Australian Biography

Anne Deveson - full interview transcript

Tape of 15

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... [repeated question] ... Anne, did you notice that Jonathan was getting worse?

Yes I did. I mean, I noticed that ... while his illness, his mental illness, was in a sense not quite as ... as strong and not ravaging him to the same extent, physically he was becoming very debilitated. He was malnourished. He had sores on his feet. His ... he often had abscesses. His teeth were decaying. He was not in a good physical state.

And what did you try to do about this?

Well, I mean, this is a common complaint, or a common awareness that ... we tend still to have a tunnel vision and I think it's not just with mental illness. You go with one particular complaint. You go with something wrong with your hand, and then if you've got something wrong with your knee, or your gut, that kind of gets overlooked, because this is where the focus is. And I think with people who are mentally ill ... quite often many other illnesses that they have in other parts of their body, which might indeed affect their mental illness, are not taken care of. And they're not particularly good at asking for their illnesses to be taken care of. So I had a constant battle when he was in ... on remand in gaol. I managed to get the dentist to look after his teeth. I managed at some stage to get his feet looked after, and so it was, every now and again, one would be able to do something. But it was ... it was a kind of losing battle. And ...

What was he on remand in gaol for?

Well, he'd been very psychotic in Sydney and he was in the Sydney period when he was on speed, when he was ... he was really quite jittery. And he'd got into the back of a taxi cab with another young man who was also psychotic. It was at the time of the taxi cab murders. The taxi driver had become frightened, and had taken them to Central, the steps of Central Police Station. The other boy had run away and Jonathan, who was always quite kind of compliant ... with authority ... meekly got out of the cab and walked up the steps and went into the prison and was verbaled. And I say that because I saw the transcript, and it was very heavy interviewing of somebody who was clearly very ill ... there was no solicitor present, and in that they had said ... they had accused him of being a heroin addict and he would say, ‘Yes sir, yes sir. I am a heroin addict.’ So ... and he wasn't. He never had any heroin in his bloodstream. He might have ... no, he wasn't.

And ... and what he ... what he eventually confessed to or quite quickly confessed to was that he intended holding up the taxi cab driver and pinching his money for his heroin habit. Now all he had, the only weapon he had in his gym boot, was a kind of little tiny plastic covered pen knife, about this big, and he actually hadn't ever attacked anyone except me when he thought I was the devil. And ... as a result of that he was charged with conspiracy for armed robbery and that's an indictable offence. And because I lived in South Australia then, with the other two children and this charge — this offence — took place in Sydney, or this alleged offence, I couldn't bail him out. There was also an issue about whether I should bail him out because I was being told, ‘even if you could, you shouldn't,’ because he's safer in gaol. And as a consequence he was put in remand and the case wasn't heard for nine months.

So he was in remand for nine months getting thinner and thinner and more and more stick-like. And in the end they actually allowed me contact visits with him. They allowed me to hold him because they were very worried about him. Finally we got a QC onto the case. And it was dropped ... actually it wasn't even heard. It was dropped as a no bill because there was ... there was really no evidence. And so he was all that time in gaol, probably in pretty fearsome circumstances at times. And then he came from gaol. He came out of gaol ... this was the interesting thing, and the curious thing about many aspects of illnesses like this, is that in the highly structured environment of gaol where in the beginning he was very frightened, and then ultimately he became kind of captain of the chess team in gaol — this was in the psych unit — and he did yoga and he had a niche in this community.

Ah ... when he was released ... he was absolutely perfectly whole. He had reintegrated for about two days and he came home and we went to Bondi Beach, and we had discussions about all kinds of things. Not about being in gaol. He didn't want to talk about that. And then I watched him gradually de-compensate, fray at the edges. Until finally he came back to Adelaide and that's when he wrecked the house in a big way.

Now when you were in Sydney, when you were at the film school, you were running the film school and you were dealing with the fact that he came and went. But you seemed to indicate that everything in relation to that had got calmer, though more worrying about where it was leading?

