My life as a stolen child, by Ali Cobby Eckermann
- by: Sunday Style magazine
- From: news.com.au
- May 19, 2013 12:00AM
IT’S been a long journey home for Ali Cobby Eckermann, who was 34 when she met her birth mother and found a new life
Indigenous poet and memoirist Ali Cobby Eckermann was born Penelope Rae Cobby at the Kate Cocks Babies’ Home in Adelaide in the early 1960s, before being separated from her family.
Although the Lutheran family who adopted her were loving, she faced racism, violence and sexual and physical abuse in the small town where she grew up.
Over time she succumbed to a life of alcohol and drugs to help numb the pain and confusion of not knowing who she was. But after reconnecting with her birth family, she found her way to wholeness, a journey she chronicles in her book, Too Afraid to Cry.
I was seven when my uncle – not my real uncle, a family friend – started to kiss me. It felt funny. When he pushed his tongue down my throat, I screamed, but no noise came out. Icy tears ran down my face.
He put his body on top of mine and I couldn’t move. After it was over I watched the TV screen for a long time. I felt like a little girl who just wanted her mummy.
One day a group of girls at school pushed me down. I didn’t cry or yell out. They used the ink from inside a felt marker to paint my face dark brown. I was humiliated.
After that I started acting out. I was bottling up every feeling I had. The sad part was, I didn’t know how to take that home and tell my mum, Frieda and my dad, Clarrie – good, kind people – what was happening.
I used to read a lot. I read nearly every book in the house. I remember sometimes visitors would come over and I’d sit there with my tennis racquet and hit out at anyone who came into my space. I used to mutilate dolls.
Years later a family friend said I was such a happy little girl and then I changed, and no one ever knew why.
After school, when I was 17, I ran away with the first person who would take me. It was a very violent relationship and we drank a lot. You learn to love the alcohol, but not the black eyes.
I was with him for two years, then I started questioning the violence. And so I returned home, only to discover I was pregnant – there was such shame. It was a time when you hid those things. Mum Frieda cried.
I gave birth to my son when I was 19. I visited him in the hospital before I knew he was going to be given to his adopted family. A friend held him because I couldn’t – I was completely detached.
I’d become an observer of life without actually being a part of it. I hadn’t cried then for some time. And then I just walked away.
After he was gone I found refuge in the Northern Territory. It was a great place to go with all that confusion and detachment I was carrying, because at that time, in the early 1980s, there was a lot of building going on and there were plenty of jobs and an eclectic group of people.
I took risks and I rebelled, but now I had a group of people to do it with. I went wild and I didn’t care.
But it was going bush that I really loved. I loved the vastness of the desert. All that space made me feel connected. It was there I found peace.
I felt like I belonged. I didn’t have to look at myself, but could just enjoy being “on country”, or in touch with the traditional land.
I started to drink more at this time to block the pain. When the drugs and alcohol stopped working, I became suicidal. When I went for walks, I’d see myself hanging from the trees. I was at the very edge.
One day, I rang the Crisis Line and booked myself into rehab. Slowly the stone inside me turned to ice and then the ice began to melt. I felt real tears on my face for the first time in my adult life.
In 1997, the Bringing Them Home report came out and a lot of the documentation about the Stolen Generations was released. I found out my birth mum’s name and then flew to Canberra to meet her. I was 34.
She was the first person I’d seen who looked like me; she had my eyes. I could see myself reflected in her face. She told me how empty and wrong she felt when she gave me up.
She grew up without her mother, too, or her sisters and brother. It was hard to accept that I repeated history when I adopted out my son.
It was the beginning of a very long reconnection journey. I kept meeting all these adults who’d been removed from their families.
It was at least every second person. It was like, what the hell? And we started to talk about it, to support each other through our shared experience.
At this time everyone was still looking for each other – lost children, cousins, brothers and sisters. You’d become very practised at looking at someone’s face and almost being able to recognise which mob or language group they came from. It wasn’t an invasive thing, it was a very caring thing.
Four years later I met my son, Jonnie. I’d learnt so much about reconnecting from my experience with my mum. As soon as we hugged, we were linked.
We found we had so much in common… every night we’d sit around an open fire and talk. That was such an Aboriginal thing to do, although we probably didn’t realise it at the time.
One of the most profound parts of my journey was meeting my traditional family. Mum took me out bush – they’d come up and say, “We your family”. Wow. I didn’t know.
When Jonnie returned, the traditional women welcomed him back, too. They’d wail and perform ceremonies and call out to him, “Eh, grandson!” They’d hold his hands and tell him jokes.
It freaked him out, but he also loved it. He walked back into a love of culture [a connection to traditional Aboriginal culture].
I’m so grateful I survived my journey. A lot of good, strong-hearted people didn’t.
I learnt to live in two different ways over my life. I learnt a good example of hard work and kindness from growing up with my mum and dad in my adopted family.
And I’m extremely grateful that my traditional family welcomed me back with such love and honesty. I got a second chance to live in an honest world.
I only wish it was a society that accepted my family, too. When I go somewhere, people will open doors for me. But if I’ve got my traditional family with me, the doors aren’t opened.
In restaurants and cafes, they won’t get served just because of the colour of their skin. It’s confronting and hurtful.
One thing I’ve learnt from living in two different cultures is to look at the assets in people, not the faults.
Society doesn’t do that well, which is why racism is so prevalent in this country. Look at people’s faces. Be open to that joyous journey of discovering the different skills people have. Always look for the joy.
Too Afraid to Cry (Ilura Press, $28.95), is out now.