‘Living with the past’

a conversation between Kirra James & Loretta Perry

 

This article was first published in “New perspectives on ‘addiction,'” special issue of Dulwich Centre Newsletter, 1997 nos. 2&3, pp. 7–15.

A number of years ago Kirra consulted Loretta about her use of drugs and the ongoing effects of various other life experiences. In August 1997 they met up again with the idea of contributing a paper to this newsletter, hoping that Kirra’s experiences would offer ideas and sustenance to others. This is Kirra’s story.

I have important reasons for wanting to share and write about my life. Writing has been a part of my therapy. I was silenced for many years and now I invite you to be an audience to some of my experiences. For too long I’ve experienced the effects of many abuses – shame and guilt have been particularly strong effects. But in having handed back the responsibility for the abuses to those people and systems who perpetrated them, I’ve reclaimed my voice and power.

Writing this, touching on the history and influences of substance use, physical and sexual abuse, has provided me with building blocks – validation and support for my beliefs. Being validated in this way gives me a feeling of self-worth and respect. Over the years some of my experiences have invited the critical voices of others as well as my own and have invited me to consider myself as worthless. These persistent invitations of degradation, however, once I had figured them out, have also enabled me to stand up, protest and be strong. Other people’s concerns are no longer the best judge of who I am. I am proud of the woman I have become. I would not be this person without the experiences of my past.

Kirra James

Kirra, could you talk a little about the history of drug use in your life?

Drug use came into my life when I was fourteen. I suppose it was my way of keeping myself protected. Not only that, it was my way of having a voice. I wanted to be heard. There was so much going on at the time. I had things to say. I had for a long time tried to give voice to what was happening in the family. Whereas some of my experiences were silenced, drug use wasn’t. It got attention. I’d come home stoned in a terrible state. I used to shock Mum but at least it got attention. Whether it was the right attention, or not, it got me attention from the people I loved.

What else was going on that you tried to speak about?

Sexual assault. The abuse started when I was five. Just recently, when I told my aunty’s husband about an incident of sexual abuse that happened when I was five, he said he not only knew the man responsible, but he also suspected that it had been happening to me before I was five years of age. It happened with multiple people – eleven – and there’s also been incest. It was always someone who was known to the family.

How did your life circumstances affect the patterns of your drug use?

My drug use was always related to what was going on at the time. Just as one situation leads to another, one drug led me to other drugs like stepping-stones. I’ve used everything that’s been on the market: ecstasy, cannabis, trips. I was really heavily into pills, alcohol, and dabbled in cocaine and heroin. Speed was probably the one that most seduced me. Every day during the years I worked in prostitution it enabled me to work.

I had been introduced to prostitution by a man who had been abusing me. He had invited another man to have sex with him and me. I was offered money. I never got the money. I was raped, and called rape. Nothing happened. I was fourteen. This is something that has stayed with me forever and ever.

I was offered money again. Other people were already doing sex with me. We were a really poor family. It was a way of making the money that my mother did not have. I even thought of being a drug courier. The inevitable happened – prostitution. I was fifteen then. Prostitution gave me money; money gave me drugs. Drugs were an escape. I was hurting and running away, just running.

Another reason for prostitution, though, was the power. I could tell the man to do whatever I wanted him to do. It was my choice and not his. I had power over that and that was a really valuable thing. Men had always done what they wanted with me and this was one way of reversing it.

When we first met I remember you talked about the different effects of drug use in your life and its relationship with prostitution. In a therapeutic document we wrote together, you said that drug use enabled you to act in a sexy and promiscuous way to earn a living, that it gave you a sense of control in your working life and that it detached you from the full force of the abuse that had happened in your life. You also said that drug use helped you in some way to think through your experiences and to uncover different ways of confronting the people responsible for the abuse. You said that drug use enabled you to confront people and situations, while at the same time it caused you to feel separated from yourself, lonely, unwanted and not trusted. You said it caused other side-effects such as isolation and risk-taking behaviours. I wonder now, in hindsight, whether you ‘d still see your drug use in these ways?