It was calmer in the sense that I wasn't frightened of him. It was not calmer in the sense that ... I could come home and find Jonathan sitting in a pool of blood because he'd just pushed his whole hand through the glass window and nearly severed his thumb. So there were always these kinds of dramas. I was always going to rescue Jonathan. Um ... people at the school knew about him. At this stage — and you asked me earlier about being on the streets and being homeless. At this stage what Jonathan taught me was there's no point in hiding anything from anyone, a, because if you do it's like saying you're ashamed of it, and b, it doesn't really matter. You know, it might mean that more people are there to be helpful and those who aren't, well it doesn't matter about them either particularly. So I had stopped trying to pretend about anything.

Um ... and he ... it was calmer, but it was also more worrying because I felt he was slipping away and I didn't feel ... I had always felt he was a survivor, Jonathan. He had always had this kind of zest for living almost within his madness. But I felt that all his energy was slipping away. And I ... I'd arranged with two health workers to meet him. We were going to try and get him to go and live in the country. He said he couldn't because he had these 40 prostitutes he had to look after. And I had said, well bring them too! And you know, we talked like that. And he had come home one night and Josh was there and he had gone to get some pizza for all of us. And Josh suddenly came running into the kitchen and said, ‘Come quickly, Jonathan's having a ... a breakdown. He's crying.’ And I came in and Jonathan was there in floods of tears and he was in a way more coherent however than I'd heard him for many years. And what he was saying in between his sobbing was that he couldn't go on any further. That he'd had enough.

And I was able to hold him for about an hour, two hours, in my arms. And hold him and just soothe him while he said that he felt his life was over. His life was just not ... worthless ... any more, and he didn't have the energy to struggle any more against what was happening to him. And he was ... he was ... this wasn't, you know, psychobabble. This was very coherent thinking and talking. And it was a moment actually that enabled us to be very close ... within this I suppose great outpouring of grief that he had. And he ... he said he would stay the night, and he went downstairs and then he came up to say goodnight again. And I gave him a big hug, and he went downstairs. And I had to go to the school very early in the morning and normally Jonathan would sleep in ‘til about midday. And so when I got to the school I rang Joshua and I said, ‘Don't let Jonathan go. Hang on to him.’ And Jonathan went downstairs ... Joshua went downstairs and said, ‘He's already gone.’

And I had this fairly heavy feeling that I wouldn't see him again. And, indeed, the following day the police came to the school and said that he'd been found dead. Not at the Matthew Talbot Hospital but at another hostel he used to go to sometimes. And he was outside the lift. And I think he was possibly trying again to go to the hospital. He ... the autopsy showed that he died ... he had a small quantity of, I think, Serapax and alcohol. But he was so physically depleted then that his body just gave way. And when I went to see him in the morgue, what was extraordinary was that his face no longer looked rattled. He looked quite young, and quite beautiful again ... and I was able to touch him and able to say goodbye. And I think that the fact that he actually came and spoke to me and said goodbye while he was still alive was a huge gift.

How did the other children react to his death?

I went to Adelaide to tell the other children. The two children were down there. It was holiday time and they were staying with friends and I didn't want to tell them on the telephone. So that I flew down and told them and Pat Lovell, who was Jonathan's godmother, helped arrange his funeral. And ... they came back for the funeral. And they were very distressed ... we had the funeral service around his ... the graveside, and there again, a rather wonderful thing happened, in that initially the people who came and were standing around the grave — and it was raining I remember — were my friends and Jonathan's friends. And they were family friends. And there were people from the film school.

And I had always thought that Jonathan was so alone ... and when I had wanted to get him to the country, he'd kept saying, I can't leave my friends. And it had gone through my mind that you really don't have any friends, not real friends. And I remember looking out across the open grave, and the rain was falling, and I saw through the rain and through the mist, there were all these people from the Cross, and they'd come in buses, that Matthew Talbot had brought them up. And there were the prostitutes and the ... the old alkies and the young men with schizophrenia, and the old boxers. And they had come because they were his friends. And they threw flowers on his grave, and they came and hugged me afterwards. And for a long time after that ... I always break up with this ... I kept hearing from them, and I still sometimes do. I can be in the streets and people ... some funny old man will come up and say, ‘I knew Jonathan, remember Jonathan.’ So he did have a strong network of friends.

