Doris Pilkington Garimara, Australian writer, dies at 76


Doris Pilkington Garimara, author of "Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence," in 2002. (Paul Hawthorne/Associated Press)
April 15

In Australia, they were sometimes called “the stolen generations”: the tens of thousands of half-white, half-aboriginal children who, by government fiat, were forcibly separated from their parents and assimilated into white society.

Church groups, welfare officials and the police enforced the effort in the belief that they were saving the children from a life of poverty and ignorance. The policy ended by the early 1970s, thanks to changing social attitudes and political will regarding aboriginal rights.

The history of the stolen generations began to emerge more widely in the 1980s, triggering a painful national debate about the morality of what had been done in the name of education and social welfare.

Doris Pilkington Garimara — who died April 10 in Perth, Australia, and was believed to be 76 — wrote perhaps the most gripping and personal narrative about the assimilation process. Her 1996 book, “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence,” traced her mother’s escape at 14 from a government-approved native settlement and her audacious, 1,000-mile trek home through the harsh wilderness in western Australia.

Director Phillip Noyce’s acclaimed 2002 movie version of Ms. Pilkington’s book reverberated deeply. It was a crucial factor in then-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s decision to issue a formal apology in 2008 for “laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on . . . our fellow Australians.”

He also launched a state and federal agreement to dramatically improve health and life expectancy among the indigenous.

In an interview on Tuesday, Rudd said Ms. Pilkington “took an issue which Australians felt deeply uncomfortable about — and by and large were unprepared to talk about — and made it so personal that people had no alternative other than to start talking about it. The outstanding virtue of the work was that when it became a film, it hit Australians not in the head but in the heart.”

For all its power, the film did not address the traumatic postscript to the story. About a decade after Ms. Pilkington’s mother made her way home, the state took away her two daughters — Doris and Annabelle — because their light skin color made them targets for assimilation.

As they grew up, the girls were told they had been abandoned by their mother. Doris eventually found and reconciled with her mother, but Annabelle never saw or spoke to her mother again and, by Ms. Pilkington’s account, refused to believe she had been anything but an orphan.

The popular reaction to the book and film fueled Ms. Pilkington’s late-stage career as a self-described “witness” to aboriginal history. She told the publication Hecate, “I see my role as reporting social and cultural history for my people, from an aboriginal woman’s perspective, how these policies affected the men, too, but mostly the women. They are the ones who lost the children.”

The low-slung fence that played a critical role in the book and film was an Australian landmark, built north-to-south in the early 20th century to help western farmers defend their pastoral areas from a plague of rabbits. Ms. Pilkington’s mother, Molly Craig, was born in the remote western town of Jigalong to an English-born fence inspector and an aboriginal mother.

One day in 1931, without warning, 14-year-old Molly and two of her cousins were rounded up and sent on a two-week journey by car, train and boat to the Moore River Native Settlement, near Perth. Their new home was like a prison, with bars on windows and padlocked doors. Their accommodations were sparse.

Escape attempts were punishable offenses. But the night of her arrival, Molly planned her breakout, with the goal of reaching the rabbit-proof fence that would serve as a map home. The next day, the girls went to the farthest reaches of the camp, ostensibly to dump their slopbuckets. And then they ran.

They slept in rabbit warrens and makeshift shelters, surviving on sustenance from the land and occasional mutton sandwiches supplied by strangers. With their footprints wiped away by heavy rains, they eluded trackers sent by the department of native affairs.

By the time they found the fence, they were only midway home to Jigalong. The older of the two cousins surrendered, worn down by the cuts and sores from the brutal terrain. Molly and her youngest cousin continued, finishing the trip nine weeks after they began it.

During the next several years, Molly married an aboriginal man and gave birth to two daughters. The elder of the two was Ms. Pilkington, who was born Nugi Garimara in Balfour Downs station, near Jigalong. To the best of her knowledge, the date was July 1, 1937.

Her mother worked as a domestic, and Nugi took the first name of her mother’s employer, a woman called Doris. She later used Pilkington, the surname of her first husband.

In the early 1940s, Doris and Annabelle were removed from Molly’s care. Both children were reared by Christian missionaries and trained to feel repulsion for indigenous culture. “The missionaries brainwashed me to think that my people were devil worshipers, that their culture was evil,” Ms. Pilkington later said.

Ms. Pilkington married, trained as a nurse’s aide, raised six children in Geraldton, Australia, and later studied journalism in Perth. She had reunited with her mother in her 20s but not until she was in her 40s, while working as a researcher on aboriginal culture, did she learn from an aunt the story about her mother’s journey via the rabbit-proof fence.

She first wrote “Caprice: A Stockman’s Daughter” (1991), a fictionalized account of her mother’s story. Then came “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence” and a 2002 sequel, “Under the Wintamarra Tree” (2002). She also published “Home to Mother” (2006), a children’s version of “Rabbit-Proof Fence.”

Ms. Pilkington died of ovarian cancer, according to Australian news reports, which listed as survivors four children, 31 grandchildren and 80 great-grandchildren. Two of her daughters predeceased her.

For many whose lives seemed to exist off the historical grid, “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence” and the movie version proved a cathartic experience, Ms. Pilkington said.

“These are people in their 60s, 70s, 80s, who have seen the film all over Australia and who now, for the first time, are talking about their history and their experiences, experiences that have been suppressed for so many years,” she told the London Daily Telegraph. “It’s a very traumatic time for them. But many aboriginal women have said to me, ‘Now I’m going to search for my family. I want to go home.’ ”

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