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broken mothers in the blind spot

kathleen mary fallon: the blind side, jedda, night cries, blessed, australia

Kathleen Mary Fallon is a Melbourne writer. She has written a three-part project (a feature film Call me Mum, a novel Paydirt and a stage play Buyback) based on her experiences as white foster mother to a Torres Strait Islander foster son. If you are interested in joining a support group of white foster/adoptive parents, siblings or adoptees you can contact her at [email protected]

Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, The Blind Side Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, The Blind Side
photo courtesy Warner Home Video

I viewed it in the light of my script for the feature film, Call Me Mum (see RT74) on a similar, Australian subject—the fostering of a Torres Strait Islander by a white woman, in this case myself. The pure, naïve, ‘missionary’ story The Blind Side told was exactly what I did not, could not and would not tell in Call Me Mum. How could it be, written in the context of the Bringing Them Home report and the Stolen Generations narratives?

I found The Blind Side very problematic on a number of levels. The simple narrative and two-dimensional characters meant the meat was removed from the bone in favour of the heart-warming and feel-good; the most interesting story was that told by the actual family photos screened under the end credits. The film would have sunk without trace except for Sandra Bullock’s Oscar-winning performance as Leanne Tuohy which, to me, as a white foster mother, seemed emotionally inspired—her task-oriented attitude, her closet compassion, her moral/ethical toughness, her emotional restraint. She refused, as I know I did, to ‘enjoy’ an emotional smorgasbord at her adoptive son’s expense. What bonded Leanne Tuohy and Big Mike was not pathological maternity playing itself out through interracial adoption, it was that both exhibited a high score in ‘protective instincts.' Anyway, The Blind Side got me thinking, again, about the way the white adoptive/foster mother is represented in the few Australian films that deal with this subject of interracial adoption/fostering.

Catherine McClements as Kate, Call Me Mum Catherine McClements as Kate, Call Me Mum
So, in the light of my construction of the white foster mother in Call Me Mum, I watched those films again—Chauvel’s iconic Jedda, Tracey Moffat’s ‘remake’ of Jedda, Night Cries—A Rural Tragedy, Anne Pratten’s short AFTRS film Terra Nullius, Andrew Bovell’s story for Anna Kokkinos' Blessed, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.

Sarah McMann, the white mother in Jedda—pale, scrawny, pathetic, the sickening prototype of the ‘do-gooder, mission manager,’ pathologically depressed after the death of her baby—takes the orphaned Aboriginal child Jedda as a replacement and determinedly tries to ‘tame’ her Aboriginal ways. Sarah teaches Jedda to bathe, read, play the piano, speak ‘well.’ She tries to stop her associating with the Aboriginal station workers and encourages her relationship with the ‘mission Black’ head stockman, Joe, who narrates the film. The Aboriginal child, Jedda, suffers at the hands of failed maternity.

In Night Cries Sarah McMann returns to the screen as a deathly white, geriatric, wheelchair bound invalid (played by Agnes Hardwick) being cared for, in her final days, by a frustrated, voluptuous Jedda (Marcia Langton), in a white, nurse/domestic’s uniform. Dialogue is replaced in the film by a haunting soundscape—amongst the animal cries, ‘corroboree, drum and didgeridoo’ sounds, cracking whips, laughter, the noise of a distant train are the poignant raspings of the dying Sarah and, finally, the extended, heartbreaking weeping of Jedda curled foetally beside the corpse of her dead ‘mother’ on a railway siding platform.

Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, The Blind Side, photo Ralph Nelson, courtesy Warner Home Video; left - Marcia Langton, Agnes Hardick, Night Cries, Tracie Moffat Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, The Blind Side, photo Ralph Nelson, courtesy Warner Home Video; left - Marcia Langton, Agnes Hardick, Night Cries, Tracie Moffat
courtesy Ronin Films
The mother here is a classic study of the Kristevan abject—ghastly white and wasted, the skin of her scrawny hands and feet old and scaly, emotionally and psychologically absent yet powerfully demanding in her helplessness and finally, a corpse. The film shifts gears from ‘a rural tragedy’ into the horror genre. The abject here is complicated by race and yet Jedda’s grief is real, affective and, in some way, accomplishes a reconciliation.

