In the spring of 2019, my dad’s most recent partner called as I was heading out my front door. They’d been dating on and off throughout the year and we’d met once, about a month prior. I couldn’t recall having saved her phone number, but sure enough there was her first name with ‘Dad’s Partner’ in the Company field. Primed for disappointment, I slung my bag over one shoulder, cradled my mobile in the other and answered with a curt ‘what’s happening?’ as I pulled the door shut. She asked how I was, then shifted quickly from the incident to her wishes for his remains, the funeral home, the ceremony. ‘Dead,’ I heard myself repeat back—a failed attempt at willing the weight of this word to actualise in my mouth. ‘There was no blood’ she responded, as if troubled by its absence. As I lingered on the confusion of his last moments, she’d moved onto the cremation, and where and when she’d like to scatter his ashes. I wrapped up the conversation with an awkward invitation to let me know if she needed anything, and remained with the phone pressed to my ear, faltering on my doorstep. I still don’t have the official record of how my dad died.
The coronial investigation and a mix-up with his name delayed the release of his body. When I finally saw him at a suburban funeral home, he was a dull grey and heavily bandaged. His shoulders curled inward, far from how he would have held himself. I had hoped the viewing might help me to accept this new reality, but the sight of him prompted a sort of emotional constipation in me. The incident had crushed him in unusual places. I forced myself to look closely at his cuts and bruises, his uneven chest, his shattered nose peeking out from under the gauze half-concealing his face. His hands were folded over a single rose, an idle distraction from his black fingernails and the half a dozen or so little band-aids masking wounds that would never heal. He looked small. When it came time to leave, I had an irrational urge to stop anyone from shutting him in the loneliness of his casket. His partner took pictures — odd keepsakes that she would eventually send to me and some of his other children. A crudely well-intentioned act.
I moved through the next few months like a spectre, haunting my own desolate life. The blue skies of spring mocked me. I took to wearing coats everywhere, regardless of the weather. I returned to work, too soon. I read about grief, because I couldn’t concentrate on much else. All my favourite writers seem to have one or more books on the topic, but I’d never been interested in reading them before. They’re generally shorter books, or at least physically smaller in size. So as not to be imposing, I think. I read about the death of a mother, a husband, a daughter, a lover, a friend. I stacked each story into the passenger side of my bed, hoarding my grief like a security blanket. As I binged through their pages, I wondered how much of our lives we each spend shell-shocked by the deaths of others, only to one day leave others reeling from our own.
The unremitting news footage showed his body, feet pointing up, under a white sheet. I focused only, intensely, on the death tasks at hand: preparing for the funeral, sending letters to the coroner, collecting his ashes; I spoke to lawyers. By the time the police returned his phone, someone had made too many incorrect passcode attempts, locking it to his iTunes account. Once I’d figured out the password to his laptop, I was able to see his passwords for just about everything else. I was unnerved by the ease of it. Some of his passwords were more expletive variations of ‘i-am-trying’, which made me cry congested tears. His rented apartment smelt like patchouli and contained the belongings of many random people who had needed a place to sleep upon their prison release. At the funeral, teary burly men gushed about what a positive difference he had made to their lives.
I was conceived in a conjugal visit in the middle of winter, so it seems only fitting that I’m preoccupied with prisons. I learned at an early age that my dad, sickly sweet and ever doting, was not to be taken at face value. He had spent much of his own childhood as a ward of the state in Turana, a juvenile detention facility that doubled as a child welfare institution at the time. In 1989, The Children and Young Persons Act conceded that remanded young people and children on protective orders warranted separate services from each other. But in my father’s youth, children on protective orders — the orders given when a court decides it is in the best interests of a child for the government to take on some or all care-giving responsibility—were often housed alongside criminalised young people in custody. This meant that more than 3000 children were imprisoned in the overcrowded Turana annually, both wards of the state and incarcerated young people, all inevitably pushed into the quicksand of the prison system. Children can be, and are, placed under protective orders from birth, while the age of criminal responsibility was—and still is in most Australian states and territories—ten years old. My dad said he was around six or eight when he was first taken from his family and placed in Turana.
