Goodna Girls book cover
Recording date:

Join The Australian National University Lecturer and author of Goodna Girls, Adele Chynoweth, and National Library of Australia Director of Indigenous Engagement, Marcus Hughes, as they reflect on the lives and stories of the women of Goodna and the role of cultural institutions in preserving the stories and experiences of marginalised communities.

Goodna Girls tells the story of children incarcerated in Wolston Park Hospital, an adult psychiatric facility in Queensland. It contains the personal testimonies of women who relate—in their own no-holds-barred style and often with irreverent humour—how they, as children, ended up in Wolston Park and how this affected their adult lives.

In Conversation: Goodna Girls

*Speakers: Adele Chynoweth (F), Marcus Hughes (M)

*Location: National Library of Australia

*Date: 16th November 2020

A:        - Goodna Girls, a history of children in Queensland mental institutions is a really important part of our history. We all knew of the orphanages down the end of the street. There were families, hundreds of families in Australia who hosted children from orphanages on weekends and during school holidays and I know because my family were one of those. This is the history of survival but it is all of our history of acknowledgement, of inclusion of all the children who were in institutions and of a punitive welfare system that all of us need to understand and do what we can to not allow this to happen again. This is not just the history of a handful of survivors, this is a central part of Australian history.

M:        Yaama and welcome to the National Library of Australia. My name’s Marcus Hughes and I’m the Director of Indigenous Engagement here at the Library. This morning we have the opportunity to speak and spend some time with remarkable writer, Adele Chynoweth.

From the outset I’d like to acknowledge that we meet today on the land of the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri and I pay my respects to the elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Adele, you’ve written an amazing book that brings together an incredible amount of story around a group of women that you’ve referred to as the Goodna girls. When I first was offered the opportunity to read your book I was immediately hit by the resonances that there are for me as a young fellow growing up in the queer community of Brisbane in the ‘70s when my girlfriends had all been to Wolston or Wilson and Borallon House. To hear that or to see that and read and hear their voices on the page has been a remarkable experience and from that outset I’d like to thank you for that, it’s been an absolute privilege.

Then we had the opportunity to meet and it was another delightful experience, to meet someone that had created this document that has such gravitas but to get to know more about you and your crazy journey across the multidisciplinary creative sector into the advocacy sector. Can you tell us a bit more about you?

A:        So that’s a hard question for a working class girl from the suburbs ‘cause immediately you hear the inner voice that says don’t get too big for your boots so it’s a privilege to be here with you, I want to say that too, thank you. So I grew up in working class Adelaide. My surname is Cornish, a very significant Cornish mining community in South Australia. On my mother’s side it’s the German, the Siletan people that came out in the 19th century. I went to school and then I became a teacher because that’s the classic social mobility degree for working class girls, that or nursing. But then I got really passionate about teaching drama and realised that I needed to do that more so I didn’t tell my mum but I went and auditioned for a theatre director’s course. They take one person a year, I got in, I couldn’t believe it. So I then studied drama and studied to be a theatre director as a mature age student after being a teacher for a while.

From that I got employed on a museum, very significant museum project but I worked a lot with community in that project and from that I went to the museum sector. I’ve also worked in the public service in policy, I’ve worked for a student union as an organiser so helping students with their campaigns. But I suppose I’m an artist, I find that a bit of an elitist term but that’s how people have described me so perhaps I’ve got to own it. But I’m a teacher, I’m a researcher and an advocate but I don’t know, someone with a bee in the bonnet with a few skills.

M:        I know exactly what you mean about not being able to tell the family because they wouldn’t understand what the business was about or it wasn’t respectable or it wasn’t secure. Going into theatre is such an amazing tool for understanding community and understanding the world in which we live and I think that’s been one of those remarkable things again that I think has joined us together, is that understanding of the power of being able to put a concept into a public platform and really give voice around those issue-based notions of society.

A:        And it’s about the narrative, it’s about telling the story in a three-dimensional space and actually that’s what museums do so it’s quite a logical step.

M:        From that kind of background and certainly the focus on notions of a narrative how did you find the Goodna girls?

