It was early morning, like before 5am and I was having one of my usual very early, scratchy-eyed tired but still awake moments, and listening to the latest episode of the Beautiful Writer’s Group coaching call. I’ve been a member now for several years, keeping in touch with a supportive online community of writers as I continue eking out my first novel. Writing in the dark. Painfully slowly!

This month featured a new segment where the co-hosts, Book Mama’s Linda Sivertsen and the Organised Artist’s Samantha Bennett read out from their latest pieces of work. Samantha read out a powerful extract of being in jail – the jail of a salaried job – and highlighted that the jail door is actually open.

This was hitting my buttons already. 2014 was the year I was going to make the break from salary to business ownership. I was very happy to jump first and ask later and wrote many blogs about this time. At that time as well as being fearless I also regularly felt my guts roil with cold terror about how on earth the mortgage would be paid, among other things. Another slightly awkward reality was that I wasn’t sure what I was selling, and for how much.

The period of insanity/ bravery coincided with being 49 and having just self-published my memoir (respectful trigger alert applies). It was my line in the sand year where I declared publicly that I was an author. Once declared, never retracted. That part of my pre-50th birthday crisis was going just fine.

But Battleship Business Ownership? Not so much. Even though I never let any uncertainty hold me back, and just kept steaming ahead into the fog, fate had other plans for me. While still wrestling with the next tranche of online business training that was going to give me the 6 step fool-proof method to start earning money in my business right away, a job opportunity torpedoed the battleship and leapt out, onto the life raft of this opportunity and watch the battleship sink with alarming rapidity. I found it hard to watch just how easy it was to abandon my entrepreneur dreams.

To be fair, it wasn’t just any old job. This was the sort of job that set off a light bulb in my heart. Weird, I know, but that’s what it felt like when I heard about it and mentally tried on applying for it, getting it. The job was to run my state’s not for profit patient advocacy agency. Tilting at the windmills of entrenched power and privilege, turning the dial back towards the needs of the patient, away from the voracious, insatiable needs of the service or hospital. That life raft became an actual job which I began in January 2015.

Real Prisons…

Fast forward three years to me listening to the Beautiful Writer’s Group, listening to the reading likening salaried work to being in prison. Just two days earlier my salaried job had taken me to actual prison, to hear from prisoners about how they experience their healthcare services. First, a female prison, and a group of 12 articulate, diverse women talked on behalf of their fellow prisoners. We sat around a Board Room table and listened to these Peer Support Workers, took notes and I plotted what I could do without further swamping our small and highly dedicated advocacy team.

The next visit was to one of our male prisons, where I sat at the front of a room of more than 35 male prisoners, also Peer Support Workers. I was up the front of the room in a row of bureaucrats, myself and my colleague the only non-government staff there. I had worn my Birkenstocks as part of my non-profit uniform, hoping the prisoners might understand the dress code.

It was like a dull Q&A panel, although we were asking the questions.

I tried hard not to stare at the many wonderful, colourful and intricate tattoos – because, rude – although there were some truly eye-catching ones on arms, legs and faces.

“What’s good about the health service?” One bureaucrat asks. Crickets.

“What could be improved?” A babble of voices and the conversation quickly builds. There were little hints – sentence lengths of 20+ years referred to, feedback on how the health services, especially the methadone program were this time around compared to the last swing – of crimes that might have been committed, why they might be here. One prisoner with a rat-tail and self-confessed history of meth usage kept chiding his fellow prisoners as they listed the various failings and gaps in the health services. “Well it’s prison, whaddya expect?” he said, more than once. Currying favour with the guards?

Another more mature prisoner reflected “this is good for some of the boys. Somewhere to sleep. Three meals a day.” Yes, and again the distressing peeking through of what is behind many of the faces, hidden in many of the stories of nastiness and evil. Absolutely entrenched disadvantage of the “give me not poverty lest I steal” school.

I am reminded of my own experience undertaking a victim offender mediation conference more than 6 years ago, my last reason to visit a prison.

The Day Job

It is always a blessed relief to hear the prison’s front door locking behind you, leaving you out in the fresh air, and for the next few days I basked in my freedom. Sat on my porch, listened to the birds, watched the trees moving in a gentle breeze and occasionally saw the faces of the prisoners waft across my mind’s eye.

