Australian Biography

Anne Deveson - full interview transcript

Tape of 15

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

What made you decide to go to Adelaide?

I ... was in love again ... [laughs] ... I had ... I knew an architect who practiced in Adelaide. We had been friends for some three or four years, all the time I was doing the commission. We didn't have a relationship, we had a friendship. And then I suppose some time after my marriage with Ellis ended, well over a year, ... maybe two years, I became involved with Newell, and after a year of kind of exploring that relationship ... and mostly he would come up to Sydney. We decided we would live together, and I actually ... he wanted to come up to Sydney. He was quite happy to come to Sydney. I on the other hand wanted ... felt it was better for us to leave and go to Adelaide because Jonathan was beginning to fall apart. He was fraying at the edges. He was ... he had left school. He was smoking a lot of dope. I couldn't give much attention to what was happening. I was trying to get help then.

And I felt it would be better to separate out from Ellis for ... at least for a while. And ... Ellis was quite ... Ellis had another relationship very quickly after we separated ... and he was quite happy about coming to Adelaide. So all in all it seemed like a good thing to do and we set off on Boxing Day with three children, two dogs and a cat, and all our luggage piled high on the roof ... to start a new life in Adelaide. And it didn't really work out very well because Jonathan became very ill, quite soon after that. He had his first psychotic breakdown, which is what he was obviously building up to for quite some time before that. And it was very hard to sustain any kind of relationship with anyone in those circumstances. I think I underestimated the effect of moving the other two children, particularly Georgia who was about 14, and at an age when it was difficult I think to uproot herself. Although she was quite willing to go but I think she found it very hard. And we actually had a very difficult time in Adelaide, mainly because of Jonathan's illness.

We'll come back to that in a minute, but what work were you doing in Adelaide?

Well, in Adelaide ... in the beginning I had no work. So I set off into the wide blue yonder which was the second time I'd done that. I became Chair of the South Australian Film Corporation. I went on the Board first, and then I became Chair. I helped set up and chaired something called the Children's Advisory Bureau [Children’s Interest Bureau] for the South Australian Government, which had a monitoring brief to review all new legislation and policies affecting children. It was quite an ... it was an enlightened idea and it worked. It worked very well.

What happened to it?

I think it's still running. It continued for quite a long time, and I also did some work for the ABC. In 1982 I made six documentaries called A Matter of Chance. It was during the Year of the Disabled. And they won the Logie for the best documentary series for that year. And they were very enriching to be involved with. And then a bit later, and I think it was 1986 ... I made another series with the ABC. So I was sort of mixing freelancing and doing some kind of management and policy work.

Was that enough to make a living from, Anne, at that time?

Um ... probably not, although I was kind of coasting on ... I wasn't ... the coffers weren't completely bare ... Jonathan was beginning to cost quite a lot of money ... he would ... in the sense of trying to have him ... get him to see psychiatrists and in hiring lawyers because he used to ... he started off doing quite sort of petty things like peeing on police cars, which was not a very good idea. He stole empty Coke bottles and got charged. I mean, he was living half at home and half at ... at that stage he'd taken to the streets. And ... I just seemed to spend my life sort of chasing after Jonathan. Then he hitchhiked to Sydney and I had to go over there to fetch him back. So things were unravelling at a very quick pace, and the other two children were frightened, and ... very confused. It took quite a while before we got a diagnosis.

I really knew very few people in Adelaide except for Newell who was there ... and was helpful but, you know, it was really hard with Jonathan so crazy. And so it was ... it was probably the worst time in my life I think ... probably for ... for all of us, looking back on it, because Ellis who I was still ... I had become good friends with Ellis. Once he'd cut that sort of anger ... hostile dependency cord, and he'd found someone else who was terrific and he was very happy, he and I became friends, and he was very helpful actually because he knew me, you know, he knew me very well. And ... I've forgotten. I've lost the train there.

Well, you were talking about Jonathan and perhaps what we should do is to go back and pick up that story, because it began in Sydney before you went to Adelaide. When did you first realise that Jonathan, your eldest son, was in some sort of trouble with himself?

I think by the time he hit high school. If I look back, even in earlier years in primary school, he was a little different. He was a little vaguer than most children. He used to not find his way getting to school. He used to sit and dream in the playground. He had awful nightmares. He would walk in his sleep. He wore, until he was about four, he wanted to wear several layers of jumpers quite often, even in mid-summer. So we obviously had, looking back, quite a disturbed child even then, but because he was very engaging in his person ... people loved Jonathan. He had a wonderful smile. He was very creative. He painted with extraordinary verve and ability from quite an early age. I ... one kept ... I kept making excuses for what was happening. And ... and also even when I began to be worried, while he was still at primary school, people would say no, no, he's absolutely fine, but I would ... he was my first child, and I wasn't sure. Then high school, things really started to fly apart.

He'd had a cerebral haemorrhage at birth. Did the follow up after that clear him of any organic brain damage?

Not in the beginning because in those primary school years ... I often would bring this up, and people would negate it. Doctors would say, no, no, it's nothing like that. It's your ... it's because you're working too much, or not enough, you know. I mean it wasn't serious business in primary school except that I was always slightly uneasy about Jonathan. I kind of had a feeling that things were not quite right, and yet his coordination had come good. In the beginning, from the cerebral haemorrhage, he had muscle weakness down one side of his body, and I had spent about two years giving him exercises every day, and that straightened up. He became quite coordinated. He became a good runner. He was a good swimmer. And intellectually at that stage at school he was holding his own.

Now I think he held his own because he had extraordinary oral ability, so that he was able, aural abilities, he was able to take in ... and also oral abilities. He wasn't ... he was dyslexic, but that wasn't an expression that was used or people knew very much about. So he always had problems writing ... he had problems spelling. But he made up for it in other ways. He was very bright. He knew what was happening on the news even when he was quite a little boy. He took everything in. So that nothing actually showed itself. He was in the A stream. He was not very far from the top and so on and so on and so on. Not many friends. A bit different. And then goes to high school and there was a lot of marijuana smoking then. There was a lot of peddling, pushing drugs around the fringe of the school ... where the oval was, and Jonathan started smoking, and my memory, even in first year high school, was of trying to find Jonathan and pulling him out of bushes and ditches and parks where he would be with his mates. And what was happening then was that they would have a couple of drags and they'd be absolutely fine. Jonathan would have one puff and he'd be away with the daisies. He'd be ... you know, he'd be giggling. He'd be ... it would have a very strong reaction on him.

It was the '70s. Um ... he became quite rebellious at school. He ... I remember we had a battle. He wanted to wear a shell earring and the headmaster refused, and I can imagine myself, and indeed did ring other schools to see if they'd take him, and so on and so on ... he started truanting. He dropped right from the A stream, he dropped down with a big thud, so by the end of the year he was in probably the lowest grade of all. And I think he just wasn't coping. And again in my knowledge of the illness now, he was kind of de-compensating. He was in that prodromal stage of the illness.

But at that time, were you attributing it to the drug culture?

Yeah a bit. And ... but again there was that underlying worry. I remember talking about it with the school counsellor and the principal, and they were very good. You know, they did respond .. I remember he went to a child psychologist, or a student psychologist, but nobody could put their finger on it and that's probably not surprising because it was too ... his behaviour was not anything specific enough to be really alarmed. Again, if I look back and had he maybe been my second child ... I might have been more aware that something was going wrong. But by the time he was in ... towards the end of his high school years, I was well aware something was very wrong. He even took himself away from high school. He asked if he could ... in his second year, if he could go to boarding school ... because he wanted to be in a smaller environment where he didn't get lost. He would get confused going from one classroom to another ... and he went to the Blue Mountains Grammar School.

And it was interesting. In a very highly structured environment ... where there were fewer boys and much more attention given to him, he actually did very well again. And he managed to kind of reintegrate in some way. And he did extremely well. Scholastically he did very well. But at the end of that year ... the deal had been that he could leave if he wanted to. He refused to go back and he went back to the high school.

Which was which high school?

