You Can’t Go Home Again

Lately, Snapshot_20130627_15I’ve become immersed in the thought that I am yearning to go home. You know, the house you unquestionably can’t wait to get the hell out of when you’re growing up? Like a fantastical pull the longing to return to this lost time has become great because the galaxy of my childhood was starred, interstellar, with only a few black holes but generally enfolded in naivete and innocence, free from the sneer of adult misery and woe. This won’t be indulgent I promise. Well … maybe. Screw it. My blog. Sitting under the frangipani tree with my childhood friend talking about how busy our lives were going to become, what wouldn’t I do to re-visit for a moment?

There’s clear visions that rush through me of a dry, middle class sherry for a Welsh Mum wearing coral lipstick and a gruff, working class beer for an Aussie Dad in butcher’s apron, both in lenient moods letting me take a sip of each; I’m home from school, walking through the garden, down the path to the front door; a house with long gone items like the sixties typewriter and art deco mirror. And with pangs of ageless regret, I wished I’d relished it more while I was there because that time has gone and I can’t return. Wouldn’t you know it because it’s always the cathartic way.

As an adult I’m to reasonably fantasise of in-vogue island resort holidays. Or winning them. You know: “Tell us in 25 words or less why you should win a fantastic seven night holiday for two in.” Or, straight from a brochure, I should save for a holiday of a lifetime to trek the majesty of Nepal or cruise the waters of the Amazon river basin. But to be flitting about my childhood home that’s what I dream of. That’s superexotic. But I’ve taken it a step further and as a study into nostalgia, childhood roots, homesickness and belonging, I have indeed come home.

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Welcome to Somewhere, Home

Far from the Sydney rat-race, I have been residing in a little town on the south coast of New South Wales for almost six weeks not far from where I grew up but the conclusion is: home remains faraway in time and it is impossible to return. Years have flowed like water just like that Chinese saying. I grew up. Left home. Travelled far to sleep in parks and ship stairwells or its lounges to save a few pounds, lire or deutschmarks. Found myself in cities. Always the cities. The anonymity and the lure of scrutinising others, and being scrutinised myself, in cities. Suva, Prague, Rome, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, London, Cardiff, Dublin, Belfast, Edinburgh, Sydney. I ran wild. For years. Became a thoroughly modern Mademoiselle. Just me. Never wanting to be anybody’s wife. Found freedom on international dancefloors. Ran as far away for as long as I could (still) from the mundane. Attended a few parties, afternoon soirees. Met a few black-hearted varmints. Learnt the ways of the world. Then came home to find home had changed.

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You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe, published posthumously, 1940

Similar themes are explored in American novelist Thomas Wolfe’s book, You Can’t Go Home Again. Its primary protagonist, George Webber, writes a nationwide best selling book about life in his small Southern hometown of Libya Hill. When he returns home after the fame and fanfare he finds that his family, friends and the general local community feel exposed by him and his distorted depiction of them. They are furious to the point he receives abuse and hate mail and in feeling the full weight of their attacks and outrage is forced to leave as an outcast.

He searches for an identity in the social flurry that is New York; travels to pre-war Paris and meets with a group of uninhibited expatriates; then onto Berlin under the rule of Hitler only to return to America to rediscover it with a renewal of love and sorrow.

For the stark realisation stands: “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time.

Wolfe actually had a conversation with writer Ella Winter about this. It was she who remarked to him, “Don’t you know you can’t go home again?” He later asked her permission if he could use her comment for the title of his novel.

The phrase entered American dialogue meaning that once you have left your country town or provincial backwater city for a sophisticated metropolis you can’t return to the narrow confines of your previous life and, more generally, attempts to relive youthful memories will always fail.

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Photo: Dennis Stock, Magnum, 1955

With this, I think of James Dean’s visit back to his roots where he was raised in the small town of Fairmount, Indiana. It’s February 1955, seven months before his death and at twenty four is on the brink of stardom. His first film, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, is about to be nationally released and everyone in Hollywood is talking while his hometown are excited that one of their own is about to make good in a very visible, very obvious, non secondary-guessing way. But what no one knows is he is about to take on a secondary existence thanks to the force of fate.

He took along Magnum photographer, Dennis Stock, who described himself more as a photo-essayist and storyteller and his shots clearly illustrate this. Stock took the infamous shot of a then unknown Dean, (“this little guy on Broadway trying to make it”), walking in the rain wrapped in a raincoat with mandatory cigarette dangling oh-so-hip from his mouth in Times Square.

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You Can’t Go Home Again Photo: Dennis Stock, 1955

After following Dean, taking photographs in and around Los Angeles and New York, he accompanied him back to Indiana taking a series of shots. On the farm where he grew up with his aunt and uncle, The Winslows; about town; at the motorcycle shop; playing bongos in a field of cows and pigs.