And I think we often underestimate people's strengths, and people's ability to build a community. And Jonathan certainly had done that in all his illness, and all his misery, he still had friends. He still had a community. So I learnt a huge amount from Jonathan. And I think one of the most profound was that his life did have meaning. It had meaning, it had meaning because it was such an extraordinary rich and terrible and yet wonderful life. It had so much in it, and he gave so much. I'd rather he hadn't done it that way though.

You'd had an intimation just before ... that he was going to die, from a meeting that you'd had?

Well, that was an extraordinary thing. It was like something out of a Shakespearian play. When we'd ... I'd met these two mental health nurses from the Cross and we'd actually met them in Kings Cross Community Health Centre, and Jonathan was supposed to be there and he hadn't turned up. And there were these two old men who were sitting round a gas fire, and ... and we said to them, ‘Have you seen Jonathan, Jonathan Blain?’ And one of them said ... was cackling, and he was sort of going back and forth like this and he said, ‘Jonathan Blain, Jonathan Blain. Died in the night. Edward Eager Hostel, died in the night.’ And I remember being ... absolutely being thrown into ... into shock, and going icy cold and after, when I left the nurses, walking around the streets of Kings Cross for about, well over an hour. I was just in this state of extreme shock. And I think that's when I knew he was going to die. And indeed he did die at Edward Eager Hostel.

But he wasn't dead then?

He wasn't dead then, no. I always thought Jonathan would stay alive somehow. I think you always have hope, and I think it's important to have hope. But there was a point at which I felt that he would die. And ... and I understood and respected his wish to die. I think that's important. I think that people ... there are times when it's very important to be able to let them go. And I didn't feel guilty about Jonathan's death. It was kind of irrelevant. Um ... you know.

You had had a lot of indication that it was probably going to happen. How did you react when you actually heard the news?

I ... I think in ... in a way that came from the depth of my whole being. I just remember hearing this extraordinary cry ... It was like ... like the cry in childbirth. One of those quite primeval cries. And ... and this was ... the two young policemen had come in, and then I suppose I swung into being practical and ... and they came with me to the morgue. They were very good. They were extraordinarily good ... everybody wanted me to look at his body through a video camera, which was the last thing I was willing to do. And ... and it was important to be able to actually see him and touch him and say goodbye to him. And I think I ... for a long time I reacted ... by being very efficient. So that although, yes, I was deeply distressed at his funeral, and we all were, all three of us ... the other two children, and friends, I think I had to go back to the school, and it was not long before we had a kind of opening of the grounds on which the new building was going to be, and we had fly-pasts and all sorts of people turning up for about two days after.

And so I worked all the rest of that year. And then the following year I was depressed. And it took two good friends at the school, actually, who were able to tell me, you know, look, either go and take time out or pull yourself out of this. So it was quite a long period. And then it wasn't ‘til I left the school ... I was there about four years, that I then decided I would spend the next two or three years ... talking about schizophrenia. I would try and do something about the stigma of mental illness. I went around Australia. I ran lots of workshops. I did lots of media workshops ... I made a film called Spinning Out and I wrote the book about Jonathan, Tell Me I'm Here. So it was ... I actually didn't think of the book as a catharsis. It was supposed to be a book about schizophrenia, but of course I realised it had to be a book about our story. And what I think it did for me was give me a sense of the whole which I had been missing before because everything had happened in these short sharp crises, and I didn't have a sense of the whole of his life and the whole of my engagement with his life.

And what had happened to those other two children of ours who ... who were both extraordinarily courageous too. When they went up to Sydney for their school holidays, and they were 14, 16, something like that, maybe a wee bit older, they both of them went to see him in Long Bay Gaol with the families they were staying with. But they went [into the actual gaol] on their own. They insisted on going in on their own without telling me beforehand. And I think that was very brave, and very loyal. And I think together it ... it took a lot out of us but it was also ... I think we learnt a lot.

Would you like to stop there?

Yeah, I think so.