Hunter's Hill High School ... and after that it became increasingly chaotic because he was clearly smoking quite a lot of dope ... I don't know whether he had started to experiment with acid, but quite likely. I mean, he was still only about 15 ... he began stealing stuff, kind of, the odd transistor radio, and this kind of thing. He would be in front of the children's court. He'd ... present very well. He'd get a ticking off ... I knew something was wrong. And it's interesting. If you talk to other parents as I've done a great deal of, most parents, particularly the mother, know that something is not quite right, and that it's not just the brat child. It's not just the child who's been over-indulged or whatever parental reason might be given, as frequently were given, and could have had some influence. But it was much ... it was more than that. I knew that.

What was Ellis doing?

Ellis was very worried. Ellis in a crisis when things went wrong was very good ... so that Ellis was very good. He'd come to the children's court. Apart from that, he didn't have a good relationship with Jonathan. It was ... it was quite an angry one, and I think Jonathan found it very hard to trust him and vice versa. So it was a very ... it was a bad relationship that one ... and so it's sort of funny looking back. Ellis was good in the crisis but not good in daily living.

And what sort of ... what did you have in mind in taking him to Adelaide? Did you feel that that might be a new start for him?

Yeah. A fresh start. And a sort of fresh start for all of us because the break up with Ellis initially was fairly difficult ... he didn't want to end our marriage. I had felt that it was very important that I did, and I still believe that.

Why did you feel that?

Oh, just because ... I think it was a very destructive relationship at that stage ... and we had tried to get things better and it had been impossible. And I just couldn't go on. I had had enough in other words ... and I felt it was ... I just wanted to end it. However, in the end, we managed to separate actually very well. Again it was that process of cutting the cord. Once ... once the decision was made and the boundaries were set in a sense by saying, ‘I still care about you but I can no longer live with you.’ When he finally accepted that, he actually ... he was very good about the break up. And so we didn't quarrel about the children. We didn't quarrel about money, and that part of it I think we achieved very well. Much better than actually living together.

Now once you got to Adelaide, did Jonathan go to school?

Yes, Jonathan ... when we got to Adelaide ... spread his angel wings and clearly felt this was a new beginning, and he wanted to go back to school. He'd dropped out of school the year previously. He had had about six months without schooling where he was supposed to be going to evening class or tech college. I can't remember which. But ... he decided to go back to high school and he went and interviewed with me the principals of about four or five high schools to find one that he felt he liked. He was very responsible. The interviews were very interesting ones and he went to Marryatville High School, which was a school that concentrated a lot on music and art. By then he was spending a lot of time at art classes with adults in Hunter's Hill, and he used to go to art exhibitions, and he really had developing ... he was developing into somebody who clearly had a lot of talent, a lot of ability. His work was quite exciting.

And so there he was. He got his new uniform. He went off. People appeared to like him very much and people did like Jonathan. They responded very warmly to him. So he came back with friends. He came back with his homework. He came back with his English literature assignments. I think they were doing Shakespeare and we had long discussions about them. But even at the end of the first week, it was clear he wasn't holding it together. He started to get anxious. He started to feel that he couldn't cope with the work that he was being given. He started to get a bit paranoid, and at the end of six weeks he said he couldn't stay on any longer. He couldn't hold it together. And that was just before he had his first psychotic episode. He even went to the principal, as I did, but he went on his own to explain why he was leaving, and to say he was sorry.

And it's interesting even ... some years after he left that school, and he was only there for six weeks, people remembered him, and when he died people wrote me letters, or a couple of boys had kept in touch, and teachers. So he had this two-sided personality. There was the side of Jonathan when he was psychotic that was very ... really quite frightening because he was frightened. And there was the other side of Jonathan that was immensely engaging. And so he left school.

What happened during his first psychotic episode?

He’d had a friend down from Sydney ... they were smoking a lot of dope by then, and I had less and less control over them. They were being ... particularly Jonathan, was being very angry, very sort of hostile to his two ... his brother and his sister ... he was sleeping during the day and awake all night. And one day he came back from ... a picnic ... or not a picnic, he'd been out camping with this friend. And the friend brought him back and he was behaving very strangely. He was giggling. He was very stiff. He wasn't responding to anything that any of us said to him, and he sat down to dinner and then in the middle of dinner just jumped up and started walking round and round. There was a plum tree, I remember, in the garden ... walking round and round the tree and squashing all the plums. And ... and his mind was clearly racing and he was talking to himself, a lot of psychobabble ... and then he ran away, shot away, and I didn't see him ‘til the following morning. And he slept.