In another he takes a photo of Dean on the driveway out the front of the farmhouse looking in the opposite direction of his cousin’s dog, Tuck. Stock captioned it, “You can’t go home again.” Stock said that the visit became, “a kind-of ‘you can’t go home again’ look at Jimmy … because he couldn’t. He had gone beyond that little town of Indiana.

Which brings me to Morrissey, ex-frontman of The Smiths, solo artist, animal protectionist, creator of musical sardonic gems and, yes, the second greatest living Englishman next to Sir David Attenborough. What has he got to do with James Byron Dean? Plenty, in fact the connection couldn’t be more james dean motobikestirring for a Morrissey die-hard and James Dean devotee. He released a song called ‘Suedehead’ when I was in high school and in the video Morrissey makes a pilgrimage to a winter wonderland that is Dean’s hometown and the farm he was raised on which is still the residence of his cousin, Marcus Winslow. At this time a close school friend of mine and I had already discovered the Dean legend a year before so the timing of this video became a highpoint of my new found pop cultural interest. My friend didn’t like Morrissey however. Solitary, fanatically depressed souls singing with irony wasn’t her thing.

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Reading the poetical works of James Whitcomb Riley in the dining room of his Uncle’s farmhouse where he was raised, 1955

But she’d stolen a book on James Dean from Wollongong Library so epic it was like a religious tome and in our small little world I guess it was. As a coveted book between us we flicked through every page as a study into his poses, trying to decipher the mood of each photographic still while lapping up the narrative trying to flesh out who he was as a human being. We weren’t any different to the adolescents before us of decades past swept up in the cult attraction of him because the cultural significance and the meaning of James Dean to restless teenagers was still relevant and not lost on us.

So ‘Suedehead’ drops on the independent charts. The video is poetic sadness in motion but really alluring as Morrissey pays homage to his idol though I can’t work out what relevance the title or lyrics have to the video but I really don’t care. It’s a fitting honour regardless and I was enamoured by it then as I still am today. It’s also great in that it ties in with my fascination for all things old Americana and the small towns of the U.S. It isn’t a stretch to say it’s a dream of mine to walk the streets of Fairmount one day.

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‘Suedehead’, Morrissey 1988

And the classic references are tightly packaged in the neat little clip: Morrissey holding Macchiavelli’s ‘The Little Prince’, a favourite of Dean’s’; walking the same street across from the bank where Stock took a photo of Dean [see above]; Morrissey in the diner where Dean regularly socialised with his high school basketball team; visiting Fairmount High School, now abandoned and close to ruin, standing on the stage where he acted and apparently riveted his peers back then; reading James Whitcomb Riley in the barn; pondering Dean’s young hand and footprint etched in concrete; driving a tractor like Dean who was taught by his Uncle while a young man; playing the bongos in a field of cows; visiting the grave of Dean’s great-grandfather as he did with young cousin, Marcus Winslow. And it ends with Morrissey sitting by James Dean’s headstone while a faint, apparitional image of him with a rather vulnerable look reaches out to us as though from the other side.

I’m telling you the video is a candid four minutes of beautiful magnanimous cool.

And by all accounts the Winslow’s were extraordinarily polite, charming and hospitable to Morrissey as he made the clip and he did good by them.
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Photo: Dennis Stock, Magnum, 1955

It’s a gentle and heartfelt tribute to just a guy instead of the social phenomenon, the complex acting sensation, the longstanding icon, the haunter of Hollywood’s boulevard of broken dreams, the apostle of teenage rebellion; the legend or myth hero who supposedly smelt his own doom. With no exploitation of the “James Dean legend” for commercial purposes, Morrissey makes it so that simply There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.

It’s a tender look into the life of an imaginative, sensitive type from a small town whose passion was to act, who left at eighteen, released three films in one calendar year, rose fast to stardom and held it for a short time; whose extraordinary life was tragically cut short by bad luck and violent circumstances and left us. We could’ve known someone similar ourselves. Someone who in the end was carried on the shoulders by his old Fairmount High School chums and sadly laid to rest not far from the farm where he was raised. You can’t go home again.

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Photo: Dennis Stock, Magnum, 1955

You can watch ‘Suedehead’ by Morrissey, below:

So for me, time has passed, things have changed. And I know. I too have transformed and will never be the same.

“Time is Flow, not Fix”, writes Wolfe.

Home could well be the horizon of the here and now and the future of forever. Sounds like just what I could want but feels like spiritual spin from the faculty of the Western mystical movement. All that consciousness-raising stuff of the New Zen boasting how to be deliberately freer within ourselves. How to identify with nothing. The ‘come from anywhere’ or ‘come from everywhere’ jurisprudence of the New Age. But I see through the folly of its dreamy textured veneer because this is the Old Age and I’m sitting here rubbing my eyes from what is confronting because as an abstract concept I am home but cannot go home to recover the past.

I’m troubled as the home of yore renders itself as muse, and, still, where does my yearning leave me?

