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From a young age I loved books. My mother and grandmother encouraged me to read every day. We didn’t have a television until I was ten. Toys were scarce, but books were plentiful. Books, swimming, and two strong women who loved me – that just about sums up my childhood. Their love wasn’t unconditional. They were strict. They often expected me to be “seen and not heard.” But they taught me a lot about self-reliance, resilience, kindness, and loyalty. My mother ran her own business and my grandmother was often unwell. I spent a lot of time alone. I was in and out of boarding school in Sydney until I was 14.
In spite of the difficulties as an only child with no father, I was very lucky growing up in Australia at the edge of the Garigal National Park, on Sydney’s breathtaking northern beaches. An area of incredible natural beauty, teeming with wildlife. In many ways it was an idyllic childhood. But what I didn’t understand until many years later, was that my mother and I had suffered deep trauma during her pregnancy. Trauma that continued to deepen over a lifetime. When a parent rejects you for whatever reason, it affects not only your self-esteem, it affects the very core of who you are: your identity. But in spite of my father not being in our life, and my mother’s broken heart, my childhood was happy. This may seem like a contradiction, but trauma runs deep, and as a child you are not always aware of it. It can take years for the effects of trauma to surface.
I had enormous freedom to explore the bush surrounding our home, to swim in the saltwater lagoon at our doorstep, and in the glorious Pacific Ocean (when it was still pristine), at some of the world’s best surfing beaches. When I wasn’t reading, or helping my grandmother, my playground was outside amongst nature. My mother was beautiful. She had many male admirers. This inevitably caused me a lot of confusion.
When I was six we left my grandmother at home in Cronulla where we were living at the time, and moved to Keysville, a small town in Charlotte County, Virginia, USA. My mother was engaged to an American and was planning to stay. But although we both found the history and the place fascinating, she didn’t like the racism and segregation. She was also afraid. Racial tension in Virginia was high in 1959/60, and she felt it. On one disturbing occasion she was confronted by it. A few moments that could have led to violence. Not long after that she asked if I wanted to live in America, or go home to Australia, to my grandmother. I think you can guess what my answer was . . .
In those days, the thought of pursuing a career as a writer never crossed my mind. Authors were mysterious, famous creatures from a fantasy world. Enid Blyton and May Gibbs were on a par with God Himself.
In my teens, several things happened that changed the course of my life, and eventually led to me becoming a published author. It was a journey full of drama and more than the usual amount of teenage angst, the roots of which harked back to my father’s rejection. It happened in the summer of 1970, when I was sixteen. As a result of “falling in love” with a boy three years older than me, I was committed to Parramatta Girls’ Home in Sydney, Australia’s most notorious home for girls under 18. A brutal, terrifying place run by untrained and unqualified ‘carers’ who ruled with sadistic fists. The contrast between life behind the high stone walls surrounding the home, and my life in North Narrabeen, could not have been starker.
Parramatta Girls’ Home, No 1 Fleet Street, Parramatta, NSW, Australia
Without even trying, I was given the unexpected gift of a story that has since become important historically. It is very much an Australian story, and yet the themes and events are universal. Of course, my experience at Parramatta Girls’ Home is one I could have done without. So it may sound strange to call it a gift. But that’s what it was. It helped kickstart my writing career. But not immediately.
After being discharged from PGH, I narrowly escaped being sent back. I decided to make a new life in New Zealand. Thanks to my mother, who by then realised PGH wasn’t a nice place, I boarded a plane to Wellington and gave the authorities the slip. I was only seventeen. This was long before backpacking was the norm. It felt like a baptism of fire, landing in that strange land of Maoris, hot springs and geysers, mountain glaciers, flightless birds and breathtaking fjords. Although it might look like it’s just next door to Australia on a map, the two countries could not be more different. I spent nearly ten years there, made many good friends, who I still keep in touch with, and learned about the power of the written word and the importance of creativity. Two friends I made there in particular had a huge influence: the artist Dame Robin White, and the poet Sam Hunt. Robin in particular was a powerful role model of female independence. Her unwavering dedication to her craft had me enthralled. Sam’s poetry seemed so accessible and real, and his spoken word performances were always incredibly inspiring. I’m eternally grateful to them both for their friendship and example, when we were all neighbours on the Otago Peninsula in the 1970’s.