You said you'd gone to the film school because you understood the place and you believed in it, and you felt you could contribute at a time of change. Looking back, what do you think ... what did you accomplish in that four years that you were there leading the school?

I think that I helped the school make that shift from being a conservatorium model of teaching, where the primary focus was on the full-time students, and although there was a very good open program that involved industry courses, which Storry Walton, the previous director had initiated, I think that there were not as many people from the industry coming into the school. A lot of the people, a lot of the big names in the industry, weren't coming in. And I had actually been chair of the open program. And what we found when we went to the school was a new council (almost), many new members, and Joe Skrzynski chairing it, was we felt there was a need to take a look at what had happened to the industry in the years since the school was founded with Jerzy Toeplitz as its first director, at a time when there was a really small industry, and where it needed that intensive focus, and where there were those few people of extremely high talent who were involved in the first, in the beginnings of the school.

But since then, various schools of communication had opened around Australia at very many different universities. Ah ... the television industry had expanded and grown ... the film industry itself was much bigger and much more sophisticated. It was no use having the greatest filmmakers in the world behaving like starving artists in a garret if they didn't know how to present a film, how to raise money, how to do all that business side of it. Or if they couldn't do it, then if they knew they had to find somebody who could do it. So it was the need to change the culture of the school and that I think was my brief. And also as a part of that to move the school from the old factory, the Old Shoe Box Factory it was called, where the school first began, into the new building which was near Macquarie University (but not and never part of Macquarie University) which was purpose-built and had really very, very good facilities. But if you're going to have a school like that then you must have the industry on-side. You must have government on-side. And the school I think had lost a lot of that support for a whole range of reasons. And that was my brief, and in terms of setting that vision and starting to achieve it, I ... I think I did make a contribution there. I probably left a bit too soon, to be honest, looking back. And I think I left because I hadn't ... I had always said I would only stay a maximum of four years, and that, you know, that wasn't ... that wasn't who I really was, but I would pitch in for a while. I think if Jonathan hadn't died I might have stayed a bit longer.

How did you manage during that time with all the pressures on you, and really a big job there at the school in a time of change? How did you deal with the fact that you had personal things that were happening as well as the work? What was your method of managing that?

Oh, God knows! Probably total chaos I think. I don't think I ever sat down and had a method. I do think that work was probably an escape for me. Um ... if I look back at that earlier period of my life when I was in ... that was when ... I was going to ... make these films, and I think they were almost a way of keeping my sanity because they took me right out into a different world. And I think the film school engaged a part of my mind which probably wasn't as emotionally centred as I was around the whole turmoil of mental illness. And so ... so I think it was actually a help in that sense. I've always been able to compartmentalise my mind up to a point in the way that you do if you have young children and you're working. You know, your children are here, your home is there, your work is there, and you have to be able to jump. You have to have the flexibility to move. Um ... probably being at the top of the film school, although it was ... it made it very demanding, it also gave me perhaps more flexibility than I would have had if I'd been at ... at the bottom of the pile, in that I could shift things around at times when I needed to ... I also made sure that I told everyone, without making a meal of it, and going on and on and on about it, but that people knew I had a son with a mental illness and that this was who I was, and that there might be the occasional crisis. Um ... beyond that, if I look back, both to that period and to earlier ... I'm not really sure how I managed.

Why do you think that you should have stayed a bit longer?

Um ... I think we had only just moved into the school and we'd been there a year, I think it was, when I left, and things were just beginning to settle. It would have been ... it would have been good to have had probably another couple of years of enjoying that period of settlement and really bedding it down. I don't think directors or ... or senior staff generally ... I mean ... it's ... there's obviously exceptions, should stay ... overstay their welcome. I think it's important ... I think seven years was the maximum appointment. That that's probably enough, although I've known people stay longer and do a fantastic job. But it's time then you have somebody coming in with fresh ideas. But it would have been good probably if I had been a bit longer. Good for me and probably quite good for the school.

What did you leave to do?

