‘Every single person has a purpose in them burning.’
– Kate Tempest, Brand New Ancients
When I was sixteen (the age of consent, significantly), I defied my parents and hitchhiked north from Sydney with a friend to Australia’s first ever music festival, Pilgrimage for Pop, at Ourimbah. During those heady three days I fell for a guy and never went home.
Three months later I was arrested at our flat in Manly and sent to the now infamous Parramatta Girls Home, defined by the press, and its inmates, as Australia’s most notorious home for girls under eighteen. You could describe the charge against me as ‘guilty of falling in love’, but the authorities called it ‘Exposed to Moral Danger’.
Trauma, by definition, is a threat to life or personal dignity. Parramatta stripped us of all personal dignity. It was a place where wellbeing and personal safety was compromised on a daily basis.
A traumatic experience like this may seem an easy thing to get over – particularly if you succeeded in dodging beatings or avoiding ‘conventional’ rape by a male as I did – but those incarcerated at Parramatta (and its sister institution at Hay) have had a lifelong battle with post-traumatic stress disorder. We were all sexually assaulted. Gratuitous, routine internal examination using metal objects that caused bleeding, pain, physical scarring, humiliation and trauma is, in my view, rape.
PTSD is a complex condition. A symptom for me has been anxiety and fear – of always expecting something terrible to happen, and my freedom to be threatened.
Before Parramatta there were many things I’d never witnessed or experienced: self-harm, cruelty, dread, anguish, melancholy; a human toughness in young girls that was unnerving, a deep and perplexing grief that unravels your mind. No child should have to experience such overwhelming pain.
At the still-tender age of sixteen, you believe your mother can rescue you from anything. That the mere sound of your voice pleading for mercy will reverse any bad event, that her age and sophistication will influence the hardest of hearts. But the day I was escorted out of the Children’s Court in Sydney and bundled into the back seat of a blacked-out police car stripped of its interior door handles, her impotence was palpable and terrifying.
The sentence meted out by the magistrate was the standard six to nine months. The sense of helplessness, of losing control of your life, was almost too much to bear. I was often nauseous with anxiety and weariness. I broke out in a rash that nearly drove me insane. I tore my skin to shreds. I cried myself to sleep every night.
The other major humiliation upon arrival was having your hair hacked off. I asked for mine not to be cut too short as I don’t like my ears. I was given a short back and sides. My scalp bled. I was made to strip. My clothes and jewellery were replaced with an ugly uniform. There was no bra, no sanitary belt, and everything, including the large bloomers and singlets, was itchy and rough. My name was replaced with a number: 43.
All sense of self was destroyed.
The self-loathing was cataclysmic and a deliberate device. It was reinforced by physical shame: using toilets with no doors in full view of officers and girls, showing used pads before being given a clean one, showering in front of other girls and officers in three minutes flat.
I worked hard towards early release. The best way to do that was to be a good girl: to be invisible, keep your head down and your mouth shut. Parramatta ran on a system of prescribed harsh discipline and an inventive array of degrading methods to control and break you, including a complex points system. The more good points you built up, the sooner you’d be released. If you stepped out of line, points were deducted. If too many were deducted, you were locked in the dungeons, or sent to Hay (where so-called ‘difficult’ girls were drugged and transferred to in the middle of the night from Parramatta without further trial at the Children’s Court). It was tricky toeing the line and making yourself ‘disappear.’ The others didn’t like it. They conspired to break you down to their level, ever more serious rebellion the aim, even if it meant hurting someone. It was a sinister, formidable form of peer pressure, fuelled by a warped desire to be top dog. My fellow inmates terrified me as much as the officers.
To avoid punishment, you had to cooperate and behave yourself, yet the officers still found reasons to chastise you. A certain look, the way you held yourself, talking at the wrong time, taking too long to perform a task, not performing a task correctly, turning over in bed, smiling at someone, touching someone, refusing to eat, scraping your chair, not making your bed neatly, using too much toilet paper, laughing. Anything normal in the real world could become a grotesque transgression in Parramatta.