Drugs got between me and the situations I was in. They never let me feel the full force of the interaction. They disconnected me from the reality of sexual and physical abuse. They helped me feel good about myself. When I was an adolescent they also gave me a life with street kids. Even though I could still go home they gave me a connection to other people and a sense of belonging. They changed prostitution into a lifestyle that I was comfortable with. Drugs also enabled me to think about issues. In some ways they had a therapeutic effect. I could sit down and write and not focus on anything else.

But drugs were also using me. They separated me from myself – isolated me. Spoke to me about myself in critical ways and made me do things that were dangerous for me. For a time, at least for ten years, it was a vicious cycle. Drugs began to rule my life. There were times when I didn’t care whether I lived or died. For ten years, from age 15 to 24, drug use and prostitution took over my life. The following five years were easier. Even though drug use featured in them it was the beginning of me standing apart from drug use and its use of me.

During that fifteen-year period what did you stay in touch with about yourself that has really hung in there with you? Did you keep in contact with a part of you that stood apart from the abuses?

I’ve always known it was never me in that room. I was someone else. I just switched off – totally. I think that’s the thing that’s kept me in touch with myself – always knowing that I’m not like that. I used to have comments from men who’d say: ‘Why are you doing this work? You’re too nice to be doing this work’. I’d think of those things and I had a feeling back then that I was not what the work wanted me to believe about myself. When you hear those things and you hear them over a period of time, you come to believe that there might be something different about you. I also knew something about myself as a small child. I knew that I’d protested and hung in there.

I never wanted to end up on unemployment benefits, live in a housing commission home, or have children without a father in my children’s lives. So there was that too. There was also an incredible perseverance. It has been a very difficult struggle and one that culminated in a suicide attempt. The struggle to find a voice, to be listened to, and to be truly heard and validated, was a struggle that nearly killed me. Other people’s criticism and self-criticism had the effect over the years of guilt, shame, denigration of myself. It almost led to complete annihilation. I wanted out of this life. I don’t apologise for that. At the time I didn’t see any other way of dealing with it. It wasn’t that I was out to hurt anybody else. I was hurting.

I think the changes had a lot to do with that suicide attempt. When the attempt against my life occurred, and I survived it, I promised myself that I would never attempt suicide again. I’m not going to lay down and die for any bastard, not ever. Everyone who’s hurt me will get what’s coming to them – but I’ll do it in the right way, not at the expense of myself.

Could I just grab hold of that – what did you say – ‘I’m not going to lay down and die for any bastard’?

Maybe that’s got a lot to do with it too. There’s no way that I’ll ever do that again because I’m not going to lay down for any bastard. I’ll go back and confront the issue no matter what the issue is and that’s exactly what I’ve done and will continue to do. If I had died then my history would have died with me. All those people who hurt me would have continued on with their lives. They’d take a breather and say, ‘She’s gone now’. But that’s not going to happen.

Where does this protest come from? I was thinking about the time you put your hand up as a little girl to get your family to listen to you, to thinking of you fighting back, to taking drugs to be noticed, to other self-harming experiences to get people to stand still, to notice, to act. What is the history of this protest?

In my early years I felt wanted, loved and appreciated. Our family was close. When I was eight years of age my older siblings were returned home from institutional care. They brought home with them their own sexual and physical assault history. They acted out what I felt was their normal routine of assaultive experiences against me and my other siblings. Before they came back, and in spite of abuses that boarders in our home were perpetrating against me, I remember feeling all the positive emotions that can come with family. But they did not last long. It took a number of years before I began protesting loudly to my parents. By then I was also protesting the abuses that the boarders in the house were perpetrating against me.

What difference does it make to you in appreciating your persistence to acknowledge your history of protesting in spite of the odds?

