Published in Hireup News & Features, 18 August 2021
In 2014, I was jogging on the beach when I felt a dull pain in my lower back. Over the next two weeks, the pain took over my life. Over time, I worked out that it was worsened by exercise and by positions that compress the spine. The sudden onset of this pain transformed my life. It meant giving up activities I’d loved like running, cycling and rock climbing, but it also meant giving up something I had never given a thought to: sitting.
When you can’t sit down, everything requires a lot of planning. It means hunting down restaurants with bar tables and (when COVID restrictions apply) producing a letter from your GP when a waiter tells you that you must be seated. It means lying down in the backseat while your partner drives or standing up on the train. While some activities can be easily modified so that they don’t involve sitting, in other situations (travelling on planes, attending job interviews) sitting down is difficult or impossible to avoid. The pain that results means that you spend days recovering.
Sitting is the default position in our society. Services, businesses and individuals rarely consider the needs of people who can’t sit down without significant pain, despite the well-known principle of universal design, which mandates that public spaces be accessible to all. There’s also a surprising amount of pressure to sit down in everyday life. People will ask you to ‘take a seat’, sometimes repeatedly, even after you have politely declined. When you grow too tired to remain standing, and lie down, you become the butt of jokes about having had too much wine or not enough sleep.
One of the hardest things about living with sitting disability is how little awareness there is of it. I am still struggling to find ways of explaining my disability that are succinct enough to slip into a conversation but detailed enough to make sense to people when the concept is new to them. It was only this year that I learned that my disability has a name and that there is an online community of people living with sitting disability. There are various reasons for the inability to sit, including arachnoiditis, pelvic injury and sciatica. Some people with sitting disability can sit for a couple of hours; others for only a few seconds. Figures from Norway suggest as many as one in 100 people may be affected.
When my sitting disability started, I was a solicitor. I now work from home in a non-practising legal role and alternate between standing at a high desk and lying on a couch. Outside of work-from-home roles, my options for paid work are very limited. While in theory, employers accommodate the needs of the disabled, in practice, the situation is more complicated. In an office job, the best you are likely to be offered is a sit-stand desk, where you could stand for eight hours a day. Prolonged standing is less painful than sitting but can permanently damage your knees and circulation and cause other serious medical issues. Unless you have a large office to yourself, you’re unlikely to have the option of alternating between standing and lying down while at work. Standing during meetings with your team may be feasible, but it’s much harder when meeting with outsiders. Forget about attending court or parliament.
In the absence of medical solutions, the lives of people like me could be much improved by a greater awareness of our needs and by public spaces making accommodations for those who can’t sit. We must start talking about sitting disability in the disability sector and the wider community.
I am vertical
But I would rather be horizontal.
(Sylvia Plath, ‘I am vertical’)
Published in Overland, 27 July 2021
Not long ago, a friend told me excitedly that she had met a woman who, like me, couldn’t sit down because of a medical condition.
‘I’d noticed her standing up at the back of the room during a workshop,’ she told me. ‘I went up to her and asked if the problem was her back. She said, “How did you know?” I told her I have a friend who can’t sit down either. She said she didn’t know there was anyone else like her.’ I stared at her across the table of the Brisbane bar where we were sharing wine and chips. The place had been our regular for the last few years because of its high tables that allowed me to stand while she sat opposite me on a stool.
Did you get her number? I wanted to ask, imagining the conversations I could have with someone else who was struggling to live in a body so ill-suited for this world. Later that night, I Googled ‘unable to sit.’ Unlike the many other searches I’d tried – degenerative disc disease, lower back pain, herniated disc – this one brought me to what I was looking for: the Wikipedia page for Sitting Disability, where I found myself reading a description of my life for the last seven years.
A sitting disability is a condition in which a person has difficulties sitting or is unable to do so at all; usually due to pain … People who suffer from this are often totally disabled…there are few jobs in which a person is able to lie down …Sufferers in the United States are unseen because of a lack of suitable mass transit, and the lack of public places to lie down in a socially acceptable manner. Sufferers often remain at home even though they may be totally ambulatory.
There was also a Facebook group called Sitting Disability, where I scrolled through posts about standing desks, the best elevator pitches to explain your condition and the frustration of no one understanding. As I read, I imagined the woman my friend had met going home and doing the same search, finding her community as well.
My sitting disability started in 2014. I was jogging on the beach when I felt a dull pain in my lower back. It was neither particularly painful nor particularly alarming, but it was uncomfortable enough that I stopped running. The next time I went for a jog, the odd pain started up again. Over the next two weeks, it took over my life. Forty minutes of sitting left me with a brittleness in the lower back – like wood tightening as a screw is driven in – that made it impossible to get comfortable. Sitting for more than an hour, or doing anything energetic, turned the pain into a swordlike impalement through the lumbar that made it difficult to dress myself or pick something up off the floor. I gave up running, cycling, weight training and rock climbing. Then I gave up restaurants, cinemas, theatres and long drives. My boss at the legal centre ordered a sit-stand desk for me, but I didn’t use the sit option.
An MRI revealed that my L5/S1 disk was badly degenerated and torn. An orthopaedic surgeon told me cheerfully than in twenty years or so I would require surgery, ‘but with pain treatment and physio you can lead a normal life.’ He prescribed Tramadol and referred me to a physio, whose exercises massively increased the pain.
Over the next four years, I saw seven surgeons (and countless other medical professionals) and received reams of contradictory and inconclusive advice. Some urged me to have surgery; others warned against. Chiropractic adjustments brought no benefit. Physios and osteos recommended exercises that at best, made no difference. There wasn’t even a consensus about the cause of the pain, with some specialists claiming that the real problem was my tilted pelvis. Many doctors ask their patients to rate their pain on a scale from 0 to 10, a meaningless exercise when pain is entirely dependent on activity.
More than once, I was asked why having to avoid sitting was a problem by a doctor who was sitting comfortably at a desk, looking up at me.
At many of the medical clinics I visited, I was welcomed with the unconscious faux pas, ‘Have a seat.’ I disengaged with the medical system and found work in a non-practising legal role that allowed me to work from home, where I could alternate between standing up and lying down. Over time, I worked out that I could keep my pain level low if I walked a lot, swam a bit, and avoided sitting completely.
In the sitting disability community, the incapacity of the medical profession to assist is a running joke. The Sitting Disability Facebook Group is comprised of people who (temporarily or permanently) cannot sit due to a variety of medical conditions, including spinal injuries such as herniated discs, scoliosis, arachnoiditis and pelvic injury. The group was founded by a Norwegian lawyer, the late Mosken Bergh, who used to get around on a sort of recumbent wheelchair – a bed on wheels, as she could neither sit nor walk – and campaigned for the recognition of sitting disability for fifteen years, until her death from cancer in 2017.
In Norway, sitting disability is known as sittehemning and in 2019, there were approximately 50,000 registered sufferers (out of a population of 5.3 million). Ads screened on Norwegian television, outlining sittehemning and promoting Bergh’s now-defunct website Friends International Support Group. In 2013, the Norwegian Anti-Discrimination Ombudsman ruled that it was discrimination to deny transport for disabled people to a person with sittehemning.
