Inside Story

“We know each other, but we’re not loving… That’s what the state ward took from us”

Annette’s story is not just another addition to Australia’s “stolen generation” narrative, writes Gillian Cowlishaw

Gillian Cowlishaw 13 February 2009 5311 words

Detail from the cover of The City’s Outback

This is an edited extract from The City’s Outback, an account of an ethnographic research project I conducted with Aboriginal people of western Sydney in 2000, inspired by a Bourke man, Frank Doolan. “Our Mt Druitt mob have deadly stories too,” he told me. “You have to come to Mt Druitt.” Frank’s urgency came from the insignificance usually attributed to the lives of the Aboriginal people there. Frank’s poetic vision gives these lives a global significance in their struggle to be.
— Gillian Cowlishaw

FRANK BRINGS ME to see Annette in her house, another modest fibro cottage in a bare block. We knock and hear someone yell, “Frank’s here with a lady,” and Frank opens the door and moves inside, ushering me to the kitchen table. He says, “This woman is going to tape your story Annie, because you’ve got a story and it’s a story of struggle and it’s your story and if you don’t get it recorded it will be lost.” Annette looks closed in but ready to attack. I momentarily wonder if she’s scared. She does not seem to feel the need to speak.

Frank says, “What about a cuppa? You could probably rustle up a cuppa, couldn’t you?” and she says, “Frank, you’re always drinkin’ tea,” and puts the jug on and gets out some mugs and sugar. “No milk but,” her eyes flicker past me, “ain’t got no milk.” Frank assures her that I do not take milk.

“See, she’s like us,” he says and goes on more about black warriors and, to me, how this woman’s story will “bowl you over.” I talk a bit, but Annette seems well able to do without the social graces. She glances at me, responds to my smile with the slightest grin. I wonder if she really wants this, but she says, “Yes. Yes, I’ll do it,” as if it does not matter one way or another.

Frank moves away and I turn the tape recorder on and ask, “Where were you born, Annie?” and take a sip of tea. Her staccato talk is hard to understand and it will be hard to decipher the tape later. So, as the story emerges, I often repeat what she says. At first it seems to interrupt her, but she gets used to it and begins to repeat details herself. At the start I ask questions.

The story Annie told me is, like her house, modest and unremarkable in her own eyes, bare of ornamentation. Imagine a throaty voice that swallows sounds, as if reluctant to let the words out, or unused to being listened to, speaking often in single words. I have added “and” “I” and “the,” and occasionally guessed where only mumbles were audible. There were more gaps and more questions than appear here.

I’s born Moree, but reared up everywhere. Sydney, Moree, Corunna. M’Dad came from Corunna. Mum from Moree, I think. Corunna was just an ordinary mission. There was a manager. I don’t remember much now. As far as I know I was happy there, I s’pose. I got sent away from my Mum and Dad when I was 13. Round about ’60 I think. The welfare sent me down here to Sydney. We were state ward kids. Newtown first. I dunno, I’ve been here, there, everywhere. Too complicated. That long ago. I’ve been around. Town to town. Welfare took us all away, took us to Queens Square in Sydney.

G: When you got sent to the homes, you had to appear in court, did you?

Naturally you’ve got to go to court when you get taken away. In Moree, yeah. My mother neglected me. Something like that anyway. All of us got charged [with being neglected]. Then [they] put us on the train to send us down to – what’s that place in Sydney there? The Square in Sydney. There was a big – Mr Humphreys or Mr Green – welfare man with us. Then they had to sort us out to different foster parents. They put me into blackfellas. Donna and Kate to whitefellas. Glen and Teddy, I don’t know where they put them. See I’m the second oldest in the family. All state wards. Wasn’t reared up together.

I went to Newtown first. They left me in a house with Aborigine people, black people. She’s a lady who had foster kids. Other kids too, other girls. I was a bit rough and wanted to move, and in them days you wasn’t allowed to. You’re a state ward. You’re not your own boss. My two sisters, they went to Campbelltown or Camden. My two brothers went to boys’ homes. Separated us all. It wasn’t so much me, I was old enough. In them days you was old enough at fourteen – you was a woman before your time.

So I went to work. I think the one in Newtown paid me. I’m not positive. I was at Rose Bay, working. That was for two doctors. I went to Killara after that. Working for a matron. She owned the hospital there, a private hospital. I was working as a nurse, a trainee nurse. It was all right but I didn’t like it. I cleared out from them. That was uncontrollable in them days, in their eyes. Well I’s only fourteen, I think, or thirteen.