And I pondered my other goals that haven’t quite made it to the top of the 2018 goals list – of doing something in the restorative justice field, helping the justice reinvestment movement take hold. Goal – a word so close and yet so vastly different from gaol…

But am I in prison because I work rather than run a business? I don’t think so. Do I want to work less and write more? Hell yes. Do I want a Writer’s Life? Rather than the life of a hard-working not for profit evangelist whose writing time is squashed to a corner of the weekend? Hell yes. But maybe not just yet…

 

Paul KellyI am old enough to recall going to the Herdsman Hotel in Perth in 1990, to catch the last set of a Paul Kelly gig before leaving for Europe. No queue, no charge. All the time I lived in Europe, which was pretty much all of the 90’s, I never stopped playing his music.  It drove my Northern flat mate around the twist.  She didn’t get Paul Kelly; he is our voice.

He told first person Australian stories as men, women, black, white, cruel, victimised.

While I thoroughly enjoy all his new material, there are two songs of his that have prodded painful feelings, difficult to articulate. They were a lament, and finally, a call to action.

My karma became entangled with another person’s when he intruded into my home and assaulted me.  I of course reported it, but 14 months passed before he was found.

I had never been a fan of the prison system, no doubt deeply coloured by the experience as a young adult of visiting a friend in maximum security (at the medieval Fremantle Prison before it became a museum).

After the strange limbo of 14 months of not knowing who this person was and if he had struck again, abruptly he was found through DNA back-capture and the police once again required to formalise paperwork and facilitate his arrest.

All weekend, I knew, and he didn’t, that an arrest was about to happen.  Instead of feeling elated I felt a terrible sadness at the waste of his life, from boy to man, in and out of corrective institutions’ revolving doors. A profound grief that we put people right outside society where there is no way back into the fold.  Over and over again I played God’s Hotel that weekend, to help articulate and move these feelings through.

Nearly another year passed before he was sentenced to nine years, seven with parole.  God’s Hotel was joined by How To Make Gravy for obvious reasons. When I heard Paul Kelly play it live some years after that in a vineyard (huge queue, definitely not free now) I couldn’t stop the tears from seeping down my face from behind my dark glasses.

I mobilised on my emotions about incarceration by volunteering to attend a restorative justice Sycamore Tree program in a Perth prison.  I took in a CD and played God’s Hotel and read out my diary entry of how I had felt about the perpetrator being arrested, and cried. A few of the prisoners cried, too. One talked about how he couldn’t ever imagine a victim of crime feeling sad about the lot of the prisoner.

Still, How To Make Gravy  haunted me, encouraging me to take the step of doing a Victim Offender Mediation conference with the unknown perpetrator.

And finally, in his sixth year in prison, I did. I had spent much of the intervening six years feeing that profound loss on his part, for being completely shut out of society. I shared this with very few people as it was an unacceptable feeling. Everyone wanted him dead, or thought about him as little as possible. I could seep tears listening to How to Make Gravy when no-one was looking. Or once, not that long before the actual mediation conference was organised, I startled my 11 year old daughter my crying quite loudly and impulsively in the car when it came on when we were driving home.

The feeling wasn’t going anywhere.

Neither was the Victim Offender Mediation Office, who had created a file for me six years earlier when I had mentioned I was thinking about doing a mediation conference. Every now and then they would touch base with me, ask me if the time was right, back away gently when they sensed my ambivalence.

So when I was sure, they dusted off the file, and just six weeks after startling my daughter, I was sitting opposite the faceless perpetrator, having a mediation conference. He was no longer faceless but I certainly would have walked past him in the street, I would not have known him at all. I had seen him once, six years earlier in the court room, but it was only a quick glance and his features hadn’t stayed with me.

I began the conversation by explaining why I was there, how I felt that the prison and legal system were somewhat flawed, and that I had always felt somewhat distressed by the whole situation. He listened, then when it was his turn to speak, he said he was sorry.

Then, he said how glad he was that he’d had a long sentence so that he could get clean, loosen the hold of the drugs that were threatening to kill him.

And just like that, the heavy feeling I had carried around for six years dissipated.

I can’t say that I never tear up when I hear How to Make Gravy  but I walked out of there a lighter woman.

I’ll end with a question: why he would break into my house and assault me rather than attend a drug rehabilitation service that would have rolled out the red recovery carpet? This is the conundrum I am still pondering to this day.