There is no such public awareness in Australia. Most people with sitting disability cannot do paid work, as almost all forms of employment involve either extended periods of sitting or physical exertion such as bending and lifting. Despite this reality, many attempts to obtain the Disability Support Pension (DSP) have been unsuccessful.
On the Facebook group, a US military veteran tells me it took him seven years to win Social Security Disability, Federal Employee Disability and Veterans Disability Insurance for his sitting disability resulting from degenerative disc disease. He recalls:
‘I had a lawyer that refused to take my case for Social Security appeal. He said that it was difficult for professional people to get disability because we can do our job in a wheelchair. This was after spending a significant amount of time explaining that I couldn’t sit.’
A public relations professional in Arizona who suffers from nerve compression in the thighs was refused both social security and private disability cover because there was insufficient information available about her condition, which doesn’t have an official name and cannot be captured through medical imaging.
It is sometimes said that disability is to impairment as gender is to sex. While impairment refers to the medical condition, disability is the social significance of it and the limitations that flow from it. In order to obtain the DSP, a person must be awarded twenty impairment points with reference to fifteen impairment tables that categorise the severity of loss of functioning in different parts of the body. Inability or reduced ability to sit because of pain is very difficult to demonstrate in this way, especially if the cause is something other than a spinal injury. Furthermore, applications must be supported by a doctor’s assessment and in the experience of many people with sitting disability, doctors simply do not understand the extent to which we are disabled by our conditions and by a society that does not accommodate them.
There are many other examples. Public transport is very difficult to use, particularly air travel and long-distance bus services, which require passengers to be seated for some or all of the journey. In a private car, it is possible to lie down on the back seat (though seat belts are ill-designed for this) or in the front passenger seat (though this is dangerous). Interstate travel is particularly challenging. The enforced sitting on planes leaves me in pain for the entire time I am away. The alternative – train travel in a sleeper carriage – is only available on certain routes and at certain times. Earlier this year, my partner and I travelled by car to Sydney. She did the fourteen hours of driving in each direction (bless her) while I lay down on the back seat, a letter from my GP at the ready in case we got stopped by police. In this way, I was able to enjoy a largely pain-free holiday.
In the only academic study of sitting disability that I have been able to find, Pete Lampard and Tanya Bunsell observe ‘The world has made a great many concessions for those who cannot walk but it makes none for those who cannot sit.’
Indeed, in most people’s minds, ‘disability’ is strongly associated with sitting. The use of the wheelchair symbol to denote disabled people reinforces this. Public spaces are required to be wheelchair-accessible, based on the principles of universal design – the composition of environments so that that they can be accessed and used by everyone – but, even when this requirement is met, very few public spaces are designed with an awareness that not everyone can sit.
Lying down in public places is strongly associated with being drunk, destitute or lazy. Attempts to rest after hours of standing (with the extra pressure on the hips, knees and feet that this entails) are often met with mirth and jibes, even from people who are at pains to accommodate the needs of the disabled when they are aware that that is who they are dealing with. Standing up at an event where others are seated is all too often perceived as eccentricity rather than disability. As a result, participation in social events when you have sitting disability is often not worth the effort, as the adjustments that must be made commonly undermine the experience. Withdrawal from social life is a well-known experience of chronic pain patients. As well as leading to isolation and depression, this can perpetuate lack of awareness about the condition responsible as the patient thus becomes as invisible as the disability they experience.
Through the Sitting Disability Facebook group, I learned that in 2014 the US Court of Appeal handed down a decision that dealt with whether or not the inability to sit for prolonged periods constituted a disability. An employee of Banco Industrial de Venezuela sued for discrimination after the bank refused to accommodate her need to avoid sitting due to pain caused by a back injury. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a disability as ‘a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.’ The Court of Appeal found that the plaintiff suffered from a disability under the act and dismissed the District Court’s finding that an inability to sit for prolonged periods could not amount to a disability. The Australian legislation defines ‘disability’ more narrowly. The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) uses a complex definition which includes the ‘total or partial loss of the person’s bodily or mental functions’. Discrimination against a person with a disability is unlawful where the person is treated less favourably than a non-disabled person in comparable circumstances or where a person does not make reasonable adjustments to accommodate another person’s disability. This applies in proscribed contexts, including work, education, accommodation and the provision of goods, facilities and services. However, it is unclear whether the DDA definition of disability includes the sitting disabled and to my knowledge this has not been tested through litigation.
Now that I have found the online sitting disability community, I am learning to frame my needs in terms of the class of disability that I belong to. There have been some heartening results. Theatre staff, once they have the situation explained to them, are happy to allow an audience member to pay for a standing position rather than a seat. Training providers are often open to allowing a participant to attend by Zoom to avoid the discomfort of a full day of standing even where others are attending in person. Restaurants that have a limited number of high tables will reserve one for someone who needs to stand (and even make an exception to their booking policies in order to do so). I’m also learning that many people in the sitting disability community are worse off than I am and cannot benefit from these sorts of adjustments. In the absence of medical solutions, our lives could be much improved by greater understanding.
Various suggestions have been made for social reforms to address the needs of the sitting disabled. These include: broadening legislative definitions of disability; that all forms of public transport offer passengers the option of standing or lying; that workplaces allow the use of couches and standing desks; that restaurants and cafes provide at least one bar-height table; that medical waiting rooms provide couches or benches and that the wheelchair symbol used to denote disability be replaced with something more inclusive. Reforms such as these would be likely to lead to an increased awareness of sitting disability among the general public, encouraging individuals to become more sensitive to our needs and accommodate them in private spaces as well. A sitting disability is a severe and legitimate physical disability, comparable to a mobility impairment. It is time for anti-discrimination principles to be applied to us, rather than sarcasm, humour or ill-informed advice, so that we may enjoy full participation and inclusion in society.
Published in Kill Your Darlings, 16 March 2020
I became aware of the threat posed by human-induced climate change when I was six. In 1989, concerns were focused on the ‘hole’ in the ozone layer, and the warming of the temperature was known as the Greenhouse Effect. In the years since, the Greenhouse Effect has given way to Global Warming and then to Climate Change. Humans have caused more greenhouse gas emissions in the last thirty years than in all the years since the industrial revolution. A supreme effort was made by activists in the 1980s to avert the coming crisis, but this was a time when neoliberalism was at its peak and the free market reigned. President Carter had solar panels installed on the White House roof in 1979; in 1981, Reagan ordered them removed. That was before some current world leaders were born. As Naomi Klein puts it in On Fire: The Burning Case For A Green New Deal, ‘one could scarcely imagine a more inopportune moment in human evolution for our species to come face-to-face with the hard truth that the conveniences of modern consumer capitalism were steadily eroding the habitability of the planet.’
