What makes a good apology?
The former Democrats Senator Andrew Murray, one of the driving forces behind today’s apology to the “Forgotten” Australians recently told Kevin Rudd that while many apologies had been made by state governments, churches and charities to the children abused and neglected in care in this country “some were better apologies than others.”
There was a pretty strong sense in the Great Hall of Parliament House this morning that this apology was one of the “better” ones, how ever you might define it.
For a start you could hear it. “Sconey”, 40, from South Australia, told The Punch when the SA Government apologised the speakers didn’t work.
Interactive could be one word you’d use about the atmosphere during today’s event, with the crowd good naturedly heckling Kevin Rudd, impromptu standing ovations, a bit of laughter and a lot of tears.
As the cameras beaming onto the massive screens at the front of the hall honed in on particular audience members some of them waved or gave a thumbs up.
Midway through Malcolm Turnbull’s speech a man jumped up, rushed to the stage and hugged the Opposition Leader.
When Mr Rudd said “You were in no way to blame for what happened to you,” a woman in the crowd yelled out: “We know!”.
He also described the apology as a “healing balm”, as both he and Mr Turnbull elaborated on the themes of moving on, celebrating spirit and focusing on the future.
Mr Turnbull’s speech veered towards the gothic more than the Prime Minister’s. He spoke of too many who were “left in the care of people who abused you, who beat you, who raped you, who neglected you cruelly.” He broke down as he spoke of babies never being held, and the “cruel and bitter absurdity” of it all.
Then the solemnity of last year’s apology to the Stolen Generations was abandoned in favour of a sort of enormous group hug among what Mr Rudd called “this one great family that we call Australia.”
And when Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull finished, before the official proceedings were over, a mob descended on the front of the room for autographs and photo ops.
There’ll be footage all over the evening news tonight of Mr Rudd talking to a woman’s brother on her cell phone, apologising to him because he couldn’t be here.
It was if a great catharsis had taken place, and Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull must have been relieved when it was done. Now we could all move forward.
As the crowd streamed out of the Great Hall into the marble foyer of Parliament House Dennis sat on his own in the middle of the room, as if cemented to his chair.
He’d come alone from Sydney, and there was no relief on his face, just pain. He was not wearing a badge or t-shirt identifying himself as part of one of the groups who had pushed for an outcome and were happily mingling together in the Great Hall.
He was all alone and quietly Dennis, 45, told The Punch the story he’d so far only given in detail to his counselor.
His mother was institutionalised in 4 “homes” as a child, where she was subjected to sexual abuse, leading to a life-time of mental illness.
In 1970 she underwent treatment at the infamous Chelmsford hospital in Sydney, including shock therapy, deep sleep therapy and finally a lobotomy.
Dennis first went into “care” at 2 months. Throughout his childhood and adolescence he was placed in 13 different homes and with six different sets of foster parents. His mother was married twice and had three other de facto relationships, and at some stages Dennis lived with her.
He had four half-brothers, one of whom he only discovered as an adult. That brother suffered terribly as a child and developed mental illnesses as an adult. He took his own life when he was 34. “He had three kids,” Dennis said. “I have no idea how to contact them.”
“I don’t belong anywhere,” he told The Punch.
“I made a decision at 12 I was never going to have kids so they wouldn’t have to go through the same shit I did,” Dennis said. “At 15 I decided I would never marry.”
He says as a child he once saw on his records he was considered to be more responsible than other children his age his age and in in many homes he was given responsibility for looking after other boys.
Even today he feels a crushing sense of responsibility. At work, if someone else stuffed up, he felt guilty.
“I have no connections with peers, and it cost me what relationship I had with my siblings. I had no role models and no reasonable boundaries. All my emotions are driven by shame.”
He’d come to Canberra to hear his story, the story so few believed or wanted to hear, spoken out aloud by the Prime Minister. He said it was important, but it certainly didn’t make him feel any better.
“I’m in a room full of people who’ve been through similar and even here I don’t feel I belong.”
“I’m concerned that this is all for show,” Dennis said
Dennis is suffering from Acute Complex Trauma and for the last few years has been suicidal and unable to hold down work.
His self-funded counselor estimates he needs $58,000 worth of treatment over the next three years to help him survive.
“For me this has never been about financial compensation,” he said. “What I need is some pretty intense counseling.”
Asked if it was worth it, traveling all the way to Canberra for such an emotionally challenging experience, Dennis nodded. “I’ve cried more today than I ever had about this I think. I can’t remember crying as a kid. It wasn’t safe to.”
“It (the apology) was never going to be perfect, but there were good parts about it. This is helpful because it’s on the record.
“Malcolm (Turnbull) said a lot of stuff that needed to be acknowledged. But I wish they’d talked more about mental illness.”
But anyone who thinks today’s apology will allow people to “move on”, underestimate how bad the damage is.
A “good” apology isn’t about drawing a line under something. It’s just a small step.