Sparse mem­oir of a stolen life

Too Afraid to Cry

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Gray

OUT­SIDER art is a well-known cat­e­gory; less so out­sider lit­er­a­ture. If there were such a cat­e­gory, Ali Cobby Eck­er­mann’s mem­oir Too Afraid to Cry would fit well within it, for its author is clearly an out­sider to main­stream so­ci­ety in a rad­i­cal sense — not merely in the sense of those who, ed­u­cated in the pan­theon, choose to adopt a rad­i­calised po­si­tion while well un­der­stand­ing its rules.

Cobby Eck­er­mann’s life has been one lived largely out­side the rules. Brought up on a hard­scrab­ble South Aus­tralian farm in a Lutheran fam­ily, she was con­scious from an early age of her dif­fer­ence — a dif­fer­ence that is summed up in her Abo­rig­i­nal­ity, al­though she hardly ar­tic­u­lated it that way at the time.

She was left alone with a rel­a­tive who sex­u­ally abused her. At school she was sex­u­ally and phys­i­cally abused again, this time by some older chil­dren, who fo­cused, with that pe­cu­liar cru­elty of chil­dren, on that rad­i­cal point of dif­fer­ence of which the child was scarcely con­scious her­self, telling her that they were just try­ing to find out whether she was con­structed the same way as white girls, down there. By Ali Cobby Eck­er­mann Ilura Press, 218pp, $28.95

And so the anger be­gan. She shows us, in de­cep­tively sim­ple lan­guage, how ut­terly nat­u­ral it would be in this sit­u­a­tion to be­come con­sumed with rage — how rage and de­struc­tive­ness of oth­ers and es­pe­cially one­self are not some­how a func­tion of Abo­rig­i­nal­ity, as is so of­ten be­lieved, but of psy­cho­log­i­cal and spir­i­tual dam­age. Rage finds tar­gets in fam­ily first, but its main tar­get is the self.

Cobby Eck­er­mann be­gan by break­ing her leg, and added to this a de­scent into al­co­hol and drug abuse that came close to killing her, spir­i­tu­ally if not phys­i­cally, and caused years of her life to be half-re­mem­bered, a world of black eyes and black holes, and she a burn­ing fuse in the mid­dle of it, full of vi­tal­ity and light but lost to it­self.

It is a fa­mil­iar tra­jec­tory, one with wider po­lit­i­cal over­tones, as any­one fa­mil­iar with the his­tory of the Stolen Gen­er­a­tion poli­cies will un­der­stand. Trauma runs through gen­er­a­tions. Nev­er­the­less, the fa­mil­iar story shocks the reader, in the way only the fa­mil­iar can truly shock: when Cobby Eck­er­mann dis­cov­ers that she, who had given up a child for adop­tion, had been given up her­self by her mother, who had her­self been given up; or when she dis­cov­ers the de­cep­tion at the heart of the pol­icy of adopt­ing out Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren in SA, as was played out sev­eral years ago in the Trevor­row case.

Cobby Eck­er­mann, an award-win­ning poet, does not tell her story in a self-con­sciously lit­er­ary way. It is aimed, I sus­pect, at least as much at Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple who have walked sim­i­lar jour­neys as at the main­stream lit­er­ary world. There is lit­tle em­bel­lish­ment, lit­tle de­tail in much of the nar­ra­tive. Partly, this may be be­cause there is sim­ply so much to tell — and partly, per­haps, also be­cause so much of that life has been lived at break­neck speed, un­der the in­flu­ence of drugs or al­co­hol or abu­sive re­la­tion­ships, in that other Aus­tralia of car­a­van parks and rail­way sid­ings and boarded-up squats, where there is lit­tle time for sleep and still less leisure for tak­ing notes.

From all of that she seems to have re­tained

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