A growing number of people now believe that near-term social collapse is inevitable. In this context, 17-year-old activist Greta Thunberg is able to speak with a gravitas that eludes adult leaders when she says, ‘we can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations, or we can continue with our business as usual and fail’. Today’s young people are not yet invested in the carbon economy. They have not lived long enough to fall into the false consciousness of neo-liberalism. Furthermore, they are coming of age in an era where the milestones of success that previous generations have aspired to no longer ring true. It is perhaps inevitable then that leadership on climate would come from the young, requiring traditional hierarchies to be put aside along with single-use plastics. Even with the looming climate crisis, the Australian Greens—the only political party built on environmentalism—still fail to win widespread support, and mainstream parties remain at least partially committed to fossil fuels. Author Amitav Ghosh calls this era the ‘Great Derangement’—a period likely to be remembered as a time when humans persisted in their dream of eternal economic growth while marching blindly towards societal collapse. As Ghosh observes:
At exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture where the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics and literature alike.
The school strikers, admonished to get back to school by the coal-fondling prime minister, seem to have an intuitive awareness that their education is preparing them for the wrong future. They are coming of age at a juncture in history where the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a notoriously conservative body whose worst-case scenario predictions have always fallen far short of reality, forecasts a temperature rise of 4.3C by 2100 if business-as-usual continues. Australian thinktank the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Change believes a rise of three degrees is likely by 2050 and would mean the end of civilisation as we know it.
Against this backdrop, calls for civil disobedience abound. The term was popularised by Henry David Thoreau, who argued in 1949, as opposition to slavery was rising in the US, that citizens have ‘the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.’ Civil disobedience has been central to the success of many non-violent resistance movements including the American Civil Rights Movement, Gandhi’s campaigns for independence from the British Empire and the Suffragette Movement in America and Britain. The push for environmental activists to embrace civil disobedience has been spearheaded by activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR), whose handbook This is Not a Drill proclaims: ‘To not cooperate has become a moral imperative—a survival imperative’. XR’s strategy is of non-violent, disruptive, civil disobedience and its tactics have provoked fierce disagreement even between staunch allies. The group has become notorious for the blocking of roads in the name of disrupting business as usual and their direct action has also included blocking Murdoch newspapers from distribution. Protesters who are in a position to do so deliberately risk arrest and jail, in a strategy protesters call ‘weaponising privilege.’ XR’s demands include zero emissions by 2030, the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly selected by sortition to replace the sovereign role of parliament, and that the media ‘tell the truth and act as though that truth is real.’
Thoreau believed that civil disobedience was needed in order to slice through the inertia of the masses. He bemoaned the inaction of the majority, who:
Will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give up only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them.
In order to give more than a cheap vote, he suggests, one ought to refuse to pay tax to an administration that is sanctioning unjust practices and to refuse to participate in its processes. The tax man, for instance, should resign his post.
Criticisms of XR’s tactics have ranged from the banally authoritarian (how dare they block traffic and mess up people’s day) to the provocatively anarchist (their definition of non-violence is too restrictive and rules out many justifiable acts). One of the more nuanced objections to XR is that their actions do not actually break the laws against which they are protesting, and therefore do not amount to civil disobedience in its truest sense. The idea that citizens have an obligation to disobey laws that are unjust, and that officials should refuse to discharge duties for conscientious reasons is linked to a natural law understanding of social relations. While legal positivism holds that the legitimacy of a law is derived from the fact that the law was passed by a sovereign with a valid claim to power, natural law holds that there is a universal set of moral standards that exist independent of the government of the day. Natural law is linked to a belief in universal human rights, such as the right to life and the right to freedom of political opinion. Relatedly, the Enlightenment theory of the social contract is that the legitimacy of the state’s authority over individuals is derived from the consent given by individuals to surrender some of their freedom in order to have their rights protected and the social order maintained. Many climate activists believe the social contract is now broken, as governments have failed to protect their subjects’ most fundamental right to a life on a habitable planet. In the face of this failure, disobedience is mandated.
Attend any meeting of activists engaged in civil disobedience and you are likely to hear talk of the Overton Window. A concept introduced in the 1990s by US theorist Joseph Overton, the Overton Window refers to the parameters of what is acceptable in public discourse at a particular time. Ideas and policies that fall outside the Overton Window are unable to succeed as they will not win public support and therefore are not viable. Extinction Rebellion protestors believe that the Overton Window can be deliberately shifted over time. This allows a movement to focus on a long-term public benefit rather than being constrained by the policies that are currently viable. Acts of civil disobedience that are tied to demands for radical action on climate change can broaden the discussion beyond the unambitious targets put forward by mainstream political parties. They can join the necessary dots between climate justice and social inequality. They can also move more traditional forms of protest away from the margins and closer to what is perceived as the sensible centre. Such shifts must happen and they must happen fast if we are to achieve the radical changes we need to halt human-induced climate warming and break out of the atomised individual thinking that has allowed its escalation.
British Professor of Sustainability Jem Bendell has observed, when talking to students about the imminent collapse of civilisation, ‘a shedding of concern for conforming to the status quo, and a new creativity about what to focus on going forward’. Once we accept that our lifestyle and economic system is unsustainable and to blame for our predicament, we can start putting aside the habits and priorities we learned when we were growing up in the twentieth century. Importantly, we can also cease our unquestioning acceptance that what is right is synonymous with what is legal. Unlearning everything that we thought we knew may be easier for children than for adults—climate psychology therapist Caroline Hickman has observed that the children who are engaged with the climate crisis are ‘nowhere near as afraid as the adults are.’
Disobedience is at the heart of the only sane response to the climate emergency. The situation we find ourselves in demands a wild iconoclasm. Disobey unjust laws. Upend the hierarchy.
We no longer have anything to lose.
Published in Kill Your Darlings, 8 October 2018.
Shakira* sits comfortably in tracksuit pants in a small office in the Sisters Inside building. In the adjoining room, twelve other teenagers are painting at a long table, a weekly after-school art session, where young women who have been criminalised are encouraged to reflect on their experiences and support each other. The girl speaks in a low monotone, the words coming out faster than I can keep up. Born in Port Macquarie, her parents split up, and then after a couple of years her mum met another guy who’s now her stepdad, and he’s been in jail a couple of times, and her mum’s gone back into jail recently, and her mum had a kid with her stepdad, and she has a twin brother who’s in juvie, a little brother who is two, and two younger sisters who are twins, two years younger than her. Her blonde hair is tied back in a ponytail and she speaks without looking at me. ‘I’ve been in fifteen foster homes in my life,’ she says.
Shakira is thirteen. Her parents started going to jail when she was about two, for robberies and assaults. First it was nine months; then a year. She came into the care of the Queensland Department of Child Safety, when she was three and lived with an aunt for the first seven years. It was a kinship placement, where her aunt ‘went to court and put her hand up’ to have Shakira and her twin brother placed with her. But when the twins kept getting into trouble in school, fighting and getting suspended, her aunt ‘had enough’.
Shakira and her brother were placed with strangers instead, but placements broke down and she was moved every six months. Her brother went to juvie for ‘robberies, stealing cars and that kind of thing,’ and they were separated, placed back together, then separated again. ‘He lost control,’ she says, ‘and did whatever he wanted to do.’
