by Maree Giles
‘Every single person has a purpose in them burning.’
– Kate Tempest, Brand New Ancients
IMPORTANT NOTE TO TEACHERS
HISTORY AND BACKGROUND
Girl 43 was written with raw honesty ahead of its time, before the general public knew the truth behind the two main themes in the book: the child welfare care system and the Forgotten Australians, and forced adoption.
Forgotten Australians represent the 500,000 children that were placed into institutional and out-of-home care in Australia in the last century. Of this group, 7,000 were former child migrants, 50,000 were indigenous children from the Stolen Generations and over 440,000 were non-indigenous children. Many of these children experienced significant physical and emotional trauma as a result of being placed in institutional care.
Girl 43 is a great text for students in Years 11 -12 and older, and also university students and anyone studying social history, social justice and social work, pediatric nursing and medicine, in particular midwifery, Australian history, the child welfare care system, child protection, psychiatry, psychology, and teaching.
The novel looks through a fictional lens drawn from real-life accounts, and the author’s personal experience, at the issues of forced adoption, teenage and under-age sex and pregnancy, drug abuse, the 60’s sexual revolution, institutional bullying, the child welfare care system, and unmarried mothers.
This is an important story about two of Australia’s worst human rights violations, the Forgotten Australians, that is, children placed in institutions or out-of-home care, and the victims of forced adoption. There were many reasons for placing a child in these orphanages, reformatories, mental institutions, foster homes and ‘out of care’ situations, and Homes In many cases, their parents could not support them. Other reasons included illness, death, divorce, desertion, substance abuse and domestic violence. It was not considered appropriate in those days for a father to raise children on his own. But many children in these Homes continued to be abused by staff and other inmates. The purpose of placing children in these institutions was to protect them. Instead, they were routinely abused physically and emotionally by the people employed to care for them.
Girl 43 takes place in one of Australia’s most notorious reformatories for girls under the age of 18: Parramatta Girl’s Home. Most of the girls were charged by the children’s court with being uncontrollable, neglected or in moral danger, not because they had done anything wrong or illegal, but because of their circumstances. It was a violent place where the girls were routinely physically, sexually, verbally and mentally abused by staff and other inmates.
WARNING: Teachers are advised that the book contains some confronting and disturbing stories and scenes. The author strongly advises that teachers read these Teachers Resources and Discussion Topics carefully before using them with their students, to ensure there will be no harmful reactions. Some students may have family members affected by forced adoption and/or the Forgotten Australians story.
Girl 43 is the story of fourteen-year-old Ellen, who is swept up in the historical and exciting 1960’s sexual and social revolution. During one incredible summer of forbidden freedom and love in 1970, things go very wrong for Ellen when she falls pregnant. The story describes what happens after the birth of her illegitimate baby.
Ellen gets more than a weekend of music and freedom when she defies her parents and travels north to Ourimbah, for Australia’s first ever outdoor rock music festival
Although Ellen wants to keep her baby, the “authorities” – social workers, clergy, hospital specialists, her parents, the Children’s Court in Surry Hills, Sydney, staff at Parramatta Girls’ Home where she was sent for being “exposed to moral danger” – have all made up Ellen’s mind for her: she is not capable of bringing up a baby on her own. She is “too young” “too naïve” “too immature” and she has “no money” to support a child.
To make it easy for the nurses and doctors to remove Ellen’s baby quickly, without any fuss, they heavily sedate her. She doesn’t know it yet, but they are planning to get her signature approving the adoption under false pretences, again, when she is sedated and not thinking clearly. Instead of telling her the document is an adoption consent agreement, they will tell her she is signing her hospital discharge papers. Meanwhile, immediately after the birth, her baby is secretly whisked away from the hospital to an unknown address, to wait for its new family to take it home. As Ellen is recovering from the birth, and still drugged, it is impossible for her to try and locate her baby.
When the magistrate at the Children’s Court in Albion Street, Surry Hills, Sydney, sentences Ellen to Parramatta Girls’ Training School, she is in deep shock. Many young girls who were sent to the institution have suffered from long-term PTSD, mental health issues, poverty and health problems.
