Essay: Mykaela Saunderson writing gender

Stories of Our Dysfunction Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Please be aware that the essays for Writing Gender #2 contain discussions and personal experiences that some readers and trauma survivors may find distressing.

Writing Gender #2 seeks to explore how writing plays a significant role in making visible acts of cultural, physical and gendered violence against women and trans and gender diverse people.

Our broader aim is to explore such writing within contexts of cultural safety and healing, and the vital necessity of articulation, including the power of trauma-informed narratives to engender greater public awareness and instigate social action. Many of our writers also reflect on, and explicitly narrativise, the potential toll of this repeated re-visiting of traumatic experiences through writing, especially in public and private spaces. We repeatedly ask: What happens when trauma is the conduit to writing in the public sphere? What new kinds of violence can occur when trauma is mobilised through writing for public consumption?

Donna Abela will lead a conversation on these themes between Mykaela Saunders, Eloise Brook, Eda Gunaydin and Amani Haydar on Friday 9 September. Please join us for this free online event at 11am. Register here.

One night a few years ago our neighbour Lisa knocks on our door. Her two young daughters are with her and I can tell something is up. The oldest, Sally, has just started primary school and the youngest, Patty, is a couple of years behind. We normally talk every day – mostly it’s the girls chatting away to me while I work out the front – but I haven’t seen them around much over the last few weeks. I’ve been worried about them and we are all happy to see each other.

I invite them in, and once we have the girls settled on the floor with some games and books, Lisa and I sit on the couch and talk in low and fast whispers about what’s been going on, the gist of which is – Lisa has recently realised that she’s been experiencing intimate partner violence at the hands of her husband over the last few years. The situation had recently escalated, so she left with the girls a few weeks back. He’d recently moved out, but they’d been too worried to go back and had been couch surfing at different friends’ houses. She’d come back tonight to pick up some of their belongings. Lisa was on high alert, talking non-stop in the way that people in shock tend to do. Adrenaline would flood her body until she felt safe – and then she would crash and burn.

The reason Lisa had only recently realised what was going on, was because she had started talking about what was going on at home for the first time in her relationship. She began to make friends with the other mums from Sally’s new school, and over a few months of talking to them after school drop-offs and at play dates, she began to open up to them. Her new friends, this sisterhood, helped her to understand that her husband was abusing her.

My heart goes out to Lisa and the kids as she tells me everything. She tries not to cry because every time she does, the girls stop playing and look at us.

One of my earliest memories comes from when I was a similar age to Patty. We lived in Prospect. I remember standing in front of my mum (Aboriginal) and defending her from Jim’s violence. Jim was my younger brothers’ white dad and Mum’s partner at the time. We weren’t able to leave him straight away because we had no support or resources, unlike Lisa.

It was a few years later, when I was Sally’s age, that we escaped in the middle of the night to a safe house – Mum, myself and my older and younger brothers. I remember the older woman at the house gave us toys to play with as she and mum spoke, too quietly for us to hear. I remember mum crying a lot. Not long after, we returned home and Jim moved out, but soon he started stalking Mum and staking out the house. One night, on my birthday, Mum ducked up to the shops to get bread and milk. Jim had been watching the house and he broke in and kidnapped my youngest brother. Our neighbour heard us screaming and came and stopped him.

We all fled to the Tweed soon after, each of us scarred for life in different ways to do with guilt and shame and helplessness. It was hard for my mum, moving interstate where she knew nobody (safe, but lonely), with no support, no money and no child support from any of our fathers.

At the time I begin writing this essay, one famous white actor, Johnny Depp, is suing his ex Amber Heard, another famous white actor, for defamation because she had written an essay wherein she alluded to Depp’s abuse of her. Her wealthy abuser chose Virginia as the site of his battle as it is the state that would most likely find in his favour, and he used the courts and law to sully her name and make her pay.

Details of the abuse infect every square inch of the internet. Reportage and commentary about the case pollutes everyone’s newsfeeds without anyone’s consent. This is clearly a well-funded, well-orchestrated smear campaign designed to control the narrative and continue the abuse of the abuser over the abused, using the most quickly-produced, most accessible form of writing – social media. The abuser weaponises these powerful communication platforms to turn public opinion against his ex, maintaining his abuse of her. The world watches in real time as this social media circus empowers other angry, hurtful men who want to keep controlling those who have escaped them.

My partner and I talk about the case. We call it ‘boys versus girls superbowl’ and we wonder what encouragements rich, famous alleged abusers like Marilyn Manson and Shia LeBeouf will take from this. We care more about the lessons that their respective accusers Evan Rachel Wood and FKA Twigs will take, as well all the other people who have recently spoken out against their abusers. But we worry much more for those non-famous people who stand up to their abusers, especially those who have race, class, gender, sexuality and disability stacked against them. We feel for me-too pioneers like Tarana Bourke who watched the potential of the movement be absorbed into white girlboss feminism.

