One of Them: Living in the Shadow of the Stolen Generations

I’ve never found it easy to write about my life. In fact, I’ve never found it easy to be who I really am. It’s taken me so many years to realise why I’ve hidden; to understand my trauma, abuse and pain. It’s taken me longer to realise that I need to release what’s inside. I wish I could be like other brilliant writers, creating great political pieces that hit on real critical truths. Maybe one day I’ll get there. Sometimes writing about what’s inside and what you’ve experienced is even harder, and I hope that’s seen as just as valid as any great political takedown.

I’ve lived a unique life, though so far short, and more than anything I want everyone to know what I’ve been through. Catharsis, purging, release, I’m not sure what to call it. Regardless, no more hiding, no more shame, no more avoidance. At the least, if there’s other Aboriginal people out there who’ve experienced the same, I hope it gives you strength to know you’re not alone. For I’ve found my strength, and all I want to do is share it.

I’m a 23 year old Gubbi Gubbi/Kabi Kabi man, born and currently living in Meanjin/Brisbane. I don’t know any names or lines my family belongs to; though I wish I did. Our great grandmother was stolen from her family and taken to Moore River Native Settlement sometime in the 1910s or 1920s. She was ripped from her family and robbed of her culture and connection to the land. I don’t know the full details of what happened to her there, and I never will. I only know what my grandmother passed down to us: She was taken away from her family at a young age, maybe 3 or 4, and was assigned a Christian name instead of her own. She wasn’t allowed to express anything Aboriginal at the mission. She was instead forced to adopt Christianity and European cultural values, and was punished repeatedly until she did. She met and was married to our great grandfather in the mission, someone else who was stolen from his family. She gave birth to our grandmother and our other aunties and uncles, and left to live on a farm with her family.

My grandmother had three children, and from that three, my mum had four. We were a poor family of five living in various precarious housing commission properties across North Meanjin/Brisbane. I was the youngest, a brother to three older sisters. My parents were living separately by the time I was three or four, and really, my parents’ divorce was the cornerstone of our childhood - long, angry and violent. Mum was always ready to fight Dad when he visited, on and on for close to ten years. I have no strong memories of happiness between them, just anger and frustration. One of my earliest memories is standing on the front steps, sobbing uncontrollably as I watched my mum hurl her rings and cards onto the grass at my dad. They never physically hit each other, but they crossed just about every other violent boundary. Most families had nice curtains; we had stains up the wall from a sauce bottle one of them had thrown in anger.

When they weren’t violent to each other, they were violent to me and my sisters. There was a strange absurdity in it. We’d sit around in indifference as our Mum screamed at us in complete rage, the oldest of us probably not much more than fifteen. She screamed about mess, the dishes, or this, or that. It all happened so much that I can’t even remember what it was ever really about. I can remember us all scrambling to do chores in fear while she barked out at us like a slave driver.

It’s hard to describe how terrifying and furious she would be. It was as if her own children made her boil with hatred and disgust. Utter, utter rage. We’d know when it was coming - it’d start with her smashing plates against the floor that we couldn’t really afford to replace. It was always loud enough for all our neighbours to hear, and I can only wonder now what they thought of us; the shame we felt. Dad wasn’t innocent either, he’d scream at us too when he was visiting. Then in turn, Mum would defend us by yelling back at him; a strange hypocrisy. She made him the great other; made us think he was the source of all our problems, and threatened to send us to live with him if we didn’t do as she said. The violence used to terrify us, but eventually, we just learned to exist in it. What could we have done to stop it?

I copied violence; it felt like it was all I knew. Before I was even ten years old, I took out my frustrations on everyone around me, especially my sisters, and never really got any kind of discipline for it. I was the favourite, and I still don’t know why. It was always a competition; my sisters got nothing and I got everything. If they hit me, they’d be punished, but if I hit them, I’d get away with it.

We never formed a strong bond while we were young. In fact, we hated each other. It was only seeing my sister cry out of frustration when I was twelve that made me stop being physically violent. Any kind of discipline I did get from my Mum was hard. Wooden spoons were the favourite; though once, at her worst, she choked me. Every hit would always sting and I’d try to tell her how much it hurt. She wasn’t fazed. “There’s no bruises, stop complaining”. I’d resort to trying to make her laugh when she was mad, just so she’d snap out of it and wouldn’t hurt me. When I was older and I asked her why she did all of this to me, she told me it was my fault. She told me I was violent, and she had to do it to make me behave.

