Review: Sam Elkinon Sandie Jessamine

Sites of Trauma That Beckon Us Back

Institutions do speak and it’s not just wind rushing through. We were watched, written, archived. Open those files and you’re a girl lost to yourself.

Borderline is the memoir of Sydney mental health advocate, writer and art therapist Sandie Jessamine, who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. The book covers her early life in the suburbs in Adelaide and the north-western Sydney suburb of Windsor, through to her experiences in youth detention and squats in Redfern. It’s first and foremost a trauma memoir, one that puts youth detention in the spotlight. Jessamine recounts formative experiences that include an attempted rape at 12 and being beaten by a police officer during an interrogation at 15. But what is really distinctive about Borderline is that Jessamine is inhabited by multiple personalities, including an abused child, a rebel teen, a poetry reciting witch called Sami and a violently disinhibited ‘wild cat’.

Jessamine begins her memoir with an explanation of why she was compelled to excavate her traumatic childhood memories. While working as a creative writing teacher inside a men’s prison in her fifties, she formed an improper relationship with an incarcerated former police officer. The matter was investigated, and she confided to her employer that she was being inhabited by her alternate personalities. Jessamine was promptly sent for a workplace fitness assessment where she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, as well as complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jessamine describes the added trauma of having the complex interplay of events that led to her breakdown reduced to a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder after a single meeting with the psychiatrist:

In a process akin to alchemy, the months I’d spent in and out of amnesiac states in a prison that held men convicted of rape, murder, child sex offences and police corruption, were reduced into these three words.

It’s a difficult diagnosis, as borderline personality disorder remains a highly stigmatised condition. As Jessamine notes, those who live with it are often ‘viewed as manipulative, attention-seeking, difficult and nasty.’

Although Jessamine describes being inhabited by multiple personalities, her psychiatrist considers but ultimately rejects the diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder in favour of borderline personality disorder – for ‘simplicity’. Described by mental health charity SANE Australia as ‘a rare and complex psychological condition where a person experiences two or more distinct identities called alters,’ dissociative identity disorder remains a controversial diagnosis with a fascinating literary origin story.Sybil: The True Story of a Woman Possessed by 16 Separate Personalities, written Flora Rheta Schreiber and published in 1973, is said to have almost single-handedly manufactured the psychiatric phenomenon. The book sold over 6 million copies worldwide and was made into a popular television movie. Promoted as the true story about the treatment of Sybil Dorsett (a pseudonym for Shirley Ardell Mason), the account was largely discredited in Debbie Nathan’s 2012 book Sybil Exposed, which alleged that Schreiber was aware that ‘Sybil’ had invented most of her symptoms. The public debate about the authenticity of this diagnosis has recently been taken up by a new generation, after an 18-year-old’s many alters went viral on TikTok.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD), by contrast, is the most commonly diagnosed personality disorder in Australia, said to affect between 1 and 4 per cent of the population. It’s mostly women who are diagnosed with BPD. A wide range of symptoms are attributed to this condition, including bursts of extreme emotion, dissociative states, memory loss, unstable self-image, paranoia, disordered thinking, unstable relationships, attachment issues and altered states of mind. Jessamine tells us that it was this, the experience of being labelled with such a stigmatised condition, that fuelled her desire to revisit her traumatic past and write her memoir.

To convey her crowded interior world, Jessamine gives her alter egos plenty of room to recount events from their own perspective. The prologue is given over to Sami the Witch, one of Jessamine’s poetry-loving ‘alters’ who frequently recites ‘Oh, the travesty, the pain.’ It’s an unusual artistic choice that certainly does the job of discombobulating the reader, but does make it harder for the reader to form an early connection with the memoir’s main psychic protagonist. A creative approach to formatting or an even more experimental writing style might have strengthened these sections and allowed the reader to form that connection.

In ‘The Child’, Jessamine takes us through her early years. Her education is frequently interrupted due to her father’s military commitments as they re-locate from Melbourne to the Gold Coast, Adelaide and north-west Sydney. The young Sandie exhibits early signs of trauma for reasons that remain opaque to her family, and she begins to act out. She sets fire to her sister’s bed while being inhabited by an alter ego called ‘wild cat’. Her family is confused and frustrated by her behaviour as she destroys household crockery and shoplifts. Things further deteriorate after her friend’s brother tries to rape a twelve-year-old Sandie and she runs away from home. After attempting to cash stolen cheques to fund her escape, she is arrested and sent to a youth detention centre for ‘delinquent’ girls in western Sydney.

In these early chapters, Jessamine takes on challenging task of writing from the perspective of herself as young child, hard for any writer to pull off. She conveys a strong sense of being a creative, misunderstood child who is bullied at school and at home. But by remaining resolutely in the child’s point of view, Jessamine struggles to convey what her many difficult experiences might tell us about the world at large, and thus misses an opportunity to reflect on themes such as structural sexism, adoption, alcoholism and its relationship to Australian masculinity or the failings of the mainstream education system.

Jessamine moves onto her experiences in reform institutions across Sydney in ‘The Delinquent’. Sandie is first sent to Minda Remand Shelter in Lidcombe and Reiby Training school, near Campbelltown in Western Sydney. There, she and the other girls are medicated with Mellaril, a powerful antipsychotic drug, and are made to undergo forced genital examinations to check for pregnancy and venereal disease. Jessamine transcribes some of her reports from the Reiby Superintendent into Borderline to illustrate how she and the other girls are constantly monitored and assessed by adult authority figures. This allows Jessamine to convey the pathologisation and criminalisation of relatively ordinary teenage behaviour in this carceral context. It’s easy to see how a traumatised young person can get trapped in youth detention once placed there.

