Same home, different stories in a search for the self
PATTI Miller’s The Mind of a Thief is a 21st-century version of a familiar theme: the white Australian search for identity and place.
Until the 1970s this was seen as a circling back to the imaginary landscape of the mother country and, more recently, as a painful plea for acknowledgment and atonement from the Aboriginal culture whose land we belatedly understand we stole.
Miller grew up on Marylands, a wheat and white background who made it in the big city, only to wake up one morning and realise that ‘‘ something fundamental was missing’’, that ‘‘ somehow, terrifyingly, nothing had meaning any more’’. After struggling to regain her footing, she has a dream one morning in Kings Cross in which a low, undramatic voice mutters, ‘‘ Go back to the town you came from and tell its story.’’
Put like this, Miller’s story could sound cliched and even tawdry: the rootlessness, the dream instruction, the doubling back into the interior to learn wisdom at the elders’ feet. Marlo Morgan notoriously exploited this theme 20 years ago when her Mutant Message Down Under recounted fantastic and fraudulent tales of lost tribes, telepathy and secret ceremonies. search: for the footprints of the ancestral being Baiame, for whispers of ancient knowledge of an inland sea, for the Hindu-style lingam carvings on a bora ground, for her own bloodlinks to the Wiradjuri, for an Aboriginal woman, Rose Chown, who will not talk.
She could even go further, as Morgan and others have done, back-handedly slandering Aboriginal culture with tales of rape, wifebeating and infanticide, all the old blood libels — and Miller does, in passing, refer to these things, as she must.
Of course, Miller is aware of all this. Even the book’s inspired title is a reference, in part, to the bora trees and cultural artefacts which, she frankly admits, she would rather see stolen and put on display at Paris’s Musee du Quai Branly than destroyed. She conscientiously she has had since childhood, the ‘‘ cursed desire to impress’’. She knows the ironies of her position. The book is self-reflective and her mind is the mind of the thief.
As a result, much of the book is recounted in what seems to be a deliberately undramatic, unobtrusive style. She notes, without emphasising, that she was brought up nearly as poor as many of the Aboriginal people she writes about, with no heating and no hot shower, a bathroom with a tin dish of water, and in the morning a ‘‘ dash across the frosty grass to the broken fibro toilet’’.
Other elements of her life — that she lived under a railway tarp for six months in New Zealand, for example — get the barest mention. Some of the most interesting aspects of the story reflect this deeply lived experience: