Steve Blizard commenced his financial planning career in 1988 from a background of life insurance broking, a field in which he still works. He is a member of the Financial Planning Association and the Responsible Investment Association. His experience ranges from administration of Superannuation to advice regarding insurance, retirement, remuneration and investment planning. Steve is an accredited Remuneration Consultant, specialising in salary packaging. He is a columnist for the Swan Magazine and the WA Business News
steveblizard has written 584 posts for Steve Blizard's Blog
Dr Cameron Stewart at work in the high containment facility.
A team of Australian researchers has discovered a new gene with a critical role in the immune system and they are launching a public appeal to help name it.
CSIRO researcher Cameron Stewart said studying the gene — currently called C6orf106 or “C6” — could lead to new treatments for cancer, influenza and autoimmune diseases.
According to Dr Stewart and his colleagues, the gene probably evolved more than 500 million years ago in organisms much simpler than humans.
“We found the gene by studying viruses,” he said.
“Viruses can’t replicate on their own, they need host genes in order to do that.
“So we performed a comprehensive screening looking through the entire genome to identify human molecules that are important for virus growth.”
The process took about three years, working in a high containment facility.
Dr Stewart and his colleagues published their findings in the Journal of Biological Chemistry in May and, because they identified the function of a gene that had not been studied before, they have the right to name it.
Dr Stewart said he was going into the process with his eyes open and knew it was just a matter of time before Genie McGeneface gets tossed up.
“I don’t mind it, funny suggestions would be great,” he said.
“There is a body that does make the final decision so I don’t think Genie McGeneface is going to get up, but let’s see how many votes it gets in the first place.”
Genes could lead to new treatments
The CSIRO said the newly identified gene played a crucial role in regulating the body’s immune response to infection and disease.
The hope is the discovery could lead to the development of new treatments for a variety of serious diseases.
Rebecca Ambrose is a former CSIRO researcher — now based at the Hudson Institute of Medical Research — who co-authored the report on the discovery.
She said there was still much work to do when it came to understanding human genes.
“Even though the human genome was first fully sequenced in 2003, there are still thousands of genes that we know very little about,” she said.
“It’s exciting to consider that C6 has existed for more than 500 million years, preserved and passed down from simple organisms all the way to humans. But only now are we gaining insights into its importance.”
Dr Stewart echoed those sentiments and said it was an encouraging moment for his team, who work with some of the deadliest diseases on the planet.
“It is a high-containment lab and we do a lot of diagnostics work for very serious diseases, viral diseases that don’t have any cures and can infect humans,” he said.
“The idea of getting to name a gene or being the first one to discover its function, especially an important gene like this with roles in cancer and autoimmunity, it’s very fulfilling and it’s one of the reasons scientists love their job.”
Australian researchers have discovered a new gene that could lead to treatments for cancer, arthritis and influenza.
The gene, called C6, plays a critical role in regulating the body’s immune response to infection and disease and it could help scientists develop more targeted therapies for a variety of diseases.
A team at the CSIRO has found the gene regulates the production of proteins called cytokines to stop our immune system from spiralling out of control – cytokines work to prevent diseases by stopping viruses from replicating. Although C6 has existed for 500 million years, its importance has only been understood through new research.
The scientists made the “lucky” find while researching the deadly Hendra virus after they were moved to action by an episode of Australian Story on the ABC a decade ago.
Equine vet Ben Cunneen died in 2008 after contracting the rare disease while treating a sick horse, inspiring the CSIRO team to find a treatment using a painstakingly slow and careful process.
Team leader Andrew Bean said the scientists had to make sure they could work without contracting the virus themselves, working in a space with tight biosecurity while wearing “those space suits”.
One by one, the researchers “switched off” about 20,000 genes in the human genome to learn how they interact with the virus.
“If we turn it off, the virus can’t use it. And if the virus can’t replicate then we know that’s important to the virus,” Dr Bean told AAP. “(Viruses) use a method of hijacking our genes to fill in for the genes they are not carrying with them.”
Although the researchers found the gene in 2014, they spent the following years understanding how it works.
Now, a public appeal has been launched to help name the gene, whose longer moniker is C6orf106 and reflects the gene’s location rather than its function.
The public has been invited to go to http://www.csiro.au/namethegene and do better than “Gene McGeneface” – in reference to a political debacle in NSW that saw a ferry named Ferry McFerryface by the public, and another in which Boaty McBoatface topped a British online poll to name a research vessel.
A powerful new gene-editing technology called CRISPR has enormous potential to treat human diseases but the ability to tinker with genes can also be controversial. Here we explain what CRISPR is and how it works.
Since gene technology first emerged over 40 years ago we’ve seen a wealth of genetic advances — not least of all the decoding of the human genome in 2001.
CRISPR is a faster, cheaper and more accurate way of editing genes
It should allow replacing faulty genes with healthy ones
CRISPR is not yet accurate enough to use on people
Scientists have called for a moratorium on using CRISPR on sperm and egg cells
But that’s nothing compared to the genetic revolution that we’re at the beginning of right now, thanks to a technique adapted from bacteria called CRISPR (the catchy acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats).
Researchers learn what genes do by switching them on or off, or cutting them out of the DNA in a cell entirely.
Since it appeared in 2012, CRISPR has completely transformed the process that researchers use to edit genes this way.
It’s not the first method devised for this kind of genome editing, but CRISPR is a lot cheaper, faster, and more accurate than any of the alternatives. In technology jargon, it’s a capital D disruptor.
And with applications in gene therapy (replacing faulty genes with healthy ones), drug research and agriculture for starters it’s no wonder the method has taken off like a rocket.
What is CRISPR? And how does it work?
Editing genes can mean removing or replacing an existing gene, switching a gene on or off, or inserting a new gene altogether.
Whatever the aim, the first step is always to find the stretch of DNA that codes for the gene and grab hold of it, so a cut or tweak can be made.
CRISPR not only finds the target gene and locks on, it also delivers an enzyme that cuts the DNA. And it does all this with unprecedented accuracy.
The reason it’s able to manage this precision double act is because CRISPR is made of ribonucleic acid (RNA) — a molecule that can be tailor-made to perfectly match a sequence of DNA or to bind to a protein.
CRISPR RNA does both jobs — one end is custom-made to match the target gene’s DNA sequence, and the other end binds to a DNA-cutting enzyme, or nuclease.
It’s a brilliant system, and it wasn’t cooked up in a lab — scientists pinched it from bacteria.
Simple beings that they are, bacteria have a version of an immune system, and CRISPR is at the heart of it.
When a virus invades a bacterial cell, it leaves traces of its DNA in the bacterial genome. If the bacterium encounters that virus again, CRISPR RNA uses the viral DNA remnants and a nuclease called Cas9 to attack the virus.
An improved version of this CRISPR-Cas9 combination is now being used in laboratories around the world.
Cas9 is not the only nuclease in the game — there are a number of Cas (CRISPR-associated) proteins, each with a slightly different capability.
Researchers simply order the sequence of guide RNA to include a part of the gene they’re interested in, plus the Cas binding sequence, mix it with the Cas protein to suit the job and they’re ready to go.
What can CRISPR do that other gene technologies can’t?
CRISPR has two main rivals in the genome editing game, with equally odd names: zinc-finger nucleases and TALENS.
Like CRISPR, these gene editing systems can deliver a DNA-cutting enzyme to a particular gene.
But they have one key difference: while CRISPR is made of an RNA molecule, zinc-finger nucleases and TALENS are proteins, which are much trickier molecules to work with.
Unlike RNA, it’s not just the sequence of a protein that matters when it comes to making it bind — the shape is critical.
If a protein isn’t just the right shape with positive and negative charges in just the right positions, it won’t stick to DNA.
So tailoring a zinc-finger protein or TALE (TAL Effector) protein so that it’s the right shape and charge to bind to a particular gene is far more complex than ordering a custom sequence of RNA that’s a perfect match.
And complex translates to more time consuming, more expensive and less accurate to work with than CRISPR.
CRISPR technology has another benefit — it can target multiple genes in a cell at once.
Like in the bacterial system where it originated, multiple CRISPR-Cas9 combinations can exist in the one cell, all targeting different stretches of DNA — it’s just a matter of using different guide RNA sequences. That “multiplexing” just isn’t possible with protein-based guide systems.
Considering that most diseases and conditions involve more than a single gene, multiplexing opens the way to studying and potentially treating more complex genetic issues down the track.
What are the limitations of CRISPR?
While it’s a game-changer in gene editing technology, CRISPR-Cas9 isn’t error proof.
It has a much higher success rate than the other nuclease technologies when it comes to cutting DNA at the right place. But like the other systems it can also make unintended cuts outside the target gene.
It’s still early days in the technology, and reducing these off-target errors is a big focus for those working on improving CRISPR. A slight change in the Cas9 protein has already shown a significant reduction in off-target errors — the technique will need to be incredibly robust before it’s applied in a clinical setting.
Where is CRISPR at now?
CRISPR-Cas9 is still very much confined to research laboratories, but things are changing so rapidly in this field that this section will need regular updating.
Plans are afoot to use CRISPR to delete the gene for the protein that the HIV virus uses to enter T cells in the immune system, effectively locking the virus out.
Deleting genes is one thing, but inserting replacement genes is a taller order.
Success rates for this step have only just started nudging 60 per cent — well short of the extreme accuracy that is required for any clinical applications, like replacing a faulty disease-causing gene with a correct version, or engineering a cell so that it’s impervious to a virus like HIV.
Why is CRISPR controversial?
As with all methods that let us directly change genes, CRISPR has raised alarm bells on a few fronts. And its rapid uptake across the board in biotech research has some scientists understandably concerned that we’re racing ahead with experiments before knowing the full implications of the technology.
Nowhere is this more evident than in work involving human embryos.
Dr Daniel Dorsa, senior vice-president of research at OHSU, addressed some of the ethical questions raised by the latest results.
“This research significantly advances scientific understanding of the procedures that would be necessary to ensure the safety and efficacy of germline gene correction,” he said.
“The ethical considerations of moving this technology to clinical trials are complex and deserve significant public engagement before we can answer the broader question of whether it’s in humanity’s interest to alter human genes for future generations.”
While the embryos from these experiments won’t result in a child, they have added urgency to the debate around what limitations need to be put on the use of CRISPR.
That was the focus of the International Summit on Human Gene Editing in Washington in December 2016, which resulted in a call for a moratorium on using CRISPR on germ line cells (egg and sperm) until all safety issues and societal concerns have been addressed. This call has since been backed by a second group of researchers who attempted to edit human embryos.
As the accuracy and safety of CRISPR improves, and the potential clinical benefits of CRISPR become feasible, this stance will certainly evolve.
Hear more about the ethics of using technologies such as CRISPR on RN’s Big Ideas.
A Coles spokeswoman said yesterday the phasing out of single-use plastic bags “will be a big transition for customers”. Picture: AAP
By Ewin Hannan 28 June 2018 The Australian
Mice, cockroaches, needles, razor blades, dentures and dirty nappies have been found by supermarket check-out workers in reusable shopping bags, with employees told they can refuse to pack unhygienic bags.
As Coles joins Woolworths in ditching the use of single-use plastic bags at check-outs, the supermarkets giants have moved to address employee concerns about packing dirty shopping bags. The companies have also sought to address staff concerns about customers being aggressive or abusive in response to the ban.
Employees have expressed fear they could suffer injuries from lifting heavy reusable bags when customers insist staff overpack them.
Bernie Smith, the shop assistants union’s NSW secretary, said check-out staff had reported finding spiders, mice, used disposable razor blades, dirty nappies and dentures in reusable bags.
“We get stories of cockroaches crawling out on to check-outs from bags,’’ he said. A worker suffered a needle stick injury after a used needle was left in a bag, and staff said customers had presented bags strongly smelling of petrol.”
The union has launched a campaign urging customers not to “bag” retail staff. It says most customers accepted the plastic bag bans, but employees should contact their supervisor if a customer becomes aggressive or abusive.
He said many customers preferred to carry a small number of recycled bags and wanted staff to “fill them to the brim”, leading to the risk of injury. Woolworths removed single-use plastic bags at check-outs last week and Coles will implement a similar ban from Sunday. Single-use lightweight plastic bags will be banned in Queensland and Western Australia from July 1, joining South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT.
The Victorian government said yesterday single-use plastic bags used by shops, takeaway outlets and small supermarkets would be phased out by the end of next year. NSW has refused to ban single-use plastic bags, claiming the bans by the supermarket chains will be sufficient to reduce plastic bag use.
A Coles spokeswoman said yesterday the phasing out of single-use plastic bags “will be a big transition for customers”.
“However, we think that customers are willing to give up the plastic bag and use reusable bags for the sake of the environment,’’ she said. “For the health and safety of all customers and our team members, we cannot pack bags that are excessively dirty.”
She said workplace safety requirements meant “we can only fill a bag so it is safe to lift”.
“Not overfilling the bag minimises the chance of injury to customers and our team members, and also means the bag will last longer,’’ she said.
Woolworths has told staff they do not have to accept customer abuse, and complaints can be made to a duty or store manager.
If a Woolworths customer presents an unhygienic bag, staff have been told they can explain they cannot pack the items for hygiene reasons. “Staff are told to offer alternative bag options,” she said.
The weight of bags should be safe for employees to lift. If a customer asks to overfill a bag, staff are told to say too much weight might break the bag and they will not be able to lift it for the customer.
A Woolworths spokesman said the company had met with the union to discuss the removal of single-use plastic bags and training material for employees.
“At this meeting we made it clear to the SDA that our team members would be supported through the transition and appropriate health and safety standards would be upheld,’’ he said.
You can still buy & use your own low cost (1.6cents each) plastic shopping bags here
BAGS OF STUPIDITY IN THIS BAN
The ban on plastic shopping bags is a typical green policy: it does little to save the planet while hurting humans. But it doesn’t just mean inconvenience to shoppers, it could even kill them. Andrew Bolt’s editorial here.
Is there a possible link between tattoos and musco-skeletal problems?
by Jill Margo 19 June 2018 Australian Financial ReviewBeware of getting a tattoo if your immune system isn’t up to scratch. That’s the message from Scottish doctors who treated a woman whose symptoms looked unique but, on further consideration, could be far more common.
Writing in the journal BMJ Case Reports, they say a tattoo can have unexpected complications in people with low immunity and may cause severe muscle pain in the absence of any injury or trauma.
The immune system fights off infection. It’s a complex system and several things can affect it.
Although some people are be born with poor immunity, some acquire it. They may be infected with a virus, such as HIV, or contract a disease that lowers their defences. Malnutrition can do this too and it is thought stress and exposure to extreme environmental conditions are also factors.
Long-term steroid use can lower immunity as can drugs taken to prevent rejection following a transplant.
At Trauma and Orthopaedics, NHS, in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, the doctors treated a woman for chronic pain in her left hip, knee and thigh some months after she had a tattoo.
She had been taking drugs to dampen her immune system following a double lung transplant for cystic fibrosis in 2009.
Her right leg had been tattooed several years earlier, with no ill effects, and she decided to have another large, colourful tattoo on her left thigh.
It is well known some inks or colourants, commonly red ink and those that use heavy metals, can cause a reaction.
Tattooing has also been linked with complications ranging from mild skin irritation to systemic infection.
This woman developed an immediately mild skin irritation, which was not unusual. But nine days later she began to feel strong pain in her thigh and her left knee swelled.
The symptoms were so severe she needed powerful painkillers. These drugs helped a little, but her symptoms persisted and were still a problem 10 months later.
She was investigated thoroughly but no cause could be found. A biopsy of her thigh muscle did reveal chronic muscle inflammation – inflammatory myopathy – which is often accompanied by muscle weakness and pain.
This can arise spontaneously, but in her case it seemed likely to be linked to the tattoo process compounded by her compromised immunity.
Although her doctors cannot prove it, they say the timing and the site of the symptoms correlated well with the tattoo and no other causes could be found.
Physiotherapy strengthened her thigh muscles and over the following months she began to improve. Three years after the tattoo, she was pain free.
Not everything is known about the adverse effects of tattoos. Late last year, a German study showed how nanoparticles from tattoo ink can travel into the lymph glands.
Three weeks later, an Australian case study published a photograph showing how black ink from an old tattoo had gradually drained into a lymph gland and turned it black.
The doctors warn that people with compromised immune systems should be aware of the potential risks as they are at increased risk of skin infections.
This is the first documented case of inflammatory myopathy as a complication following tattooing in an immuno-suppressed person.
Just as it could be a rare occurrence, they say it could represent an underdiagnosis for patients presenting with similar symptoms following a tattoo.
They published the case study so their peers can consider tattoo-related complications as a possible diagnosis when patients, especially the immune-suppressed, present with unusual atraumatic musculoskeletal symptoms.
When someone takes their own life their relatives will suffer grief more complicated, more intense and longer lasting than for any other form of death in the family.
Roxanne Roberts’s father killed himself in 1976. On the 20th anniversary of his death, she wrote about how her family grappled with the fallout from a brutal act.
by Roxanne RobertsThe blood was like Jell-O. That is what blood gets like, after you die, before they tidy up. Somehow, I had expected it would be gone. The police and coroner spent more than an hour behind the closed door; surely it was someone’s job to clean it up. But when they left, it still covered the kitchen floor like the glazing on a candy apple.
You couldn’t mop it. You needed a dustpan and a bucket. I got on my knees, slid the pan against the linoleum and lifted chunks to the bucket. It took hours to clean it all up, and even after that we found pools I had missed under the stove and sink.
It wasn’t until I finally stood up that I noticed the pictures from his wallet. The wooden breadboard had been pulled out slightly, and four photographs were spilled across it. “Now what?” I thought with annoyance. “What were the police looking for?”