And ... I remember asking ... then asking some psychiatrist, a friend I had there, what might be happening. I remember going to a counsellor and so on and so on and so on. And again getting not a very clear response. Probably, partly, because nobody could catch Jonathan at that stage. He was very elusive. He'd sort of be in the house and then he'd disappear. So you'd hear this ... you'd be aware of him flitting in and out of the house. And then he had another episode not very long after that when we were woken up at about four in the morning and he was playing the music downstairs at top volume. He was playing Pink Floyd. And I came down and the other two, who were 11 and 14, came down to see what was happening, and I tried to turn the music down and he blew and threw me out of the room. Threw the other two out of the room. And smashed up a lot of stuff in the house and again ran out.

And we ... I remember, we were kind of in shock and we went around very early the next morning, maybe it was earlier in the night. We went round to this friend who was a young woman psychiatrist ... in shock and said, you know, this has just happened. What do we do? And she was the first one who listened and said, ‘He's mad’, which is a kind of comforting word actually, in a way. She said, ‘I'm sure he has schizophrenia.’ And that was a relief after all these years of sensing that something was wrong, to actually have the beginnings of a diagnosis.

This was a time when the current fashion in psychiatry put a tremendous amount of emphasis in schizophrenia on the family. What did this mean for you, Anne?

Well, it made it very hard, obviously, because ... constantly the parents, particularly the mother was blamed. Not by all psychiatrists and the psychiatrists ... .most of the psychiatrists that I saw in Australia didn't do this. But it was some of the older social workers who would do this. I remember a social worker saying, you know, ‘Take your son home, Mrs Blain, and try to love him.’ And this sort of thing is very distressing when you're deeply distressed anyway, and very frightened. I remember another psychiatrist finding me crying because Jonathan had just been admitted, brought in by the police to hospital for about the fifth time in a very short period. And this psychiatrist looking at me in amazement and saying, ‘Why are you crying?’ And I said, ‘Why do you think I'm crying?’ And he said, ‘Would it help you, I think you should see a psychiatrist. That might be helpful for you.’ And I said, ‘Yes, probably would’, and went off to see the psychiatrist who was in the kind of archetypal brown study and he sat in a brown armchair and he smoked a pipe and he began his consultation with me by saying, ‘Now, tell me what your relationship was like with your mother and father. And I want you to go back to the beginning’ and clearly what he was engaging in was one of those very lengthy psychoanalytical processes. When what I wanted then was practical help, you know. And I remember, I remember jumping up from the seat and saying, ‘I don't ... this is not what I want, what I need at the moment. Maybe I do need it but right now I need ... need help in how do I manage this ... this very distressing illness and this very frightening young man and frightened young man.’

You realised that he was frightened?

I think it probably took me a while before I recognised that, because at the time when you first become aware or involved with somebody who is ill like that, you yourself are frightened because their energy is so fractured and their rages can be so strong ... that what you're aware of is that you're frightened, and ... [interruption] ... and what you're aware of is that you're frightened and ... do you want me to go back to the beginning now?

Take a drink.

My voice used to be able to go on for hours. The other thing I forgot to say was in that first year Ellis died of cancer.

Yes, we'll come back to that. I was going to get you back to that soon.

So you realised that he was frightened?

Yes, it took me ... it took me a while to learn that ... because in the beginning I was frightened, and all I could see was this raging young man, my son, who I couldn't reach out to, who ... at some stages when he was very psychotic, ... you know, was hearing command voices telling him to kill me. Now Jonathan never responded to any of the medication that was available then, and this happened in a percentage of cases. It still can happen. Although now the medications have improved and there are newer medications ... it's better. But that meant that that psychosis was ... raged a lot of the time. It was very hard to get, really, very many gaps between. And he started living in the streets, in the squats. He used to have on the walls of his squat, messages saying, 'Don't kill Mum', 'Don't kill Anne'. So he was obviously aware at one level that this was happening. He would come home and go up to his room and he'd scrawl the same thing up in thick texta, 'Don't kill Mum'. And he was very disturbed.

Did he ever harm you?

