Embers of pain stir in young hearts

BLACK SATURDAY – ‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.’ —Graham Greene

MATTHEW is an outdoors boy. He likes fishing, his scooter, his motorbike. Aged 10, he swims and plays basketball and has a dry sense of humour. On Black Saturday, he was eight. That afternoon, he and his mother left their house to take refuge with family. While others fought the firestorm roaring outside, Matthew was told to shelter inside. “What do you want me to do, Mum?” he demanded.
“Once he got past his initial terror, he was right into it,” says his mother, Tania*. “He was still frightened but he kept himself busy.” He put towels under doors and fetched wet face-washers for other distressed children as they all choked on the smoke.
When the fire passed, the house they had been protecting was safe, as were they. But a bewildered Matthew still found himself encircled by loss. His home and everything in it had been burned to the ground. His grandparents had lost their home, which had been the much-loved hub of the family for decades. His school was gone. His neighbours and two schoolfriends had been killed. The landscape of his life — the bushland around Kinglake — was a blackened ruin.
The door to the future had opened.
For Matthew, it was a future strewn with panic attacks. With choking fits that made it hard for him to eat. With nightmares about fire, in the early days, which were followed by dreams of being chased, or of being trapped, or of losing his mother. Even during the day he was often tense. He rarely laughed. He shrank away when anyone mentioned Black Saturday. Young as he was, he understood enough to know he was struggling. He told his mother: “I think I’m going crazy.”
That’s a scary thing for any parent to hear. It’s even scarier for parents who are struggling themselves.
Two years after the Black Saturday fires — the anniversary is on Monday — the physical world is beginning to heal. Trees are leafy and paddocks are lush and neat new houses have sprung up; not enough for everyone to be back under their own roofs, but enough to be a heartening sign of progress.
Emotional wounds can take longer. In bushfire areas, there are still young children wetting the bed, and having nightmares and insomnia. Some have even talked of killing themselves, at an age when kindergarten is only just behind them and the very concept should be foreign. Older children have been caught nicking antidepressants from their mother’s supply in the hope that a single “happy pill” will stop them feeling so sad.
There are children who become hysterical at the sight of a red sunset because it reminds them of flames in the sky. When mist swirled across a wintry road one morning, students on a school bus screamed because they feared it was smoke.
Bushfire-affected teenagers are showing strain too. Lesley Bebbington is a local mother who began a teen youth group in Kinglake after realising that many were coming home from school and locking themselves alone in their rooms night after night.
She says: “We are really concerned at the moment because there are a lot of kids who have just now started to experience their trauma. There are high levels of truancy and more kids accessing welfare officers now than at any time since the fire. That gels with the trauma model, which says that for some people, years two to four are the worst.
“We also noticed last year there was an increase in the use of alcohol and drugs, promiscuity — definitely an increase in that risky behaviour. Kids are talking about suicide, and ‘What’s the point?’ — both face-to-face and online with each other. They just feel there’s not any future so you may as well go the full max and not think about the consequences.”
At the heart of all these problems lies a force with which modern psychology is starting to come to grips: disaster trauma in children.
Children touched by the fires had their first encounter with mortality long before they were ready to make sense of it. Perhaps they nearly died themselves; perhaps friends or family actually did. To that mourning, and fear of sudden death, add the loss of a home and a whole order of life, as well as parents who are themselves distraught and distracted by having to rebuild, and you have a potent mix of pathogens. Survivors of the recent floods and the Queensland cyclone will face similar problems. The good news is that much is now known about how to help children heal.
Dr Paul Valent is a Holocaust survivor and a retired psychiatrist who specialised in trauma. He says it works this way: “Something major has happened that’s implanted in the brain. It’s like a big, dark, gravitational force. Everything has imploded in there. It’s invisible but it’s got enormous energy. You can’t think about it, you can’t talk about it, and you don’t have words for it. It’s overwhelming.”
He says that within weeks of suffering the trauma, the person begins to cut off from feelings about it that are too painful. Those feelings might be expressed instead in physical symptoms. In children, that might be bedwetting, stomach ache or headache, or through behaviour such as screaming or clinging to a parent. Very young children will