In most of these cases, the father of the unborn child removed himself from the situation before the birth. The authorities often stepped in to prevent any contact. Many were fearful of being charged by the police for having sex with an under-age girl. Thousands of young girls were victims of forced adoption, just like Ellen.
How do you think a young pregnant girl might react to being told she is not capable of caring for her own baby? These girls found it hard to defend their rights. The adults caring for them were powerful. In particular, girls in Homes like Parramatta, had no real say in outcomes. The adults in charge of protecting them made all their decisions and didn’t listen to their views, opinions or hopes of a fair and decent outcome.
The experiences of the Forgotten Australians and victims of forced adoption is explored in a powerful, intuitive way in Girl 43. The story is a disturbing indictment of the so-called care system in Australia. Parramatta Girls’ Home, the Hay Institution for Girls, and hundreds of similar homes, were finally closed in the early 1970s after decades of human rights abuses.
The author has explored similar themes in her other two novels, The Past is a Secret Country and Under the Green Moon: family, sibling rivalry, sexual abuse, divorce, adoption and separation, identity and belonging, the Stolen Generation, and friendship.
In Girl 43 she has created a confronting and authoritative story about how easy it was to manipulate young unmarried pregnant teenagers in the care system, and convince them they were ‘unfit’ to be mothers. Thousands of young girls had their baby taken in this way to provide a thriving adoption market with newborns. Although it is a harrowing story, not least because of the enormous scale of the scandal, it is also a story of compassion and hope. This is a haunting and moving story that will stimulate discussion about the power of adults over young innocent children, many of whom came from broken or violent families and lost their way in the wider world.
Originally published by Virago in 2001 with the title Invisible Thread, the book was republished with the new title Girl 43 (43 was the author’s ‘number’ in Parramatta Girls’ Home), following the public apologies by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
Themes and Curriculum Topics
There are several themes covered in this book which might be related to the Australian Secondary School Curriculum and University level studies, including:
History, Society and Environment
In addition to the two main themes, the Forgotten Australians and forced adoption, the novel offers students several controversial and important topics for discussion: family, love, compassion, hope, good Vs evil, courage, friendship, loyalty, trust, coming-of-age, the age of consent, power and corruption, survival, prejudice. Some names and places in the book were changed to protect the author. At the time of writing the novel the author was wary of legal and personal repercussions.
- Discussion Point: Ellen wanted to be like her friends and go to Australia’s first ever outdoor music festival, Pilgrimage for Pop, held at Ourimbah, on the NSW northern coast, in January 1970. Her parents forbade her to go, but Ellen went anyway. Her friend was going, and her parents had given her permission. Ellen felt it was unfair and over-protective. It is easy to see their decision as unfair and strict now, because society has changed so much. But at the time many parents like Ellen’s were confused by the dramatic changes taking place in the world. At the festival Ellen meets a boy, Robbie, and “falls in love.” Discuss whether Ellen’s parents were too strict, given that her friend was allowed to go, along with hundreds of other girls of a similar age. Do you think her parents were right to try and protect her, especially in view of the outcome: falling pregnant under the “age of consent” (16). Do you think it is possible to “fall in love” at such a young age? Or is it different for each individual – some people are more “mature” sexually and mentally for their age. Should this have made a difference to their decision to forbid her going? Was Ellen wrong to defy them and go regardless of their opinion? There is a debate taking place in France at the moment (2021) about the age of consent. Discuss the different attitudes in France, which are controversial.
- Discussion Point: How should the authorities have responded to Ellen’s situation? Was it right to have her arrested and charged with being “exposed to moral danger” under the Children’s Act, and sent before a magistrate at the Children’s Court in Sydney? Was it an extreme or fair punishment for defying her parents and running away from home to live with her boyfriend, to sentence her to Parramatta Girls’ Home, at the time Australia’s most notorious home for girls under the age of 18? What do you think the alternatives may have been, or should have been?
