||September 6, 2010
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Dennis Jones & Associates
A gritty and gently humourous journey through years of hunger, poverty,self-doubt ad deprivation.
Many years later when I asked how she felt when the doll was accidentally smashed she replied " I could have killed you". She meant it. Six decades on she still had not forgiven me.
Karen Laura-Lee Wilson's memoir is a detailed and gut-wrenching account of her first twenty-five years growing up in a sole-parent family with a narcisstic mother. Embedded in her story are universal themes of abandonment, love, hate, determination, optimism and endurance. Importantly, she also highlights the disastrous conseqences divorce and abuse can have on children.
Mostly set in Brisbane, Australia during the 1950s and 1960s, her journey is a search for identity. Karen entices her readers to accompany her on this gritty journey through years of hunger, poverty, self-doubt and deprivation of mother-love. Eventually Karen finds her own path through education, positive and negative sexual relationships and travel.
This well-written memoir is told with great candour and gentle humour, and is a must-have not just for readers of memoir, but also for those who enjoy adventure, romance and happy outcomes.
Professional Review by AuthorsDen:
This is an account of one woman’s life long journey, detailing the painful yet poetic if not downright heartfelt times. Sometimes depressing, occasionally humorous, but written with wit and passion. This story takes you into Karen Laura-Lee Wilson’s life, the bitter, the bad, and the best of times.
Upon receiving this book to review I noticed the cover was nicely done. The picture on the front paints “the whole woman cutting the vines that bind” The illustration and colors were nicely chosen. It is an appealing book to pick up. Like a house, chosen for its curb appeal, you are drawn to “step inside” for a closer look.
Grammatically, I found the book to be impeccable and therefore a pleasure to read. Unlike when you pick a book up and are enjoying the content yet have to repeat the correct sentence structure in your head…I was glad this book was free from error and could allow the mind to roam the pages.
Karen Laura-Lee Wilson emerges a beautiful person from the deep recesses of poverty, child neglect and various ill tidings. All of us know someone who has suffered such emotional tragedies in their lives. It is a breath of fresh air to witness the emerging of a less naïve, more assertive and powerful woman.
In closing this book is a poignant look at a full life of tatter and dismay, care and concern and ultimate growth into loving motherhood. The author did a beautiful job of sharing her story of self. For anybody who enjoys personal memoirs, I believe you will thoroughly enjoy reading about the life thus far of Karen Laura-Lee Wilson. For me, it was a reminder of how many lives are different. Struggles are dissimilar for everyone and some of us handle the scars better than others. I found myself wanting to meet Karen just for the simple strength and aura she must bring to the room.
Chapter 7 Excerpt : To hell and back from "Gaining a Sense of Self"
On 3 January 1950 it was a lovely sunny day when we set off for Nazareth House. [I was seven years old]. I had packed my new clothes, my Stephanie doll, the raggedy teddy bear and my beloved toy koala into the rigid suitcase. Mother and I travelled by Taxi to Nazareth House. From the back I waved goodbye to Malcolm as we sped away.
I greatly enjoyed travelling through the outskirts of Brisbane seeing lush farms, orchards, animals, and vegetable plots along the way. As we drove by the ocean, seagulls swirled and dipped into the sparkling blue sea. Since the day was hot, the car window was wound down so I could hear waves breaking, and savour the salty air. The countryside looked so idyllic. I expected to have a good time in that environment.
Nazareth House was situated on the top of a hill and looked most impressive with its red brick exterior, its arched verandahs sweeping across all levels. The grounds were embellished with white-painted statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. White crosses and more statues dotted the tiled roofs.
Two nuns attired in black and white robes came out to greet us as we arrived. They were happy to see us. One directed me to a playground where a number of girls were playing Tunnel Ball in the sun. I was encouraged to join in the game. After a while, Sister Benedictus blew a whistle and ushered us inside.
‘Where is my mother?' I asked.
The nun tersely answered, ‘She’s left.’
‘But she wouldn’t leave me without saying goodbye,’ I said tearfully.
‘Stop your crying this minute,’ rebuked Sister Benedictus.
‘Now follow the other girls into the hall,’ she commanded.
I joined the line of girls in another room which had no windows and was dimly lit. The girls formed a circle. An expectant hush descended on the group. Strangely, my suitcase had been placed on a table.
‘Now what have we got here?' the brusque nun said.
The girls giggled in anticipation.
‘Quiet,’ rebuked the nun as she clicked it open and roughly pulled out my doll.
‘She’s a fine one. We’ll put her in the school room,’ she muttered to another nun who put my doll aside. Next to be displayed were my two toy bears.
