and author, Chris Wild

Dr Cat Hugman, Lecturer at University of Cumbria in front of ‘The Wings of Hope’

Images from Hiraeth, PhD Novel

Gold framed authors who write about care experience

PhD poster submitted for the conference

The final word

 

 

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Jae-Dee Survives the Home of Many Mothers by Jae-Dee Collier

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

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No One Was Watching by Annie Horner

Book Review by Dee Michell

Annie Horner’s 2018 book, No One Was Watching, opens with a short story—’A New Kitchen’—reflective of her own first encounter with ‘Forgotten Australians’. Horner was at a party when she overheard a woman talking about finally being compensated by the government for what had happened to her as a child in out-of-home care, and how she planned to use this money to install a new kitchen.

In Australia, children and young people who cannot live with their parent(s) live in what is called ‘out-of-home care’, that is, in alternative arrangements such as foster or kinship care, a group home, or they are supported to live independently. Between 1852 and 2013 there have been numerous state and federal government inquiries into the out-of-home care system, but it was not until the 1990s that the focus was on survivors of the system giving testimony.

Three landmark federal government inquiries have resulted in prime ministerial public apologies. In 1997, Bringing Them Home reported on the forced separation of First Nations children from their parents. This was followed in 2001 by the release of Lost Innocents detailing the experience of unaccompanied child migrants from Britain and Malta.

Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children was handed down in 2008. During the 20thcentury an estimated 500,000 non-Aboriginal Australian born children were put into children’s homes, orphanages, training and reform schools, and foster care either by the state or via privately made arrangements.

No One Was Watching is Annie Horner’s—a retired educator—creative response to the Forgotten Australians report. The book forms part of her creative writing Ph.D. through Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. For Horner (2016) ‘Fictional stories invite new ways of seeing’, they can ‘disturb and disrupt’ the taken for granted…’ Yet, as Horner says in the Foreword to No One Was Watching, there have been few literary responses to this bleak chapter of Australia’s history.

Not intending to speak for those who were once hidden away in out-of-home care or who are hidden still because they cannot tell of their experiences, Annie Horner’s ‘novel-in-stories’ brings to life the largely unknown community called Forgotten Australians.

No One Was Looking is framed by a young woman’s shock and indignation on discovering the neglect and abuse of thousands of Australian children who were ostensibly being ‘cared’ for by the charitable and well-meaning, and her determination to prevent a reoccurrence.

Each story is narrated with tenderness, concern, and admiration for the survivors.

Linking the short stories is Janet. Janet went into out-of-home care after her mother died. She was separated from her siblings and had to endure sexual assault – and blame for the sexual assault—when she was sent out to foster care. Janet is a good person albeit shy and withdrawn because of all that has happened to her. As Horner says, Janet is a ‘woman of extraordinary courage, resilience and hope’ and yet without knowing her story of survival, she might well be overlooked.

In having Janet as her protagonist, Horner manages to tell the heartache of many care experiences – homelessness, marginalisation, sorrow – without perpetuating stereotypes.

Janet does not appear obviously in every story but every story connects back to Janet. There is her dead sister, her brother who lives on the margins of society, her husband who understands because he was in out-of-home care too. There is also the callous worker and the society matron who hosts a party, completely oblivious to dark happenings within the children’s home.

The characters—and what they do and what happens to them—are composites of testimonial evidence from survivors of out-of-home care. Each chapter begins with a citation from an academic or government source relating to the topic for that chapter. For example, there is an excerpt from Forgotten Australians about how previous generations of fathers ‘were not seen as appropriate care givers…’ When Janet’s mother dies, her father feels pressured into relinquishing his children.

With the clever structure of the novel-in-stories approach, Annie Horner has produced a Forgotten Australian narrative which captures both the sense of horror many Australians feel when they first hear about what happened, as well as some of the experiences had by children in ‘care’ – separation from family, brutality, regimentation, a lack of affection and nurture. She hints at the temptation to unkindly judge those we know nothing of, and about the salve on wounds that can come from those who do care and comprehend the present effects of past wrongs.

No One Was Watching is a poignant, sad book, yet one that is exquisitely written. The characters are memorable and invite your compassion and approbation.

Annie Horner has accomplished what many care leavers long for, to be given both dignity and understanding.

 

No One Was Watching by Annie Horner is published by Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide, South Australia.

References:

Annie Horner (2016) Beyond the Gates: An Arts-based Investigation into the ‘Forgotten Australians’ Limina. A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies, 22(1), 51-66.

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).

 

Thanks to Annie Horner for a review copy of the book

Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell

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