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  • Tim Muirhead

Christine's inspiration


Christine Jacobs, a Nyoongar woman, was  one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever known.


She had a passion for Reconciliation. She worked tirelessly—paid and unpaid—for that cause by sharing poems and stories of her own survival and her own healing.  


I can’t tell Christine’s story for you, but I can tell you some of the bits that were most striking to me.


When Christine was around two, she and her 5 siblings were taken away, and separated. Some went to Sister Kate’s. Others went to New Norcia. The boys and the girls were kept separate – alone in a sea of strangers.


Christine suffered—in her words—every form of abuse in New Norcia. Physical, sexual, psychological, cultural, spiritual.   She spoke of hunger, of food infested with weevils, of being hit over the ear, causing partial deafness that never healed.  And of course she spoke of the ever-present void that comes from not being loved. 


She spoke of the night when, age 5, she was kept alone in the cellars—dungeons really—of New Norcia, listening to the rats scurrying around. She had been hungry, and took some food, and this was the punishment. When you walk down the streets of New Norcia, look for the air vents of those dungeons at your feet along the footpath.  Ask yourself what it would do if your 5 year old son, daughter, nephew or niece had to spend a night down there alone.


All this time she was told, and came to believe, that her mother was dead.


When Christine was older, policies changed and she started being placed in foster homes.  Some of the foster parents were good to her. Some were cruel.  She suffered, again, sexual abuse, but this time it was worse because she experienced it alone, rather than having other children around who were going through the same thing.


Into her teenage years she became angrier and angrier. She continuously ran away from foster placements and, I’m sure, caused a great headache to her case workers.


Then one day she was told, by her case worker, that she had become impossible. That they had reached the end of their options. She was being sent to her mother.  “But my mother’s dead”, she said. (She'd been told that lie all her life.) And was told “No she’s not. She’s living in Gnowangerup”.


So 2 days later, after a long bus trip, she got off the bus to find a woman who looked like her. 


But this wasn’t the end of her story. Growing into her adult life her anger just grew and grew. She hated white people. She lashed out at everyone. She became involved in gambling, drugs, violence.  The way she described herself at that time, I suspect I would have been frightened in her presence.


Finally, like too many others who have had experiences like hers, she decided to end it all.  She took out a photo of her children, to say goodbye… 


And they called her back. They called her, from that photo, not to do what the government had done to her, they called her not to take their mother away.


And from then, she started to climb out of her own pit of despair.  She went back to New Norcia, and realised it is a small place, and couldn’t control her life forever. She went back to the foster homes and confronted them with their actions. She felt her spirit, which was gnarled like a stale walnut, start to open up and breathe the air and the light.


She became strong and courageous.  She used to say  “I’m scared of nothing! (nothing except flying – I am scared of getting on a plane)”.


More remarkably, she forgave everyone. She forgave everyone. She forgave the government. She forgave the mission. She forgave those who had hurt her. She did not want anyone’s pity. She simply wanted people to understand and acknowledge what she had been through, and to listen more fully to the stories of the thousands of others who had known similar, or worse, experiences.


It is clear that forgiveness is deeply empowering, spiritually and psychologically, to the person who forgives.  But forgiveness can be one of the hardest things, even when someone else is seeking forgiveness, and has acknowledged wrong-doing. To forgive someone who will not acknowledge any wrong-doing – that’s the hardest forgiveness of all. I once heard a theologian say that to forgive when the other party does not acknowledge wrong-doing – that is a ‘God-like act’.  Christine, somehow, achieved that.


I saw Christine tell her story to hundreds of people, over the years. And I watched as her story and her telling profoundly changed people, and profoundly changed their attitude towards Aboriginal people. Somehow Christine made it possible for people to actually hear and feel the horrors of our history, and know that, together, we could work to heal those horrors.


But my story about Christine does not end with the power of her courage, her forgiveness, her truth-telling.  The story becomes more mythical…


See, when Christine worked in the same office as Kylie Fellepa and I, she would sometimes say to Kylie ‘Some day I’ll tell my story in Parliament House in Canberra’. Now really!! I felt that was getting a bit ahead of herself. It seemed to me that even someone as strong as Christine, perhaps, can build up her own ego.


