“NOT black enough to be black … not white enough to be white” was the bureaucratic labelling that Pattie Lees faced when she was taken from her mother as a child.
She tells the story in her recently published autobiography A Matter of Colour: My Journey to Belonging, which she co-wrote with her son Adam Lees.
Pattie, whose husband Terry Lees is a columnist with The Catholic Leader, was taken from her mother Agnes in Cairns when she was 10.
She spent a short time in an orphanage in Townsville before the authorities moved her to Palm Island where she stayed until she was 18, but for a brief period when she went to a boarding school in Charters Towers.
Now 72, it’s taken Pattie a lifetime to heal from the hurt – of being taken from her mother, and then the years of abuse she experienced as a ward of the state on Palm Island.
All five of Agnes’ children were taken.
“Two, they deemed, would probably be better with other families,” Pattie said.
“My younger sister went to a white family and my other sister went to an Indonesian family, and the other three of us – my older brother went to Palm Island the year before (my younger brother and I did).
“And that’s where you come to that conundrum of you’re not black enough to be black, you’re not white enough to be white, and you’re virtually forced out into the middle ground and trying to find, ‘Well, where do I fit?’
“So the book morphed into (answering that question).”
Pattie said the book started as a story tracing her mother “and trying to find out where we came from, where we belonged …”
“And then we talked about my being a fair-skinned Aboriginal Australian (of an Irish father and an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mother), and the categories that you’re put into through no fault of your own,” she said.
“I had letters from the department where they were trying to – probably for the best intentions – trying to see where we’d be better settled.
“And, for some unknown reason, they decided it was because of our dark colouring that we couldn’t be assimilated, notwithstanding the fact that we came from a non-segregated lifestyle anyway with Mum and Dad (where) we weren’t discriminated against.
“So we went to the orphanage and they used the basis of colour to probably determine our welfare to say that we’d be – I think the words were – ‘that they’d be probably more settled amongst people of their own kind’.”
Then the authorities assessed the children by degrees of colour.
“They started to pull you apart – that you had a percentage of this, and a percentage of that, but of course we weren’t white,” Pattie said.
“That seemed to feed into everything.
“So the fact that we weren’t white – our white blood wasn’t predominant – they said that our unsettling in the orphanage in Townsville was an aspect of our colour, not that the fact that we’d had the upheaval of being taken away from our mother and all of that.”
That was the decision that had them sent to Palm Island.
Pattie said there were many victims in the story, starting with “my mother who was a single parent and struggling …”
And then Pattie and her siblings suffered because of the decisions of people whose best intentions “went pear-shaped”.
“The road to hell is paved with so many good intentions – unintentional harm and things like that,” she said.
“So (for me) it was just kind of growing up and being 72 and then having that distorted sense of self and where do we fit, and what happened?
“(The book’s) based on identity and belonging.
“We all want to belong somewhere.”
Writing the book was cathartic for Pattie and “a healing thing” for other family members as well.
“It’s settled some of the grief and the loss, because you get that reference to the Stolen Generations – and people see that – but they actually stole our lives and stole our opportunity to grow up with our family, to have the familial connection,” she said.
She said it was only in writing the book that she realised she was still carrying some of the hurt from decades past.
“I thought I’d got over it and I was obviously in a sense of denial or something and I didn’t realise I was still carrying some unresolved pain …,” she said.
“Because I thought … well, as I say, ‘I haven’t had a perfect life but I’ve had a perfectly good life …’
“In the circumstances I’ve tried to make the most of it (but) there’s a lot of regret that I unearthed, and I think I’d packed it away.”
After leaving Palm Island at the age of 18, Pattie set off to join the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) in Queanbeyan where she met and married Terry Lees.
They went on to have four children, with the family extending to 12 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Pattie is chief executive officer of Injilinji Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation for Children and Youth Services, which also operates aged-care services.
She credits a Franciscan friar, the late Fr Cassian Double, for helping her emerge from the “brokenness” of segregation and abuse on Palm Island.
He was ministering on the island when she was there, and remained a close friend.
“In those days, there weren’t many counselling supports running around; you had to virtually just work it out for yourself,” Pattie said.
“That’s why we relied very heavily on Fr Cassian.
“He was instrumental in perhaps preserving my sanity and my self-belief.
“He was always very encouraging, and made me feel special, worthy, and built my self-esteem.
“He was everything – he was father, mother … he was everything to me, and I trusted him implicitly …
“He was my guide, my mentor … my whole quality of life … I say a grateful prayer every day for him. He walks beside me.”
Through Fr Cassian’s guidance, Pattie was able to grow in faith in a way that helped her deal with the challenges of separation from her mother and family.
“I was kind of angry – cursing at God’s mercy and compassion, and then Fr Cassian was straightening me out,” she said.
“And I’d lay at night in pain …
“My faith came very quietly through (Fr Cassian), and my belief in him.
“So I always saw him as God’s messenger – that like sometimes God can’t be in places so He’s got all His little messengers – angels or guardian angels or whatever we want to call them – and I think that that’s Fr Cassian’s intention in my life, as a real angel.
“Actually when he died, I thought an angel had gone home to Heaven.
“And, that man, I hope that God’s given him the best bed in the house up there, because he certainly deserved it.”
Pattie’s had to keep telling herself “I didn’t want to get bitter; I wanted to get better …” on the way to trying to forgive for the hurts of the past.
“What you’re doing is you’re saving yourself a lot of heartache,” she said.
“You’ve got to first forgive yourself and then you reach out to forgive the perpetrator, and I found a lot of peace with that.”
Pattie was eventually reunited with her mother, and it was emotional.
“And the love story (of the book), it’s hers, the mother,” Pattie said.
“That’s why I said, I wanted to fix things up for her (through writing the book), because she died at the age of 57, a broken woman.
“And being a mother myself now, I couldn’t imagine what it’d be like to lose five kids in one fell swoop.
“And she used alcohol as a poor man’s psychiatrist.
“A lot of people are doing it today; they drink because it’s a cheap form of numbing the pain at the harsh realities of life.
“People say, ‘Oh, it’s the alcohol …’, but I say it’s not the alcohol; the alcohol is a symptom of something deeper – social justice issues, I talk about – lack of housing, lack of employment, lack of self-esteem.”
Through her book, Pattie wanted to leave a legacy.
“I want to be a good ancestor for my children and my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren, and leave them a legacy of resilience and strength in times of adversity,” she said.
“And I hope that my life has been an example of that.”