Orphaned by the Colour of My Skin: A Stolen Generation Story
By Mary Terszak
Hear her band live in The Cutting Room Studios 2012. This song, based on Mary Teszak's story 'Orphaned By The Color Of My Skin' won honorable mention award at the 28th Mid-Atlantic Song Contest 2011.
I need to emphasise that my time in The Home of the Good Shepherd caused me mental trauma, which I feel destroyed my soul as a person.
Some of the children cannot understand the child that I became. I became a very different person in that I caused physical and mental abuse to other children, which means that today I live with the terrible regrets of being a kid and locked up in a horrible situation that was foreign to me.
I hope that my readers will understand and that others can see why I acted in the way that I did. I am not happy with what I became and I have had to live with this till today. Being able to tell this story is the foundation of my recovery and well-being.
Interview with Author by Geraldine Mellet (ABC Perth) 13 February 2008 - SORRY DAY:
Book Launch: Curtin University of Technology Centre for Aboriginal Studies (CAS) Wednesday 20 February 2008
In an invasive, paternalistic, federal public policy environment for Indigenous communities, this book provides an in-depth account of one person's experiences as a 'Stolen Generation' Aboriginal Australian.
Told from the heart, the book speaks in the raw voice of a grandmother reflecting on her life, focusing on her childhood experiences, subsequent perceptions and life stories.
The book presents a rare autobiographical journaling of the psychological impact of institutionalisation on an Indigenous woman, her search for family, community and identity, her psychological breakdown and her personal reconstruction through telling her story in a supportive educational environment.
As an Appendix, the author provides us with a critical analysis and autoethnography - using her story as a case study - that provides deep insights into the personal experience of dealing with forced institutionalisation and social engineering to assimilate Aboriginal people.
I certainly hope that my story will highlight the importance of how life has been for children who have been affected by such atrocities.
We hear of how it has been for the Canadian Residential schools and the American Indians as similar to our own experiences here within Australia. History gives us the sadness of the Armenian, Darfur, Jewish and Kurdish situations of genocide - and in other countries.
So why can't we as Aboriginal people now disclose how Australia has treated its own people?
Aboriginal Elder Lowitja O'Donoghue AC CBE (right) introduces Mary Terszak (left) to Dr Bob Brown (Leader of the Australian Greens in the Senate) in Canberra on 13 February 2008 (National Sorry Day) - pictured receiving autographed copy of Orphaned by the Colour of My Skin from Mary Terszak.
Table of Contents
- Part A - My Story
Extracts from my journal
- Part B - Understanding My Story
My autoethnographic research
- Chapter One - Introduction
My life as a case study
- Chapter Two - Literature Review
Setting the stage for understanding
- Chapter Three - Methodology
How autoethnography works
- Chapter Four - Analysis
Reflecting on the journal entries
- Chapter Five - Conclusion
What I've learnt about me
My name is Mary Terszak (Woods) and I am a Nyoongah woman from the south west of Western Australia.
Throughout my life I have often contemplated writing an outline of how my life was programmed for me as an Aboriginal woman. Eventually I found I needed to pursue this as a part of a healing process for myself, and also as a way by which I could be of better assistance to my children and grandchildren. My mental and psychological problems were creating depression, and causing my family constant heartache.
The only road that appeared to offer a chance for some normality was to write about my experiences. The journaling has revealed themes of struggle, family, forced removal, identity and institutionalisation, but I feel that 'this child' still needs to address the underlying issues of self-image, aggression and parenting. There is an absolute need for 'this child' to deal with the past. The past belongs to me alone, and I am the person who needs to take the steps forward into the present and future.
I am truly 'grateful' that, as a child from SKCH, I have been given the opportunity to study at Curtin University over the past six years. With a mixture of pride and sadness I reflect on the way that this difficult research has led me to look at life through completely different lenses.
One issue my journaling has revealed is my confusion about 'care', 'love' and 'sex'. I have often misunderstood what these words mean, and my experience of them has often been distorted by other people's interests and needs. Caring for and looking after people was the only thing that the Sister Kate's kids knew, although this was usually in the context of being an effective domestic servant. In any case, love is not something that everyone can understand. These three words, 'love', 'sex' and 'care' still puzzle me because their meaning depends on both people in the relationship, and some people don't see that that care, love and sex inherently include benefit for the other person.
In this book, I am offering my own story as a case study that provides deep insights into the personal experience of being removed from my family when I was just two years old and institutionalised under a government policy designed to 'assimilate' Aboriginal people - simply because I had 'pale' skin. Today, children such as me are identified as the people from the 'Stolen Generation'.
