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Listening to Keith Davis – #2 of the Friends Conversing on a Verandah Series

(Setting the scene: Two friends. Keith Davis, Loz Lawrey. A verandah. A conversation. This is a transcript of an audio recording, ums and ahs included. The view from the verandah was of a wonderful slow sunset over the Mapleton Ranges. The content of the interview was unscripted and in the moment. Listening to Loz Lawrey is a companion interview to this one. Note: some difficult issues, as well as some lighter issues, are discussed in this interview).

I first became aware of you Keith when you wrote an article about the job industry for The AIMN and I realised he’s someone who’s lived on both sides of the fence in the sense that he’s worked for Job Centres and he’s also been a recipient of Centrelink benefits and been unemployed and at the mercy of the system if you like. That’s when I realised what a great writer you are and I’d like to start with that. What led you to writing?

Surprisingly enough, given my background, a Nun led me to writing. Initially, this is when I was quite young, six or seven years old in the orphanage and this particular woman really did have a love of children and a love of fostering whatever nascent abilities they had and she saw in me a very curious mind, and rather than suppress it, she chose to feed it. And she introduced me initially to the joy of reading and essentially she was saying, read first, absorb, learn as much as you can. Now she did not use these exact words, it’s the feeling it evoked in me. And then, learn to speak with your own voice.

Ha, that led me down a couple of trails and I’ve been a voracious reader all my life. And I really started to take writing seriously when I had this crazy idea of publishing a hippie newspaper in the 90s and I was building a house at the time, didn’t really have a brass rahzoo and I thought, oh, why are you doing this, do you realise you are going to have to write most of the copy, I couldn’t afford to pay anyone very much.

And so I started to write articles and at that stage, the French were letting off their huge bombs in the Pacific. So I wrote about things like that and through that whole process, for various reasons, I lived a life riven with self-doubt. But I did think, hey, here’s something I love doing and at least the majority of people who’ve read what I’ve written say, you’re OK at it. So I’ve stuck with it, and I love the fact that in this modern era, small voices, our voices can get out there and this part doesn’t come from me, I’ve been assessed as having a reasonable level of intelligence, a very impaired intelligence as it happens, but intelligence nonetheless.

Impaired in what way?

Oh … childhood stuff.

And I thought, well, OK, if you can add two and two and write one sentence that makes sense, then for fuck’s sake just add two and two and write a sentence that makes sense. And that generally has been my motivation. With writing, it’s like that old trope about failure. You’ve got to fail to learn to succeed, right?

I’ll write 100 lemons of articles, but the sweet spot is when you get one that hits, one that says something that is understood, that is responded to, but apart from all that deeper stuff, writing is like woodwork for me, writing is like hobbies that other people have, writing is both a love and a hobby, you become better, you question what you write, you look at what you write, you try to improve.

I’ll never be an author type person, I’m too tangental, I get dragged off in different directions, and part of that is autism, part of it is, my mind is just so curious, it’ll focus on something for a period, but it’ll bump another issue and I’ll focus on that. So I do find when I’m writing, I have to rein myself in, I have to think, stay on topic!

So you’ve referred to having a degree of autism, when did you, when was that revealed to you or when was that concept floated?

Yes, it was confirmed for me late in life, the diagnosis was late in life. For me, as strange as it sounds, it was a joy to finally find out.

Why is that, because it helped to make sense of your experiences?

It helped to make sense of the fact that throughout my life, I did not feel that I belonged, this life felt very strange to me, I could not understand other people. I did not understand why this world appeared to work the way it does work, and to my mind, getting on is so easy, love is so easy, hate and division are hard work. And so I couldn’t understand why the prevalence of hate and division, the prevalence of it, I couldn’t understand that.

(Silence …)

Um, I know enough about self now, to know that silence is OK. Right, I have a view of the world, it is shared by a number of people, it is not shared by many. I don’t see anything wrong with that, but finally, after many, many years, finally, after some grounding psychotherapy work, I now understand that my view of the world is valid, sure it comes through a different lens, sure, I have had to counteract the rewiring of my brain from the childhood abuse. And I now, not so much understand perhaps, I simply accept, my view is OK.

So you are referring to childhood abuse, and you have mentioned being in an orphanage, can you tell us a little bit about how you came to be in the orphanage and what the impact of those years was on you?

Isn’t it funny, many people think there is single cause, either your family broke up or there was an abusive family member or things like this. Now everybody comes from a different experiential background. I ended up in a Catholic orphanage, because the Japanese, love them as I do, dropped bombs on Port Moresby Harbour in 1942, and a particular sailor on the M.V. MacDuhi happened to be my father, and the war experiences he went through, not only the bombing and sinking of the MacDuhi, but also his later war experiences with the Americans, because he drove landing craft, and the later era of that Pacific war changed him forever. He saw such horror, such inhumanity, and it changed him.

