A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s
R e v i e w


A Politics of Stolen Time

in memory of John Forbes
John Frow

© all rights reserved

Someone must have been telling lies about Millicent D. because when she was four she was taken away from her family and made a ward of the state. Until the age of eighteen she was kept in Sister Kate's Home in Perth, Western Australia, where she was forbidden to see any of her family or to know where they were. She was told that her family didn't care about her or want her, but that in exchange she would be brought up as a white girl 'in a good religious environment'.1 That's what she was told by the Protector of Aborigines and the Child Welfare Department; but Millicent tells the Inquiry from whose Report I am quoting that 'all they contributed to our upbringing and future was an unrepairable scar of loneliness, mistrust, hatred and bitterness' (115).

When she was in her first year of high school Millicent was sent to work on a farm as a domestic servant; she went back there in the next school holidays, and this time 'it was a terrifying experience, the man of the house used to come into my room at night and force me to have sex. I tried to fight him off but he was too strong' (117). Back at the Home she reported this to the Matron; but the Matron 'washed my mouth out with soap and boxed my ears and told me that awful things would happen to me if I told any of the other kids. I was so scared and wanted to die. When the next school holidays came I begged not to be sent to that farm again. But they would not listen and said I had to' (ibid.).

Millicent ran away from the Home in order to try to return to her family, but she was recaptured, punished, and sent back to the farm to work. This time, she says, 'I was raped, bashed and slashed with a razor blade on both of my arms and legs because I would not stop struggling and screaming. The farmer and one of his workers raped me several times. I wanted to die, I wanted my mother to take me home where I would be safe and wanted' (ibid.). Instead, she was returned to the Home. Again Millicent reported the rape to the Matron, and again she was punished: 'I got a belting with a wet ironing cord, my mouth washed out with soap and put in a cottage by myself away from everyone so I couldn't talk to the other girls. They constantly told me that I was bad and a disgrace and if anyone knew it would bring shame to Sister Kate's Home'. She ate rat poison to try to kill herself, but 'became very sick and vomited. This meant another belting' (ibid.).

Some weeks later Millicent was examined by a doctor who told her that she was pregnant; again she was blamed and punished. She gave birth to a baby girl who was taken away from her, and she was told that she could have the child back when she left Sister Kate's. Some time later she asked the Matron for her daughter's address, and she was told first that it was not Government policy to give out this information, and subsequently that the child's whereabouts were not known. She then rang the hospital and was told that they had no record of her or of the birth of her daughter; and when she wrote to the Native Welfare Department they told her that they had no record of her family since the records had been destroyed by fire.

Ten years after her daughter's birth she returned to Western Australia and again asked the Matron of Sister Kate's about her family and child; this time, Millicent says, 'she told me that my daughter was dead and it would be in my best interest to go back to South Australia and forget about my past and my family' (118). A footnote to this story says that Millicent was reunited with her child when the daughter was 36.

Listen to the actions that are reported here:

This is a story about acts of telling that are true and acts that are false. It is about being told things and not being heard. It is about the relation between telling stories and existing, or about being made not to exist.

Millicent's story is a part of the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, entitled Bringing Them Home. Delivered to the Australian Federal Government in 1997, the Report is a record of the history of forcible removal of indigenous children, usually of mixed descent, from their families and communities, and it makes recommendations about current laws, practices and policies, about compensation for the victims of past laws, practices and policies, and about the services that are or should be available for those victims.

I say that Millicent's story is a part of the Report, not that it is told in the report, because the difference is important. In citing Millicent's story the Report is allowing her words to describe a system in which speech receives no answer, or in which it is shameful, or in which it is met with lies. As a bureaucratic document the Report is striking for its attempt to give a voice to those who have not been listened to, or who have had the language in which to tell a story taken away from them. It does this by embedding in its text fragments or extended passages of stories told in the first person by witnesses to the Commission of Inquiry, usually in confidence and sometimes 'with great difficulty and much personal distress' (3).