‘They’ll go in the furnace,’ she decreed.
By then I was distraught and cried openly. My frocks were brought out for inspection and exhibited to the assembled children. They oohed and aahed at the sight of my pretty dresses. Then came the underwear.
‘Hmm, all this will go in the collective wardrobe,’ muttered the nun.
‘They’re my clothes. You can’t take them away from me!' I cried out in anguish.
‘Just you watch me,’ said Sister Benedictus grimly.
Once the inspection was over we were dismissed and I followed the girls to the dining room for lunch. I sat at a designated place, eager to eat. When the food was put in front of me, I picked up a spoon and immediately began to tuck in. There was a gasp of horror from everyone because I had started to eat before the saying of grace.
‘There is a heathen amongst us,’ announced the supervising nun. I did not even know the meaning of ‘heathen’.
‘God will punish you for your wickedness.’
The nun rushed towards me and slapped me on the face. As I had not been raised a Catholic, I was unaware of the rituals associated with the church.
‘Stop that sniveling. Let that be a lesson to you. You never, never, pick up a fork or a spoon before we have thanked the Good Lord for the food we are about to eat.’
At last I could begin eating. I took a spoonful of what looked to be unappetizing mush, placed it in my mouth, and tried to swallow it. My stomach heaved as I tried to keep the food down.
‘Why have you stopped eating?' The nun demanded in a thunderous voice. Her face turned a vivid purple and she looked as if she was going to explode.
‘I’ve been watching you, ungrateful heathen, turning your nose up at good food. You’ve got the devil in you and we will beat him out.’
Those were the last words I heard before I became unconscious. * * *
I was in a narrow bed, alone in an area of the orphanage that was called the Infirmary. It reeked of disinfectant. The room was plain: walls the colour of pea soup and without any decoration other than a crucifix. I did not know how long I had been there or what had happened to me. All U knew was I felt very weak and sore. A younger nun with a kind face, Sister Thomas, was bending over me, gently lifting up my upper body so I could take a few sips of water.
‘You’ll be alright, dear once you have covered your strength. Try to sleep now.’
She spoke with a lilting Irish accent. I lay back on the pillow and lost consciousness once more. When I did wake up I cried out for my mother.
‘Where’s my mother? I want my mother,’ I screamed over and over again. Realising she had left I bawled my eyes out, to the extent my eyelids became so swollen I could barely see. I do not know how long I stayed there — perhaps a day and a night. Sister Thomas visited me a couple of times with bowls of broth which she fed me from a spoon. There was no saying of Grace beforehand.
Eventually I stopped crying and was told I could dress and go back to where the girls were. The nun who escorted back to the main area was none other than Sister Columba who had driven me into oblivion.
‘Your mother won’t be coming back for you because you are a very wicked girl. You are going to be here for a long time,’ she whispered in my ear, chuckling to herself as she harshly thrust her bony fist into the small of my back, propelling me along the corridor.
The next morning, I jumped out of bed when the tolled. It was time to prepare for mass. I had had a sleepless night. Bleary-eyed I followed the other girls. After using the toilet (without doors), washing my face and hands, and getting dressed, we walked in single file from the dormitory to the church. My next blunder occurred when I walked past the holy water font without ‘blessing’ myself.
‘New girl, come here this instant!’ demanded an irate nun, her face twisted in anger.
‘How dare you walk into Our Lord’s without blessing yourself!’
‘Sister, I don’t know what to do,’ I replied nervously.
‘Observe’, she ordered as she blessed herself with her right middle finger, making the sign of the cross on her body.
I watched her very closely knowing I would be in big trouble if I got it wrong but I instinctively rought up my left middle finger to my forehead to copy her action.
‘Stop! Stop this minute, stupid. You’ve got it wrong, you foolish girl. You never use your left hand. You’re offending God by using it. Now do it again and di it right or I’ll cane you.’
Un fear and trembling, I brought up my right middle finger and began blessing myself.
‘In the name of the Father …and…’
The eagle-eyed nun began chanting the prayer as she watched. My right finger wobbled up to the middle of my forehead. I had done that correctly. Then my finger moved down to my stomach. Then I panicked. Which side next? My finger wobbled to the right!
‘To the left, you useless girl. Now start again. And this time get it right or you’ll suffer you’ll suffer the consequences.’ She slapped my right hand with her heavy wooden rosary beads.
I could not think at all. Some of the girls standing behind the nun motioned with their fingers the correct gestures and I copied them. Thanks to those girls I did it properly. So began my crash course in Catholicism. (The mass was meaningless as it was all in Latin.)
The breakfast food was awful. I picked at it slowly and left most of it on my plate.
