I wish I could have watched Sweet Country with Mum. How, like on the 13th of February 2008, we watched the National Apology on the television in her commission flat—me on the couch and Mum a safe distance away at the dining room table. I remember feeling proud and relieved that the government was acknowledging historical wrongs. Holding back tears, I snuck a peak at Mum to see how she was feeling. She was playing Solitaire, but her chin angled toward the television told me she was more interested in what Rudd was saying. I remember thinking that it wasn’t my place to cry—she was the one who had been stolen. Mum, and her mum, and quite possibly her mum before her.
Sweet County is Warwick Thornton’s cinematic immersion into one version of the Stolen Generations’ experience. Set in the wild ‘western’ frontier of central Australia in the 1920s, it highlights white-supremacist attitudes and exposes the condescension of the missionaries and policy makers, those who never would have thrived in their outback holdings without the labour of Aboriginal children kidnapped from family and country far away.
I was 21 years old at a family wedding, standing near two of my cousins, when I overheard one of them say ‘our Aboriginality’. We were in a dark, wood-panelled reception hall, and I tried to catch more of their conversation, but it was too noisy and crowded. I looked around the room and caught sight of Mum. She was standing with her brothers and sisters, and just like Mum they had broad brown facial features and thick wiry hair. It was then, for the first time ever, I saw that together they were a tribe of Aboriginals, my tribe. In that moment, the ugliness of our family dynamic moved aside for visions of an ancestral connection to Country. My heart sung for the time and place where our people were alive and thriving on beautiful, sweet Country. I yearned for the smell of eucalypts, the foraging of honey, the cleansing rush of Birrarungs, and the feeling of dirt beneath my feet. I yearned for a family connected.
‘Mum, I’ve just heard Andrea and Robynne talking about our Aboriginality. How come you never told me?’
Mum was shocked and defensive. ‘It’s not true’.
‘What do ya mean?’ I pointed toward her siblings: ‘Of course we are, I can’t believe I never noticed before. It’s so obvious.’
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ She turned her head away, blanking me.
I was used to dismissal when talking to Mum about her life before nursing. She was brought up as a ward of the state in an East Camberwell Girls’ Home where she was bullied and called Ten-Tonne Tessie. Mention of this time would cause her to shrink inward, and I’d be impelled to stop asking questions. Instead, I would wrap my arms around her shoulders and tell her how horrible that must have been, and how much I loved her.
Growing up, Mum made a point of encouraging my independence, so I took the initiative and went in search of her story—our Aboriginality. I oldschool trawled through library microfiche records, trying to decipher the archaic, cursive scrawl of birth, death, and marriage certificates. Then I traipsed over to the Freedom of Information office to decipher the court and ward of the state documents. Sitting in a drab little meeting room, I wept. Tears fell as I read the statement from a Salvation Army officer describing how my eight-month-old mum was placed in remand for wandering with no means. How do babies wander, let alone wander with money in their nappy? I’d find out later my grandma had been taken by a Salvation Army officer too. Over a two-week period, her and her six siblings were found either dwelling with a drunkard or wandering with no means. Grandma was 15 years old—the perfect age to be placed in a squatter’s home to learn the useful trade of domestic help.
Mum’s brother, who was six when the two of them were taken, had told her that their mum had abandoned them. Up until I read the court records, that’s what I believed too. When I told Mum the information I had read about her childhood, from being taken as a baby to being sent off to be a maid, she barely acknowledged me. Only with downcast eyes would she admit her Aboriginality, and if I asked even one more question, she would shut down. It was infuriating. I was reminded of how adamant she’d been that I wouldn’t learn to speak Slovenian, Dad’s family language. She didn’t want my sister and I to be different—to stand out from the Caucasian mass of the Glen Waverley suburb where we lived. As a kid, I accepted Mum’s judgement, but when I grew up I came to resent not learning the skill of languages and not having a better understanding of Dad’s heritage. I wasn’t going to miss out on connecting with her history—history that glows in my heart like fire under a star-filled night sky, and sings through my feet when I walk on soft sandy soils.