But that monstrous, old Sarah McMann, she’s one of the unholy undead. She won’t bloody well stay down—because she ain’t dead by a long shot. There she is again, geriatric, demented, pitifully hungry for love—white, white, white skin, hair, nightdress—haunting the well-heeled, leafy, leafy, leafy Melbourne suburbs and the silver screen in Blessed. Abject in her pathologically starved maternity, Laurel Parker denies her adopted Aboriginal son Jimmy access to his birth mother, hiding the humble present she leaves at the door for his 13th birthday; secreting it away behind her volumes of Marx (Karl not Groucho) in her well-stocked bookcase. This time Jedda/Jimmy challenges this ‘mother,’ although it’s still not dialogue; she’s good and dead, and there’s no reconciliation. At the morgue to identify her body he denies her once, twice. “She’s not my mother,” he says to the morgue attendant. “No, this is not my mother.” She has been killed as a direct result of this thwarted craving for maternal love when, in her senile delirium, she embraces and kisses a young thief she mistakes for Jimmy. Thus Bovell proves his racial ‘goodness’ through an unproblematic demonising of the adoptive, white mother—a real soft target.

Alice, in Terra Nullius, does dialogue with her adoptive mother, again reprising the ‘taming’ versus ‘Indigenous instincts’ arguments. The construction of all these Sarah characters is pretty much covered by the discussion between Doug and Sarah McMann in Jedda: “Still trying to turn that wild little magpie into a tame canary, Sarah? Well you won’t do it by shutting her windows at night to keep out the cry of the corroboree, dance and didgeridoo and you won’t wipe out the tribal instincts and desires of a thousand years in one small life.”

Luhrmann’s Australia does, to some extent, progress the discussion in the construction of Lady Sarah Ashley. Nicole Kidman presents us with another Sarah McMann but this is a more contemporary Sarah, finally out of the 50s, and one more in keeping with the adoptive/foster mothers I know. Despite some reservations about her young Aboriginal charge Nullah going walkabout, despite wishing, vaguely, to teach him ‘manners’, despite her inability to have children herself, her adoption and maternity are not constructed as something missionary, pitiful and pathological. It has more in common with Bullock’s Leanne Tuohy in its heightened empathy and task-oriented drive. Nullah is not a blank, needy orphan to be ‘loved’ either. Sarah Ashley responds to Nullah’s agency. He says to her, any number of times, “I will sing you to me.” The two mothers, Nullah’s birth mother and Sarah Ashley, combine forces to protect him from being taken to the mission by the ‘coppers’ at the behest of his violent white father. Finally, Kidman’s Sarah understands and accepts Nullah’s need to go walkabout with his grandfather and she waves goodbye.

How are race and child protection perceived in this country? The voices of adoptive mothers of Indigenous children go unheard. We, with our experience of interracial adoption/fostering, are treated as virtually non-existent except as abusers and thieves. All the parents I know are more like Sarah Ashley and have gone to extraordinary lengths to find and link their Aboriginal or Islander child with their birth families and are acutely aware of the needs of the child to have access to, and knowledge of, their Indigenous heritage and culture. A number have adopted or fostered through Aboriginal agencies yet are still cast as Sarah McManns. (I tried to voice some of this in Call Me Mum.) Most importantly, we know first hand the effect the singular, overarching ‘stolen’ narrative can have on a teenaged child searching for an identity as all young people do. I showed this in Call Me Mum when foster son Warren is cajoled into repeating the ‘stolen’ story by a journalist.

One academic who has researched the subject is Denise Cuthbert. She found that white mothers “have been rendered not only silent but their experiences are virtually unspeakable in the present context” (“Holding the Baby: Questions Arising from Research into the Experiences of Non-Aboriginal Adoptive and Foster Mothers of Aboriginal Children,” Journal of Australian Studies, December, 1998). Proving the point, Damien Rigg, in critiquing Cuthbert’s work, decries “her failure to adequately consider the potential need for some stories to remain unspoken” (“White mothers, Indigenous families, and the politics of voice,” Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association Journal, e-journal, Vol. 4, No.1, 2008). But the constant theme in Australia, and we hear it particularly from Nullah, is that knowing and telling your ‘story’ is the most important aspect of any culture.

To tell these stories we need to find ways to live in the complexities of the ethical paradox, cultivate a political sophistication, not reinscribe some Australian Good, not fall into the blind spot of assumption as Andrew Bovell does. Our cultural products, such as film, need to speak “against the grain of the good and its incumbent fantasies” (Jennifer Rutherford, The Gauche Intruder: Freud, Lacan and the White Australian Fantasy, 2000). They must acknowledge, explore and articulate the blind spot. Listen to all the stories, not just the socially and politically sanctioned ones.

This article first appeared online June 28

Kathleen Mary Fallon is a Melbourne writer. She has written a three-part project (a feature film Call me Mum, a novel Paydirt and a stage play Buyback) based on her experiences as white foster mother to a Torres Strait Islander foster son. If you are interested in joining a support group of white foster/adoptive parents, siblings or adoptees you can contact her at [email protected]

RealTime issue #98 Aug-Sept 2010 pg. 28

© Kathleen Mary Fallon; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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