The morning classes were full of what I thought was ‘mumbo jumbo’: totally incomprehensible. I was in a state of shock. Dissociation was a protective device my subconscious used for coping with distressing events so I put myself in a dream-like state. How was I ever going to survive in this hostile environment and for how long? I was already desperate to leave.
So began my incarceration at Nazareth House. To repent my sin of pride I was not allowed to wear any of my clothes. The other girls wore them. I had no choice in what I could wear. My doll joined a collection of dolls, which were strung up high on our classrooms out of reach. Soon my Stehanie doll was nothing to me.
My next bout of suffering occurred a few days later. It must have been a Friday because for dinner we were eating fish, which I had assumed was de-boned. We seldom ate it at home but when we did, our mother always removed the bones. However, after my very first mouthful, a bone wedged in my throat. I began to choke and cough in an effort to extricate it.
‘Eat your dinner, you ungrateful girl.’ Admonished Sister Columba as she swished her way towards where I sat.
‘Are you putting on another act?’ she roared.
I shook my head vigorously. My coughing and choking escalated.
‘You may leave the table.’
My chair legs scraped noisily as I rose and ran outside coughing painfully.
All night I coughed, keeping the other girls awake. Eventually one got up and spoke to the nun on duty.
‘Can you help the new girl, Sister. Her coughing is keeping us awake.’
The nun came up to my bedside with a glass of water.
The cool water momentarily soothed my sore, inflamed throat. The nun fetched another glass and I downed that too. Still I coughed all night, and through the next morning. The priest came up to the nuns later and asked why a child was coughing so much. On learning about the problem he advised them what to do. At breakfast I was given thick slices if bread. A cantankerous nun stood over me.
‘My throat is sore, Sister,’ I croaked.
‘Don’t mind that; just keep on eating the bread.’
My throat was so swollen it was an effort to even drink water. I continued chewing the bread and did my best to swallow the masticated mouthfuls. There was no immediate relief; the bone was still lodged in my throat. The nun became increasingly impatient at my seemingly feeble efforts to swallow.
‘The pieces of bread are too small, child,’ she said, pulling off large chunks of bread and stuffing them into mouth. I cried as she forcefully pushed in the wads of. I was on the point of retching with her ‘treatment’. The situation had changed though. I was no longer coughing. It had worked but had left me with a rasping voice. For days afterwards, I was the last to finish my meal because my throat became painful whenever I swallowed solid food. I began to lose weight.
* * *
While at the institution I was constantly stigmatized for not being a Catholic. I was constantly victimized by having to obey rules I never knew existed until I had broken them. Catholicism was forced down my throat with beatings and harsh punishment. There were rules for everything. We were forbidden to look out at the magnificent views of Wynnum and the sea that could be seen from the spacious verandahs. Nor were we permitted to look at our naked bodies even when undressing for a bath or preparing for bed. Should we do so, we would be committing ‘sins of the flesh’. Even if bursting to go to the toilet, we had to wait for the set times. On many occasions I was in absolute agony, my bladder distended, waiting for the designated time. Sleep-ins never occurred because we attended mass each morning and woe betide an one who fell asleep during the service.
On Sunday morning we downed a glass of salty water so that our bodies would be ‘purged for the Sabbath’. Each night we slept with our arms folded across our chests just in case ‘the angels took us away’. And to top it off, the devil was lurking everywhere ready to tempt us at any moment. I soon developed a phobia for that evil spirit and became fearful of his invisible ‘presence’.
My fear of the devil was further reinforced, when one afternoon at play, I suffered a painful fall on my bottom. When I pulled up my frock and saw I had sustained a nasty abrasion, and was bleeding in some places, enough to stain my dress, I sought medical attention. It was my misfortune that the nun on duty was no other than Sister Columba, the sadistic one who had constantly abused me since the first day at Nazareth House. In trepidation, I approached her and complained about the heavy fall on my ‘bum’.
‘What did you say?’ she roared, looking more like an evil witch as she towered over me in her black and white robes.
‘I said I hurt my bum, Sister. Look, it’s bleeding and bruised.’
Her face turned scarlet. Fear ran through me when I saw her face change. My mistake was to use a ‘swear’ word. She was not in the least interested in looking at my wound; instead, she marched me off to a private room.
I stood in front of her, in fear and trembling as opened a cupboard and brought out a large dessertspoon and a litre-sized bottle of castor oil.
‘The devil has been whispering vile words to you. Your body requires immediate cleansing. Drink this down,’ she imperiously commanded.
I nearly puked on the spot as I tried to swallow the slimy, thick liquid.