re-enact trauma through drawings and play. Valent says a survey in South Australia after the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 found 23 per cent of children in a bushfire community had psychiatric problems, and that in one kindergarten, fire games were still the most popular games 10 months afterwards.
There is likely to be misplaced guilt over what the person did or did not do during the crisis, Valent says, with children particularly prone to blaming themselves. After Ash Wednesday, one girl believed she had caused the whole disaster: “Magical thinking is more prominent in children. She had wished harm to someone, and harm had come.”
He says adults and children “don’t join the dots [over emotional problems causing the physical symptoms] because behind that lies thoughts like, ‘Life has no meaning because I didn’t save so-and-so’ or ‘because I killed so-and-so’. So they disconnect parts of their minds: emotions, thoughts. But when you kill off parts of yourself, you can’t negotiate what you will kill off. If you kill off guilt, you also kill off love. If you cut off from fear, you experience psychic numbing. You can’t be loving and creative and whole any more.”
Young Matthew blamed himself later for not having been brave enough during the fire, his mother, Tania, says. “He felt a lot of guilt. He felt like he wasn’t being brave because he had cried at one point. He was, in fact, amazingly brave but he didn’t want to hear that. He was being very hard on himself.”
Hardest for both of them was Matthew’s loss of faith in her ability to protect him. In the early days, he would ask what if they had done this or that during the fire, and the outcome had been different. She told him she would never have let him be hurt. He retorted that the parents of dead children had probably said that too.
Principal Jane Hayward is looking after a school full of children who have trouble feeling safe, even though the new Strathewen primary, cut into a hillside overlooking the once-devastated valley, is built to withstand near-apocalypse conditions: huge water tanks, a sprinkler system, metal shutters on all windows and doors, GPS positioning in case helicopter water-bombing is needed. “We can go into complete lockdown,” says Hayward.
Half the students here lost their homes — some were convinced they were moments from death as houses burned down around them — and four parents and several grandparents were killed. Many others were displaced because their homes were too damaged to live in, and the school itself was incinerated. “The children have experienced so much trauma, and their individual stories are so extreme, that it’s going to be a long haul,” Hayward says.
She went to bushfire workshops and was discouraged to hear that families “would be fine after three months”: that’s not what she was seeing. It was more than a year later, when she met a psychotherapist experienced in child trauma, that Hayward learned more.
“The kids have developed ‘hyper-vigilance’ because they know that in the blink of an eye, your world can be turned upside down and changed forever.” This means that when they are told a parent has phoned, their first reaction is fear: “Is everything all right?”
While the school still has high expectations of academic performance, that has had to be tempered with understanding of new problems. “What we found with learning is that children seemed to be chugging along and learning normally. And then you would do a test, or score a piece of work, and wonder, ‘What have I done wrong?’ because there were obvious learning gaps.” The psychotherapist explained to Hayward that after trauma there are often Swiss cheese-type holes in concentration, exacerbated by tiredness from lack of sleep — a phenomenon locals call “bushfire brain”.
Sleep is a precious commodity right across bushfire communities. Says Hayward, “On a windy night when the wind roars through [sounding like a bushfire], no one sleeps. The sound is enough to trigger the fear.”
And then comes the occasional crisis when it becomes clear what is at the heart of an individual child’s distress. Bebbington tells of a boy who had a flashback to when his family was fleeing the fire: “He suddenly remembered that when his dad stopped the car, to tell the mother and the rest of the family in the car behind that the road was blocked by a fallen tree, he had felt his dad had left him to die. He had a complete meltdown, out of the blue.”
She says: “I defy anybody to match the resilience of my community and the kids in it, but just because they are resilient and keep going every day doesn’t mean they’re not extremely sad and traumatised.”
At Whittlesea Secondary College, 19 members of the school community died in the fires, including four students and two whole families, as well as parents, staff and school councillors. Sixty families and seven staff lost their homes. A survey found that 392 of the students had been directly affected in some way.
Principal Terry Twomey says: “If you come into the school, you wouldn’t notice anything. There’s plenty of routine and lots of terrific things going on. But there is a lot happening under the surface too. Many are missing friends they lost in the fires and many are missing not living where they used to live. There’s a whole lot of frustration over the rebuild, and there’s all of the financial and relationship issues that have emerged . . . You can never listen too much.”