She now lives in a ‘resi’, a residential care home with a rotating team of carers who stay with her and another girl for 24-hour shifts. The home is operated by a private company whose vision (according to its website) ‘is to provide children and young people in care with individualised, therapeutic, residential services in Australia.’ Out of the whole company, she says, she has been there the longest. The carers don’t stay for long. They go on leave, or they quit, or retire. They do the shopping, prepare food and buy clothes, but they are ‘not like a mum and dad.’ As Shakira is subject to a Long-Term Guardianship Order, she expects to be in residential care until she turns eighteen.
Shakira is part Aboriginal, but when I ask which community she is from, she hesitates. ‘My mob? Um, I’m not sure. In NSW somewhere. Tareedi, Tarinki or something like that?’
She was in Brisbane Youth Detention Centre in Wacol earlier this year, but only for a week, ‘because I didn’t do as bad as other people have done, so they just put me on bail.’ She says detention was ‘basically like being in one foster home and just staying there.’ Sisters Inside got Shakira a lawyer and she received a caution for eleven counts of ‘enter premises.’ Her twin brother is serving a sentence of four months in detention, but ‘he has been there a bit longer than that because they can’t find a placement for him.’ When he gets out he will not be allowed to see Shakira because of the influence he has on her.
Her parents stopped speaking to her for two years because they were on drugs. She doesn’t talk to her aunty anymore except briefly when she is having visits with her sisters, who still live with her. She will say hello to her, she tells me, but she doesn’t tell her what has been going on. She doesn’t know she’s been in juvie. When I ask who her most significant adult is, she says she doesn’t have one. ‘I just have mates, other kids.’ She runs away from her placement a lot, she says. They call the cops but the cops don’t really do anything about it.
She tells me she got into some more trouble recently and was sentenced for ‘a couple of cars and stealing and stuff.’ She received a five-month Probation Order with conditions that she be of good behaviour and attend school. Unfortunately, attending school is something that is not currently possible – she got expelled from her last one, and no other schools in the area will take her. I ask her if there is anyone currently trying to get her back into the education system. She says she asks about it sometimes, but her carers just say ‘have you asked your CSO?’ She seems to be describing buck passing between the residential carers and the department. I ask her if the carers talk to her about the trouble she’s been in. Not really, she says, but they do know a lot about her. ‘They have a big document,’ she says. ‘They know more about me than I know about them. It’s scary.’
Then she appears to change the subject. ‘I recently got attacked by a police dog’, she says. ‘I got like, all here.’ She shows me red welts on her arms. ‘And on my stomach. I was with mates. We went into a house and someone caught us and we started running and police came and I got trapped in this little corner and then this dog came and attacked me and then we all got arrested.’ She says they were charged with ‘enter premises and a car.’ Later, one of the Sisters Inside workers tells me that Shakira’s phone was taken away ‘to have iTunes installed’ and given back to her with GPS tracker in it. Her carers could see her location through the tracker and alerted the police. ‘The dog got her as she was climbing over a fence.’
It is girls like Shakira who Debbie Kilroy, founder and CEO of women prisoners’ advocacy group Sisters Inside, fears will be pipelined into the new women’s prison that has opened at Gatton. Southern Queensland Correctional Centre used to be a men’s prison, and is run by Serco, the company notorious for running Australia’s controversial offshore detention centres. The Gatton prison has been operating as a women’s facility since September, with inmates being moved there from Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre in Wacol. It is the first Serco-operated women’s prison in the world.
A huge proportion of Queensland’s female prison population is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, with that group making up only 4 per cent of the state’s population but 36 per cent of the women’s prison population. The Australian prison population has soared over the last decade, with 42,855 people in full time custody as of June 2018, compared to 25,968 in 2007. But while the general incarceration rate is on the increase, the figure for Aboriginal women has skyrocketed – with an increase of almost 250% for prisoners in that demographic since the 1991 Royal Commission. The report tabled by the Royal Commission sought to reduce the overrepresentation of Aboriginal Australians in custody and the number of black deaths behind bars; instead, the situation has only got worse, with over 400 deaths in custody since 1991. One of those was 22-year-old Yamatji woman Ms Dhu, who was imprisoned for unpaid fines in Western Australia in 2014 and died from an infection resulting from a fractured rib, a domestic violence injury, despite repeatedly asking for medical attention.
A major inquiry into Indigenous incarceration, which reported in March 2018, found that the overwhelming majority of Aboriginal women who are incarcerated are victims of crime, particularly family violence and sexual assault. The Human Rights Law Centre’s 2017 report into the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s growing over-imprisonment analyses the factors driving the soaring rates, arguing that poverty, insecure housing, mental illness and disability intersect with discriminatory laws, policies and practices. Police and Child Safety take a punitive approach to delinquent behaviour by minors that parents never would, leading to short periods in prison, often on remand, which cumulatively serve to perpetuate disadvantage and compound existing trauma for young women. There is an abundance of evidence that prison does not rehabilitate, but harms women, and increases their chances of reoffending. Community organisations at a local and national level are calling for governments to adopt non-punitive approaches to minor offences and to prioritise preventive and early intervention strategies; to shelve the ‘tough-on-crime’ approach.
The Palaszczuk government has defended its decision to open a new women’s prison, saying the move will ease overcrowding in the other prisons and allow women better conditions and better access to programs and services. Serco is also part of a consortium currently building a 1700-bed prison on the outskirts of Grafton in northern NSW. When it opens in 2020 it will be the biggest prison this country has ever seen.
Vicky* wears a black hoodie and enormous hoop earrings. She is Māori, born in New Zealand, she says, and abandoned by her parents at the age of two. She was adopted and her new parents brought her to Brisbane with their seven biological children. Life with her adoptive family was ‘shit’ – she describes herself as the Cinderella of the house, always feeling like an outsider. ‘I used to get hidings from my mum,’ she says, ‘real bad ones.’
When she was 14, Vicky ran away to live on the street. A community of teenagers camped out in the Brisbane CBD took her in. Together they begged for money on the street, slept on the footpath, on benches or ‘just anywhere.’ They drank goon or Passion Pop and regularly got moved on by the police. ‘Usually they would come looking for a specific person,’ she says, ‘and give a move-on direction to everyone else.’ She remembers her time on the street as ‘bad and good at the same time.’
Her first time in juvie was last year and then ‘it went from days to weeks to months.’ Being in juvie was good, because she knew everyone there; ‘there was TV, your own personal space and somewhere to sleep.’ The kids were required to attend school but not to hand in assignments – so, she says, ‘it wasn’t really school.’ She still has a charge which has yet to be finalised, an armed robbery, which has just been committed to the District Court.
At the moment, Vicky is living in a sort of halfway house – a place ‘where girls go when they come out of juvie and have nowhere to go.’ Her parents support her when she has to go to court. They are working with Child Safety in relation to Vicky and one of her brothers.