It seared out of him a softness, he lost softness and caring, he didn’t want to, but it was the result of what he saw, what he experienced, what he felt. So that in the 1950s when he had children, he could not develop the necessary sense of responsibility, so as soon as anything became a bit difficult, as it does, often does, in marital relationship, he ran away. The fact that my mother ran away, as well, completes the picture. Found myself at five years old in the orphanage.

Right, so you found yourself in an orphanage abandoned by your parents. And how many years was that period, and what were your experiences there?

Oh. (Silence …)

Do you not want to talk about any of that? It’s just that I know it’s there, so I’m bringing it up, you know, you deal with that as deep as you want to.

Yeah. Um, OK.

I was placed in the orphanage at five years old. I came out of the orphanage at 11 years old, seven years, and I didn’t know when I first took those steps on the verandah in that orphanage, what a hell of a rocket had just been shot up my arse, I didn’t have any feeling of that, I was just a lonely little kid, but I felt the rocket over the next seven years, and the experiences generally were not very good.

What do you mean by the rocket? The rocket of, you were abused?

Yeah, mental cruelty, rape, all of that was a constant, a lack of love that children need, oh there was no love, there was no love. Now I will refine that, I did feel love from one Nun, and that’s the Nun I mentioned who fostered me into reading, but as for the rest, as for the visiting priests, as for the so-called loving Catholic families we were farmed out to on holidays …

Where more abuse occurred?

Oh, yes.

Really?

Hmm, ever been locked in a chicken coop? Hmm, remember I was young, ever had a horrible old man tell you he loved you as he molested you? Now remember this is me now at 70 years old talking, yes, for most of my life all of that was a unique experience, oh god it only happened to me, I realise now how prevalent it is in our society, I wonder what is wrong with our society, that these things not only happen, continue to happen, hmm, equally you could argue a similar case for what happens to women in our society,

Yes.

Yes. But generally, as far as the orphanage goes, it shut down my spirit, it shut down my interest in life, it showed me what anger truly is, which is why in my life, I cannot express anger easily, and don’t want to.

Showed you what anger truly is. You mean your own anger or the anger you experienced from others?

It showed me the warped deviated anger of deeply frustrated and religious people.

So, in a sense, you share my dislike of religion?

I do not dislike religion, I dislike what people do with it, I mean I have never had a concept of God, I cannot understand a concept of needing a God, you know I look around, I see the planet I live on, I see the bottle brush over there, I see the beauty of the night sky, I see the Milky Way and I think well is that not enough, why do we have to attach myths to all that? There is a silly little part of me, because I have a Celtic background, that occasionally mutters nonsense like I adhere to the Celtic gods of river earth and fire, but that is just fun for me, it is not serious, okay.

So seven years in the orphanage, and you came out around the age of eleven, what followed from that, you went into foster homes I think, you went to school, and how are you feeling at this time ? You’ve just come through years of abuse and mistreatment and emotional cruelty, and how did you move on from that, and how did you, I know this is a hard question, how did you process that, and because I see in front of me a seventy year old man who is, who exudes wisdom, warmth, empathy and respect for others, and I am amazed that that is what I see when I know so much, when I know a certain amount about your history, and that kind of history often affects people negatively for the rest of their lives, would you mind sharing a bit about that, about sort of from the orphanage on, and how you process life and learn to move on and grow?

I came out of the orphanage like a deadened lump of lead, I had no feeling within myself, I had no joy, I did not know what love is or could be, I certainly knew what hate is, I knew what anger is, you know we never figured out over the years, whether my inability to read faces was caused by trauma, or whether it was simply a natural autistic trait, you know that has never been figured out, but when I left the orphanage, the simple things in life meant something to me, now as a ward of the state, you had nothing, nothing, nothing that was your own, no space that was your own, no protective space that was your own, and when I came out of the orphanage, the state gave you a little kind of cardboard port, and in that wrapped in cellophane, 1960s cellophane, there’s a pair of little sandals and a shirt and a pair of shorts, I thought I was fucking king muck, here I was, I have something that is mine.

Then I landed, you know the state organised, well in concert with the Sisters of Mercy, which is a bit of an oxymoron that one, I was placed with a foster family. They weren’t good, they weren’t bad, they were in the end perhaps maliciously indifferent, and so I came from a background where, this is not like boohoo stuff, you get over all that pretty quick, I wasn’t wanted by my parents, I was abused in the home, by people who were meant to protect you …

A betrayal?

