Friday essay: 'not for me' – Amy Thunig on the stigma of having a dad in 'lock-up', and the embrace of Indigenous academia

Cover short credit Iron Monkey
Cover short credit Iron Monkey

The energy of academic conferences isn’t like your average conference. It is the bringing together of academics from universities all around the country, sometimes around the globe, all working within similar or related specialisations. This means one thing: niche gossip and lots of it. There’s a reason why so many academics love reality television – we have intensely intellectual, oftentimes dry jobs, meaning much of the juicy elements of our roles come from the interpersonal relationships.

At conferences you may sit across from someone who is later on your grant or hiring panel. Though there is, of course, no formal segregation anymore, exclusions and separations based on class, race, and privilege continue.

Presentations by Indigenous academics are often attended by almost entirely Indigenous audiences, and when the proceedings break for lunch we tend to find one another out on the grass somewhere, sitting in the shade, catching up on everyone’s business.

Indigenous academic gossip is different though; many of us are connected through bloodline or marriage, and informal gatherings within formal proceedings allow us to check in on each other’s relations, and keep atop of the cultural safety (or lack thereof) in different institutions and teams. These are the kind of yarns you wouldn’t put in emails.

Learning the rhythm, language and protocol of the academy was a difficult journey. I relied on Indigenous academics to be my guides, to steer me through engagements that instead of allowing me to succeed because of what I do know, would rather see me penalised based on what I didn’t.

Belonging and unbelonging

My first academic conference is on Kaurna Country, Adelaide. Work flies me over and I am so excited, I almost bounce into the hotel on the first day. But by the end of that first day, I am deflated.

During the niceties of mingling and meeting I find myself standing within a gathering of mostly white academics and am asked:

“Is this your first time here in Adelaide?”

“No, I lived here for a while as a kid.”

“Oh, really? What was that for?”

“Dad had work here so we moved over as a family for maybe six months, a year.”

‘Where did you live?“

These academics must be from here.

"Yatala.”

I answer without thinking too much about it. I haven’t been here in 20 years but that name sounds about right. Yet with my answer, the energy of the small group shifts. I can tell in their faces and in my belly that I have erred, that I am erring, and I am not sure how.

An Indigenous man in the small group, who doesn’t know me but clearly does realise what I have done, chimes in: “Nah, you lived in the city, sis. I think you got the names a bit mixed up there.”

There’s a release of tension – everyone laughs awkwardly – and when the crowd disperses my colleague quietly tells me Yatala is the name of the prison. The maximum-security prison.

“One of your parents in lock-up?” he asks gently.

I feel the hot blush rise from my chest and spread across my face as I nod.

“Just say you lived in the city – don’t let the gubbas get you down.”

I call Mum when I am back in my room that night. She laughs at the story and reminds me we lived in Elizabeth. Then her tone changes and she asks me not to bring it up again; she wants to blank it.

“Did anyone comment on your clothes?” Mum asks, changing the subject. She volunteers in an op-shop and over the past year has been gathering professional business clothes for me whenever they come into the shop in good condition and in my size.

“Yeah! Actually a woman complimented me on my dress today, it’s the pretty floral one you got me, Mum.”

She is pleased and on that note we hang up. I slip out of my gifted $3 dress and go to bed but I don’t sleep. I am so cross at myself. I am not embarrassed that my dad was in lock-up; I am shamed that I said the wrong thing, that I wasn’t in control with my response. I am overwhelmed with the sense that I do not belong here, that the academy is not for me, and I am not for it.

This spiral sends me emotionally back to when I was a child, and I was forever confused and often accidentally saying the wrong thing. To when I didn’t know it was a prison we were visiting Dad in because everyone taught me he was simply at “work”.

I fly home at the end of that conference but I’m still caught in that mental loop, thinking back to the time we spent on Kaurna Country as kids, remembering when our only way there and back was driving.

Dad can’t leave

Dad is locked up for much of my very early childhood and during that time I really don’t have a whole understanding of prisons, or how different our family is from others. I understand and have witnessed the violence of police – but the end point of that process is lost on me – the idea that adults would be forcibly caged is not a concept I have been introduced to.

In fact, it is something my family try actively to shield me from. The lie of Dad being at “work” leaves me with a confused but naive understanding of what is happening when we visit Dad in prison. As a child I may not understand why these places scare me, though they do and I resent the fact that Dad can’t leave. But that is far better than carrying the full knowledge that my dad is caged. It also means that when I inevitably talk when I shouldn’t, people outside of our family won’t know Dad has been away in lock-up; they too will be led to think he is away for work.