‘And another and another,’ she commanded.
I pleaded with my eyes for her to stop. She took no notice, her mean face becoming more and more contorted with the act of forcing the spoon into the back of my mouth and ensuring the contents slid down my throat. I gagged on the metal spoon as she roughly force-fed me the mixture. My stomach heaved with the effort of keeping down the revolting contents.
‘That should do. The devil will be punished!’ she proclaimed.
I looked at the bottle. It was half empty. Sick and queasy, I begged to be excused.
‘I haven’t finished,’ she shrieked. There was more to come.
‘Get thee behind me Satan!’ she hysterically called out.
Over and over she shouted the command. Each time the volume of her voice increased as frenzy gripped her. I had to repeat what she said. Only when I gained a certain amount of momentum was I dismissed. My sin was that I had used the word ‘bum’.
‘Now go back to the others,’ she said, putting the bottled in the cupboard. ‘Remember the devil is always waiting for an opportunity to put words in your mouth and steal your soul.’
Banging into the walls with fright, I left the room. My wound was unattended. Far more important was to ‘attend to my immortal soul.’
If I had known what would occur later on, I would have put my fingers down my throat and got rid of the nauseating liquid immediately. How naïve I was to think my punishment was over. I joined the others, absolutely traumatised by what I had just experienced.
Still sore and aching from my fall, I tried to act normally as I forced back tears. The sadistic nun watched me from a distance, her eyes gleaming with anticipation, knowing what was going to happen. That evening as I prepared to retire for the night my bowels began to move. The castor oil was doing its work and I urgently needed to go to the toilet.
With great trepidation I approached the sister on duty and stuttered my request.
‘Sister, Sister, I need to go to the toilet. May I p-p-please be excused so I I can do number two?’
‘You certainly may not! You had adequate time time after dinner to go. Learn to control your bodily functions, child! You can go in the morning.’
‘But Sister, it’s coming — I have to go now!’
‘If you say one more word about going to the toilet I’ll cane you. Now go to bed and pray to the Good Lord to forgive your sins.’
I returned to bed, absolutely powerless. Desperately, I tried to withstand the force of nature, fighting sleep so I could exert some control over my bowels. It was no use. Within a few hours a soft soft blob emerged from my anus. I had lost control over my body.
The excreta remained in my pyjamas. I cried myself to sleep after my humiliation. The next morning I awoke to a dreadful smell that came from me. The other girls in the dormitory noticed the odour, but did not say a word. I carefully folded up my pyjamas with their squashed contents and placed them under my pillow. Then I made up the bed. I did not dare mention to the sisters that I had an accident during the night. For a week I endured climbing into those soiled pyjamas each night, the stench becoming increasingly obvious.
The girls around me never joked about the smell that emanated from my bed. They looked at me sympathetically but did not speak to me about it. Probably they were too frightened to become involved in my predicament. It was as if they were saying ‘Welcome to Nazareth House This is what it is like’.
I was now accepted as one of them, initiated by needless cruelty everyone suffered at the hand of the nuns. After the pyjamas incident my fellow ‘prisoners’ helped me in any way they could. Even today the sight of pyjamas reminds me of that horrid incident years ago.
Nonetheless I experienced moments of happiness in that wretched place which helped counteract the brutalities. Easter Sunday was one such example. It was made a joyous occasion for each child. The previous night, we younger girls had our hair wrapped in cloth rags by the big girls so that our heads would be resplendent with ringlets, just like Shirley Temple.
We were taken to a different area where the older girls dressed us in white pleated skirts and jumpers. As we filed out of the curch, we were given brightly wrapped chocolate Easter eggs to eat after breakfast. We ate sausages for breakfast and we were permitted to run around all day unsupervised. For once, decent food was served for lunch and dinner. How I wished every day was like Sunday!
After a few months the volunteer community staff issuing our weekly clothing grew to know me. They knew I was unhappy and tried to make itup to me in small ways. To compensate for the cruel ruling of my not being allowed to wear my own clothes one kind woman observed I was fond of a blue floral blouse and put it aside for me to wear whenever it was available. I greatly appreciated her kindness.
Another time at morning recess a volunteer noticed I invariably chose an orange mug whenever I saw it on the drinks tray. Its bright colour made me feel better and its contents always tasted nicer. Should I drain the mug, she would ask me ‘Would you like some more, love?’ and give me extra. One more thoughtful act I definitely appreciated.
On occasional Sundays the older girls sauntered down to the grounds carrying a loaded fruit tray and would tell us to choose what we liked. As I loved fruit, such a treat brightened my day. Life was not so bad after all. I soon learned about other special days called the Saints’ Holy Days that occurred at regular intervals in throughout the year when we were given sweets and let off lessons. Sometimes, we were served a gooey trifle for dessert at dinner. I looked forward to the religious celebrations.