Oh. A betrayal. We could spend some time in that space.

(Silence …)

So, I ended up in another situation where I wasn’t wanted, and all I can say about that is I wasn’t physically abused in that situation, I simply endured it, and I couldn’t wait to gain my freedom, and when I did gain my freedom, when I finished high school, and I had no idea who I was, I had no idea how damaged I was, I simply thought that life was this dark place, that was my view of how I felt, and that was probably my view of life until I reached my early 60s, when I totally fell apart. My ability to mask pain and horror, my ability to pretend to fit into this world I didn’t feel part of, finally became too much, finally my psyche collapsed.

But since leaving school you’ve had marriages and relationships, were they impacted by your previous experiences?

I think many survivors would identify with this. Every relationship experience, whether it be with my children, partners, friends, employers, were affected by my past experiences.

Just as your life was impacted by your father’s experiences?

Experiences. Yes. You know the idea, if you break a leg, try to explain how it feels to another human being, they can empathise, you bet they can however they still don’t know how your broken leg feels. They can’t. And so, to be a child, exposed to not one or two instances of sexual abuse and mental cruelty, but to years of it, you, not only can you not vocalise it, but you couldn’t explain to someone if you tried, and even if you managed to explain it, they wouldn’t understand, and even in my early adult years, I knew that, you know.

I started to question things like, hey Bozo, you have some intelligence, yet you cannot complete anything in the area of achievement, you come in with great enthusiasm, but then your energy just sinks and you collapse. And that has been a recurring theme throughout my life, yes, in whatever I’ve tried, whether it be marriage, whether it be in the work sphere, whether it be trying to maintain a wonderful relationship with my wonderful children, I lose the ability to communicate.

So, you hit the, you reach the age of around 60, and you hit a wall, and a breakdown happened, and how did you get through that, and you’ve obviously come through and survived that, and you’re here with us now. Do you mind talking a bit about that, and how you’ve moved on from that, or?

Hmm.

We both agreed together to do a very open/honest interview, I will not now say no.

OK. Yeah. Here we go.

You never get over it, I never handled it, and the best thing I ever did was never handle it, because it led to me falling apart. It led me into a couple of sojourns in acute mental health wards over the last two years. It led to a total demolition of self, a feeling of self.

It led then, now some psychiatrists and psychologists shouldn’t be in the job, it’s just a job for them, but boy did I meet a couple of extremely beautiful people, and as part of the legal process I went through for redress against the Catholic Church, I met a, I was flown down to Sydney to meet a leading forensic psychiatrist, wonderful man. First thing he said to me, he saw my hope, my yearning, my please change this and make me feel better. First thing he said was, I cannot heal you, you cannot be healed, but, but, and see people see that attendant but as a bad thing, and sometimes it is, but that particular but had incredible value, but I can almost guarantee you can feel happier in your life, and it was quite a big step for me to understand, accept and roll with the fact that I could not be healed, the legacies are permanent.

So a shock, a shock in one way to hear that in the end?

No, it wasn’t, in the end it was a relief, so all this striving, all this hoping, all this trying, all these weird and wonderful therapeutic ways could finally be let go, oh, okay, I can’t be healed, but what’s left, how do I live with what’s left? Rather than focusing on what is wrong with me, right, yeah.

Is that like a change from a seeing things in a negative light to a positive light, or encourage you to develop a new way of approaching things?

No. It runs a lot deeper than positive negative, yeah, it bites into that level of what truly is truth, what truly is truth, and it was truthful, right, so I’ve, and truth is always helpful, since that period I’ve been dealing in truth, been dealing with truth, through the feelings, truth about legacies, and understanding I cannot go back and change a thing.

That’s right.

There are certain aspects of how my brain works that cannot be undone, there are certain aspects of how my brain works that can be changed, and probably sounds weird, I am so glad I fell apart, I am so glad I ended up in, now I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone to do it, and I wouldn’t recommend it as a method to seek an understanding of truth, but those times in the mental health wards were invaluable, incredibly invaluable, and I’m glad it happened, you know, people regret, oh, I couldn’t have a life, I fell apart, no, I’m glad I did, because it would not have cut through, all the protections I’d thrown in front of myself, all the masking.

Oh look, here’s the happy hippie. He drives a kombi. Load of bullshit, I didn’t know what I was doing, I couldn’t feel, you know, and I often laugh about that period of my life, because I can’t smoke dope, it just brought up all the searing memories. Visually I looked the part, long blonde hair, you know, well he’s either a surfie or a hippie, he’s one of them, he’s got a kombi. But I never felt the part, it was my effort to fit in.