As the defamation case shows, when an abusive person can no longer control you they try to control the narrative about you. Some years ago, I left a very-short lived relationship after they (white) suddenly became controlling and violent. I left just as suddenly and I never went back. I privately endured months of threats via text as I watched my ex try to convince everyone via social media of all the bad shit they made up about me. So I know all about the power of abusive gossip to turn public opinion. I’ve also since seen this play out a few times with friends and colleagues after bad breakups, and I always know who’s side I’m on.

When I left my ex, it was an Aboriginal friend who kept talking to me through the threats and made sure I was staying somewhere safe and that I wasn’t going back. She left her own white partner not long after in similar circumstances, and I supported her through it. Maybe helping me was practise for helping herself.

Sitting on my couch, I tell my neighbour what my friend told me all those years ago – to protect herself and the kids at all costs, because the most dangerous time to be a woman in this country today is just after she leaves an abusive relationship.

At the time I left my abusive ex, I was a lecturer, teaching an Aboriginal Studies unit on transgenerational trauma. The irony was not lost on me. Family violence has infected every generation of my family in living memory. Sometimes, when I write about things I’ve experienced or witnessed, it’s unclear which generation I’m speaking of.

Fleeing is in my blood – my mum showed us how to do it when I was a child, as did hers. One night, when they were children, when their white father was at work, my mum and her siblings were woken by their Aboriginal mother in the middle of the night, told to take their pillowcase off and pack it full of things they wanted to take with them and they left.

A few years later this same Aboriginal grandmother slipped into a coma. She had accumulated acquired brain damage from the beltings from her ex. He, as her legal husband and guardian, had the authority to have the machine turned off and he did. Mum and her siblings never spoke to him again, and that’s why I never met either of my mum’s parents.

Racist settlers and sunken blacks like to say that violence is our culture, placing the blame on our people rather than locating its complex origins in colonial violence. They do this as though their own cultures weren’t and aren’t some of the most violent the world has ever known.

About six years ago, in response to Bill Leak’s umpteenth shitty cartoon, the #AboriginalDads hashtag went around. Now, according to white kinship rules, I do not have an Aboriginal dad, but in our way of family I have a few. And I remember posting about my Aboriginal and South Sea Islander Pa, who fostered and adopted hundreds of black kids over decades, including my Aboriginal stepdad who loved us like his own. I also posted about my Aboriginal uncle who taught me so much about culture and politics.

By posting this gendered celebration of the three men who helped bring me up I was pandering to white people so they could see our humanity – which, I concede, was originally a response to a gendered attack on our people. Still, conspicuously absent was an #AboriginalMothers hashtag. So: let me state for the record that my Aboriginal mother single-handedly did the job of all of the above men plus a million things more, but she never got any special thanks because it was all just expected of her.

It is getting late. My partner and I order food for Lisa and the kids, and while we wait for it to arrive, my partner goes with Lisa to their old house while she picks up some of their belongings. She’s afraid to go alone. I stay back with the girls and when the food arrives, the others rejoin us. After dinner, my partner plays Wii with the girls and Lisa and I resume talking about her abuse, but soon, our yarn turns to other, related stuff.

We are talking about the endemic gendered violence on this continent – how many people we know who have been part of it. I mention that it’s entrenched historically. Lisa begins to tell me of a friend of hers who works in an Aboriginal community.

I interrupt her. ‘You know I’m Aboriginal, right?’ I say this because I’m not a ‘cosmetically apparent’ blackfella, as Jackie Huggins says. I’m what’s known as an ‘undercover brother’. I interrupt Lisa because I know how these yarns go. Stories about white women who go to work in Aboriginal communities never go well for anyone, especially those based on second- or third-hand info, and I know Lisa is one of those closed-circuit Christians so I assume her friend is one too.

‘Yes, I knew that,’ says Lisa and I brace myself.

She goes on to tell me how bad all the violence is in this community she’s never been to, that she can’t even name when I ask her. She goes on to talk about all the ‘black magic’ that goes on in this remote and anonymous place, and then, presumably in response to my face shutting down, she ends with a gushing chat about how spiritual all the elders are. With the kids nearby, happy and playing Wii, I just absorb what she says into my body and I change the subject, so I can air it back out at a later date, when she is gone, when I can talk to my partner about it and write about it.*

To people like Lisa, and maybe some reading this, the real Aboriginal people live out in the bush and are simultaneously violent and spiritual in the extreme. I refuse to explain what is wrong with this. You either get it or you don’t.