A:        So I worked at the National Museum of Australia on an exhibition called Inside Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions. It was the realisation of recommendation 35 of the Senate report, Forgotten Australians, so as you would know there were three federal government inquiries into children who had experienced institutionalised care in Australia. There was the Bringing Them Home report, the stolen generations, about 50,000 children, there was the Lost Innocence report in 2001 about former child migrants, about 7,000 children and then in 2004 there was the Senate report, Forgotten Australians, which focused on nonindigenous domestic Australian children who had been institutionalised.

The Senate inquiry revealed a lack of understanding or recognition of that cohort so one of the recommendations was that there be an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia. That was in 2004 but it wasn’t financed until the Rudd Government came in in 2009. So I was brought on as a curator of that project and that exhibition acknowledged and represented the experiences of childhood institutionalisation of the stolen generations, former child migrants and forgotten Australians. To do that I needed to engage with community and I managed a blog and so survivors of institutionalised child abuse emailed their stories and I came across this particular group of women who had been in Wolston Park Hospital, an adult psychiatric facility when they were children.

I already knew about this narrative from my previous work as a student, as a research organiser at the University of Queensland Union, the report came out when I was working there and I had to be familiar with all the Senate reports, that was part of my job. Then I did more research into that background and looked at some of the submissions and I was aware of this trajectory of children going from orphanages, some of them, and then going into psychiatric facilities so I was already aware of that. So when I met these women I said yes, I understand this history so there was a sense of relief. So I met these women through doing that exhibition.

M:        So who are the Goodna girls?

A:        So the Goodna girls, that was really a phrase I coined because Wolston Park Hospital or the Park Centre for Mental Health as it is now called outside Ipswich, Queensland, is really known to the Queensland population as Goodna. They call it Goodna ‘cause it was Goodna Asylum before it was Wolston Park Hospital. So they always talked about being in Goodna even thought it was Wolston Park Hospital at the time.

So there was a policy in Queensland, started in the late 1950s, early 1960s from the reports that I read at the time of using a medical model to so-called juvenile delinquents. Now they’re so-called because these women had not committed a crime but they were what is known as status offenders so status offenders means like absconding, smoking, hanging out with boys, not crimes but behaviour that a society at the time doesn’t think is appropriate for teenage girls.

But most of the women that I worked with, they had run way from abusive orphanages so they were running away from criminal assault by adults on them or by terribly exploitative conditions like the Magdalena Laundry in Brisbane at the time, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters and for that they were then put in psychiatric – so then there was another layer which was these detention institutions. There was Kalimna run by the Salvation Army which used drugs, there was Karrala House out at Ipswich, mental facility for teenage girls so there were specific centres that used a psychiatric model for teenage girls. Then some were then taken to an adult psychiatric facility so the Goodna girls are survivors of being child inmates in an adult psychiatric facility in Queensland. They did not have a mental illness, they did not commit a crime – oh one of the women stole a bike when she was seven, stole a bike to help her run away and that’s who they are.

M:        So with Goodna Girls you’re documenting a huge amount of history and the girls are telling you their histories. I know it’s a really difficult question but is there just one example of a story that really summarises the guts of some of these women?

A:        Well very hard to choose one story and so I did write the book so it would be a good read. So there’s lots of stories that the reader can get from this but there’s one narrative I think that really points out the resonance today of this because one of the things that we can say is oh wasn’t that awful? And are they alright now? The thing is this history lingers so there’s one example of one of the women well into their adulthood with a job but a job that didn’t pay enough so this is the university sector. She worked cleaning tables at a university and you know what universities are like, if you’re casual you only basically work 26 weeks of the year, you don’t work when the students are on leave.

So there she was working at a university cafeteria – this is years after she’d got out of Wolston Park Hospital – working in a university cafeteria, renting a humble place, single mother, the income she got barely covered the rent so she collected the dole as well and didn’t declare it, got done for welfare fraud, got to court and then the judge said oh has she got a criminal record? They looked at her time in institutions and said yes, she has, not understanding that she has never ever, ever been charged with a crime but that an institutional record was seen as jail time. So this is why this history is so important.

