Pascal, your short film My Invisible Mother combines animation and interview to give a glimpse of the long term impacts of adoption. The film has won a number of awards this year including the Best Documentary Award at the recent Canberra Short Film Festival. In just over three minutes you introduce the viewer to adopted person William Hammersley, his adoptive beginnings to life and the long term consequences. What was it about William’s story that inspired you to make the film with him?
William is someone who really speaks from the heart. In fact, he also was the hardest person to interview. We took three sessions over the period of several months to achieve this final result.
Interestingly, I asked his son, a close friend of mine, to conduct the interview whilst I hid behind the boom microphone. Suddenly, the interview was no longer just a doco interview. It had turned into an incredibly intimate exchange between father and son. That authenticity, that’s what appealed to me.
The technique of combining animation with personal interview does convey the fragmented and fabricated nature of the adopted life. What was the desired intention of recreating key elements in his personal story using these two techniques rather than one?
Animation is usually associated with child-like stories. By using this technique, it was a way to reclaim the false narrative about orphan adoptees. Also, animation has the unique power to convey ideas that would have never been possible in live-action. Using cardboard boxes is a good example. I took the idea of ‘leaving a child anonymously in a box’ and spun it around its head.
Boxes were houses, empty, moving mechanically. I took the idea from Melvina Reynolds’ satirical song Little Boxes where she laughs about suburban life by singing ”little boxes on the hillside, they’re made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.”
I was trying to convey that our rigid idea of what a family should be is oppressing to anyone who falls outside the box – in this case, mothers who have children outside of marriage.
When the film ends one is left hanging for more, much more. Why so short a film, when there is so much more to explore?
The answer is budget.
One can only make a long-length film with money. And perhaps the reason why there isn’t many political films about adoption yet in my opinion is that because people in the media are people of power, and many of them have adopted.
I was working at the National Film Board of Canada – which is a bigger version of the ACMI in Australia – and many of my superiors were adoptive parents who were opinionated about the subject. So, getting funding for critical adoptee-centric films will have to be independently produced for now, and that means they will be short if they want to keep their integrity.
This is not the first time adoption has featured as the central subject matter in your creative work. Given you are not adopted yourself what pulls you to the contestable social and personal landscape that is adoption?
That’s an interesting question that I have been asking myself because I am the only gay man I know who would ever be a family-preservation advocate. And, in this day and age, why would a gay man be stop and think about adoptees’ rights when it means maybe letting go of his ‘rights to adopt’?
Secondly, being out of the closet is somewhat similar to an adoptee who ‘comes out of the fog’ and declares his true feelings about adoption. It’s a parallel that no one makes, but it’s true. Being out of the fog, means you don’t accept the identity that has been imposed to you, rather, you reconnect with the identity that is deeply rooted to who you are, your story, your origins.
Thirdly, I am a second-generation immigrant and like adoptees, I was cut from my roots. My Vietnamese parents did not transmit their Vietnamese identity because I was supposed to assimilate to the Quebecker culture, but at the same time, there was no one to pass on what it truly meant to be a Quebecker! I was stuck in a cultural vacuum, I had no cultural identity, torn between two. So when I when I turned 21, I decided to move to Vietnam by myself – although I had no family there – and to embrace my Vietnamese identity. This is why when adoptees tell me they are torn between two families or that they’ve started searching for their roots, it resonates strongly with my own experience.
Fourthly … actually I will stop there and conclude by saying that there are so many ways to connect with the adoptees’ experience, and one must put aside their own needs of having children to be able to actually have full empathy.
I hope that gays will remember that we once were the invisible minority whose rights were denied. Today, let’s not make our rights the oppressor of an invisible community whose rights are still being denied.
As an outsider looking at, and into, the world of adoption what do you see that others often overlook or fail to understand?
We fail to listen to adoptees. We fail to look at the history of adoption. We fail to look at how the market in babies has been developing. But most importantly, we fail to understand our own needs.
At the core of it all, most of us want children as a way to escape death, to make sure that a fragment of who we are still exists in this world when our bodies will be buried and forgotten. We fail to see that all the people that have been involved in our lives such as our teachers, uncles, aunts and friends, that in fact, their legacy moves through us too. And for people like me who are unable to produce children, we need to accept this: our legacy will not be through our DNA, but it will be passed through our involvement in other people’s lives. Once we face this truth, we can start supporting families to have the educational, financial and emotional means to raise their own children.
We fail to talk about adoption as a Human’s Rights issue.
William you have recently collaborated with young film maker Pascal Huynh on the short film, My Invisible Mother. Having lived with your adoption for over six decades the loss of your mother is still felt deeply within you. Could you describe this deep seated loss and what effect it has had on your life?