It is absolutely helpful to know that I have protested all my life. It’s very validating of me and my experiences, my perceptions and my truths – my truth about who I was as a child and what happened, and who I am as a woman and what I have achieved. I’ve now been to university and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Social Science, with a major in Welfare. That’s something, isn’t it?

I’m making decisions after decisions. Drugs no longer rule my life. I’m in a relationship – one that doesn’t invite me back into self-harm. I’ve just resigned from a job – a full-time welfare job. I’ve got another one but it’s still not what I want so I’m continuing to look around. I also want to return to study. I’ve stopped socialising with people who don’t add to my life. I feel very strong. I feel alive. I’m living a life that somebody my age should be living. I’m twenty-nine years of age and I’m pampering myself! I have baths, massages and play with my dogs. I go away for weekends with my partner – normal things.

I’d like to know more about how you’ve achieved what you have. What have you had to do in order to claim back your life just for you?

Believing in myself has been important. Knowing that I was different. Knowing that I wasn’t what some of my experiences suggested I was and always would be. I also recognised that I do have something to offer. It’s been important for me to know that in spite of what I’ve been through, particularly with my own family, I’ve been able to give something back even though they’ve taken something from me. I do have compassion for their individual situations and simultaneously still protest about my own situation. It’s about believing in myself, knowing that I can get through – not just surviving but living with compassion and love.

It’s been a slow and gradual change over time – talking, talking and more talking about how I’m feeling, reflecting back and discerning between positive and negative feedback. Even now there are times when I struggle but the difference is I’m aware of it. I’m able to make decisions whereas before it just took control of me. I always lived up to other people’s expectations, never my own. It’s been a very difficult struggle. I had been silent for so many years. Even though I’d protested from my early days, the protests had been silenced by others. I struggled on. I’d also started to talk about my past, my history with supportive partners and this led me to therapy. This in turn supported my efforts to give voice to the injustices and confront the people who perpetrated abuses against me as a child.

What did this belief in yourself as a woman have to build on? Was there evidence of it when you were a child?

I was always very close to my younger siblings. I think that probably kept me going. I had a job to do. I kept them protected. I remember being successful, at least with one sister. I believed in what I was doing. You just keep fighting. It was normal to keep fighting – that’s exactly what I did. That’s a belief I had as well as an ability. I think you just fight and do what you can. Even when I knew I would get hurt, I kept fighting.

What was it about you that other people knew could be relied upon to get you through?

I always loved to talk, to get to the bottom of things. A fighting spirit, stamina, perseverance, determination and intelligence. When I know that I am right I just keep going. Believing in myself and having the courage to do what I’ve done. I think other people would feel that I was courageous.

I was wondering who in your life would have appreciated the ways in which hope has been nurtured to blossom and fully bloom?

All of my family. In spite of the system’s devastating effects on the family, I have come through. I think there’s some unspoken tradition in the family – ‘to come through no matter what’. So in a way the family are surprised but at the same time they relied on me to come out on the other side. Coming to understand more about the situation of my family has also been important.

When the abuse first happened to me, when I was very young, I did speak out about it. I did tell my parents but they did nothing at the time. But then it was very difficult for Mum. Mum had ten children. She lost six of the children to what I call ‘the stolen generation’ (see Bringing them home below). They were taken away. I was the oldest child of the second lot of children. When the government abolished institutional care for Aboriginal children, three of my siblings returned home, one continued to live with her foster family and the other two children remained missing. When they came home, all of my siblings were ‘strangers’. If Mum had informed the Welfare of my disclosures back then, she would have lost all of us. I’m not condoning my mother’s decision to keep silent, but I have an understanding of why she did it. This, in some way, helps me come to grips with the situation.

I did not have much awareness of the complexity of the issues until I went to university. I had no knowledge of ‘the stolen generation’. I had no knowledge of what the removal of my siblings meant, the impact on my parents, or how it affected them over the years. I had no knowledge that they had wanted to see their children and wanted them home. My mother did not speak about this, her Aboriginality or her culture. She remained silent. Attending university, confronting the issues, and going back home to discuss them with my mother further increased my understanding. We talked about the impact of having six of her children removed and re-located in government institutions. The Welfare also tried to remove me from my family. That was when I was sent to my aunty’s home for nine months. However, when I was three or four, I was removed and placed in a government home. I haven’t got any memory of those years, or how long I was there. We were involved in a process of assimilation.