In Part A I present extracts from my journal that tell you about my life story. In Part B is discussion about the method I used to analyse my journal entries, and the results of that analysis.
Whilst this is only one woman's story, many others who were taken from their families may find elements in my story that may help them along their own journeys toward reconciliation with family and a stronger sense of self.
My thanks and utmost appreciation goes to John Fielder for his guidance, knowledge, friendship and support while I was completing my Masters thesis, which provided the essential material for this book.
I acknowledge three wonderful Nyoongah women who have become my dearest friends while I have been studying at Curtin University. Jean Boladeras, you are one in a million. Aunty Joan Winch, you are an amazing person who believed that this book should be written. Jill Abdullah, thank you for welcoming me into your home as family.
I express my appreciation to Mary Pearson, my cousin and a fellow Sister Kate's Home kid, where we spent endless hours talking about our anger, frustration and tears during the dark years of our childhood.
Thank you to James Davidson, publishing director of eContent Management, who read my thesis and opened up the story in book form for the wider community to have a better understanding of Aboriginal situations within Australia. Thank you also to Eve Witney, for her editing expertise, precision and attention to detail which have contributed tremendously to this book, and to Kim Webber, for designing the cover and desktop publishing.
My thanks also to Rosemary Saunders and her family, Cindy Solonec and Steve Mikler, who read my thesis and believed it should be made into a book.
Reviewer : Jedda Graham, MPsych
Psychology, Australian Catholic University, Fitzroy VIC
Journal of Family Studies - volume 15/1 - April 2009
Mary Terszak is an Aboriginal woman from Western Australia who was removed from the care of her mother, a Nyoongah woman, at 2 years of age, because she was considered 'white enough' to be 'raised according to white Australian standards' at Sister Kate's Children's Home. Terszak's book makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of the enormous personal cost that assimilationist policies of physical and cultural alienation had on Aboriginal children who were part of the stolen generation.
The use of auto-ethnography allows Terszak to inhabit the spaces of both the observer and the observed. In the first part of the book, Terszak takes the reader on a journey - 'yarning' about her experiences as a child growing up at Sister Kate's Children's Home. Terszak's yarns - snapshot memories based on extracts from her own journals - are told with raw humour and pathos through the eyes-wide-open vantage of child. She also reflects upon the overwhelming implications these experiences had on her later ability to cope with the demands of the adult world. In the second part of the book, Terszak moves from the position of observed to observer. She critically examines her own life experiences in the context of the racist assimilationalist policies that shaped them. Terszak's case-study analysis of her own life as a member of the stolen generation highlights the untold personal costs of cultural alienation from both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures.
Ultimately this is a story of tragic betrayal at the hands of paternalistic and discriminatory government policies that has left Terszak appearing and acting 'more like a white person, but ... dealing with constant turmoil within' (p.140). However, the courage of Terszak's self-reflection inspires hope that small incremental healing can take place for the children of the stolen generation.
Media Release - Curtin University of Technology
A book detailing one woman's experience as a Stolen Generation Aboriginal Australian was launched at Curtin University of Technology's Centre for Aboriginal Studies (CAS) yesterday.
The book Orphaned by the Colour of My Skin was developed from a Masters thesis entitled 'Who is Mary Rose? A Sister Kate's Home Kid' by Mary Terszak after being shown to a publisher who encouraged her to turn it into a book.
The book is an autobiographical journal of the experiences of Mary Terszak (Woods) and her life at Sister Kate's Children's Home after she was taken from her mother at the age of two as part of the Government's 1905 Aborigines Act which saw the removal of Aboriginal children from their families.
The book describes Mary's search for family, her identity and her psychological breakdown after being institutionalised for eighteen years. The first section of the book consists of Mary's journals followed by a critical analysis of the experience of dealing with forced institutionalisation using her story as a case study in the next section.
Mary completed a Bachelor in Primary Health at age 57 through the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in 2000 after previously only completing schooling to an equivalent year nine level. After completing her bachelor and honours degrees, she embarked on her Masters as a way of helping her children understand her experiences as a child.
'My Masters was a journey of healing for me and a way in which I could find myself and how I fit in the black and white world that I live in', said Ms Terszak.
'I hope that my book will encourage wider community understanding of the experiences of the people who were part of the Stolen Generation and how being institutionalised affected us in later life.'
Head of the Centre for Aboriginal Studies, Associate Professor Anita Lee Hong, said that the launch of Orphaned by the Colour of My Skin is extremely timely given the Federal Government has apologised to the Stolen Generation on February 13.
