Indigenous maps of subjectivity and attacks on linking: Forced separation and its psychiatric sequelae in Australia's Stolen Generation


Forced removal of part Aboriginal children from their indigenous mothers was part of Australian government policy over the period 1914 to the late 1960s. There were severe psychological consequences for the children, and a strong suspicion, yet to be epidemiographically researched, that many of them died very young, from suicide or the accidents and illnesses associated with psychological damage received at a period of developmental vulnerability.

This paper looks at some of the survivors. It describes the symptomatology of a group of nine adult members of the 'Stolen Generation', selected for psychiatric examinations for a group legal action against the Commonwealth by the Stolen Generations Unit of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Legal Aid Service. Interviews using a culturally sensitive reflective listening mode were conducted to Present Mental State Examination standard. An assessment along DSM-IV Axis VI (the so-called 'defences of the ego') was also performed, and interviewees completed the Goldberg Shorter (18 item) Anxiety and Depression Questionnaire (GSADQ).

The clinical picture shared by all interviewees was consistent with a contemporary understanding of the harmful impact of chronic trauma on the developing self. This would allow a diagnosis of 'complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder', 'depressive' type, with disorders of self-organisation, and marked somatising features. There were universally high abnormal scores on the GSADQ (mean total score 16.4, Depression 7.8, Anxiety 8.6). Specific issues of cultural identity conflict were also painfully salient. However, there were none of the symptoms of deeper personality damage usually associated with very early infantile neglect or abuse. The inference is that this group had received good pre-separation nurturing from their original carers, and that peer support was also a protective factor. That Indigenous subjectivity and identity are construed and constructed along patterns that are significantly different from Western middle class ones is a truism.

The authors were fortunate in having received accounts of these matters from their Aboriginal mentors. Some of these understandings are embodied in two paintings, Four Brain Story by Rachel Napaljarri Jurra and Brain Dreaming Tracks by Sally Butler. These have allowed us to catalogue the 'attacks on linking' which have occurred, and to bring these received understandings to the darker question of how this social phenomenon could happen. This question is also considered in terms of Bion's (1959) notion of 'attacks on linking'.


Leon Petchkovsky
Department of Psychiatry, University of Queensland, St Lucia, QLD; Pinniger Clinic, Robina, QLD; and Solstices Clinic, Tweed Heads, NSW

Craig San Roque
University of Western Sydney, Sydney NSW

Rachel Napaljarri Jurra

Sally Butler


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Indigenous, mental health, forced separation, post-traumatic stress disorder, stolen generations, linking


PP: 113 - 128


* Adapted with permission of Sage Publications Ltd from: Petchkovsky, L & San Roque C (2002) Tjunguwiyanytja, attacks on linking: Forced separation and its psychiatric sequelae in Australia's 'Stolen Generations'. Transcultural Psychiatry 39(3), 345-366.


This paper is based very substantively on data published by the first and second author in Transcultural Psychiatry (Petchkovsky & San Roque, 2002), and passages from this are often quoted in full. The electronic publication format allows us to bring detailed graphics into the discussion. We have therefore included two significant paintings. Our re-working has also included an expansion of the discussion on the theme of those Stolen Generations victims who did NOT survive.

A brief history of the Stolen Generations (after Katona & MacKinolty, 1994)

Australia was settled by the English in 1788. Historians estimate some 750,000 indigenous inhabitants. By approximately 1840, this had been reduced to some 40,000, with the impact of European expansion, dispossession, exotic pathogens, and massacres.

In 1910, the South Australian Northern Territory Aborigines Act was passed with the good intention of controlling exploitation of traditional-dwelling Aboriginal people through unfair work practices and alcohol and opium, and led to the appointment of a Chief Protector of Aboriginals who was 'the legal guardian of every Aboriginal and half-caste child'.

As often happens with protective legislation, good intentions came to be subverted. Thus, mixed race children from as early as 1914, were being forcibly removed from their traditional dweller parents to be placed in Westernised foster settings, usually large group homes. Professor Robert Mann (Mann, 2000) reminds us that the principle underlying removal of children into 'care' was necessarily racist, not risk of abuse, since only children of mixed ethnicity were taken, and not those full-blood children judged to be at risk. The justifications and promises condoning such acts rested on fantasies of 'improvement'. Part Euro-Australian children were to be 'saved' from their 'savage' states and given the 'benefits' of 'civilization'. When we further remind ourselves that these mixed ethnicity children were overwhelmingly the children of Aboriginal women to Euro-Australian men, we wonder about the role of the 'missing fathers', and note that this factor has been left out of the national debate, as if these children somehow came to be by magic.

The implementations of these founding fantasies were largely and predictably bleak. Children were torn away from weeping relatives, led off in cages or cattle trucks, and reared in impersonal cohorts. Staff at best had rudimentary concepts of the emotional needs of children. At worst, they were frank physical and sexual abusers, with absolute powers over their charges. Children survived emotionally by forming peer group bonds. All cultural expression (language, customs, kinship concepts, religious notions) was savagely censored, often with beatings. Such 'education' as was received had the training of domestic servants and menials as its objective. There were some kindly exceptions. But even there, the traumata of separation from parents, and cultural uprooting, left their mark. This situation pertained at least until 1964 and its legal and institutional underpinnings remained in place until 1972, when the first Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs was established!

The child victims of forced separations grew up, noticed enduring patterns of distress, attempted painfully to retrace their roots, and compared notes. A public campaign of reparation and reconciliation slowly emerged. This eventually entered the Australian mental health arena, in publications like Swan and Raphael's Ways Forward (Swan & Raphael, 1995) and then in Wilson and Dodson's (1997) Bringing Them Home, and organisations like Link Up.

The politics of representation

The appropriative potential of external spokesmanship is problematic. Australian anthropology has struggled to develop sensitivity to the nuances of so-called 'politics of representation'. Such awarenesses as Australian psychiatry has struggled to develop of late are to be found in the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists' Ethical Guidelines Document #11 (RANZCP, 1999). We hope they will prove to be more than pious 'mission statements'.

Who is to speak of the Stolen Generations experience, and how? The arts are eloquent on this theme; the songs of Archie Roach and Bobby Randall, novels of Sally Morgan, paintings of Lin Onus, performances of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, plays like Bran Nue Dae (Chi & Kuckles, 1991), instantly spring to mind. The reader is urged to encounter them. Unfortunately, the arts have little standing in the courtroom.

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