Mosaic Image for Book CoverAs you may know, I am using my few more days in Melbourne as thinking time, rounding off time, getting things squared away.

It certainly feels very indulgent to have so much time to myself and my projects! No housework, no school wash, no work, no worries.  My big to-do list item was making final edits to my book, and getting a cover done.

Yesterday I sent my eyes quite spare by doing the grammatical changes that had been lovingly marked up by a fellow Book Club member who like everyone, read the draft for me, but actually marked it up for me, page by page.  I was so grateful for her time and effort, and rejoiced yesterday as I picked up the (let’s hope) last typo errors.  I then got stuck into the search and replace editing which can go so horribly wrong at the touch of a button (thank heavens for Control + Z!).  More than once I had that discombobulating experience of suddenly wondering at the spelling of words like “does” which had morphed into an alien appearing word instead of a commonplace verb.

Having done that I was allowed to play with the cover ideas, and get that in progress while I do some more of that dull fine-tuning stuff.  I already have an ISBN and I just need to get it all together and hit send.

Sounds very straight-forward but I am overwhelmed at my audacity.  Must be on the right track then!

 

 

justiceI have been doing a lot of thinking this week about accountability and what happens to Inquiries when their voluminous reports are released.  Specificically I have been thinking about the Recommendations from the West Australian Inquiry into the Prosecution of Assaults and Sexual Offences undertaken several years ago now; the above link is to the 2008 report. PASO for short, for there must be an acronym.

Ostensibly fuelled by the preventable death of a young girl after her murderer had escaped prosecution on prior offences, the Inquiry aimed to look at what had gone wrong to allow the perpetrator back out onto the streets after a bungled handling of a prior offence.  After its inception it grew to encompass sexual assault as well, and that is when I became involved, giving evidence at the Inquiry.

The Inquiry undertook all the processes that typify Inquiries.  Thoughtfully conducted, with painstakingly recorded testimony from victims, secondary victims and service providers.

And at the end there was more than 250 pages of report,  and 37 recommendations.   This is it quietly entering into parliament – need I say that 2009 has long come and gone, with no Hansard mention of a Report?  I liked this 2009 soundbite:

To this end, I will be asking the Sexual Assault Services Advisory Group to investigate a number of the issues that these reports have raised, including addressing the reasons for withdrawal of complaints of sexual assault and ensuring that established processes put the onus on victims or complainants to access supportservices themselves. I restate this government’s determination to ensure that individuals who are victims of sexual assault receive a very clear message that their issues and experiences are important and deserve the highest level of care.

Alas, alas this laudable sentiment did not survive the change of West Australian government, and there has never been an obligation, other than a moral one, for any of the relevant service agencies to report back.  At risk of breaching confidentiality, I can say that I sit on the Sexual Assault Services Advisory Group as a victim representative, and have done since its inception in 2008.  I was motivated by wanting to know what happens with a public Inquiry, whether all the work, time, care and effort that goes into writing recommendations actually translates into action.  Five years on I certainly question when I think it might be time to step away…

Certainly there are recommendations that have been actioned or superseded, but others still awaiting time and attention.  For example,

Recommendation 19: The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions,in collaboration with the Department of the Attorney General, investigate and report on the meritsof therapeutic justice.

I was googling for the PASO Inquiry’s link today to write this blog when I came across this UK article; the tragic story of a woman who felt so violated by her time on the witness stand being cross examined that three days later she took her life.  It just made writing this blog all the more urgent; as the article states:

Victims of burglary do not have to prove that they have been burgled or to justify their behaviour before the burglary. With rape and sexual assault allegations, victims still find themselves subjected to hostile questioning.

This is a really key part of the issue with sexual assault and abuse cases and why they are so difficult to prosecute, so hard for the victims to make it all the way through the process to hopefully a conviction.

I really would like to know more about Recommendation 19 – what therapeutic jurisprudence might look like, whether survivors of sexual assault are routinely offered a pre-recorded interview to give their evidence, if so what the uptake is, what the legal outcomes are in relation to trials using pre-recorded interviews vs trials where women are excoriated on the witness stand.

So back to the meeting next time I will go, to see if I can winkle out some more answers…

Many many moons after my early brush with The West, I once again was contacted, through channels that are hard to be clear about (probably old online references to Reclaiming Voices) to contribute to a GP magazine.