This is over those years before you’ll break down in your 60s?

Oh yeah this is through my 20s, 30s, and the, I just hit a period of thinking, I don’t know who I am, I just don’t know, I have no feeling of self.

Would you say that happiness is a state that’s related to our ability to accept ourselves in our past and who we are in a sense, or not, can you speak to that?

As best I can, I would say that my past has ruled the majority of my life, I’ve lived my life, and have not had the ability to live my life to the full in a sense, it was very much restricted. In fact I did not have the ability to live in the present, I lived in the past, I spent my time where I lived seeking high places to live, because that way you could see predators approaching now, I well know cognitively, part of my brain said, oh come on, seriously, most people wish you no harm, but the deep rooted stuff ruled you, and so I’ve lived my life full of fear, looking over my shoulder continuously, not even recognising the fact that there’s nothing there, it’s because the brain is such a malleable beast, there’s actually nothing wrong with my brain, very early on it learnt, I have to protect this human being I’m part of, and it protected me well in the sense that it shut me off, it made me aware, constantly aware, in fact hyper-aware, for most of my life, and, I mean ..

A human state of hyper-awareness means you’re never totally relaxed?

You’re always in fight or flight, always, it’s a perpetual state, but the human system cannot sustain that for a lifetime, eventually it crashes, which is why now I say I’m glad I crashed, I’m glad I fell apart, I’m glad I was, now, you know, maybe there should be a trigger warning at the start of this interview, but I’m glad I became suicidal, I’m glad I had to explore all that and live it, and be searched by security guards to not so much protect other people from me, but to protect me from me. It is such a juxtaposition on the one level to live such an empathetic life, to love, to be that way, and yet on a very equal and complementary level, to live your life feeling, you have no value, you have no worth, and I don’t forget you’re speaking to me at 70 years old.

How does the world look now, how is life now?

The world doesn’t look good or bad to me, it depends on the day, the day tells me what life is like, today is a good day, I’m sitting here with a friend, looking at the birds and the trees and looking at the bottle brush, so life is good.

You know, I’ve lived most of my life with a, in the old days they talked about a tape running through your head and you had to unpack the onion and get to all the different layers and you know, blah, blah, blah, all that sort of stuff, well it hasn’t quite been like that to me, I’ve simply had a 35mm film running in front of my eyes for most of my life, and it’s a replication of all the horror events, right, and see eventually, it’s not like I have to go into deep memory to dig it up, it’s always there, for a non-religious man I’m quite happy to say thank christ that after the year of intense psychotherapy, the film is gone, what a blessing, what a blessing.

So life does get better, life gets happier, the damage doesn’t go away, but your ability to deal with it improves.

The process of recovery is endless?

Oh. Umm. I have an opinion that not many people would agree with, there is no such thing as recovery, you know recovery is a false sell, no, it’s like grief …

Because you can’t undo the past, you cannot undo it, you cannot unexperience?

Yes. Exactly. Grief. I often think of the issue of grief, people tell you, oh it gets better and you move on, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, all I say to all that is bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, the grief never leaves, but you learn to deal with it a bit better, that is the truth of it, not I’ve moved on etc etc.

Let me ask you a nice question, one that you asked me. What is love?

What is love? Interesting question. I love women, I’m of that type. Love is a heart that opens up and shows itself, that’s love, You know what is hate? It is a closing of the heart and a closed heart like for whatever reason I don’t know, a closed heart seems to have a predilection for attacking an open heart. I don’t know why that is, just a appears to be the way it is. I think love is a wonderful thing, I don’t have a romantic view of love, I think love if I had to define it right down, love is truth and care combined, extended towards another human being, love can’t be manufactured. It is something we can experience, at 70 I can say it can be experienced and I am experiencing it now in my life.

Keith Davis, thank you so much.

Welcome, Loz, now it’s time for that Shiraz!

 

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8 comments

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  1. Harry Lime

    How can anyone reply to that? Go well Keith,and keep going.

  2. Canguro

    Many parallels in our lives, Keith; same age, same background, same difficulties, same parental environments – my father a Burma Railroad survivor, destroyed psychologically, mother an invalid with failing lungs, utterly dysfunctional marriage – my childhood punctuated by being farmed out to rellies or warehoused in a kids home amongst strangers and indifferent carers, chucked out of home before I was 17; a lifetime of running from my shadow and exactly as you say, all relationships affected by those early formative experiences.