- Discussion Point: Discuss the effect you think forced adoption may have had on the individuals affected, from the unmarried pregnant teenager herself, to the father of the baby, to their parents and extended family, and to friends. Would it have been more compassionate for the families to rally and support Ellen and others in her situation? To offer counselling and choices? What do you think the long-term consequences would be for the mother and baby of a forced adoption? When researching for the novel the author spoke with many women about the forced adoption of their baby when they were teenagers. Without exception they all admitted it had been a soul-destroying experience that has led to drug or alcohol addiction, depression, poverty, and life-long grief. Not knowing where their baby is, or with whom, instilled in them a sense of enormous loss and frustration that made it impossible to live a normal life. What lessons do you think society, in particular those involved in the adoption process today, may have learned from all this?
- Discussion Point: In 2009, Kevin Rudd, then Australian Prime Minister, made a public apology to thousands of Forgotten Australians in Canberra. Do you think the lessons learned from past mistakes involving vulnerable children in care have been learned? What lessons do you think may have, or should have, been learned? How hard do you think is it to implement change within the care system? What do you think of the author’s assertion that in the past, care Homes attracted and harbored bullies, sexual predators, and sadists? How should this be monitored more effectively now, to protect children in Residential Care facilities or foster homes?
- Discussion Point: Inside Parramatta Girls’ Home, which in the novel the author called Gunyah, (an Aboriginal word meaning “shelter”), Ellen is made to feel like a “bad person.” How do you think this may have affected her self-esteem in later life? Is it a label that is easy to ignore and forget, or do you think that in the context of being locked up it may have had a deeper psychological impact? Do you think name-calling or labelling is always detrimental to the victim? Should bullying in schools be more closely monitored/banned? Do you feel safe at school? Has a teacher ever insulted you or called you a name that affected your self-worth, for example have you ever been told you are “useless” or “lazy?” If so, did you have an opportunity to defend yourself or discuss the effect this had on you?
- Discussion Point: Why do you think so many staff members in the Home were so cruel? Do you think violence and bullying is infectious, that is, if a person has any underlying or hidden sadistic tendencies, that being around other bullies, such inclinations might surface and be acted out?
- Activity: Brainstorm ways to help vulnerable children who are at risk of being sent into an out-of-home residential facility or foster care, and how society, schools, professionals and individuals might be able to help prevent this. Some children are in danger in their own home, in which case ensuring their safety is vital. Discuss ways to help children from good homes who are losing their way for other reasons – peer pressure, exam pressure, social stress, social media, etc – onto a more productive path to ensure they are not taken into care. What do you do to make sure you are not “led astray” when pressured by friends who are experimenting with potentially harmful practices like drugs, under age sex, or alcohol? Do you talk to your parents and teachers about it? If not, why? If you find it hard to discuss these important life issues with adults, explore ways that you could perhaps influence changing this fear of Open communication. The world is a very different place now, but there are still prejudices and judgement.
- Discussion Point: Why do you think so many young people were locked up in similar institutions to Parramatta Girls’ Home before the mid-1970s? At the peak of this practice there were more than 800 Children’s Homes across Australia. What do you think of the author’s assertion that it was “convenient” to lock them up rather than to protect them within society, and that they were an “inconvenience” to society and therefore deserved to be detained? If you have heard of the expression “out of sight, out of mind” you will understand that the authorities felt it was easier to lock a child up, rather than spend time trying to help the child remain within the community, make healthier decisions, and lead a better life. Bear in mind when studying these topics that many children came from broken, violent homes.
- Activity: Invite the author to give an online talk and discussion via Zoom at your school or university. As the book is based on the author’s personal experience she can provide a lot of inside information and detail. If this isn’t possible, get your teacher or other students to read aloud some extracts from the book, to encourage empathy and understanding and to spark further discussion. The author is also happy to ask questions by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Discussion Point: The author struggled with several choices when writing the book. The first challenge was deciding whether to use real names or pseudonyms. At that time there had been no publicity about Parramatta or Hay or other similar Homes. The only news report about Parramatta, for example, was about riots at the Home in the 1960s. The girls involved were angry about the abuse at the Home, including rape and sexual abuse. The media reported these incidents, which took place on the rooftops of the institution, with a bias in the Home’s favour. The girls were seen as troublemakers, “bad girls” who were committed to the Home to be, as the media and public saw it, justifiably punished. No one believed their claims that they were being abused by staff.
