Five talented emerging writers were offered professional guidance and support in developing their work for publication in Westerly, both in print and online. We are now delighted to be able to showcase their work here at the Editor’s Desk, and look forward to their inclusion in our upcoming print issue.
Bearing Witness: The Spaces Between Us Project
Being a member of Westerly’s Writers Development Program has been a wonderful experience. As an emerging writer, the professional guidance and contacts I have gained and the opportunity to be teamed with a mentor have been invaluable.
I am also a postdoctoral fellow. My research area is women who committed infanticide in colonial Western Australia. As part of this research I am the curator of The Spaces Between Us, an investigative project and visual and sound art exhibition that collaborated with artists to explore the child murder practices I have uncovered.
This means that throughout my time in the WDP I have simultaneously been working with six talented and diverse artists as they investigate and respond to my historical research. All of these experiences have informed and nourished one another.
The Spaces Between Us exhibition was held at the Bunbury Regional Art Gallery between December 2016 and January 2017. It will also open at Gallery 25 in Mount Lawley in April of this year.
Everywhere I go in Western Australia, I am conscious of the ghosts of colonial babies. Unbuckle the settler myth to slip under the skin of the State, and streetscapes become disposal grounds. I see secrets floating in our sparkling rivers, cast up by our clear oceans. I sense bones, buried just beneath the surface of our sunlit, eucalyptus-fringed backyards.
When people are dead, all that remains of them is narrative. The long-dead can only live if someone speaks of them again. The past imprints its secrets on the present: and what each of these little, silenced phantoms evokes for me, is the spectre of their desperate mother.
When I first began to unearth the extent of infanticide, neonaticide and concealment of birth in colonial Western Australia, I did not know what to do with all the pain I found.
Infanticide is the killing of a baby younger than one year of age by her/his genetic mother.
Neonaticide refers to the murder of a baby by her/his genetic mother or father within twenty-four hours of their birth.
Concealment of birth refers to the crime of hiding the dead body of a child after her/his birth, in order to conceal the fact that they were born (Resnick).
In the course of my research I uncovered 55 cases of infanticide, neonaticide and/or concealment of birth that had occurred between 1829 (when Western Australia was first colonised by non-Aboriginal Europeans) and Federation in 1901. The number overwhelmed me. As a researcher interested in the embodied experience of colonial women, I found the similarities between these women’s stories —some over 60 years apart—to be striking. I found the desperation inherent in their actions deeply distressing. The hypocrisy implicit in the treatment they received left me angry.
The stories I uncovered in Western Australia were similar to those found by researchers in other Australian states (Allen). In WA, pregnancies and labour were storied as cancer, abscess or vomited-up tumour; headache, stomach ache, tooth ache or eye ache; sore throat, bad dreams or heavy menstruation. Dead infants were discovered in sacks, parcels, candle boxes or tea boxes, kerosene tins, packages and water closets. They were wrapped in the intimate female domesticity of flannel, chemise, skirt, jacket and petticoat, or bound by the harshness of cord, rope, string, brown paper or newspaper. Tiny bodies were dug up and sometimes eaten by dogs or pigs; were drowned, strangled, smothered, cut and stabbed. Babies bled to death because their umbilical cord was not tied, or because it was tied only on the side of the placenta. Some babies remained anonymous because their gestations were so successfully hidden that when they were born, died and disposed of, their parents were never found.
Threaded through each case were themes of silencing and abandonment, concealment and collusion, aching loneliness and fear, isolation and punishment. There persisted a strangely resolute denial by both society at large and the mother herself regarding the physical fact of her pregnancy and the birth, death and disposal of her child. With striking repetitiveness, the lived experience of the women concerned seems to have been ignored or suppressed until a baby was dead, a mother was traumatised, and a corpse was waiting to be found (Gardiner, “Wet their bones”).
This denial persists within present day Western Australia (Gardiner, “It is almost as if there were a written script”).
The suffering of these women—their shame; the palpable distress implicit within their actions and behaviour—and the societal response to the death of their babies seemed clearly linked to the roles and positions available to unmarried women in colonial Western Australia. Their fragmented stories raised questions about the power that single women held, or did not hold, and the opportunities and rights that were available to them and their children. Crucially, these crimes—the clues that can be gleaned from them and the punishments meted out in response to their occurrence—spoke to the value that colonial society placed on both these children and their mothers.
I came to see that the silenced narrative of colonial Western Australian child murder was a symptom: the link between the dead babies appeared to be ‘illegitimacy’. These children were unlicensed (Swaine and Howe).
The women whose crimes I uncovered gave birth within a society that did not allocate them ‘permission’ to be mothers, something that the unescapable reality of pregnancy made it impossible for them not to be. It was an irresolvable conflict. Their bodies—and the bodies of the babies growing inside them—betrayed them. Their children were considered sinful and inferior to children who had married parents simply because of the manner in which they had been conceived. As it appeared that the babies killed through infanticide or neonaticide were almost exclusively the result of sex outside marriage, I began to contemplate who (or what) these complex levels of erasure were protecting. I began to wonder how unlicensed mothers knew that their silence would help them to survive.