He got near it. You know, he bit my finger once very deeply. He used to get his hands around my throat ... he would throw me on the floor and put his foot on my head. I mean, it was not ... it was very horrible stuff and it was hard to get response from any crisis team. There weren't crisis teams then. The police would come. But you'd ring the police at midnight and the other two children would be huddled at the top of the house, and they'd say they would get around to us about four in the morning. And so I was often left on my own. We were left alone in this very lonely house. It was right on the beachfront and it was a four-storey house like something out of a Victorian Gothic tale, and I'd be often in the basement with Jonathan. I took to wearing a crucifix around my neck. I had a very large Ethiopian cross. It was very big. And he would think I was the devil, so I would hold it up and say, you know, ‘I'm not the devil Jonathan, I come in peace. I'm your mother. I love you. And God says you mustn't kill me’ because a lot of his ideation ranged between God and the Devil. That's where he was sitting in his mind.

And so then it was an awful time ... the only real help that I got, in the sense of kind of counselling support and backup, was his probation officer. By then he'd had several stoushes with the law and he had a probation officer called Brenda, who was the only one who came home, you see, and who was the only one who met the other two children, who came and had sticky buns with pink icing which she brought. And she said, ‘I'm Brenda and here's my number and if ever you're frightened ...’ to the other two kids. ‘And this is the sort of practical help you need.’ Um ... I also met gradually one or two other parents. I remember saying to a social worker, ‘You know, there must be other people who are going through this.’ And she said, ‘Well, I don't know,’ she said, rather doubtfully. ‘And if you don't hear from me you'll know there aren't any groups.’ So there was this awful isolation.

You'd gone down to Adelaide because you were in love and you were going to start a new relationship. What happened to this relationship through this time?

Well, we gradually got ... well, not gradually, quite quickly got more and more stressed ... Newell tried manfully to stay in, but it was very hard. And Jonathan would threaten him as well ... I was ... I had no time for the relationship, I was so stressed. I think I was also going through the menopause and Ellis had died of cancer, all in that one year. And so it ... it gradually petered out. It took about six years before it was finally ended but ... and, oh no, about four years I suppose. Ah.. and we did try to hang in together, but it really was impossible.

When did you discover that Ellis had cancer?

Ellis had cancer ... not long after he married for the ... he married ... it was his third marriage. And he was very happy. They were both happy, and about two months after he was married, he had a diagnosis of a lymphoma, and initially I think he thought that with chemotherapy he would be able to beat it, but I think the diagnosis was in May and he died in December. So it was quite quick. ... and he was in Sydney and we had just gone down to live in Adelaide. So our first Christmas in Adelaide ... I had ... Jonathan I think was in gaol at that stage, somewhere or other. He'd gone up to Sydney and had done something and had been put into gaol, and I hadn't yet managed to bail him out. And ... and Ellis died of cancer. So it was um ... it was a tough time.

When Jonathan took off to Sydney, was it to be with his father?

No. His ... I think it was to stop himself from harming us. And this was the view that many of the doctors had and other people I talked to ... then he came back to Adelaide. So he was moving between the two cities. When he came back — the house had a big cellar, a big basement flat, really. And he used to go down there. I'd never know when he was there. He would just sort of turn up and crash through. If he couldn't get into the house he'd break a window. And then he'd bring about four or five other strange young people, mostly men, young men who also had a mental illness of some sort, and who were ... most of them psychotic. So you'd go down to the basement and there was one young man ... I remember, who was always half-naked. I mean, he would sometime have his underpants on, and sometimes not, and this long red straggly beard. And he would fill in little red crosses on graph paper.

Years later I met him and he'd pulled through. He'd found medication that finally had worked for him. And he'd managed to pull through. He was still, you know, quite slowed by his illness, and had been quite ravaged by it, but he was holding his own. In fact, I've met three or four of those people who lived in the basement with Jonathan. And that was also difficult because it was very ... it was frightening for the other two children. And how do you ... every time ... you know, what do you do about it? And the police never came and ... it was really very ...

Where did Jonathan find them?

In the street.

They were all on the streets?