But then it hit me. The police hadn’t done it. These snapshots – one of my mother, one of our dog and two of my brother and me – had been carefully set out in a row, by my father.
It was his penultimate act.
He was 46 years old. I was 21. This year marks the 20th anniversary of his death. And I am still cleaning up.
By the time you finish this article, another person in the United States will have killed himself. More than 30,000 people do it every year, one every 15 minutes. My father’s was a textbook case: Depressed white male with gun offs himself in May. December may be the loneliest month, April the cruelest, but May is the peak time for suicide. No one knows why, but I can guess: You’ve made it through another winter, but your world is no warmer.
Form of betrayal
This year, thousands of families will begin the process that ours began that night 20 years ago. Studies show that their grief will be more complicated, more intense and longer lasting than for any other form of death in the family. They will receive less support and more blame from others. Some will never really get over it: Children of those who die by suicide become a higher risk for suicide themselves. I once asked a psychologist why.
“Many children feel they don’t have a right to be any happier than their parents were,” he said. “To be happier is a form of betrayal.”
These are the legacies of suicide: guilt, anger, doubt, blame, fear, rejection, abandonment and profound grieving. Most people don’t want to talk about it, don’t even want to think about it. It is too raw and confusing.
Shortly after he died, I remember thinking: “I wonder how I’ll feel about this in 20 years?” Twenty years seemed like a lifetime away. Would I remember his suicide? Would I think about it much? Would I still feel angry, guilty, sad? Would time heal all wounds?
Twenty years later: Yes, I remember. No, I don’t think about it often. I don’t feel angry or guilty or sad, but, no, time does not heal all wounds.
My father’s suicide is, simply, a part of me. Think of your life as a can of white paint. Each significant experience adds a tiny drop of colour: pink for a birthday, yellow for a good report card. Worries are brown, setbacks gray. Lavender – my favourite colour when I was a little girl – is for a pretty new dress. Over time, a colour begins to emerge. Your personality.
When a suicide happens, someone hurls in a huge glob of red. You can’t get it out. You can’t start over. The red will always be there, no matter how many drops of yellow you add.
It colours the memories that came before it. It shades all the choices that follow. It is always there.
The call came about 9pm. It was a Friday night in suburban Minneapolis. The restaurant was packed. I was racing from the bar with a tray of drinks for my customers when the manager gestured me to the phone. It’s your mother, she said.
“Roxanne, he’s got a gun. He’s in the garage with a gun. You have to come.”
There had been many, many threats: “Be home in a half-hour,” he would say to my mother, “or I’ll be dead.” Sometimes she dashed back from the office, sometimes she refused.
This was different. There had never been a weapon before. “I have to go,” I said to my boss, hoping I wouldn’t be fired. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
I made many choices that night; some were smart, some stupid, some crazy. I believed, deep down, my father would indeed kill himself, sooner or later; I knew my mother was in danger; and I knew he blamed me for a lot of his misery. Looking back, I feel lucky to have survived the night.
I drove past the house. He was standing in the shadows of the front yard; I couldn’t see if he had the gun. I sped to a phone booth two blocks away and dialled.
She answered. “He’s in the front yard,” I said. “Can you get out?”
Five minutes later, she walked up to the car. He was quiet now, she said. She told him she was going to talk to me, but would be back. Then she dropped the bombshell: He had held her at gunpoint for two hours before she called the restaurant.
We attempted rational conversation. We came to what seemed, at the time, a rational decision. We pulled up to the house, and my father came out the front door without the gun. He wanted to talk.
Give me the gun, I said. He refused. We can’t talk until the gun is gone, we said. He shook his head. Come inside, he asked my mother. She shook her head.
He went back in, we drove to a coffee shop nearby. Frantic, we debated what to do next. To this day, I am still astonished that it never occurred to us to get help, to call the police, a hotline, anybody.
It was almost midnight; exhausted, my mother wanted to go home. She would stay the night if he let me take the gun away. Tomorrow, after a night’s sleep, we would be able to think clearly.
The house was silent; the door to the kitchen was shut. Ominous. My mother reached it first. Opened it.
“He did it,” she whispered and slumped against the wall. I looked in, then pulled her back and shut the door again to prevent her little dogs from running in all the blood.
“Why didn’t I kiss him?” she asked.
“What?” I said, confused.
“Before the coffee shop, he asked me to kiss him and I wouldn’t.” She sank onto the couch. “Why didn’t I kiss him?”
There was a time when suicide was considered a noble act of noble men. There was a time when corpses of suicides were dragged through the streets, refused Christian burial, and all the family’s worldly goods were seized by the state. There was a time when romantics, inspired by Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, embraced suicide as a sign of their sensitivity.
Now we have long, impassioned debates about “assisted suicide”, which pales beside the much larger issue: How do we feel about suicides when there isn’t a terminal disease and a supportive family on hand?
How do we feel about suicide if a 46-year-old guy just doesn’t want to live any more? A man whose marriage is falling apart, whose kids are growing up and moving out, who can’t seem to hold down a job? Reason enough?
How do we feel about someone who’s depressed but won’t get help? Who blames all his problems on someone else? Who emotionally terrorises and blackmails the people he loves? Is that OK, too? Can you fault him for anything if he ends up dead?
There are people who will tell you, convincingly, that depression is so dark that it blots out reason, perspective and all other survival mechanisms. They are experts who will tell you suicide is rage turned inwards: A desire to kill becomes a need to die.
This is what I will tell you: suicide is the last word in an argument, maybe an argument you never knew you were having. It is a grand exit, one guaranteed to make everybody stop in his tracks, pay attention and feel bad. It is meant to be the last scene of the last act of life. Curtain down. End of story.
Except it isn’t.
Sea of police cars
Tosca jumps off the parapet, and I wonder who finds the shattered body. Romeo and Juliet die with a kiss, and I grieve for their parents. Madame Butterfly collapses on the dagger, and I cry for her little boy in the sailor suit.
The calls began: first to my father’s only brother, who lived three blocks away, then to the police. Officers arrived, then detectives and someone from the coroner’s office. Someone came into the living room to ask questions. I answered. Yes, he was depressed. Yes, he had threatened to kill himself. No, there wasn’t a note.
I had sent my mother next door. “Watch for Mike’s car,” I instructed. “You have to watch for Mike’s car.”
This was the night of my brother’s high school senior prom. The dance was on a boat – we didn’t know where – then there was an all-night party and a picnic the next day. I called his girlfriend’s house. There is an emergency at home, I said. Tell him to call.
An hour passed. No call. The detectives were still in the kitchen when Mike’s car turned slowly onto the street and found a sea of police cars, lights flashing. Neighbours huddled in clusters across the street.
I watched from the front step as my mother ran to him. “Your father shot himself and he’s dead,” she said, guiding him to the neighbour’s house. I watched as the police took the body out, dripping thick drops of blood from the kitchen to the front door. I watched my uncle stare blankly when I asked him to help clean up the kitchen.
“Frank,” I ordered. “You have to help me. I don’t want Mike to have to see this.”
White-lipped, he watched as I scooped up buckets of blood and flushed them down the toilet. I threw him an old sheet and told him to start wiping.
Years later, I learnt how angry I made him, how he never forgave me for making him do that. He didn’t like blood on his hands.
I was alone in the kitchen again when I noticed the pictures from my father’s wallet. There were two portraits of his children. In the first one, I am four or five and my brother is maybe a year old. The other was more recent, taken for Dad’s last birthday just a few months earlier. He loved both pictures. Everybody knew Mike Roberts loved his kids.
If he had to kill himself, I thought angrily, why did he do it tonight? Why did he spoil his son’s last night as a teenager? Why ruin prom night?
“You selfish bastard,” I thought. “You couldn’t have waited one more night?”
Suicide is poison.
In 1988, Gloria Vanderbilt’s 23-year-old son flung himself off the balcony of her 14th-floor Manhattan apartment as she watched in horror. His last words to his mother: “[Expletive] you.”
Suicide is a desperate act, but it is also a hostile act. It begets more hostility. It gives the survivors the perfect opportunity to express all their real feelings about one another, good and bad. Years of petty resentments, years of unmentioned slights and snubs, grab centre stage.
Something – or somebody – had driven my father to take his life. Somebody had failed to recognise the symptoms. Somebody had failed him, over and over. It was somebody’s fault. It had to be somebody’s fault, anybody but the guy who did it.
My mother was never well liked by my father’s sisters, and so they concluded that what had happened was my mother’s fault. She was having an affair, she had driven him to it. That’s what my father had told them before he died. The fact that she wore an aqua suit to the funeral was proof, wasn’t it?
And I? I was on her side. So it was my fault, too. The fact that I didn’t fall apart at the funeral was proof, wasn’t it?
There is no one truth. There are too many truths. My mother swears there was no affair, my father swore there was. I search my memory and come up empty. Did I ever know? Have I forgotten? In the end, of course, it doesn’t justify the suicide, even if it’s true.