- Discussion Point: This leads us to the author’s second challenge – deciding what age to make the main character, Ellen. The book is based on the author’s personal experience, but although she did not fall pregnant, she was nevertheless charged with being “exposed to moral danger” at the Children’s Court, Sydney, and sentenced to Parramatta Girls’ Home for 6-9 months (the final length of the sentence was dependent on her behavior while incarcerated.) At the time she was over the age of consent: 16. She had to decide if making Ellen 16 was more controversial. At 16 she was by law over the age of consent. Was the court wrong to incarcerate her for living with her boyfriend and having sex? Why was the court able to make that decision, even though she was the acceptable age of consent? In two more years she would have been 18 and considered an adult. So those two years between the age of 16 and 18 were a “grey area” in law that the authorities took advantage of to lock up girls who were considered a “nuisance” or “at risk”. Even though those girls felt ready for some independence. Girls, like the author, whose perceived “rebellious behavior” was causing headaches for her parents. It is hard to imagine the social principles of that time. There was a social and sexual revolution taking place that people of her parents’ generation could not relate to. People of their generation brought with them into the Sixties and Seventies the attitudes of the 1950s, an extremely conservative decade. It was difficult for both sides to understand or accept the differences in attitude. The changes felt sudden to the older generation, and to young people the changes were exciting and, in many ways, a natural post-war reaction and progression towards liberalism. For teenagers like Ellen, and the author, who were caught up in these extraordinary times, it could have gone either way. Some of the author’s contemporaries, for example, were “sleeping around” with many different partners, yet were not arrested or detained in a violent environment for nine months. It was a huge social upheaval that the older generation found hard to accept, and it caused a lot of friction in families. There were psychological consequences for many, partly because of the older generation’s judgemental outlook, and society in general.
- Activity: The Children’s Court in Albion Street, Surry Hills, Sydney has in recent years had a major refurbishment. The author remembers it as being a depressing building, with an atmosphere that was frightening, authoritarian and sad. The cell she was locked in after being sentenced to Parramatta Girls’ Home was tiny and claustrophobic, with no windows, and a hard bench to sit on. She was hysterical and broken. But it was too late. Not even her mother could help. With guidance from your teacher, write to the Children’s Court in Sydney for information about the refurbishment, and how attitudes have changed towards children “in trouble’ since Homes like Parramatta Girls’ Home were closed down. Have the laws about a child/teenager under 18 being “uncontrollable” and “in moral danger” changed? In what way have attitudes improved? Is there more empathy, understanding and support available now? Research online and in libraries for old photographs of the Homes and of maternity hospitals like the Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Sydney, where thousands of newborns were stolen for adoption. Perhaps your teacher can arrange a visit to the Court to talk to some of the people who work there: judges, court officials, social workers, child psychologists, the police.
- Discussion Point: How has society and attitudes changed since then? Do you think young people make healthier choices now than they did then? Do you think they have the right to make their own choices about sex and at what age? In the end the author decided to make Ellen 14 because it would spark intense debate about under-age sex and the ability, or not, of someone that young, to bring up a baby. Do you think this could happen now? How do you think society has changed since the 1960s? Do you think the sexual revolution was a good or bad thing? Do you think 16 is a sensible “age of consent”? Or is it subjective and dependent on a girl’s maturity?
- Discussion Point: The authorities acted with complete disregard for the long-term psychological effect on Ellen and also on her baby, when they removed the baby for the adoption market. When the author interviewed women who experienced this loss they talked about suffering “life-long grief.” This feeling relates to not knowing where their child is, or whether the child is even still alive, and the sort of life it had with the adoptive parents. How do you think “life-long grief” might affect a woman? The author knew a girl inside PGH whose baby was taken from her against her will for adoption. This girl later became a drug addict, and two years later, committed suicide inside Silverwater Gaol. Do you think it was wrong to remove a baby in this way, to make that decision against the young mother’s will? Do you think those young mothers should have had the right to choose to keep their baby or have it adopted?
