Sewn Lips

The “Guardian” reports on a detailed litany of sub-standard medical care at Christmas Island.

I read the piece with interest and with some recognition: I had worked there earlier, before the present ‘off-shore processing’ (the hasty export of the unwanted) was instituted. Initially I kept silent. Then I wrote the following, which is the introductory chapter to a suite of stories which will appear in 2015 in my next book of non-fiction, “Burned Man.”

“Sewn Lips

A few years back I signed up to work for a short time as a doctor caring for Asylum Seekers detained on Christmas Island. I went with every impure intent. Indignant over my country’s conduct towards refugees, I headed to the island determined to observe, to record and to betray: I would witness wrongdoing and I would expose it.

But I signed a Confidentiality Agreement: now my lips were sewn. So I would have to resort to allegory, to obliquity, to any literary device to tell unforbidden truths while avoiding forbidden fact. And of course I had every right to report on my own state of mind.

In the event the Administration thwarted my plan: I saw no wrongdoing, detected no bruises, smelled nothing: nothing to report. Stolid unimaginative warders ran a barely decent prison. Good nurses, skilled young medical colleagues, experienced mental health nurses were on hand to attend to generally healthy, universally miserable patients.

Keeping the system honest from the outside, the Red Cross visited and the Australian Newspaper snooped.

And we servants of the nation did everything by the book. We followed all the rules and Conventions. We – the system now incorporated me – we kept Australia’s nose clean. Assiduously, conscientiously, courteously, with perfectly consistent meanness, we kept our clients (they weren’t patients, my true client was the Government) we kept them healthy, we kept them confused, we provoked them by systematic delay.

We drove them mad.

Australia’s impeccable gulag calibrated its practices to equality with the countries of origin. We managed to be just as cruel without raising a bruise.

Meanwhile, doctors were drinking every night. One guard took his own life, another attempted suicide. One mental health worker was dismissed for ‘fraternising’. In fact, she visited her 18-year old client who had been held incommunicado for 36 hours in a psychiatric ‘facility’ (lovely facile word, drained empty, morally bleached) in Perth. She understood her authority ended once she delivered her patient to the Psychiatric Hospital, but his need and her care did not.

I returned to Australia proper and resumed my life. Back now with family, a free person, a citizen, surrounded by comforting supports, I found I had brought the island with me. Contaminated, implicated by national service in unkindness policy, I was troubled by dreams. Night after night, in darkness and unable to speak, I saw myself doing things I had not actually done.

In those dreams I did Australia’s work. I lived the nightmare we perfected.”

The Guardian article by Oliver Laughland:


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