Death makes most of us stupid: We say the wrong thing, or we don’t say anything at all. Suicide is worse. Sometimes it makes people cruel.
After the funeral, we were simply abandoned by my father’s family. My mother was still numb, but I was confused and angry. No calls, no help, no kindness. There were no invitations to dinner, not even Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Two years later, I found out why: They thought my mother and I killed him. At one of those little get-togethers just after he died, my father’s family decided that perhaps my mother and I had cleverly managed to murder my father and make it look like a suicide. There wasn’t any note, after all.
One of my cousins was so sceptical he went to the coroner and asked to look at the police photos. It was a classic suicide, the coroner assured him.
After all we’d been through, this accusation was simply too much to bear. What kind of cruelty was this? And what had we done to deserve it?
I vowed never, ever to speak to any of them again. When a distant member of the family – a devoted wife and mother – found her husband dead in the garage, sucking the end of an exhaust pipe, I was almost glad.
“Good,” I thought fiercely. “Now they’ll understand that suicide happens in nice families, too.”
Suicide is poison. It poisons the ground beneath it. Anything that grows in that ground is poisoned; the fruit is poisoned. But people feast on it.
It is a terrible mistake. To survive, you have to get the hell out of there.
Second-guessing is the devil’s game, for there are no answers and infinite questions. But it is an inevitable, inescapable refrain, like a bad song you can’t get out of your mind. What if, what if, what if. What if we had forced him to get help? Had him committed?
What if, that night he died, we had called the police? Why didn’t we?
Part of it was the natural tendency toward privacy: family business is kept in the family. Part of it was arrogance, believing that we knew father best, or at least we could handle whatever he threw at us.
I think I knew my father would have charmed the police, sent them away, leaving him furious with me, furious with my mother, dangerous, armed.
Maybe that’s why. Maybe it was fear. Maybe not. Maybe I wanted him to die. The tiniest thoughts, the slightest variations, carry the seeds of redemption and damnation. “Why didn’t I kiss him?”
At some point, you simply give up. You could have done everything differently. You could have done nothing differently. You finally let it rest or you go crazy.
The police were puzzled by a wand of Maybelline black mascara they found in my father’s pocket. Another woman? Proof of an affair? The answer was simple: he used it to touch up the grey on his temples.
I don’t think he ever really expected to get old. He was the baby, the youngest of five children. He had three older sisters to fuss over him and a timid older brother who was envious of his effortless popularity. He was a very happy child; it was adulthood that he could never quite grasp.
He was tall and cinematically handsome – blue eyes, dark, curly hair – and wore bad suits well. He was charming enough to talk his way into job after job. There was the real estate phase, the radio phase, the political hanger-on phase. (In one family photo, he is shaking hands with Hubert Humphrey.) No job lasted long, but it never occurred to him to do heavy lifting. The big score, the one that would make him a rich man, was always just around the corner.
Things started out well enough: a beautiful teenage bride, two kids and – after his mother died – his childhood home, a little bungalow, to raise his family in. His son was popular and athletic. His daughter was pretty and smart and attentive. Because he thought Ava Gardner fabulous and didn’t care much for Marilyn Monroe, I never felt the urge to dye my hair blond. It was like that in the beginning. Things should have been idyllic.
But money bedevilled him. He described himself as the most unlucky of men. He must have felt himself a dreadful failure. I remember him hiding in the bedroom while I lied to bill collectors at the door. Some creditors were less gentle. One summer my father parked his old car on a different block every night, but still someone found it and smashed the windshield.
The last straw
My memories are mostly like that, dark and forbidding. And yet, a few years ago, I found an old audio tape my parents must have made when I was five or six. It is preserved from a big old reel-to-reel. My mother is braiding my hair. My father is teasing me. I am giggling.
“Hey!” my voice pipes up, delighted. “You bit me on the nose!” It is a moment of wonderful, giddy joy. I can’t recall it at all, or anything like it, except here it is, incontestable proof. There must have been thousands of moments like that. To me, they are gone. They are drowned out by red.
When did things start falling apart? Or were they ever really together? Which was the last straw?
I remember a night when I was 11. One of our cats streaked across the living room. In his mouth was a hamster that had somehow escaped from its cage. We all jumped to the rescue; my father caught the cat at the top of the basement stairs. He was suddenly, unaccountably livid. He shook the cat, and the hamster fell to the floor and scampered free.
I will never forget what came next: With all his might, he threw the cat down the stairs. It landed in a heap on the concrete floor, motionless.
There was a moment of stunned silence, then tears and regret and an emergency trip to the vet. The cat lived. But I think I never fully trusted my father again: anything, any time, could set him off. One day, I said to myself, it could be me at the bottom of those stairs. He will feel terrible afterward, and beg for forgiveness, but what difference will it make then?
The 10 years that followed were filled with sudden rages, explosions without warning. I found out later that he first hit my mother when she was pregnant with me, and continued on and off for two decades.
But in the last year of his life, he collapsed. His marriage of 22 years was slipping away from him. His children were leaving him: I had moved out three years earlier, my brother was about to graduate from high school. He couldn’t find anyone who wanted to hire him at a job he would take.
We begged him to get help. We asked his brother and sisters to talk to him. And when, ultimately, I told my mother I thought she needed to leave for her own safety, my father saw that as a betrayal. He ordered me out of his life.
He didn’t speak to me again for two months, until the night he died. That night, he spoke volumes.
I lied to the police. I told them there was no suicide note. In fact, there were three. They were handwritten on white sheets of notebook paper, short spurts of deadly poetry. Two were waiting in the living room as we walked into the house.
The note to my mother begged for forgiveness but said he simply could not go on the way things were. She has, to this day, no memory of reading it. The note addressed to me opened with a rapprochement. “All is forgiven,” read the first line. My eyes filled. No, I said silently, all is not forgiven. Death does not convey absolution. You don’t get off that cheap. The rest of the note instructed me to take care of things.
When I went to call the police, I found the third note, addressed to my brother, in his room next to the extension phone. I cannot recall the specific words, but the short message to an 18-year-old boy was this: Son, you can’t trust women. My father had asked me to take care of things. And I was going to take care of things.
He was dead; we were alive. There was nothing more we could do for him. But Mike and my mother needed each other now, more than ever. This note could do no good.
I stuffed all three in my purse and went back out to the living room. A week later, with my mother watching, I ripped them to pieces and flushed them down the toilet.
When I finally told my brother about this, just two weeks ago, he was angry and hurt, as I knew he would be. He asked, quietly: “What made you think you could take something Dad left for me?” Fair question.
Here is the answer, Mike. It is simple. I hope you can live with it. I’ve had to. The wishes of the dead do not take precedence over the needs of the living.
Nothing is ever the same
Suicide does strange things to the subconscious. A few weeks after the funeral, I attended a performance by a local improvisational troupe. The audience threw out suggestions; the actors proved how fast they could think on their feet.
“For the next sketch we need something you inherit,” announced a pert blonde actress. “You know: silver, jewellery, pictures, something that gets passed on to the next generation.”
“Hemophilia,” I blurted out. I didn’t know why I said that.
There was a long silence; then the room exploded in laughter.
In retrospect, it makes perfect sense: a hereditary disease where the children, when bruised, cannot stop bleeding. Nothing is ever the same. At first, I read every book I could get my hands on about suicide. I tried to make sense of it all, tried to find reason in an irrational choice. To this day, I cannot bear the idea of a gun in my house.
On Easter Sunday almost a year after the suicide, I was standing at the entrance of the restaurant for which I worked, wearing a giant bunny costume to greet families arriving for dinner. A little boy, maybe two or three years old, came racing up to me, his eyes wide.
“Grandpa, look!” he said excitedly. An older man smiled broadly and swung the boy up in his arms.
I watched the two of them delight in each other. My father will never get a chance to know my children, I realised. He would have been a good grandfather. And the Easter Bunny began to cry.
I have come to understand that my father was angry, selfish, self-pitying. But most of all, he was without hope and in desperate pain. I don’t fault him for his depression; I fault him for refusing to get any help.
Suicides often believe everyone will be better off when they are dead. Even at his worst, I do not believe my father could have imagined the toll his death would take on all of us, and I don’t believe he ever really intended to hurt his children. His life was filled with errors in judgment, and this was his final one, a permanent mistake he could never correct or amend.
Suicide cuts a lot of ambivalence out of your life. I decided good intentions are never enough. I became fiercely protective of my happiness. Happiness, not money or titles, became my yardstick of a successful life. This was not adolescent self-indulgence or an epistemological exercise. It was life or death.
About a year after my father died, I left Minneapolis. I stumbled though my 20s, met a terrific man and got married, and spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up. For a couple of years I worked in advertising, an industry peopled by individuals with brains and creativity and a contempt for what they do. Not for me.
I think I became a journalist because whatever other duplicities this craft may embrace, your mission is the truth. You are not forced into war with yourself.
Nine months after the funeral, my brother moved to California. He was reckless, strong, adrift, and almost died three times – once in a motorcycle accident, once in a stabbing and once in a heedless dive into a pool that split open his skull.