'We hope that the Government's apology to the Stolen Generation will encourage the wider community to learn more about the experiences of those children who were taken away from their families especially with Mary's book as a fantastic new resource,' said Associate Professor Lee Hong.
Orphaned by the Colour of My Skin was launched by Adjunct Professor Joan Winch who was a cook at Sister Kate's Children's Home when Mary Terszak lived there.
Contact: Associate Professor Anita Lee Hong, Head of the Centre for Aboriginal Studies, 08 9266 7091, firstname.lastname@example.org or Katie McGregor, Public Relations Officer, Curtin, 08 9266 4364, 0401 103 877, email@example.com.
Two Different Worlds - Being Part of the Stolen Generation
In the midst of the Federal election debate on Indigenous welfare, Mary Terszak, a fair-skinned Aboriginal woman who has constantly struggled with self-identity, has released her compelling book Orphaned by the Colour of My Skin - A Stolen Generation Story (eContent, 2008). The book provides an auto-ethnographic portrait of Terszak's experience as an institutionalised child of the Stolen Generation, its impact on her life, mental health, identity and well being.
Terszak uses the journal she wrote to tell the story about her life, and to critically analyse and evaluate the effects institutionalisation had on her personal development as a daughter, mother, grandmother, friend and member of society. These experiences formed the basis of her thesis in a Masters Degree in Indigenous Research and Development.
Mary Terszak - who is now 65 years old - said 'I needed to find some sanity and the opportunity arose through study when I was given free rein to complete my thesis. I only hope that one day the book may be implemented as part of a university syllabus so students can get insight into what happened and see that it's not made up - I'm here and I lived it'.
In 1936 the Native Administration Act was passed, naming the Commissioner of Native Affairs legal guardian of all Aboriginal children. As a result, at the age of two Terszak was removed from her mother despite authorities citing that mother and daughter were well bonded and 'the latter was well looked after'. Terszak spent the next 18 years of her life at Sister Kate's Children's Home (SKCH) in Western Australia, where she struggled with aggression, self image, depression and loss of identity issues. Terszak said 'I tried to live in two different worlds - white and black. Because the 1936 Act and corresponding assimilation policy told me I was white, the person I was meant to be, I wasn't allowed to be. Problem is that I didn't fit in the 'white' category either'.
'This is a timely and topical issue as intervention policies are currently being implemented on Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory. Orphaned by the Colour of My Skin is a raw account told from the heart that enlightens readers of the long-lasting personal impact that government policies can have on the lives of human beings, their families and communities,' said James Davidson, Publishing Director, eContent Management.
'Mary Terszak's auto-ethnographical approach to her story is both truly unique and insightful for all members of the community as it enables people to begin to understand the reality of the often abstract concept of institutionalisation - in particular its impact on Indigenous people. This book can be used as a tool for learning cultural understanding, acknowledgement and inspiration'.
Amongst eContent Management's Indigenous titles is Advances in Indigenous Health Care, an issue of the Contemporary Nurse journal, which highlights the challenges of delivering culturally competent health care to Indigenous communities in Australia, New Zealand and North America.
Orphaned by the Colour of My Skin (ISBN 978-1-921348-08-2) is available for purchase now from www.e-contentmanagement.com or by calling 07 5435 2900. RRP is $33.00 (incl GST).
Advances in Indigenous Health Care (ISBN 978-0-9750436-9-1) is available for purchase from www.e-contentmanagement.com or by calling 07 5435 2900. RRP is $66.00 (incl GST).
About the Author Mary Terszak is a Nyoongah woman from the South of Western Australia, who was taken away from her mother and institutionalized at Sister Kate's Children's Home from the age of two to 20. She completed her Master of Arts in Indigenous Research and Development in 2006, and is currently proceeding with her Doctorate of Philosophy in Indigenous Research and Development at the Curtin University. Mary also works as an Aboriginal mentor at a public school in Newcastle NSW, and is a devoted mother and grandmother.
Extracts from my journal
Having fair skin
Throughout a dreadful childhood and relationship I have gained the most precious gifts of all, a beautiful daughter and son. There is also an added bonus and that is my son-in-law and two little grannies. This is what I am grateful for.
'Grateful' was a word that annoyed me right the way through my childhood and I vowed, 'I don't need to hear it again'. But I have to use it to justify how I feel today. I don't ever want to forget that it was my two children who became my anchors in times of sadness, suicidal tendencies, rejection and identity crisis. That is why it is fundamental that I don't get myself absolutely lost in the emotions of my losses. I cannot go backwards because it is too hard. My most treasured memories are of gaining this, my 'first family', as we have each other 'through thick and thin'.
