Dear Reader, despite what could be seen as the flippant heading, this has been the hardest chapter of my memoir to write. I completed a draft some time ago but needed to go back and fill it in. The chapter title reflects the gallows humour necessary for living with what even after all this time seems unreal, something which never should have happened. Writing the chapter has also required me to think about the continuum of abuse and exploitation, particularly from people in positions of power and authority, that was a constant feature of Carita’s life from when I first met her to her death at 21.
For several decades I have been reticent to speak about what happened to me, to us, at the child and adolescent hospital which no longer exists, although I have given evidence to one inquiry, three criminal trials and one royal commission. I am proud that the evidence I gave in those trials contributed to keeping a former child and adolescent psychiatrist, Ian Stuart McAlpine, from practicing again after the first trial in 1997; and then to his imprisonment in 2018. I am glad, now, that Grace Tame has been so determined to show survivors that silence is part of shaming, among other things.
This chapter will, in time, be dedicated to the survivors.
As I walked across the violently striped carpet from the flight of stairs I’d just ascended and up to the candy bar, I found it necessary to tell myself not to stare.
Carita was standing to one side of the freezers in which the teeth-breaking choc bombs were stored after we made them out the back. I’d seen pretty girls before, but Carita was something else: high-cheekboned, perfectly proportioned to my sixteen-year-old eyes, ridiculously graceful in her carriage and gestures. Immediately I understood this girl was from another planet, and there was no way I would have anything in common with her: just the sight of her made me feel awkward in my skin. It wasn’t that I was comparing myself to Carita: she was so beautiful that there was no point. She was yet more proof of why the only place I belonged was in the psych hospital I was about to enter, no doubt filled with awkward, depressed misfits like myself. Carita symbolised a type of existence, pleasing and easy to navigate, so far from me that merely looking at her evinced a bittersweet longing for the imagined and the impossible.
There were a number of casual candy bar staff employed at the cinema, all from the same public but upmarket school which resembled mine in no way at all. They were to a person lovely but groomed the way my cousin’s private school girlfriends were, having opinions about clothing, eye makeup and skincare completely alien to mine, and were full of gems of wisdom about topics such as why you should never wear tights darker than your dress, and other information I couldn’t believe anyone cared about. Carita was evidently drawn from this group, dressed in the same studied casual way, curls of her beach-girl hair framing her heart-shaped face.
One of the casuals, emerging from the back room, now said, ‘Hey, Jules, this is Carita.’
Then Carita smiled, and all the longing that her unreasonably good looks had generated dissolved. Her smile was kind, and shy, and made me want to protect her from the base impurity of the world.
I was definitely, I concluded, going mad. Just as well I was going to a mental hospital, I joked to myself.
‘Carita’s from my school,’ the casual confirmed. ‘She’s your replacement.’
One of the doormen sidled up, leaning his beefy forearms on the black counter top. ‘Hi Carita,’ he said to her. To me he said, ‘What a replacement, eh?’
I wanted to punch him right in the middle of his smug supercilious smile.
‘She’s way out of your league,’ I hissed in his ear.
‘Not like you, eh?’
When the casual invited Carita to come to lunch with us, my awkwardness reappeared. I didn’t eat, instead blustering on about how I was quitting because I was going to a loony bin for teenagers, and how I hoped I would get better, and how I wanted to go back to school at the new senior college that had opened. Carita offered that she had just left school, even though she was in year ten and technically wasn’t allowed to, and gave me a look I couldn’t decipher. For all the world it seemed that she wanted to say something to me. What could she possibly want to say, I wondered as I walked back down the steps, away from the cinema and my perfect replacement and the reminders of all the bad decisions I’d made. I was relieved to be stepping out of my own life, to no longer have to put up with the exhausting rounds of trying and failing to control my eating, my thoughts, my tedious self. By going into hospital, I was admitting failure. I had defeated myself. The fight, I thought, was over.
Gwen dropped me at the hospital on Sunday morning, before the other residents had returned from weekend leave later in the afternoon. The hospital was an old, two-storey building at the end of a long driveway, obscured by pine trees. The stairs creaked as we climbed them to see my single room with its plain old dressing table and view of a shiny tin roof and the home for autistic children behind the hospital. Gwen did her best to look sober and normal, then hightailed it back to Kelmscott in her purple Kingswood, perhaps to reflect on being the parent of a teenager in a psychiatric hospital, or perhaps to drink an extra King Brown to put hold on the feelings that may have attended such reflection.
When I came downstairs, I found that an ex-resident had dropped in for a cup of tea.
‘Hey Stuart,’ she said to the nurse. ‘Remember when I made Sue that smashed glass sandwich?’
‘You lot were the worst,’ Stuart said.
‘She didn’t eat it, but,’ the ex-resident smiled.
I was relieved when the other new resident arrived. She was awkward-looking, overweight, and when we sat at the dining table to have lunch, she started emitting quiet sobs. After a few moments, I joined in.
‘Oh, come on,’ joked Stuart. ‘We’re not that bad, are we?’
I wondered what the other residents would be like. Would it be One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest-style mayhem, complete with smashed glass sandwiches? Would it be inhabited with Sylvia Plaths and Virginia Woolfs, tortured geniuses whose suffering produced unsurpassable works that spoke to the souls of people like me? Or would there be merely lots of muted sobbing, as at the lunch table?
I watched as the other residents returned from weekend leave with their parents or parent-substitutes. One girl stomped wordlessly up the stairs, leaving her mother wide-eyed at the bottom. The parents seemed uniformly anxious and unsmiling. Their offspring were a variable lot: a couple of normal-looking girls, a soft-looking boy who hid behind his fringe, a girl who yelled rather than spoke, a boy who ran up and poked the yelling girl, and ran off again. Stuart introduced me as people came in, but they didn’t seem particularly interested. I sat and shredded a paper napkin into tiny pieces, trying to listen without looking.
Then a quiet voice said, ‘Hi.’
It was Carita.