While Vicky was in juvie, her birth mother phoned her. It was a surprise and she didn’t know who she was speaking to. It turned out her adoptive mother had contacted her birth mother and told her everything. I ask her if she feels safe to go back to her adoptive parents’ house on bail. ‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘Things are different now. I was fourteen when I did all this. Now I’m nearly sixteen.’
Across all Australian states and territories, the minimum age of criminal liability is ten, which is far below the international average of 14. However, there is a presumption that a child between the ages of ten and fourteen is criminally incapable. For a court to find a child under 14 guilty of an offence, the prosecution must adduce evidence that the child knew the act to be wrong. Despite this safeguard, the criminalisation and incarceration of very young children is widely felt to be inappropriate, entrenching disadvantage and increasing the chances of the young offender going into the adult prison system later on. It is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who are most affected by the low age, with these children 25 times more likely to be in detention and 17 times more likely to be on a youth justice order than non-Indigenous children. Amnesty International and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child say the minimum age of criminal liabilityshould be raised to 12 in Australia.
In Queensland, until February 2018, it was possible for seventeen-year-olds to go to adult prison. Lawyers and youth advocates campaigned for years to change this, arguing that it was harmful to young people to be incarcerated in adult conditions and exposed to hardened criminals. On 12 February this year the law changed, and seventeen-year-olds held in adult prisons were moved into youth detention centres.
Ellen*, who is now eighteen, did three months in ‘the big women’s’ (Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre) as a seventeen-year-old prior to the law changing. Before going in, she lived on the street, smoking pot every day and using ‘the gear’ (ice). ‘It wasn’t an addiction,’ she says, ‘but every time I could get it, I would smoke it.’ Ellen’s parents passed away in the US when she was eight, and she and her siblings were sent to Brisbane to live with an uncle. There were ‘a lot of family problems, arguments’ in the house, and at fourteen, she moved out – living on the street at first, then with a mate; as she puts it, ‘basically couch surfing’. She first came before a court when she was fifteen or sixteen for an armed robbery charge.
In Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre, she worked in the workshop, cutting up rags and sewing. She was also given the option of studying and took the opportunity of embarking on Grade 11. She was released on a supervised order, but ‘stuffed up again and went back in.’ The law had changed by then and she was placed in juvie. She much preferred the big women’s, she says – there is so much drama in juvie, and in the big women’s you get a lot more freedom. Ellen is staying with an aunt and went back into school three weeks ago. She’s still on a supervised order, which requires her to be home by 7pm unless she is participating in a Sisters Inside program, like the art session the girls are here for tonight. She blames her past trouble on ‘the wrong crowd’ and ‘not making the right choices’. She says when she is out late at night she gets tempted to do crime. ‘I don’t know why’, she says. ‘I just get tempted.’ I ask if she thinks she will go back into custody. ‘I hope not,’ she says. ‘But I can’t promise myself I won’t.’
Staying busy helps. She does boxing through Police Citizens Youth Clubs (PCYC) and has started writing some music. I ask Ellen if she knows about the Barista Sisters program that Sisters Inside is running. The program has baristas training marginalised young women to make and serve coffees from a coffee cart set up outside the Sisters Inside office. ‘Yeah,’ she says, ‘Debbie was telling me about it.’
I mention that there’s a lot of interest in prison issues right now because of the new private women’s prison that has just opened. The government quietly announced the conversion of Southern Queensland Correctional Centre to a women’s prison on 3 July, in a few lines at the end of a press release about the expansion of Bollaron Training and Correctional Centre. The only publicity it has received has resulted from Sisters Inside’s campaign against the criminalisation of young women, like those I’ve spoken to tonight.
‘New prison?’ she says. ‘Where?’
It’s news to a lot of people.
*Names have been changed
Published in Kill Your Darlings, 18 June 2018.
In a lecture hall at the University of Queensland, a woman in acid-wash jeans and boots sits with her legs apart addressing a rapt audience. She speaks in gritty tones that tell of a working-class childhood and a late education. Debbie Kilroy is the founder of Sisters Inside, an advocacy group for incarcerated women. She pulls no punches. Prison is big business. We must shut down the prison industrial complex. She talks about ‘her mate Angela (Davis)’ and how they recently got together and laughed over an episode of Orange is the New Black. While she is speaking, two small children drift out of the audience and onto the stage, as if drawn by the strength of her charisma. She lifts one up and continues speaking her truth to the packed auditorium with the kid on her lap.
I first learned of Sisters Inside when I was studying law. I had picked up a brochure about the latest ‘Is Prison Obsolete?’ conference, which was to be held in Melbourne. I showed it to my mother. ‘Women who’ve been in prison can attend for free.’ She registered immediately.
It had been several years since she had been released after her final stint. She was living in Brunswick, studying a PhD in Literature and nagging me to start dressing properly. We spent a memorable three days listening to prison abolitionists from around the world talking about injustices inflicted on women in custody. At twenty-two, I was dimly aware that the issues being discussed both did and did not align with what she had represented to me as a child. Throughout the decade my mother had spent in and out of custody for a suite of dishonesty offences, she had maintained her innocence. It was a cliché to which I was oblivious. Even once I entered law school, I had still to be disabused of my belief in her. As Red tells Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, ‘Everyone in here’s innocent.’
It was in 2009 that I first visited a prison as a lawyer. I was twenty-six and a junior solicitor at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), the Aboriginal legal service in the Northern Territory. The visit centre at Berrimah was outdoors, covered by a tin roof, with open sides through which you could see the prison wall. Two white officers supervised the mostly black inmates seated at the wooden tables with their families or their lawyers.
When I pushed open the heavy metal gate, I was flooded with memories of a long-ago prison visit, the first time my mother was held on remand. I had cried myself to sleep on a mattress on my cousin’s floor. My aunt drove me to the prison on Saturday and we stood beside the menacing prison wall until someone answered our buzz at the intercom. I saw my mother through the fence before they hauled the door open for me to run through and hug her. Her prison tracksuit felt strange against my face. I fought these memories off while I talked to my client at Berrimah. When it started to rain, the noise was so loud on the tin roof that we had to stop and wait it out. Over the months that followed, my prison visits became routine and I groped my way towards an appropriate level of detachment.
As a young solicitor, I saw Aboriginal people going through a revolving door. Some were unable to recall what offences they had been jailed for on the last occasion. There was a mass opting out of the white legal system, with defendants failing to turn up to answer their bail or flagrantly breaching court orders. ‘Balanda [white man] law doesn’t exist,’ one man memorably told police, when asked his reason for breaching an order. When I saw the many ways in which the whitefella legal system was failing people, I couldn’t blame them.
Fairlea Women’s Prison closed down in 1996 as sections of the prison system were privatised. Unbeknownst to my nine-year-old self, standing in the lee of its wall on that Saturday morning in 1991, Australia was poised to embark on a project of relentless penal expansionism. The ethical problems with private prisons are obvious. Companies profiting from mass punishment; their continuing growth and profit potential becoming important to the economy. They also give rise to an apparent conflict of interest. The goal of prison, in theory, is to rehabilitate. When a company’s continued operation demands a robust prison population, there is no incentive to foster conditions that promote staying out of jail post-release.