As winter closed in, the breezy rooms and corridors became colder. Bed provided little warmth as the two issued blankets were threadbare. I dared not ask for more covers. The abuse worsened when group punishments were frequently held at night. We spent many evenings shivering in thin night gear, kneeling on the cold floors of the open verandahs with arms outstretched for hours on end. I seldom knew what we had done wrong but like the others, I submitted, arms splayed as if I were nailed to a cross. Should our arms waver, a sharp pain from a cane or ruler would wake us up.
Because of the winter punishments I developed dreadful colds that would not go away. Each week, we were given one handkerchief each — pinned to our frocks — to last the week regardless of colds. No exceptions were made for my heavy cold. My handkerchief literally became as stiff as a board and as abrasive as sandpaper, and my nose was rubbed raw. After a while I discovered the best way to dispose of the mucous was to use the hem of my dress or sleeves, when no one was looking. At last I learned some survival behaviours.
My next major misdemeanor was caused by my ignorance that the tap outside the vestry was ‘blessed’ and any water flowing from it was ‘holy water’. One day I was thirsty and drank from it, cupping my hands to catch the cool liquid. The other girls stood around in horror, warning me not to drink from that tap. But I could not see what could be wrong. I had regularly done so at home, either drinking straight from a tap or from a hose and had never been admonished for it.
At the time of the ‘holy water’ incident my reading skills had regressed. I was unaware the sign above the tap read something like ’Blessed holy water —do not drink’. It was just my luck that Sister Ignatius passing by saw what I had been doing. She ran up to me, her rosary beads and silver crucifix swinging wildly, as she screamed out: ‘What a sacrilege! You have offended God!’
I was whisked away and marched to the vegetable garden where red and green chillies grew. My punishment was to chew three green cherries picked from the garden and immediately swallow them under the stern eye of the nun. I was completely unprepared for the waves of fire that scorched my throat the remainder of the day. I was denied fluids and had to suffer in silence the dreadful fiery pain that consumed my throat. My muscles swelled up in an allergic reaction and I was unable to talk.
Such were the diabolical punishments dished up to the so-called ‘Sisters of Charity’ who were merciless in their quest to ‘purify our souls’.
After that episode I had well and truly learnt my lesson became completely submissive to the sadistic nun’s will. On the occasions when I realized I had done something wrong I would throw myself to the ground and place my body in a prostrate position with arms outstretched to beg forgiveness. I was totally crushed in spirit. It would take me decades to resurrect the comparatively carefree child of earlier years.
Yet more upsets. One time a young priest who officiated at mass noticed how miserable I was. I was standing by myself, my spirits sunk in sorrow, and was unable to participate in play. He asked what was wrong. I told him how much I missed my family and how desolate I felt at Nazareth House. He understood to some extent what I was going through. The next time I saw him in the grounds he beckoned me over to where he was sitting and presented me with a beautiful string of imitation mother-of-pearl rosary beads encased in a purse he had stitched himself. It was made from a fluffy black and white calf’s hide. I was overwhelmed by such an unexpected gorgeous gift. As I sat on the bench next to the priest I stroked the furry hide and opened and close the clasp to bring out the lovely beads and watch them sparkle in the sunlight.
‘Pray to Mother Mary, child and she will answer your prayers,’ he advised.
Then, taking the beads in his hands, he blessed them and gently them back in mine. I thanked him profusely. I started whispering ‘Hail Marys’ by the dozen, hoping that more prayers I said, the more quickly I would be re-united with my family.
Unfortunately, Sister Ignatious — who had made me eat the chillies — was angered to see me with such a fine present. Apparently, I was too worthless and too much a sinner to receive such an expensive item.
‘Give me those beads?’ she demanded imperiously. Intimidated, I reluctantly handed over the rosary.
‘Now hand over that case. Immediately, you sneaky girl. Thought you could hide it from me, you worthless creature!’
Tears of disappointment streamed down my face. I could not resist giving the fur case on last stroke before I handed it over. The slap I received in exchange was worth the last bit of contact with my gift. Sister Ignatious immediately turned in the direction of the priest.
‘Father, I want a word with you!’ I heard her call out.
He stopped to listen to her complain bitterly about being so generous to such an unworthy girl. I heard her say ‘she’s a heathen … not even baptized … a protestant in our midst …your kindness is wasted on her.’
The priest apologized and tried to placate her, telling her it was not my fault but his.
