I grew up alongside a river. The river runs unbroken, from the hills to the sea, and passes the street I lived on as a child. At first I was only permitted to see the river from the foot of the street, but as I grew older I was able to follow the path that runs along the banks, provided I didn’t stray too far, stay too long, go further than the bridge.
The river became a place I could be alone, separate from family and home, somewhere I could begin to imagine a future beyond the suburbs. The cold river air ushered in an atmosphere of desire, a space of anticipation. I would listen to the running water and dream of who I would become.
I found the river again recently as I looked for somewhere to walk during self-isolation. The loneliness of COVID-19 has seen so many seek comfort in old things, assurance in memory, and my time at the river came back to me in a Proustian rush as I stood again at the foot of my old street, breathing the autumnal air, listening for the water.
Nostalgia is often seen as a longing for the past but the Greek root word implies a pain akin to homesickness, and I found that my memory of childhood anticipation was now met with an ache as well. The desire I once felt alongside the river was now mingled with a memory of dread. I looked toward the bridge, remembered what was beyond it, and came to confess: this nostalgia hurts.
In 1983 the son of a newsreader disappeared while walking the streets of his Adelaide suburb. The teenager’s body was found arranged in the foetal position in the hills five weeks later, the autopsy revealing the boy had been drugged, sexually abused, and tortured. A local accountant was charged with the crime, the weeks-long abuse occurring inside his house in a suburb named Paradise, a suburb alongside the river, just beyond the bridge.
The horrific murder took place while I was an infant, in the same neighbourhood in which I lived and would grow up in. Hearing the story was something of a local rite-of-passage and I learned the details as I approached my teenage years, understanding why I had only been permitted to walk so far, for so long. The authorities concluded that the accountant was one of a close-knit team of predators, linked to the deaths of four teenage boys that had gone missing from the suburbs. Their bodies bore the signs of sexual torture. Some were dismembered. One had been subject to a mock surgery. The accountant was imprisoned. The rest were never caught.
The predators were named The Family by the media, and their presence loomed over the Adelaide suburbs throughout the 1980s. The post-war Australian suburb created a geography for the heteronormative middle class, consolidating the privileged norms of the nuclear family: a father, a mother, children, safe as houses, repeating over generations. The story of The Family and the missing children threatened all of it. Hearing the story gave me a way to frame what I sometimes sensed growing up in the suburbs: adults were afraid for us.
The scenario in which a child is abducted and killed by a stranger is a low-volume crime in Australia, with child homicide rates dropping for decades, but a stranger danger culture had established itself in the families, schools, and suburbs where I grew up. Concerns and anxieties regarding child sexual abuse spread throughout Australia in the 1980s, often with an emphasis on abductions by strangers rather than assaults involving family members, (which is statistically far more likely).[i]
This stranger danger culture may have been partly driven by The Family abductions, but I recognised it in the surrounding culture of family values and aspirational conservatism. It was as if walking free, pursuing desire, could put you at risk, outside the protective structure of the family. As I grew up, I learned to follow a middle class law of caution; go out in twos, stay close to family, close to home. Walk the path. Grow up well. Survive.
The ritual of the river changed in later years. As a teenager I would walk further than before, walk longer, abandoning the path. The river would grow slow and stagnant in the dry, blinding Adelaide summers. I would sit beneath the shadow of the bridge, lighting matches and then dropping them into the brown water, wondering where to go from there.
I would still imagine the future on those banks, but now with an awareness of threat, of risk. In primary school we heard about stranger danger. In high school we heard about career paths, life choices, but the message behind it felt much the same. No one feared abductions anymore, authorities had concluded The Family’s activity had ceased, but adults were still afraid for us. That middle class law of caution remained with us, but now it continued in us. I still wondered ‘who will I become?’, but I now also asked ‘what if I don’t make it?’
I see this familiar story everywhere now. Boys are abducted by monsters in the 1980s repeatedly on streaming services and on cinema screens. Missing children narratives are now a genre of the nostalgia industry, but it isn’t just the trope I find eerily familiar, it’s that a generation of adults are seeking to reconnect with a haunted past, albeit through the repackaging of 20th century pop culture.
Studies of autobiographical memory have found that we have an enhanced recollection of the time our self-identities were formed and remember these experiences as we approach middle age.[ii] It is known as the reminiscence bump, and our culture seems to be in the midst of one, a pandemic of nostalgia. Society is homesick. I am too.
While nostalgia was historically treated as a sickness, researchers have found it to typically be a healthy experience.[iii] Nostalgia can be a constructive response to factors like loneliness, or even the cold,[iv] which explains the nostalgic moments of so many who self-isolated over the last autumn months. Nostalgia can also help restore what psychologists call self-continuity, an understanding of ourselves as having the same identity across different experiences and environments, to be the same person, whole, over time.[v]
There is little I find healthy in my nostalgia. I am sick with it. My sense of self doesn’t feel restored, the past and present are not made whole. That river runs unbroken but the child capable of desire, of anticipation, alongside its banks feels separate from me, cut-off, once shaped by a local horror story, now changed by a middle class law of caution. I grew up alongside that river. I wonder if that child went missing there too, near the bridge, with a memory, an aching, now in his place.
I am a man now and in many ways I became who I thought I would. I have a family, a home, and a suburb. I even have a river at the foot of my street. I stayed close to family, close to home. I walked the path. I grew up well. I survived. I made it, though sometimes I can’t help but feel as if I did not. I can no longer imagine a future beyond the suburbs.
I am unable to be conflicted about the good things I have. Adulthood should contain multitudes, but not regrets, and we only walk the river once. No path, whether straight with dread or free with desire, is the true one. We choose our way as best we can, and find where it leads. It’s uncertain. Perhaps homesickness is the cost.
Families have returned to the streets of my childhood suburb now, the self-imposed isolation coming to a close. It’s late afternoon. I park my car at the local shopping centre then weave downwards through the backstreets until I arrive at the bridge. I start there, walk back against the flow of the winter river, letting my feet find the desire paths beneath the arching gum trees as the sun sets.
The days are shorter now. Dusk falls quickly and the air is becoming cold to breathe. It is growing dark. I have walked too far, for too long, but I can see the light glow at the foot of my old street so I walk until my childhood home is in sight. The street is empty, save two children circling the front of their house on bikes. I stop, before I leave, before I return to my own family. I feel the ache, the homesickness again. This nostalgia hurts. I know now, it always will.
I think of the person I once was before I move on. I remember that child that went missing, who now stands in his place, and come to a confession: I’m sorry.
[i] Featherstone, L, 2018, Look the Other Way: Dealing with Child Sexual Abuse Outside of Institutions in 1980s Australia, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 49, no. 3, pp. 303-304.
[ii] Jansari, A., & Parkin, A. J.,1996, Things that go bump in your life: Explaining the reminiscence bump in autobiographical memory. Psychology and Ageing, 11(1), pp. 89–90
[iii] Sedikides, C, Wildschut, T, Arndt, J, Routledge, C. 2008, Nostalgia; Past, Present, and Future, Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 17, no. 5, pp. 306-307
[iv] Zhou X, Wildschut T, Sedikides C, Chen X, Vingerhoets AJ. 2012. Heartwarming memories: Nostalgia maintains physiological comfort, Emotion, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 678
[v] Sedikides,C, Wildschut, T, Arndt, J, Routledge, C, 2015. Nostalgia Counteracts Self-discontinuity and Restores Self-continuity, European Journal of Social Psychology, 2014, vol. 45, pp. 59-60