A preliminary passage says that 'throughout this report we have remained faithful to the language used by the witnesses quoted' (20); and later, speaking of the 535 pieces of evidence that the Inquiry heard from indigenous people, it claims to 'relay as many of those individual stories as possible' (21). 'Faithful' and 'relay' suggest a transparency of transcription and passing-on that suppresses the processes of writing and of the insertion of these stories into a narrative context; much of my attention in this paper will be to the politics of writing that is worked out in those processes of citation, and in particular to the tension between the political need to speak on behalf of indigenous people, to lend the authority of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to those who are unauthorized in the public sphere, and the desire directly to restore a voice to them within and as a part of the Report.

'To report' is to carry a story back from one place to another. This may be an act of commenting on something observed, or it may be the repeating to another person of something that has been said, or it may be the naming of a person to an authority as having offended in some way, or it may be the making of an official act of judgement by a teacher or an investigative body. Millicent reports to the Matron the farmer who rapes her, but her act of reporting is turned back against her. She gives witness, but she is not believed. The Report of the National Inquiry listens to witnesses and reports their words in two ways: by repeating them directly, and by turning them into the material of a larger and more comprehensive narrative.

As a speech act this 'Report of an Inquiry' weaves together a double set of enunciative relations: that which pertains to the witnesses, splitting them between an I who speaks in the present and an I who once suffered; and that pertaining to the Commission, split between a present order of exposition and a past order of inquiry. These two relations are hooked together by the temporal coincidence of the order of inquiry and the speech of the witnesses: to inquire is to listen to that speech, and the Report is the secondary articulation of those prior acts of speaking and listening.

In making this double division between a present of speaking and writing and a past of reality the Report is doing what Michel de Certeau says all writing of history does:

instituting a reality by establishing a division between past and present such that the past functions as the other to the time of writing and is made intelligible by this relation.2
History, he writes, 'constitutes something real to the extent that it pretends to be the representation of a past reality. It takes on authority by passing itself off as the witness of what is or of what has been. It seduces, and it imposes itself, under a title of events; which it pretends to interpret'.3 This interpretation is characterized above all by its 'avoidance in the unifying representation of all traces of the division which organizes its production' (Heterologies, 205).

In the same way, the Report deploys the citational strategy that produces, according to Certeau, the characteristically 'laminated' text of historiography, split between a singular, coherent, continuous writing and a plural and 'disseminated' set of languages which are quoted, interrogated, and judged as though they were the primary matter of the real itself. It is from the citation of this language of otherness -- the chronicle, the archive, the document -- that knowledge of historical reality is achieved. History is constituted by a play of languages in which

the role of quoted language is ... one of accrediting discourse. With its referential function, it introduces into the text an effect of reality; and through its crumbling, it discreetly refers to a locus of authority. From this angle, the split structure of discourse functions like a machinery that extracts from the citation a verisimilitude of narrative and a validation of knowledge. It produces a sense of reliability. (The Writing of History, 94)
Citation thus works as an authorizing strategy, in which the cited texts are strictly subordinated to the text of knowledge. Certeau explicitly distinguishes this stratification of discourse from the formal structures of 'dialogue' and 'collage'. The 'Stolen Generations' Report displays a formal ambiguity in its commitment on the one hand to a performance of knowledge grounded in citational reference, and on the other to the attempted performance of a discursive mixing without superordination.

The collaging strategy which episodically punctuates third-person reporting and analysis with fragments of stories is designed to allow these voices to have a space of effectivity, of answerability. It makes a claim for justice in relation to the voices of those who were removed from their families, who have lost their language and their traditional knowledges and even perhaps the knowledge that they have lost these things, and who have been shamed when they tried to report the wrongs done to them; it is a claim for but also an attempted enactment of a discursive justice.