What’s more, with private prisons comes reduced accountability in a sector where accountability has been sorely lacking. It is very difficult to obtain records from a private prison through Freedom of Information, meaning that deaths in custody cannot be fully investigated for possible breaches of duty of care. For this reason, when Ngaanyatjarra Elder Mr Ward died in the back of a prison transport vehicle going through the West Australian desert in 2008, records relating to what contractor Global Solutions Ltd knew about the faulty air conditioning in the vehicle could not be accessed.
The Northern Territory has the highest incarceration rate in the developed world. Over 80 per cent of the prison population is Indigenous. Notoriously, there is no facility for the criminally insane and those found unfit to plead are nonetheless housed in prison. It was in Berrimah that Lindy Chamberlain served three years before being exonerated of the murder of her infant daughter Azaria. Even three decades later, the case was never far from the lips of the Northern Territory’s criminal lawyers. Berrimah Prison closed in 2014 and a bigger prison was opened on Howard Springs Road, 33 kilometres from the Darwin CBD and surrounded by bushland. Despite promises of a bus service for those wanting to visit family members, no such service existed until community pressure led the Salvation Army to offer a minibus three times a week. It has been described as the most isolated prison in the Western world.
When I was very young, I accompanied my mother to court in Melbourne. She sat primly beside me, neatly dressed, legs crossed. I squeezed her hand and tried to put my arm around her shoulders, but she shrugged me off. The wait was interminable and each minute brought a new layer of dread. She had been to jail before; she might be going again. She was an innocent woman, so I thought, being persecuted by the system. Her solicitor sat at the front of the court, laughing and talking with the other young lawyers. I couldn’t hold my mother’s hand tightly enough. ‘Why isn’t she sitting with you?’ I asked, indicating the solicitor, whose insouciance I found offensive. ‘How can they be laughing like that?’
Though I had a lot of the details wrong, my sense of injustice at the casual way people were deprived of their liberty has been vindicated. More than two decades later, we have become a country defined by our love of locking people up. It’s no coincidence that during the same years the penal system has massively expanded in Australia, immigration detention has also become a booming industry. We view the most vulnerable as a threat, whether their desperation manifests in ways that society has criminalised, or by trying to reach our shores to seek asylum. Either way, companies like Serco and G4S stand to gain.
Criminal law posits imprisonment in the interests of general deterrence, specific deterrence and rehabilitation. At criminal law conferences, many judges and magistrates openly acknowledge that general deterrence is a fiction and that prison doesn’t rehabilitate. There is talk of justice reinvestment, the practice of redirecting funds that would be used to incarcerate people back into the communities they come from to create infrastructure, jobs and support programs, addressing the factors that led them to offend. In some communities, like Bourke in New South Wales, justice reinvestment programs are being trialled, but public pressure remains for governments to be ‘tough on crime’.
From the modest stage in the lecture theatre at UQ, Debbie Kilroy matter-of-factly describes the strip searches female prisoners must go through before they receive visitors. Before and after the visit they must undress, lift their breasts, part their cheeks and, if they are menstruating, take their tampon out. There is obvious discomfort among the audience at these words. The majority of women in prison have been the victims of sexual abuse. Many women opt to forego seeing their family, or choose to speak to them in a room divided by a glass partition, rather than go through the searches.
As I listen I recall train trips out to Laverton and the shuttle bus to the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre to see my mother as a teenager. The strip searches didn’t particularly bother her, she used to say, but they were terrible for women who had been through trauma. I realise I’d never thought to ask if one weekend suited her better than another. Sometimes I turned up unexpected. ‘I wasn’t expecting to see you today,’ she always said. ‘What a nice surprise.’ She once told me how she and her drug smuggler mate had tried to calculate how much money was made from the criminal justice system. Big business, they had concluded.
I’m thirty-four now, and have only recently pieced together my childhood. It has taken years to fully understand that my mother’s claim of having been ‘set up’ by the police was what people in the Territory call ‘gammon’ – bullshit.
When I first heard Kilroy speak at the conference in Melbourne, I still believed my mother innocent. At the end of the conference, Kilroy had invited all the women in the audience who had been ‘inside’ to rise to their feet. Women throughout the hall had stood stiffly and those remaining seated looked at them with something like admiration. My mother had left at lunchtime that day. If she had been there to rise to her feet, what would she have felt towards the daughter who had brought her along, her head still full of her mother’s lies?
It has been some time since we have spoken. I just want you to admit what really happened, I had told her.
This time, I’m here alone.
To one side of me two heavily pierced women listen intently. In front of me sit several earnest-looking undergraduates. A few people stand up to leave. Kilroy picks up the microphone one last time.
Does anyone have any questions?
Published in Overland, 8 June 2018.
Greens Senator Jordan Steele-John announced in April that he would introduce a bill to lower the minimum age for voting to sixteen. He argued that many young people are working and paying tax, that they can join the army and get married, and should therefore have a voice in parliament. None of these were new arguments.
The reaction wasn’t new or surprising either, with conservative voices echoing sentiments expressed when a similar change was floated by Bill Shorten in 2016 – that is, young people are immature, undeveloped, uninterested. Former Liberal politician Peter Collins went so far as to offer a sound bite that bordered on dog whistling, when he smugly declared on ABC’s The Drum, ‘We don’t want to politicise our playgrounds.’ The statement seemed perfectly to encapsulate the conservative position and to simultaneously undermine it. First, it showed the profound disrespect some adults hold for young people, many of whom are contributing to society in many ways. Second, it exemplified the reductive and inaccurate negative stereotyping that has historically been levelled at other disenfranchised minorities. And finally, it highlighted the hypocrisy at the heart of the right’s opposition to this move to extend so-called universal suffrage, that hallmark of democratic societies, from its current boundaries.
Over the last 200 years, the trend in democratic societies has been to remove barriers from voting incrementally, while retaining some basic restrictions. To vote in most countries, a person must be both eligible and competent. To be eligible, one must be a member of the society, usually a citizen. To be competent, one must not be mentally impaired to the point of being unable to exercise civic responsibilities.
In Australia, individuals who have been sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment are ineligible to vote (for the duration of their sentence), as are persons who are of ‘unsound mind’, and non-citizens. While the minimum age for voting is set at eighteen in the vast majority of countries, a minority comprising Brazil, Argentina, Austria, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua have a voting age of sixteen, while in Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro, sixteen and seventeen-year-olds can vote if employed. A study of the Austrian context, where sixteen-year-olds have had the vote since 2007, indicates that contrary to common perceptions, voters aged sixteen and seventeen are not less able or less motivated to effectively participate in politics.
So why do we relegate teenagers to the same status as those the state has deemed of ‘unsound mind’ or those it has convicted of serious crimes?
Childhood has long been a politically contested arena. The interests of children have been cited as a sort of moral trump card in almost every politico-moral controversy this country has seen in recent years. In this context, the statement that we do not want to politicise the playground must be recognised as the hypocritical charade that it is as well as being a timely reminder that there is much more at stake in this debate than an extra 600,000 votes.
