Child Alone and at the Mercy of Institutionalised Brutality

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Patricia Thwaites reviews Say Sorry and An Improper Daughter.

SAY SORRY: A harrowing childhood in Catholic orphanages
Ann Thompson with Fiona Craig
Penguin, $40, pbk.


Say Sorry is the most disturbing book I have had to review.

Even allowing for the distortions common to childhood recollections, if only a fraction of it were true it would still be the stuff of a horror story.

Ann Thompson was placed in the care of a Catholic orphanage in Christchurch when she was 2 months old.

Her mother was 16 and had allegedly been raped.

She was illegitimate, motherless, without any extended family support, therefore completely at the mercy of the nuns in whichever establishment she was placed.

Think of being a child in a large institution from where there was no escape.

Think of the stories of child abuse in New Zealand that you have read about after the child died from that abuse, and how sickened you were by it.

Then think of those powerless children who were delivered in good faith by their mothers to be cared for or adopted out in places like the ones portrayed here; and in Ann's case, were subjected to systematic cruelty similar to the cases you have read about recently.

Apart from one nun who showed Ann love and sympathy, the book mentions no-one else to whom she could turn for comfort and support.

This book chronicles a litany of abusive practices that left Ann with a nose that had been broken five times by her being punched and slammed against walls, and an eardrum burst by being punched with a closed fist across the head.

The story is related by an adult Ann, interspersed with Ann's voice as a child, breaking through as a desperately plaintive commentary.

There has been recent testimony by others who were also at the same orphanage and who say they were treated fairly and did not receive the abuse that Ann outlines in her book.

But her case has been to mediation and her accusations were held to be genuine to the extent of receiving a large sum in compensation.

Her reason for writing the book? "The little girl in me has told her story for everyone who has ever been abused and betrayed but felt too frightened and too ashamed to talk."

Ruth JonesCape Catley, $29.99, pbk.

An Improper Daughter is the autobiography of another woman whose mother gave her up for adoption.

"Improper", because illegitimate, Ruth Jones was placed in a home "... where I was safe and secure but belonging to nobody".

The home was a relatively small, private establishment, where initially Ruth was one of seven small babies being cared for by a couple she called Mimi and Dad, who stood in as parents until a discreet adoption could take place.

If not, the babies stayed on as "paying guests" and in Ruth's case that meant a permanent home.

As demand for placements rose, the numbers swelled until Mimi and Dad were caring for up to 36 children.

"Caring for" is a deserved term in this account of a large well-run home in a pleasant rural setting.

Thankfully, no physical or sexual abuse features in this book.

On the contrary, in spite of her sadness at "belonging to nobody", Ruth, in comparison to Ann, was for the most part treated fairly, and she makes fond reference to many adults in her life.

In a refreshing change from the tale Ann tells of rape by a priest, the two people Ruth loved the most were males: the man she knew as Dad, and an elderly neighbour.

She describes them as " . . . her two favourite people, dear men who gave me a sense of self-worth and encouraged me to have confidence in myself".

There are a few similarities in these two stories.

Both women were abandoned by their mothers at birth, both were lined up as hopefuls for adoption - and felt the pain of rejection when not selected - and both managed to trace their mothers and other family members as adults, with varying degrees of satisfaction.

There, the similarities end.

Ann's book reflects the bitterness of her childhood and, with few exceptions, the tone is relentlessly negative.

I found Ruth's to be a fascinating life story that is as readable as a good novel and contains many hooks of interest as she tries to solve the mystery of a missing mother.

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