Individual and Social Transformation

Individual and Social Transformation

Charles Anderson was a convict in the early settlement of Sydney. An orphan, he had joined the British navy at 9 years of age. On active service he was wounded in the head and suffered irreversible brain damage. When under stress or under the effect of alcohol he could become violent and hostile. At 18 he was sentenced to 7 years in Australia for burglary.

Landing in Sydney, Anderson was so resentful for what was happening to him that the authorities deemed it appropriate to isolate him on Goat Island – a rock in Sydney Harbour. He spent two years exposed to the elements and tethered to a chain on the rock. His food was put on a rock and pushed at him with a pole. Sydney colonists found it amusing to row up to the rock and throw food and offal at him, and watch him eat.

The Governor became ashamed of what was happening and had Anderson sent to Port Macquarie. He escaped and joined an aboriginal tribe, was recaptured and severely flogged. He then committed a serious crime hoping to be hanged. Instead the authorities sent him to Norfolk Island.

A new commandant – Alexander Maconochie – had recently taken charge of the Norfolk Island penal settlement. Significantly affected by some associates who were Quakers he was attempting to work out a less punitive approach to running a penal colony – offering rewards for good conduct rather than punishment for bad.

His therapy for Anderson was simple – he gave the man some responsibilities by putting him in charge of some bullocks and let him stay with the animals out of range of the barracks to save him being taunted by the other convicts. Anderson tamed the bullocks successfully and was soon being congratulated and spoken kindly to. Then he was given the job of helping to manage a signal station which he did with scrupulous care. When Governor Gipps visited Norfolk Island in 1843 he recorded his amazement on seeing this former wild man of Goat Island bustling about in a sailor’s uniform, open and frank in demeanour.

Through our contemporary eyes we can perceive that Anderson probably experienced learning impairments and Acquired Brain Injury. His presentation would be probably termed ‘challenging and complex behaviour’ in our terms. We know that at times we exclude people with difficult behaviours, make them objects of ridicule and leave them to encounter the penalties and punishments of the criminal justice system.

While this is but a cursory and superficial description of the story I wonder if there are some powerful reminders we can take from Andersons’s experience to inform our contemporary work in inclusion, including:

  • The role of values and spirit in our work. It took a fundamental reimagining of philosophy and approach emerging from a radically different spiritual platform for a life-giving option to be opened for Charles Anderson. Maconachie listened to his Quaker friends and was willing to have his world view disturbed by this radical spiritual tradition. A non-conventional and non-punitive context was therefore offered to Anderson. Perhaps just as we draw from sociological, cultural, professional, academic and political frameworks we might also enrich our work by drawing from the more counter-cultural elements of our spiritual traditions to enable us to step aside from disabling, life-sapping service models and to energise compassionate and life-enriching work in community?
  • The potency of opportunities for meaningful participation in our work. The possibility of co-creating a new and different future for Anderson emerged as opportunities for participation and contribution which were safe and meaningful were offered. I wonder what a developmental and participatory approach to risk management might mean for our work rather than a containment and separation approach.
  • The potential for developing people’s competency and social acceptance and inclusion through valued, normative and typical roles. Charles Anderson was seen as a depraved, disturbed person with nothing to offer his community. A different context elicited strengths and capacities that would not have been dreamed of previously.

In our work we can name similar processes which have occurred recently, such as:

  • A man with an intellectual disability and who was at high risk of incarceration 8 years ago having a team of allies and supporters organise an amazing 50th birthday party for him – where his life and talents were uplifted and honoured and his advocate publicly shared, after my wife – this man is my best friend.
  • A woman who has experienced a life of psychiatric hospitals, group homes and the foster care system having her unit filled with friends and good food while some allies played live classical music for all to enjoy.
  • A woman who has lived in highly diminished, isolated and poverty stricken context who now has safe and secure housing, some respectful women who visit her, listen to her and take her on trips to other towns to visit old friends.
  • A man who some years ago was locked away and seen to be a danger to community and who now is running a small business and enjoying trips to other places with friends.

At a time when cynicism is high, polarisation is deepening and people are reporting greater anxiety it is instructive to remember that this work of inclusion isn’t only about assisting individuals but is also about broader social transformation. We are reminded of Raymond Williams comment that to be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing. May our joint efforts for a more inclusive society contribute to building a world of hope rather than of despair?

(the details recounted here of Charles Anderson’s story were taken from Robert Hughes The Fatal Shore. …publisher and date. Pp. 498-513)