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A rant and a challenge

By Al Ross

This article was written to challenge anyone who has ever made an absolute statement on any issue.

(Oh, the irony).

Preface One: I concede that there is an element of “me too” and even “what about me” in this article.

Preface Two: In writing this article I feel that I am betraying the confidences of my siblings and my parents. This is in spite of the fact that my parents are dead and the majority of my living siblings are OK with me writing whatever I want.

Note: Do not assume that these concessions represent the lifting of my drawbridge with suicidal intent. They have not been made with the objective of inviting a barrage of personal attacks.

Preface Three: I know that my writing style is often inconsistent. One of my mother’s doctors once said that I hid my emotions behind an intellectual artifice. He was wrong: it is behind an intellectual artifice and a smile. The capacity to detach and critically analyse may be an asset, but it is something that might best be limited in time and by circumstance. It is a capacity that the culture I have lived in generally spurns.

Let’s begin the story proper with a visit to the aforementioned doctor to hear a partial explanation as to why I had been kept mostly apart from my mother. Did you know that phrases such as “when I found myself pregnant with you I took a long needle and tried to abort you” and “after you were born I took a pillow and was sure I had smothered you” could be healing. I tell you they can be: they can give context to a lot that is otherwise inexplicable. Of course “healing” is a relativistic concept.

Now I ask you to examine how you have interpreted my phrase “they can give context to …”

Have you implied that the phrase refers to ‘total’ context or ‘some’ context? Your interpretation will affect what you read into the sentence and also the article as a whole.

These two things that my mother said provide “some” context for some of my childhood. They do nothing to explain the times I can remember bouncing on her foot, hours spent reading stories together, working on spelling and other homework, or playing both structured and unstructured games. Yet those other things do nothing to explain prolonged periods of robotic responses; an obviously highly intelligent person’s aversion to reason; nor times of sudden inability to perform tasks previously easily accomplished. To have any grasp on them we would need to reference my mother’s childhood, her background and her own painful experiences.

So where was my father?

Dead, mostly. Around somewhere, to begin with. Then dead, gone and disparaged.

Here is what I was told by my Aunts about my father: nothing, nothing, nothing and that he had learned Morse code as a boy scout.

Here is what I was told by my mother about my father: the person in the family most like him is JB (a quiet, private and unassuming man); he had few, maybe one she could name, friends; he punched her once (it was after I was born, but no other context was given); I was the result of a “marital rape;” he had once tried to commit suicide by drinking a caustic liquid.

He died when I was five. He had two death certificates issued; the second of which was issued after a Coronial investigation and gives his cause of death as a pontine haemorrhage. This is a condition associated with long-standing and poorly controlled hypertension.

My own limited memory of him is of a very quiet man who gave limited affection, but also caused me no fear. He had a herb garden, sawed wood and fixed his kids’ toys. I have limited memories of sometimes going to work with him and of him performing domestic chores during one of my mother’s hospital stays. I recall him visiting my mother in hospital. He also drove his car through steep, curved roads at very high speeds: something that terrified my mother.

Family research indicates that he was probably never as heavy as 8 or 9 stone (51 – 57 kg); that he was sickly as a child; that he failed the medical requirements for overseas military service in WW2 (he was squeezed into the Signals Corps on the basis of his pre-existing knowledge of Morse code but he spent as much time unfit for duty as he did serving); and that his workmates often covered for him while he was dozing in the shed, too sick to work.

My mother was, by contrast, probably 14-15 stone, (88-95 kg) and sometimes heavier, for most of my childhood. She had been athletically gifted as a child and there are records of her physically intimidating other girls. In her 30s she played club tennis against men because of her serving power; and at 70, while moving furniture, she could lift as much weight as her fit 36 year old, 80 kg son.

Still, men are the cause of all violence in our culture and women are only ever victims. And my mother could not have hit me hard enough in the head to result in some brain damage. Besides, I provoked it.

Of course there are both State and non-State institutions created to provide temporary and permanent care for children in need. They cannot cater to the specific needs of any particular child or family. Some are merely sterile without being cruel: clean clothes and linen, reasonable food and strong routines but without space for creative activity. Some assume the worst of anyone in their care and arrange their days accordingly. Some try to strike a balance between providing creative outlets and the routine required to efficiently manage large numbers. None are totally averse to splitting families.

And of course the day to day administration, as well as much of the professional oversight is undertaken by women… So there can be no risk of abuse, can there?

And, again of course, State institutions are going to be properly resourced and run according to strict protocols. Carers will be caring, naturally, while the domestic staff will stick to their rolls. So why is it that my memory is of a Matron who was harsh; Social Workers who were dishonest, judgemental and ever ready for a dirty dig; and the other carers who were aloof, while the cooks and cleaners were wonderful people who were pleasant to be with? Hey, those domestic staff might even have delighted in opportunities for snubbing their noses at authority.

Being told that one is a bad person and that the incontrovertible evidence was the fact that one was a state ward was a tad confusing. I was pretty sure that my mum was in hospital and my dad dead and that having no adults at home had something to do with the mess.

I had no idea what a kaffir was, but was pretty sure that the label was way off the mark.

As I take another tangent, perhaps I should say that mum and I became good friends, eventually. At her very worst she was sick, never evil.

Can you picture an eight year old who loves school arriving late for class every day because he had to finish drying the dishes? Can you imagine the same eight year old walking the two miles to school with the mumps, because his carer had made other arrangements for that day? Can you imagine the same boy limping into class with a bruise from buttock to ankle? Can you imagine being the teacher, rendered powerless to intervene because the boy is already a State ward, and supposedly so for his own protection? Can you concede that some of the more brutally expressed refusals by police to act might have stemmed from their own frustrations over feeling disempowered? How might an eight year old process this?