Yeah. I ... what I learnt ... and again, I learnt things over a long period of time, that there was this strong network of people who were homeless. Of kids who were homeless. Many of them were psychotic, or had a mental illness. And they would in a certain haphazard way support each other. So I came to know them all down below in the basement. And they'd come up and make tea, and I actually ... there was one of them called Clayton Pring, who's now living in Cuba ... and Clayton was a bit older than the others. And Clayton used to quote Yeats and Byron and Romantic poetry and every now and then, however, he'd turn to me, and he'd pick up the rolling pin and he'd be quite serious and he'd say, ‘I have my cannon trained on you, Anne Deveson, and if you don't behave yourself, I will blast you out of the window’ and then he'd disappear downstairs to the basement again. So it was a pretty wacky life.

So down there in the netherworld of the basement was this group of people, from time to time, or Jonathan, and then up at the top of the house were the other two children. Now how were you relating to those two?

Inadequately. And this is classic stuff that comes up in the literature. It's the other children who don't get the attention they need ... where you're aware that this is happening, where you ... you simply do the best you can. And I think both of them were quite shortchanged. Georgia ... they were both ... I had sent them by then to a private school because it was a school that took in boarders. And I felt in the circumstances I might need a boarding school because things were getting ... increasingly dodgy. And um ... you know, Jonathan a couple of times ... we moved house two or three times while we were in Adelaide.

Um ... Jonathan burnt part of the house. He would chuck things out of the window, trash the house ... throw the kids around, the other two around. And there was a period when I sent Josh to school as a weekly boarder and he would come home if it was safe to come home, but not otherwise. And Georgia, by the time she was 16, went and stayed with school friends, and came home when it was safe to come home. And I was in the house on my own, at one stage with security guards on the house, and this was the craziness of a mental health system, that even though by then there was quite a lot known about the illness, nevertheless there wasn't a response in the way there is now — and it's still pretty damn inadequate now. But ... it was almost impossible to get people into hospital, particularly if they had a history of mental illness .... and, you know, Jonathan — who was a very sick disturbed and very vulnerable kid of about then only 18, 19 or so on — would be living in the parks and in the streets. And it was very ... almost impossible to get help for him.

Did this have anything to do with the whole movement for de-institutionalisation that had sort of swept the world really in the '60s and '70s ... taking the very strong view that if people could live in the community they should?

Well in ... yes and no. I mean, yes in a sense that they had started emptying out the hospitals some years before that, I mean, before we became involved ... but it was also partly because nothing else was put in its place. This was the beginning of the breakdown there. However, having said that, there were an awful lot of people in institutions for years and years and years who should need never have been there ... and I think the de-institutionalisation as a concept is a very good idea and that when people can get treatment in the community, and that treatment is better now than it was, then I think people are much better living in the community. But you must have enough beds and enough resources and be able to acknowledge that not everybody can cope in the community, or not everybody can cope in the community all the time. And there are going to be periods when people need asylum, need safety in a hospital. And what happened then and what is still happening, I regret to say, is that people come in sometimes for a day or 12 hours or two days and they're not stabilised. Even 10 days is often not enough to stabilise someone and they get put back into the community and the whole thing starts again.

During that period in Adelaide when you were first dealing with all of this, looking back, what was the most useful help that you got, apart from Brenda, from the mental health system?

... [laughs] ... It's hard to think of any. There must have been. There were some good psychiatrists ... but the system wasn't good. I did in the end have a psychiatrist who looked after Jonathan, who said to me, ‘Look, if you need any help, practical help, do you want to check in with me once a month, or if anything turns up that's a crisis, do you want to be able to come and talk this through with me?’ That was very ... that was very sensible and helpful because some of these decisions are huge decisions to have to make on your own. Do you bail your son out although he's there on quite a serious charge? And if you don't bail him out what are the consequences? If you've been told to exercise tough love, which was all the fashion then, what does that mean if you call the police and have him thrown out in the middle of a great storm. You know, is really that the only way to behave? Or there was a stage when I remember being told that because Jonathan was ... that period when he was quite dangerous, the response was that either I should take the other two children and take ... and go over to Europe and live with my brothers there, and forget all about Jonathan. Start a new life. The second suggestion was that I should get two Alsatian dogs and the third suggestion was that I should get a penthouse that was security contained and we should go and live there. And I should put the children in boarding school.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 9