I can say, hopelessly, holding a suitcase with nowhere to go and skimming a roll call of inadequate cliches, that’s where – like, Home is where the heart is. Next. Home Sweet Home. Yes. There’s no place like home. Or, Home is where you hang your hat. Maybe I could do as the gypsies do and, carry home within me wherever I go.

Because that’s all I got. Because there is no road back. You won’t find it. Don’t look. You can’t go home again.

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Like a Prayer: symbolism and representation

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1989s Like a Prayer

It’s 1989 and in ‘Like A Prayer’ Madonna explores racism within a white patriarchal framework. She sets up the narrative at the very beginning, allowing us to make a judgement only to get fooled towards the end. You observe a black man being taken away by the police assuming he’s committed a wrongdoing but she later shows us what really happened and so in the beginning lets us fall into our own trap of expectation of racial stereotype.

Madonna, looking like Mary Magdalene, is on the run from witnessing the sexual assault and murder of a woman by a gang of white males. Black guy gets framed, white guy escapes but not before seeing that Madonna’s character is witness to what’s really happened. She enters a church to escape her white attacker, aware that her well-being is threatened if she decides to stand up to the injustice of the black man who has been wrongly accused.

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Jesus’ pain is Madonna’s pain?

She finds refuge inside the church. She enters and shuts the door singing, “and it feels like home”; the church is now ‘home’, a sanctuary away from the racial prejudice of the outside world and the situation she has found herself in. She confronts racial violence with the stigmata on her hands (marks corresponding to Christ’s wounds) – perhaps Christ’s pain is her pain. She kisses the feet of a black saint and Jesus-type figure that causes hostility from Christians and religious fundamentalists throughout the Western world.

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Like a Prayer, Madonna, 1989

She stretches herself out on a church pew to rest and the video enters into a dream state. Her character free-falls but is caught just before she hits the ground by a black woman. The black woman is part of the Methodist gospel choir in the church and whispers encouraging words into Madonna’s ear and in a symbolic gesture gently tosses Madonna back into the sky to help her reach a higher moral self to attain the strength that she needs to do what is right.

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Vital image of the black woman

The black woman, usually represented in mainstream media as destitute, living in ghettos, a domestic violence case or a down and out sex worker, is instead portrayed as one who offers help and encouragement. She is emblematic in affirming a vital image of the black woman as being supportive, equal and offering strength – hardly exemplified in the mass media.

Madonna then dances in front of burning crosses which caused scathing vitriol, condemnation and protest at the time. The Vatican, parent groups, church groups and government narrowly saw it as promoting the interests of the KKK and were up in arms about the video; both Pepsi and Sears threatened to pull advertising from MTV if they continued airing the video.

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Yes provocative image, but thought provoking

But it was a powerful and symbolic reminder of the political and social extremities of racism that shouldn’t be forgotten. She conveys this message alone in front of them. The gospel church is also a symbolic reminder of its historical impact of providing a safe haven from racist assaults that threatened African Americans and from this place of worship she finds her strength; indeed, she is empowered now and invites herself to stand and express herself freely in front of the burning crosses.

By the end of the video, political and social issues have been raised and Madonna bounces joyfully in front of the gospel choir. The black woman sees that Madonna is now empowered and with assurance sings, “I’ll take you there” while gently placing her hand on Madonna’s forehead to bless her and Madonna ecstatically takes in the black woman’s power. But enraging the Vatican, worldwide governments, church and parent groups hasn’t quite been enough for Madonna because the black Jesus type figure reappears and kisses her, the white woman; she is being seduced by him thus causing anger and dissent now amongst white, right wing racist groups and moral panic for the rest. Nice to see Madonna sticking that one at ‘em too before the video ends.

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How to upset white fundamentalist racists

Madonna awakens and the dream sequence ends. She has found her strength and the happy ending is near. She heads to the police headquarters to tell the truth – the black man is innocent. He is freed and justice conquers all. She has conveyed her message of standing up to the injustice of racism upon the black character and reverses the way of how some in society perceive black people.

In quick summary, her music video as representation basically says ‘all good people in this video are black; all bad people in this video are white’. It’s firstly shown by the black man who runs to assist the white woman who has been assaulted; secondly, her transposition of a saint as black – she’s saying “yes, a saint can be black y’all and that’s all there is to it, no argument”; and thirdly, the strong, supportive gospel choir who are positive, powerful and uplifting with transformative powers.

In opposition, the white people are the aggressors and the idiots in the video. Firstly those who assault the woman; secondly, the white aggressor who menaces Madonna for being witness to the crime; and thirdly, the white cops who foolishly take away the wrong person.

The video then ends and justifies itself as a video with the cast taking a bow that then makes us understand the realism of events of this nature in our society and that we all ‘play our part.’