We are all born into this world as innocent babies. The decisions that are prepared for us can transform our whole lives, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. However, we can only live the life that has been given to us and make the most of it. The choice that was made for me may not have been the best but that is something I will never really know.
I have lived my life with shame, anger, low self-esteem and no confidence. But the worst of all has been living my life without knowing who I really am. This is something that most people know. You may ask why I don't? I am a fair-skinned Aboriginal person who happened to be born at a time when the governments determined it was best for me to be removed from my parents, and my culture. And I was brainwashed into believing I was an orphan.
I haven't had a lot of socialising at all with Aboriginal people, as I feel they are not the same as me in their way of thinking. I believe some think I am a 'coconut,' which means you are dark on the outside and white on the inside. Another reason has been my denial and identity crisis: I cannot openly say, 'Yes, I am an Aboriginal person'. Throughout my childhood, my upbringing in a white society taught me to have this type of attitude as a fairer child, regardless of my Aboriginality. This was the English teaching that was introduced to enable fair-skinned Aboriginal people to forget their identity and forget about their own families. It doesn't mean that we classify ourselves as being any different; it's what we were taught to believe as children. Now when anyone asks me where I come from, I just say 'Australia', and leave it at that.
In 1905 an Act was passed to make provision for the better protection and care of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Western Australia. Later in 1936 another Act was passed in which Mr AO Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines, was made the legal guardian of all Aboriginal children. This Act has affected my life, because I was born in 1942.
Mr AO Neville was obsessed with the 'breeding out' of half-caste Aboriginal children. His basic idea was to encourage women with lighter skin colour to co-habit with nearby white men. Eventually this would eliminate any traces of Aboriginality. In order to do this he had to strictly control the lives and marriages of fair-skinned young women, so his policy was to segregate them from childhood from the influences of parents and culture.
Under this Act I was institutionalised for eighteen years. I entered Sister Kate's Children's Home (SKCH) at the age of two and left when I was twenty. The memories of my childhood are empty, with stubborn scars embossed in my heart that cannot be erased. Institutionalisation experiences can be traumatic for most children, irrespective of what colour they are. However for fair-skinned Aboriginal people, their identity, culture and family unity are stripped from them as they are prevented from associating with darker-skinned people.
Whilst living in the Home we were informed that we had no parents: 'That is the reason why you are here in the Orphanage.' We were also told we must be 'grateful' that we had 'someone to care for us' there. I'm not too sure what they meant about 'caring', but I certainly don't recall being cared for. To be forthright I think we were subjected to abuse, mental trauma and rejection in all ways, so this is the form of caring we were given. They said this was being done 'in the best interest of the child,' that it was important that the children were raised according to white Australian standards. Did anyone bother to ask us in later life whether this was the best policy? Absolutely not. Children who were taken forcibly by the Government were herded like cattle. The segregation of quarter caste, half caste and full blood was determined by the Government's own interpretation of Aboriginality and who was an Aboriginal child.
However, how does one deal with these sorts of memories and the emotions they bring up? You can't reason with this kind of behaviour and it definitely leaves you wondering how you cope without living in denial. Sometimes, the hate inside is unbearable, as you think, 'Why couldn't I be like any other person?' I asked another girl from the Home once, 'Why did God make us this way and why is it that life seems to be so hard?' Her answer was, 'God knew you could handle this situation and that is the reason why you are the person you are today. There are only certain people who have the strength to survive what you have gone through'.
Now I don't really know if this is supposed to make me feel good or what?
Beginning the journey
Although we cannot change things that have happened, a journey of healing had to take place. This did not happen for me until I was 47 years old. It is an ongoing struggle of unearthing information, which through the years has taken its toll in many different ways.
My first step was in 1988 when I decided to search for my government papers, which I received from Community Services in Western Australia. This was the most unexplainable feeling, to see such documents written about me and my life as a two year old, and to know that I was the subject of that policy of separating pale-skinned children from their parents. Until then I had been unaware of all the things that went on in those years.
Through my Government Papers, I was able to find out where I was born and where I lived for the first two years of my life. The papers also gave me an insight into the type of person I was.
People, whether non-Aboriginal or Aboriginal, who have been raised with family and living with their own culture have a sound knowledge of their past and present situations. For most Aboriginal people who have been denied this experience, it generally means taking a trip to the library in search of what are known as 'Government Papers'. This is where I discovered things about myself.
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