The Spaces Between Us
The work for the Spaces Between Us exhibition is grounded in this initial research and has emerged from a richly detailed historical and contemporary investigation process. I am very interested in alternative ways of making sense of history. For me, when something is dark or taboo, the key to sharing the experience with empathy and respect, is story; a seductive narrative forms a type of invitation.
As the curator of The Spaces Between Us project, I invited six artists: Helen Seiver, Sarah Mills, Simon Gilby, Mace Francis, Eva Fernandez & Sarah Elson, to work with me to explore a range of locations, sites and historical material to facilitate an engagement that would inform and nourish their imaginative and creative responses.
The taboo nature of mothers who kill their children can be overwhelming. The weight of this type of historical information can potentially burden the creative response with pre-conceptions, the suffering and death leading to simple articulation of the case studies. By allowing the artists space for immersion in the understanding of a colonial woman’s life, The Spaces Between Us seeks to transcend historical narrative, and to breathe life into the spaces between what is known and unknown about women who committed infanticide in colonial Western Australia.
Because there is so little ‘actual’ evidence to help us understand the motivations behind these crimes, The Spaces Between Us uses historical research and creative practice to ‘fill in the gaps’, in turn developing both narratives and creative works that facilitate a nuanced and empathetic response to, and understanding of, the fear and desperation that underlay these unspeakable actions. By thinking about, and feeling their way into these stories, going to colonial locations, reading documents, and engaging with these feelings of trauma, the artists were able to access the silence and the grief behind the behaviours.
Each artist was invited to engage with colonial court case documentation, artworks, artefacts (including clothing, domestic furniture, jewellery, medical instruments and ephemera), newspaper articles, diaries, correspondence and also visit sites (extant and ruined) to re-contextualise such cases of infanticide.
Colonial research locations included Rottnest Island, King Cottage and the old prison in Bunbury, a special tour of the Duyfken replica and an archaeological dig at Peel Town (near Fremantle) with the support of archaeologist Dr Shane Burke from The University of Notre Dame. The group were also invited to visit colonial sites in York, New Norcia, Dongara, Greenough, Busselton, Perth and Fremantle.
The currency of secrets is shame. Through scrutinising the power relations implicit in intimate, interpersonal encounters, and explicit in wider social movements, The Spaces Between Us demonstrates how the structural forces according power to privileged individuals in colonial Western Australia were experienced and played out on the bodies of these women and their children. As a result, it teases out a deeper understanding of how these discourses and their attendant behaviours could lead a woman to kill her newborn baby.
The Spaces Between Us
Mace Francis Compositions:
The exhibition allows us all to witness and hold these mothers and babies; to let them know they have not been forgotten and that we seek to find and evoke wisdom, compassion, and social change by giving their suffering a reality in the present world.
It breathes the bare bones of these women’s stories into life and raises the following questions:
What did these women lose?
What were they frightened of?
Who were they frightened of?
Do we see infanticide as a crime? If so whose crime?
How were these women and their children victims of society/patriarchy?
Where are the fathers of these children? Who were they?
The exquisite and deeply moving work has emerged both as a form of historical witnessing, and as an invitation for audiences to engage with experiences of violence and trauma with empathy, recognition and respect.
The Spaces Between Us (documentary)
Allen, Judith. Sex & secrets: Crimes involving Australian women since 1880. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Gardiner, Amanda. “It is almost as if there were a written script: Child murder, concealment of birth, and the unmarried mother in Western Australia”. M/C Journal Vol 17.5 (2014).
Gardiner, Amanda. “Sex, death and desperation: Infanticide, neonaticide and concealment of birth in colonial Western Australia.” Unpublished PhD thesis. Edith Cowan University, 2014.
Gardiner, Amanda. “Wet their bones with sweat and blood, knit their bones with me: Reflections on arts-based research into colonial Western Australian child murder (1829-1901)”. Outskirts Volume 32.May 2015 (2015).
Law Reform Commission of Western Australia. “Chapter 3: Manslaughter and other homicide offences”. Review of the law of homicide: Final report Perth: Law Reform Commission of Western Australia. 2007: 85-117.
Resnick, Phillip J. “Murder of the newborn: A psychiatric review of neonaticide”. American Journal of Psychiatry 126.10 (1970): 1414-1420. Print.
Rose, Lionel. The Massacre of the Innocents: Infanticide in Britain, 1800-1939. London: Routledge & Kegan, 1986.
Swain, Shurlee, and Howe, Renate. Single mothers and their children: Disposal, punishment and survival in Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Amanda Gardiner is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Edith Cowan University’s Southwest campus. Her research area is women who committed infanticide in colonial Western Australia (1829-1901). Her work has been published in dotdotdash, Outskirts and M/C Journal and she was the 2014 winner of the Magdalena Prize for Research.