Watch ‘Like a Prayer’ below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDnUIXF2ly8

Being the girl of your dreams: single, fabulous and loving it

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Flair, sophistication and the single gal

Now like any single gal I’m aware of the single girl construct. I’m also resourceful enough to know there are diverse avenues to explore when dividing up the concept but it’s the more commercially enterprising and idealised narrative I’m going to chinwag about.

The fashionable tenet of ‘female, single and fabulous’ has transcended enough to become a consumer and empowerment brand that’s cooler than ever. Since Audrey Hepburn embodied charming New York “party girl”, Holly Golightly, the populist vote sees her as an independent emblem of freedom signifying her relevance by touching a chord with millions of women who choose to fly solo.

But for comparable reasons with certain historical and cultural data, it was at one point a grave situation for the single woman to just be. Unless you’ve read about her in the Old Testament you know what I mean but can you otherwise imagine her as some highly subversive aberration in known civilisation because that’s what the vaults of gender history tell us. The three hundred years of mass hysteria during the European and American witch hunts subjugated the single woman through a diabolical gendercide campaign sending hundreds of thousands of single and terrified women gasping to their demise.

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Prime target

Over a period of three centuries being female and single could have cost you your life and it’s an era of wrath that troubles me, still. The most potent time between 1480 and 1750 saw our foremothers, young and old, brutally tortured and executed by order of middle aged, jowly faced megalomaniacs of both church and state. Widespread moral panic outperformed itself through city and country. It saw large numbers of vulnerable, solitary women in groups condemned for pretty much just looking sideways or pretty much just looking like a loose sect of enchantresses who supposedly donned pointy black hats with wide brims.

Of course as unmarried folk they possibly owned a cat or two, were well practiced in midwifery and/or perhaps indulged in a little bit of herbal healing for the hamlet. With the latter as humanitarian pursuits they were no doubt a deadly amalgamation. Margaret King wrote, for centuries, “while Leonardo painted, Palestrina composed, and Shakespeare wrote, witches burned.”

But fast forward from the voodoo annals of early modern times to contemporary pop cultural life and, luckily, the presence and spirit of the single girl is still with us. In commercial makeover style she’s a transformational figure and hell hath no fury as one might imagine of a woman demonised in the hell fires of the Reformation. She’s a world-class witch after all. She’s been waving her little vindictive wand around, entrancing all and sundry to wind up as a post-modern symbol of influence and liberation. Who would’ve thought?

Mainstream consumption en masse and a re-education of the single woman today rests in what frames her new identity. To review a part of her evolution can see the visible link between glamour and female singledom for its lustre alone.

When it comes to Sex and the City most of us sit back with guiltless abandon watching the likeable and largely successful show pushing the envelope of women’s modern sexual identity. It oozed freely squeezing every last drop of fabulousness and autonomy and I know the theme song alone saw me humming and sashaying with the brainwave I really could have it all.

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All the single ladies – Sex and the City

But as an insight into how women think, women loved the show while men did not. Pallid faced men were known to congregate in clichéd patriarchal domains, tagging it eloquently as ‘Sluts in Stilettos’; probably, for the same reason three hundred years ago, in that it threatened traditional morality and fixed boundaries of heterosexuality with fears of sexually charged women running free challenging all mighty male control.

Its maxim, indeed, established varying forms of female rebellion from the standpoint that it was better to be alone than in a dissatisfying or disharmonious relationship; being out on the loose pursuing men in the quest for sizeable orgasms; securing financial independence with career success and goals while generally playing it up as rabid creatures of capitalist consumerism.

Pro-sex feminists of the western world wilfully cheered for these egalitarian aspects because, heck, if governments are going to systematically oppress women through various measures then these sassy New York singletons may as well take advantage of the expanding choices capitalism via “femonomics” allows them.

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The flapper – the rebel of the early 20th Century

And by no means was watching Sex and the City on the box the only medium that challenged humdrum female virtues. If you want to do some proper research one of the first social rebels of the twentieth century, the 1920s flapper, flouted every sinless Victorian norm conceivable. She discarded the “good girl” image by claiming her own sexual revolution and wasn’t called the ‘Deviant Champion of a new womanhood’ for nothing.

Truman Capote’s novella ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ saw the main protagonist as a live-for-the-moment free spirit who put it out there that being single meant dating any man at whim, having great social contacts and discarding relationships and responsibilities when they jeopardised her independence.

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Helen Gurley Brown – Sex and the Single Girl

The explosion of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 bestseller, ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ sold 3,000,000 copies in the first three weeks. A how-to in having it all with love, sex, and money, it was a stylistic and gossipy little primer delivering edicts on everything a sixties gal needed to know about pursuing valid single lifestyle choices. Apparently Gurley Brown’s husband made a somewhat cockeyed suggestion that she write about how a single girl goes about having an affair. But Gurley Brown thought better, literally, and got on with the job of writing the first ever singleton manifesto.