I left to really, kind of, take in what had happened in my life with Jonathan's death, I think, and I left with the aim of doing something about the stigma of mental illness because there was still a lot of ignorance about mental illness, particularly within the media. And the media is important in helping overcome discrimination and stigma. So that I helped ... I put more work into the various fellowships that I'd become a part of, and the national organisation. And I ran media workshops around Australia. I did a lot of public speaking. I ran community workshops. What we did was to bring together the media and consumers and carers. So we'd bring together in a kind of ... these small ... quite small workshops which were very successful particularly in regional areas where people pooled their resources. And that was quite stimulating.

And then I made a documentary which was called Spinning Out, which did very well. And ... and I wrote this book, Tell Me I'm Here, which I finished and came out in 1992. And that ... that was quite an intensive period of writing. And a period of writing which, apart from the fact that I was writing about something which at times was very painful, I enjoyed that experience of being able to write it at much greater length, far greater length about something.

You mentioned that you had gone off to Africa to make films. Where did that begin, the making of films in Africa?

That began on Christmas Eve in 1974, and again I ... I repeat that part of my, in a way, extraordinary life, because it has been very varied, has been often that things have come to me. And I was at the commission [Royal Commission into Human Relationships] and it was Christmas Eve and I was about to go home for Christmas Day and the rest of Christmas Eve, and the phone rang and it was a phone call from Pilgrim Films, who did quite a lot of work for World Vision, and they were going to Ethiopia, taking a film crew ... sending a film crew to Ethiopia to cover another famine there, and they wanted to know if I would go as well. And my immediate response usually, if I'm asked to do something, is to say yes, and then try and work it out afterwards, which usually is quite successful because you can always pull back if you think about it and find it's no good. I said yes but I will find out about it. And ... I was able to go because it was in downtime, leave time, I went in January, and we were there for, I don't know, two or three weeks. We filmed this very terrible famine.

It was the first time I had been in a situation like that. And it was the beginning of quite a long interest in international aid. Not just in the giving of aid but also in the whole politics of aid, and the ... the good things that aid can bring and also sometimes the quite destructive things ... in undercutting a country's economy or in bringing in technology that is too big and quite damaging ... but where I was able to see, over a period, all the aid agencies get much more sophisticated and do the job better. And yes, there were the occasional rotten apples in a particular organisation. I saw that happen in three or four agencies, but it wasn't the norm. So that if you ... if you ... the big picture is much more complex, but if you look at just the conduct of aid agencies, of most of them in the field, I actually found that people worked extremely hard. They didn't get a lot of money and they did kind of pitch in with the community as far as they were able, which wasn't all the time.

What was your role in these films?

I was the ... writer/presenter and ... sometimes the sort of co-director. But mostly the writer/presenter. It was the kind of situation where you all pitched in. You usually went with a small crew. I learnt the importance of being with crew that you trust if you're in positions of danger, as we often were, where Ethiopia was quite dangerous in Addis Ababa. It was when ... Mengistu was ... had just taken over from um ... [laughs] ... Ethiopia, you know. I'll remember his name in a minute [Emperor Haile Selassie]. Anyway, I was there just after Mengistu had taken over and it was a very volatile situation and quite dangerous. And I was in Mozambique at the time of ... the Renamo guerrillas and that was quite dicey, Uganda when Idi Amin had just pulled out and his troops were ringing Kampala. And ... so there were a lot of situations that were quite tricky, and you had to make sure you trusted who you were with.

Were these films ...

Haile Selassie. Sorry, start again.

Were these films that were made in order to ... I was going to say that then I thought ... I had that awful moment of doubt. Were these films made in order to raise money?

Mostly. Um ... some of them were directly made for television stations. Some of them were made ... a couple were sort of specials that were made for World Vision ... some of them were just information films so that there wasn't a huge sponsorship tag attached to them. The Ethiopian one ... there were sponsorship appeals. I think they were separate. So they had a range of purposes. And mostly I worked through Pilgrim, which was a Christian film company that did a lot of work for World Vision, and it always kind of interested me that, because I don't belong to any particular church and I have no professed religious adherence, that they never minded about that, because I was a kind of ring-in from outside. So they were accommodating.