At this point I want to point out that Lisa isn’t white, but to me that doesn’t matter. There is little difference between this racist settler who doesn’t know shit about my people and that one who thinks the same thoughts. This is what racist settlers do, no matter their origin – they project dysfunction onto us and excuse all the dysfunction in their own hearts and homes.

Fuck it. Maybe I will explain. There is bitter irony for me, as a blackfella, in a non-white woman fleeing a white man’s violence to take refuge in my Aboriginal home on Aboriginal land and receiving my Aboriginal comfort and hospitality, and choosing then to talk about the psychic and physical violence done by (authentic) blacks in the bush, to each other – ideas which came from the mind of a Christian missionary.

And what about me? Who am I in all this? Despite not identifying as or with any gender in any which way, Lisa sees in me a big sister or aunty archetype and she has come to me for help and comfort and venting and processing. Lisa feels entitled to the gifts of this archetype despite me never, ever wanting to be related to this way with anyone in my life – even with my near and dear. I don’t like talking about heavy shit at the best of times, especially with strangers, but I’m told I’m good to talk to, so sometimes I don’t mind doing it. Tonight it was uninvited, but here we are, and Lisa has partaken in the gifts of that archetype without any knowledge of the harm she is doing by coming into my home and telling me what she really thinks of my people. And now, because of some assumed sisterhood I do not belong to, I am expected to be soft and understanding to a racist in my own home. And I pretend it doesn’t matter for the sake of peace.

Why don’t I shoot Lisa down in flames, or educate her? Because it won’t do anything. Lisa’s comments come from a lifetime of this kind of thinking and I won’t undo her beliefs with a few well-timed quips. This isn’t Hollywood. Her kind of dumb thinking is fed from a deep wellspring of racism that has been stagnating over centuries. Talking to her right now won’t make me or Lisa or her daughters feel better. I’ll talk about this later and write about it to explore the dynamics and issues, and hopefully feel better about it.

But I mostly just can’t be bothered talking to her because I know how this will go – I’ll either explain, then she’ll feel sorry and horrified and suck up my arse and cry to make me feel sorry for her. Or, if I were to speak my mind, no matter how gentle I pitch it or how much I mollycoddle Lisa, it’s more likely that her excuses would fly out to meet me and of course I would stand firm and so then, I would be the bad guy. Either way it will become all about Lisa and her feelings.

Though I am sitting right in front of her, Lisa prefers her third-hand knowledge of Aboriginal dysfunction. To her, I am just an anomaly that doesn’t fit her paradigm, as she locates authenticity elsewhere – in other, blacker, more remote and violent and spiritual Aboriginal people. Tonight, Lisa has drawn from and contributed to a much larger fiction of Aboriginal dysfunction that has been told over centuries. In the first chapter of Another Day in The Colony, Chelsea Watego talks of the ways that colonial and contemporary authorities have storied our dysfunction over time and provides dozens of examples and other evidence.

One gendered piece of evidence that I would like to contribute to this yarn comes from historian Marguerita Stephens, who reminds us that ‘in 1997, Pauline Hanson republished Daisy Bates’ testimony about infanticide and maternal cannibalism despite it being long discredited.’ Hanson has built her entire grotty career off colonial fictions about us, and in doing so, she has firmed those fictions up. Bates’ testimony, along with many other so-called ‘impartial records’ written by colonisers, have been foundational to these fictions – the very same fictions that inspired the politicians who orchestrated the Northern Territory Emergency Response. John Howard, Mal Brough, Amanda Vanstone and others, too, consulted bunk records and counterfeited their own in the form of the ‘Little Children Are Sacred’ report, a process which justified the government’s racist and abusive occupation of Aboriginal countries and communities. They, too, in building upon existing fictions about us, amplified and perpetuated our people’s supposed dysfunction as whole, but also in a gendered way as parents and partners.

It is into this mythic space that white Christian missionaries have always gone to work to inflict violence on Aboriginal people under pretence of saving the heathens from black magic, just like Lisa’s friend who was gallivanting around the bush and saving the blacks. I know of white women who’ve gone into communities to take Aboriginal babies home for their own, and I know of a former evangelical who ended up race-shifting into an Aborigine himself.

Marcia Langton said that ‘most Australians do not know how to relate to Aboriginal people. They relate to stories told by former colonists.’ And Watego is correct when she says that these stories are not just of their time (some time in the past). They are of all times, including this one.