But the single girl has gone way beyond proving she’s more than Vogue/Sex and the City showiness. No longer is she the stunted, desperately unhappy woman looking for any male partner to validate her existence, nor is she the age old, impotent archetype of damsel in distress. Through the spectrum of modern womanhood her self-belief system says she is now free to endorse her own existence as an entity in itself.

It’s this popular understanding that entices women to embrace single life because she’s now the lone ranger riding off into the sunset with her cat and cat cage in tow. She stamps a broad-minded blueprint upon her personal life and believes in it from her soul down to her stilettos and her brain down to her birkenstocks.

Through its progression the single gal construct in this form has become a lucrative bonanza but I think the most admirable thing is the subversion of the stereotypical image – that is, the criticised spinster becoming the independent woman which as a rebirth of individual expression is especially rewarding when you can call it your own.

The funny, sexy and political take has seen the rise and rise of the single girl and less of the social expectations that true maturity and responsibility can only involve connection to a man and marriage.

Historical, social and cultural moments have defined her in a myriad of ways. But the interest in her seems largely grounded in our own desire to know who we can or should be whilst perfecting that smoky eye look if we so choose.

So, release the shackles of single shame for she is an intimate figure of style when one truly finds her within themselves. And while spite and hatred once besieged our group in the dark passages of time and history you can safely be assured – go forth brave heart, for the single woman has, at last, triumphed.

© copyright Justine Hamilton

Life on the outside: women, prison and a cause for humanity

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Alone Photo: Eredel on deviantART

As a country where repeated governments have pursued ever-tougher ‘Laura Norder’ policies, the barriers to establishing a human rights conversation around the rights of prisoners are high in Australia.

The mere nature of such a proposal is frequently dismissed as politically inconvenient – perhaps because the criminal justice system is perceived to productively serve the wider interests of the community, and incarceration is viewed as a measure that ensures offenders do not return to crime on their release. It’s an ideological bent that serves to support a society too invested in retributive policies.

Whatever the mitigating factors, crime and the people who commit them usually generate enough emotion to polarise community opinion. To advocate harsher or longer sentences may seem a logical solution on paper, but it can make prisoner rehabilitation all that much harder – and lead to poorer overall social outcomes in the long run.

So where does this leave the pursuit of advancing the human rights of female prisoners when exiting the criminal justice system? Whilst women are likely to commit more minor offences and make up a minority of the prison population, for them the difficulties of social reintegration are astoundingly great.

In 2009, some 854 women were imprisoned in NSW, compared to over 10,000 men. But when it comes to community reintegration, the complex social and economic barriers female offenders face frequently make for a constant uphill battle. In Australia, they face multiple human rights challenges upon post-release, namely discrimination in all its forms.

Research on community reintegration suggests that family estrangement and separation, poverty and homelessness, drug and alcohol issues, and lack of secure, stable, legal employment, are all critical factors which must be considered in addressing the reintegration needs of women.

prisonwirefenceKat Armstrong, Manager of the Women in Prison Advocacy Network (WIPAN), explains that discrimination and social stigma from serving a sentence is evident in many branches of authority when attempting to reintegrate.

“There are many human rights issues, but the basic one is discrimination,” she says. “When they try to access government departments, or get their ID so that they can open a bank account, or get a [driver’s] licence or fill out a form for housing… and they advise that they’ve been in prison, they’re instantly judged and discriminated against.”

According to Armstrong, basic services in areas such as education, health and housing are difficult for women to access post-release. “Some very fundamental and basic human rights are often breached as a result as having served a sentence,” she says. “When they try to get a job and they get asked, ‘What’s the gap here for the last eight years?’, and they’re honest about it, you’ll find the interview will stop there and it won’t go any further. So, they’re not hired or given the opportunity based on their merit or skill if they happen to have any.”

The challenges in finding employment post-release can also play on a deeper psychological level. “It’s very difficult,” she says. “You want to be a productive honest member of the community that doesn’t lie, cheat or steal anymore. But by being honest and open, that will go against you, and so it contradicts totally what they’re trying to achieve.”

“The women that I deal with and who’ve gone on to get employment and have done really well have made no reference whatsoever to their background or where they were. Their employer and work colleagues have no idea where they’ve been. That’s the only way from my experience that I’ve seen people able to go on and get employment.”

Complicating matters further are the women in prison who have experienced sexual, physical or child abuse – or all three – during their lives. In Australia, an estimated one in three women will have experienced an unwanted sexual experience by the time they are 18 years of age. One in five will have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.

Upon release, female prisoners who suffer from a history of abuse face the compounding effects of discrimination. That, in turn, increases the risk of returning to relationships plagued by domestic violence, attempting suicide, or breaching probation and parole orders and re-offending.prison2

It underscores the importance for a more holistic approach towards correctional intervention for female offenders, yet one that seems far from improving.