In 2019–20 alone, 174,700 Australian children had some form of contact with child protection services, and 46,949 young Australians aged between ten and seventeen had proceedings brought against them by police.
My parents met at St Kilda Road’s Chevron nightclub when they were in their early twenties. My mum, with her own backdrop of anguish, dated my dad for around a decade. I was born while he was in prison. We’d visit, he’d call, and sometimes he’d be out for short stints. During the 1990s I lived with my maternal grandparents in the working-class suburbs of Melbourne, six or more of us occupying the three-bedroom house my grandpa built. I now know this as informal relative/kinship care, the most common type of out-of-home care arrangement. I have five siblings, including four who share my dad, and one I’m yet to meet. My family wasn’t religious, but at five years old I can remember praying for God to reset my life so I could redo the first four years over and over, like Groundhog Day. Those first four years felt blithe enough, but by five I didn’t like where my future was headed.
When I was seven my dad was charged with murder. I was encouraged to tell kids at school he was dead, which I sometimes did. I don’t remember ever not knowing about his crimes. It’s as though I’d learned of them in the womb, and gradually grew to grasp their meaning, the same way that other ordinary developmental comprehension dawned on me with time. I had only to build on my synchronic understanding of the words I had been given: prison was a place where adults were put if they had done something wrong. Murder meant to make someone die, against their will, before they were ready. Death was a confusing and uncomfortable experience that adults didn’t like to talk about, and the dead people in question weren’t around to ask about it.
A couple of months after my tenth birthday, my dad’s attempted prison escape was foiled. I can remember being called to the office from my grade five class. I was told not to go home with any adults I didn’t know, as my mother feared that my dad might send a friend or girlfriend to get me. I can remember hearing helicopters whirling overhead that day and wondering if they were looking for him. They couldn’t have been, given his plan was thwarted in its inception phase, before any such searching had become necessary. He once told me that he was glad for that swift failure, as it was a desperate plan born out of frenzied claustrophobia that he would have surely died trying to carry out. My grandpa had passed away a few years earlier, and my grandma needed to move, so I had relocated with my mum and two brothers to a street that consisted mainly of social housing. At this time my mum was told that our place on the housing waitlist was at least ten years, but we were lucky to have secured a cheap and rundown rental.
By 2020, over 800,000 Australians were in some form of social housing — more than the combined population of the Northern Territory and Tasmania. A further 165,000 households languished on various waitlists, for housing that is increasingly overcrowded and falling into disrepair. Population growth is far outpacing the available social housing. The expansion of property investment means that a larger proportion of the Australian population rent than ever before, and the financialisation of housing has created a crisis of people experiencing homelessness, with empty dwellings in our major cities often far surpassing the amount of people without housing on any given night. Most people on social housing waitlists are experiencing homelessness by the time they are housed. Due to the exorbitantly long wait time, applying is often seen as futile. Most people in prison expect to be released into homelessness.
My mum worked in factories until she cut some of her fingers off. She then landed an office job at a transport company, despite the barriers to employment her own conviction history presented. There were large periods of time where my family was consumed with how to pay the bills and where our next meal would come from. When my mum declined the neighbours’ requests to hide stolen property in our yard, they started smashing our windows at night. She tried her best to keep us afloat while in bankruptcy. We’d get food boxes from the Salvos and deliver papers on a scale most people can’t comprehend. We’d sit on our lounge room floor, overflowing with catalogues, folding, and folding until our leathery inked fingers were raw. We’d walk all weekend through nicer neighbourhoods, delivering junk mail, eyes peeled to the ground for loose change. I learned patience. I struggled to sleep as people screamed in the street most nights. I remember the drug overdoses, the needles on the sidewalk, the children who were never enrolled in school, and their houses, devoid of food and peppered with fist-sized holes in the walls. I remember the police at the door when they came to evict us. I remember the strange impractical things we’d find in charity food hampers; chutneys, lavosh, and after-dinner mint chocolate sticks. ‘All those years he was getting three meals a day’ my mum would say of my dad.