The brutality was not only meted out by men; the majority of officers were female. The job description seemed to attract a certain type: aggressive women with a bunch of keys on their belt and no empathy. I know of at least two girls who had their teeth knocked out when a female officer gripped their hair and bashed their faces into a bathroom sink. Others were punched, kicked, or thrashed with a leather belt, or with a fistful of keys. Violence is easily unleashed in secret environments. The officers basked in their dictatorial roles, endorsed by their superiors and their paycheck.
Not everyone at Parramatta was given the privilege of education. Most were sent to work in the laundry, or the sewing room or kitchen. That was their ‘training’: washing the blood and shit-stained sheets from the asylum next door. Scrubbing pigeon droppings off the timber rafters above the stinking hot laundry wing. Keeping the toilets spick and span on bare knees and without rubber gloves. Scrubbing steps and footpaths, and weeding the gardens. We were free labour. Everything shone. You could eat your dinner off the footpath. Being locked up, silenced, put to work and shamed, aggravated our original trauma (the sentencing) the way salt stings a wound.
What helped save me in there were books. As librarian, I had full access to a wide variety of literature (my teacher at Parramatta recommended me for the position). The novel that influenced me most was A Tale of Two Cities. The famous final lines – ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known’ – inspired me to write about my time at the home. The protagonist, Sydney Carton, is facing death by beheading, but there is an enormous sense of hope in those lines. A sense that even death, if you have faith and courage, can be a joyful outcome. It taught me that predictable happy endings are not necessarily the only salve.
After seven months I was sent home because of good behavior. That good behavior was more to do with self-preservation than a willingness to cooperate with state-employed thugs.
Right from the start, I had a need to write about the place and my time there, but writing about a personal trauma was not how I wanted to launch my writing career. The desire was to be a writer. To be read.
Shakespeare understood what the Greeks knew and demonstrated: that tragedy can be cathartic. But my experience has taught me that while it may be useful, such purging of the soul can leave behind a dark, pervasive rancor. When you drag up the past with gut-wrenching fierce anger and pain, it’s bound to create a cloud of constant recollection. The public views you as a survivor, rather than as the writer of well-written prose that you had hoped for.
Before my book, Girl 43, was published, I was a journalist trying to break into fiction. I never spoke about the home. Consigned to a back corner of my mind, not so much forgotten as ignored; a short, intensely sharp glitch in my life that should not have happened. This is a typical symptom of PTSD.
Unlike ordinary memories, traumatic ones can punch through at the slightest provocation and trigger anger, frustration, deep sadness. It’s normal to try and avoid and numb the memories. It might sound like a contradiction, that I wanted to write about it but also bury the memories, but life has its own way of forcing events, and Parramatta was a story that someone had to tell.
When I won the SHE/ARVON/Little,Brown Short Story Prize in 1997, one of the judges, who later became my editor at Virago, asked me to send her a novel if and when I had one.
I felt a sense of urgency and impatience. I did not want this influential editor to forget me. But who would be interested in Parramatta Girls Home? Who would care? Parramatta girls were sluts who deserved to be locked up.
Choosing Parramatta as the subject of my first novel was a huge risk. Yet, when I started writing, the memories came rushing back – every detail vividly real, even the smell. It began to feel important, urgent and necessary.
By chance, when I began to write the book, I spotted a small item in The Times about forced adoption in Australia. I knew immediately that I could combine the two stories. A girl I knew at Parramatta had her baby stolen by the authorities and put up for adoption. The trauma led her to heroin addiction and later to suicide. I heard about her death when working at TV Times magazine in Sydney, in a Department of Corrective Services publication that happened to land on my desk. It used her suicide as an example of what can go wrong when addicted prisoners are not given proper medical and psychological support. I later found out that her suicide happened just feet away from officers, and that her fellow inmates – her friends – had shouted at them to intervene and save her.
My book was first published in 2001; it was another eight years before the two government apologies by former Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, and the Royal Commission Inquiry into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse was launched.