So she gets to Batlow Road Jail as you do and of course the whole thing about prison system, you go to max, you go to maximum. Batlow Road Jail is yuppy apartments now but women, when they were taken to the women’s section of Batlow Road Jail they all went through maximum security. Of course the guards were thrilled that there she was, not having – because a welfare fraud was a nonviolent offence, that she could work in the kitchen. She said to them well I’m glad someone’s happy. Anyway so she worked in the kitchen and because she was in there for a nonviolent crime, for welfare fraud, her job was to help deliver the milk to all the other sections of the jail. She said but of course all the other prisoners, I'm forever passing notes from one prisoner – one section to another. She said I had a slit in my shoe where I used to hide the notes.

Then one day she was delivering the milk and this particularly vicious prisoner confronted her and so there she was with the milk trolley, it was about to be on for young and old. She said look and I did punch her ‘cause I know what it looks like when someone’s got it in for you, I know that face from Wolston Park Hospital. I got my first punch in ‘cause I knew it was the only punch I was going to get and she broke my nose. All the milk went everywhere and then the guards came out and said what’s going on here? What’s going on here? She said I looked at her and she looked at me ‘cause I knew right in at that moment I had the power to put her away in solitary but I’d been solitary and I know what that’s like. So I turned to the guards and I said oh I fell over and she left me alone after that. But I mean what resilience. But the point is this is an ongoing narrative that has informed them throughout their adult lives. It's time to let it go, acknowledge them and understand.

M:        So, Adele, what was your driver in connecting with what is quite a deeply emotional, tragic narrative? What was it that you wanted to give to that?

A:        So they were the driver, not me so one thing that comes out of this living history is to always be reminded through the tragedy is a lot of guts, courage and absolute agency by these women who know exactly what they want, who are completely articulate, intelligent, witty and they were the driver. So it was the opening of the exhibition and they said oh okay, that’s it, is that it now? We’ve done the exhibition, we’ve made the politicians look good, are you finished with us now? Is that it? Are you going to help us get justice? So the driver was this realisation that exhibitions are openings, not endings. They are not closures, they are the beginning of something new and I realised that the story wasn’t over.

If we can put this in a wider context it’s a great question, I just want to get the answer right and not to talk about me ‘cause it’s actually not about me, it’s about looking at the systemic structures. So I think it is absolutely appropriate for the cultural sector to give something back when people from marginalised communities retraumatise themselves to give their narrative for an exhibition, an exhibition that gets reported in annual reports, that makes a cultural organisation look good, they can use it to support their assertions that they’re inclusive. To take those stories is a bit like going into someone’s land and mining the minerals and not giving anything back. So this sense that we gave you our stories, now what do we get in return? So they were the driver.

M:        In the – I was going to call it a document -

A:        It is.

M:        In the documentation you’ve also included the voices of not just the Goodna girls but people who were associated with. Do you want to talk to that a little bit?

A:        Thank you, Marcus, so the book comprises the oral histories of four women who were in Goodna and also three staff members who at the time witnessed what was going on, tried to speak out. In some ways that’s a controversial decision because one of the themes you don’t want to do is feel that you’ve got to validate the narrative by the testimony of some professionals. I don’t want to set up the situation where what they’re saying is true because these elite professionals also say it was true but instead what I was trying to do is that if we want to understand how systematic abuse occurs in these institutions it’s important to raise awareness about how staff somehow don’t feel that they have any power, that somehow the system or the wider discourse that informs those institutions means that some staff members feel powerless too. So it was important to get that picture.

Also the women, they know their stories so well, I wanted to place them in a wider socio-political context so that the reader could understand why and how this happens so that we don’t repeat it. But I want to say that this document, this book, the aim of it wasn’t a book, this was a means to a campaign, let’s be clear about that. When they said are you going to help us get justice? This was about being summoned to campaign shoulder to shoulder with them. This was a call to activism, nothing less. But it needed to be a campaign that was scaffolded by rigorous research so that the bureaucrats couldn’t fob them off yet again. So it’s saying well what skills can I bring to the table to support their articulate bid for justice?

M:        So the girls have seen the publication now?

A:        Yes.

M:        What’s their response been?

