If you are an Australian, you will be aware of our recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. That Commission only looked into one aspect of child sexual abuse in Australia. Arguably the bigger issue lies in the sexual abuse of children outside institutions – abuse of children by family members, by so-called family “friends” and others known to the child, and by, far less common, strangers. The bigger issue also encompasses child abuse that’s not sexual – physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment. This week, September 2 to 8, is National Child Protection Week. Co-ordinated by NAPCAN, it aims to encourage all Australians “to play their part to promote the safety and wellbeing of children and young people” in all ways.
What has this to do with Monday Musings? Well, as I was listening to a discussion about the week on ABC Radio National this morning, I was reminded of all the books I’ve read since blogging, which refer in some way to child abuse. Some are memoirs, and others are fiction. Some may function partly as therapy for the writer. However, because I believe that literature has an educational, awareness-raising, empathy-developing function, I thought I’d share a selected few books here. I appreciate that reading this material can be unpleasant – and I know that it can be triggering for some. If you are among these people, please stop reading now. Otherwise, I offer these wide-ranging books as my contribution to the week …
Links on the titles are to my reviews.
Memoirs and biographies
Ali Cobby Eckermann, Too afraid to cry: indigenous poet, memoirist and novelist, Eckermann beautifully (if you can use the work “beautiful” in this situation) captures the impact on her of being sexually abused from a young age by an uncle. Not knowing having the words to describe what was happening to her, she can only describe her feelings: it felt like an “icy wind”. This becomes a metaphor for the abuse, for her memory of it, and for its impact on her psyche until she can no longer cry – “the ice block had turned to stone, and now there was no moisture left inside me”.
Jelena Dokic, Unbreakable: I haven’t read this memoir but it chronicles the emotional and physical abuse she, a gifted young tennis athlete, experience at the hands of her father. The terrible thing is that much of this happened under public gaze, but nothing was done. (I attended a conversation with her about this book.)
Sarah Krasnostein, The trauma cleaner: Sandra Pankhurst, the transgender woman who is the subject of this biography, was physically and emotionally abused and neglected by her adoptive parents, after naturally born children appeared. It’s an unbelievable story of inhuman behaviour by people trusted to care for the young boy she was at the time.
Betty McLellan, Ann Hannah, my (un)remarkable grandmother: A psychological biography: A biography about McLellan’s grandmother who was born in 1881, and whose second husband was violent to and sexual abused his step-daughter, as well as Ann Hannah, herself, and one of their daughters. McLellan describes the lack of recourse women had during the time Ann Hannah lived, and concludes that her grandmother’s only choice, really, was to “accept her lot”. She reports that Ann Hannah said it was “the ‘appiest day of my life when ‘e died”!
Marie Munkara, Of ashes and rivers that run to the sea: Like Eckermann and Pankhurst, Munkara (who also happens to be a member of the Stolen Generations), grew up with adoptive parents, neither of whom gave her the love due to a child they offered to care for. Her mother was hard, unaffectionate, but her father was a pedophile who sexually molested her from a young age.
Anne Buist, This I would kill for: a crime novel in which Buist’s ongoing character, the forensic psychiatrist Natalie King, investigates whether eight-year-old Chelsea is being abused, and if so, by whom. Chelsea is, apparently, being abused by someone she knows. As Buist, a perinatal psychiatrist who is expert in this area, says, those who abuse children are “very, very rarely a stranger.” You can read more about this book at the ABC website.
Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girl: a modern novel about a 15-year-old girl who thinks she’s more sophisticated than she is, with a mother who is struggling with her own problems. The result is a sexualised young girl at risk.
Sofie Laguna, The choke: first-person novel about a young girl who lives in a physically and emotionally impoverished situation – albeit she is loved – and who is violently assaulted in an act of revenge. You can see it coming – and you know exactly why she’s at the risk she is, and who might be the one to help her out of it.
Mirandi Riwoe, The fish girl: a retelling of Somerset Maugham’s short story “The four Dutchmen”, which explores young women’s lack of agency, at the hands of colonial masters but also within their own traditional communities.
Lest you are unsure about the value of this post, I should tell you that there are several similar lists out there, including at the New York Public Library (2014); Wikipedia; GoodReads; and ParentBooks (Canadian organisation offering resources to use with children).