Then they put me in the Tempe girls’ home. That’s all the nuns. I had to work. Laundromat. They’re pretty strict. … You’ve still got someone over you. Put you where you’ve got to live. They own you. They give you a lot of new clothes. That’s it.

I was nineteen when they let me go, I went to Corunna mission, stayed a bit there, then I went to Moree. I was still a state ward till I was twenty-one. They sent me back because I wanted to go back to the mission. That was it. I didn’t feel welcome there so they moved me on. The welfare moved me back down to Malani, my mother’s site, see, Moree. So I stopped with her for a while, until she passed away. In the late ’60s. I was old enough then.

G: Was your father still there?

I don’t know, I think he might have been. I stayed there at Moree then. I was under my Auntie. She’s all right, I suppose. She died after. We’d hang around, gamble. I think I ended back here.

But I still never seen my sisters and brothers. What happened was we just gotta keep our distance because we don’t know what love is. We know each other, but we’re not loving. It’s just like meeting a stranger; it’s like talking to you. That’s what the state ward took from us. The Aborigine people they had love, but that’s taken away now. They took our brothers and sisters away.

I’m really settled now. I’ve been in this house about three years with the kids. [A young woman and a big boy come in… the boy stays, watching.] I wish he’d go away. That’s my baby there. He’s playing up terrible. I suppose I was running around but I wasn’t like that. He’s sort of a little street kid. He gives me a doin’. I had him when I was thirty-nine. I’m in my forties. I’m forty-eight now and I feel it. …

See my father was a pure alcoholic. He drunk everything and didn’t treat us good, didn’t treat our mother good. There was no love there. I wouldn’t know what a father’s like.

That was a bit hard life back in them days. You ain’t got it like you got it now. This is like a queen’s life. That life, it took all my advantage and it’s taking my kids’ too. I’m treating them the same way my parents treated me. I had no love, no gratitude to show my kids.

Love family? I can’t.

It’s no trust. I love them, but there’s something there that’s not going deep. It’s hard to explain. I saw my father bashing my mother. We were just running all the time. Sort of like gypsies.

In Moree I had the oldest boy. His father was from Guyra I think. He was too jealous. I left him. Too cruel. He died. I’ve moved around. That’s the way my life is, see.

G: Then you got another bloke?

Yeah, and I had two girls. In Cunnamulla. That’s where I had my daughter there [gestures to the other room]. At the border somewhere. And Angela, the one that’s married. She’s eighteen. Went to Brisbane and had the boy. I’m starting to settle down, I think. I got a nice homely place. Pretty homely this little house. When I do it up a bit.

[Gestures to the tape] Don’t want to hear my voice. Terrible. What do you do with it? Will they say my name?

I reassure her that she will read her story first, that her name will not be used unless she agrees, and that her story is of interest:

See I’m trying to do something else too, but I don’t think you’d be able to help. They took a lot of love, where I can’t show a lot. But now I’m starting to find it a bit, and I want it back. I want what they’ve taken off me. How they going to give it back? How?

My brother, see, I don’t want to… [Hesitates, looking at me.] He’s in jail for life, see. He’s my favourite brother. And I wanted to try and get him close to me. Up in Queensland, see. I don’t think he’d be… I don’t know if he… you might be able to have a look. It’s breaking my other brother up there now. He’s a state ward too, see.

[She starts again] I’ve got a young baby brother and I’d like to have him down here close to me. He’s in that new maximum jail. He’s been hurt since he was a kid. Really hurt, bad, and he’s just taking it out on the world. He’s a very bad boy, but. But he’s not as bad – he’s intelligent. They’ve got him locked away, all security now. They’re trying to make out he’s… they’re trying to drive him crazy, mental. See my Mum married twice. And he’s my baby brother, Glen.

I might get my brother’s number in a tick, if you want to have a talk to him. He’s only twenty-eight or twenty-nine and he’s been in jail all his life. This is because of family life. Mum had him when she was old...

I won’t say too much now. I don’t know what was his problem. He’s in jail, in a new cell, my baby brother.

And if you wanted to get in touch with my brother, my older brother, he’s a very sick man, he lives with Father P. I mean, look, I’d thank you very much if you could…

See, they own him now, in Queensland. It’s a different law to this side. And I reckon, would I have a chance of getting him back down here?