A few days later he gave me, with her grudging approval, a more modest set of beads. These were blue in colour and enclosed in a simple leather case he had carved with my initials ‘K K’. An engraved cross was tooled on the back.
Sister Ignatious was defeated and I was allowed to keep the rosary and its case. The beads did not last long as the links were weak and fell apart, much as I tried to repair them. However, the case was strongly made and it survived my childhood. [Two years ago I donated the case to the Forgotten Children’s Museum in Sydney.] The priest’s gesture and compassion and humanity impressed me far more than any of the liturgy and ritual I learned at that institution.
'To Hell and Back' by Rachel Robertson
Gaining a Sense of Self is the record of Wilson's first twenty-five years, a story that took great courage to revisit, recreate, and publish. Born in 1942 to a couple whose marriage was already disintegrating, Wilson had a childhood of poverty, hunger and abuse. Her father, initially absent because of his work in the navy, left the family when Wilson was six years old, and she rarely saw him after this. It was her mother that Wilson suffered physical and psychological abuse. This appears to have started when Wilson was very young; she describes being battered by her mother when she accidentally broke a doll at the age of two.
As with many abused children, Wilson internalised her mother's scorn for her as 'useless' and 'undeserving of having such a lovely mother'. Her mother comes across as narcissistic, bitter, cruel and unpredictable. She punishes Wilson and her brother Malcolm when, starving, they steal food. She beats them when they 'show her up' in front of other people by being honest. She repeatedly strikes the six-year-old Wilson when another child steals her coat. she is manipulative and emotionally abusive, especially to her daughter. This cruelty continues, with only short breaks, well into Wilson's adulthood. In contrast Wilson's brother is supportive, and protects Karen as much as he can.
In 1950, when the parent's marriage is finally over, her mother sends Wilson to Nazareth house in Brisbane. In a chapter titled, 'To Hell and Back', Wilson describes the horrendous treatment that she and other children at the orphanage experienced. Here, Wilson's story dovetails with other survivors' stories of Nazareth House in the 1940s and 1950s. Wilson was unusual in that she lived there less than a year. The harm, however, was already done. Not only was Wilson physically unwell, she had been psychologically damaged: 'It was as if my personality was been sucked out, my spirit crushed, and what was left was a shadow of my former self.' Slowly she begins to assert her own will in her relationship with her own mother. She does well at school, gains entry to university and takes on numerous, part-time jobs to fund her studies. There is humour and joy in her memories of friendships, travel, and her own growing sense of self-esteem. She has some disastrous encounters with men, having learned little about successful relationships, but the book ends with her marriage to George, to whom she is still married forty years later. In Wilson's book the focus is is entirely on factual accuracy and the recreation of experience. There is little interest in the complexities of memory and truth, the art of telling, or the the author's sensibility and relationship with her own material.
However, it is probably inappropriate to look for aesthetic allure or narrative complexity in a memoir such as this. In titling her book "Gaining a Sense of Self". Wilson has foregrounded the recuperative purpose of her work, a purpose she outlines in her introduction, saying:'I am writing my memoirs to help people like me who have suffered child abuse to help their families understand how the impact of the abuse can also impinge on their lives. In many instances the writing was a torturous experience as I relived horrific events and suffered consequences in their recall. I also hope it will be an appropriate resource for professionals who treat the abused. I went through hell in my formative years, yet I survived.'
This book is less memoir than testimony, an act of witnessing that goes beyond the individual and speaks to a damaged and damaging community. By giving voice to her own personal trauma. Wilson is performing an act of healing for herself and,she hopes for her readers. She is establishing her own agency and identity through self-revelation and the painstaking witnessing of her past. This is important work, because trauma is not just about destruction - it is also about survival. Karen Laura-Lee Wilson is a courageous and compassionate survivor.
Book Review by Linda Stewart
Imagine the pain of your nine-year-old self watching helplessly as your pet is callously drowned. This would be a sad and traumatic event for any child. Unfortunately, it was only one of many such incidents in the author's early life related in her moving memoir. "Gaining a Sense of Self".
This is a tale of Karen Wilson's first twenty-five years - a life marred by emotional, physical and verbal abuse, much of it perpetuated by the person who should have protected and nurtured her: her mother.
While these acts of cruelty, large and small, must have made a young girt's life hell, the telling of them does make compelling reading from a 'what's going to happen next' perspective. How will she cope? certain passages in the book made me shake my head at the sheer incomprehensibility of some of the actions. Her mother was an enigma whom Wilson aptly sums up in a line from an old nursery rhyme: 'when she's good, she's very, very good, and when she's bad she's horrid.'