All I know is that Dad’s “workplace” is in a place called Adelaide; while he is there, he isn’t allowed to come home. When we visit, it is a really, really, long drive. And when we arrive at the “worksite” we have to pass through lots of tall fences, doors, and various checkpoints. While we wait to be processed through the metal detectors, I notice that some of the people who work here have guns.

No one is friendly, and as eager as I am to see Dad, this place is a bit scary. We don’t get to take any possessions in with us and Mum has to hand over her bag before we can go in. When we finally get to be in the same room as Dad, I think he looks handsome in his all-green uniform. Everyone in that room, talking with their loved ones, is wearing prison greens. Green like my mum’s eyes.

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My safe person

The car splutters to a stop, overheating, as we are driving overloaded, long distance to our new home interstate. South Australia, Kaurna Country. The car seems to be matching Mum’s erratic energy, which has also become lulled right before the car rolled to a stop. I’ve given up trying to work out what we are doing.

Before we left, Mum had thrown some of our belongings into the car and announced that we were moving to be closer to Dad. Maybe because I am so young, three years old, maybe four, and maybe because I never know when or how to keep quiet, everyone around me refers to Dad as being “away for work”.

It’s been a while since the police took him away, and we miss him terribly, and even more since my baby brother died. The distance between our home and where Dad is based is a 15-hour drive each way and Mum has had enough. We can’t afford flights and she can’t keep driving back and forth with us kids – it’s time to move there.

Saying goodbye to our grandparents was hard. I don’t want to be away from Pop. I belong in his home, in the mulberry tree picking fruit to eat and squish between my fingers. I belong with him, and lately he has been picking me up a few mornings a week and taking me to the pool. He has to do physio for his back. If I wait patiently on the side of the pool while he does his exercise, he then brings me into the water, teaching me how to kick and move my arms so I can keep my head above the water.

Pop, Mum’s dad, is my safe person: consistent, kind, calm. I am with him a lot, sometimes swimming, often fishing. He takes me away to his own mother-in-law’s, to Great-Grandma Lucy’s house on Yuin Country, where we fish every morning and he tells me all about our kin creatures who live in the river. The octopuses there are cheeky and steal our bait. I don’t want to be away from him, and I could tell by his face as Mum told him we were leaving that he was worried. He kept shooting glances at me and Lisa – I don’t want him to be worried.

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Dad is here for work

Now, on that long drive to Adelaide, when we eventually get the car back on the road again, Mum alternates between muttering to herself and singing along to Patsy Cline’s Crazy. I am bored, carsick, and already missing my pop. Moving house is horrible and I think maybe I hate it.

When we arrive at the new home, I can’t help but think it looks and smells funny. The carpets are all weird bright colours; my sister takes the room with the orange carpet, mine is purple. There are no curtains in the windows, and that first night, with the moonlight filtering through the branches of the old tree that scrapes against my window, I become convinced that if I move, something that is waiting will see me and gobble me up. I lay still in my new bed and by morning I have wet it, soaking through the sheets and my pyjamas. Mum is disappointed but not as much as I am disappointed in myself. I will be starting at a new preschool and I don’t want the other kids to think I am a baby – only babies wet their beds.

Over the coming weeks we build a bit of a routine in that new house. Some days Mum doesn’t wake up or get out of bed. With no family close by to come around and help, I soon discover that though I am not tall enough to reach the cupboards, if I open the cutlery drawer I can use it like a step to climb atop the kitchen benches. From there I can get to the Weetbix and bowls. The first few times I attempt to pour my own milk, I make a big mess and do a clumsy and loud job of cleaning up, but this doesn’t wake Mum and I eventually get the hang of it. If Mum is still asleep, I will have Weetbix for lunch too, and play while I wait for Lisa to walk home from big school.

On the days when Mum does wake up, I go to preschool. Always, before we get out of the car, Mum reminds me that we are in Adelaide because Dad is here for work.

“Work, Amy, do you understand?”

“Yes, Mum.”

I am suspicious and she can tell but I don’t want to do or say the wrong thing. Whenever families are spoken about at preschool, I make sure I mention Dad is at “work”. I like being at preschool. There is a small kitchen but it isn’t like the one at home where everything is too big and I have to do things alone. Here the benches are real low and there are grown-ups who help us learn to make and butter our own toast. It feels like a very empowering place to be.

Each day that we are there, all of the children are expected to have naps. Green camping beds are brought out from the storage closet and everyone lays on their own bed, quickly drifting off to sleep. I have never been made to have naps before and am not in the habit of sleeping during the day. So I remain awake and often chat to my neighbours.

