‘Like an unwanted child’, Jeannie was taken from her mother at the age of two, and ‘shifted from place to place’.
‘I don’t know why they took me away’, she said, but as it was the 1950s in northern Western Australia, she thinks she was removed from her Aboriginal community because of her lighter skin.
Jeannie grew up not knowing her people or where she was from. ‘Not even own language’, she said. ‘You catch onto a few words but that’s it.’ As a child without a history, she was raised by strangers on two different missions, and was engulfed by a deep and lasting loneliness.
‘I was always looking for attention,’ she said. ‘Still now, someone to … take notice. I was always, always looking for that.’ However, on the second mission, where she attended primary school, the attention she got was either scant or brutal. Sometimes ‘things happened’. Mission workers, who she thought ‘must be just showing affection’, would end up touching her sexually.
During school holidays, the mission workers sent all the kids back to their families. All except Jeannie who they sent, with rations, down to a local camp. ‘I didn’t know those people’, she said. ‘I got sick, not having anybody to turn to and talk to.’
Jeannie was charged with being ‘uncontrollable’ before she was a teenager. She got ‘a lot of hidings’ with the strap - ‘Lay down, lift your dress up, whack whack whack!’ However, she was never asked what was wrong, or if anything had ever happened to her. ‘Once they just placed you at a place, didn’t check up on you, or how you going’, she said. ‘Nothing at all. When you was in trouble, that’s the time they look for you.’
So she could attend high school, Jeannie was moved to an Aboriginal hostel where ‘more things happened’. She was abused ‘very badly’, and remembers being touched sexually by male teachers. She never told anyone. She and the other girls ‘didn’t talk about things like that’. Nor could she eventually tell her adult children. ‘It’s not a good thing to tell them’, she said.
Jeannie left the hostel, and high school, after one year. She had ‘nowhere to go to, no one to turn to’, and nobody wanted to know her. She got jobs as a cook. She managed to keep the child she had in her early 20s in her care, despite the authorities. She married twice. However, her marriages broke down and also broke her heart. By her 30s, she was suffering from depression and panic attacks.
With the help of a Centrelink officer, Jeannie received compensation for her abuse, but no letter of apology. Not that she wants one. ‘What they gonna say sorry for? My life is already ruin’, she said. Of the money, she remarked, ‘Comparing to what I went through, you know, that’s nothing … Next day, the next, you’re still hurting’.
Jennie never met her mother. She has contact with one brother, but not with her other siblings. She lives in social housing, but far away from her mission friends who she visits now and then. She hopes to be transferred to a house in their area, but admits that she doesn’t really ‘know where home is’.
Now in her mid-60s, Jeannie still feels ‘very unwanted’. She sees a doctor regularly, and has seen a counsellor, but depression and loneliness are constant. ‘It’s like a broken heart,’ she said. ‘Can’t repair it.’
However, she makes sure that her own kids know that they are loved. ‘I tell my kids all the time,’ she said. ‘I tell my grandchildren because maybe I didn’t have that love, you know, and I’m still searching for it.’