After arriving in New Zealand in 1971 I studied psychiatric nursing at the now infamous Porirua Psychiatric Hospital near Wellington. Feeling thoroughly disillusioned and disgusted by the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest environment at the hospital, after 12 months I quit to study journalism. From there my career as a writer began to take shape. But becoming a published author of fiction came much later, after I won the SHE, ARVON, Little,Brown Short Story prize in 1997, with a story called “Trouble.”
My time at Parramatta Girls’ Home was brief – seven months – but it was long enough to see that the human condition has another, darker side. Girls at Parramatta Girls’ Home were routinely exposed to violence. Because of what happened there, and other similar homes, I will always be on the side of the oppressed.
Girl 43, first published under the title Invisible Thread in 2001, is based on true events at the home. It is blended with my story, and the story of thousands of other young people growing up in an era that saw major social changes across the world. The Sixties and Seventies were an irresistibly exciting time. The fashion, music, sexual freedom and political change were utterly enticing to a young, impressionable teenager. But for many middle-class parents who came from the previous conservative era, the Fifties, it was a time of intense anger, confusion and family conflict. Many parents thought we were dancing with the devil. Boys with long hair were seen as depraved. Musicians like Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones were deemed an evil influence on the young. For me it was an exuberant time. The hippie movement, the Vietnam war, sex and drugs and rock n’roll – it really was a fascinating, explosive era. Of course, the consequences could not be predicted.
On my website you will find Notes for Teachers and Students studying the Forgotten Australians and forced adoption at school or university. Parramatta girls are among the Forgotten Australians, the survivors of government policies that resulted in at least 500,000 children growing up in ‘out-of-home’ care in Australia in the 20th Century. Forgotten Australians are also known as ‘Care Leavers’. Many Parramatta girls and others in ‘out-of-home’ care were also victims of state-sanctioned forced adoption practices.
The Notes for Teachers and Students includes Discussion Points that will spark plenty of lively debate. That is because the themes and events in Girl 43 are controversial.
Children will always be vulnerable, and some adults will take advantage of their innocence. Education is key. We all have a role to play in protecting young people.
My other novels, Under The Green Moon and The Past Is a Secret Country, explore similar themes: family loyalty, patriarchy, women’s rights, divorce, adoption, sexual abuse, cross-cultural friendship, racism and the Stolen Generation. They draw on my own experiences and those of my family, in particular my mother’s life. Both books were deeply influenced by our time in Virginia, USA in 1959. When we moved from Cronulla to North Narrabeen on Sydney’s north side in 1963, I began to learn more about Australia’s black history. Of course in those days information about Indigenous Australian’s was confined to the Flora and Fauna chapters of our Geography textbooks. But the bushland around our home at the edge of the Garigal National Park held evidence of its own that aroused my curiosity: middens, rock and cave drawings, ghosts.
Within the pages of my books I hope you will also find optimism, and be touched by the enduring determination of the human spirit to overcome adversity, to fight injustice and bigotry, and thrive. Love really is the only thing that matters.
Please do get in touch by email, or leave a comment for general discussion. I am always happy to hear from readers, and in particular anyone who is affected personally by the big issues in my stories.
Thank you for visiting!
A gripping and powerful narrative based on the true story of Parramatta Girls’ Home in Sydney, Australia, a story that illuminates the human drama behind the incarceration and abuse of young girls who were committed to the notorious Home by the Children’s Court and charged with being “exposed to moral danger and neglected.”
First published under the title Invisible Thread (Virago, London) in 2001, the book was republished with the new title Girl 43 in 2014, after the controversial government apologies made by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, to the Forgotten Australians, and Julia Gillard, to the victims of forced adoption.
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