More than 30,000 young girls passed through Parramatta from its inception in 1887 until it closed down in 1974. It’s a particularly personal history and women who spent time there are naturally possessive about their experience as well as the place itself. I knew that other Parramatta girls and birth mothers might take offence if my book did not portray their precise experience, so I worked hard to give my fictional characters a variety of backgrounds. I was intensely aware of their pain as I wrote the book, and worried endlessly that they would feel violated and not validated. The intention was to give them a voice.
Because of this very personal aspect of trauma, you feel a strong sense of ownership. So when a book like The Natural Way of Things came along, inspired in part by events at the Hay Institution for Girls, it was natural for Parramatta girls to feel violated. And yet this book is important too, because it examines misogyny. Institutions like Parramatta were founded on misogyny, but misogyny is not an exclusively male perspective.
Statistics on trauma are revealing: 25–40% of young people experience at least one traumatic event. For adults, it’s 60%. People need and want to read about other people who have been through something similar. That moment of mutual recognition is powerful. The purpose of writing about trauma is to also leave the reader with a heightened sense of understanding the human condition. It requires honest conviction. It grated that I felt the need to disguise the agents of violence and hatred in my novel. In hindsight I wish I had taken the risk and named them. With the Royal Commission Inquiry still ongoing, and several national apologies behind us – and no doubt more to follow for detained and brutalised refugees – now is the time to talk openly and acknowledge the moral disease in Australia that is too often swept aside or joked about.
That is, how anyone inconvenient or misunderstood who threatens the Lucky Country is locked away.
When I talk about the book to a formal audience the words and emotion gather at the back of my throat and almost choke me. The sense of being a bad girl resurfaces. I am stuck between valiant and pathetic. I go home feeling like some kind of fraud: my writing is not the focus, I am. And there inevitably comes the moment when someone says, ‘Get over it.’
This is frustrating – on the one hand I need to keep promoting the book, on the other I’m told not to dwell on the past. But the past is important. We must not forget, because we need to learn lessons about the repercussions of this type of trauma, which run deep and permeate society. Whole families are affected. Friendships and marriages fracture and die.
To write the truth about Parramatta felt to me like a criminal act. I was so afraid of the ramifications because of past repression, that I changed the name of the institution in the book to Gunyah. (Gunyah comes from the Jagera language and is a shelter or humpy.) It was my tongue-in-cheek dig at a system that harmed and did not shelter.
Writing about trauma can seem like misery porn – what a horrible, modern expression. When you write about a trauma that derived from state-sanctioned brutality, in all probability it is not going to be read by the villains. And yet you do write for those people: they are on your mind during the process, and you want them to be deeply ashamed and repentant.
The dichotomy of writing about trauma is that it is disturbing and cathartic.
Fictionalising trauma is often a stylistic choice that is made so the author can explore territory that springs from her imagination. I chose to fictionalise my own story so that I could disguise real people and be creatively free.
It dismays me that stories about trauma are referred to as misery memoirs. Such books have a place in society. They authenticate an experience. Even if a book like Girl 43 is never read by those who are guilty, it should be read in schools and universities, in particular by people training to work in the social services sector.
Girl 43 has drawn out of hiding my own post-traumatic shock, and at times made life difficult. Does trauma reshape a person? Definitely. When the bandages finally come off the wound and all is revealed, the scars are not so much healed as scrutinised.
If you are self-conscious or unsure about exposing your trauma, then I advise against writing about it, because it will change and surprise you in ways you may not welcome or expect. Rather than soothe it can become a burden, a poison, an incurable disease, an unhappy ending that no-one wants to hear. And yet, the compulsion and duty to write about trauma, for many, is too great to ignore.
Had I not made the life-changing decision to get out of the country of my birth, I have no doubt I would have been a Parramatta recidivist. The authorities wanted that, and hounded me. It feels to me pretentious and grand to say I am self-exiled, a description associated with famous figures like Lenin, from Soviet Russia to Switzerland, or Victor Hugo, from France to the Channel Islands. The demons of Parramatta came with me to New Zealand, then the UK, and now France. But having lived away from Australia for 45 years, I now feel justified using that label.
Girl 43 (2014) is published by Hachette Australia. Originally published as Invisible Thread by Virago, London, 2001.