Food insecurity in Australia is not uncommon, even though its prevalence is poorly understood. Somewhere between 5 and 30 per cent of Australians—or between one and eight million people—have gone without food when they couldn’t afford to buy more. Foodbank’s 2021 Hunger Report found more than a third of Australians now experiencing food insecurity had never experienced it before COVID-19. Last year Foodbank distributed, on average, over 240,000 meals each day. More than a third of people experiencing food insecurity in 2020 did not attempt to access food relief due to embarrassment, shame, or thinking there might be other people more in need than they were.
Throughout my teens, I found solace in antidepressants, and that small, reliable satisfaction of completing a menial job well. The chaplain at my public school—at which I averaged a 30 per cent attendance rate some years—kept a couch in his office. In my bleakest moments I’d huddle up there and ask him about sociopaths. I was hoping to understand how—and if—a person can be simultaneously kind, generous, and homicidal. I was hoping to understand if I was, or would become, a sociopath. I had heard that repeat parental imprisonment during someone’s childhood all but guarantees their future incarceration. I had been thinking about when and how I would betray myself. The chaplain suggested that our sociability might be made up of characteristics that exist on a continuum. Drawing lines on a whiteboard, he explained that at the extreme ends of any trait disordered ways of relating to others can exist. While he assured me that I probably wouldn’t be worrying that I was a sociopath if I truly were one, this did little to assuage my teenage fears.
I’m often told that crime is ostensibly contagious. Statistically hereditary. I’ve been waiting for this seemingly unavoidable rite of passage to catch up with me. I don’t have a criminal record, although I always thought I would, eventually. It still seems unfathomable to me that I have yet to be in the back of one of those divvy vans that circled my teenage home. This sort of proactive policing is only seen in certain neighbourhoods, on certain streets. There is a policing program in NSW known as the Police Suspect Target Management Plan (STMP). It is a program designed to target those ‘likely to commit a future crime’—exactly the kind of person I imagined myself to be, statistically speaking. In actuality, like much of Australia’s penal system, STMP disproportionately targets First Nations children, many of whom are young girls who have never been charged with an offence. The force of the State is palpably more present in some lives than others.
There was a twenty-year period where I didn’t see my dad in person, mostly at his insistence, though there were countless phone calls and longwinded letters. He agreed to let me visit him in a medium security prison in 2017. I sat in the waiting area wondering if I would recognise him, inspecting the buzzing plastic disc in my hands that would indicate my turn, the same kind they give you while waiting for food at a pub. When I finally passed all the checkpoints, I entered the cafeteria-like visitors’ room to see him pacing in the corner. We locked eyes as the guard told me my dad had been waiting a long time. I wasn’t sure if he meant minutes or years. I watched small children reunite with their fathers and swing off play equipment as I asked my dad practical questions about prison, about parole. He ducked and weaved through conversations, and I realised after the fact that I never got answers to even the most innocuous of questions. I was often puzzled by and suspicious of his evasiveness, never sure if it was reflexive or deliberate.
Australia’s adult prison population has ballooned to over 42,000 on any given night. We are incarcerating a greater share of the populat3ion than at any point in the last century, as MP Andrew Leigh notes in his aptly titled research paper The Second Convict Age. While the rate of incarceration is skyrocketing, crime has not increased—in fact it has decreased. ‘Tough on bail’ laws mean that more unsentenced people awaiting trial are doing so in prison cells, while longer sentences and harsher penalties are being given for crimes that might have previously resulted in fines or suspended sentences. International and local experts, such as the Victorian Sentencing Advisory Council, have found that imprisonment has no effect on the rate of reoffending, and in fact increases the likelihood of recidivism because it places people in a learning environment for crime, reinforces criminal identity, and most importantly fails to address the underlying causes of crime. Despite this, a revolving door of leaders ignore effective alternatives and continue to criminalise those experiencing the most disadvantaged social determinants. Society both punishes poverty and uses poverty as punishment. Women are now the fastest growing prison population in Australia, with an increase of 64 per cent between 2009 and 2019. Almost half of the people in Australia’s prisons are believed to have an acquired brain injury. Australia’s First Nations people disproportionately represent 30 per cent of the total adult prison population nationally—despite representing 3.3 per cent of the total Australian population—making them the most incarcerated peoples globally on record today. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 26 per cent of the Northern Territory’s population, but account for 85 per cent of people in the Territory’s prisons.