The Report both gives its witnesses a hearing (which it relays), and takes their words up into a counter-speech which is reporting-on a system of government to which this Government is the legal successor. But this reporting-on is not being done for the sake of shaming; it is done as a claim that a kind of listening -- a response, a taking-on of responsibility -- must take place. This is why the recommendation for an official apology is so central to the Report, and why the Federal Government's refusal of an apology, its refusal to assume responsibility for that earlier refusal to listen to Millicent D. and many others like her, is so shameful. More of this later.

The politics of this Report, then, is, like all historiographic politics, that of the fabrication and the authorization of a domain of facticity; but the Report both separates a past in which reality resides from a neutral time of writing, and at the same time refuses that separation by insisting, against the argument made in the Commonwealth's submission, that the past is not over and done with, and the present is not a pure space of presence. It is thus, necessarily, an ambiguous document: formally it has the structure of the reporting systems, the systems of close bureaucratic surveillance, that were used to record and control the lives of indigenous people, and its citational practice is not distinct from that of other historiographic or bureaucratic documents; but it seeks to turn this formal isomorphism to different ends.

Millicent is told to forget about her past and her family. The speech act that governs most of the narratives of witnesses to the Inquiry is that of remembering. An excerpt from a confidential submission which acts as a preamble to the report begins: 'So the next thing I remember was ...'. What this I remembers is not knowing:

'I was all upset', says this witness, 'and I didn't know what to do and I didn't know where we were going. I just thought: well, they're police, they must know what they're doing. I suppose I've got to go with them, they're taking me to see Mum. You know this is what I honestly thought. They kept us in hospital for three days and I kept asking "When are we going to see Mum?" And no-one told us at this time' (2).
The witness's not-knowing is matched by a supposition that 'they' (the police, and perhaps also the welfare authorities) 'must know'. But what 'they' tell the witness is that the children are going to see their mother, and this is a lie. The Report cites this lie in order to deprive it of its power; it produces a knowing which is official but which is not that of the police and the welfare authorities. The witness will know the truth by giving his or her words and having them taken up into a knowledge which is a counter to the lying knowledge of the officials.

The Report will offer a judgement on the basis of this knowledge; this judgement, too, will reverse the judgements made about indigenous people, and taken up by them as the truth about themselves. Listen to the memories of another witness:

I remember my Aunty, it was her daughter that got taken. She used to carry these letters around with her. They were reference letters from the white fellas in town ... Those letters said she was a good, respectable woman ... She judged herself and she felt the community judged her for letting the welfare get her child ... She carried those letters with her, folded up, as proof, until the day she died. (213)
The Canadian Government, apologizing recently to the indigenous nations of Canada for the forcible and systematic removal of their children to residential schools, said:
'We wish to emphasize that what you experienced was not your fault. It should not have happened' (The Weekend Australian, January 10-11, 1998).
Like that apology, the Report replaces a language of lies and blame, not with praise but with release; it breaks the hold of a false language, indeed a false reality, a reality which 'should not have happened'. Its function is thus performative as well as descriptive, or rather it uses a description as the basis for a performative act. It is a more public version of those letters carried around by the witness's Aunty, a more public and official letter of reference.

Within the system of systematically distorted communication into which children were rescued from their families, letters tended to go nowhere. One story that runs through the report is about letters that were never sent on, from children to parents and from parents to children. A witness who had spent her childhood in the Cootamundra Girls' Home tells one such story:

We were all rostered to do work and one of the girls was doing Matron's office, and there was all these letters that the girls had written back to the parents and family -- the answers were all in the garbage bin. And they were wondering why we didn't write. That was one way they stopped us keeping in contact with our families. Then they had the hide to turn around and say, 'They don't love you. They don't care about you'. (155)
Another witness, Murray, who was removed to Palm Island, says:
I remember when I learnt to write letters, I wrote to my mother furiously pleading with her to come and take us off that island. I wrote to her for years, I got no reply then I realized that she was never coming for us. That she didn't want us. That's when I began to hate her. Now I doubt if any of my letters ever got off that island or that any letters she wrote me ever stood a chance of me receiving them. (87)
No lie is told, but the refusal to pass on letters fosters the underlying lie: your parents don't love you, your parents are dead. The systematic deculturation of the children is predicated on their social death, and indeed the death of their Aboriginality is the point of the scheme: they are protected, rescued from their blackness because, for the most part, their skins are light and they stand a chance of passing as white.

