Okay, so I’ve been thinking about murdered children and children consigned to oblivion. It’s a heavy topic for a Saturday morning or whatever morning it is where you are. But what the hell, you can deal with it.
Mostly I’ve been thinking about four-year-old Zeena al-Hilli, who was found in a car in the French Alps, hiding under the bodies of her murdered family, where she had apparently been for about eight hours, and her seven-year-old sister, Zainab, who was shot and left for dead. But Zeena and Zainab’s story also brought to mind the history of Australian abandoned and traumatised children – of whom there are very large numbers.
The media has been full of ‘expert’ comment, particularly about Zeena’s experience and what might happen to her as a result. Weirdest Comment Award probably goes to Julie Stokes, a clinical psychologist, OBE recipient and founder of the childhood bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, who informed the British public that young children’s brains ‘have a natural defence mechanism that protects them from quite a lot of horror’. As someone who has worked with numerous abused and traumatised children and adults abused as infants, that’s news to me. But it can be an idea that makes adults feel better: ‘A terrible thing happened to a child, but they didn’t really feel it.’ But let’s not go there. I’m more of a mind with the French police investigator who said of Zeena, ‘A child of four knows very well what she has heard and experienced.’ Perhaps the most insightful comment came form Anouchka Grose who wrote in the Guardian:
To be so young and to have witnessed at first hand such brutality is to be robbed of all the comforting ideas that we build around ourselves and our children – that if you’re good then no harm will come to you and that your family will be there to protect you. To try to re-instil such soothing fictions in a human being who’s had them ripped away so forcibly may be to try to lock the stable door after the horse has bolted …
What exactly is a ‘normal life’? One where the person feels able to love and be loved, while also making a living? If so, there are enough abnormal lives being lived to make a mockery of the distinction. Perhaps, rather than betting everything on a return to normality, it can be far more helpful to think about ways in which people might somehow be able to give a place to experiences that can’t be integrated into everyday life. Rather than trying to sew everything up – either by forgetting it or by attempting to rationalise it – it may be more true to the experience to acknowledge that certain aspects of it might never be synthesised or accepted, and to try to find ways to live with that.
The public anxiety about children is always adult anxiety. Australia has a long, long history of imprisoning and torturing children. In fact when you look at twentieth-century Australia, it’s hard to avoid encountering an image of it as a gulag for children. Look at the numbers: 50,000 children who became the Stolen Generations, the 500 000 other children from Australia and overseas who experienced institutional care, the 150 000 who were taken from their unmarried mothers. Imprisoning children has been a major Australian industry, one constructed with the complicity of several governments and a whole raft of religious institutions.
Welcome to sunny Australia – major industries, mining, sheep farming and stealing children. I always found it both intriguing and sinister that John Howard was able to nail the centrality of Australian anxiety about children. It’s as if he felt himself especially persecuted by unbearable childhood anxieties. Think about his obsessions and denials:
- The children overboard tragedy
- The Northern Territory Intervention
- The attempts to get inside the minds of children via schools, and the rewriting of school curriculum and Australian history
- The various ‘solutions’ to the arrival of asylum seekers, which all resulted in children being indefinitely imprisoned
- The refusal to say sorry to the Stolen Generations
- The stripping of funds from women’s services responding to family violence
For John Howard, childhood was, as a colleague of mine remarked to me, a place where ‘everyone will learn to spell and wear a tie’.
Thinking about children causes unbearable anxiety in Australian adults. So we don’t think about them. Children are largely invisible, usually hidden away in schools and spoken of only in commodified terms of value – investments in the future – or terms of mediaeval morality – as angels or demons.
A couple of years ago I wrote a post at Overland where I questioned the Left’s complete abandonment of any engagement in a debate about the education of children. Then, I saw that failure as a structural failure of the Left’s limited political priorities. Now, after further reflection, I’d see it as something symptomatic. These days I tend to see nearly everything as a symptom, but when one looks at the Left’s total incapacity to develop a political agenda that includes children as political agents, one has to wonder if there is something almost pathological in the Left’s failures in this regard.
If the Left were a person, who didn’t seem to have the capacity to talk about childhood, to think of children as having coherent interior mental states, as having political agency and political lives, one would be very seriously concerned about that person’s psychological health. In this sense, the Left is not much different from the Right. There’s still an assumption that children just need to be given different ideological instruction to be human beings. For example, instead of competitive, gruelling pedagogies of success and failure, perhaps we could develop methodologies of Critical Pedagogy.
This makes no sense within a context where children have no agency. Schools are largely broken institutions and our methods of relating to ourselves-as-children are seriously weird. As an adult one can go for years without having a conversation with a child. That is a seriously screwed way to live a life. But it allows childhood to be marginalised, commodified, reified and governed in punitive ways by institutional structures and sovereign practices of power.
It also allows children who are asylum seekers, for example, to be imprisoned without anyone giving it much thought. If we have no coherent way of thinking about children, if we don’t even see them around very much, they become abstract entities, and coercive and cruel government policies can be implemented without much opposition.
In her book Confronting Postmaternal Thinking, a book I’m hoping to review for Overland in the near future, Victoria University’s Julie Stephens makes a lot of powerful arguments that the marginalisation of childhood is also the marginalisation and depoliticisation of motherhood and the contemptuous dismissal of practices of care. The dismissal of children’s experience is also the dismissal of women’s experience. The Left’s ignorance about childhood, one could argue, is a practice of misogyny, but one that isn’t conceived as a problem at all.
Whatever life Zeena and Zainab al-Hilli live, blind Freddy can see they are going to be very very fraught. For the rest of us, who can do nothing to help them, the image of a traumatised, probably catatonic child huddled under the murdered bodies of her parents is one we would do well to think on, as Australia’s bizarre and cruel practices toward children continue to be enacted in our government’s treatment of asylum seekers and placement of huge numbers of Indigenous children in foster care. We are nowhere near coming to terms with the Australian history of child imprisonment and kidnapping. For me, it’s the central discourse of twentieth-century Australian history. Children don’t forget and they’re not ‘protected’ by their brain’s biology. It’s the adults who have forgotten, who don’t wish to know.