Sparse memoir of a stolen life
Too Afraid to Cry
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