Yet, this is no doom and gloom crisis narrative. There are lighter moments of kids just being kids, and the writer's informal style - almost like she's sharing confidences over coffee with a friend - helps to create reader intimacy and connection. The latter chapters, while still documenting some traumatic occurrences, are generally more optimistic in tone as Karen grows into maturity and her world, self-confidence and capacity for happiness expand. At this stage, the book can be read as a coming of age story. Australians will especially enjoy reading about Karen's travel adventures as she explores her birthplace - backpacking around New Zealand being a rite of passage for Australians of that generation.
As well as being a memoir, the book works on another level: that of a social history as it takes readers of a certain age back to the good (and bad) old days their youth, while giving younger readers a sense of what it was like to live in Brisbane around the middle of the 20th century. Queenslanders particularly may find the setting adds extra interest to the story. The book also provides a valuable insight into the attitudes, conventions and laws of that period, especially as they related to women and children.
The dialogue is effective, and the inclusion of diary entries means the 'true' voice of the teenage Karen resonates down the years. Family photos are also included, and these are a reminder that this is a book about real people with real emotions: people who have lived through the hurt and the happiness. Every picture might tell a story, but it is not necessarily the whole story or the true one.In autobiographical works only people who have lived through various incidents can relate fully to the 'real' story or the 'truth' as they perceive it, and this account has a raw honesty and integrity about it. Whether she is describing a child's humiliation at the hands of so-called religious practitioners, menstruation issues or teenage sexual encounters, the writer tells it like it is. Many readers will admire this frankness and relate to or sympathise with her experiences.
Karen's self-confidence was eroded by the uncertainty of her mother's temper and the humiliation caused by 'carers' and others, she walked the stony path of self-doubt. However, in documenting her early life her objectives are clear: to help people who have similarly suffered; to help their families understand how that abuse can impact lives long after it has ceased and to assist professionals specialising in this area. I believe she has succeeded in her first two objectives. The book has focus with the writer maintaining clarity of purpose throughout, while the candid writing style reinforces the narrative's credibility. By sharing her story, she may make fellow sufferers feel less isolated and show them they too can overcome their beginnings and lead joyful and meaningful lives. But most of all, both story and purpose are successful because of the affinity created between the reader and the main 'character.' Readers care about Karen.
Whoever wrote: 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me' had presumably never been the subject of bullying or belittling behaviour. Names can and do break something just as important:the spirit. This book is proof that they can. It is also proof that with courage, determination and support the legacy of this type of abuse and others can be broken too.
Karen Wilson is to be commended on not only confronting and overcoming her past but in producing an immensely readable book which may help improve the lives of people, now and in the future.
A Review by Rose Frankcombe
'For a long time I had been fighting a war in my head that was draining my energy. The psychological pain I was suffering was so great my life became narrower and increasingly restricted.'
Karen Kimbell was born in New Zealand in 1942. Her early life was one of constant hunger laced with large doses of unkindness. Her closest allies were her slightly older brother, and for short periods her father, who was in the Merchant navy. Together the two children bore the brunt of their mother's venom.
For the writer, whose emergence from childhood to adulthood had been so pitted with obstacles, untruths and despair, it has taken her a lifetime to clarify the truth and in turn come to understand herself and what and what part different people from her recollections played during her infancy, adolescence and adulthood.
"Gaining a Sense of Self" is Karen's story. The memoir covers her life in new Zealand and Australia from the 1940s through to the mid 1960s. The reader soon deduces that, from the writer's infancy when there would be occasional joy in the 'gift' of a toy, it soon becomes apparent the joy is destined to turn to despair, when something cherished would inevitably be snatched away. Dolls in particular were an early, recurring theme, given and taken on a whim, ever since the two-year-old Karen had dropped the porcelain-headed one that had once belonged to her unforgiving mother and it had shattered on the floor.
'Her anger was like a crack of thunder, a turbulent hurricane. I was then enveloped in a vortex of violence as she screamed at, punched, kicked, slapped and battered me. There was nowhere to hide.'
The reader will enjoy the lovable impishness of two children left to their own devices and the alarming fixes they sometimes got into when left unsupervised.
'We felt movement in the cabin and the familiar sound of the vehicle being cranked up. The driver's door slammed shut and the truck reversed out of the driveway and onto the street. We were absolutely petrified. There we were trapped inside and scared to death about being discovered ...Our minds were so caught up in what to do next, we forgot about the second lot of dropped cake crumbs spread around the floor.'