He returned to Minnesota, subdued and gentle, and went on to a successful computer career. He was, surprisingly, never angry at my father or his family. He cherishes happy memories of our childhood, memories I cannot recall.
But he cannot bring himself to marry his girlfriend of 16 years. They live together, in a home they bought together, but he simply does not trust marriage.
Two years after the suicide, my mother remarried, changing her friends, her religion, even her first name. She was widowed again – a heart attack – and announced a year later that she was getting married again. Her fiance was my cousin – her nephew by marriage. He was the son of the aunt who had accused us of murder.
I was at a complete loss. His mother was someone I’d cut out of my life years before. I never expected to see her again; now she would be my mother’s new mother-in-law. One big strange dysfunctional family.
“I expect you to be civil to her,” my mother told me.
No, I said. I could promise to come to the wedding, and I could promise not to make a scene, but small talk with someone who thought I had murdered my father was too much to ask.
My mother was outraged. We had an ugly fight, and she didn’t speak to me for months. I went to her wedding but fled to the other side of the room when my aunt approached me. Nothing she could say would make any difference now.
My mother tells me my aunt is very hurt by all this.
The cycle continues, in ways I will never fully understand.
Four years ago, when my son was a month old, I took him to Minnesota to meet my family.
“Take me to father’s grave,” I told my brother.
It was the first time I’d been there since the funeral. The cemetery, shaded by rows of old oak trees, was cool and serene. I introduced my beautiful new baby to his grandfather, and my father to his only grandchild.
Today, when I stare at the boy who takes my breath away, I think about how much my father missed over the past 20 years, and how much more he will miss. I’ve more sorrow than anger now.
A lot of wonderful things have happened in those years, hundreds of shimmering droplets added to the mix. When I stir the paint now, it is a soft dusky rose. A grown-up’s colour, with a touch of sweetness and a touch of melancholy.
This story was first published in 1996.
If this story has raised issues for you contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 and beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.
Australian author Tim Winton argues that misogyny, like racism, is one of the great engines of intergenerational trauma. Photograph: Lynn Webb
In an excerpt from a speech about his new book The Shepherd’s Hut, the author says it is men who need to step up and liberate boys from the race, the game, the fight
TIM WINTON Mon 9 Apr 2018 The Guardian
I don’t have any grand theory about masculinity. But I know a bit about boys. Partly because I’m at the beach and in the water a lot.
As a surfer you spend a lot of time bobbing about, waiting for something to happen. So eventually, you get talking. Or you listen to others talking. And I spend my work days alone, in a room with people who don’t exist, so these maritime conversations make up the bulk of my social life. And most of the people in the water are younger than me, some by 50 years or more.
I like the teasing and the joking that goes on, the shy asymmetrical conversations, the fitful moments of mutual bewilderment and curiosity. A lot of the time I’m just watching and listening. With affection. Indulgence. Amusement. Often puzzled, sometimes horrified. Interested, but careful, of course, not to appear too interested. And the wonderful thing about getting older – something many women will understand – is that after a certain age you become invisible. And for me, after years of being much too visible for my own comfort, this late life waterborne obscurity is a gift.
There are a lot more girls in the water these days, and hallellujah for that; I can’t tell you how heartening this is. But I want to focus on the boys for a moment. For what a mystery a boy is. Even to a grown man. Perhaps especially to a grown man. And how easy it is to forget what beautiful creatures they are. There’s so much about them and in them that’s lovely. Graceful. Dreamy. Vulnerable. Qualities we either don’t notice, or simply blind ourselves to. You see, there’s great native tenderness in children. In boys, as much as in girls. But so often I see boys having the tenderness shamed out of them.
Boys and young men are so routinely expected to betray their better natures, to smother their consciences, to renounce the best of themselves and submit to something low and mean. As if there’s only one way of being a bloke, one valid interpretation of the part, the role, if you like. There’s a constant pressure to enlist, to pull on the uniform of misogyny and join the Shithead Army that enforces and polices sexism. And it grieves me to say it’s not just men pressing those kids into service.
These boys in the surf. The things they say to me! The stuff I hear them saying to their mates! Some of it makes you want to hug them. Some of it makes you want to cry. Some of it makes you ashamed to be a male. Especially the stuff they feel entitled or obliged to say about girls and women.
What I’ve come to notice is that all these kids are rehearsing and projecting. Trying it on. Rehearsing their masculinity. Projecting their experimental versions of it. And wordlessly looking for cues the whole time. Not just from each other, but from older people around them, especially the men. Which can be heartbreaking to witness, to tell you the truth. Because the feedback they get is so damn unhelpful. If it’s well-meant it’s often feeble and half-hearted. Because good men don’t always stick their necks out and make an effort.
True, the blokes around me in the water are there, like me, for respite, to escape complexity and responsibility for an hour or two, to save themselves from going mad in their working lives, but their dignified silence in response to misogynistic trash talk allows other messages, other poisonous postures to flourish. Too often, in my experience, the ways of men to boys lack all conviction, they lack a sense of responsibility and gravity. And I think they lack the solidity and coherence of tradition. Sadly, modernity has failed to replace traditional codes with anything explicit, or coherent or benign. We’re left with values that are residual, fuzzy, accidental or sniggeringly conspiratorial.
We’ve scraped our culture bare of ritual pathways to adulthood. There are lots of reasons for having clear-felled and burnt our own traditions since the 1960s, and some of them are very good reasons. But I’m not sure what we’ve replaced them with. We’ve left our young people to fend for themselves. We retain a kind of indulgent, patronising, approval of rites of passage in other cultures, including those of our first peoples, but the poverty of mainstream modern Australian rituals is astounding.
What are we left with? The sly first beer your uncle slips you. The 18th birthday party where the keg is the icon. Maybe the B&S ball, if you live in the bush. First drink, first root, first bog-lap in your mum’s Corolla. Call me a snob, but that strikes me as pretty thin stuff. This, surely, is cultural impoverishment. And in such a prosperous country. To my mind, that’s salt rising to the surface, poisoning the future.
In the absence of explicit, widely-shared and enriching rites of passage, young men in particular are forced to make themselves up as they go along. Which usually means they put themselves together from spare parts, and the stuff closest to hand tends to be cheap and defective. And that’s dangerous.
Toxic masculinity is a burden to men. I’m not for a moment suggesting men and women suffer equally from misogyny, because that’s clearly and fundamentally not true. And nobody needs to hear me mansplaining on the subject of the patriarchy. But I think we forget or simply don’t notice the ways in which men, too, are shackled by misogyny. It narrows their lives. Distorts them. And that sort of damage radiates; it travels, just as trauma is embedded and travels and metastasizes in families. Slavery should have taught us that. The Stolen Generations are still teaching us. Misogyny, like racism, is one of the great engines of intergenerational trauma.
A man in manacles doesn’t fully understand the threat he poses to others. Even as he’s raging against his bonds. Especially as he’s raging against his bonds. When you’re bred for mastery, when you’re trained to endure and fight and suppress empathy, how do you find your way in a world that cannot be mastered? How do you live a life in which all of us must eventually surrender and come to terms? Too many men are blunt instruments. Otherwise known, I guess, as tools. Because of poor training, they’re simply not fit for purpose. Because life is not a race, it’s not a game, and it’s not a fight.
Can we wean boys off machismo and misogyny? Will they ever relinquish the race, the game, the fight, and join the dance? I hope so. Because liberation – a process of disarmament, reflection and renewal – isn’t just desirable, it’s desperately necessary. In our homes, in business, and clearly, and most clearly of all, in our politics.
Children are born wild. And that’s beautiful, it’s wondrous, regardless of gender. Even when they’re feral creatures, kids are reservoirs of tenderness and empathy. But some do turn into savages. And sadly most of those are boys. They’re trained into it. Because of neglect or indulgence. And when we meet them in the street, and have them in our classrooms, and haul them into the courts, we recoil from them in horror and disgust. Our detention centres and jails are heaving with them. These wild colonial boys, they’re a terror to Australia. Real and imagined. But I worry about our revulsion for them, our desire to banish them from consciousness for their noncompliance, their mistakes, or their faithful adherence to the scripts that have been written for them.
Boys need help. And, yes, men need fixing – I’m mindful of that. Males arrive in our community on the coattails of an almost endless chain of unexamined privilege. I don’t deny that for a second. But patriarchy is bondage for boys, too. It disfigures them. Even if they’re the last to notice. Even if they profit from it. And their disfigurement diminishes the ultimate prospects of all of us, wherever we are on the gender spectrum. I think we need to admit this.
But before we even get to that point, we have to acknowledge the awkward, implacable fact of their existence, especially those who most offend our sensibilities. We should resist our instinct or our ideological desire to cross the street to avoid them, our impulse to shut them down and shut them out and finally lock them up. We need to have higher expectations of them. Provide better modelling for them.