I developed depression and anxiety by the time I was twelve, and it’s been there ever since. It was a childhood crutch of mine; sucking my thumb into adulthood. My grandparents would take care of me and my sisters whenever they could to give us relief, but it wasn’t ever enough. I longed for any kind of escape, and suicide always felt like the answer. In my family, everything is kept under the surface. Little snippets here, little glimpses there, but ultimately, you keep what’s inside to yourself. I drew pictures of how I wanted to die and buried them in the backyard so nobody would ever find them, just to cope. Once, I told my mum I wanted to kill myself, and received shock, anger and threats of being taken away into therapy. I never opened up about it again, and by the time I was eighteen I’d already made my first attempt. I had such shame about anyone knowing how I felt, and I had so much fear over what would have happened if anyone found out. It felt like the fear of being taken away from my family always drove my silence, and I couldn’t face knowing what life be would like without them.

It’s not that Mum didn’t care, it’s that she didn’t know how to show love. She would always show it through fear; constantly telling us of the dangers of the world and how something could take us away. Never go too far away from her, always watch out for strangers in cars, nothing in the world is safe and everything is out to harm you. She was petrified of us having independence out of her fear that we’d be taken from her. She had her own way of coping with her anxiety: through an eating disorder. She tried to pass that onto me. By the time I was seven I’d put on enough weight to warrant hospital visits, dieticians and doctors becoming like pseudo-relatives over the years.

She’d always be concerned and fearful for me at the hospital, but as soon as we were gone, it was back to the same old routine. Mum made sure I never lost the weight I was told to lose: she couldn’t control herself. I never developed a sense of pride or self-worth in my body image. When you’re told by doctors you’re not meant to look that way, that the way you are is unhealthy, and that you’re not going to live past the age of eighteen, you learn to hate and resent how the way you look and feel about yourself. So many people tried to intervene for me, but nobody could ever get through. It’s strange to have a parent so obsessive and fearful of losing you, and yet at the same time so careless and negligent in having you.

I wish I’d been able to find other family and community outside my own, but racism stopped me. I remember the first time I experienced racism, at thirteen years old. I’d received a letter inviting me to an Aboriginal function at my school. Unaware of what it contained, I pulled it out in front of my friends and began to read. One of them was curious. He saw what I’d been invited to and began to grin. Mockingly laughing, ready to pounce. “Are you an abo? You’re not one of them, are you?” Panic. “Nah! Of course not, that’s just a mistake”. Away goes the letter, hastily shoved away, desperate to hide the truth. It averted attention; for now I could keep my short-term friends.

I found the note later on and just stared, reading my name and the word ‘Aboriginal’ close to it. I read it over and over again, and I knew I couldn’t go to the function. What would everyone think of me if I did? In came the sting of shame, and sadness, and frustration. It took me years to admit I was Aboriginal to anyone. A hundred years since our great grandmother’s removal, and white Australian society was still teaching me that I was undesirable, shameful, and not human at all.

As I got older, the violence was replaced with isolation. As I became a teenager, Mum was around less and less. Every weekend, my sisters would have booze ups with their friends - ironically some of the best memories I have of childhood. Finally, I started to bond with my sisters, their partners and their friends. I started to feel happiness and acceptance for the first time in my life.

It wouldn’t last. Mum soon remarried and moved to a new house, with my sisters as the casualties. She kicked them out, the eldest with a child of her own, started anew in far north Meanjin/Brisbane, and took me with her. I found myself on my own, isolated from my sisters and growing increasingly inwards. By the time I was fifteen, I’d dropped out of high school and lost contact with all my friends. I gave into anxiety, into depression, and became totally paralyzed. Mum convinced me the world was dangerous. She’d tell me I could be killed at any time in the city, so never let your guard down and always be afraid. By the time I was seventeen, I didn’t trust anybody outside my family and I didn’t let anybody in, especially not my old friends, as much as I wanted them to understand me. I was afraid of the world, afraid of myself, and afraid of life.

