Bryan Hartas, Hard As: My Life as an Orphan Boy (AndAlso Press 2021)
Full disclosure: This book was edited by my niece, Edwina Shaw. ‘Edited’ is an understatement for the process that she and the author undertook together. She describes it in an Editor’s Note:
I first met Bryan several years ago as a participant in the creative writing classes I run at Lotus Place, a resource and support centre for Forgotten Australians. Bryan often spoke about wanting to record his whole life story, despite having difficulty with literacy like many Forgotten Australians.
Over a period of years, Bryan and I have sat together and I have written down his words as he spoke them, later shaping these notes into a chronological narrative …
Over the past couple of years, I have read the story aloud to Bryan and he has added and changed details.
The book tells the story of just one of more than half a million children who were failed by Australian society and its institutions in the 20th century, under the appallingly ironic heading of ‘care’. They are the ‘Forgotten Australians’ – the term used by the 2003–04 Senate Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care:
Children were for many reasons hidden in institutions and forgotten by society when they were placed in care and again when they were released into the ‘outside’ world. … These people who spent part or all of their childhood in an institution, children’s home or out-of-home care background have been the forgotten Australians.(‘Introduction: Conduct of Senate Inquiry – Submissions:1.16‘, Forgotten Australians Report, 2004, from Wikipedia)
In the first dozen pages of Bryan Hartas’s story, he is relatively safe in his mother’s care. He very rarely sees his father, but hears him attack his mother when he comes home drunk at night. There are two photos, one of Bryan as a chubby baby and the other, a classic of its kind, showing him aged seven with his three siblings grinning awkwardly at the camera. A man whose head has been torn from the photograph, possibly the children’s father, stands behind them. Bryan’s mother was taken away in an ambulance soon after that photo was taken, and he never saw her again. Then the true horror began.
Completely neglected by their father, the children were taken into care, where they were separated. Years of mistreatment followed, including terrible hunger and vulnerability to sexual assault by older boys. In Bryan’s account, he was singled out for special mistreatment because he was ‘ugly’. The treatment meted out by the nuns and others was terrible. As he grew older, he was sent to work with the men around the place, but still given the paltry food allotted to the children. At times he had no bed, but had to find a spot in a shed where he slept under a pile of hessian bags. He was sent out to work on farms. In one of them he was treated well, given decent meals, and received some affection, which he soaked up. But mostly he was treated worse than the farm animals. It may be that he fell through the cracks in the system, but the system itself was hideous. He was sent to a correctional institution after some failed attempts at escape, and while still a teenager he landed in Boggo Road Gaol in Brisbane. Possibly the most horrific moment in his narrative is when he talks bout the relief he felt in gaol: he was safe and well-fed, with a bed of his own. On his release he committed a crime so as to find a way back to safety.
He manages to have relationships with a number of women. The narrative glides over the details, but none of the relationships endure. He does have a number of children. He gives up alcohol, does volunteer work, and at the time of telling the story he has a good connection with his children. It’s a story of survival.
The subject matter is gruelling, but it’s a gripping read.
To give you a taste, here’s a story of what happened on the Willises’ dairy farm near Fangool, out past Biloela, when Hartas was fourteen years old. (I can’t find a town called Fangool – maybe it’s a name made up to protect the guilty, and maybe it’s only accidental that it sounds like an Englishing of a common Italian swear word, which could be Bryan’s joke, or possibly Edwina’s.) Another boy from the home, James, was also working on the farm, and for some reason he was treated much better than Bryan. The farm was rundown, and a lot of the equipment – the truck, the milking machines, the windmill, the riding gear – was in disrepair. Inevitably, there was an accident. When Bryan was bringing cows in to milk one afternoon, the girth on his horse’s saddle broke. He fell on some jagged rocks and was knocked unconscious:
When I came to, I had blood on my head and terrible pain on the right side of my back and in my shoulder. I came to in a panic, knowing I’d been badly hurt, that I needed help. So I started back to the house as fast as I could. Staggered and ran and staggered and ran all the long way to the farm. I didn’t know where the horse was.(Page 75)
When I got back, James told me to go over to the house. Mrs Willis gave me a pain killer and told me to sit on the back veranda for a few minutes then go back to work. It was my left shoulder, my dominant hand, and my arm was hanging useless beside me, yet she forced me back to work. After a while, I got up and went to the dairy, but I couldn’t do anything properly because I was in so much pain. I could barely lift my arm. I should have gone to hospital. It was a serious injury.
I got no sleep that night or for many nights for months after that because of the pain. I didn’t even get another pain killer from the Willises. For months I couldn’t use that arm at all and had to fumble around with my right hand trying to put cups on teats and do the other jobs. Many decades later, I still can’t throw a ball with that arm. Only recently, the break and damage was revealed. X-rays showed my shoulder blade had been cracked and the ball joint of my shoulder was chipped. I told the Willises I was in agony, but they still didn’t take me to a doctor.
This is characteristic of Hartas’s vivid manner of telling. It reflects the confidence he felt in his editor/scribe – confidence that she would record his story with integrity, but also that she is listening with respect and empathy. There’s an insistence on how terrible things were (and elsewhere on how much his mother’s love meant to him) that reflect his wanting her – and us – to understand. I know I’m probably prejudiced because the editor/scribe is my lovely niece, but it seems to me that what shines through in this book is her ability to listen well, and her ability to render the chaos of the spoken word (which anyone who’s ever transcribed their own or anyone else’s speech knows is close to universal) into smooth prose that still sounds like a speaking voice.
I’m glad I read this so soon after reading Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Haunted by the Past. The books are similar in many ways. Together they bear powerful witness to the lived experience of suffering and resilience that lies behind labels like Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and Forgotten Australians.