- Discussion Point: When former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made his controversial and moving National Apology to the Forgotten Australians in Canberra, hundreds of Forgotten Australians attended the event. They spoke about the life-long difficulties they have faced because of being placed “in care” and physically and mentally abused by the people meant to be protecting them. Many were raped and beaten and made to perform hard physical labour on a daily basis. It is hard to imagine the enormous scale of what happened. More than 800 “care homes’ were operating across Australia up until the early Seventies. Thousands of young lives were affected. How do you think the psychological impact of being abused in the care system manifested itself in society when those children became adults? What sort of problems do you think they may have faced? What do you think the authorities and society could have done to protect, prevent and heal them?
- Discussion Point: Former PM Julia Gillard’s National Apology for forced adoptions in 2013 was also controversial and attracted huge media and public attention. Hundreds attended the apology in Canberra. What effect do you think these public apologies, made to victims years later, may have had psychologically? Many received compensation by the government as a result of their suffering. What are your views on compensation? Do you think money can make up for the far-reaching psychological impact on a victim’s life? Do you think the apologies helped victims heal emotionally and mentally? And do such apologies influence how others perceive victims? For example, many children and teenagers in care suffered from low self-worth. Some, like the author, struggled with PTSD and anxiety. These Homes, and forced adoptions, had far-reaching consequences for many: substance, abuse, relationship breakdown, self-neglect, unemployment, depression, ill-health, life-long grief.
- Discussion Point: What was your own experience of childhood? What was important to you? Food and shelter? Clothing and possessions? Good health and hygiene? Education? Freedom to make some of your own decisions? Love and affection? Family bonds? Safety and protection? How would you protect your own child from outside influences like drugs, under-age sex and other anti-social behaviour? Were you punished and disciplined as a child by your parents and extended family, and your teachers? Looking back did you think the punishments were fair and justified, or were they disproportionate to your “bad” behaviour? Did you perceive your “bad” behaviour as less unfavourable or unacceptable than your superiors? How do you feel about nurturing respect for the older generation and authoritarian figures like clergy, health workers, teachers and parents?
When you have finished the discussion points and some of the activities, discuss as a group what you learned. Were there any good personal and social impacts for the Forgotten Australians and forced adoption victims? Why did no one step in to stop or prevent the abuses? Why do you think the children were so badly affected by their treatment? Why do you think the authorities allowed these abuses to happen, and why did they allow themselves to become involved? Why do you think so many of these abusers were never brought to justice? Do you think, now that you have gathered information, that children are safer these days? What do you think a children’s Home might be like now? What do you think would be the most important aspects of such a Home to ensure a child’s safety and emotional well-being?
Ask your teacher to arrange a special visit to Parramatta Girls’ Home for a guided tour. Your teacher can find contact details here: http://www.parragirls.org.au/contact-us.php
Parramatta Girls’ Home and the Hay Institution for Girls
Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children, Commonwealth of Australia, 2004 www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/clac_ctte/completed_inquiries/2004-07/ inst_care/report/
Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians revisited: Report on the progress with the implementation of the recommendations of the Lost Innocents
and Forgotten Australians Reports, Commonwealth of Australia, 2009 www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/clac_ctte/recs_lost_innocents_forgotten_ aust_rpts/report/report.pdf
O’Grady Report (Tas):
Listen to the Children: Review of Claims of Abuse from Adults in State Care as Children http://www.ombudsman.tas.gov.au/
Then Prime Minister’s National Apology to Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/110625/20091116-1801/www. pm.gov.au/node/6321.html
Queensland Government to former children in care who suffered harm in a state mental health facility in Queensland. www.clan.org.au/images/qld_mental_health_apology.pdf
Forgotten Australians Our History website: http://forgottenaustralians history.gov.au/
National Museum of Australia: Inside, Life in a Children’s Home http://nma.gov.au/blogs/inside/
Books and Articles by or about Forgotten Australians and Forced Adoption
Frank Golding, An Orphan’s Escape, Lothian Books, 2005
Joanna Penglase, Orphans of the Living. Growing Up in ‘Care’ in Twentieth Century Australia, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2007
Organisations and Support Groups
Barnados Ausatralia: https://www.barnardos.org.au
Alliance for Forgotten Australians (AFA): www.forgottenaustralians.org.au
Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN): www.clan.org.au
Australian Family Physician: https://www.racgp.org.au/afp/2016/october/meeting-the-primary-care-needs-%E2%80%A8of-young-people-in-residential-care/
Girl 43 – based on a true story.