He says staff are working hard to try to keep students connected to school, because they know they are at risk. “Ash Wednesday data found a lot of young people became disengaged from learning and didn’t go on to tertiary education at all, and there were some significant mental health issues for that cohort down the track . . . They need to see purpose and a future for themselves.”
It sounds like a discouraging cocktail of troubles. But Ruth Wraith, a former head of the department of child psychotherapy at the Royal Children’s Hospital and the trauma specialist who helped the Strathewen teachers, is neither surprised nor alarmed to hear such stories.
Parents should not fear that children are irreparably damaged when they scream at red sunsets, she says, or even when a very young child talks of suicide. “These are symptoms, or reactions, that are messages from the child about what the meaning of the traumatic experience is to that individual child. To understand, we need to know what need the symptom is fulfilling.”
Of talk of suicide, she says: “What does the child mean when he says those words? It might have a very different meaning for a child than it does for adults. It might mean they want to get further away from trigger reminders, or from fighting in the family. They might want to ensure they will never face bushfire again. It may be that somebody has died and they have overheard an adult conversation that this person is at peace now, so perhaps they have concluded: ‘If I die, I will be at peace.’ ”
The same principle applies to understanding troubled teenagers who are relying too much on sex, drugs or alcohol. “In adolescence, it’s normal to feel immortal and invulnerable. That’s why they take the risks they do. Part of adolescence is learning you’re not Superman; learning what the limits are, in a way that allows you to understand the realities of life, without losing your curiosity and your sense of adventure. These teenagers had all that stripped away in an instant, without the chance to develop a gradual understanding of their mortality.”
She says sex for some might be like an addictive drug, an instant good feeling; or a chance to be close to someone without getting involved; or quasi-medicinal — something to numb the pain. US research suggests teenagers who have experienced trauma are more likely to marry and have children young, she says, either because they think they “may as well get on with life and live it in a hell of a hurry because there could be no tomorrow, or else because of a desperate need to be close to someone, to be held and understood”.
If parents are worried about their children or their families, they should act on that awareness and seek advice, she says.
For Matthew, counselling was the key to recovery. Tania says: “He hated counselling. He used to sit with his arms folded, looking out the window. Then one day she said: ‘Tell me about the friends that you lost.’ ”
Matthew began with his schoolfriends, but the dam really burst when he started talking about one of his neighbours — “The shape of his arms when he used to lift Matthew over the fence, and how strong he was, and how funny he was.
“Then he turned to me and said: ‘And I should have gone to his funeral!’ It had been one of the first funerals, and we were struggling, and I had thought: ‘We won’t do this.’
“And quick as a flash, the counsellor said: ‘You need to have your own funeral for him. You plan it and you conduct it the way you want to.’
“So Matthew invited me and my mum and dad. We all had a balloon. We all wrote a message that we kept private and we tied them to the bottom of the strings.
“Then we let them go at the gravesite of the man and his wife. Then Matthew asked my parents lots of questions about the funeral. His main question was: ‘Were they in the same coffin together?’ They said: ‘Yes, they were.’
“Then he just picked up overnight. I noticed he started to laugh more and enjoy things more. The biggest change was when he was faced with information about the fire, or people were talking about what happened to them. He is now able to hear it without it affecting him.”
Her boy is different to how he might have been had there been no fire. He is more perceptive, more compassionate; a little wise beyond his years, she feels.
Jane Hayward says the same of her charges at Strathewen, who are almost painfully attuned to suffering they see on television, such as the Christmas Island boat disaster, or the New Zealand mine catastrophe. “They’ve got an incredible insight into death and loss. It’s a very adult understanding. They have such insight, and empathy . . . They have a real social conscience, a strong need to do good in the world, to fund-raise for our sponsor child. They haven’t got that childhood innocence, where you can just fluff around and have a good time. They are going to be amazing adults. I think they will change the world.”
* The names of Matthew and Tania have been changed to protect Matthew’s privacy.
For help or information, visit www.dhs.vic.gov.au/em/bushfire-recovery/emotional-support, or call Lifeline on 131 114.