In what ways has this knowledge made a difference to your understanding of your life?

While I was at university I attended Aboriginal meetings, read literature, and this had a significant impact on me. I had access to a lot of knowledge. This gave me an opportunity to develop my insight into my own Aboriginality. It was reinforcing of respect in and for myself. It also gave me a context to discuss things that my mother experienced – how much pain she’d experienced and still does. This opened a window for both of us.

Do you remember I told you how much mum and I used to absolutely hate each other? Well our relationship has now become quite close. At first she couldn’t/wouldn’t believe that change could happen but now she has seen it for herself. Dad sort of goes in and out though. We’ve all talked about the way that life set me up to experience the effects of multi-abuses as well as all of the other experiences I’ve stood against and stood for and value.

Having access to more knowledge has meant that I can now fit my personal situation inside a political system. This helped me both to analyse the problems and simultaneously keep my compassion for the person responsible. I was hard on the issues and soft on the person. I’m able to separate the person from the problem and protest the problem no matter what it is. In this way, I remain open to love, respect and compassion for the person associated with the problem.

I’ve since confronted some of the people in my family who abused me. One of them is my cousin. He was driving me to his sister’s house when I confronted him in the car. He said, ‘I’ve been waiting for this, I’ve been expecting it’. I can remember saying to him ages ago, ‘One day, I’m going to confront everyone who’s ever abused me’. I didn’t know whether he knew what I was talking about then, but obviously he did. It’s validating of the fact that you don’t ever really forget – it just goes to the back of your mind – for both the person who does it and for someone like me, the person who has it done to them.

So what’s it like for you to take charge of your life in these ways?

The experiences I’ve had with people that I have confronted haven’t been aggressive. We’ve talked about it. They’ve told me about themselves and ironically they’ve also suffered abuse themselves. It doesn’t condone what they’ve done though. I’ve been respectful in the way that I’ve challenged them. I haven’t sought revenge – except for one person who I see as the catalyst who I want to take to court. He introduced prostitution into my life. I looked at the others as strangers even though they were family members and boarders. It’s been important for me to tell them how I feel about what happened, but not seek revenge – just to let them know how the abuse made me feel. To have a voice, and break the silence, was and is enough.

I do have insight into the complexity of it all – the politics of it. You have to appreciate the situations. For example my cousin also protected me. He abused me sometimes and protected me at other times. And my brothers and sisters – we weren’t really brother and sister at that time. We were biologically related but we weren’t bonded, connected, or attached in those ways which are important. Maybe that’s my way of dealing with it too, rationalising and justifying the whole thing, but they are the facts – they’re the dynamics of the situation and they need to be respected.

Kirra, you said something to me when I first met you that seems to connect for me here – it was that drug use allowed you for a time not to feel the very real class/race and cultural restraints that you faced in your life. I was wondering, as you were talking about your family, what some of those restraints might have been for you?

Everything, in terms of abuse, that happened in my family, also happens across cultures. But when I think specifically about my family there were particular things that invited abuse into the home – things like having boarders, having insufficient money to live without them, never owning anything and having little importance placed on education – all of these things are the very real effects of class. All of them invited abuse into the home. For my mother, being an Aboriginal woman during a time of assimilation, having my older siblings removed from our home, experiencing institutional care and group homes, and having parents judged by both white culture and ultimately also by me as poor providers, again invited abuse. There were other restraints such as my father’s alcoholism, domestic violence, dismissal of our Aboriginality. Speaking about my Aboriginality was taboo. This is fertile ground for drug use.

You mentioned earlier the cultural violence of ‘the stolen generation’. In what ways did it render you and your family more vulnerable to inequities and abuses?