Sydney, Australia 1970
The graffiti on the holding room wall says it all: ‘Gunyah is hell on earth’. And Ellen’s about to find out why. After defying her parents and hitchhiking with a friend to Australia’s first music festival, Pilgrimage for Pop at Ourimbah, on the New South Wales central coast, Ellen meets and falls in love with Robbie.
Instead of going home to face her parents after the festival, Ellen moves in with Robbie at his Earl’s Court room in Manly and starts looking for work. She’s relieved to be away from her unsympathetic step-father, and her mother, who wants her to do as she’s told. They’re from a different era. They don’t understand their daughter.
Ellen’s parents have other ideas about the life they want for her. When the police turn up at Earl’s Court looking for her, Ellen is arrested and charged with being in ‘moral danger.’
The magistrate at the Children’s Court in Sydney has no patience for young girls like Ellen. He sentences her to the infamous Gunyah Training School for Girls. It is a defining and gut-wrenching moment, as Ellen’s world is torn apart. She feels her soul “splitting in half.’ The officers at Gunyah are terrifying. Stripped of her name, her possessions, her hair, and her dignity, she is given a number: 43. Gunyah is harsh and the staff are cruel and sadistic. Anyone who speaks out of turn is punished. It doesn’t take much to invite severe punishment, like being thrown in the dungeons and beaten, or scrubbing concrete all night on bare knees until they bleed. Ellen tries hard to follow the rules, work hard and – most importantly – keep to herself. She instinctively knows that the quickest way to being released is to behave herself. But when the staff discover she’s writing poetry, they make her life miserable. Then they find out she is pregnant, and there’s no respite. Told she isn’t capable of bringing up a child, they twist the truth to make her cooperate and give up her baby for a thriving adoption market. She is told she’s a slut and is being selfish. When her baby is born the hospital staff steal her newborn baby and remove her to a secret location. Ellen’s life is changed forever. The grief is overwhelming. But however hard they try, they can’t destroy the invisible thread between a mother and her child . . .
Drawn from experiences in Parramatta Girls’ Home in the 1970’s, including the author’s, Girl 43 is a story that had to be told, about the shocking treatment of innocent children and teens by people in the very institutions that were supposed to protect and care for them.
Hay Institution for Girls
Image – ABC
If a girl consistently ‘misbehaved’ at Parramatta she could be sent to Hay. Drugged and handcuffed, transportation took place under cover of darkness by train and then truck, to an even harsher environment than the one she left behind at Parramatta. The deprivations and punishments were so severe, Hay girls never recovered.
I know what democracy is. It means living in a fair society, where you have free thought, equality and the right to live however you want – so long as it’s okay with everyone else, especially the law.
I know because I looked it up in a dictionary. This girl with sly eyes and sores on her face said it to me when I was put away.
‘It’s not democratic, this place,’ she whispered, stabbing her porridge with her spoon.
I didn’t have a clue what she was on about, but I didn’t want to look like a dummy by asking. And I was frightened one of the officers might notice and punish me. Talking wasn’t allowed in the dining hall.
I kept the word in my head for three days, till library session.
There’s a girl in the next bed crying.
She’s got untidy blonde hair. I know she is crying, because her shoulders judder and now and then she whimpers. I’m used to seeing girls cry. We all do it, in here.
The room I am in shimmers like oil in a puddle, black and purple swirls. I rub my eyes, they are sandy and raw; this makes them even worse, sending tears across my temples to settle in pools in my ears.
I close my eyes to stop the stinging. My head is throbbing, my limbs ache, my memory is blank.
After a while I open my eyes again, blinking. I lift my head; it hurts, like it did that time when me and Louise drank some of Mum’s whiskey. I drop my head on to the pillow. God, what’s wrong with me?
(C) Maree Giles 2017