A literary feud born of family trauma


This is a tale of two sisters. The elder, poet and novelist Lily Brett, has built an international literary career on her memories of childhood as the worst of times.
Her parents were Holocaust survivors and she has told of growing up in “a house full of anguish”. Her traumatised mother would weep and weep in front of her; her mother screamed in the night; her mother was tyrannical and envious of her daughter.
The younger sister, psychotherapist and writer Doris Brett, remembers their childhood in Carlton and Elwood as the best of times. In a memoir published this week, Eating the Underworld, she challenges Lily’s accounts of their history and of their mother, Rose, who died 15 years ago.
She says she shared Lily’s bedroom until Lily was 13 but she never heard her mother scream in the night; that her mother never wept in front of her and barely mentioned the Holocaust; that their home was a haven to which children of more damaged survivors were drawn for comfort. Her mother was no tyrant but cosseted both daughters and was “as good as she was beautiful”.
The family problem was not her mother but Lily: “There were a lot of tantrums and she certainly had an explosive temper, and I think my mother was very hurt by that.”
Doris Brett says that at 18, after years of trying to ingratiate herself with Lily, she realised she could never win her big sister’s love. She later came to believe that Lily would never forgive her for having unseated her as the only child: “She hated me.”
A relatively private estrangement has now become a public literary feud. Lily Brett, who lives in New York, and her father Max, who is in Melbourne, were sent copies of Eating the Underworld. Lily Brett issued this statement through her publisher: “There are some things not worth replying to. This book is one of them.”
There was also a statement from 85-year-old Max Brett: “This book, Eating the Underworld, by my daughter Doris, is a book of madness. It makes me very sad. I recognise very little of our family life in this book. My daughter Doris has made up a picture of her sister Lily which I don’t recognise at all.”
Doris Brett was expecting this kind of response: “My father basically said that if I wrote anything that hurt Lily’s career he would denounce me; he would call me a liar … It just didn’t matter how many times I said, `This is not aimed at Lily.’ ”
Is this a case of terminal sibling rivalry? A Helen Garner-like row over a writer exposing one side of shared private moments to the public gaze? A reflection of the way some children of survivors end up with their parents’ experience as a big part of their identity, and others don’t? Or an object lesson in the way truth is never absolute, and memory is at best a fuzzy reconstruction?
Lily Brett’s publicity material tells her parents’ story as part of her own. Rose and Max Brett were married just before they were imprisoned in Poland’s Lodz ghetto. They were sent to Auschwitz, where they were separated. They found each other six months after the war and Lily was born in a German camp for displaced persons in 1946. They came to Melbourne in 1948 and Doris was born a year later.
Lily, 54, has won prizes for her Holocaust poetry, Poland and Other Poems and The Auschwitz Poems, as well as an international audience for her novel Too Many Men, in which the main character travels with her father to Auschwitz. Lily is married to artist David Rankin and has three children.
Doris, 51, is married with one daughter – she says having Lily as a sibling made her reluctant to have a second child – and is also an award-winning poet. Her work includes the novel Looking For Unicorns, a book on therapeutic storytelling for children called The Annie Stories, and The Constellation of the Crab, poems about her battle with ovarian cancer.
Eating the Underworld is largely a memoir of the cancer battle but it also reflects on questions she had been reluctant to face until the prospect of death forced her to reassess her life. These included the need to defend her mother’s memory.
She writes that she had held her silence for a long time, “Because I was told it was shameful to expose differences. Because I wished to protect people … Because of the difficult question of who `owns’ shared stories … Because of my concern that if I spoke out, then I would only be doing what I had criticised my sister for. And also, I am not proud to say, because of fear … All too often, the bearers of news which bursts bubbles … are themselves turned on …
“It has been painful seeing the accounts of my family recounted so publicly by my sister … I have had strangers stop me in the street and commiserate with me for having had such a terrible mother. I find myself saying again and again to them that no, that was not my experience. I have had patients who have come to see me as a psychotherapist because they had abusive mothers and, having read my sister’s books, they `knew’ that I had one too and would understand.”
Doris writes that she does not recognise Lily’s view of her mother: “It is clearly the way Lily has chosen to interpret her experience and yet in the minds of many, it has become who my mother actually was. It is how she will be remembered by readers, critics, academics; people who never knew her.”
Her parents did not discuss the Holocaust with their children because they wanted to protect them, Doris says. But they failed to protect her from her sister’s antagonism as they were growing up – perhaps because they were blind to it, perhaps because the death camp had engendered a kind of passivity in her mother, she writes.
Doris first challenged Lily in a letter to the Jewish News in the late 1980s. In her book she writes that Lily stopped speaking to her then and that her father, who had initially approved the letter, rang her close to tears after speaking to Lily. He accused Doris of trying to wreck her sister’s career.
The Brett sisters are in fine literary company. The chill between British writers A. S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble, who also have differing views of their mother, has been much written about. But Doris Brett says their situation is different: “They were each allowed to write, even though they didn’t like what the other wrote. I was silenced. It was made very clear that I shouldn’t be writing about these things and I shouldn’t be talking about these things.”
Now, “The reader can read Lily’s, they can read mine, and they can make up their mind. And that’s how it should be.”
But what is the reader to make of such contradictory accounts? Is this bitter tussle itself a symptom of the emotional damage caused by the camp experience?
Psychiatrist Dr Paul Valent has treated children of Holocaust survivors. He says he cannot comment on the Brett family but that in Holocaust families generally, “one child can take the brunt of the family’s (bad) experience and the other child might represent the hope of all the good things that should come in the new life …
“It often happens that the oldest child is colored by the Holocaust experience, whereas the youngest child escapes it, relatively speaking – especially if, for instance, the older child was born in a displaced persons’ camp and the younger child was
born in Australia,” he says.
Louise Adler is an arts and literary commentator whose Jewish father fought in the French resistance. “Lily’s central preoccupation has been with making sense of that moment in history and how it affected her life,” she says. “That’s a legitimate activity.
“The problem of fiction is the morality of using material that you share with other people. For Lily Brett, the added problem is that there are other ways of viewing the family history. Is this struggle between these two sisters a poignant symptom of the drama of the second generation struggling to make sense of the horror that actually belongs to another generation?”
Doris Brett, who has been a psychotherapist for nearly 30 years, shares Dr Valent’s view that siblings often emerge with entirely different experiences of the family. But she also points quietly to Lily Brett’s acknowledgement in interviews that she tends to embroider stories.
Doris says, “For me, the issue ultimately was that I had been living with the sense that if I kept silent, that it would somehow fix things in the family – on a personal level, with my father … But in the end, I realised my silence wasn’t fixing anything.”

First published in The Age.

Who’s afraid of Harry Potter? Not me

IT’S time to stand up and be counted in defence of Harry Potter, boy wizard, publishing phenomenon, and magnet for the ire of Adults Who Know Better.

Harry is not a caricature. His stories are not plagiaristic pastiches unworthy to be deemed classics of children’s literature. And his exploits are not going to inspire kids into absconding at midnight to slaughter goats on altars to Beelzebub.

The Harry Potter books, by Scottish author Joanna Rowling, have taken off like a bushfire in a drought. Her warm, funny stories of an orphan who goes off to boarding school to study wizardry are being devoured by millions of eight to 14-year-olds.

