I don’t want to break the happy image of a sleepy, quirky seaside town so soon, but: Dale found us.
How? Well, sometimes a person like that can intimidate the information out of friends and loved ones. Sometimes a person like that knows their partner so well they just know, almost instinctively, where to find them. And sometimes a person like that has a sister who works for the Child Support Agency within Department of Human Services, who knowingly and illegally accesses government records so that their drunk, abusive brother—a repeat perpetrator of domestic violence—can track down his victim. Sometimes that happens.
[SIDEBAR: Think about the above paragraph next time you’re having a discussion about domestic violence and feel compelled to say, or even think, “Why don’t the victims just leave? There’s help out there. There’s always a way. If they wanted to get out bad enough, they’d find a way.” It’s not that simple. My mother did “just leave”. She “just left” over and over and over again. Every time, he found us. He found us because the department of the federal government that had the specific function of assisting and protecting children of separated parents failed. Look. You can run away in the dead of night. You can buy a cheap car in cash so there’s no record, and use it to flee to the other side of the country. You can dye your hair and you can change your name and you can run and run and run but unless you plan to live entirely off the grid like a doomsday prepper; if you want to maybe collect enough welfare to feed your children or pay your rent or hell, even pay tax on whatever job you manage to get, you have to tell the government who and where you are. And if, for example, your abuser has a relative within the government who will happily retrieve this information for them, then you can never hide, and you can never escape. My family’s story is just one example. ONE. There are a thousand scenarios in which “just leaving” is impossible. So don’t be ignorant. Domestic violence is a vile epidemic, about which not even close to enough is being done. And if you ever—EVER—feel compelled to lay even the slightest bit of blame for a domestic violence situation at the feet of the victim, know that you have just become part of the problem.]
Okay, hackles down; this story isn’t a Dale horror story. You just need to know that he found us and was part of our lives again, and was the reason for this next move.
See, sleepy quirky seaside towns don’t have a huge range of employment opportunities, so within a few months Dale started angling for us to move to Townsville. As I was in the very rare position of actually enjoying my school life (Justin had long-since transferred elsewhere and I’d learnt to carefully walk around every pine tree I saw), it was decided I would live with my grandparents, on their five-acre property ten minutes out of town.
It would be good to experiment with some stability. Maybe stay put for just a little while. Try spending a whole year at one school, even. So mum, Dale, Lauren and Tommy moved to Townsville, and I moved in with my grandparents. My grandparents! Every kid’s dream, right?
See, my grandparents didn’t want to spoil me. They wanted to “fix” me. What, exactly, was wrong with me? I think I know, but can’t really state it without drawing a long and hurtful bow. At any rate, what should have been a refreshing period of childhood stability, with the added bonus of full! time! grandparents! instead became an intense period of cult-like reprogramming, with full. time. grandparents.
For a start, I was plunged into pop-culture Siberia. I was, from a ten-year-old’s standpoint, cut off from the outside world. Afternoon TV was out (only “ferals” watched afternoon TV), morning TV wasn’t even mentioned, and weekend TV was simply an unfathomable concept. The news was watched almost exclusively from 6pm-8pm every night (the local news, then the national news, A Current Affair, and then over to ABC for The 7:30 Report), and then bedtime was 8:30pm; a rule that was never, ever, not ever, not even once, negotiable.
For a little while, I was allowed to watch reruns of Bewitched between 5:30 and 6pm. I adored Bewitched. But after recounting a dream in which I’d had magic powers just like Samantha, I was lectured about becoming “worryingly attached” to the show, and it was banned as well.
It wasn’t all bad: my appreciation for British comedy, today fierce and enthusiastic, came from having zero alternative entertainment options available. Keeping Up Appearances and The Good Life, two shows that aired on ABC in that giddy half-hour between the end of The 7:30 Report and the non-negotiable bedtime, are two of my favourites to this day. (Bewitched is also still a favourite: my love can’t be quelled so easily.)
But it also meant that for the next twenty years, I would draw a blank on any reference to TV, film or music from 1991-1993. Nirvana exists to me only as a thing I’ve read about in books, like Woodstock or the Renaissance. Ren & Stimpy escaped me completely. To this day there are still episodes of The Simpsons that are unfamiliar. I never found out what happened to NKOTB. I can’t claim a side in the early Sega/Nintendo wars. I was so out of step with what everyone else my age was doing, it took me years to catch up, which cemented my place on the outskirts of society for the rest of my adolescence.