“While there’s some good people that work within the Department [of Correctional Services] itself, it’s such a big machine,” Armstrong says.

“And little steps forward are a long time coming.”

The extent of prison-based rehabilitation in NSW – incorporating education, life skills and confidence-building measures – assists in the social reintegration process, but supply does not keep up with demand.

“The Department of Corrective Services will tell you that they put $18.1 million per year into programs, education, and training for rehabilitation purposes and I honestly can’t see where that goes,” Armstrong says. “There are a lot more programs available to men, because there are a greater number of men in prison than women. Unfortunately, for the women, it depends on what jail you’re in at the time,” she says.

It isn’t the only bone of contention with what Armstrong calls “outrageous and atrocious” behaviour when dealing with DOCS. “The hoops that they try to make the women jump through in order to try and even just get supervised access, let alone custody back with their children, are ridiculous. I know that if it was some white, middle-class woman with money she wouldn’t have to go through [it],” she says.

Part of the problem revolves around a lack of consistency in the running of the programs. According to Armstrong, the programs are very limited, meaning the majority of inmates are not able to benefit from them – only around 20 spots are available for every 250 prisoners.

“There’s currently a really good program that’s just started for women who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault – given that 87 percent of women who go to prison are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

“But again, [only] four to six women at any one time can do the program. It’s a good thing they have the program, but to help four to six women at a time when there’s 700-800 women in there, it’s just so little and not enough,” she says.

Such multiple complexities highlight the importance of offering a multifaceted, integrated approach to rehabilitation – if not in prison, then surely upon release. So compared to other states, where does NSW stand regarding post-release support initiatives? When it comes to areas such as law reform, training trainers and training activities, Armstrong is downbeat.

“I think we’re way behind other states, particularly Victoria,” she says. “While [they aren’t] perfect by any means… they allocate more money, more budget, more programs.”

With the state government claiming that budgets everywhere are under pressure, it paints a rather worrying picture about the immediate future of rehabilitation programs within the prison system in NSW.

“The Liberal Government is about surplus[es], so there’s been a lot of cuts,” Armstrong notes. “[Take] WIPAN, for instance – we were funded by the Labor Government. Since [the] Liberals have come in, we haven’t got any further funding, and after repeat campaigning and approaches to the government, we still haven’t got any funding.” This, she says, is despite the government having acknowledged on multiple occasions both the positive effects of the program on prisoners, and its positive budgetary effects – savings of up to $100,000 annually for every woman who is kept out of jail.

“If you can mentor and support them for $2000-3000 per year, compared to them sitting in jail for over a $100,000 a year, that’s an enormous saving,” Armstrong points out. “But unfortunately, this Liberal Government isn’t about [provision of] welfare, and marginalised and disadvantaged people, and they openly say so.”

With the prison system so overstretched, the job of addressing the rehabilitation requirements of female prisoners has fallen, in part, to not-for-profit rehabilitation services. Guthrie House, an inner-city non-profit rehabilitation and transition service, is one such organisation. It provides a drug- and alcohol-based program that emphasises life skills through a strength-based formula.

“Our main goal is to intervene with [former prisoners’] drug use and to help rehabilitate them, and to also steer them away from crime and to break the cycle of recidivism,” says Debra Anthonisz, Outreach Coordinator of Guthrie House.

“[But] we’re not just a rehab; we work on transition back into the community. We’re different from other rehabs in the sense that the girls get a lot of freedom, they get five hours a day [where] they can go to their own appointments, they can come in and out; they’re not contained.”

As a specialised environment, it’s somewhere that helps women from the day they are released. Anthonisz explains that this element is crucial – without suitable accommodation and support, there is a high likelihood the women may find themselves homeless once again, and at dramatically increased risk of recidivism.

“Our criteria for entry into Guthrie House are that the women must be involved with the criminal justice system and our priority is that women come straight from jail, so we will pick them up from jail and bring them straight here; and they must have a drug and alcohol problem, so it’s those two factors,” she says.

“A lot of other rehabs will take women, but they don’t specialise [in this way].”

As the only one of its kind in NSW with a range of support initiatives for clients, Guthrie House has taken a lead in promoting progressive change.

“Quite often, when they do the Outreach Program [here], they do want to do TAFE,” Anthonisz says. “For some of them, a classroom is a new experience, so [we’re] just trying to get them back on the track of learning.”

In addition, Guthrie provides a much-needed service to address mental health needs on an individual basis. “[Women here] have access to a psychologist [where] they can have weekly appointments; we have a mental health nurse so their mental health needs can be assessed properly, and with proper medication as well.”

But with only nine beds available to clients in total, they have a big waiting list.

Anthonisz can’t stress enough how vital places like Guthrie House are to women post-release.

“So, so important,” she says. “There needs to be so many more Guthrie Houses. They need that support; they need a really holistic approach to transition back into the community and particularly when they come out with drug and alcohol problems.”

