Rae can trace her ancestry back to the First Fleet. With a family tree full of convicts – ‘we’re lousy with them’ – she feels that she is part of a ‘downcast lot’ that, generation after generation, has not broken away from the shackles of stigma and neglect.
‘We’ve never had it good. A lot of people haven’t had it good in this country. We’ve struggled so very, very hard … It’s been a struggle since 1788 really, basically, you know, it really has. We’ve been just chucked here … stigma stayed with us too.’
For Rae, this partly explains why there was ‘something wrong’ with her family. Her unhappy parents, who ‘had to get married’, raised their children in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. Her mother was a violent and bitter alcoholic, and her gentle father eventually ‘snapped’. When they divorced in the early 1970s, her mother falsely accused him of molesting his children, and gained custody, much to Rae’s disappointment and shock.
Things then took a turn for the worse. Rae was deprived of clothing, which made her out to be ‘the poor scabby one’ at school. Rae’s disabled brother, who his siblings had been brought up to hate, was kicked out into the street as a teenager. Rae later discovered that ‘the welfare world’ knew about her abusive mother, but did nothing.
‘I went to see a psychiatrist, and I get very annoyed because I think, you know, of all the children that’ve been sent to you in the bloody ‘70s like me, you’ve made a brilliant career about writing about our hardships, haven’t ya? And you really don’t give a shit, because you did nothing, nothing, except sit there going “hmmm”.’
To get away from her mother, Rae sometimes stayed with her sister. Because they didn’t want her in their life, her brother-in-law twice tried to kill her, but ‘didn’t have the spine to do it’. She also spent time with a nearby Aboriginal community which was ‘just so wonderful’. However, when her mother got wind of this, and assumed Rae was sleeping around, she handed her over to welfare.
Barely in her teens, Rae was made a ward of the state, and ‘dragged’ to a jail-like children’s home in Sydney. ‘I turned up, there was big bars, and I was just thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?”’
Rae remembers feeling ‘so tired’ after her first meal, and seeing children walking around ‘like zombies’ because they were ‘drugged up’. She asked why the brooms and mops had nails in their handles. ‘And the girl said, “So you don’t masturbate with them”. And I was just horrified because I didn’t even know about really that then, let alone anyone sticking a broom handle up themselves. I just thought, “Oh my God. Where am I?”’
One night, Rae was attacked by a group of girls. ‘I just woke up to the sheets being taken off, and my pants being pulled down, and a group of girls on top of me, jumping on me, hurting me, trying to touch me.’ Rae fought back, and the girls fled. However, this incident destroyed the little trust she had in women. ‘That killed me in the head knowing that they do things like that.’
Rae escaped but was caught the next day. When she explained that she had been attacked in her sleep, she was released.
‘After that, I couldn’t deal with school, I couldn’t deal with the schoolteachers.’ Rae said. ‘I’d already been stigmatised, and so I had to be the tough girl. I had a crowd. I was pretty tough.’
After a few weeks with her mother, she ended up on the street. ‘I had to stay on my own with nothing, nothing. I had to live with the clothes on my back, and that’s all I ever had, and I’m not even educated. I could only get jobs that were useless.’
Rae feels that the stigma of having been ‘in the bad girls’ home’ deeply affected her life. ‘It took everything from me. Any chance of really being educated, any chance of being respected, being anything more than just a stupid old houso.’ It gave credibility to family lies, and left her with the sense that she had no right to get a loan, go to university, or own anything.
Nevertheless, Rae avoided alcohol and drugs, and managed to raise ‘a very happy family’, even though they had to ‘rent and live in poverty’.
‘My family doesn’t have the same dysfunction. I mean we’re crazy and wild, and we say everything off the top of our heads. But nobody wants to kill each other, and everybody’s sort of happy with each other.’ Her family is able to stand by its more difficult members, rather than ‘throw people away’. ‘We put up with the bad. Like, we have the bad apple, but we all rally around that bad apple to try and make it as good as we can.’
‘I can’t see why we just can’t go above and beyond for the kids,’ Rae said. She wants to see children’s services ‘step up the game’ and save kids from abuse and life-long stigma. ‘I don’t think even there should be any wards at all’, she said. ‘I think it should be more like state boarding schools … a school and not an institution … and to treat them like human beings.’
Rae’s sorrow about the stigma that took her own potential extends to her ancestors and disabled brother. Speaking about their collective hardship brings her to tears, particularly when she thinks about the brother who she has unsuccessfully tried to help. ‘He’s going to die on the street, and no one really cares … He’ll just get the shit kicked out of him and die, and that’s what’s going to happen, and no one really cares.’