Hence the comments of J. W. Bleakley, Queensland's Chief Protector and Director of Native Affairs from 1913 to 1942, on the dual value of the segregation of Aborigines on reserves run as missions:

'Not only do they [the missions] protect the child races from the unscrupulous white, but they help to preserve the purity of the white race from the grave social dangers that always threaten where there is a degraded race living in loose conditions at its back door (73)'.
But protection, as the Canadian Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples notes, is 'the leading edge of domination'.4 Bleakley's confused metaphor which places the 'child races' at once in the innocence of an earlier evolutionary stage where they are threatened by rapacious white people, and in the degradation of a late stage which has fallen from innocence and thus threatens the sexual purity of those same white people, unconsciously reflects the double-bind structure on which the Black Gulag5 is operated.

For if these children are protected by means of a social death, there is nevertheless for most of them no social rebirth. Their place is mapped out by the games that define its impossibility. The structure of the double bind runs right across the system, from the initial game in which local councils drive Aboriginal people from their camps near the towns and then declare the children thus made homeless to be neglected and subject to removal, to the prison-farm structure of the reserves in which they are to be protected, to the systematic punishment and physical and sexual abuse handed out in their best interests by the churches and 'the Welfare'.

But above all it is their race that is defined in self-cancelling terms by a double negative. Millicent D. again: 'They tried to make us act like white kids but at the same time we had to give up our seat for a whitefella because an Aboriginal never sits down when a white person is present' (116). Sarah:

We were constantly told that we didn't have families and that we were white children. It wasn't until we went across the road to school that we were called the names of 'darkies' and 'niggers' and those sorts of names. So when we were at school we were niggers and when we were at home we were white kids. (173)
And Tony says in his testimony: 'I'd ask her [his adoptive mother] why I was dark. She would tell me it was because I kept playing with aboriginal kids at school' (426).

Racial identity is thus simultaneously a kind of Original Sin and a state of shame which is freely chosen. In truth, these kids are driven crazy, and part of their craziness consists in the theft of the very language that would allow them to clarify and to state the wrong done to them. Their knowledge of their own languages is systematically eradicated, and so are the social relations that are bound up with them. Fiona, reunited with her birth mother after 32 years, has to speak through an interpreter, but also finds that she has lost interest in all the questions that she once thought she wanted to ask her (130).

A Politics of Stolen Time continues ...

John Frow delivered this paper at De Certeau: a symposium which was held at the University of Tasmania in January, 1998. A revised version of the paper will be appearing in Meanjin 2/1998.

Notes and References

1. Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 1997. All further citations from this Report are given in the text. [Some quotations are hot-linked but the entire report can be accessed via the link given above.] [Millicent's Story is found by scrolling down to the sub-heading "Millicent" once the "Assimilation" sub-heading has been reached in the Report. Ed.]

2. Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), pp. 2-3.

3. Michel de Certeau, Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, trans. Brian Massumi, Theory and History of Literature Vol. 17 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 203.

4. People to People, Nation to Nation: Highlights from the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, <>, Chapter 1: 'Looking, Forward, Looking Back', p. 7.

5. A term I use advisedly. For documentation on the control and confinement of indigenous people, cf. Tony Austin, Never Trust a Government Man: Northern Territory Aboriginal Policy 1911-1939 (Darwin: Northern Territory University Press, 1997); Anna Haebich, For Their Own Good: Aborigines and Government in the South West of Western Australia 1900-1940, 2nd ed. (1988; rpt. Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1992); Rosalind Kidd, The Way We Civilize: Aboriginal Affairs -- The Untold Story (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1997).

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