Mum only knew the white-world culture of rules, regulations and domination—much like the Sweet Country protagonist Sam Kelly. Sam was taken from family and country as ‘black stock’ and, like horses and cows, housed in barn-like minimalism, expected to work the land of his ‘owner’. Mum was taken as a ward of the state at eight months old, then schooled until the morning of her 14th birthday when she was sent to work as a maid for a Camberwell doctor—to, as the ward of the state documents attest, ‘pay back’ her education. Sweet Country gives me insight into the reasons why Mum denied her heritage and chose to champion her abusers. It showed me how people used violence and manipulation to separate children from their families. It showed me how the isolation and domination experienced by those children gave them no option except dependence on their kidnappers—a Stockholm Syndrome of colonisation.
I wish she could’ve seen my attitude soften after seeing how even the strong and resourceful Sam gave up his independence for the safety and security promised by the white-world way. I wish I could have hugged Mum and apologised for my anger, my hurtful words and lack of empathy. I wish I could have known her as a child, and then young adult, and been there to support and encourage her to trust herself—like she encouraged me. I wish I could have been a person to hold her hand and listen to her stories and fears, her problems and dreams. I wish I could have been by her side when she was first diagnosed as a manic depressive and put into a psych ward. From that experience on, whatever independence she found as an adult was forever taken.
It started six months after my birth. Mum was fasting for an operation to get her tubes tied, and she fainted holding a jug of boiling water. The operation was postponed to allow time for her body to recover from the burns, but while she was sedated with pain relief medication, her brother appeared from interstate to sign papers authorising doctors to ‘give’ her a hysterectomy. The collusion between the medical world and her older brother stung, and Mum was angry and confused. She didn’t want that operation. What if she wanted to have more children? But the decision was made for her, and after the hysterectomy she was sent to ‘recover’ in the hospital’s psychiatric wing.
Alcohol plays a character in the world of Sweet Country, and, with an ugly similarity, medication became a part of Mum’s character and our family life. But, unlike the squatters who used alcohol to forget atrocities experienced during the Imperial war, Mum hated being lost in the haze of the drugs. Almost yearly she stopped taking them. Unfortunately, without family or medical support, the withdrawals would send her to dark and scary places, places like the Sweet Country squatters’ alcohol-fuelled PTSD flashbacks. I remember watching her sitting on our lounge room floor studying photos and mumbling with determination, or quietly sobbing. In the wild unravelling of withdrawal, was Mum reliving the atrocities of her experiences as a ward of the state? As a maid paying back her education? As a single mum giving up her baby for adoption? As a woman being stripped of her womanhood? Or was she looking at her Aboriginal features, and trying to see herself through the eyes of those who judged her?
Over the years, the medication got stronger and her diagnosis escalated from depression to manic depression, and then, 15 years after the hysterectomy, to schizophrenia. Not long after, to stop Mum going off the tablets, she was prescribed monthly injections. In the numbness of complete compliance, she was empty of life, lost her spirit and—like Thornton’s dry riverbeds—even lost her tears. From the impotence, servitude and repression of her childhood, her colonisation had come full circle: this stolen baby, abused child, teenage slave, robbed mother, violated woman, was once again enslaved, submissive and without self-determination.
When I think of how Mum’s traumas have challenged me since the day she fainted holding the jug of boiling water, and we were separated for months, I see that experience as the first crack in my perfect baby innocence. I see how over the years that crack fractured, and I think of the Zimbardo experiment: a car abandoned in a privileged neighbourhood remains untouched until a window is broken. Very quickly the car is wrecked. The theory is that any sign of breakage sends an invitation to a certain type of person and chaos: theft, abuse, violence and cruelty. It’s within this realm that white supremacy has thrived in Australia.
So, to Mum, and in the words of this year’s NAIDOC theme: Because of her, we can! Please consider what sort of person you are.
Monique Grbec was born on Eora country, raised on Woi Wurrung country, and lives on Wurundjeri country. A child of the Stolen Generations, she is interested in identity, the generational effects of institutionalisation, and the White Australia Policy. Her lifework is fundamentally text based and addressed through the lens of Indigenous Standpoint Theory. Her current work, Bring Them Home, includes audio 3D installation.