I have, as long as I can remember, known I was adopted and have always been an extremely angry person. As a child, I would question my adopters on why my mother didn’t want me. The answers were always, that she was too young to bring me up, could not afford to keep me and that my father was a no hoper, who would not stand by her.
I would over hear discussions about me when my adoptive mother had neighbours over for afternoon tea, about how they could ‘not give up a child’ and ‘what sort of woman she must be to do that’.
My adoptive father to discipline me, which was often, would take to me with a razor strap and lose control. He would grit his teeth and perspiration would run from his brow, as he lashed at my legs until I bled, he could not stop until he was exhausted.
At school and in the neighbourhood I was seen as the bad kid, the adopted kid, not that I gave them any other reason not to, in fact I reinforced their opinion.
I did not know why I was angry, I just was. As I grew older, this anger always kept me down.
I was expelled from secondary school in form two (Year 8 in today’s language), always getting into fights, in and out of jobs, drank a lot and numbed my feelings with drugs, marijuana mainly, for many years. I was stoned from morning to late night I felt empty inside, a nobody.
I left the adopters home when I was a young teenager working and returning in-between jobs, leaving again and survived in the bohemian world of Carlton, working in a display company, putting my natural artistic skills to work. I went through a self-destruct stage in my 20s to early -30s. I never identified my behaviour with adoption but hated my mother for deserting me.
It wasn’t all bad though. I had some great jobs and mixed with some very interesting people but did not stay in one place for long it was not until my 40s that I decided to search for my mum and family. My adopted sister had found her family and pushed me to get my papers but I did not search for a couple of years after I received them, wanting to but not wanting to, hard to explain.
My anger was in the way. I wanted to hurt her like I believed she had hurt me I thought she did not bother to look for me, so why should I bother to look for her. It was not until much later, I found out that she was not allowed to. I was in a relationship at this stage and the birth of our son came along. This was the first time I felt responsibility and love it was fantastic my own family. I now had an overwhelming urge to find my mother, to give my son and partner a family and a heritage.
My adoptive sister came back on the scene. We joined forces, along with my partner and searched through phone books, the electoral roll, made phone calls. Weeks went by with no leads.
One day I was with my adopted sister. She had spotted a phone number that was near her house. We rang it, asked for Gloria (my mother’s name), the person that answered the phone turned out to be my half-sister and she passed the phone to my mother’s husband (her father). I told him who I was and asked if I could speak to Gloria, that I may be her son. He paused for a moment and said, ‘yes I know about you’. YES it was them.
I was overcome with a strange emotion not knowing how I felt and then he told me that my mother had died 12 months previously. He said they were going to a memorial service for her, but would stay home so we could come around.
I remember walking into my half-sister’s house, looking around thinking that they did not look too poor to me, but comfortable, conservative, middle class, suburban people and me being bought up in a poor working class dysfunctional adoptive family with two other adopted children and here they were. It was obvious I had been lied to by the adopters.
‘Why did my mother desert me and who was my father’? Became my question.
Over the next few months I met the rest of the family, an older half-brother who was from her first marriage and there was once a sister who may have been adopted by mum or was hers but not the first husband’s child, a half-sister and a half-brother. Both brothers were very skeptical and standoffish. I asked questions, made cynical remarks and always felt they knew more than what they were letting on.
My anger got in the way again over the months. I found I had nothing in common with them. They were middle class, conservative, well off happy suburban families and I was angry, aggressive, cynical, left wing and street wise, with a very untrustworthy mind and jealous of what they had and have and what I did not have.
My half-sister tried to form a relationship with me, but I was just a strange and difficult person for her to cope with. After her coming to a party at our house and her walking into a room where we were passing the bong around, it just got too much for her and we drifted apart. So that was the end of that.
I continued hating my mother for abandoning me and in some ways for leaving me a second time, by passing away before I found her. I felt I was the sacrificial offering, to save her two children, as she was not a young teenager when she gave birth to me. She was 27years old (another lie by my adopters), going through a divorce and would have lost them to her first husband. If he had found out that I existed because of the divorce laws at the time of fault divorce, she would have been branded an adulteress. This I did not understand at the time but it all made sense later.
I convinced myself that they did not matter and got on with my life, with my new family but always in the back of my mind, I wanted to know the truth.
Twenty years pass, life is going good, we have our own business, we own our house, our son is in university and my partner is my best friend and our relationship is solid but I am still an angry person under the surface.
Except for questions that constantly pop up in my mind. Why did my mother abandon me? Why didn’t she come for me? Who is my father? What is the truth about my adoption? I got no satisfactory answers to these questions from my mother’s family twenty years ago.