The educators quickly work out that small acts of bribery are the most effective way to get me to comply with instructions and we soon come to an understanding. When the camp beds are brought out, so too is a little white paper bag with a couple of lollies inside. One of the teachers will quietly place the bag in my chunky little hand, and with a wink reminds me that if I am quiet for all of nap time, then I can secretly eat the lollies when everyone wakes up. Every day I lay quiet and still, lolly bag hidden within my fist, held under my pillow for nap time, and in the chaos of pack-away time I eat my treats with gusto.

Being in this new neighbourhood means we are able to visit Dad regularly but some of the people around our new home make me uncomfortable. Sometimes I get hurt and there isn’t an adult around to help me. I miss our townhouse, the toys we had to leave behind, and my grandparents, especially fishing with Pop.

We don’t last that long in Adelaide, not quite a year. Then Mum packs up the car and we drive back to our townhouse on Dharug Country. I am glad to be back with our community, to be back with Pop. Not until I am almost six years old does Dad come home for good and we all live together in the townhouse again.

As soon as Dad is home, I begin to beg my parents for a little sister. I believe in my heart of hearts that if I can have a little sister, she will be my best friend. Within the year they conceive Taylah, who comes earthside on Dharug Country.

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My dad as my teacher

My dad is many things – a roofer, a labourer, a partner, a convicted bank robber – and to me he is a teacher and a translator in a world I sometimes struggle to understand. When we garden together he draws my attention to the flowers, and specifically the bees, instructing me to observe the way they hover over the blooms, collecting the pollen and going on to make honey.

As a child I will eat several of those purple flowers before he realises I have misunderstood his lesson on pollination.

Though the house is tiny, the linen cupboard is filled with books, the air is regularly filled with music and our mother is always reading, and sometimes dancing. We watch NRL as a family, always barracking for the Bunnies; we stay up late to watch documentaries on orcas, plants, lions and more, where we learn about the circle of life together. My parents don’t seem to believe in censoring what we watch and so I see it all: guts and gore, death and life.

I learn many lessons in that home, sometimes intentional, sometimes through the rapid shifting of environments that waver between storm and peace.

Out the back of this townhouse there is a pergola draped in a green screen to protect from the intense summer sun, and a barbecue made of red brick. A small vegetable patch where Dad grows plants you can and can’t find at a local nursery, and a clothesline where Dad pegs a pillow, which he holds as he teaches my sister and me how to punch, our thumbs correctly placed to avoid broken bones.

Never tolerate disrespect: it isn’t just about that person, it’s about everyone watching on, he often tells us.

Dad talks to us as my sister and I take turns hitting the pillow. Sometimes he stops to correct our stance, our technique, but mostly he praises and encourages us.

Life is a series of systems, Lou. You can move and survive anywhere if you understand respect, relationship and reciprocity.

These lessons are taught with words but also with role modelling.

When I tire of punching, Dad focuses on Lisa’s technique; she is older by five years and has better endurance. I sit on the grass and Mum helps me fill up my tiny doll pool, playing with my Barbies as my sister moves with agility, her effort audible. Ouss, ouss.

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Violence of prison systems

A couple of years later I watch a movie on the violence of prison systems – I am too young for it but I had been left home alone and it was on the television. In my naivety, I still don’t realise that prison is where Dad was when we say he was at work, so I simply store away the information from that movie.

Sometime after, I’m out on a drive with Dad; we talk about anything and everything when we are in the car alone together. I tell him all about the grown-up show about prisons I had watched, and comment that maybe people in this country who go to jail should just be killed like they are in America because jail seems like such a rotten place.

Dad is so shocked by what I have said that the car swerves across the road momentarily, and as he restores his face and the car to the right side of the road, that’s when it clicks: I realise all those times we were visiting Dad at “work” he was in fact in prison. I feel horrible for what I said, and begin to think about the violence I saw in that movie, and how that must have been what it was like for Dad.

As a teenager, after seeing Dad regularly leaving the toilet with an empty coffee cup, I begin to chide him about how disgusting I think it is when he reads and drinks his coffee on the toilet. Dad and I regularly engage in playful but intense arguments, and I am getting better at annihilating him in them.

“How is drinking coffee in there any different to when the toilet is next to your bed in a cell?” he retorts, confident in his argument.

“Dad, I would say the difference is: this isn’t prison. No one’s trying to punish you. Go drink your coffee in the sun.”

Touché.

This is an edited extract from Amy Thunig’s memoir, Tell Me Again (UQP).

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Amy Thunig, Macquarie University.

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Amy Thunig is the author of the book 'Tell Me Again' from which this extract has been drawn, and a signed author with University of Queensland Press (UQP).