“So often, their kids are removed from them, they come out with criminal records so it’s difficult for them to get employment; they can’t go back to the areas that they come from; they’ve lost housing, they’ve lost possessions and it’s literally a steep climb back up. Services like this are amazing.”

For advocacy work done by WIPAN and Guthrie House and other support organisations, Anthonisz doesn’t see much evidence of progress in the overall level of NSW support services, despite the increased numbers of women entering prisons.

“Look, I’ve been working here three years, and in that time I haven’t seen anything,” she says. “I mean, there are some improvements; there’s a bail support system program that started up a couple of years ago, and there are a few different programs that started up…”

Her voice trails off.

“…but [it’s] nothing much… the media’s talking all the time about how percentages of women going to prison is just rising and rising – but there’s no increase in these services.”

Kat Armstrong believes lack of services and high demand is an important factor in a woman’s return to jail.

“That’s why you’ve got a recidivism rate of almost 50 percent of women – because they don’t have the support systems in place. Adjusting and trying to find a house, trying to get clothes and food are significant when you’ve got absolutely nothing and a $236 Centrelink cheque to do you for two weeks.”

The lack of access to appropriate services for women in remote or rural areas is even tougher to conceive.

“It’s harder because they’ve got even less services available with housing and everything else; and so they go back to violent domestic relationships and/or really bad family environments.”

With the help of advocacy groups women can experience transformational change where their past is not necessarily a blueprint for their future.

“That’s the good thing about WIPAN,” says Armstrong. “It supports the woman [like], ‘What is it that she needs? How can we best help her? What is the area that’s important to her that will help empower her and keep her in the community?’”

“It’s just the humanity connection, and having somebody there that they can talk to and they trust, which they’ve probably never had before – that’s enormous. It’s providing a network and/or providing the bridge to healthy relationships and role models of what a healthy relationship is.”

Historical indulgence, mystique and the daguerrotype

A beautiful tribute yet ultimately sad moment in time.

Post mortem

Ah, the inaugural splendour of the daguerrotype. It’s like finding a thousand secrets when one looks at one. A delicate, floating-like image and one I’ve always had a wondrous and curious fascination of since discovering Beethoven in one in my teen years, enduring the daily slog and solitary routine of classical piano practice. His image was on the opposite page of a sonata I was trying to practice and he was returning my stare, “No that’s not it! Come on! Get-it-right!” Like into the looking glass, there’s something otherworldly about daguerrotypes, an image with magical associations like ectoplasm, a real 19th Century chemical photograph combined with a bit of alchemy. The daguerrotype revolutionised the world in 1839 allowing those who couldn’t afford portrait paintings – namely the middle classes – an opportunity to record their existence. But ever so beautifully, it lives up to its ghostly apparitional sense in that the living image you held in your hands, as a soft, nebulous, shadowed negative, simply disappears with just a slight tilt of the plate …

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Old world handsomeness

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Edgar Allan Poe

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What a shot!! Oh, to know your name dear lady. Not knowing who she was or what life she led saddens me. We’ve lost her history.

daguerrotype Cantankerous pole vaulter extraordinaire

“Old Halob” cantankerous pole vaulter extraordinaire

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Lincoln

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Mr Civil War

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A libertine?

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“The Big D”: Cancer discrimination in the workplace

aloneAs a manager of a homelessness shelter in Queensland, Cara* first suspected a problem with management about two months after she left on sick leave to start her treatment for Stage IV esophageal cancer. After a short period at work, she was surprised to experience subtle forms of shunning. Attempts to initiate dialogue merely exacerbated the issue, with her management committee failing to respond to emails requesting confirmation of when she could return to work. “It was like, ‘What’s going on here?’”, she says.

The unsettling surprises continued for weeks. “Then I had some contact with some of the [other] staff, and they implied the woman who was doing my job was sort of saying that I wasn’t coming back.”

Nor did it stop there. When Cara went into remission after a couple of months of treatment and eventually returned to work, things became more challenging. “I heard from [other] staff as well that that they’d overheard talk that they were looking at offering me a lower position. So at this point I contacted Fair Work Australia,” she says. “They were trying to make me come back part-time and I said, ‘I don’t need to come back part-time’.

Cara’s experience, although shocking, is by no means unique in workplaces around Australia. Australian cancer survivorship rates have been trending upwards in recent years, to the point where more than 60 percent of people diagnosed with cancer will survive the five-year post-diagnosis period.

The proportion of survivors in Australia is amongst the highest globally, with statistics showing two-thirds of new diagnoses survive treatment. We are progressively leading the way compared to the world’s average of 42 percent, Western Europe’s 62 percent and North America’s 38 percent.

This in turn means there are more survivors walking amongst us in the community than ever before. Yet in the Western world, a cancer diagnosis or even the word ‘cancer’, still strikes fear and loathing deep into society’s soul. For many, cancer in a friend or colleague can lead to worries about their own existential fears, conjuring strong emotions of angst not just for the patient but for those around them.