In England, editions with adult black-and-white covers have been printed for the many fathers seen furtively reading the series on the train. Rowling’s earnings this year are estimated to reach more than $200million.

Her success has made fools of children’s publishers. Their accepted wisdom was that TV-watching kids would not have the attention span to read books as long as Rowling’s (more than 400 pages). She was rejected by nine publishers but, once in print, won immediate success – with children, that is.

The adult world is divided. Literati say the world of her books is thin, its imagery derivative and its structure flawed. Religious fundamentalists in America are trying to have the books banned from schools because the wizardry is “satanic”, and last month they were banned by the principal of a British primary school.

Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron, are about as satanic as the Brady Bunch on broomsticks. Parents can trust Rowling’s work: her values are friendship and kindness, honesty and courage.

Rowling fully deserves children’s affection. She writes a cracking yarn and has an intuitive understanding of a child’s emotional world. Children love her stories not just because they entertain but because they do what people have always needed stories to do: play out symbolically the psychic dramas of human development and the moral dilemmas of life’s big questions. On this level the Harry Potter books have great integrity.

Poor narrative structure? Harry is very much the archetypal hero described by Joseph Campbell in his analysis of universal mythic themes, The Hero with a Thousand Faces: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous foes are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Like Campbell’s heroes, Harry crosses a magical threshold into the other world (in his case, Platform Nine and Three Quarters at King’s Cross Station), receives all kinds of unexpected supernatural aid and is transformed by his experience of victory over evil.

True, Rowling has picked like a magpie through the treasury of children’s stories. Her Every Flavor Beans, which offer all sorts of surprises to the taste buds, echo products from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Ursula Le Guin wrote about a magic school in Wizard of Earthsea; Rowling’s giant spider Aragog might have descended from Tolkien’s Shelob, and her flying car – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, surely?

But in literature, little is truly original. Most stories are derivative in some way. Rowling has been criticised for copying Roald Dahl in her sketching of Harry as an orphan child abused by nasty relatives, but Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach mimicked an even earlier abused-orphan story, Cinderella.

James Joyce drew on the myth of Ulysses to produce his modern classic of the same name, and academics build whole careers detecting the allusions buried in it. Kids could play a similar game with the post-modern parodies in Harry Potter books. When they grow up and study media they’ll be told it’s called intertextuality.

And Rowling does it so wittily; the monstrous slavering three-headed dog guarding the sorcerer’s stone is based on Cerberus, but it’s Rowling’s deft touch to name it Fluffy. As for those Every Flavor Beans – any misappropriation involved is redeemed by this comical passage about the wise old wizard Dumbledore, Harry’s principal at Hogwarts:

“`I was unfortunate enough in my youth to come across a vomit-flavored one, and since then I’m afraid I’ve rather lost my liking for them. But I think I’d be safe with a nice toffee, don’t you?” He smiled and popped the golden brown bean into his mouth. Then he choked and said, “Alas! Ear wax!”

The question of where Rowling obtained individual nuggets of material is secondary; what matters is the wholeness and emotional truth of her stories. Here she excels.

Harry the orphan symbolises every child’s deepest fear: having to navigate a dark and dangerous world without parents. He is working out who he is and how he will face his fate. He learns that pleasantness is sometimes a veneer for evil and that unsympathetic characters can prove surprisingly staunch and upright.

From his mentor, Dumbledore, he hears universal wisdoms. On the dark lord Voldemort, known as You Know Who: “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

Harry learns that his remarkable powers are due to the fact that he has something of the dreaded Voldemort within himself; a metaphor for original sin, and the way our strengths are also our weaknesses.

And Dumbledore helps Harry keep alive his sense of the parents he lost. He tells Harry it was only his mother’s love that protected him from Voldemort’s attack when he was a baby: “To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved you is gone, will give you some protection forever.”

Rowling is welcome into my children’s psyches any time.

The next book is due in June. See you on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at King’s Cross Station.

First published in The Age.

When children kill

WHEN is a child not a child? Take the 13-year-old boy who stood on a bridge over the Eastern Freeway dropping rocks on to cars. The last rock, all 1.8 kilograms of it, struck the chest of a motorist with the force of sledgehammer. It ruptured his heart and killed him.
In America, that kind of offence loses a child his special status in law. “Adult crime, adult time,” is the catch-cry, and more than 40 states now automatically transfer juveniles charged with certain violent offences to the adult system, where they face life sentences.

In Victoria, children aged between 10 and 14 are automatically transferred to the Supreme Court when charged with murder or manslaughter. Juries make what they can of exchanges such as this one between police and the young rock-thrower, up for manslaughter:

“Whereabouts did you get the rocks from?”

“That little place where we were playing tiggy on our bikes.”

Adult crime, childish pastime. Should the boy be held responsible for the death he caused? What is the boundary of the age of innocence – or is the very concept an adult fantasy?

The question is becoming more urgent with cases such as that of Corey Davis, the six-year-old with an intellectual disability who drowned after a 10-year-old boy shoved him into a creek. The case triggered calls for Australian children to be held more culpable for their crimes.