It’s not so much my kids; I can help them. I can straighten myself out for that. There’s some sort of psychiatric, I don’t know how to explain, sort of anger, it’s something inside me that sort of stops me from showing all the love that I want, to my kids and my grandkids.

I had a talk with my brother the other day about Glen. He’s been locked up all his life. As a kid he’s been in homes. Now he’s still locked up in a cell. They got him out, but he done a rampage with a gun.

G: Did he kill somebody?

Not really, they tried to make out, but it wasn’t really what they made out. I’ve really got it on my mind now. And Gillian, I wouldn’t mind you having a speak to my brother, Terry.

G: Have you made any request for him to be moved to New South Wales?

Can’t do it. … I was up the wrong way again. Pushing to love him a bit more. He would be more like a kid to me, seriously. And it just feels like someone’s tearing him away from us. And that’s government too. Government’s done it to me, government’s doing it to Glen.

I know he’s a bad boy, but why don’t they just give him… Even if he was just down here or somewhere near us here in Sydney.

Again and again Annette goes back to her brothers, the younger one in jail, the older diabetic one, and the priest, the “documentation” they’ve got:

They’ve got everything written about him. If you want a story, you’d get a story too. I wish I could ring my brother now, to tell you the truth, but I can’t. So you could talk to him. Might just try. I’ve got to get this number off my daughter. I just need you to ring him up real bad.

In between Annette gives an account of her children and of her three sisters and three brothers. The fact that her sisters’ surnames are different preys on her mind. Some took the mother’s surname, some the father’s, and foster families also bestowed names. Each time the youngest brother is mentioned she says something like, “But jeez, I’d love to see if you can get a bit of help for Glen. From this side. I reckon New South could do something for him.”

[She speaks of her eldest sister]

Phyllis’s in jail because she drunk a bit. Always done something when she’s drunk. See, it goes back to her life story too. When we left her, when we got sent away, she turned to alcoholic. I don’t know if she was 15 or what she was. She turned to alcoholic, see. For remorse. Get all that remorse out of her system, I suppose.

Lot of schizo between us. Not wild, just schizo through hate. Hate. Hate. Hate go right through our family. Hate. But it’s not hate going through the white, it’s only hate going through us. Our hate. I can’t walk up and kiss my brother and sister. We wouldn’t – it’s just like passing strangers to all of us. We’re all strangers because we haven’t been reared up together, to know one another. As I’m getting older I’m starting to get more wiser. But I still feel the little kid side coming out in me… I feel like I’m the oldest, and Phyllis’s not.

G: Which jail’s she in?

Silverwater. What, are you going to go out and see her? You could get your story off her too. I think if you got $300 to bail her out she’d get out on security. You’ve just got to show them that you’ve got three hundred.

[She speaks of her father]

When he died I didn’t even cry, you know, because I had no remorse for him, when he died. I went to his funeral, but it felt like I was just going to a stranger’s, not a man that I come from.

G: What about your Mum?

I loved her – sort of. Not all that much. I loved her because she had nature there, but she never had the time to show it. She did have a beautiful nature, and I knew she had it, see. But hate was there for her, in my heart. I could have killed her, you know, when I got out. I could have just walked up and grabbed her by the neck and killed her. And now I know how Glen feels too. That’s the way he’s brought into the world too, see. I don’t think it’s Mum, I think it’s because of his father. It must be coming from somewhere, eh? And it’s the parents that bring you up.

Annie mentions her younger sister several times before Kate’s story emerges:

Kate died, someone killed Kate. She was reared up a lost soul too, see. Donna and Kate, they was in the homes. …

I was older, see; she [Kate] was taken away on her birthday, on the sixth of March, and she was two years of age when she got sent away. She had some very cruel beatings too, from her foster. Her foster parents had her and Donna.

G: She got beaten?

Oh yeah, very. She had real long wavy curly hair down [to] there. Only tiny. And real thin, thin. I was born real solid build, see, when I was little. She was only a little skinny thing. Oh, they cut her hair, cut her hair bald, made her ugly. She was pretty, like a little doll, little black doll. She’s a lot darker than me.