Hold on a minute, GPs.  I run a not for profit that supports women’s choices, including homebirth.  Not perhaps a sympathetic audience.  I can also be ambivalent about disclosure in the health sphere, as there can be a different kind of response from that in the community.  Sometimes, dare I say, a bit of opporbrium and judgement can creep in.

But what the hell, I did it anyway.  An opportunity to raise awareness of the issue.  Here it is, the GP Medical Forum Article.

http://www.medicalhub.com.au/wa-news/guest-opinion-editorial/3989-sexual-assault-the-silent-epidemic

newspaper

One of the defining experiences for me in wanting to write my book, was my early brush with the media.

I had always had it in my mind that I would speak up about my experiences, once all the legal processes had been completed and there were no possible repercussions on that front.   Hell my need to talk about it was all-consuming in the early weeks and months after the assault, to the point of wanting to blurt out my story to an unsuspecting woman working on the IGA checkout in the first week after the assault.

While this particular need to over-share was well under control by the time the legal all clear was imminent – nearly 2 years later – I knew I really wanted to have a chance to have my say in the media.

I decided on the way back from my one and only visit to the courts – mercifully I did not have to appear as a witness – to proceed with the story with a keen journalist.  She had contacted me coincidentally a few weeks before the legal processes in my case were coming to a close.  At the time she was chasing a comment about another sexual assault case, and the in the vacuum of  those willing to comment, she had approached me.  She still had my details from when I had contacted her trying to interest the West in doing a story about the few of us who were starting to get some momentum going as a voice for women survivors of assault and abuse.

As we had made fortuitous contact, I told her that the legal process in my own case was drawing to a close and I would be interested in having a public say if she wanted to do a story.  She did.  She seemed quite surprised and pleased that I was willing to have a picture of me to accompany the article as well, not pixellated out because what did i have to hide?  Why should I be ashamed?

Accordingly, I made my way from the court house and met with her to get the ball rolling.  I posed for a photo with a considerate and skilled photographer who instructed me how to pose to achieve the calm, credible complainant look of the published shot.

Afterwards the journalist and I talked for about an hour, more than could possibly be used in a 500 word article, and I felt a creeping anxiety about what would come out the other end. It is always difficult in these situations to continue to feel focussed on what you are doing and why.  Was it all just about an overblown need to have my wounds  witnessed, endlessly? Was there a legitimate need for me to speak out? Was The West an appropriate vehicle? (cough!)

I was hoping to have some idea what the article would be like before printing, but as the hours dragged before the deadline on the journalist asked if it could go in without editing from me.  Being a kind soul, I heard her fatigue and trusted the quality of our face to face meeting that she would do me no harm.

Can you imagine with what trepidation I rushed out early to buy a paper the morning of the story, and hurried home to read it? My first reaction was to squirm a bit at phrases that I felt made me sound stupid or didn’t reflect the complexities and subtleties of the conversations we had had or the views that I hold. The gist of the article was about the traumatising process of giving evidence as a survivor of sexual assault.  While I felt that this was important and was happy to lend my face to this so the journalist could write whatever she wanted regardless of my own circumstances, it was not what I really wanted to talk about.  Sure, I was more than happy to heighten public awareness on this shameful area of law, where it seems the witness rather than the accused is on trial.

But I also wanted to talk about  the need to address the “casual sexism” that pervades Australia and is very much alive and well when it comes to prosecuting sexual assault cases – the attrition rate of cases from reporting to conviction is appalling.  I also wanted to talk about the need for better, more responsive services for women, providing longer term counselling for those grappling with issues from years before.  I wanted the message of women’s resilience and recovery with the right supports, and where those supports could be found, to be broadcast.

I also wanted to talk about the ills of society that breed such sad, lost souls, and the prison and justice systems that don’t seem to address the addiction, mental illness and pain that abound among prisoners.

In 500 words?  Somewhat ambitious.

Much more recently I had the experience of meeting a friend of a friend who was interested in my story.  We met and I spoke at length, but she never ran the piece she had planned.  She felt the message of women’s rights was diluted by the added complication of trying to document my feelings of sadness and frustration with our justice system.

But that is what I want to talk about.  All of it.

And so, I have the whole space and time of a book to write about all the complexities that have presented to me, for me to sift through as the years pass, looking for answers when there are none and many.