I suppose that fifty or sixty years ago the use of the belt was already becoming rare as a method of punishment; or discipline for those who love to mislabel things so as to diminish their own responsibilities. I suppose that it was even rarer to use a strop against bare skin. I suppose the use of the brass ring end was rarer still. Still, if one can’t get a boy to cry one can always aim for a scream.

If the killjoy social worker suggests that the use of a strop might be excessive, and that a fly swat with a removable head might be safer, one can always insist that the boy bends further so that one can connect with his testicles. It is hard to walk with bruised testicles.

As you read this, are you imagining any particular monster? If so, what kind of monster are you envisioning? Are you imagining a semi-frail woman? A semi-frail woman who applies passive aggressive behaviours, as well as outright physical violence, against small children? A person the neighbourhood children refer to as the witch? A person who might shine a torch directly into the eyes of a sleeping child?

Why would anyone come in to a child’s room at night, shining torchlight into their eyes? Apparently to check whether the child is really asleep. Who would believe that anyone could be punished into sleeping? Besides, why would anyone be so concerned about whether you are resting, dozing or deeply asleep? Could it be concern over someone potentially hearing, or even seeing, serious assaults occurring elsewhere in the house? Well, yes.

There had been other foster children. The most recent before us was by then a regular hospital visitor. She had heard it said once too often that she might as well bash her head against the patio wall.

You may have noticed that this article makes little temporal sense. We do not store or recover memories according to their place on a timeline. Because of the way our brains store and categorise memories, there are things that might reflect events of thirty, forty or sixty years in the past but are effective in the present. This is an article about extant affect. Some pain is immeasurable.

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  1. pierre wilkinson

    I had counselling as a young man due to being unable to get on with my mother.
    It was with great relief that the councellor informed me that the reason I failed to please my mother was because basically she was an unreasonable bitch – no fault of mine.
    Out of ten things one should never say to a child, my mother would regularly iterate seven.
    I wish you had never been born.
    I do not know what I did to deserve you.
    You are so unlike your brothers.
    I do not know why you are so badly behaved all the time.
    I wish you were dead.
    You make my life a misery.
    I hate you so much.
    Why don’t you just die.
    It seems to me I had an easier go of it than you, though.

  2. Keitha Granville

    More and more stories like yours make my heart ache.

    With the huge number of children being taken into care every day in this country, the time has come for some kind of parenting test, fitness to be a parent, before people can create another human being. And then ongoing support, encouragement and care afterwards for those who struggle for whatever reason. In the event of failure of the parent in any way – neglect, abuse, detachment – the children should be given into the arms of those who will love them unconditionally, not for 5 minutes but for life.

  3. Michael Taylor

    pierre, much the same with me. When I was 14 a doctor told my Mum that she needed to have words to my Dad about the way he treated me. I remember the words, “Tell him to lay off.”

    Al, my Dad was also in Signals. Spent nearly two years in New Guinea during the war. It wasn’t until I read about the war in New Guinea – shortly before he died – that I realised what he’d been through. He must have been through living hell. Nonetheless, it was not a reason to be a bastard to me for the first 25 years of my life.

  4. Kathryn

    Michael, like your father, my father was a silent victim of WWII when he fought for years on the Stanley Trail (not far from Kokoda). In those days, psychological care was not provided to returning soldiers and my father came home with a huge amount of pent-up rage and problems that exploded to the surface when we least expected it! I remember him flying into fits of rages that were so terrifying, my brothers and I used to hide in the backyard to escape them. I don’t remember him ever physically or verbally abusing my mother but I do remember him belting me and kicking me whilst I lay on the floor in a foetal position – it is something one never forgets. The relationship between my father and I was always fractured and I don’t remember him ever telling me he loved me. Sadly, my father was a member of that generation who thought showing affection to be very “unmanly”. We did, however, share a bond – he was an extremely talented and accomplished musician (accomplished on the piano, organ and clarinet) and was very supportive and proud of my success with the piano.

    Sadly, I was overseas on a long-haul 18 months trip when my father died in January 1977. My mother desperately tried (but failed) to trace me – there was no such thing as internet or mobile phone in those days! The last time I saw my father (or heard from him) was when he waved me a silent goodbye at the international airport in July 1975.

    It taught me a valuable lesson! Never let a day go by without telling your children and grandchildren you love and care for them. You never know – it might be the last time you see them and they may be the last words they ever remember you saying.

  5. Lambchop Simnel

    Dad was airforce, grew up in the depression and his marriage with my mum was typical industrial age nuclear family dysfunction.

    ‘Nuff said.

  6. wam

    How sad was your growing up, Al. and the others writing to you.
    Most of us pre-boomers had family men and women traumatised by the war(s).
    I was absolutely lucky in that my dad was such a gentle giant who just kept it inside and every now and then I would come home from school to see mum perched on the top of the high wardrobe where dad had put her for safety whilst he arranged to check into daws road and get wired up. (I was pretty scared by one flew over the cuckoo’s nest)
    Eventually, by the early 60s, he was made TPI and financially secure so I left home to get married.
    He was a fisherman on yorke’s peninsula and when that I reached high school age we shifted into osborne. One of the tasks that helped my dad and I bond was the need for him to get a certificate to get a job at ICI and I had my first teaching post giving him lessons in arithmetic. He had been working at a bakery before school during WW1 and had very basic primary schooling. He went to the six o’clock swill and drank 6 long necks every night. Self medication that is still used today by many vietnam vets.

    I sympathise with your “: I know that my writing style is often inconsistent” because mine is absolutely shithouse but it keeps me sane.

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