When abuses occurred all the services for assistance were managed by white people. My parents did not have any trust or respect for those agencies. They were the very agencies that took everything they had from them. I don’t just mean possessions and children, I mean basic human rights, entitlements and dignity. My parents were already disadvantaged by race and class. These disadvantages caused them to be even more dependent on the very system that historically disrespected everything about their Aboriginality.

Protests fell on deaf ears. To protect the family – to maintain what was left of it together – ensured that my protests fell on deaf ears. If white culture was different, I suspect my mother would have been able to put her hand up and ask for help. On the other hand, if there was no discrimination in the first place perhaps she would not have had anything to put her hand up about.

In what ways did the dominant culture invite you to locate violence, or drug use within yourself or your family, and discount its politics?

It is the system’s responsibility but, when it does not take responsibility, families feel they are to blame. It does come from outside of one’s self – the institutional experiences that my brothers had, for example. They scrubbed hallways and stairs with toothbrushes; they were made to stand outside during whiter in Katoomba for whatever reason – what does this encourage a child to believe about himself?

All the things I believed about myself – it all seemed as though they were things inside of me, not things outside of me that caused me to feel, think and do what I was doing. As a girl, I was more vulnerable to being perpetrated against than being the perpetrator. I was more vulnerable to prostitution. I was more vulnerable to taking care of other people’s feelings and needs and in feeling powerless. This comes as a consequence of being female in this society, not as a consequence of being me. It has been really easy to blame myself and this was reinforced over a long period of time. However, I realised that there was nothing inherently wrong with me when I went to university. It was a window of opportunity – it put my history into a societal and political context.

In your social work experience, are there similarities between violence in families, against women and children within the Aboriginal community and in other cultural groups?

These experiences are everywhere. It’s easy to blame Aboriginal people and culture. Nearly everything you hear about us is derogatory. They jump on the bandwagon and take what they can get. When the focus is put exclusively on violence or drug use in the Aboriginal community, it’s the majority culture blaming a minority culture. My work experiences tell me that inequality, discrimination, poverty, domestic violence and sexual assault are alive in all cultures. These issues are bigger than individuals or individual cultures.

Looking back over your life, at all the things that you’ve protested against, all the things that you’ve triumphed over, what most inspires you about yourself?

I’ve come to a place where I can acknowledge my past and live with my past. I can make a stand against all of the wrongs in ways that are helpful for me, not harming of me. That’s very powerful and no-one can take it away from me. Life sets us all up in some way. It set me up to experience everything that I’ve been speaking about, but I don’t have to fight anymore in that same way. I now have a voice, my own voice. I can speak out against injustice – whatever it is. I have a voice now and I’ll never be shut up again.

Violence, abuse and drug use exposed me to other people’s desires. These times were so consuming that there was little time for me to know any other experience of myself. Being listened to, and being validated, to get this from other people in my life, in the ways which I do now, is really important to me.

When I hear other people’s truth about me it’s no longer the whole truth. I’m more than what life has got me into at times. It got me into situations that invited others and myself to degrade me. Well, others can try now but I’m not going to do that to myself. Being able to stand up and say, ‘This is what happened’ – to feel comfortable saying it and not to worry what other people think – is important. I am able to say that it wasn’t all my fault. I face people and speak of the parts that they played. The people who I talk to, the people who have hurt me that I confront – they also now know the truth about themselves. To know my own truth is a really powerful thing.

Dear Kirra

Eighteen months ago I wrote to you and asked: ‘Kirra, in what ways could reflecting on your life experiences reveal their importance for you and other people? Do you think that these experiences will, at some time, compel you to do something with them?’ I’m wondering if that ‘some time’ is now, and what having a literary voice opens up for you?

Eighteen months ago I also wrote: ‘I’m struggling to do your life experiences justice within the unusual ways that “therapeutic documents” invite me to write. I am conscious of a conversation I had a long time ago, in which a First Nations person in North America said, “Taking photographs of me, steals something of my soul… “‘.