This foster woman, she was very devastating with Kate, very cruel to Kate and Donna. I was at Tempe Girls’ Home, and they [would] just come there, bring me lollies, chocolates, whatever. Like they wanted me, and not Kate and Donna. But I told her, “You ever hurt Kate, when I get out of the homes I’m gonna knock you in the head.” At that time I was only fourteen.

I didn’t know then that they were very cruel to Kate.

And then later I heard the full strength of it. You know what they done? Used to make her eat pepper, tried to push her down the toilet. That’s her foster parents, all because she went mad over the foster father. Naturally, eh, she wouldn’t give a fuck who she’s with, she’d call a white man Daddy. She loved that man, see, and the foster mother had another little girl named Kate.

Donna told me all about them. Donna got the little bag, got Kate on her back and away they went. Walking. They was come looking for me in Tempe, see. The foster mother’s sister put her into the welfare.

Nothing we could do, ’cause the welfare was very strong then. They’re all talking about it now. The welfare was stronger than they make out they was.

Another family had ’em then. They [the second foster parents] was at Kate’s funeral. Well naturally they [the authorities] had rung her up, and she come up there.

I was standing there, and I’m just thinking see, ’cause my son was in jail, and I was worrying about him, and her foster mother, she come up and she says “I know you, Annie.”

See they got her boy, Kate’s boy. The foster’s sister got him. She reckons she had more claim for him, which she didn’t. But it might have been better that she took him, see – that’s my nephew.

Frank chips in: “They’re still stealing kids.”

G: What did she die from, Kate?

[Harsher, bitter voice] Someone killed her, strangled her to death. In St Marys. Found in the back of a shed, with a mattress chucked over her. Never raped her. Just strangled her. Black as shit like she always was, so why make it any better now? You think it’s changed? You think the system’s changed?

She used to be on drugs, see. There was no overdose; she was strangled to death. They found sweet F.A., they found out nothing. As they say, you’re black shit when you’re born, you’re black shit when you die. Who gives a shit about it? When you die you’re gone, eh?

G: Did they look for her killer?

What, sitting in their office and reading statements, just probably reading statements about the fuckin’ thing? You get my story now, you know what I’m talking about. With them its “law.”

Why didn’t the police find out about a murder? What’s the use of asking them? “It’s closed, everything’s closed down, so what’s it got to do with you?” They’re not going to make more work for theirselves than what they’re getting paid for. Only law they’re good for is finding some old useless drunk, locking him up for stealing, or just a little petty thief, or swearing or going on – that’s all they’re good for.

And you know what else they’re good for? Being prejudiced too. Coming into your door and being a bit cheeky, looking for this one and that one. “Is this one here?” Or, “We’ll come every day if we have to.” I said, “Look, I’m not wasting your time so you don’t waste mine.” They wouldn’t come around here the other night when what’s-a-name broke my windows. I tell you I’m sick of it too, people hurting me. They get hurt back too.

G: What did they chuck a rock through your window for?

Just family life. Had a predicament. But he wasn’t gonna get away with it neither. I own this house, I pay rent, and I’m not gonna let someone come and take away my little bit of happiness. Especially a black man.

Anyway, if you want to get in touch with my brother…

We spend about two hours with Annette. She does not find her brother’s phone number, which is a relief, as I can see no way I can be of help. Correctional Services would hardly take notice of an academic enquiring about the possibility of moving a dangerous prisoner.

But I have no chance to find out what she imagines I can do. I transcribe her story as soon as possible, often struggling to make out the words, cutting some repetition and reordering sections to make a chronological narrative. Printed out and clipped together with a photo of her on the front it makes a neat little booklet with the title Annette’s Story. About three weeks have passed before I take it back for her. There is a pile of household furniture and rubbish in the front yard and the house is deserted. I try the Holy Family Centre, but, though people know who Annette is, no one knows she has gone. She was not a woman with strong links to others here, and her family is scattered. Much later I find her sister, and eventually manage to send Annie her transcript.

“I was old enough at fourteen,” Annie said, meaning old enough to work, old enough to manage being sent from home to a Home among strangers. She did not spell this out, but the sense is that her younger siblings were not old enough, that they suffered more.

Annette seems badly damaged by a life of cruelty, as if she has a disability that has become part of her. “We don’t know what love is,” she repeated, yet her obsessive concern about her young brother belies her idea that hate has replaced love in her family.

