BASED ON A SHOCKING TRUE STORY
PARRAMATTA GIRLS’ HOME – AUSTRALIA’S DARK HISTORY.
AUSTRALIA. THE LUCKY COUNTRY – BUT NOT FOR SOME
The real-life setting for Invisible Thread is Australia’s most notorious juvenile detention centre for girls under eighteen, Parramatta Girls’ Training School (also known as Parramatta Girls’ Home), which closed in the early Seventies. Young girls were sent there by the childrens’ courts for being ‘neglected,’ ‘uncontrollable” or ‘exposed to moral danger’. Many came from violent, difficult and unhappy backgrounds which they fled for their own safety, only to be arrested and sentenced to a place where brutality and sadism were allowed full reign by the state authorities. If a Parramatta girl ‘misbehaved’ badly enough she was given Largactyl, a prescription drug widely used at that time to subdue psychiatric patients, and sent on an overnight train in handcuffs to an even worse fate: the Hay Institution for Girls. A former gaol in the outback town of Hay, it is more than 600 miles from Sydney. At Hay girls were further robbed of their identity. Harsh punishments broke their spirit. Many were subjected to abuse and brutality reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps. Silence and no eye contact with other girls and officers ensured the girls’ abusers were able to carry out their attacks without impunity.
In 2009 Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a national apology to children in the Australian care system, including Parramatta and Hay girls, and thousands of others who have passed through over 860 similar Homes across the country. This national tragedy affected more than 500 thousand children and had its roots in Australia’s dramatic and brutal convict past. These children have been called The Forgotten Australians.
In 2013 former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, made an emotional public apology to the thousands of Australians affected by illegal forced adoption.
A memorial to the Forgotten Australians was unveiled to mark the national apology in Sydney’s Botanical Gardens, in honour of children in care whose lives were changed forever under the tyranny of the so-called authorities charged with protecting them.
In 2011 the author was invited to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra to give a talk about her experience as a Forgotten Australian to curators who were preparing a national exhibition. She is currently working with an Australian film company to bring the story of the Forgotten Australians and the victims of forced adoption to the screen.
In February 2014 the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse held hearings in Sydney to consider submissions from former Parramatta and Hay girls. Sixteen women, representing the 30,000 children who were detained at these ‘homes’ told their harrowing and shocking stories to the Commission. A public and media outcry followed. The Commission are now considering the evidence and submissions.
Invisible Thread was written ahead of its time. When the author wrote the novel there had been scarcely any publicity about these two national scandals. Instinct about the importance of what had happened, personal experience, and courage, drove her on to finish the novel, in spite of the real possibility of personal or legal repercussions. At the time she thought no one would be interested – except the abusers at the institutions, and those involved in the forced adoptions of babies born to young, unmarried girls.
‘When I wrote my novel no one knew much about Parramatta, and even less about Hay,’ she says. ‘And quite honestly, no one really cared. I wrote the book in fear. I thought I would be imprisoned again for unlocking these secrets. After all, these were government-run places. The hospitals where the babies were stolen were run by doctors and nurses. Social workers were involved, clergy. At Parramatta and Hay you felt you must obey the officers because they were in charge. Besides, they could make your life hell if you didn’t. If they told you you were “bad’, you believed them. If they told you you couldn’t look after a baby, you believed them. These were meant to be qualified professionals employed by the government. We now know that most of them were unqualified. They made it their business to make us feel not only worthless, but stupid. The girls who rebelled against being ill-treated were courageous, but they suffered far more abuse than those who kept their heads down. I had to write about what happened in spite of my fears, because it affected me deeply, and I knew it had destroyed many peoples’ lives. There was always the hope that someday, someone would read it and acknowledge the pain that was inflicted on us.’
The repercussions of being a Parramatta girl are far-reaching. Whole generations have been affected. Families have been split up, relationships, health, and financial security destroyed.
‘If you were sent to Parramatta Girls’ Home everyone assumed you deserved it,’ says the author. ‘Even family members labelled us “bad”. We now know we were not bad. The people who ran these institutions were bad, and the state did nothing to monitor or control what was going on.’
Invisible Thread is the definitive story of two shameful episodes in Australian history, events that echoed the experience of The Stolen Generation, true life stories of a dark and cruel period that has no place in modern Australia. Sadly, institutional child abuse is still happening. So is forced adoption. The motivation behind the author’s novel, and submitting her own personal story to the Royal Commission, was to try and educate those responsible for children in care, and those meant to be supporting unmarried mothers, about ways to limit abuse. “I don’t believe you can eradicate the abuse of children in care homes,’ says Giles. “Because behind closed doors it is easy for an abuser to carry out his or her attacks without being caught. Evil acts like sexual abuse are so hard to prove, but there are ways to lessen the risk. As for current forced adoption practices – this needs urgent investigation, because the life-long effect on mother and child is catastrophic.’