One day I am at work and I hear on the wireless that there is going to be an apology to the mothers and people affected by adoption, at parliament house in Melbourne. I had no idea what this was about, but that night, I said to my partner, that I am going to that. If anyone can tell me what the circumstances of my adoption were, it would be other mothers.
On the day of the apology, my son and I jumped a tram and went to Victoria’s Parliament House. As we approached, I noticed on the steps, all the children’s shoes. It seemed like hundreds of them. As I looked at the shoes, tears just started to stream out, uncontrollable tears.
I cried all day that day.
Talk about emotion. I could not stop.
I met some wonderful people there, one of whom was Elizabeth Edwards, coordinator of Origins Victoria, who gave me her card and told me to ring her.
A couple of days later my partner and I went to see her and when she was going through my papers she said that I sound like a ‘fifty pound baby’. She showed me a speech by John Crimean, who was a member of federal parliament in 1950, that said that babies were being sold from private hospitals in major capital cities in Australia.
I was born in Avonhurst private hospital South Melbourne.
Well that was it. I had to know. I wanted the answers. Was I a trafficked child? How could my adopters do this? What part did my mother play? Did that bitch sell me? Is that what my mother’s family was keeping from me? All of these questions going over and over in my head. My anger with my mother at this stage was boiling over.
I phoned FIND and ordered another set of my adoption papers as my original set was over twenty years old. The new set proved to be of extra interest this time as the papers included some extra information. My partner and I started to research. She went to the computer, searched TROVE and traced the doctors. My good friend, Rosemary, got in on the search and found out information on my family.
On Facebook I started to call for other adoptees that may have been born at Avonhurst and found one who worked with us through emails. Her experience was so similar to mine and she contributed so much vital information.
Then I headed off to the state archives, the national archives and state library. For two years I searched and people around me were very supportive, but were concerned that I had become obsessed and that my mental health could become affected. My mental health was already affected and it was this search that I hoped would resolve it for me.
I could not let go. Day after day I persisted, two or three days per week sometimes, getting a little bit closer to the truth. I came to a dead end, as the file I thought would have the answer, was full of 1950s pornography underwear ads, in today’s standard, but shocking back then.
What to do next?
Elizabeth Edwards suggested I should place a freedom of information request and see what happens.
Well from that I attracted the attention of the Man, the Man in the state archives who knew everything. Yes everything, what took me two years of searching, and not finding what I was looking for, he found in ten minutes, the mother lode, the adoption files, from 1916 to 1964. Every document from memo’s to confidential letters and police reports. It takes days running into weeks, reading and photographing the files.
One day, I find a confidential letter from John Cremean to the Chief Secretary of Victoria, naming the doctor that my adopters went to see to get me, Dr Hart. My partner had also found many newspaper articles about him, linking him to the backyard abortion trade. It also named the co-proprietor of Avonhurst private hospital, Mr. Allen, as being Harts co-conspirator, that he had reliable information about them being involved in baby trafficking and requested the secretary make some discreet inquiries. This was the final piece of proof I needed and I was stunned.
I had feelings of joy, sadness, anger and relief. As I was driving home that night, tears flowed again.
My joy was that I was not mad, Elizabeth was not wrong, my partner and our friend did not waste their time and yes, I had finally gotten to the truth of the circumstances of my birth and subsequent adoption.
The nurse that assisted my delivery, Sister Allen, was Mr. Allen’s wife and Dr. Bretherton the doctor that delivered me, was in cahoots with doctor Hart, in the illegal backyard abortion trade.
As an adjunct to the abortion business, Mr. Allen and Dr. Hart were using Avonhurst for the trafficking of babies for further personal financial gain. They were also paying protection money to members of the Victorian police. The paying of grafts to police by these doctors came out in the Beach inquiry, and the Kay Inquiry, into the involvement of police corruption and the abortion rackets in the 1970s.
The federal government received reports, from the state governments, all denying it ever happened, but newspapers were reporting it and John Crimean was saying it in federal parliament. Adoption agencies would not deny it was happening and they made references to it happening along, with the secretary of the children’s welfare department agreeing it was happening, but they nor the police, claimed they could not find indictable proof.
For me, I believe I have proof beyond reasonable doubt. I have the original receipts that my adopters paid, for my mother’s hospital fees, which was illegal at the time. This did happen to me and many other adoptees, born in private hospitals in Victoria, and I believe it was happening in major capital cities in Australia, during the late 1940s to the 60s and even beyond, as John Cremean reported in 1950.