    It’s utterly unfair, and there’s no argument to counter the assertion that early childhood abuse ruins peoples’ lives, forever; it destroys our capacity for full blooming and attainment of what Jung called individuation; it scars the emotional component of our lives, irredeemably, it leads us to question ourselves, often to hate ourselves, often to drown our misery with drugs & alcohol and to behave irresponsibly and dangerously and to live as an outsider, on the fringe, existing in the asymptotic regions of the social bell-curve, looking on uncomprehendingly at the lives of others and wondering why can’t I be like them?

    And, like you, I entered therapy in my sixties, and had the story unpacked and to some extent the mystery solved; the impact on neurological and sociobiological development; how the brain of a child adapts to constant fear; the hypervigilance that becomes the default mode network’s primary operative frame, the constant expectation of meeting danger, the incapacity to trust, the not even knowing or comprehending what loving kindness is… all of these artefacts of the early years when all a young child wants and needs is appropriate warm caring consistent with his or her needs as a dependent infant and young kid.

    Drugs & alcohol were my default crutches for a large part of my life, but no longer. I’ve gotten a bit smarter, not much, but enough such that I’m not actively killing myself through constant poisoning. Psilocybin helps; has helped, and continues to do so. I’m happy to call it God’s gift to mankind. In the years ahead, I believe it will take its rightful place within therapeutic circles as a primary adjunct in trauma therapy, such is its efficacy.

    Thanks for your honest post, and know that you’re not alone amongst the community of survivors.

  3. Keitha Granville

    I read Keith’s story when he wrote for AIMN before, and have never forgotten it.
    That was a great interview. Good to hear from him again, good to hear that some days are diamonds.
    Peace and love

  4. leefe

    “Oh. Umm. I have an opinion that not many people would agree with, there is no such thing as recovery, you know recovery is a false sell, no, it’s like grief … ”

    I think many survivors of childhood abuse would agree with that opinion; I certainly do. You don’t recover, you just learn ways to cope.

    Canguro:

    One of my pet hates is the whole “but they’re your family; you can’t just walk away from them” schtick that is so often passed on to victims of family abuse. As though somehow it isn’t as bad when the person/people doing it are genetically related.
    It is, in fact, worse. Children need solid ground from which to grow. Home is supposed to be where you’re safe; family is suppposed to be who takes care of you. But when it’s “family” doing it – or the people standing in for family – and “home” is where it happens, there is nowhere safe, no foundation, no firm base on which you can stand. You’re forever driftiing loose, trying to make sense of a senseless world.

    I think I need more chocolate for lunch.

  5. Canguro

    leefe, I couldn’t agree more. The observation that home is where you’re supposed to be safe is spot on. Abused children generally have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. Without wishing to spoil the pleasure of your chocolate treats, as a child of around the age of 5-6 I had undergone traumatic dissociation to the extent that I then believed my parents were in fact aliens who’d kidnapped me and wanted to kill me, and such was my day by day distress at being held captive by these malicious aliens that I took a .22 rifle, loaded and cocked it and put the barrel in my mouth and dared myself to shoot myself. Clearly I failed, and by so doing condemned myself to another 60 years of dysfunctional existence along with the consequential concerns & confusion extended to those with whom I was in relationship with, the short & longer-term partners and children, as well as the wider community. And as if the childish attempt at suicide wasn’t enough, a mid-forties marriage breakdown catalysed another half dozen careless close encounters along similar lines.

    Thank god for good therapists and good therapy is my position these day; they truly saved my life!

  6. leefe

    Getting into therapy after I had my breakdown nine years ago is the only reason I’m still here. It’s amazing how long you can carry all that shit, but the longer you do it, the worse the collapse is when it finally occurs.
    Although, as a child, I thought more about killing them than myself. The only reason I didn’t was that it would mean they’d won – I’d have become like them. (I may get Marcus Aurelius’ great line tattooed on me somewhere “The best revenge is not to be like that.”)

    Anyways, I’m off out bush for a while. As another great philosopher once said “Live long, and prosper.”

  7. Keith Davis

    Wow! Who says that people cannot show their inner feelings these days!
    You only have to read the brave comments above.

    Leefe and Canguro .. I see myself in you.

    As for therapies .. I found street-level therapists (untrained but well meaning) to be a total waste of time, dangerous perhaps, and they sent me backwards. Meaningful change happened under the ministrations of psychiatrists (3) and psychologists (2) … they knew their stuff.

    Sometimes I think of Grace Tame .. young, abused, autistic … and at a young age she has so eloquently expressed many of the things that it took me 60 years to come to grips with … what a gifted/brave young woman. There is hope folks!

  8. Clakka

    Wow, what a conversation.

    Many thanks to you Keith, and Loz and commenters.

    And to the night sky, the milky way, the bush, the birds, the trees, the bottlebrush, shiraz, psilocybin and chocolate.

    And to friends and AIMN.

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