Based on the author’s own time in Parramatta Girls’ Home, Invisible Thread is the story of one girl’s clash with the powerful human machine behind these two corrupt and state-sanctioned systems. Giles has captured the raw emotions typical of a Parramatta girl, the confusion, fear and effect on her identity. With sensitivity and honesty the author explores in-depth how it must have felt for an unmarried teenage girl to have her newborn baby stolen from her by the state authorities.
‘This part of the novel was the most difficult to write because I was not pregnant when I was sent to Parramatta,’ says Giles. ‘Purely because fate and luck intervened, rather than common sense and experience. I had no idea about birth control and was sexually uneducated and ignorant. But I knew a girl at Parramatta, who became a friend, whose baby was forcibly removed for adoption. She never recovered from this trauma, and later took her life. Anyone who was pregnant when they went to Parramatta would have had their baby removed in this way. The two stories go hand-in-hand. At the time of writing Invisible Thread I did not think either story would ever become important to the public, to the government, to our history – I honestly thought we would remain ‘forever forgotten.’
Fourteen-year-old Ellen is confused and unhappy when her mother marries a man she doesn’t like. Her mother’s high standards and her mean step-father’s lack of empathy force Ellen to leave home. At a music festival in the country she meets Robbie. Robbie is mean too, but Ellen’s in love, and being with him is more fun than it was at home. Life seems better until Ellen is arrested for running away and, considered to be in ‘moral danger’, is sentenced to a notorious reform school. Ellen is terrified, but the magistrate at the Children’s Court in Sydney has made his decision. Behind the high walls of the borstal Ellen is subjected to humiliation, degradation and brutality. The staff nurse, a sinister type who is against unmarried mothers, discovers Ellen is pregnant. For this disgrace she and the other staff make Ellen’s life even more miserable – her only escape is her dreams and writing poetry. Everyone wants Ellen to give up her baby for adoption. The coercion confuses and frightens Ellen, but she wants to keep her baby no matter how difficult. But when the baby is born in a Sydney hospital, it is immediately “stolen” by staff and removed to another location. When Ellen is finally released and sent home, she is drawn by the invisible thread that links a mother to her child, a bond so strong that nothing and no one can destroy it. With the help of Frank, a disillusioned doctor, Ellen begins to search for the baby, but it’s impossible. During her search she uncovers an illegal conspiracy in which babies, taken from people like her (Breeders) are sold to couples wanting to adopt…
When the story of Australia’s Stolen White Baby Scandal was uncovered in the 1990s, thousands of women spoke about their experience for the first time. The deep emotional torture and social repercussions of these forced separations reverberated down the years, as far back as the 1920s and beyond.
Those affected by forced adoption continue to live with the scars of this illegal and misguided scheme, which has now found its rightful place amongst a long and shameful list of government-backed crimes against Australian society.
The Forgotten Australians still live with the emotional scars of being humiliated, degraded, punished and locked away from society like criminals. These people were children. Click on the following links to read more about Australia’s two most notorious children’s homes for young girls:
If you have had a similar experience of being in ‘care’ or if you are a former Parramatta or Hay girl, have had your baby forcibly removed by the ‘authorities’ for adoption, click on the following links for further information/support:
“I can’t speak for young people, but I guess they celebrate the things they’ve always celebrated – a joy of existence, a self-discovery, freedom…”
– Jim Morrison, The Doors
“Members of my own family used being a Parramatta girl to abuse me emotionally and excuse and sanction their own neglect. Such is the power of being a Parramatta girl. You may as well have leprosy. You can say what you like about it, you can show your family the stories, you can tell them your own story, but the stigma remains. My own father, who I only ever met briefly twice, used it against me to reject my efforts to know him. Cousins, my sister and brother-in-law, aunts and uncles . . . all made their judgement, and rejected me as “bad.’ You can’t re-live your life, you can’t take back those lost years. The years before you became a Parramatta girl may have been tough for many, but were nothing in comparison. Being a Parramatta girl is a complex burden that will follow us to our graves. The worst thing anyone can say to a Parramatta girl is ‘get over it.’
Maree Giles, author, Invisible Thread (Virago, 2001)
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