A few months later, I was given the opportunity to sit amongst a group of mothers who lost their children to adoption. They talked about how they felt when they left the hospital, empty handed, being told to forget what happened and start a new life. One at a time, they reflected on that moment, standing and telling their stories. I cried again that day as I realised so many mothers, all with the same feelings, that this was the truth, this is how my mother must have felt.
Through all our research, I have finally gained a full understanding of why my mother had no other choice. I had come to understand the horror for women, who had to prove fault, to get a divorce and how she could have lost her two children, along with being stigmatised and facing hardship. I came to understand the lengths a woman could go to keep her children. I also came to an understanding of how greedy unscrupulous people, take advantage of other people’s misfortune and vulnerability and how some adopters would go to great lengths to obtain a child. Along with it bringing me to an understanding that government’s need to not only set polices, but should also accept the responsibilities of the policy’s failures, as well as enforcing policies that are not adhered to in practice and not simply to sweep them under the carpet. Also Governments should listen to the people who try to inform them of its failings.
Since then I have recently started to rekindle my relationship with my half-sister but it has its moments. She finds it a bit difficult to deal with the fact that I know more about my mother and our families heritage than they do, or did, and that I don’t hide the negative parts under the carpet or keep them safely locked away in the closet. I tread slowly, but surely in the hope that we can achieve a long and lasting relationship now.
I am now at peace with my mother and we have forgiven each other in spirit for things that do not need forgiving. I no longer carry any hatred towards my mother or family and I point the finger of blame clearly where it belongs, with the greedy doctors, the bad inefficient government policy, their lack of enforcing some of their own policies, along with the greed of some police and my adopter’s underhanded way of obtaining a child. I tell you this, entire story, so people can understand the lengths that I as an adopted person, had to go to get to the truth, but should not have had to spend a life time getting there.
‘Yes, I hated my mother for 60 years, but now I don’t. I know the truth now mum’.
The film begins with an animation detailing your mother’s plight and your initiation into the world. How effective do you believe animation is in conveying emotions that are harder to convey in words?
I must admit that when Pascal told me he was going to use a mix of animation and film of personal interviews, I was surprised, I immediately thought of drawings, like in Disney productions, however when I saw it, I thought “Wow that is such a good medium, especially the mix.“
It allowed the viewer to connect and see the emotion it brought the viewer into the story and delivers a powerful message that is simplistic but tells a thousand words, something that could not have been achieved in such a short time frame, without actors, high costs and may be not even then.
I of course was personally very moved by the animation, even though I did not quite understand the meaning behind the airplane and still don’t quite get it, even though Pascal has tried to explain it to me. I can be a bit thick sometimes but one day the penny will drop.
You speak of hatred towards your mother for what she did and for her never coming to look for you. Your statements are framed in the past tense. Is hatred still prevalent in your life or has it been replaced with other emotions and if so what would these be?
No, hatred is no longer prevalent in my life. I am at peace with my mother and yes it has been replaced with a burning desire to contribute to changing the way that children are cared for in our modern society. To stop once and for all, the changing of a child’s identity and that child’s, children’s children, from being grafted onto genetic strangers family tree’s, along with the severing of a child’s legal connection to its family, brother’s, sister’s, grandparent’s heritage and blood line.
Government and society needs to recognise, that an infant who is removed from its mother at birth, is born into trauma and that all infant adoptions that occur, are forced adoptions that as adoptees we had no say in it.
I want to stop all this being done in the name of care and the so called ‘best interest of the child’.
I ask you how it can be to care for a child; the child must sacrifice its identity, true birth right and heritage in the name of ‘care’. Also the introduction of a no fault discharge for adult adoptees who wish to live as the person they were born as, as well as justice for all adult adoptees, their mothers, fathers and family’s from past adoptions, that were forced, coerced and stolen from each other. And finally the abolition of ‘As If Born To’.
If circumstances were different and you were able to meet your mother today what would you say to her?
Hi, I’m William, your son. I would like you to meet my partner and your grandson. Don’t worry, I understand why, so can we get to know each other and who is my dad? The rest I would leave till later which is everything about our lives.
What would you most like to hear from her?
Hello William, Kay and Tom. Yes, we can get to know each other; I would like that very much.
Your father’s name is _________ and he is, or was, ___________________ and the rest, as I said in the previous question. We can talk about it as time goes on.
However this is not going to happen and I can only dream. She passed away before I was ready to find her and taken the name of my father with her. If I am still angry about anything, it is with me, for allowing my anger from stopping me contacting her earlier. But would I have been ready then?
‘I don’t know, probably not’.
Thank you Pascal and William for your insights and commentary on your film and personal history respectively.