The idea of childhood as a time of innocence was pioneered by French philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau in 1763. Rousseau’s proposition that children should be kept pure and shielded from harmful influences has become so widely accepted that to challenge it has become a form of heresy. But this paradigm of childhood, Kathryn Stockton reminds us in The Queer Child, is the fond fantasy of adults. The resulting mythical, vulnerable, passive, child figure that haunts the imaginations of adults makes the ideal political football, as evidenced by the use of ‘children’ as pawns in Australian political debates of recent years.
For example, in 2004, an episode of Playschool was broadcast depicting two young girls playing in a playground, while two women waved and smiled at them. ‘My mums are taking me and my friend Meryn to an amusement park,’ a girl’s voice told the viewer. The episode provoked a media and political backlash that corresponded with the Howard government’s push to amend the definition of marriage. A campaign for that amendment ensued, harnessing the moral panic provoked by the episode about the supposed risk posed to ‘innocent children’ by exposure to same-sex relationships.
The interests of children, in the abstract, are used again and again to shut down calls for progressive social reforms without reference to any verifiable effect on any child, much less any consultation with the children supposedly affected. The playground is well and truly politicised and it is the exclusion of children from an arena in which their interests are repeatedly foregrounded that makes this politicisation so problematic. The refusal to acknowledge the evolving capacities of young people, by lumping seventeen-year-olds into the pejorative ‘playground’ category, flies in the face of the reality that by our late teens we can have all sorts of responsibilities. And in democratic societies, where a person has responsibilities, they have concomitant rights.
The homophobia of the right is perhaps matched only by its ephebophobia. The latter flies largely under the radar because the fear of adolescents has never been mainstreamed as a political issue. Yet just as the Equal Marriage campaign provoked all manner of homophobic bigotry, the suggestion that we enfranchise the young garners equally disturbing attitudes. While children are cited QED-ishly as the bottom line in every argument, the suggestion that they could be invited to exercise political agency (if only during years where many of them are operating largely as adults) evokes contempt.
When Labor floated the idea, former Howard government adviser Terry Barnes claimed such a move would be ‘an insult to democracy’, citing young people’s lack of judgement, wisdom and life experience and claiming they ‘are not thinking too much about the narrow world in which they are the centre’. Such comments are not surprising when young people are often derided in terms that, were they directed at any other social minority, would amount to hate speech. It’s a curious paradox of this civilisation that we simultaneously prize and protect our children above all things and hold them, collectively, in the utmost contempt.
The arguments advanced against female suffrage were strikingly similar. Women were ‘politically inert masses who take no interest in politics and do not desire to do so’. The proposal to give them the vote was doomed because ‘the mental equilibrium of the female sex is not as stable as (that of) the male sex’ and ‘women’s inherent delicacy and purity would be at risk by having the vote’. Opponents of enfranchising teenagers are using the same spurious and tautological arguments that their forebears used in trying to retain their stronghold on political power. Arguments that revolve around the need to protect a supposedly delicate social group by perpetuating discrimination against it must be recognised as the doublespeak they are. The stay in the playground/kitchen mentality is the catch cry of a hegemony that knows it is losing its grip on society’s reins.
Political economist John Stuart Mill argued in 1861 that ‘it is a personal injustice to withhold from any one, unless for the prevention of greater evils, the ordinary privilege of having his voice reckoned with, in the disposal of affairs in which he has the same interest as other people.’ When Australian women gained the vote in 1902, the country could rightly be called a leader in human rights. We were only the second nation to give women the vote (after New Zealand). We were later instrumental in developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, human rights in this country have fallen to an all-time low, and Australia is regularly condemned by the UN for failing to meet human rights norms.
Australian youth, however, were overwhelmingly engaged in the Equal Love ‘plebiscite’ debate, making up 66% of new enrolments to vote. They are the heirs to the damage wrought by climate change inaction and mismanagement of the housing market. They have the same, nay, greater interest than other people in these issues. Young people need a place at the table: to elect representatives, have a say in public debates and civic processes, and to cease to have their interests expounded and misrepresented by others. Opponents of female suffrage claimed men would vote with their husbands’ and daughters’ interests in mind. When opponents of this movement make a parallel claim, they fool no-one.
When Australia voted in the 1999 republican referendum, I was a first-year student at the University of Melbourne. I was eking out a living with Youth Allowance and a part-time cleaning job, renting a one-bedroom flat in Ascot Vale and doing my writing in laneway cafes, prolonging each drink, savouring the atmosphere but saving my pennies. I didn’t vote in that referendum because I was sixteen, a fact that my colleagues and lecturers didn’t even know. As an underage worker, I was paid a lesser wage, but nonetheless, paid tax as well as rent.
In the intervening years, there have been a few advances for young people: (some) adults have started to recognise and respect the right of teenagers to identify as LGBTQ and non-cis gender. Young people have increasingly been able to broadcast their views to the world thanks to social media, at times taking on leadership roles in political campaigns. But we still hear the young being denigrated and negatively stereotyped by politicians, the same ones who cite them in a faceless, abstract void as the bottom line in every politico-moral argument.
It is high time for young people to become enfranchised not because they have chosen to be concerned with politics but because politics consistently chooses, in ways that should not go uninterrogated, to be concerned with them.
Published in Feminartsy, 27 April 2018.
My life has been marked by lies.
Addled by a mother who was both startlingly open and compulsively deceitful, I grew up warped by them. I spent my twenties running from the lies. I became a lawyer, maybe in an attempt to bury myself in other people’s problems, rather than confront my own. While I sometimes glimpsed in my peripheral vision a vague awareness that a momentous discovery lay ahead, it wasn’t until my thirties that I turned to face the truth head-on.
Now, after eight years of practicing law – a profession that requires you constantly to evaluate the truth claims of others – I have returned to my childhood love of writing. In writing we can play out the journey from untruth to truth, from not knowing to knowing. We can explore the struggle to tell the truth while misinformed. We can confront the subjectivity in which human experience is bounded.
In one of my formative lies, I am nine and my mother is leading me by the hand across the oval of Fairlea Women’s Prison. She shows me a tennis ball nestled in the grass with a slit across its side. ‘That is how drugs get into the prison’, she says. She explains that the women call the prison officers ‘Screws’. And I learn that vegemite, somewhat incongruously, is contraband. Rumour has it that this is because it is capable of being injected. My mother has told me that she is innocent of the offences she has been jailed for. Even when she is imprisoned a further nine times in as many years, that is what I believe.
Like a child who trusts her mother, a reader embarks on a story reliant on the narrator to divulge all the necessary and relevant facts. We have to trust her, as she is our only way into that fictional world. She feeds us morsels of truth and we do not guess that the main course is cock-and-bull. Unreliable narrators appeal to our fundamental need to trust others; our natural desire to believe what we are told. They manipulate our tendency to seek confirmation of our beliefs and overlook information that contradicts them. The narrator in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending warns us of this. ‘You might think this is rubbish – preachy, self-justificatory rubbish,’ Tony says of his own account.