In the lead up to my dad’s release we spoke every Thursday night in the 12-minute intervals allocated by the privately-owned Correctional Centre in which he was incarcerated. Most of our conversations were more like explanations, a pre-post-mortem of his life and mine, trying to pinpoint where exactly it all went wrong. Dialling out from a prison is expensive. People in Victorian prisons earn as little as a few dollars a day working for companies that are profiting from this below-minimum-wage prison labour, such as packaging Qantas headsets. Phone calls typically cost the person in prison more than it would cost out in the community, and sometimes more than what they earn in a day. Each Thursday in 2017 I would pick up the phone at around 6 pm and my dad would launch hurriedly into what had been weighing on his mind that week, with barely a hello. Each week he’d get cut off mid-sentence at exactly the 12-minute mark. Prison calls have a particular brand of vehement chatter, that I imagine is stirred up by the hypervigilant life inside, combined with the deprivation of outside community connection. The sheer cost of calling leaves no time to beat around the bush, and some weeks I’d be too overwhelmed by the thought of this to answer. When he’d call the following week, I’d tell him I’d had a work meeting run late the week prior. I’d feel guilty.
The day my dad completed the prison sentence, they gave him back the clothes he wore in twenty years prior. The first thing he did was buy pants. He would often get lost in his first year post-release. It turns out a lot had changed in Melbourne since he had last walked its streets. As for me, I’ve spent the last decade lost in a different universe, within the very same city. My awareness of this difference is ever present. I landed an office job at a law firm and spent my twenties frantically trying to catch up with, what I perceived to be well-educated peers who had seemingly answered questions I’d only just begun to give name to. I became obsessed with morality and what counts as a ‘life well lived’, while remaining acutely aware of how indulgent and privileged this eudaimonious exercise is. I made impressive friends and dated people who took me to lavish parties and private clubs and asked me not to tell their parents about my parents’ criminal records. I dutifully obliged.
I left my job at a law firm to work for non-profits, expecting to find trauma informed, predominantly lived-experience led spaces. Instead, I often found myself polarised in a sea of middle-class egos, building their resumes, othering their ‘clients’ and giving jobs to their friends from private school because they weren’t ‘resourced well enough to advertise’. When jobs and voluntary roles were advertised, it was not uncommon for them to receive hundreds of applications per position. Some of their acceptance rates are so low that they are more competitive to get into than many of the world’s top universities. The non-profit space is a microcosm of subject matter experts, leading on matters they haven’t subjectively experienced. I watched their vicarious trauma bash up against the firsthand trauma of others. I watched victim survivors struggle to navigate the criminal legal sector, the only avenue for accountability available to them, while lawyers on both sides of the fence treated human rights like a collegial sparring contest. I watched as leadership positions were coveted by those who opaquely progressed their careers by leveraging their long-held back-room connections. I would duck out of ballroom galas filled with postnominal holding socialites to take a prison call from my dad, and battle with the derealisation that came with this collision of my two worlds.