But then  Christine rang to tell me – ‘I always knew it would happen: I’ve been asked to speak at the Great Hall in Parliament House, Canberra’.


I was amazed and, of course delighted. And I had to face the fact that Christine’s prediction was actually part of her simple commitment to truth-telling, rather than the fantasy of an inflated ego.


And so, she got on that much feared plane, to meet her destiny – a national engagement  in the presence of hundreds of people and the national media to tell her simple, transforming story.


The evening before she was to speak she took a walk. And on that walk she was hit by a car, and she was killed.


I was at home when I first heard this. I experienced a rage that I never hope to experience again. I literally punched walls. I slammed doors. I screamed at God, at the Universe, at fate.  What sort of fate, or universe or God would allow this to happen – for Christine to be taken at the very moment that her long predicted destiny was about to be realised.  It seemed impossibly cruel. …..


And then, I heard, Christine’s young daughter Tamara – 14 or 15 at the time – was going to speak for her. Apparently the organisers told Tamara that they were going to cancel the event.  But she told them ‘no – mum would hate that’. I’ll read her speech’.


And so young, shy Tamara stood in front of hundreds of people and an awe-struck media and read Christine’s simple speech to the nation.


There was something deep and powerful about this. Christine didn’t JUST speak in Parliament House in Canberra. She spoke through her daughter. And her story and her inspiration got on to all the news networks and on to the front page of newspapers around the nation.  Perhaps, I thought, the universe made a little sense after all.


But of course, this story of death and new life only makes sense if those of us who knew Christine, or who have heard her story, are prepared to act on the inspiration that she has left us.


So let me try to glean what I can of the lessons for all of us in Christine’s story. Reconciliation is the process of healing and making peace after wrong doing.  How do we do that?  Let me give a glimpse of a few of the answers that, I believe, Christine leaves us.


The first step to Christine’s healing was to choose life, to choose health. She chose not to collude in the abuse she had suffered, but rather to confront it and deal with it, so that it made her stronger.


To deal with the past she stared it in the eye, and would not shy away. She went back to New Norcia and realised it was a small place, and it could not control her own life.  She went back and met the foster carers. Where necessary, she confronted them with their actions, including in at least one case, the sexual abuse.  She forced  the mission and the system to let go of her.


She understood the power of acknowledgement.  She did not, personally, want an apology, though many others, of course, wanted and needed it. For her ‘apology’ spoke of pity.  What she wanted was acknowledgement – full acknowledgement of the experiences she had suffered as a result of our policies and practices, and full acknowledgement of the extraordinary strength in survival that she, and so many other Aboriginal people have played out.


Christine accepted and respected the humanity in everyone. She would not hate, and she would not judge. She stood alongside everyone she met – children, adults, politicians, family members.  She encouraged everyone to find the gold in themselves and let it shine. Rather than looking for and naming what is small and bitter in others, she looked for and named what was great in each of us, and so encouraged us to put that greatness to work.


And finally, Christine believed in hope.  Human beings can heal. Nations can heal. People can come to love and respect each other. As long as we are prepared to put the work in. As long as we are prepared to invest in love and hope.


So here’s a glimpse of Christine’s legacy,  that I would like to carry forward.


Let us, individually and together, choose life and health and love, over death and despair and hatred.


Let us, individually and together, stare our history in the eye, naming and acknowledging every aspect of it. Let us refuse to turn away, because when we turn away, the wounds of history just fester and grow more infected.


Let us, individually and together respect and love the humanity in each person – to know, as Ghandi and Christine did, that there are no enemies, only allies in waiting.


And let us believe in hope, and the capacity of human beings to heal and love.


Christine once said in a Message Stick program that was made about her ‘Reconciliation is what I live for’.  In the end, in the most unexpected of ways, Reconciliation is also what she died for.  It’s up to each of us to make sure her legacy, her vision doesn’t die with her, but lives on, and grows ever stronger.







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