But before any of that is possible we need to attend to them. Yes, boys need their unexamined privilege curtailed. Just as they need certain proscribed privileges and behaviours made available to them. But the first step is to notice them. To find them worthy of our interest. As subjects, not objects. How else can we hope to take responsibility for them? And it’s men who need to step up and finally take their full share of that responsibility.
Who remembers all those kids whose parents got divorced in the late 1970s or early 80s? Remember how resilient they were going to be? How divorce wasn’t ideal, but the kids would be OK because surely it was better for them to be raised in homes that weren’t full of rancour?
Kids were resilient! I’m repeating it, because that was the buzz word. They’d adjust to their new reality, and they’d be fine. How true has that proven to be? We can’t know for certain because every case, and indeed every kid, is different, and for sure there were — and are — plenty of miserable marriages that absolutely had to end, but in saying that can’t we also acknowledge the trauma inflicted on the children?
I think we’re going to have to acknowledge it, because those kids are all grown up, and they are starting to tell their side of the story. Not everyone is going to want to hear it.
Most readers will know the name James Jeffrey. He writes the Strewth column for this newspaper. He’s a unique individual, is James: he keeps pet snakes; he plays bagpipes; he speaks a little Hungarian. He’s got a mop of curly blond hair, and he’s got a curious way of walking up on the tips of his toes, flapping his hands a little, which gives him an entirely agreeable air.
James has this week published a memoir, My Family and Other Animus, and while it is in parts extremely funny, it’s the chapters about the divorce he lived through as a child that had me captivated.
This is the gen X experience. Forget what their boomer parents had to say. This is how it was for the kids.
James was eight when the marriage between his English father Ian and his Hungarian mother Eszter came to a dramatic end. He didn’t see it coming, and my best guess is that most kids don’t. James puts it this way: “Despite the impressive and growing body of evidence my parents had been building over the years — the shouting matches, slammed doors — it was something I’d really never thought about. Loveless as it had become, my parents’ marriage was something that was simply there, and probably eternal, like the sky.”
But then a knife was drawn and the police were called, and for some time afterwards James saw his mother only at weekends.
His parents sustained their rage against each other for decades, determined, he says, to inflict upon each other as much pain as possible.
“To really, really hurt each other. That was the goal,” he recalled this week.
James came to know the inside of the Family Court rather too well as the battle raged around him, and since the supposed resilience of the kids was all the go, nobody even tried to keep them out of it.
James remembers “a friendly man with a moustache, and a brown suit” sitting him down one day to say: “Of course you love your parents equally and they love you, but …”
Well, there’s no but quite like the but that comes in a Family Court matter, is there? “But if you have to choose, who would you prefer to live with?” Brutal.
James’s father won custody, which wouldn’t have been all that common, because in the days before the so-called “shared care amendments” to the Family Law Act of 2006, it was mainly the mum who kept the kids while dad would get them every second weekend and half the school holidays — and maybe for a desultory dinner on Wednesday night at McDonald’s, where there would be a playground and plenty of CCTV.
James recalls in his book the instability that became part of his life after the divorce. He tries to find some comfort in the fact that at least both parents wanted him. That wasn’t everyone’s experience. But he can still remember everything the day it happened, down to the colour of the linoleum in the room where he was told that the only life he’d ever known was over.
A new, chaotic world rose in its place and, four decades later, he says: “I rarely go a week without thinking about it all.”
Forty years on, he still thinks about it every week? Yes, of course. Because we are all so resilient, aren’t we? We’re actually not. We suffer, and sometimes we take the suffering out on others, in ways both petty, and monstrous.
A year after the divorce of James’s parents went through, the old Family Court building in Sydney got bombed. A judge was murdered. That’s how bad it can get, and of course plenty of wives and children have been killed as they tried to make their way out the door.
Plenty of men have taken their own lives.
James says in his book that he was determined to turn his calamitous upbringing into “lessons that would guide me through life, into marriage, and parenthood”.
He never wanted to “come close to replicating the wasteland my parents called their marriage”.
Their wreckage would become “one of the guiding forces of my life”, he writes. “No part of the carcass has been wasted.”
When time came for James to marry and become a father himself, my God, he was going to do things differently. And that’s where you find joy in his book. On the first page, James says he started writing in part “as an explanation to my children as to why their parents kiss so much”.
Because it’s so gross to see old people — your parents! — kissing.
But, he says, “I can tell that at some level they secretly like that we are this way.” Because marriage is hard and some days — actually for some years, sometimes — it’s only going to be the dog that is happy to see you.
None of which is to say that parents shouldn’t get divorced. It happens, and it’s often necessary. In 25 years of adulthood I’ve never a met a person who was cavalier about their divorce.
A friend told me recently that she had been unhappy in her marriage for a decade.
We don’t get that many decades, and by the time you get to your late 40s, you don’t have that many left. And yet she hung in there, and not only to avoid the blasted Family Court, described recently by one of the wise old judges, Robert Benjamin, as a place that thrives on a “culture of bitter, adversarial and highly aggressive litigation”.
He was talking about a case in which the warring parents had been encouraged by rapacious counsel to spend an eye-watering $860,000 on legal fees as they tore each other, and their children, to pieces.
“It must stop,” he said.
Not divorce. You’ll probably never stop that. But the ugliness that comes with it, because it’s really tough on the kids.
Both of James’s parents are now dead, but his mum was still alive when he finished the manuscript. In his hands, their warring comes across a touch comically, which is of course the point. What a waste of energy it was, to spend all that time arguing.
What a sapping of the human spirit. It must have taken some courage for James to write so openly about the collateral damage. However brutal the message, we should all be glad he did.
In a first-world country like Australia, wholly preventable sexually transmitted diseases are rampant in indigenous communities.
April 2nd, 2018 The Australian
There is no reason it should have happened, especially not in a first-world country like Australia, but it has: indigenous communities in the country’s north are in the grip of wholly treatable sexually transmitted diseases.
In the case of syphilis, it is an epidemic — West Australian Labor senator Patrick Dodson described it as such, in a fury, when health department bureaucrats mumbled during Senate estimates about having held a few “meetings” on the matter.
There have been about 2000 syphilis notifications — with at least 13 congenital cases, six of them fatal — since the outbreak began in northern Queensland in 2011, before spreading to the Northern Territory, Western Australia and, finally, South Australia.
What’s worse, it could have been stopped. James Ward, of the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, wrote in mid-2011 that there had been a “downward trend” over several years and it was likely at that point that the “elimination of syphilis is achievable within indigenous remote communities”.
But governments were slow to react, and Ward is now assisting in the design of an $8.8 million emergency “surge” treatment approach on the cusp of being rolled out in Cairns and Darwin, with sites in the two remaining affected states yet to be identified.
It will be an aggressive strategy — under previous guidelines, you had to have been identified during a health check as an active carrier of syphilis to be treated. Now, anyone who registers antibodies for the pathogen during a blood prick test, whether actively carrying syphilis or not, will receive an immediate penicillin injection in an attempt to halt the infection’s geographical spread.
This is key: the high mobility of indigenous people in northern and central Australia means pathogens cross jurisdictions with impunity. Australian Medical Association president Michael Gannon calls syphilis a “clever bacterium that will never go away”, warning that “bugs don’t respect state borders”.
Olga Havnen, one of the Northern Territory’s most respected public health experts, points out that many people “will have connections and relations from the Torres Strait through to the Kimberley and on to Broome — and it’s only a matter of seven or eight kilometres between PNG and the northernmost islands there in the Torres Strait”.
“This is probably something that’s not really understood by the broader Australian community,” Havnen says. “I suspect once you get a major outbreak of something like encephalitis or Dengue fever, any of those mosquito-borne diseases, and that starts to encroach onto the mainland, then people will start to get a bit worried.”
But it is not just syphilis — indeed, not even just STIs — that have infectious disease authorities concerned and the network of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations stretched.
Chlamydia, the nation’s most frequently diagnosed STI in 2016 based on figures from the Kirby Institute at the University of NSW, is three times more likely to be contracted by an indigenous Australian than a non-indigenous one.
The rate was highest in the NT, at 1689.1 notifications per 100,000 indigenous people, compared with 607.9 per 100,000 non-indigenous Territorians. If you’re indigenous, you’re seven times more likely to contract gonorrhoea, spiking to 15 times more likely if only women are considered. Syphilis, five times more likely.
As the syphilis response gets under way, health services such as the one Havnen leads, the Darwin-based Danila Dilba, will be given extra resources to tackle it. “With proper resourcing, if you want to be doing outreach with those people who might be visitors to town living in the long grass, then we’re probably best placed to be able to do that,” she says.
But the extra focus comes with a warning. A spate of alleged sexual assaults on Aboriginal children, beginning with a two-year-old in Tennant Creek last month and followed by three more alleged attacks, has raised speculation of a link between high STI rates and evidence of child sexual assault.