In writing to you then and again now, I’m reminded of my own ineptness in speaking to snapshots of your living and breathing moments in ways that capture their fragility, beauty and complexity – the sacred in your experiences. I’m also reminded that, given the opportunity, the voice of our own spirit always does our journey proud. Kirra, this is one of those moments.

I’d like to think that the history of my work has been influenced by my own heritage – the First Nations people of North America – that our stories of survival and stories of honour come from our hearts and souls. The enigmatic but real power that inhabits mountains, I think, dwells in the womb of our lives – sleeping, struggling, protesting the collisions and living our hopes and hopefulness.

My work has introduced me to people who have survived generational violence and who continue to survive daily violence in prisons, reservations, missions, shelters and who find ways to both live with and protest violence in their own homes. My work has also introduced me to people who know that their daily pain includes the legacy of relegation to second-class citizenship and to people whose mission it is to be triumphant. Kirra, your voice is mightily triumphant – I bow to your courage.

Loretta Perry

NOTE: Bringing them home

In May 1997 Bringing them home, the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, was released by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. This report traces the history and consequences of Australian Government Policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and communities.

Under various different justifications Indigenous children have been forcibly removed from their families and communities since the very first days of European occupation of Australia. The action of police, welfare workers, other state representatives and church communities has been justified differently over time either in terms of Indigenous people’s ‘protection’ or to ‘absorb’, ‘merge’ or ‘assimilate’ their people into the mainstream (white) population.

The extent of the practice of forcible removal between 1910 and 1970 has meant, according to Bringing them home, that: ‘not one Indigenous Australian family has escaped the effects of forcible removal. Most families have been affected, in one or more generations by the forcible removal of one or more children’ (p.37). Bringing them home concludes that the policies of forcible removal constituted an attempt at ‘cultural genocide’.

Bringing them home looks into the services for those affected by these policies as well as exploring issues of reparation, healing and reconciliation. The last section of the report documents contemporary practices of separation of Indigenous children from their families through child welfare and juvenile justice systems, the effects of these current separations, and the need for self-determination in response to the placement of all Indigenous children and young people.

Bringing them home has sparked widespread community conversation on these issues. In the absence of a Federal Government apology or agreement to pay compensation – both of which were clear recommendations of the report – community groups and individuals around the country are seeking alternative ways to address the past and to find healing ways forward.

State governments, various church groups and the Australian Association of Social Workers have all issued statements of acknowledgement of responsibility and regret. Some of these are found within Bringing them home. Parent groups have called for the teaching of the history of the practices related to the ‘Stolen Generation’ to be taught in all schools. Other proposals have included establishing education centres, naming of streets, endowing scholarships, memorial services and monuments. Broader calls and actions are also continuing for compensation, a national ‘Sorry Day’ commemorating the effects of forcible removal and Aboriginal survival, and ways of ensuring that those Indigenous people separated by force from their native land be legally entitled to native title rights. From the local level to the national arena there is an unprecedented level of conversation occurring about the importance of coming to terms with the histories of forcible removal, and indeed other histories of abuses towards Indigenous Australia, and the need to find meaningful forms of reconciliation.

In most local communities there are projects in which people can get involved. Two more generic ways to respond include: (i) Personal messages addressed to Aboriginal families whose lives have been disrupted by past policies are being collected in order to be presented to the Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Mr Patrick Dodson, as a gesture of regret and goodwill. To contribute to these messages, you can send your personal message c/- The Office of Senator Margaret Reynolds, S1 -60, Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600. (ii) Contributions are being collected to establish a Stolen Generations Support Fund. Donations can be made payable to ‘Stolen Generations Support Fund’ and sent to the Human Rights Commissioner, GPO Box 5218, Sydney NSW 2001.

For copies of Bringing them home, contact the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission on 1800 021 199.

Copyright © Dulwich Centre Publications 1997

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