With time I realised that what is considered ‘professionalism’ in a given space is innately dictated by its highest social class. For many years I carefully aligned my values, interests, and behaviours to that of my colleagues—horribly aware of conforming in how I spoke, moved, and dressed. It has taken me so much time to start behaving authentically in these spaces, and to actively resist their implicit norms. I do enough to signal my discomfort, while being careful not to risk exile. I try to talk openly about the events of my life—the ones so often deemed inappropriate in professional and ‘civilised’ circles. At times I overcorrect, fervidly cracking myself open in ways that feel both ugly and inadequate. There are times too when I blend in. We are, in part, how we are received, and it is now safe to say that I am usually received as a middle-class person in this liminal space I occupy, unless I indicate otherwise. I suspect I will always feel fraudulent.
Class is difficult to define, and it is fair to say that most of us incorrectly self-identify. Not just because our self-deception runs deep, but because there can be no certain algorithm that will spit out a class ranking by weighing your risk factors against your income, assets, education level, social capital, and eventual inheritance. There is no simple answer. However, there are medians we can look to as a yardstick for how truly average we, and those we surround ourselves with, are. In Australia 50 per cent of us earned $47,492 or less in the pre-pandemic 2018–19 financial year. In 2019, 24 per cent of Australian adults had completed a bachelor’s degree, which is an improvement compared with the 8 per cent of 1991. A pre COVID-19 Anglicare report found no rental properties in Australian capital cities were affordable for the 500,000 single people on a government Newstart Allowance; while the 2016 census found that the top income bracket earning $156,000 or more each year was made up of 596,531 people—less than 2.5 per cent of the population at either extreme. Make no mistake; the likelihood of you falling on either side of these statistics directly relates to you and your family’s race, class, sexuality, ability, religion, and gender. People who skip meals to pay their rent know that there are people sleeping on street corners, just as those with multiple investment properties know that there are people who own private islands; but that does not make any of these people as average as they may count themselves to be.
It remains to be seen just how much the COVID-19 pandemic will change these statistics. At the height of the pandemic, millions more have turned to welfare systems designed to discourage applications, while the wealth of billionaires around the world has steadily increased. Oxfam International’s Executive Director Gabriela Bucher recently spoke of how the world’s ten richest men have more than doubled their fortunes, pointing out that ‘if these ten men were to lose 99.999 per cent of their wealth tomorrow, they would still be richer than 99 per cent of all the people on this planet’.
I was 29 when my dad died. He was 55. Older than his life expectancy by some measures. It has taken me a long time to learn that ending intergenerational trauma takes more than dressing up to look the part of a middle-class person. I’m the first person in my immediate family to go to university. While I’m yet to finish my degree, I know now that no number of qualifications will sufficiently erase my class. I have no savings, and credit card debts that surpass more than six months of my net wage. I will receive no inheritance. The largest portion of my annual budget is allocated to therapy. I have always lived in borrowed spaces, and I probably always will.
Since his death, I dread the mornings most; the moment right after I’ve woken up, before my reality comes into focus. I feel like I’ve spent the last two years, the transition into my thirties, slamming up against every available barrier and I’m getting crushed under the weight of it all. An attempt to get an extension for a university assignment due when he died became a Kafkaesque ordeal to remove a subject failure from my record. I met with a senior academic, who told me in a consoling tone that ‘we don’t get to choose who our parents are’. It took me months to make a dent in the backlog of work emails that I’d barely been keeping up with at the best of times—many requests for advice, to join unpaid advisory committees, or to speak at out of hours meetings and events. One CEO responded to an email, in which I mentioned the passing of my father by way of apology for my delay, with only ‘wow, you are certainly having an email cleanout’. I learned that there is a time limit on grief in this society. Rent needs to be made. Bills need to be paid. Deadlines need to be met. Relationships need tending. Clothes get dirty. Dishes pile up. Garbage bins fill. Life can only be deferred for so long, and a long deferral is a privilege few can afford.
