But for the grace of God…

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Too many tears by Heather Vicenti & Deborah Dickman

This book was a difficult read. This review was difficult to write.

Vicenti’s long life has been made unimaginably difficult by the impact of misguided white folk in government and welfare agencies, who acted sometimes with good intentions, usually with ignorance, and often with cruel disregard. People are often a helpless product of their time, society and culture – but it’s hard not judge their actions when you see life through the eyes of a woman who had the misfortune of being born Aboriginal in a time when Aboriginal people were seen to be equivalent to flora and fauna in this country. As a child her mother had no rights to claim her, nor did she have the right to be raised in the place she was born by the people who loved her.

What is most painful though, is that her story is not an isolated case. Her story is repeated by thousands, across every state in Australia. That people in our land carry this much pain, and that the pain has been so misunderstood and denied by mainstream society for so long, is tough to comprehend.

Heather Vicenti is old enough to be my mum. This could be my family’s story. I try to imagine it’s my mother who never knew her real name because the authorities kept changing it. I imagine my mother forced into slave labour throughout her childhood, watching the missionary’s children eat the fresh food from her toil and be educated so they could take their place in society. I wonder what effect that would have on a person’s sense of identity.

Vicenti was told many times her parents were dead, even when she received visits from a woman who claimed to be her mother. Vicenti didn’t marry, not because she didn’t want to, but because a Government bureaucrat wouldn’t permit her to.

I could have been born into a family forced to the poverty line: a childhood of food rations, second hand clothes and hand to mouth living because the Government of the day didn’t allow Aboriginal mother’s to receive welfare payments like white mothers did. I could have been the one that was taken, because in 1965, the year I was born, the Perth Children’s Court issued Care and Protection orders for all four of Vicenti’s children (Kim 9, Hans 6, Marcia 5 and Michael 18 months), committing them to the care of the Child Welfare Department until they were 18 years of age. A fifth child, Ricci, had already been adopted by then. She was 29 years old, alone, destitute and ‘white welfare’ had removed all five of her children.

I have a seven year old daughter and I can’t begin to imagine the depth of grief and pain she would suffer if she were separated from me. I can’t imagine how I would keep on living if I lost her.

Vicenti bravely goes on to have two more children and keeps trying to reclaim those she lost, but never succeeds. She’s behind the eight ball before she even begins, with no legal support, no clear information, no recourse for appeal and no understanding of a system structured to work against her.

She reconnects with her children again as adults, but the joy is short lived. Within a few years Vicenti begins losing them again, this time to the emotional impacts of their removal from their birth family. By the end of the story Vicenti has suffered the double loss of the early and unnecessary deaths (one in custody) of four of her children, as well as the removal of two grandchildren from her daughters. They are the third generation of children in her family to be removed.

As I read Heather Vicenti’s story I was reminded of a Black Arm Band performance by Kutcha Edwards. He stood on a darkened stage holding a sack filled with stones. Beside him, a beaten tin rubbish bin. He began by telling the story of his family, explaining that each stone represented a relative. He pulled stones from the bag, one by one, gave them names and ages, then tossed them into the bin. There were a lot of stones in that bag. Lost lives, broken ties, people who had died too young, often in tragic circumstances: suicide, chronic illness resulting from poverty, substance abuse, and heartbreak due to separation.

I can’t imagine how I would cope with this much loss. Yet Kutcha, Heather Vicenti, and many, many others in our communities, do cope with it, every day.

What sticks is how their lives and families have been thoroughly shaped by systemic racism, the kind that is embedded in our happy-go-lucky Australian life. All the things many Australian’s take for granted – security, opportunity, freedom to go, love, be whomever we want – simply didn’t exist for Vicenti. She was denied them by law because of her race. The effect of it is virulent, passing from generation to generation, dripping like poison through the lives of her children, severing ties, eroding self esteem, dissolving optimism.

Too Many Tears makes it clear that when it comes to Aboriginal issues Australian authorities often operate to protect themselves from the impacts of their own inherent racism, rather than admit to any wrongdoing or misjudgement. I’d like to believe that this behaviour has been relegated to our dark history, but after reading Chloe Hooper’s ‘The Tall Man’ I’m not so sure. The unified solidarity shown, particularly in parts of government and the police force, is evidence of the dominant social group desperately trying to maintain the moral high ground – and failing in the eyes of those they claim to protect.

Too Many Tears is no literary sensation, but it absolutely achieves what it sets out to do. It tells a complicated, difficult, heart wrenching story with simplicity and honesty. To read it is to gain insight into decades of Aboriginal lives lived silently, painfully and courageously all around us. Vicenti could be your mother, your grandmother, your sister, your aunt and the echoes of what she has suffered could be reverberating in your life and the lives of your children. Read this book and know that there, but for the grace of God, go the rest of us.

The Apology


9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: 2012 AWW Challenge Wrap-up: History, Biography, Memoir « Australian Women Writers Challenge
  2. Trackback: 2012 AWW Challenge Wrap-up: Diversity « Australian Women Writers Challenge
  3. Anne Smith
    Feb 27, 2012 @ 08:58:27

    I will definitely seek out this book from my library in the next week. I cannot imagine the heartache, anguish and sheer helplessness felt by the many families torn apart and lied to by successive governments as well as the inherent racism still existing in Australia today. Thank you for alerting me to this book as well as reminding us all of our past and also our present and future.


  4. reading rendezvous reviewz
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 12:06:31

    oh my I don’t know if I would get through this story. I will try. Enjoyed reading the review


  5. Colleen Power
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 10:47:27

    Wonderful Kate. Have read similar stories and meet some of these women (and men) thru my work and it always leaves me with a deep sense of shame and regret that my colour provided me with better life choices than my fellow darker sisters. I cringe and weep for the ignorance of the systematic racism that still exists in our society and is now transferred to our African & Asian Australians.
    Much love Kate and keep up the good work, someone needs to jolt our conscious regularly. xx


  6. reading rendezvous reviewz
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 09:40:23

    oh my I don’t know if I would get through this story. I will try. Thanks for doing review.


  7. shelleyrae @ Book'd Out
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 09:37:04

    Sounds like a stunning story. Thanks for sharing your AWW review!

    Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out


  8. Diane Simonelli
    Feb 21, 2012 @ 13:24:48

    My heart breaks reading this. Thanks Kate, for writing what is difficult, but a must. The story of the stones is so powerful. How we throw away our people.


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