After the first case, former NT children’s commissioner Howard Bath told this newspaper that STI rates were “a better indicator of background levels of abuse than reporting because so many of those cases don’t get reported to anyone, whereas kids with serious infections do tend to go to a doctor”. Others, including Alice Springs town councillor Jacinta Price and Aboriginal businessman Warren Mundine, raised the spectre of the need for removing more at-risk indigenous children from dangerous environments.
However, Sarah Giles, Danila Dilba’s clinical director and a medical practitioner of 20 years’ standing in northern Australia, warns this kind of response only exacerbates the problem. She is one of a range of public health authorities who, like Havnen, say connecting high STI figures to the very real scourge of child sex abuse simply makes no sense. They do not carry correlated data sets, the experts say.
“One of the things that’s really unhelpful about trying to manage STIs at a population level is to link it with child abuse and mandatory reporting, and for people to be fearful of STIs,” Giles says. “The problem is that when they’re conflated and when communities feel that they can’t get help because things might be misinterpreted or things might be reported, they’re less likely to present with symptoms. The majority of STIs are in adults and they’re sexually transmitted.”
Havnen says there is evidence of STIs being transmitted non-sexually, including to children, such as through poor hand hygiene, although Giles says that is “reasonably rare”. And while NT data shows five children under 12 contracted either chlamydia or gonorrhoea in 2016 (none had syphilis), and there were another five under 12 last year, Havnen points to the fact that over the past decade there has been no increasing trend in under 12s being affected. Where there has been a rise in the NT is in people aged between 13 and 19, with annual gonorrhoea notifications increasing from 64 cases in the 14-15-year-old female cohort in 2006 to 94 notifications in 2016.
In the 16-17-year-old female cohort the same figures were 96 and 141 and in the 12-13-year-old group it rose from 20 in 2006 to 33 in 2016. Overall, for both boys and girls under 16, annual gonorrhoea notifications rose from 109 in 2006 to 186 in 2016, according to figures provided to the royal commission into child detention by NT Health. Havnen describes the rise as “concerning but not, on its own, evidence of increasing levels of sexual abuse”.
Ward is more direct. Not all STIs are the result of sexual abuse, he warns, and not all sexual abuse results in an STI. If you’re a health professional trying to deal with an epidemiological wildfire, the distinction matters — the data and its correct interpretations can literally be a matter of life and death.
Indeed, in its own written caveats to the material it provided to the royal commission, the department warns that sexual health data is “very much subject to variations in testing” and warns against making “misleading assumptions about trends”. Ward says: “Most STIs notified in remote indigenous communities are assumed to be the result of sex between consenting adults — that is, 16 to 30-year-olds. Of the under 16s, the majority are 14 and 15-year-olds.” He says a historically high background prevalence of STIs in remote indigenous communities — along with a range of other infectious diseases long eradicated elsewhere — is to blame for their ongoing presence. Poor education, health services and hygiene contribute, and where drug and alcohol problems exist, sexually risky behaviour is more likely too. The lingering impact of colonisation and arrival of diseases then still common in broader society cannot be underestimated.
But Ward claims that an apparently high territory police figure of about 700 cases of “suspected child sexual offences” in the NT over the past five years may be misleading. He says a large number of these are likely to be the result of mandatory reporting, where someone under 16 is known to have a partner with an age gap of more than two years, or someone under 14 is known to be engaging in sexual activity. Ward points out that 15 is the nationwide median sexual debut age, an age he suggests is dropping. At any rate, he argues, child sex abuse is unlikely to be the main reason for that high rate of mandatory reporting in the NT.
Data matters, and so does how it is used. Chipping away at the perception of child sexual abuse in indigenous communities are the latest figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare showing the rate of removals for that crime is actually higher in non-indigenous Australia.
According to a report this month from the AIHW, removals based on substantiated sex abuse cases in 2016-17 were starkly different for each cohort: 8.3 per cent for indigenous children, from a total of 13,749 removals, and 13.4 per cent for non-indigenous children, from 34,915 removals.
Havnen concedes there is a need for better reporting of child abuse and has called for a confidential helpline that would be free of charge and staffed around the clock by health professionals.
It’s based on a model already in use in Europe that she says deals with millions of calls a year — but it would require a comprehensive education and publicity campaign if it were to gain traction in remote Australia. And that means starting with the adults.
“If you’re going to do sex education in schools and you start to move into the area about sexual abuse and violence and so on, it’s really important that adults are educated first about what to do with that information,” she says. “Because too often if you just educate kids, and they come home and make a disclosure, they end up being told they’re liars.”
These challenges exist against the backdrop of a community already beset by a range of infectious diseases barely present elsewhere in the country, including the STIs that should be so easily treatable. It is, as Havnen is the first to admit, a complex matter.
Cheryl Jones, president of the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases, says the answer is better primary treatment solutions and education, rather than trying to solve the problem after it has occurred. “For any of these public health infectious disease problems in remote and rural areas, we need to support basic infrastructure at the point of care and work alongside communities to come up with solutions,” she says.
Pat Turner, chief executive of peak body the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, is adamant about this. “These (STIs) are preventable diseases and we need increased testing, treatment plans and a culturally appropriate health education campaign that focuses resources on promoting safe-sex messages delivered to at-risk communities by our trained Aboriginal workforce,” Turner says.
The Australian Medical Association has called for the formation of a national Centre for Disease Control, focusing on global surveillance and most likely based in the north, as being “urgently needed to provide national leadership and to co-ordinate rapid and effective public health responses to manage communicable diseases and outbreaks”.
“The current approach to disease threats, and control of infectious diseases, relies on disjointed state and commonwealth formal structures, informal networks, collaborations, and the goodwill of public health and infectious disease physicians,” the association warned in a submission to the Turnbull government last year.
However, the federal health department has rebuffed the CDC argument, telling the association that “our current arrangements are effective” and warning the suggestion could introduce “considerable overlap and duplication with existing functions”.
“I think it (the CDC) might have some merit, if it helps to advocate with government about what needs to happen,” Havnen says, “but if these things are going to be targeted at Aboriginal bodies, it needs to be a genuine partnership. It’s got to be informed by the realities on the ground and what we know. That information has to be fed up into the planning process.”
During briefings as a patrol officer, I scanned the crime reports from the prior week, looking for patterns, trends and changes. If, for example, I discovered an increase in car burglaries on the west side of town, I would ask the simple question: What shifted in the past few weeks to account for the additional crimes? More robberies on the east side? What’s changed? Did someone new move into the area? Did some group of offenders decide to target our city?
Now, as a cold-case detective and author, I apply the same approach to a new crime phenomenon: the increase in mass school shootings. What’s changed in the past twenty years that might account for this? What cultural shifts lie behind the shootings?
An Increase in Social Media Use
Young people are more influenced by social media than any other generation. In a recent survey, teenagers reported that they often feel bad about themselves (or their lives) when viewing the social media posts of their friends. More importantly, teenagers said they are often bulliedon-line. That’s important, because the killers in each school shooting were also said to have been criticized or ostracized prior to the crime. While bullying is not new, the way young people bully each other has shifted. Social media intensifies bullying because it increases its severity, proximity and consistency. We are far harsher when criticizing others on social media. Worse yet, in a smart phone culture, the bully is as near as your phone. Those of us who were bullied in the past could at least find solace and protection in our own homes; bullying stopped as soon as we left the school grounds. Not so today. Bullies follow their victims home every night and sleep next to them on their nightstands. The way people interact has changed, and this shift is seen in the lives of school shooters. Many have been harboring growing animosity stoked by social media.
An Increased Dependency on Prescription Medicine
Parents are medicating their children today more than ever before. While it’s true that many of the school shooters were using (or had recently stopped using) prescription drugs, I’m not suggesting that this form of drug use is contributing directly to the increase in shootings. In fact, I have seen many families incorporate ADHD/depression/anxiety medications with great success. But, in a recent PBS special, Medicating Kids, Dr. Lawrence Diller made two important and insightful observations. First, he observed that we “as a culture – more than any other culture – seem to have accepted biology and the brain as the reason for maladaptive or poor behavior.” In addition, Dr. Diller observed, “we have a continuing erosion of parental discipline…” Some parents have now shifted toward prescription drugs that target the physical brain and away from traditional, time-consuming approaches that address behaviors. As a result, fewer children – including shooters – have extended interaction with their parents.
An Increase in Single Parent Households As a Gang Detail Officer in Los Angeles County, I had the opportunity to spend time with young Hispanic, African-American, Caucasian and Korean gang members. They came from different socio-economic and racial backgrounds but had one thing in common: lack of dad. Some never knew their fathers. Others had dads who were in jail. Some had fathers who were disinterested alcoholics. Others had dads who were workaholics who rarely ever came home. The percentage of children under the age of 18 in the United States living in single parent households has increased dramatically – during the same time that school shootings have multiplied. In addition, many young men are being raised in what is effectively (if not statistically) a single parent household. Men have a responsibility to raise up their boys, and when they shirk this responsibility we see tragic results. Family structures have changed; several of the high school shooters simply didn’t have an effective male role model who could help them navigate their teenage years.
