by Pamela Nathan
Stories of Pain and Recognition
Japanangka was born in the old time amongst his ancestors, an Anmatjirra man, and found wandering nomadically over the red earth in a world of timelessness on sugar ant country, making country camps all over the land with the old jilpas under the stars, and steeped in bush lore from centuries ago. Fat kangaroo and bush turkey were in abundance and the country was green and grassy under the swaying she-oaks. Still, Japanangka stood tall, astride a horse, stockman’s gait and strong. He had an akubra hat glued to his head, a cheeky smile, dancing eyes, rolling laugh, and light brown skin. He was the son of a Nordic man and tribal woman and had to blacken his wide face for the welfare boys and run and hide far away from camp, playing with his shanghai until the white fella mob were gone. When the devil mob came with their cattle and destroyed his sugar ant lands, he went droving the cattle as far north as Camowheel and got paid with flour, trous’, and tobacco. He became the head stockman, boss man and bucked on wild, kicking horses bareback, and had to leave his country for long stretches of time. He lived among the white fellas far from his country and kin for sun-ups and downs of time; his homesick heart ached in concert with the whistling winds and rose and fell with the crackling embers of the fire, night after night, and he sent smoke signals along the tracks to his country, on the back of the whispering winds.
In the early 1980s, the heyday of Land Rights, I lived in Central Australia, working as a sociologist with the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress. A senior Aboriginal man, Dick Lechleitner Japanangka, worked alongside me, and we visited many Aboriginal communities and coauthored two books: Health Business and Settle Down Country. We held many meetings and recorded in language—on film and in print—the voices of Aboriginal people. We fought for two-way medicine delivery and for the Pintupi people returning to their lands to be provided with essential services. Some recognition for the dispossessed was achieved by hearing and reporting their stories and by advocating Aboriginal determination. In those days, it was rare to hear the Aboriginal voice—the aboriginal languages translated directly into English in the public and policy arena. Historical truth was buried in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs files, and the emotional truth was buried on country with the ancestors; massacred, institutionalized, chained, and criminalized. Aboriginal people, however, recognized their losses, at dawn and dusk, lighting their wailing fires in ancestral memory. Recognition led to new developments such as the Alukura—a place where young women could give birth by the Grandmother’s law and the Pintupi people were able to leave settlement life, return and settle, with Dreaming, Law and Ceremony at Walanguru, which is now a thriving community. The voices of Aboriginal people challenged colonial hegemony in the hospitals and the courts and clamored for recognition.
The center was life-changing! The seeds of recognition were planted! I returned from the desert to the city and trained in psychology. Fresh out from university, graduating with a master’s in psychology, I was then plunged into the deep end, getting my first job in G division at HMG Pentridge Prison. At the university, I counseled a woman with a driving phobia. At Pentridge, I counseled a man doing time for axing his pedophilic predator to death. High-profile criminals were my clients—murderers, rapists, pedophiles, and more. Were they human? How could I work with them? On the first day, I was taken on a tour of the prison by the prison guards, and I gagged outside the walls—they had taken me with great relish to D division and shown me the gallows on which Ronald Ryan was put to death, the last man hanged in Australia in 1967, the wet cells, the cabinets of confiscated weapons, and more. How could I work there?
A year later, I can say I learned a lot and my quest began, the quest to understand what happened to these people to make them psychopathic killers. Each time I went through the turnstiles, I thought: Here I go by the grace of God. I helped them find their voices and tell their stories, and I listened to them. They all had a story. They all became human. I told their stories to the parole board and to the courts. They were no longer nameless “crims” or file numbers, but mostly, they were very damaged human beings whose damage became palpable as the stories unfolded—sexually abused, beaten, neglected, latchkey kids, with broken families, alcoholic or absent fathers—you name it. Tyranny, imprisonment, and damage were writ large on the files, but not in visible ink—it had to be gleaned, deciphered, discovered, and made bold.
Their violence was driven by fear. I learned to stop them when they were in an aggressive tirade— stop them dead in their tracks––by telling them that I felt afraid and wondered if they were scared also, and that’s why they were acting like standover men. I asked them, “When have you been stood over and afraid?” Without fail, their stories would unfold. Invariably, they experienced relief and gained understanding into what had made them commit beastly acts. For many, no one had been by their side to hear, hold, and name their pain. Few had been seen or known or recognized as human beings who suffered and had suffered. The prison walls are filled with unrecognized trauma marked by silent screams, bleeding wounds, restricted psychic development, and the primal cries that ricocheted the cell walls: “Mummy, Mummy, where are you?” I learned that we can all live inside prison walls, imprisoned, frightened, blinded, ignorant, and most of all, nameless.
Thirty years on, I took the long and arduous lessons learned about recognition to the red center to work again with Aboriginal people. I had completed psychoanalytic psychotherapy training. Now, I knew that we can all inhabit dry, dusty desert lands in the mind with parching thirst and hunger pains. Trauma, I knew, sears like molten metal. Alice Springs was recently privileged with being called the stabbing capital of the world. Through the Gap which is at the entrance to town, the dingoes howl in fright, jolting the caterpillars of the MacDonnell Ranges and ripping the silence of the desert like lightning strikes. The traumatic shield has been breached. Aboriginal people have been stood over by the violent colonialists and had their fear anesthetized by alcohol and disfigured into a lateral violence. Aboriginal people speak a different language, and their deep generational sorrow remains unknown and invisible, save for the shrieking violence doused in alcohol. I know we all know the language of the suffering heart.
The white fellas and the cattle multiplied across his country like bushflies, and he became a boss man for his people, learning to talk to the white fellas who were like the perishing bullocks, no good, but destroying their country, the fat of the land. His strong voice boomed “get off our land” and the white fellas cowered, froze like the frightened roo and slunk off like the dingo dog until the fires died down. They made empty promises and created more bloody carcasses, letting the flies buzz around, the black crows circle and swoop the kill, and the fires blaze in the red blood, burning the country. The white fellas had loaded their guns to get rid of the Black fella pests off their land, those who stole cattle and their kin were shot at Coniston.
Psychoanalysis helped me work with the inmates and Aboriginal people, helping me to find their humanity, their voice, their feelings, and their stories (and my own). Psychoanalysis helps me understand that trauma underlies violence and that nonrecognition and the invisibility of a person and a people cause psychic and communal death. Psychoanalysis can be very practical and can provide tools for living and self-actualization, possibilities, and freedom. Most of all, psychoanalysis provides the recognition of emotional worlds, and recognition provides a means to know and see and to be known and to be seen, and the telling of stories, the sharing of pain with another, can transform emotional experiences and create new stories and renewed lives. ■
Japanangka became a guardian for this place and could often be seen sitting on the bench outside the old welfare office, Kwemenje’s office, his akubra slung low, chewing a match in the corner of his mouth, smoking a rollie cigarette, drinking a billy of tea, sitting, sometimes so still, never missing a trick though, with his dancing brown eyes, which could spot a kangaroo in dense shrub miles away without even a turn of the head. Sometimes a hooting yukai could be heard across the yard and the erstwhile silent, still Japanangka could be seen doubling over in laughter, and the whole yard would shake in unison and smother the ever-present lone mopoke cry.
Pamela Nathan is a forensic and clinical psychologist, psychoanalytic psychotherapist, and sociologist. As a forensic psychologist, she worked in mainstream prisons. She is director of CASSE’s Aboriginal Australian Relations Program, working on violence and trauma with Aboriginal organizations and people in Central Australia, where she lived in the 1980s and has consulted for over thirty years. She has supervised, researched, developed programs, trained and taught, and published papers and three books as a psychologist and psychotherapist.
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