Having grown up in Perth in the 60s and 70s I was conditioned to know that to be creative, you had to get out of Perth.

220px-WAY_1979_logo

In 1979 I was extremely fortunate as a 14 year old to travel to Europe, and my fate was sealed. I left Perth for Europe in 1990, returning only when pregnant in 1998.

But by now, having been back for around 15 years, and having reached the age where one cares less and less what anyone thinks and more and more about doing whatever it is that we are here to do – I am re-thinking Perth as a cultural wilderness.

I have been too chicken-shit to own my writing ambitions, so have been attending art classes with the lovely Dawn Meader, who knows more than most about how to get the creative mojo happening. I swore at the last class that my next fun class would be a writing one.

Somehow my googling led me to the Federation of Writers WA – and their forthcoming workshop When the Personal is Political. How very apt. Memoir for social change. Just what I am trying to do. And I did not fail to note that the original date for the workshop was anniversary date, 10th May. It had been moved, seemingly for my own convenience!

While the session itself was useful, perhaps more so was connecting with such a lovely group of like-minded people, and finding the lovely Mattie Furphy House in Swanbourne. “Creativity beyond reason” is the by-line. Where have you been all my life?

The presenter Madeleine Ostrander highlighted how the personal and the political can be effectively interwoven in an engaging writing style that lends itself to moving the reader and hence maximising the potential impact of the message. Although this is what I have instinctively done in all four drafts of my book to date, it will be good to bring some consciousness to the process as the book transmutes into its published form.

We spent much of the time reviewing examples of relevant writing to get a feel for the concept, and the last little bit of the workshop having a go. I found myself inextricably drawn to “tweak” the letter I wrote for the paper on 10 May 2002, the morning of the assault. Perhaps it breaks all the rules, but I changed it slightly. Memoir – can it ever be really what happened? Here it is:

“On 10th May 2002 I began my memoir in earnest. It was in the afternoon, after all The Formalities were completed. I finally got a moment alone after greeting my 3 year old daughter at the end of an uncharacteristic day’s absence, and after allaying the concerns of close family.

I snuck off to the end room of my parent’s house, where I was taking temporary refuge, and I started to write a life-changing letter to the paper:

At just before 5am this morning my home was invaded by an unknown man who sexually assaulted me. The outrage occurred in my own home, with my young daughter on the other side of the door, protesting very loudly at mummy’s lack of attention and parenting.

The “act”, once I had given up the hopeless effort of trying to escape, took all of 60 seconds. The initial paperwork took ten people (including myself) a full working day to process. The aftermath may take months. When and how I will feel safe to sleep soundly in my bed is anyone’s guess. I flatter myself that it is a case of bad things happening to good people. I work voluntarily; I raise my daughter single-handedly, without maintenance, and yet keep the doors open for her overseas father to be involved in her life.

As the “victim” of a serious crime I went to through every police and forensic process that I could. This took the entire day. And what is the best I can hope for after such a day? A captured and convicted criminal to avoid other women suffering what I did, or much worse. That I can assure you I do hope for and spent the whole working day achieving. Whatever I may feel about the limits of the prison system, it is painfully, personally obvious to me that the removal of such people from the streets is essential.

But how could it be that a young and seemingly healthy man could reach the point of perpetrating such a violent, empty gesture? I feel contempt for my attacker, but also bafflement. If, as I believe, all humans are fundamentally interconnected, how can I be connected with this person? I am connected to him forever in the statement that took so many tedious and painful hours in preparation. But I am connected to him in that we are both human and alive tonight. Yes, I do spare a thought for him on this evening, as I nurse my wounds and pray that I and my daughter will not be permanently scarred from this experience. Is there anything that I could do, anything that I could say that would make him see how foul and impotent his actions are? Is there one magic word that could scatter forever the possibility of women suffering this kind of treatment, perhaps even at the hands of their “loved” ones?

Of course not, of course not. And so I have achieved nothing. I am alive however, and so is my daughter. Amen to that, and a long happy life. Forgiveness to my attacker wherever he is hiding. Peace on earth, however unachievable.

I do not send it in. The world is not changed.”

I have long since given up on the media to be the right vehicle to tell all of the story. But I am sure re-thinking Perth as a cultural wilderness. That is another excuse to not write or be creative which must go by the wayside!