Finally, I moved out with the help of my sisters and the support of my friends. If I hadn’t gotten away from that environment, I honestly don’t know how much longer I would have kept myself from suicide. I went back to school, learnt about my history, gained purpose through politics, and made friends who supported me and helped me through the worst of times. My mum couldn’t handle not controlling my life; despite my living out of home, she still felt a compulsive need to control me. I had to set boundaries - I had to cut her off. At least, that’s all I felt I could do. All the trauma and all the abuse – it haunted me. How could I move forward and live my life if she was still there, preventing me? I’m not proud of cutting off somebody that I love, even if that love is toxic. My dad and my sisters didn’t understand it, and still don’t. I just have to keep moving forward, with all my strength, and live my life on my terms as the person that I am. I don’t know how to fix our situation, and I don’t know if it can be fixed. I have hope that time will heal us - for myself, for my mum, and for my family.

It took me years to admit I was Aboriginal to anyone. A hundred years since our great grandmother’s removal, and white Australian society was still teaching me that I was undesirable, shameful, and not human at all.

It’s easy to paint my parents as the source of all my problems. But it stretches back so much further, to removal and to colonisation. Our family are all victims, creating new ones as we live and breathe. Other families have physical heirlooms, cherished items passed down from generation to generation. Our heirloom is trauma. That’s our real story: trauma begetting abuse, begetting trauma. We learnt it from our mother, as she learnt it from our grandmother, as our grandmother learnt it from our great grandmother, as our great grandmother learnt it from the mission. None of us were taught how to properly raise a family or shown how to love and care. Cut off all those years ago, taken away, forced into hell, forced into discipline and structure, cut off from love, security and happiness. No more community, no more culture, and no more identity. Here is our truth: my family are victims of colonialism, of capitalism destroying us, that beautiful legacy of “Australia” echoing in our wounded hearts and fretting away in our minds.

We’re victims of a genocide that tried to destroy our people for the supposed superiority and profit of white Australia. It deprived us of our context and denied our history, feeding into our cycle. Everything is passed onto the next generation, weighing us down as we live our lives. All the misery and fear drives a perpetuating cycle of self-destruction. Nothing is healed, or questioned, or treated. You never receive the security and love and comfort you so desperately need. You feel you’re just a shell of a person, desperately trying to fit in and be as normal as you can be, while inside you’re screaming for any kind of release, for any kind of love you can get. You find it wherever you can, no matter how abusive or unhealthy or toxic it is to you. You’re locked in, stuck in the same intergenerational process, unable to get out. The trauma and abuse repeats itself; the cycle marches on. It eats away at you and rips you apart until you feel you’re worth nothing at all.

But the cycle doesn’t have to go on forever. I refuse to bend in the face of such overwhelming tragedy. I can be beyond my trauma and beyond my cycle. I don’t have to be defined by it, and I refuse to be. I still exist despite every effort to eliminate me, every effort to erase my family, my brothers, my sisters, my aunties, my uncles, my history, my identity, and my people. My culture isn’t gone; I can get it back. I still have that road to travel. I don’t have just one family, but the potential for many outside of what’s been given to me at birth. Above all, I’m Aboriginal, I’m strong, I’m smart, and I’m proud. I’m ready to fight, and I’m ready to struggle. I have faith in myself, faith in my history and faith in the struggle against colonialism and capitalism; what better emancipation and purpose than to destroy the systems that tried to destroy you?

Throw everything you have at me; I can take it, and I can take so much more. I’m ready to live my life and everything that comes with it. I’m not afraid anymore; bring on sadness, bring on happiness, and pain, and fear, and misery, and love. I’m not alone, I’ve got the best friends and networks I could ever hope for, who all matter deeply to me. I’ve shared in so many rich, incredible memories with such beautiful people, in the city that belongs to me and cities that belong to others. No matter the colour of our skin we can cherish each other, educate each other, listen to each other, love each other, and struggle together against what keeps us oppressed.

There’s so much love I have to give to people around me, and so much love to share in. There are so many memories, and moments, and experiences, and changes to go through, so wonderful beyond what I can imagine. I have so much room to grow, so much love to feel, and so much life to live. I’ve found my voice, and I want it to boom. Let it soar through the air - feel it echo, hear it roar. The further it resonates, the stronger I’ll know I am.

Andrew Beitzel is a Gubbi Gubbi/Kabi Kabi man, residing in Meanjin/Brisbane. Andrew coordinates for Anti-Poverty Network Queensland, and is involved in struggles for the poor against homelessness and poverty. Outside of politics, you can follow Andrew's extremely online Twitter at @fernandre3000

Photograph of Moore River Mission, circa 1960