18 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: National Child Protection Week 2018”
It’s a hard topic to tackle, good on you for taking it on.
I am never unsure about the value of your posts! I grew up in an all boy family and struggled for many years with the statistic that one in three women are abused. But I’ve since met enough women and heard their stories to understand that it is true. I still don’t know how we can deal with it but am glad that we are at least making a start on institutional abuse.
Why thanks Bill … of course institutional abuse was not gender specific, and many young boys were abused, whereas most of the books I’ve read or that I came across were about girls and young women.
As for the statistics, I remember having a big discussion in my female only reading group about that over 20 years ago where some didn’t believe the figures.
WG: Let me echo the start of Bill’s comment. I think you get it right every time, WG. I have just forwarded it on to a kinship connection in the NT who was molested (worse) as a little girl by older teenage half brothers of her mother – her father’s second marriage – and not believed when she eventually had a way to describe to her mother what was happening. And I have read two of those you have listed – Marie Munkara (an uneven but important piece of writing – moving and terrible); Sarah Krasnostein’s book (she’s Charlie Pickering’s wife btw) – brilliantly written – I think she has said herself it is a love-letter to the subject of her book; and I am just now finishing a third – Sofie Laguna’s The Choke.
It is terrible to think that the Royal Commission into Institutional Sexual Abuse of Children is now descending largely into farce as the Catholic Church (and many of its bishops/hierarchy with pained face) wriggles its way out of a truly appropriate sackcloth and ashes heartfelt apology and then proper compensation to all the victims (church and state institutions alike) is being negotiated down to less and in most cases far less than an MP’s base annual salary! I say let’s put it at the level of the cost of an average house in Sydney – and then up – by degrees – for other considerations! (But now – yes – that which goes on within family circles…that must surely warrant it’s own Royal Commission.)
Thanks very much too Jim. I appreciate the interest. It keeps me challenged.
Yes, I knew about Krasnostein and Pickering. Would love to be at their dinner table.
And oh dear, you are right about that a Royal Commission. Hard to believe … but perhaps not (if we are realistic).
Sexual abuse of children is such a worldwide tragedy. It probably goes back as far as people have existed. The number of books that you have mentioned is an indicator of how prevalent it is. I agree, education and understanding is a way to hellp survivors and perhaps reduce the frequency of these terrible things.
Unfortunately I think you’re right, Brian, about how far it goes back … particularly given children and women were seen as possessions in so many cultures and times.
I would like to know how abusers think, and how they can justify their actions. I do read the books and they are so upsetting, but the need to know is important. I think the abusers should be locked up for ever. The effects on the children are everlasting and need continuous help.
It is certainly hard to understand how they rationalise or justify their actions I agree Meg. I read the books too – sometimes of course you don’t know what’s coming if it’s fiction. It’s upsetting – but (mostly, anyhow) worth doing.
Certainly no need to apologise. A novel that gave insight into just how vulnerable so many of the young (especially those in “care”) are was Jenni Fagan’s powerful 2013 novel The Panopticon.
Oh thanks Ian – on both counts.
I had vaguely heard of that title, but hadn’t remembered the author’s name. Presumably English?
Thanks Ian … I really should read something Scottish and recent.
Catching up on my blogs, Sue! I thought it was interesting that all of the books you’ve listed here are by women writers. I wonder if that’s because of the overwhelming stats on the violence/abuse against women. From memory one of the things to come out of the inquiry into abuse by Catholics was that most of the victims were male, but I’m finding it hard to recall books about abuse written by men (aside from Irish memoirs).
Yes, good point Jess. And yes, it’s mainly Irish memoirs that I can think of by men. Is it partly the stats – well, largely the stats – but is it also because men have traditionally been less open to exposing their feelings (albeit they did to the Commission, and some also to the media as a result.)
Thanks for visiting, btw. I did enjoy watching your Cape-to-Cape walk. I’ve had a couple of friends do that, two last year and one this. (They all did the one where you are based in one place and are then driven to the next point each morning and picked up and brought back to base in the evening. I like the sound of this.)
Hi Sue, I did the trek where I was picked up & dropped off as well! There was no way I could have done it otherwise. But the tour folk were amazing – very friendly & knowledgable (these were Cape to Cape Explorers) – highly recommend them! XX
Sounds like the perfect way to me … I’m tempted.