The 10-year-old became the second-youngest child in Australia to be charged with a killing. He is even younger if judged by his mental age, which was said to be around seven. New South Wales police decided to charge the boy with manslaughter after he told them: “Yeah. I pushed him. So what?”

Last May, the NSW senior children’s magistrate, Stephen Scarlett, ruled that the case should not go to the Supreme Court because a conviction was unlikely, given the evidence provided by child witnesses. A jury would probably see Corey’s death as “an act of bullying that went horribly wrong”. The NSW Department of Public Prosecutions overruled Scarlett’s recommendation and decided the boy should stand trial.

Although he believed the boy should not face an adult hearing, Scarlett had questioned whether today’s children are too protected from culpability.

In NSW and Victoria, the law presumes that children older than 10 but younger than 14 are incapable of forming an intention to commit a crime. This is known as the doli incapax presumption. It can be overturned, or rebutted, in an individual case only if the prosecution manages to prove the child did understand the significance of his or her actions. The presumption developed in 18th-century English law to prevent the hanging or transportation of children.

Scarlett called for the doli incapax cut-off to be lowered to the 12th birthday. “Can it really be argued that a child of 13 does not understand that it is wrong to steal from a shop, or to attack someone with a knife or a gun? Does any child in high school not have an idea of the rules by which modern Australian society runs?”

Technology had made doli incapax dated, he argued. “It seems obvious that children in the final stages of the 20th century are better educated and more sophisticated than their counterparts 200 years ago. A child in Australia has access to television, radio and the Internet, and has a far greater understanding of the world than a 12-year-old in rural Britain in 1769.”

But children are not like computers; input does not necessarily translate into appropriate output. They must be taught how to process the information they receive. And for how long should they be buffered from adult consequences because of other aspects of their childish natures?

One of the two British boys who battered to death toddler James Bulger in 1993 was surprised when police told him they could prove he was at the scene. The boy did not understand that they were referring to forensic evidence. He asked them whether they had the power to bring James back to life and question him.

The director of the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre, Louis Schetzer, says: “I hardly think exposure to police shows on commercial television is necessarily an instrument by which children can be assumed to have a greater level of responsibility and knowledge of the context of their responsibilities and rights in the criminal justice system.

“Effectively, the principle of doli incapax allows that a young person has developing capacities and that there is no standardised model you could hold inflexibly to all 12 or 13-year-olds.”

He argues that children should not even be transferred to an adult court if they are under 14.

British lawmakers have leant more towards Scarlett’s view. They reversed the burden of proof regarding doli incapax, putting the onus on the defence to prove the child did not form the intent to commit the crime, following the Bulger murder. Two-year-old James was abducted from a shopping centre and killed by two 10-year-old boys.

Since then, in Norway, three boys aged six battered a five-year-old girl and left her to die; in France, three boys, one aged only 10, kicked a tramp to death; and in the US, two boys aged 10 and 11 dropped a five-year-old 14 storeys to his death for
refusing to hand over his lollies.

Public outrage at such atrocities has fuelled a push to find young people more culpable for their offending, says Terry Bartholomew, a lecturer in forensic psychology at Deakin University. “When society perceives a youth crime wave, the response is always to increase the state’s punitiveness. The majority of American states now transfer children who have committed homicide-related offences to the adult system. A private member’s bill in Queensland was recently submitted to try to reverse the presumption of doli incapax.”

Bartholomew has studied the 18 cases of juveniles charged with homicide-related offences in Victoria since 1990. They do not include this year’s three: a 15-year-old boy charged with killing a grandmother in her back yard; and two sisters, 13 and 15, charged with fatally stabbing a friend’s mother.

Bartholomew says the typical case involves a teenage boy disturbed during a burglary who panics and grabs a pair of scissors or a kitchen knife to fight his way out, with deadly consequences for the person confronting him.

He believes there are difficulties with transferring children to adult courts and sees contradictions in the way courts try to determine criminal responsibility by examining the offender’s background. “If Johnny comes from a good home, should he have known better? Is he more likely to be culpable than Jimmy, who comes from a broken home? … And where do you find a jury of their peers? The local high school?”

The manager of policy with Victoria’s office of public prosecutions, Bruce Gardner, says the age of qualification for jury duty has always been higher than the age of qualification for being an accused. He says the office assesses each juvenile case on its merits, and some do not proceed because it is assumed that doli incapax would apply.

A case would go to the Supreme Court only if it were thought appropriate because of the seriousness of the offence and the capacity of the child. “If it’s a serious case, they might get a technically more detailed and correct hearing in the Supreme Court than the Children’s Court. It might be more likely that they would be acquitted.”

Individual stages of intellectual and emotional development are not the only complex issues. Children now reach puberty earlier than in previous generations; they are taller and heavier as well as sexually developed at a younger age.

