Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 24, 2020

A Question of Colour: my journey to belonging, by Pattie Lees with Adam C Lees

This is a deeply distressing memoir to read: it’s the story of Pattie Lees’ early childhood of terrible neglect and then her sexual, physical and emotional abuse when she was made a Ward of the State. At times it is really difficult to reconcile the smiling face on the front cover with the story within its pages.

Daughter of a white philandering father and an alcoholic mother who was part Torres Strait islander and part Filipino, with some of her siblings fathered by different men, including a brother she knew nothing about until well into adulthood, Pattie’s story is one of poverty, hunger, and being responsible for her younger siblings when she was barely old enough to look after herself.  When her biological father moved them out to the suburbs, perhaps in a misguided effort to limit the mother’s ‘party-girl’ habits, Pattie and the children were sometimes left alone for days.  Her older brother Terry remembers these absences sometimes lasting a week; Pattie remembers it as less than that.  But she also remembers that when they ran out of baby formula for Elin, she resorted to feeding her sugared tea.

Eventually authorities intervened, and when the initial orders for the children’s welfare weren’t implemented, they intervened again.  Elin was taken to hospital with malnutrition, and the others were taken into custody.  The text acknowledges that in these circumstances in those days, it was routine for children of any colour to be placed in the local lockup because there was nowhere else for them to go.  Their mother was allowed to visit.  But still… the idea of children being in gaol is repugnant. As Pattie remembers it, the people in the surrounding cells frightened the children, and no wonder.

The chapter which reproduces the correspondence about where the children were to be placed is chilling.  Pattie’s skin colour was fair, while Elin’s was very dark despite having a very fair Nordic father.  There was no question of foster care being available, and authorities seem to be more concerned about matching the children’s colour to the institution than in keeping the family together. In Townsville waiting placement, her sister Johanne was fostered out, which led to a complete loss of contact for six years, and in the end, Pattie and her brother Michael joined their elder brother Terry on Palm Island, where he had been sent as an incorrigible child, without anyone telling her where he had gone. It was a huge culture shock for her, exacerbated by the very dark children who rejected her because they thought she was white.

The memoir is remarkable for the way that Pattie acknowledges the good along with the bad, especially the teachers who saw her potential.  Thanks to them and her own hard work she won a scholarship to boarding school in Chartres Towers, but that didn’t work out and she was soon back on Palm Island, where she stayed until she was 18 and legally allowed to leave.

Back on the mainland she found work, was reunited with both parents until a chance application to join the Women’s Royal Australian Navy was successful.  She admits that it wasn’t patriotism that motivated her, it was that the armed forces offered secure employment and therefore protection against being sent back to Palm Island.  She settled well into the discipline, because having been institutionalised, she was used to it.  But as was the case in so many workplaces in those days, she had to leave when she got married, and was soon very busy with the care of her children and with re-establishing family connections. Not everything went smoothly, but there is no self-pity or bitterness in this story.

As is so often the case in the Indigenous memoirs I have read, this woman managed to transcend these awful circumstances to serve in the Women’s Royal Australian Navy; to represent Australia at several United Nations development forums; and to become CEO of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation for Children and Youth Services.  From childhood in a dysfunctional family to a decade in institutional care, she has had a stable marriage with husband Terry for 51 years, and is the mother of four children, grandmother to twelve and a great-grandmother.

Memoirs such as this which attest to remarkable stories of survival are a testament to the resilience of Australia’s Indigenous people.

Author: Pattie Lees with Adam C Lees
Title: A Question of Colour: my journey to belonging
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2020
ISBN: 9781925936513, Pbk., 346 pages
Review copy courtesy of Magabala Books.

Available direct from Magabala Books and from Fishpond: A Question of Colour: my journey to belonging


Responses

  1. This reminds me of memoirs I’ve read about indigenous children being torn from their families during what is called, in the country now called Canada, the “sixties scoop”, because so many children were scooped up and deposited with white families during the 1960s, as an extension of the genocidal policies here; the shadism that operates within the context of systemic racism is tragic and obfuscates all the layers of injustice.

    Like

    • *gasp*
      I hope you don’t mind me saying this but that seems like a tactless name for child removal policies. For those who don’t know about it, it makes it sound like some kind of 60s ice-cream and obscures what was done. At least the Stolen Generations is an honest name, even though we in Australia have a long way to go in facing up to our history.
      I find it so difficult to accept the mindset that lay behind these policies. There was also an English scheme for offloading their unwanted children in the postwar period, where ‘orphans’ who were probably mostly illegitimate children, were put on a ship and sent here as child migrants. Some of them thrived and some of them suffered terrible experiences… but what lay behind it was the attitude that children can be uprooted from everything and everyone that’s familiar and just adapt and ‘get over it’. And they don’t.