After serving extra time for minor infractions, Sandie is released back into the care of her parents at the age of fifteen. Since she has missed so much school, Sandie decides to start a secretarial course in Wagga Wagga, but feels alienated from her classmates and drops out. She briefly stacks shelves at Woolworths and works at a pie shop, but after a particularly degrading sexual experience, Sandie begins self-harming and setting fires again, and she is kicked out of her family home. From there, she is ordered by the Children’s Court to be returned to institutional care. She is sent to Kamballa, a new institution for girls on the site of the recently closed Parramatta Girls Home. Here, Jessamine alludes to the feminist organisers who drove the establishement of Kamballa in response to the harsh conditions by those incarcerated in the early decades of the twentieth century. Members of Sydney’s women’s movement came together to campaign to shut down the Parramatta Girls’ Home, which helped to spur on the making of an explosive 1973 ABC television documentary about the shocking conditions at the institution. The following year the NSW government announced that they would permanently close Parramatta Girls’ home and re-open it as Kamballa; a progressive, rehabilitative institution with an emphasis on educational opportunities. Sandie notices how much friendlier the staff are towards the girls at Kamballa, which she finds jarring after her experiences at the more punitive Reiby Training School. She is amazed to find they have sewing classes, a pool and a lounge room with couches and Suzie Quatro records. This is the first memoir to cover this feminist social experiment, lasting from 1974 and 1983, and as such it’s an important contribution to social history.

Once Sandie reaches Kamballa, Borderline begins to develop some real pace. Jessamine introduces characters who feature in the rest of the memoir (acknowledged to be composites in the introduction to protect the privacy of the former residents). This includes Farrow, a formerly homeless Aboriginal girl from Redfern who had been engaging in robbery and survival sex work, and Kelly, a middle-class white girl from Vaucluse, convicted of murdering her grandmother and Lorraine, a ward of the state with a disability. In spite of the measures that were taken to soften the experience, incarceration at Kamballa was nonetheless devastating. The girls soon hatch a plan to escape.

They jump the fence, steal clothes and board a train to Kings Cross, where they are taken in by Angel, an 18-year-old former Parramatta Girls Home resident living in a brothel, who attempts to help the girls escape to Melbourne. When Sandie and another girl are apprehended, a police officer slams Sandie’s head into the wall while interrogating her about the whereabouts of her companions. She loses consciousness before being charged and returned to Kamballa, where she finds that none of the staff want to help her seek justice after her bashing. Sandie ends up in and out of isolation cells for fighting, and feels as though she is unravelling mentally. Her alternate personas Wild Cat and Sami the Witch start to take over, and dissociation becomes a vital coping mechanism for her.

Sandie and Farrow soon escape Kamballa again and head to Redfern, where Farrow’s family live. Farrow’s mob have no money for them, but agree to swap clothes with them to help them avoid being picked up by the police. Jessamine uses these scenes to reflect upon her white family’s racism, and to discuss the history of criminalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. Farrow accuses Sandie of having ‘white girl eyes’, of looking down on her family for being intoxicated, wearing unclean clothes and living in cramped conditions.

The two of them start living rough with another group of teens, stealing handbags and shoplifting across Alexandria, Chippendale and Newtown. They bump into a group of young men who are raping a young woman who is unconscious in the back of their car. Sandie is horrified, and runs away, only to be raped herself that evening. These are shocking scenes; horrific things often happen to young people while adult bystanders watch on. Sandie ends up back in youth detention.

In ‘The Present’, Jessamine returns to the site of Kamballa after her breakdown. She has come to learn that she was sexually abused by a family member when she was very young. Her adult daughter has tragically just died of a drug overdose. As the book closes, Jessamine takes us back to an incident that occurred in her late teenage years in outback South Australia, sometime after she has been released from Kamballa. The teenage Jessamine is groped and then abandoned on a highway by a middle-aged truckie after she refuses to give him a blow job, and she finds work at a local roadhouse to survive.

So, what are we to make of all this trauma?

The trauma memoir genre has exploded in popularity since the 1990s. Some of these books, such as Dorothy Allison’s 1992 brilliant semi-autobiographical book Bastard Out of Carolina, have stood the test of time due to its brutal, vivid portrayal of the life of the white underclass in the USA’s South. Many more have not. Borderline also sits alongside a small collection of other creative works that capture some of the experiences of incarcerated young women in NSW. This includes the 2007 and 2008 plays Parramatta Girls and Eyes to the Floor by Alana Valentine, which portray the experiences of young women locked up in Parramatta Girl’s Home and the Hay Institution for Girls, and the 2019 publication of Parragirls: Reimagining Parramatta Girls Home through art and memory, which documents the art and activism of the Parragirls Memory Project. Borderline adds to this rich history of feminist arts activism by providing her own account of her time as an incarcerated young woman in Australia.

Ultimately, the value of a book like Borderline is in its ability to bring institutions like Kamballa to life. In Jessamine’s view, it was ‘the first real attempt in Australia to help institutionalised kids find self-belief and draw out our strengths.’ According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, on any given night around 800 children are locked up across the country. To our national shame, just under half were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander young people. We need stories like Borderline to help us see the devastating psychological effects that the growing rates of incarceration will inevitably have on yet another generation of young people.