The illness can inflict itself on any one of us without discrimination but a diagnosis can also lay bare a veil of prejudice and stigma within our own society. Throughout centuries, public attitudes of unacceptability, shame and stigma due to illness have long been recognised.

Today, an experience of cancer for some survivors can mean facing a battle of a different kind; social and economic discrimination. In particular, this can manifest itself in the form of discrimination in the workplace against those trying to re-enter the job market, or even returning to their place of work after recovering from cancer.

“We do hear [about] employment issues where people feel they are personally discriminated against”, says Annie Miller, Manager of the Survivorship Unit at the NSW Cancer Council. “It could be quite a large discrimination issue where their job description has changed while they’ve been on leave and they feel like they’ve been pushed out of an organisation, or an organisation has declined leave, or not allowed them to take time off to attend appointments. So there’s varying degrees of discrimination.”

There is the hope that cancer will in time become a manageable disease. But until this shift occurs, some public attitudes are likely to remain stagnant. The question is: when will public consciousness catch up with the advancements in cancer research and treatments?

For recovered people who experience either subtle or blatant workplace prejudice, it increases the stress associated with their illness causing further anxiety around issues of personal identity, relationships, their social life and economic opportunities.

Cara’s experience represents the severe end of the discrimination stick. As well as questioning her abilities, her employers demanded she re-do her work to a better standard. They requested this courtesy of some company minutes circulated around the office. “They had a list of grievances against me on it, you know, pathetic things,” she says. cancer discr“They’d ask me to do a report on something which I had done but it wasn’t how they’d wanted it. They wanted me to re-do it. It was petty grievances, [but] there was nothing substantial; there was nothing that you could actually dismiss somebody for.”

Months later she was on the receiving end of full-blown disciplinary action. Despite listing vague grievances against Cara, she nevertheless took the letter to her solicitor who helped her draft a response. The organisation quickly went into damage control.

“I responded, with the solicitor, and I basically asked for specifics and I got back a letter retracting the fact that it was ever a disciplinary, it had never come across that way. They just wanted to meet me informally to discuss some issues and so, again my solicitor helped me respond and she said, ‘you need to quote from that first letter about the disciplinary because you need to be saying to them that you can’t just go along changing your mind every five minutes”.

For Cara, the experience took its emotional toll. “There were times where I felt I had to look for another job and leave,” she says. “How much more of this can I take? I felt quite down and quite stressed… you don’t sleep as well. Whenever I knew there was a management meeting coming up, [I was] thinking, ‘What are they going to do this week?’, or ‘What tack are they going to use this time?’”

Although Cara’s case is a disturbing one, Annie Miller says it is the exception rather than the norm. “We don’t have people ringing us saying how wonderful my workplace is; we have people that will call us with their concerns”, she says.  “We could err on the side of, ‘We get quite a few calls about this’, but in the big picture, we might only be hearing about some of the tough cases – we’re not hearing about the workplaces that are really doing the right thing.”

Yet the task of broadening the horizons of workplace attitudes clearly remains a work-in-progress. The rights of cancer patients to continue their professional life without anxiety points to the need for a shift in the way some workplaces think about people who have experienced cancer. To the extent that a diagnosis of cancer can cause secondary social pressures such as marriage breakdown, losing friends, or becoming socially reclusive, the politics of work discrimination can impair not only the wallet of the patient or survivor, but can dishearten them in the long term. There is no concrete evidence that fleshes out how common cancer discrimination in the workplace is, but addressing the issue in the public sphere and assisting cancer patients and survivors to cope with negative behaviour at work would provide an opportunity to educate and support them far more responsibly and ethically.

For people like Cara, it would mark an important step in repairing trust shredded by her employers. “There were times, it was like, ‘I can’t believe they’re in the caring industry themselves and this is how they’re treating people’,” she says. “[It] just makes you wonder how they’re treating their clients if this is how they’re treating their work colleagues.”

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*Names have been changed to protect people’s privacy

The flamingo crisis

I do love this…

Craft Schmaft

I do love me a flamboyance of flamingoes. The colours. The endless legs. That almost ridiculous neck. And they just scream tropical vintage. How could I not love them?

2040577615_d11399de53_bPhoto: Pedro Szekely via Flickr

I encountered a flamboyance of flamingoes (don’t you love that term!) in the wild when I was in Kenya and they were just as stunning as I had imagined.flamingos2

As far as I’m aware the world does not have a sock flamingo pattern, a travesty of justice that needs to be remedied. I set about designing my very own on a crafting weekend recently. Socks love to curve and the shape was travelling well, I created wings from felt in shades of pink that I instantly loved. But when it all came together the flamingo just wasn’t right. It was gawky. Kinda cool. But also pretty ugly. Nothing I tried with the beak helped. My kids…

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