For all the faux alarm and concern the reader may feel for the waifs as their antics are revealed,this levity is soon replaced by the confronting, deathly toxic nature of the relationship between the mismatched parents, leading to the violation that takes away a child's sense of love and worth in the aftermath of brutality - and then finds the absence of compassion by the remaining parent in the ensuing days is palpable. Now the father has gone, replaced by years of contaminated images generated of him by a bitter wife.
Around this time,too, comes behaps the greatest betrayal of all. The seven-year-old child had been cajoled into believing she was being enrolled in a boarding school, and that lie was perpetuated over the ensuing years, the mother never admitting it had not been a school but an orphanage. Separated from her brother and with her father gone, the writer has no true allies. She had to endure the communality of abuse inflicted in the name of God by those encumbered with the care of children.
Writing a memoir can be an especally fraught experience, recognising that there may be those still living who may have played a significant part in some aspects of the writer's life. Amending identities allows the essence of the story to remain, and gives the memoir-writer the freedom to present the journey candidly and in its varying aspects.
The opening chapters are drawn from fragmented memories leading up to the writer's fifteenth birthday. Around that time she has read "The Diary of Anne Frank", the memoir written by the tragic Jewish girl from age 13 to 15 and published posthumously. Similar in age to Anne Frank when she had written her diary, this was a pivotal moment for the teenage girl. Now with her own diary she could record details of her unfolding life, ever realising the crucial part the logged anecdotes would later come to play in the formation of "Gaining a Sense of Self".
'My little Diary, you are going to be my best friend. From the beginning of this year I have been planning to have a diary. An exercise book would have been too big and bulky so I chose you. You, my little Diary, will be a wonderful friend ...'
Moving to adolescence, the diary entries take the reader through those years, reflecting the angst of the physical changes - and with the onset of menstruation - highlights the lack of support and instruction by the only other female really capable of helping her adjust to the difficult transition to womanhood. Romantic attachments would bring further confusion.
This memoir will resonate particularly with females who will empathise with the agonies of the mother-daughter relationship, but perhaps not to the extremes revealed, and the angst of puberty and the burgeoning awareness of sexuality and all the problematic hurdles waiting for the unenlightened. While this story appears to be one of little gain and constant loss, there is much to be positive about. The reader discovers the writer's capacity to endure, notes her tenacity, perseverance - and adventurous spirit.
Away from the domestic vitriol, there is relief in travel, the writer taking the opportunity of hiking trips to the island of Tasmania just below continental Australia, and later across the Tasman Sea, to New Zealand. At other times there is time to breathe freely while staying with caring friends.
Eventually there was no need for diaries. However, by the 1990s, like magma bubbling in a caldera, the writer found all the latent painful memories seething within were threatening an eruption - and self-destruction was becoming an insidiously tantalising option. As often is the case, when one is on a perilous brink while on a soul-searching journey, obscure incidents can stimulate lucid awareness. A radio show had triggered memories of the long-forgotten diaries, and rereading these, however painful, was a key to help explain all the unexplained suffering the writer had been experiencing.Although a torturous necessity, the revelations of the diaries allowed other recall to filter through, enabling the author to pen an open and frank account of those years.
During the read one can feel empathy for the victims of a volatile woman - and an understanding and sympathy for the deserting father. Throughout, though, there is the nagging question one keeps asking: what had happened to the mother to make her so derelict? The epilogue goes a long way to answering the question. The profound circumstances, discovered by a family history research, revealed some of the losses faced by the mother at a young age, which had obvious implications for her for the rest of her life.
Karen Kimbell achieved much in those formative years, having taken the opportunity to doggedly pursue her education and in doing so receive a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Queensland university in 1967. No mean feat in an era when many women chose to pursue marriage and domesticity over further education.
"Gaining a Sense of Self" is an inspiring read. It engrosses the reader and is a work that has taken great courage to recount chronicle and share.
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Reader Reviews for "Gaining a sense of self is now available as an e-book Kindle. 445 p."
|Reviewed by Karen Wilson
|I enjoyed reading Theresa Potts'positive review of my book.She is the first reviewer to comment on the front cover. She accurately interpreted the sketch, which coincidentally was my own self portrait I had drawn in 1988 for an art class.
My reason for writing the memoir was to inform others who had lived similar lives that, on looking back, you notice the highs as well as the lows in life. Sixty years ago most people refused to report signs of child abuse, thinking 'It was not their business.'
Fortunately times have changed and people are becoming increasingly aware of their civic duty to report crimes against children. For child abuse victims the writing down of their story can be cathartic and frequently helps with long-term healing. it is also a reference for psychologists and counselors who treat adult victims of child abuse.
Incidentally I was so chuffed to read about my 'impeccable grammar'.
Thank you Theresa for your insightful review.
Karen Laura-Lee Wilson