Surviving institutional abuse

Bill Simon, Des Montgomerie, Jo Tuscano: Back on the Block: Bill Simon's Story. Aboriginal Studies Press, 2009, ISBN 978 0 85575 677 2

Back on the Block: Bill Simon's Story, ISBN 978 0 85575 677 2 Bill Simon is a pastor working in the heart of Redfern. Back on the Block is the story of his life, simply told.

It begins with a happy childhood on an uncongenial mission, and some years spent with his family evading the attention of the Aborigines Welfare Board.

The heart of the book, which for him explains all else, began when he was seized with his brothers and consigned to Kinchela Boys Home. He was then ten years old, and spent the next seven years in the home subject to the daily regime of assault and contempt that Kinchela provided for its clients.

He then moved to Sydney, where he had to deal with his anger. He learned to work, drink, gamble, take drugs and beat those he cared for. He lost partners and children. At his lowest, he had a strong religious experience that brought him into a church. After many ups and downs he found his life's work in the Block, the Indigenous area of Redfern. There he is at home with the territory both of the suburb and of the human heart.

At one level this is an inspiring story of a good man rising from inner depths. At another level it is an appalling and saddening story of how every instance of Government intervention diminished Indigenous men. And this is a story of men, who have had their manhood systematically stripped from them.

Reading this in a week when the horrors of Irish orphanages were exposed, when the horrors of asylum seeker detention in Australia are still fresh, one can only ask helplessly how people entrusted with the duty of care can so unerringly detect the points from which they can drain a man's humanity.

Simon's story began on a mission. He recalls the sadness of Aboriginal men who were forbidden to leave the mission or to provide for their families. If they caught fish or kangaroos, their rations of flour were deducted from them. Their male role was taken from them.

The agents of the Aboriginal Welfare Board were all male. The only woman Simon mentions is the frightened wife of the punitive and repressive man who took the children away.

In ten years at Kinchela he mentions not even a fleeting moment of kindness from a member of the staff, most of whom had worked in the prison system. At best they were harsh, at worst sadistic.

If you wished to break a man's spirit, you could not devise a better system. Snatch young boys from their families. Deprive them of female care. Make them work bare-foot in frost. Refer to them by numbers. Call them out for often unexplained punishment. Make them take down their trousers and cane them brutally and publicly. Separate brothers so that the older brother has the torment and guilt of not being able to protect or care for his younger siblings. Tell them at every opportunity that they are lazy, dirty and good for nothing.

Most cruelly, separate them from the culture which might help them understand their experiences, withhold from them letters sent by parents, and turn their anger against their mothers for allowing them to be taken away.

You will produce boys who are terrified into politeness, but who nurture a volcano of grief, anger and self-hatred that will later erupt and burn all it touches.

Apologists will argue that the policies were well-meant and that not all who administered them were bad. But as in Ireland and in detention centres, the lesson taught by this book is simple.

It says that if you put in place an immoral policy that puts large goals above the simple humanity of those who are affected by the policy, you take away the moral compass from those who administer it. And you corrupt everyone whom the policy touches, particularly its apologists.

The policy of assimilation was immoral because it made an inhumane idea more important than human beings. It encouraged the removal of children from their parents, and saw their culture as something to be despised and replaced.

It is no wonder that in the administration of this policy people would try to beat the blackness out of people. They transmuted the darkness into despair and buried it in the heart.

By some miracle Bill Simon uncovered it and lived with it. But it is shameful when a miracle is required if people are to recover from the effects of Government policies.  

Andrena Jamieson is a Melbourne writer.

Topic tags: Back on the Block, Bill Simon, Des Montgomerie, Jo Tuscano, Aboriginal Studies Press, 978 0 85575 677 2



submit a comment

Existing comments

What a contrast to the first article today. Here is a writer who looks at the devastating long-term impact of inhumane treatment of powerless people without in any way trying to excuse the behaviour of the powerful.
Frank Golding | 05 June 2009

Well put Frank.
Warwick | 05 June 2009

There's something so very sad about the responses these two articles got from readers of Eureka Street. Yes, the sexual abuse perpetrated by the Irish religious who so terribly betrayed their trust and acted so evilly is appalling.

But in its scope, and in the totality of its pain and humiliation, the abuse, sexual, physical and psychological inflicted on our young aboriginal people by members of our own society doesn't deserve to be so little known or so little insisted on. It's a terrible shame that there should be so many passionate responses to one article and only two or three to the other. That in itself tells us how far Australia has to go.
Joe Castley | 05 June 2009

Hello to my friend of long (but not so long) ago Joe.

I agree why the silence on this? It is shameful. In the words and song of Archie Roach; “Doesn’t anyone out there give a dam?” We need this book in all secondary schools. There is so much untold and conveniently ignored / forgotten in our Australian society.

Bill thank you for sharing what is an extremely painful yet hopeful experience. There are so many affected by this. I have a special friend who mentioned his time in Kinchela, briefly. Not long after I read a book called Aboriginal Hero’s. One story was of another Aboriginal man who had somehow survived the horrors of Kinchela. I discovered it to be a notorious ‘home’ of abuse (physical, sexual and emotional). I was horrified by what I read and know that for many, struggles will be life-long and not all survived. I have read more since and cannot believe the horrors that have happened throughout our country.

Shamefully today, though well intentioned many policies e.g. NT Intervention and loss of NT bilingual language programs are no better. Money is currently propagating a white dominant agenda and being misspent. Money needs to go into much needed culturally relevant centres and services. Govt. intentions may be good but good intentions are simply not good enough. Money must be spent directly in Aboriginal communities, without the coercion of signing away land for leasing. Why must communities be forced into signing leases (not for 5 years now) but for 40-80-99 yrs in exchange for basic services? How many family support centre, homes, rehabilitation centres, safe house have been provided to communities? How many and to whom.

It's shameful and structural within our society that we ignore stories such as Bill’s and for too long have also ignored commissioned reports. It's called paternalism and institutional racism! White dominant driven agendas continue to harm, assimilate and disempower.

Let’s get Bill’s story and others into school and tertiary curriculums. Let’s listen to and work alongside our aboriginal brothers and sisters.
Georgina Gartland | 06 June 2009


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up