You might even ask me […] what damage I had suffered a long way back and what its consequences might be: for instance, how it might affect my reliability and truthfulness. I’m not sure I could answer this, to be honest.
Despite his caveats, we trust Tony. When his narrative is exposed as wracked by omissions and distortions, it catches us unawares. Likewise, we trust Rosemary, the narrator of Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The little girl describes her family as she understands it and it is not until well into the story that we realise the vast chasm between her perceptions and other people’s.
In another lie, I am ten and my mother has sent me to stay with the family of one of my school friends. She has told them that she is in hospital, a story I am expected to maintain. One afternoon I walk to the local shops with the family, a letter to my mother in my hands, the prison’s address carefully printed on the envelope. When the letter-box draws into view, my friend holds her hand out. ‘Let me put it in,’ she offers. ‘No,’ I say, hating the churlishness of the words, but worried she will look at the envelope. As it transpires, the family learns the truth anyway, after an attempt to visit my mother at the hospital. ‘They know you’re in jail,’ I whisper to my mother on the phone, after sheepishly confessing the truth to them. I had told her from the beginning that such a lie was unnecessary anyway. ‘You’re innocent,’ I reasoned. ‘So you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.’
Pseudologica fantastica, or pathological lying, is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders as a stand-alone disorder, as well as a symptom of other disorders such as psychopathy. People who lie habitually or compulsively do so for internal reasons, to bolster their own self-image, rather than for any external motivation like financial gain. Sociopaths tell manipulative lies. Narcissists tell lies designed to elevate themselves. Although lies are a symptom of several mental disorders, there is little agreement among experts about the relationship between dishonesty and mental illness.
I don’t know any of this when I am twelve. My mother has applied to rent a property under a false name. As we stand in the real estate agent’s office, I watch her play the part of a divorcee reluctantly eluding to her recent marriage breakup. She has it down pat, with a slight choke over the words, as the woman she is pretending to be, gives her details. ‘Lynda with a Y,’ she says, as if she has been saying it all her life, and the real estate agent writes it on the application form and shakes her hand. As I understand it, these are lies of necessity. Lies to elude a police force that is unfairly persecuting her. Lies to avoid difficult explanations to people unlikely to understand. She lies to strangers; people who cannot be entrusted with our secret; people who aren’t involved. People who don’t matter.
You’re such a good judge of character, my mother sometimes tells me. She often laments about all the times she has trusted people who have proved untrustworthy. She predicts that I will never make such a mistake.
The experience of being duped by a parent is a bit like the moment a reader realises that the narrator whose story she has been trustingly absorbing, has been less than candid in the telling. It’s a mixture of indignation and betrayal and belated comprehension. Aha! we cry. So that’s what really happened. Now, at last, all those seemingly innocuous events are exposed as the carefully constructed plot devices that they always were. We look back and belatedly understand how our perceptions have been manipulated, the facts carefully curated, to produce such a state of credulity. After a childhood marooned in the spaces between a multitude of falsehoods, I am slowly writing my way to the truth.
Published on Field of Words blog, 27 January 2018
The first time my mother went to jail I was eight. It was for fraud but she said it was a mistake and within a week she was out on bail. When it happened again the following year, she wept into my chest. ‘I didn’t do it’, she sobbed. ‘I don’t know why this is happening’. The more she went to jail, the more convinced I was of her innocence, while my grandparents and aunts were jettisoned for not believing her. Time after time the police burst in and took her away. I used to dream that the house was on fire with us inside it. It was a panicky dream, from which I would wake in fright, sweating. I now see that dream as emblematic of a child’s deep-seated feelings of danger. I still dream about that property, but now it’s the trees outside that are burning. The world around me going up in flames while I am safe inside my memories.
I did not understand how thick with lies my childhood had been until I was thirty-two. That ‘oh my god’ moment of discovery is the ideal place to write from. It is often said that when we write we do so in order to answer a question. While a memoir interrogates a specific life experience it does so at that deep subterranean level where all lives meet. In seeking answers about my own life, I seek universal answers. They say that when you touch a nerve that doesn’t want to be probed, a subject that you baulk at writing about, you have found the place that your writing most desperately needs to go. It is only when we dare to ask the questions that terrify us that we stand to find answers that can truly enlighten.
For most of the years I spent in my mother’s care, there was no one else around. There is no one to corroborate either of our memories. No one witnessed the way our world repeatedly fell apart and was stitched messily back together by my little hands and her shaky ones in a collaboration that made me complicit in my own deception. We were revisionists. We made a patchwork of our past, throwing out the pieces that didn’t fit and embroidering the most impressive ones. Much later, I groped my way towards an understanding of this process. Writing about childhood, once we have left it, is notoriously difficult. Clichés about childhood innocence are rooted in adult agendas. Childhood, Katherine Stockton tell us, is the fond fantasy of adults.
The fickleness of memory is often foregrounded in memoir, which has been called the postmodern answer to autobiography. We are always being told that we do not remember nearly so much as we think we do. Jeanette Winterson introduces a scene in her memoir with the equivocation, ‘I have a memory – real or not real?’ Memories that prove inaccurate or incomplete lend themselves to a layered narrative that admits its imperfections. They are shouts in the dark; pieces of a larger puzzle. ‘The first time I heard the word gas-lighting,’ writes Ariel Leve, ‘I was in my late thirties…The encounter wasn’t a surprise. Our meeting was more like a confirmation. Yes, I know you. There’s a name for that. There’s a term for that.’ Rosie Batty writes of the importance for survivors of learning the terminology for different types of abuse, ‘for the terror you’ve suffered to be given a name.’ The acquisition of this language empowers. It tells us we are not alone. There’s a name for this. This is a thing.
My own memoir came about through a series of frank conversations with long-estranged family members. Through court decisions, winnowed out of legal databases. Through old news articles; letters meticulously filed away by my grandmother; scraps of paper fortuitously kept. And, finally and irrevocably, through a surveillance camera image of my mother committing one of the fraudulent transactions that she has always denied. When you ask a question, you have to be prepared for an answer. Writing a memoir can force you to draw some brutal conclusions. A narrative must, to some degree, be resolved. At some point you must give your allegiance to one of the competing interpretations of events more than another. You must make a call when claims and excuses don’t add up. You must dart down every rabbit hole until you discover something approaching a verifiable truth, conscious that you will never know the whole story. My memoir destroyed the illusions I had carried with me out of my childhood, but it also led me back to the family I had left behind over twenty years earlier. It filled the gaps between the evasions and ellipses of decades. It stripped away a façade and exposed foundations so that I could start rebuilding.
Batty, R (2015) A Mother’s Story HarperCollins, Sydney.
Leve, A (2016) An Abbreviated Life: A Memoir, HarperCollins, Sydney.
Stockton K (2009) The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, Duke University Press, Durham.
Winterson, J (2011) Why be Happy When You Could be Normal? Jonothan Cape, London.