A:        Well they saw it before so part of my process was to be ethically rigorous so I worked with them, I interviewed them and then I put their stories together from hours and hours of recordings. This wasn’t an ethical requirement but I did it. The usual process is that they see a transcript but because of the real importance of agency and not doing anything without a collegial methodology they all read and approved their chapters so they’d seen it long before it was published. But what they hadn’t seen was the introduction and they really liked that. That meant a lot to them, that it was clearly explained why they were there and why it was wrong that they were there.

One woman when she received the book, she told me that she cried because she felt a sense of relief that I don’t have to hold onto the story anymore. She’s told that story over and over and over again often on deaf ears and the fact she can now let it go and just say here’s the book, you read it.

M:        So, Adele, when we talk about the capturing of these stories how important were the recordings of those oral histories in the process?

A:        So oral history is a very important part of public history and it’s something that the National Library of Australia had done so we had had the Rudd Government finance the Museum exhibition. The Rudd Government also funded the National Library of Australia to record oral histories of former child migrants and the forgotten Australians so you here at the National Library have this really fantastic collection of oral histories of former child migrants and the forgotten Australians. So it was applying that methodology to my work with these women and a little different. So what the National Library so brilliantly does is it records oral histories that then you can access and listen to. This process was not about recording their oral histories as an outcome in itself but as part of a wider methodology which was about archival collection so I looked for archival records.

I sourced the government reports of the day in which these policies were made. I also, with their blessing, they offered me their own childhood records, their own archival collection. I want to say the other thing about these women is that they were incredible archivists, they archived their own campaign. So it was an oral history methodology, it was an archival methodology and it was also about doing the research on the theoretical lenses so I could hang this narrative on. So a lot of secondary source research into the history of institutionalised care over time and internationally.

So the oral histories comprised one part of this research but probably central to the research. I was really aware that they had told their stories over and over and over again, that that was re-traumatising so it was important to get that on record so that they didn’t have to bear that burden over and over again and really for it to be testimony as evidence. I had gone to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse with them so that notion of oral history as evidence, as testimony in a legal inquiry was very close to my mind and understanding.

So the book then comprises my research of their oral histories and the archival research I did in the introduction. But what was really important in writing the book, I was approached by one publisher – it’s so hard to turn down a publisher, I cannot tell you – who wanted it completely rewritten so that it was more of a textbook and that I’d refer to these oral histories and quote it. No, they had to be self-contained chapters without territorialising them with academic speak. So once I had written them it was about finding a publisher that understood the value of an oral history as a self-contained chapter, not to be referred to and quoted amidst academic clutter.

M:        That authorship, that acknowledgement of authorship is so critically important in the whole picture of what you’re creating.

A:        Yeah, it’s about who has the voice.

M:        So I know working with community when you're entrusted with their knowledges or their experiences, and you do observe that absolute sense of due diligence around the care for that material, I know how exhausting that can be and how you take on the weight of that responsibility. How did you manage that for yourself?

A:        So I mean I saw a trauma counsellor. So what we’re talking about I think here is the notion of vicarious trauma and what I understand that to be as a lay person is that it comes from within the paradigm of cognitive psychology so you can get a whole lot of psychologists writing in saying I’ve got it wrong so I’m a lay person but I understand that it comes from the paradigm of cognitive psychology. Basically vicarious trauma says that when you were experiencing or you’re hearing a traumatic narrative the brain doesn’t understand the difference between you hearing it and actually experiencing it. So it’s why we get the adrenaline rush in scary movies, we’re on that spacecraft with the alien. That’s what the brain thinks, or why the roller-coaster industry is big, because the body really does think it’s falling.

So therefore you go to a trauma counsellor and you just get a really good one because a good trauma counsellor totally understands why you're doing what you’re doing, they don’t try to talk you out of it. They just give you a whole lot of techniques to manage it. The aim is to go before you even get any symptoms so you're managing it. Sometimes I’d go and I’d be really upset about something and he’d laugh and he says don’t you realise how funny that is? So it’s always about a contextualisation so I would do that. But I suppose to answer the question the trauma for want of a better noun of not doing anything would have been far worse than doing it.