That first time that you went there, and the first time that you saw a famine, what affect did that have on you?

Um ... it was shattering, and I thought I'd prepared myself. I'd looked at a lot of films on famine. I'd read quite a lot about it. It was quite a ... detailed script, and yet when I actually found myself in the middle of the desert in this extreme heat, and this miles and miles of this sand and desert and these corpses of people wrapped in white linen shrouds waiting to be buried, and crows wheeling overhead, and, you know, the bones of dead animals scattered on the sand. And all these people who were starving with their hands reaching out and there was nothing you could give them ... I did become overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness and I remember wanting to cry and indeed the tears were running down my cheeks. And the cameraperson ... the cameraman said, ‘It's alright love, we all have to cry’ or something like that. So it was a kind of an awareness that, indeed, that emotional reaction was quite okay. It was a part of being there. But then you had to get on with the job. So you stopped crying.

The job of the media in those situations carries with it a whole lot of questions as well as obligations. How did you feel about that and what did you think about what you were doing?

I think it was a learning process. I think ... right from the beginning there was a discomfort of being a voyeur, you know, which we were ... in a sense you're pointing cameras at people. There was an awareness at the same time that many people were quite aware of what we were doing and actually wanted us to be there. So that's at the most ... at the top level of what you're doing. You're there filming people, many of whom are dying. You are being intrusive ... most people, even the nomadic tribespeople in the Ogaden Desert, knew that we were there to make films, to make television, to try and raise money. And they also knew that we weren't going to raise money in time to save them from dying. So that's that level. Then there's another more complex level, where you're aware that you're always showing people as victims, and gradually the more I looked into the whole ... the more I understood what was happening, I became aware that very often there were enormous efforts being made by countries themselves, and these weren't shown. So you always saw people in positions of dependency. They were always these poor starving little piccaninnies and these poor starving women, as indeed they were. But you weren't seeing all the other things that people were doing. You saw what the aid agencies were doing but not the other side of the coin.

And then there was the third layer, which is where you start to look at the economic implications of what was happening, and the political implications ... not so much the sort of questions that people often ask about ... Does the money get there? Or does the aid get there? And usually with the aid agencies most of it does get through, or did get through. But not always. But they were pretty ... pretty smooth in their business operations. It was when it went from government to government it often got siphoned off. But more things like ... about, do you ... you ... you know, how much aid money is involved in this? Are there debts attached to it? Ah ... if the rehabilitation of these people involves buying a lot of agriculture equipment that can only be serviced by one company, and that company then comes into the country and has a foothold in it, and maybe puts other indigenous businesses out of work ... All those kinds of things ... I think are a very necessary part. A thing to look at in looking at aid. And that's when I started reading much more, when I had a bit more time. And that's when I decided I would write about it.

So how many years, over what sort of period, were you involved in making these films?

I think I started in 1975 ... in January 1975, and the last one that I made was in Rwanda in 1994. And that wasn't so much a film. I went in with one cameraman and we shot a lot of footage, which was used partly by the ABC, partly by World Vision. I did radio stuff which I freelanced. I felt I actually wanted to go to Rwanda. I'm not quite sure why, except that I was aware again, as a journalist I suppose with that hat on, that a lot of things weren't happening there by way of response from the United Nations. The failure of America to support the quest from the United Nations for transport. The kind of messing around while people were dying at a rate that was faster than any other massacre in history. And the horrendous things that we saw when we got there. But also it was quite ... at that stage the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which had been trained in Uganda with Museveni ... um ... we were there when they came in as the liberating army. There were still devastation of corpses of people there on the roadsides and in the church yards. But they were ... the liberators came in, and there were quite ... there was quite a sophisticated leadership. A lot of people had been educated in America or England or France, and these rather glamorous political leaders came. A lot of women came with them. And ... and they behaved very well in the beginning. And I say in the beginning because ... I mean, there's been offshoots ... there's been ongoing trouble, but at the stage, and that's when I was more aware of them, they went out of their way to say there must be no retribution and they gave open access to us as the media. It was very well-handled.

[end of tape]

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