The barrister and psychologist Professor Don Thomson, of Charles Sturt University in NSW, says: “This issue looms large where you’ve got sex offences by 13-year-olds; because they’re sexually mature, when they commit rape or other sexual molestation, should you therefore invoke adult law?”

In Perth, 14-year-olds were among a group of six youths who recently appeared before the Children’s Court charged with pack rape.

Thomson says the trend is to treat juveniles more harshly and that this reflects a more punitive society. His research into views on sentencing has found that, while everyone surveyed said rehabilitation should be the main aim of the justice system, when asked to judge imaginary scenarios they wanted punishment to be severe.

“What people say and what they do are different,” Thomson says. “People focus on the consequences of the offence. They are not interested in mitigating factors, in looking at intent or whether a person shows remorse.

“This was reflected in the Lawrence Government in WA trying to introduce the most draconian laws in the British Commonwealth: curfews and making the penalties for juveniles more severe than for adults. In Western Australia and the Northern Territory, it’s reflected with three strikes and you’re in (jail), no matter what. And it’s reflected by the push for truth in sentencing.”

Thomson says research suggests that children must be at least 12 to have a proper understanding of consequences, but he believes many 14-year-olds have not developed this capacity. “That’s part of the reason why the age of adulthood is 18. We don’t allow children to enter into contracts because they don’t have a full appreciation of the consequences; we don’t allow them to marry, because they don’t appreciate the implications of that either.”

They also take a long time to develop control of their irrational impulses. “You can take children down to a road-safety place and they do all the road rules right. You send them off on their bicycles in the street and they violate everything they know. It’s the inability to integrate what they’ve learnt and apply it in a live system.”

The lawyer for the young rock-thrower appealed to that principle. He told the jury that “reasonable” teenagers – the imaginary yardstick by which the accused boy was to be judged – were capable of recklessness quite incomprehensible to adults; that “constantly you hear 13 and 14-year-olds who are quite reasonable asked this question by their parents: `How could you be so stupid?”‘ The rock-thrower and his friend (who had shared the activity with him but not the fatal throw) were acquitted.

But ambivalence remains about the appropriate response to children whose actions have monstrous consequences for others. In the Corey Davis case, the original magistrate thought charges should not be pursued, the public prosecutor thought they should, and the jury last week concluded that they could not convict the boy.

Internationally, there is neither consensus nor consistency. In Britain, James Bulger’s killers faced waves of punitive rage over their horrific crime. Their initial sentence was increased from eight years to 10. Then the Home Secretary intervened and tried to make it 15 (the House of Lords overruled him).

The boys were recently deemed by the European Commission of Human Rights to have been unfairly treated during their original trial. In a major turnaround, there are now calls to free them, the most notable coming from Britain’s chief inspector of prisons, General Sir David Ramsbotham.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a Michigan boy last month became the youngest American to be convicted of an adult charge of murder. Nathaniel Abraham now faces the possibility of life in jail. When he shot his victim, he was 11. He, too, has below-average intelligence but the jury decided he knew the gun was dangerous.

The mother of the slain man had no doubt about the verdict. “Justice has been served,” she said. But Nathaniel’s lawyer had no doubt about the verdict either. “He doesn’t understand it,” he said. “He literally never has.”

First published in The Age.

The ghosts of belonging


Karen Kissane

`HOME” was a mysterious place, the stuff of myth and legend; my family’s dreamtime. It was never the corner shop where we lived and worked; not the cement backyard of Tarax bottles where we pedalled our trikes, or the storage shed of Sorbent rolls and tinned food where we played hidey among the cardboard cartons. I grew up knowing that “Home” was not the place with which I was most familiar, but somewhere altogether different.“Home” was where families went for a holiday as soon as ever they could save the money. “Home” was where other families went for good when they just couldn’t crack it here – because of the slog or the heat or the heartsickness. “Home” was the place grownups talked about at their parties, sang about over their beer and referred to (only half-jokingly) as “Holy Mother Ireland”. Home is where the heart is, and their hearts were thousands of miles away.

This psychic umbilical cord seemed the source of all their grief and all their joy, and the intensity of the attachment left me feeling that life in the country of my birth was somehow insubstantial. Grownups’ memories of the childhoods they had been forced to leave behind overshadowed the reality of the childhood I was trying to live. Perhaps it is like this for all children of migrants.

Everything significant seemed to come from the other side of the world: my unknown grandparents and aunts and uncles, my fairytale heroes and heroines, the music that made me want to dance, the picture-postcard scenery that looked like Tolkien-land.

In the 1960s, urban Australia had little to offer a child’s imagination. But the Irish had stories of forebears in the famine dying by the roadside with grass-stains round their mouths; of priests risking death to run illicit schools for Irish children; of the heroes of the Easter Rising in 1916. The Irish knew who they were and what had been suffered on the way to it.

Some were less forthcoming about their painful personal histories. They could be dogmatic and prickly, a quick-tempered pride shielding their vulnerability to shame (that scarring trifecta of poverty, oppression and religious rigidity being altogether ennobling only in romantic novels).