Every cultural change holds both a promise and a threat. We either shift toward something worthy or worthless. The sooner we recognize what’s changed in America (and admit where the change is leading us), the sooner we’ll be able to address the increase in school shootings.
Too many Australians today do not appreciate how their country has been shaped by the Bible in myriad indelible ways
Roy Williams The Australian 31 March 2018
It’s worth recalling this Easter that the Bible is by far the most consequential book in Australian history. One hundred copies arrived on the First Fleet, and every subsequent vessel brought lots more.
Serious Bible-reading probably peaked here in about 1880, but there was a still a well-thumbed copy in nearly every home until the 1970s. That decade saw the start of a steep decline in Australia of Christianity’s heft and influence, at least measured in terms of churchgoing believers as a proportion of the population.
Even so, in 1976-77, The Good News Bible sold a quarter of a million copies, a record at the time for any new title. Kel Richards’s The Aussie Bible sold 100,000 copies as recently as the early 2000s.
There remains a strong market in Australia not only for the Bible but Christian books in general. The flourishing Koorong chain of stores, and equivalent Catholic outlets, are proof enough.
Yet most of our “mainstream” bookshops offer a woefully thin selection of religious titles. Why?
The underlying reason seems to be a perception that the Good Book and its offshoots are irrelevant nowadays to anyone bar “people of faith”.
Sydney-based historian Meredith Lake challenges this canard in her superbly engaging book The Bible in Australia.
Put aside — if you dare — ultimate metaphysical truth.
There are, Lake contends, several other reasons why any thinking citizen should take the Bible seriously. For a start, “the world in general remains highly religious”, and Christianity is the most practised faith across the globe.
As far as Australian public-policy discourse is concerned, most would also agree with Lake that “a confident, robust pluralism requires tolerance of religious voices, including Christian ones in all their diversity”.
But she insists there is more at stake than mere tolerance, for “an intelligent pluralism requires good historical memory”.
Too many Australians today do not appreciate how their country has been shaped by the Bible in myriad indelible ways. As Lake observes, “it has a history here that, while complicated, is difficult to outrun”. She posits three main ways of regarding the Bible — each for good and ill — and provides convincing, engrossing examples.
First, it has been a “globalising” force.
“European imperialism introduced the Bible to Australia” with traumatic consequences for the indigenous population, she observes. The legal fiction of terra nullius was based on a quasi-Christian idea of John Locke’s. Genesis 1:28 (King James Version) enjoined human beings to “replenish the earth, and subdue it”. In the eyes of most British colonists, non-agrarian indigenous peoples had not done so, so the land they occupied was ripe for the taking.
It was not until the High Court’s Mabo decision in 1992 — based, in significant part, on Thomist notions of natural law (cf. Romans 2:14-15), to say nothing of Jesus’s Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) — that a better, more authentically Christian view held sway.
Indigenous Christians had long pointed to verses such as Proverbs 22:28 (“Do not move an everlasting boundary stone”).
Lake reminds us that the Bible has also been a globalising force in Australia as a basis for encouraging immigration on a large scale. As far back as the 1830s, powerful figures such as John Dunmore Lang invoked the story of Israel as a model for populating the antipodean “land of milk and honey” (cf. Deuteronomy 31:20, Genesis 12:1-2). Catholic historians including Edmund Campion have shown that the church facilitated the nation-changing waves of European and Southeast Asian immigration after World War II.
Lake’s second way of assessing the Bible’s influence is as a “cultural” force.
Aside from its ubiquitous presence in everyday speech (“lamb to the slaughter”, “writing on the wall” and so on), she emphasises its role as an inspiration to local artists in all genres. Henry Handel Richardson, Arthur Boyd, Paul Kelly, Helen Garner, Christos Tsiolkas — these and many other creative giants, a lot of them unbelievers, could recognise a masterpiece when they encountered it.
But it is in the Bible’s third guise, as a “theological” force, that its influence has been most profound. For almost two centuries after 1788, a good number of our key opinion-makers — in politics, business, science, journalism, education, you name it — believed the Bible to be nothing less than the self-revelatory Word of God, a text “alive and active” (Hebrews 4:12). Accordingly, in Lake’s expression, “it was the unrivalled starting point for knowledge, the framework for understanding the world and its workings”.
Ranging widely, Lake demonstrates that the theological Bible has been, as often as not, a force of “dynamic altruism”. (The phrase is historian Alan Atkinson’s.)
The NSW Church Act of 1836, for instance, later copied in other colonies, established the principle of equal treatment for all Christian denominations. This reflected governor Richard Bourke’s vision of a people “united in one bond of peace” (see Ephesians 4:3).
In the longer term, despite outbreaks of sectarianism, religious equality helped foster a much greater degree of socio-economic equality here than in Britain.
Likewise, the movements in the late 19th century towards votes for women and Federation were energised disproportionately by devout Christians. A favourite verse among champions of both causes was Proverbs 14:34: “Righteousness exalteth a nation.”
It is to be remembered, too, that in those days leadership of the trade unions and the Australian Labor Party was dominated by earnest Protestant men.
Perhaps Lake’s best historical examples are in the field of race relations, a strength of her work. From the earliest decades of frontier violence against the indigenous, through the citizenship and land rights campaigns of the 20th century, to recent debates over refugees, the most rigorous pleas for generous treatment of darker-skinned people have been made by conscientious Christians.
Typically their arguments have been based on scripture, one passage in particular.
According to Acts 17:26, “[God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” (KJV).
Secular Australian bookshops should give this book the prominence it deserves.
Roy Williams’s books include God, Actually.
The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History By Meredith Lake NewSouth, 439pp, $39.99
A New Story for an Old Land: 200 Years of the Bible Society in Australia
John Harris ABC Religion and Ethics 7 Mar 2017
As the Bible seemingly drifts into irrelevance in our increasingly secular society, the Bible Society remains convinced of the need to put more Bibles into people’s hands, minds and hearts.CREDIT: MIKDAM / GETTY IMAGES
When large numbers of men are doomed to bachelorhood, they get desperate
The Economist 19 March 2018
FEW South Sudanese see a link between their country’s horrific civil war and polygamy. Instead they blame greedy politicians or the tribe next door. Fair enough: corruption, weak institutions and tribalism all make violence more likely. But marital customs matter, too. Wherever polygamy is widely practised (in South Sudan, perhaps 40% of marriages involve multiple wives) turmoil tends to follow. The 20 most fragile states in the world are all somewhat or very polygamous. Polygamous nations are more likely to invade their neighbours. The polygamous regions of Haiti and Indonesia are the most turbulent. One London School of Economics study found a strong link between plural marriage and civil war. How come?
Polygamy nearly always means rich men taking multiple wives. And if the top 10% of men marry four women each, then the bottom 30% cannot marry at all. This often leaves them not only sexually frustrated but also socially marginalised. In many traditional societies, a man is not considered an adult until he has found a wife and sired children. To get a wife, he must typically pay a “brideprice” to her father. When polygamy creates a shortage of brides, it massively inflates this brideprice. In South Sudan, it can be anything from 30 to 300 cattle, far more wealth than an ill-educated young man can plausibly accumulate by legal means.
In desperation, many single men resort to extreme measures to secure a mate. In South Sudan, they pick up guns and steal cattle from the tribe next door. Many people are killed in such raids; many bloody feuds spring from them. Young bachelors who cannot afford to marry also make easy recruits for rebel armies. If they fight, they can loot, and with loot, they can wed. In a paper published last year, Valerie Hudson of Texas A&M University and Hilary Matfess of Yale found that a high brideprice is a “critical” factor “predisposing young men to become involved in organised group violence for political purposes”. Jihadist groups exploit this, too. One member of Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the attack on Mumbai in 2008 that killed 166 people, said he joined the organisation because it promised to pay for his siblings to get married. During its heyday the so-called Islamic State offered foreign recruits honeymoons in Raqqa, its former capital. In northern Nigeria, where polygamy is rife, Boko Haram still arranges cheap marriages for its recruits.
Globally, polygamy is in retreat, but in some pockets support for it is rising. After America’s Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage in 2015, some people argued that plural unions should be next.
According to Gallup, a pollster, the proportion of Americans who consider polygamy to be morally acceptable rose from 5% in 2006 to 17% last year, among the most dramatic jumps in the subjects it tracks.
Campaigners in Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and other central Asian states are seeking to re-establish men’s right to take multiple wives.
In Kazakhstan, a bill failed in 2008 after a female MP included an amendment stipulating that polyandry (women taking multiple husbands) also be allowed. Advocates claim that polygamy promotes social harmony by giving lusty husbands a legitimate alternative to infidelity. The mayhem in places like South Sudan, Afghanistan and northern Nigeria suggests otherwise.
Note: Recent private feedback from an Australian social worker who works in a youth detention centre – said that in some African migrant groups, when the wife takes over the finances, the husband can’t handle that, they return to Africa, and they take take a new wife back home. Then the teenagers remaining in Australia have no father to keep them under control. This is never reported in the media.