ANNIE AND HER STORY continue to inhabit my imagination intermittently: I feel not pity, but anguish, and a kind of admiration that she remains such a person in the face of the forces of fragmentation, including her own alcohol-enhanced raging responses. I wonder what I am to do with such material. How would this story relate to the “history wars” that have engaged the Australian public and academic historians, where reference to the past is so often made only in the most general terms, losing any sense of connection with the living present and the presence of individuals? Here in Mt Druitt academic discourses are arcane and foreign, while violence and tragedy are intimate and familiar. There is no talk of invasion, massacre or genocide here, just stories of what happened to one’s family. Another question occurs to me. Why was this woman willing to tell me her story? I examine a white couple sitting on their front porch near Annie’s house and wonder whether they would be ready to speak about their lives with equal candour; but then, neither I nor anyone else is likely to ask them for their story. The mysteries hiding in these other suburban houses are not the subject of any research as far as I know, but I am reluctant to contemplate the reasons for this differentiation. Perhaps it is the suffering or the drama of Aboriginal lives that attracts attention and I am playing out the nation’s guilt.

Annette is a compelling witness to a history of cruelty and to present need. There are crimes here no court will ever hear, but who stands accused and what is the charge? Aside from a few noisy dissenters, the nation has resoundingly deplored the injustice and cruelty of child removals and has affirmed and sympathised with present Indigenous distress. These collective moves, led by a host of scribes, are relatively easy while they remain abstractions. Particular examples of pain, confusion and self-destructiveness are more confronting and confusing.

Annette’s sense that she is entitled to speak, that her story deserves to be told, may be a trickle-down effect from the publicity around the “stolen generations” and the demand for an apology from the prime minister. She has not related her story before, but she knows something of the acceptability of her experiences today. Thus it is not just Frank’s importuning and my presence that gives her a sense that the nation may now be listening. While not deliberately bearing witness to “the Indigenous experience,” she indicates her knowledge of public concerns in the comment “They’re all talking about it [the old welfare system] now.” Thus she imagines Frank and I as a conduit to a wider audience. The sense of audience may strengthen her against the threat of being engulfed by her own emotional response to the callousness and cruelty she experienced and now attributes to the white world. Annette’s story is different from those resentful Indigenous discourses in which Indigenous is automatically identified with wounded. She does not flaunt her wounds. Rather, she evinces a sense of being smothered, overwhelmed, and depleted by her circumstances and her own responses to them, one of which is the refuge in alcohol.

The story Annette tells was previously shameful, but its heart has been now claimed by the nation and named “the stolen generations.” Such stories have a cumulative effect in the public domain, a form of “narrative accrual.” But public interest in these stories was not generated by those who were “stolen,” and the emergence of an emotional public debate created a new condition for people who suddenly realised: “They are talking about us.” The complex and fraught process that authorises someone to tell of personal trauma or humiliating experiences is not illuminated by reference to some generalised opportunism or strategising in response to public sympathy. However, Annette’s story will inevitably be read against the “stolen generation” public narrative, as well as with knowledge of “dysfunctional Indigenous communities.” Our understanding is prepared to receive Annette’s experiences sympathetically through knowledge of old policies based on racial contempt and statistical evidence of dire Indigenous conditions. But being primed by such knowledge may make it more difficult to hear this story in all its specificity.

The world is awash with stories of individual misery, but I cannot see this one as just another addition to Australia’s compelling “stolen generation” narrative. For there is an unfamiliar genealogy here as well, a particular history of this violent father, those officials intervening, that foster parent’s cruelty. Annette is not an exhibit in the nation’s history museum: she has a history of her own. A more specific history of her condition would involve the pursuit of other leads – her father’s violence, for instance, which may itself unlock another awful legacy and engulf this research project. Her mother’s protective response of fleeing from violence – “We were just running all the time, sort of like gypsies” – could be the lid of another pandora’s box. And what research would help explain those who offered alternative homes to children, but provided cruelty and instability? Were these unfortunate irregularities or systematic features of the welfare establishment?

The particular and individual circumstances of this person, Annette, draw my attention. I would like to follow the threads, seek the genesis of these conditions in the entangled desires not only of those governed, but also of those trying to govern, those trying to remedy social ills, and those seeking to remedy the remedial practices. There is no doubt that the spotlight needs to be turned from “them” to “us,” to reveal the inter-relationships between the two. Perhaps the dull suburban neatness and order, the arena of white people more like me, would be the place to discover why these other lives are as they are. •