Sweeping the past under the rug just means we all trip on the lumps we can’t see and get bloody noses when some politician decides to bring back an old destructive social policy with a new name. In the cult of personality that has become Australian politics, a catchy slogan on a repackaged policy disaster is a valuable thing.
People are often critical of those who explore dark topics like asylum history or family secrets (such as my interest in why my great grandmother Jane was left to die in Sunbury Mental Hospital). Sometimes it’s said it is exploiting the memory of people who suffered. But I would argue that the memory of those impacted by historical maltreatment are not enhanced by shutting down that discussion. Perhaps it is better to enhance, redirect and dissect that discussion like grown ups.
When I did my undergraduate degree at University of Queensland I did a history elective about the history of medical bioethics. It was the most confronting course ever.
Why, you ask? Being the unaware but intellectually and conceptually rebellious person that I am, I discovered punk in the 1980’s (I’m often late to trends) and developed an infinity with my middle finger…
2002/2003 was the year I took a ride in a dark knowledge carriage down the cobbled street of hate and persecution of anyone differently human to some mythical “normal”. I took elective subjects such as “Genocide, persecution and revenge”, “Medicine and culture: bioethics” (of course mainly about psychiatry!) and “Witchcraft and demonology” (about the precursor to psychiatry…the church!).
But one thing dark human history has taught me, is that talking about the darkest places in human history is not always about spectacle. It can be about love too, because you don’t want to repeat the terrible mistakes of the past. That’s an act of love.
I can still quote facts and figures about the persecution of women and the mentally ill from witch trials to war time rape camps to Nazi twin studies. And sorry Americans and Australian American worshippers, Salem in the US was a miniscule part of the witch trials. It was just well publicised in the 20th century. Go read a book, even better go check out Project Gutenberg (it’s free!) and grab yourself some historical texts about it; see for yourself the kind of ideas being spouted in 1584 and the medical opinions of 1882.
Don’t take me to a Liberal party fundraiser, unless you want my conversational topics to clear out the room. Or, maybe, the Greens may one day want to weaponise me for that purpose.
I would argue these discussions can be done with part seriousness, part humour, parts horror and respectfully. It’s hard enough to talk about, but being drier than a climate change scientist in a desert ain’t going to get people to engage. But also, if any of you have been inside a psychiatric ward or know people who have and are open about it, you would know that your sense of both curiosity and humour can be a life line.
Do you know what can make mental health and addiction episodes worse and send people into more frequent cycles? Poor medical care and social stigma. And every single one of us, contributes to that, knowingly or unknowingly. We are this society. Society is not some vague concept, we are it.
So, as a person, I’ve always been drawn to dark topics. As an autistic person I have never been able to understand why people cared so much about hiding the truth of their families pasts. This is an organic thing for me, my brain does not do the complicated dance of fucking over people for a piece of gold or loaf of bread that I observe others do. I just, literally, don’t get it and I don’t want to become it either. I’ve made mistakes in my life like all people do, but not out of the desire to social climb. Knowledge is my addiction, not power. People either love me for that, or fucking depise me for that, and I am quite comfortable with either.
In 2002 I needed lots of energy drink that in 12 months studying the worst in human medical and social history. Partly because my Dad would pass away in December 2002 and I was trapped in an abusive marriage, with a small child and trying to help support a grieving mother, completely on my own. Other family popped into the picture from time to time, but to Mum, but never to me. I don’t recall a single phone call about my welfare. I was the mentally ill daughter and family refused to see the actual work I was doing in the family because of that stigma (and the fact it came out of the mouth of a man I was married to who was practicing coercive control). But ultimately I have always been the person that would say things as they are, a cardinal sin to conservatives everywhere.
Despite some rough and tumble and very well known family history I gleaned from Dad, in terms of shoving people’s dark history in the closet, my family history seemed no exception. I have spent most of my life just wanting to understand why talking about this was met with a strange silence. When I was reprimanded it was in vague terms, not direct enough for my neurobiology, so I often forged on, unaware I had upset people – and guess what, I’m not about to change that about myself! The fact remains, I cannot interpret passive aggression, not until later, I take things literally and don’t read the social cues like neurotypical people.
Sadly, passive aggression in my family was like the high jump of the oppression Olympics. Sideways and non-direct, vaguely aggressive approaches to a problem should have seemed like a bad idea. But people seemed unable to stop, addicted to both the spectacle and discomfort it brought them.
I have two degrees and a trade and yes, some difficult mental health history, but have had a life that is rich and interesting. Yet I do wonder if I had been born in another time what would have happened to me. Because some people who think differently were considered society’s enemy and being born female and outspoken was often a dangerous thing to be. I think, looking at the historical treatment of women who challenged the system, I am very fortunate not have been incarcerated or institutionalised for challenging the system repeatedly.
What is really interesting for me, was my Dad seemed to shield me from any diagnosis when people were aware I was different as a child. I am glad he did. Given the understanding of autism in the 1970’s, my life could have been in and out of institutions had he not intervened.
People respond to medical and government information about the health and well being of their loved ones. I am aware that when my great grandmother was put in Sunbury Mental Hospital family may have thought it was the right thing to do.
I am grateful for the correct dx in my 40’s and it has made my life better. But I dread to think what a dx in my childhood would have meant in my family of origin. My mother and I have spoken about this recently, it’s not about demonising my parents, it’s about understanding the messages they were receiving from medical experts and broader society. That messaging, however, if we are collectivist in our thinking, is the responsibility of us to amend now, when we do know better.
Most historical asylums had a history of being located on hills away from the township. Years later they become places with great views, and great real estate collateral, very much unlike the view past inhabitants would have had. When they are converted into university campuses (like the campus in Ipswich of the University of Queensland I worked at) and community hubs their history can be almost forgotten. It’s important this doesn’t happen.
Victoria is STILL facing it’s history and current practices of restraint and seclusion in mental health “care” facilities. Until recently it has dodged this discussion with a Houdini like ability to get out of a straight jacket and pick locks under water. A Royal Commission shook some of that sleepy bureaucracy up.
I think it’s time we start more public education through the actual history. Through the sites like Sunbury. Because honestly these modern restraint and seclusion practices are rooted in old world practices and old world attitudes. Below is a video of the site by a YouTube user lady888lyrical whose channel is dedicated to heritage sites.
But this study I did in 2002/2003 taught me about the idea that intellectual love wins. This kind of love prevails. I don’t mean romantic love, I mean another kind of compassionate love, a love for humanity, a love of treating one another better. Even if that means having really difficult conversations about our pasts.
Going into the dark places of the things we did in the past, often in the name of restorative trauma work, is an act of love.
So I’ve just found out that Sunbury Mental Hospital site has been neglected by the Victorian government and I am going to explore that further (see what the current status is with Heritage Victoria) as I go looking for Jane Brady’s records.
In 2018 A previous tour operator won awards for contributions to heritage and history through the education about asylum history provided, so to me this is sad news.
So sometime soon, I am off to see what I can find about Jane’s admission warrant.