Here, I’d like to point the finger at the media outlets who were and are complicit in building on this story, including the ABC, the same media outlets who refuse to give column space and airtime to our many missing and murdered people, who are mostly Aboriginal women. The assumption is always that the perpetrators of Aboriginal violence are Aboriginal men and that the victims are Aboriginal women – something parroted by then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2013, when he said Aboriginal women were too busy ‘cowering in their huts’ to participate in politics (a bit rich, given that it was the Australian army that was occupying these communities). Australia doesn’t want to know about it if the perpetrators are white men or women – a thesis echoed by the 1982 book All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave edited by co-edited by Black American scholars Akasha Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott and Barbara Smith. So many of our women and other gender people are denied justice through this erasure.

The mandate for Aboriginal suffering to be invisible has been a top-down pressure from Australian society, which is often internalised and enforced by Aboriginal families too. I was brought up to always perform for society and to never draw attention to ourselves. This is a generations-long hangover from many types of government interference.

For justice to be even considered for our many women and girls who are murdered or missing, our abuse needs to be witnessed and spoken about rather than ignored and silenced. I am no expert on this stuff, and I urge readers to read the important work of Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist Amy McQuire. I especially want to foreground her methodology of presencing, of which she says:

I consider ‘presencing’ a way that black media can contest these damaging representations through acts of ‘presencing’. For me, presencing is about making visible the overlapping forms of violence that impact Aboriginal women in life and death. If we see this, we can also see the everyday acts of resistances employed by Aboriginal women and their families against this violence. If we cannot see this violence, the violence is seen as being self-inflicted; a problem of our communities, and not a tool of colonialism. Violence was used to secure the interests of the colonisers, and it is through obscuring this violence that we in turn are seen as violent.

In my mind, McQuire’s presencing is a strategy that relates to Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor’s concept of native survivance, which is ‘an active sense of presence over historical absence, deracination, and oblivion…’

We are all so tired in different ways. We let Lisa and the girls sleep in our bed so they are out of sight of the front window, and we sleep on the couch.

When I begin writing this essay, a lifetime of feelings I’ve absorbed and subsumed into my body start to make their way back up to the surface – all the older feelings that I wasn’t allowed to feel when I was younger and fleeing, those from when I fled my ex a few years ago, and those from when I comforted my fleeing neighbour. Now I get to feel it all again, all together, and the floodgates are well and truly open and I can’t stop writing. The first version of this essay has everything in it and it is five times the asked-for word count. I cannot do any other work today because of the heaviness I carry in my body. All I want to do is cry and punch something, and not just for me – I carry generations of this baggage with me and my community is full of people with even gnarlier intergenerational loads.

Now it’s all out on the page, and in subsequent editing sessions I come to hate working on this essay, and so every day I only allow myself half an hour to work on it at a time. I am always in a foul mood afterwards. Why am I writing this? I’m dredging up all these memories for this essay, resistant yet resigned because I committed to it. I don’t like backing out of things and I also need the money. But is it worth it?

As I work on this essay my old friend, the prolonged panic attack, comes back. The form this takes is of never being able to take deep enough breaths for as long as it’s here in my body. It comes often and it always comes on suddenly. Depending what’s going on in my life, it usually lasts anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. On top of this, my hands are stiff and sore. This is a fight response, another somatic thing that comes in times of stress, from constantly flexing my hands and bunching them into fists.

I end up leaving so much out of this essay. True to my upbringing, I hide everything secret from public scrutiny. I spend ages agonising over how to tell this story without endangering or upsetting or betraying anyone. I edit this beast right down to its bones. Even still, it is double the word count. I have never been someone who can talk about anything in isolation.

I write these stories out because I couldn’t resolve them with my neighbour at the time, or with my ex, or my mum’s ex, or my grandfather, or any of the many, many others I left out of this final, tidy narrative. It is retraumatising, but it’s better than not writing it, isn’t it? Writing this has well and truly thrown me and done a number on my spirit and my body. Is it worth revisiting all this old stuff for public consumption?

I hope so. Any lifelong Aboriginal person writing publicly about our trauma today is speaking back against the systemic, concerted storying of our dysfunction. And we have to speak back, because we are constantly spoken over and silenced, and left out of reports and statistics about things that affect us the most – and on our own land too, no less. We have our own voices and stories – and we always have and always will – and so we continue presencing our stories and asserting our side of the colonial story, so that our abusers, personal and institutional alike, can no longer control the narrative about us.


Lisa’s name has been changed, as have all other names in this essay.

* My friend Leah Jing McIntosh taught me about this framing, from Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: A Reckoning on Race and the Asian Condition. United Kingdom: Profile Books Ltd, 2021.

Works Cited

Marguerita Stephens. “A Word of Evidence: Shared Tales About Infanticide and ‘Others Not Us’ in Colonial Victoria “. In Creating White Australia edited by Jane Carey and Claire McLisky. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2009.

Gerald Robert Vizenor. Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.