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      • I’ll be interested to hear the response to this, but I wonder if “scoop” is intended to convey that this was an offensive policy? That is, a word intended to not give it the dignity that a less emotive word would give it?

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        • I guess that would depend on the attitude of those that coined the expression. My first response is that it conveys an offensive trivialisation of the policy, coined by people making light of it, but it could equally come from a different PoV.
          It was apparently coined by social workers, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sixties_Scoop
          It’s what it means to First Nation Canadians now that matters IMO. You will remember that in Australia there was high level resistance to the term Stolen Generations even after it was used officially in the Royal Commission report.

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          • Yes, I saw that, and wondered if it were the social workers making their PoV known about how inhumane it was. Wikipedia isn’t very clear on what they meant. I certainly agree that the important thing is what First Nation Canadians think of the term. (I must say I didn’t think of ice-cream in particular. I just thought of bulk, indiscriminate scooping up, which in one sense makes the phrase horribly honest.)

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            • Part of the whole thing about interrogating racism is the way words which might seem innocuous can be the subject of fierce debate. Consider the arguments about how we should name our First Nations, Indigenous people/Australians, Aborigines, and specific groups such as Koories, Bunjalung and so on. Every one of those terms has been subject to fierce debate, and on the blog I use “Indigenous Australians” and name their country as well, in full awareness that whatever I use I’m offending some opinions. All I can do is follow Margo Neale’s advice at the History Summer School I attended in 2008 to do the best I can to educate myself and act with good will and intentions. Do that, she said, and most people will be forgiving of mistakes.

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  2. One just can never comprehend these placements and policies. It affected so many right around the world.

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    • Yes, that’s true, and the generations that followed…

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  3. Straight onto my list. Thank you.

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    • A difficult book to read, but worth it.

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  4. And of course in the news right now is Trump’s family separation policy, which included no system to ensure children and parents could be reunited. This has happened now, not in the sixties or thirties. Horrible.

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    • Hopefully there will soon be some kind of redress for this cruelty.
      Though I am trying very hard not to hope at the moment because I crash so hard when things fall apart.

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      • You need to have low expectations like me Lisa. I call myself a realistic optimist. I hope for the best – until proven otherwise – but but don’t really expect it. I think that keeps me fairly sane, but I do think it’s just gobsmacking how cruel behaviours and policies keep happening.

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        • I think that no expectations at all serves me better when it’s about things I have no control over.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Just shocking – and not so long ago which makes it even worse….

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    • Yes, when these things have happened in living memory, it drives home that these things are not ‘history’ in the sense of being beyond responsibility for them.
      I mean in the sense that, for example, the Napoleonic Wars were a causal factor in the rapid settlement of Tasmania and the genocide that followed it. None of us are responsible for the Napoleonic Wars. We are not responsible for the British government sending soldiers who expected to be rewarded for their service to settle land that already belonged to someone else, and who almost wiped out the Indigenous population in the process.
      But IMO we are responsible for what happens in our adult lifetimes when we are in a position to change things, even if it’s only in the way that we cast a vote.
      There is in this memoir, for example, reference to the fact that the government put the wages of Indigenous workers into accounts over which the workers had no control, and these unpaid wages are part of the reason for intergenerational poverty. I have reviewed a book about the impact of these unpaid wages, Not Just Black and White, by Lesley Williams and Tammy Williams, and have helped to bring this issue to the attention of everyone who reads this blog. Not much, not a very big thing to do, but it is something I can do. It is, IMO, when we turn a blind eye, or fail to do what we can do, that we become complicit in moral wrongs.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Agreed. And I always appreciate the fact you cover these difficult issues on your site, reading books I wouldn’t necessarily come across and raising these things. The world is still a very unjust place – currently fuming about our corrupt government’s lack of care for those children in need – and even if we can only do a little at least it’s something!

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        • Absolutely. If everyone did a little, a lot would get done.
          (I think somebody famous said that first…)

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I find it inconceivable that people who worked in the care services could have such little care for the young people in their charge that they let political doctrine prevail rather than what is best for the youngster.
    Sadly we know that the experience of this one family was repeated over and over – and could still be happening today

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    • Agreed… though I believe that child welfare and how services were provided were very different in those days.

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  7. This book actually popped up in my work inbox last week. Her grandson is at our highschool and one of our teachers was recommending it for Naidoc week reading.

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    • Oops, I hadn’t noted how many pages it is, which I usually do. I’ve fixed that now: it’s 346 pages…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Quite long for a memoir.

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        • Probably too long for students…

          Liked by 1 person

          • It would be. Although, I think she was more recommending it to staff to buy as a show of support on account of the local connection.

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            • Ah, yes, that makes sense. And if they actually read it as well, that could make a huge difference. When I was teaching I read heaps of things that were not suitable for student reading because they were too long and complex. but I was able to talk about them in simplified ways when it was appropriate to whatever topic I was teaching.

              Liked by 1 person


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