Now, I admit that not keeping abreast of the cultural trends of the early 1990s is a small price to pay for some stability in life. BUT: I didn’t get that either. Within months of moving in with my grandparents, they’d started scoping out farms to move to in some of Queensland’s deeper recesses. The very reason I had moved in with them was at risk of becoming entirely redundant. Weekends were spent making trips to places like Murgon and Gayndah and Nanango, touring paddock after paddock of identical looking dry grass; inspecting run-down farmhouses that looked like they were only held up by optimism; and being forced to nod with acknowledgement at every shed, mill and workshop that was pointed out to me with the promise that it was there I would be “put to work” and “made into a man”.
“Made into a man.”
That’s what they were trying to “fix”. That’s the “long and hurtful bow” I’m hesitant to draw.
I may have still been 12-13 years away from realising I was gay, but I already knew I didn’t quite “fit in”. I didn’t fit in in country towns. I certainly didn’t fit in on farms. I didn’t fit in with the ideals of my grandparents at all, and I think they knew this. I think at least part of the reason they were looking at farms at all was because they could see a round peg in the making, and they wanted to cram me into a square hole while they had the chance.
All I knew is that there was nothing I wanted less than to live on a farm. Every one of those weekend trips made me feel sick for weeks afterward.
They tried to “fix” me in other ways, too. On top of being separated from the one constant in my life —
my mother television — and having the threat of becoming a Nanango farm-boy hanging over my head, I was also pushed into a range of tasks and activities that would “make [me] a man”. I was put in the Scouts. I was made to watch a chicken get beheaded, which I then had to pluck and gut by myself. I was confirmed with the Church of England (even though I had been christened with Uniting Church, which my mother specifically picked because it was the least committal of all the churches. She had actually wanted as little religious indoctrination as possible, so this was also a total betrayal to her).
I was made to do various sporting drills in the yard, because I wasn’t “good enough” at sports. One time I was forced to race my grandfather across the yard, and was cruelly mocked when he beat me. So I had to practice running. Back and forth, across the yard. “Run until you’re faster.” Similarly, I was given cricket bowling drills: I don’t mean we played cricket, I mean I had to bowl the ball to nobody in the middle of the yard, retrieve it, and bowl it again. Over and over. I didn’t even like cricket.
During one of these drills, when I went to retrieve the ball, next to it on the ground was a red-bellied black snake. It was thrashing around angrily. I thought I had hit it with the ball. I screamed and sprinted back to the house, sobbing in terror: when I got there I was immediately berated for running away. Look, yes, I know I should have stayed perfectly still, because if it had bitten me, running would have pumped venom through my system so much faster, but on the other hand go fuck yourself, I was eleven years old and terrified of snakes. Maybe ask if I’m okay first, then start shouting at me for “being a bloody girl”.
(For the record, it wasn’t a black snake I had hit with a cricket ball, it was two black snakes, and I hadn’t hit either of them. They were mating; angrily and passionately. They didn’t even notice me. This is great from a “child not wanting to get bitten by a venomous snake” perspective, but TERRIBLE from a “trying to tell a dramatic story full of hurt and fear” perspective.)
The only reprieve I got from full-time Becoming A Man training was weekends spent with my Dad down in Brisbane. Every few months Dad and my stepmother Fran would drive up to collect me, and I’d spend the weekend being an actual kid. They’d take me to normal kid places: The movies. McDonalds. Movieworld. (I’m sure there were places that didn’t start with M too.) These weekends were fun. And they felt so decadent. They were like booster shots of pure joy. I wish it had occurred to me how much better it was with Dad than it was with my grandparents; I would have asked to stay with him.*
But it didn’t occur to me. Because—and this is perhaps the worst part—I thought it was normal. I thought I deserved the constant haranguing, the pressure to be different. I thought there was something wrong with me that needed fixing.
And, for the record? I was already a pretty good kid. I was a straight A student. I never got into trouble. I was sent on an inter-school writer’s camp “for gifted and talented children” (yes, I did a little hair toss as I typed that). I graduated as Dux of Tin Can Bay State School. But none of this was enough. I was never enough.
So, did my grandparents succeed in “making” “me” “a man”? No, because that’s not a thing that can be done. I did grow up into a man, but they get little to no credit for that. They get credit for teaching me to to chop wood and light a fire and change a car tyre, for which I’m grateful. But gender is not binary and activities are not gendered: being able to do those things doesn’t make me a man, it just makes me useful.
And if the goal was to make sure I only did “Man” things to steer me away from “Woman” things? Well, I also know how to crochet and apply eyeliner and make fudge, and in the last musical I did, I learnt to put on my own bra, so: suck it.
*Apparently it had occurred to my Dad. The depressing epilogue to this story can be found here.