But beside them, easy-going Australia seemed unformed, passionless, bland. Aussie families never seemed to have heated rows about politics at the dinner table, and they didn’t laugh as much either. Their flame of life seemed turned down to simmer.

Anglos did ballet or swimming; I learnt Irish dancing and sweated in a woollen kilt in the March heat of the St Patrick’s Day procession. I went to crowded schools run by stern Irish nuns and took in the national neuroses like mothers’ milk. I left school adept at pontificating on mortal sin, but wholly unacquainted with Shakespeare (just another bloody Englishman, after all) or even Joyce (“that filthy man”).

I did try to draw a line, deflecting my Dad’s attempts to fire me up about Irish politics. But Dad died when I was 10 and, after that, holding on to Irishness became a way of holding on to him. Holy Father Ireland.

So at 20 – as soon as ever I could save the money – I went home for a holiday.

At first I was conscious only of my foreignness. My mother, who was travelling with us, derided me for a tourist whenever my girlfriend and I exclaimed over the remnants of mediaeval castles that litter her patch, the west of Ireland. “Those ould ruins!” she’d sniff in disgust. “They’re all falling down!”

We’d insist on clambering over the ancient stones, heady with the glory of our find, while she sat in the car, arms folded and foot tapping. She hadn’t been home in nearly 20 years and she longed for time with her family, not with the crumbling homes of people long gone. I didn’t understand that this time, my preoccupation with the past was robbing her of the present.

Her mother – my grandmother – and I failed to connect for the first two days we were under the same roof. She was in her eighties and had more spirit than strength – her sight was failing and she moved stiffly with the aid of a walker, but her thin hair was defiantly hennaed and her cheeks determinedly rouged.

Her brogue was so thick that I thought she was talking Gaelic and waited for others to translate for me. She had impatiently written me off as a tad sub-normal, given that I couldn’t answer a simple question. When we finally twigged to each other, at least we discovered that we laughed at the same things.

My mother was a village girl. At 18, she had left Ballinrobe, where “marrying out” meant wedding someone from the next parish, to search for work in London and then half-way across the globe in Australia. My grandmother had never been further from home than Galway. She had never even made the three-hour trip to Dublin.

What had we to say to each other? We shared only a warm goodwill and a love of the woman who linked us. So I sat and listened as Grandma and her three emigrant daughters rewove the threads of their old life together as if it were a tapestry frayed by time. They came alive chatting of births and deaths and marriages, of the way the local convent school’s uniform had changed. They used preoccupations with the everyday to draw a veil over their emotional lives and their years of separation; too painful, perhaps, or maybe just too hard to bridge. It was affectionate. It was revealing. But it was not home. Not for me.

My father had been a Kerry man. Hard men, they say. But the landscape of his heartland is soft; lush green hills and lakes of a brilliant blue. When I got to his hometown of Killarney it was easy to give over entirely to the role of tourist, roaming for the sheer pleasure of it.

That, in itself, might have been un-Kerrylike. I went to see the farmhouse in which my father had grown up. It stood whitewashed and stolid near the edge of a road, blind-siding a glorious view of the Killarney lakes. Did any of the rooms overlook the scenery? I asked a local. Mmm, the bathroom maybe, he said, himself puzzled by the question. To him, the scenery was no more matter for comment than a fencepost – and a darned sight less useful.

Then came the thunderbolt. I was wandering along the main street of the town when a strange woman charged at me from across the road. I’ve never seen her before or since. I couldn’t tell you what she looked like and was too floored by what she said to remember what she told me about who she was.

She said with delight, “Sure, you must be Gerald Kissane’s daughter. You’re the image of him.”

He’d been dead for 10 years and out of the country for 40. I struggled so hard to remember what he looked like, and she’d known him well enough to recognise him in a daughter she didn’t know he’d had. Because they had grown up in a village. Together. They knew what it was to belong, and for their families to have belonged for so many generations that their presence was as natural and right as the rising of the sun.

FOR one deeply etched moment, it seemed that I must belong too. Nowhere else in the world would a stranger recognise me for my clan. For the first time, I felt what my parents must have felt; a sense that my roots go back for generations, that I was part of a long family history and enfolded by a familiar community. And then the full force of what my parents had lost hit me. I grieved for them and for me, for the aloneness, the dislocation, the never-quite-fitting-in-anywhere that is the fruit of immigration, unto the next generation.

The stranger disappeared after our brief encounter, like the mysterious wise women in Celtic fairy stories who vanish once they have revealed what the protagonist needs to know. Her appearance had made me understand my links with that place; her cheerful, unthinking farewell was a reminder of their limits. Ultimately, I was an outsider. My connections with this town lay in the past. Its ghosts had been a large part of my life, but I had never been part of its small world.

Some time later I was in San Francisco. Unexpectedly, it had gum trees, tall, scraggy, tangy-scented eucalypts that triggered a wave of homesickness as fierce as a blow.

It was near the end of the journey. Time to go home.

First published in The Sunday Age.