So the other way is through action, through getting it done, getting this narrative out in the public and trying to move bureaucrats to finally take notice of this ‘cause what they wanted was financial redress. There had been the Forde Inquiry in 1998 but children who were in adult institutions – the Forde Inquiry was the Queensland Commission into Abuse of Children in Institutionalised Care but the Forde Inquiry excluded children in adult institutions so they never had redress. So when they said we want justice, that’s what they meant. So you keep your foot on the brake pedal and you get a resolution to it. The outcome is the driver for health.

M:        So where to next?

A:        So I think there are several things. There needs to be more research done and I think there needs to be a rigorous conversation, several conversations about how the cultural sector in Australia can work with marginalised groups for social change. It sounds difficult but what the process of Goodna girls has told me is how achievable it is.

So one thing that we need to look at is we do know that children in orphanages in the 20th century were used as subject of medical tests. There needs to be research in what those tests were and those survivors want to know what they were injected with. We do know, the Goodna girls, if you read the book, they’ll talk about the ridiculous dosages of psychiatric drugs that they were enforced to take. These women did not have a mental illness and yet they were given psychiatric dr – there needs to be an investigation into the medication and institutionalisation.

Two of the women have had children with really severe brain tumours and they are concerned at the intergenerational effects of that medication. That needs to be researched and the Queensland Government need to come clean on whatever the findings are.

There’s also a lot of anecdotal evidence about children that may have died at Wolston Park. Now it’s anecdotal but I think there needs to be some research on the admission records, the burial records and when they don’t align where are the body – there needs to be more research on childhood admissions into Wolston Park Hospital. Those archival records are kept very close to that organisation’s chest and I would say that’s not democratic. Research is a democratic process and that work needs to be done.

I also think that in child protection services that there needs to be an acknowledgement of the importance of historical research in understanding current policy. So I’ve seen several documents about current child protection policies, there’s no reference to any history. We need to see this through line.

I think that our cultural sector needs to engage courageously, ethically with marginalised communities suffering from trauma and I think there needs to be more recognition of all the children that were in care as well as the important recognition of the stolen generations, the forgotten Australians and former child migrants. The National Library has done it, you’ve done it here with your oral histories but I think the museum sector needs to have more ongoing representation of that. So that’s a start. A big shopping list.

M:        It’s a beautiful shopping list. Once we’ve bought all of those things what do you think it’ll look like for our young ones? For the next generation.

A:        Before I answer that question I want to say that when one is doing this work the best way you can do this work is to know your skills and qualifications and don’t step over that. So I'm not a social worker, I'm not a counsellor and so now I’m a little bit treading my toe in the water outside my work as theatre director/curator/researcher but I would want to imagine or hypothesise what a child protection service and policy might look like when those children in out of home care have more agency and say in placements - as I say this is my hypothesis - and what might happen if that policy was formulated from regular and rigorous dialogue with those who have been through it, the forgotten Australians, former child migrants, and the stolen generations. It's a nation and a culture that knows how to join the dots.

M:        Beautiful. Adele, thank you for sharing your process, the experience that you’ve gone through in creating this incredibly important document. Do you have any last words?

A:        Just to say thank you so very much and I'm so grateful to the National Library of Australia to allow this what may be deemed a difficult but a very important conversation. Thank you so much for acknowledging the Goodna girls and putting them right at the centre here today of the National Library of Australia so they can hold their heads up high and know that they are an important part of our public history.

M:        Thank you for sharing the story of the Goodna girls with us today and the stories around how it happened, what your process was, what it meant to you, what the importance of these stories are. I think one of the things that you’ve really reinforced is the importance of being able to capture our personal stories in ways that are other than a word on a page, that for me as a first nations man, our stories, our knowledges, our understandings and beliefs have all been passed on through that oral history process. And to understand that those processes are so significant and powerful today fills me with great pride around what you do, around what my cultures do and what we do here at the National Library to capture that and support that process. And provide a window for the general Australian population, to provide through that window access to a deeper understanding of our social condition and hopefully build a much more socially cohesive society. Thank you.

A:        Thanks Marcus and hear, hear. Thank you.

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