Death is awkward. Categorical. For the last two years my dad’s ashes have sat on my windowsill, in a small vile adorned with a sage coloured tassel that I pulled off a candle. I could endure bereavement; it was everything else that became unmanageable. I naively wanted to stuff my grief into some small internal crevice, accessing it at appropriately allocated times for processing, slowly decompressing until I’d skipped right past trauma and reached the illustrious post-traumatic growth. I was sure a lifetime of financially prioritising therapy and the well-adjusted space I’d been in meant that compartmentalisation was attainable. I knew he died, we will all die, and there’s no amount of distress on my part that will change that. But grief didn’t permeate, per se. Instead, it was as if any other discord in my life was suddenly dialled up. Blaring. Inescapable. Anything I may have previously been able to handle with ease became unbearable. I became both vulnerable and closed, unable to adapt at will. My body became unfamiliar, unresponsive. My usual schedule of juggling 50+ hour work weeks, a part-time degree, voluntary commitments, meaningful friendships, and a healthy routine became insurmountable. I’ve known a lot of death in my life, but to face my dad’s death was, on an intrinsic level, to confront my own mortality.
My dad has always been a regular guest in my dreams. He was once frozen in time, as his early 90s self. Now he appears as his own dead body, animated. In my dreams I relate to him like a disapproving mother, masking my fear for his wellbeing with pre-emptive lectures, like I did when he was alive. In his last text message to me, his ‘beautiful baby girl’, he gave me an update on my aunt’s health and waxed lyrical about how he missed me and would always be here if ever I needed. ‘If you ever just want to chat just call… I am here for you.’ I read it suspiciously. I’d wanted to trust him, the way any child craves adult dependability, but I kept his love at arm’s length. When he died five days later, I hadn’t yet responded. His death wasn’t something I’d anticipated, but I’m ashamed to say that any time I had come close to imagining the experience, I almost expected to feel relieved. For 29 years I had worried about him unrelentingly. I’d questioned what role he played, or could play, in my life. I’d oscillated between feeling a sense of societal duty to give him a positive resemblance of community, pushing my own boundaries for fear of regretting not having had a relationship with him, and wondering if I should distance myself entirely. I think about his crimes and wonder about the lives of those he harmed. I wonder who they harmed in turn. I wonder how far this particular blanket of trauma stretches, where it ends and how much ability I might ever have to hem its edges, unpick its seams and keep it from smothering a new generation. Keep it from smothering me.
I’ve thought a lot about what it means for an action or person to be deemed irrefutably immoral. About what we, as a society, should do to or expect from that person. As citizens of a democracy by birthright, we’re expected to form intelligent opinions on an endless stream of complex issues. Yet there is little room for subtlety or ambiguity as we move through this world, evaluating what principles will place us and those we love in the best possible position. We look for signs in our interactions to cleanly categorise people. A deserving victim. A heinous perpetrator. We look for a consistency in character. We want to believe that we can know what an individual is capable of. We want to believe we all have choices available to us, and that a predominantly infallible system has been set up to ensure we are protected from those who make the choices that are wrong. We are taught that those who don’t choose wisely are likely to step out of line again. That some mistakes are too overwhelming to redeem. Too permanent.
I am likely still some years away from coronial answers. As I write, there have been at least 3178 officially recorded deaths in custody in Australia since 1979. That is 3178 deaths in police custody, prison custody, youth detention, or during an attempt to detain that person. There are countless families, like mine, who have been waiting years for the outcome of coronial investigations or inquests, and as such who are not yet on the official National Deaths in Custody record. When someone dies in police custody or during a police operation, the investigation of the police will be performed by the police. Even on the rare occasions when a coroner recommends police officers be prosecuted, they almost never are. In fact, of the 489 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have been officially deemed as ‘deaths in custody’ since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, no police officer found responsible by the coroner has gone on to be convicted.
My dad didn’t die in a hail of bullets. He died two years post-release, six months after completing the parole period. He died on his way to visit his sister in the intensive care unit at the hospital. He died after a police-initiated contact. The coroner will eventually decide if this was a death in custody. I imagine he died scared. When I left my dad in his casket, wearing the suit he’d recently bought for his first overseas holiday that he never made it to, I felt scared. Scared for the child sent to Turana Boys. Scared of the man who spent most of his life incarcerated. Sad for the man he might have otherwise been.
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