part three: forgiveness


This is your daily reminder: Scandinavians do everything better (Also, choose love)

It was only our third or fourth rehearsal when, after a particularly tense interaction between Belinda McClory’s Tilly and Emily Tomlins’ Egg, Belinda looked at Liv and said ‘you’ll need to remind me to choose love, because it’s so much easier to fight’.

It is easy to fight; it feels good to fight. When rage is building in your guts, vibrating down through your legs and making fists of your fingers, it feels right to fight. It’s a feeling that anyone with a sibling, and especially sisters, would likely know well, and likely have surrendered to many times throughout their childhood, adolescence and beyond. My sister and I always knew where to stick the knife in to get the best reaction, and often it was just so much easier to lash out than to calmly walk away.

Watching Tilly and Egg have it out onstage is mesmerising. Seeing the complexity of sisterhood explored with such intimacy and care is a joy not often offered in our theatres. But although I love to see them play and giggle and look out for one another, I also want to watch them fight. I want them to take out twenty years of pain through harsh words and the cutting cruelty of dismissal and rejection. Somehow it feels more satisfying than the painful journey through the molasses of talking it through, working it out, behaving like adults I guess you could call it. Call me Lady Gaga circa 2009 because I want their love and I want their revenge.

But, as Gaga so eloquently points out, that would be (a) bad (romance). Humans are famous for their cognitive dissonance, the ability to accept two opposing truths at the same time. But even for us, love—or perhaps empathy or compassion for those of us who find the ‘L’ word too sticky—and vengeance—in whatever violent or indifferent form it may take—are simply too colossal and demanding to coexist. You cannot hold something with love in one hand and beat it with the other. You have to choose. This is true on every level of our lives, from our personal relationships to our social institutions.

The tension between the two sisters — one ‘free’ and one ‘not free’, as is noted in the character notes at the beginning of the script — embodies a much larger question of how we as a society manage our grievances. While Tilly has built a successful, if lonely, life for herself, using her own experience within the foster care system to fuel her desire to help others, Egg has spent her life in and out of prison. Tilly, through cruelty or carelessness, never lets her forget it. Egg’s cycles of incarceration and recidivism reflect the troubling reality of our prison system: quite simply, it is broken. In 2015-2016 the recidivism rate in Australia rose to 44.6%, up from 39.5% in 2011-2012. If the purpose of prisons is to prevent further criminal behaviour, these numbers don’t bode well. As barrister Julian Burnside has pointed out ‘if your car only started half the time, would you say it works?’

The justice system is perhaps where the dichotomy of love/vengeance comes into focus most sharply on a social level. In an article for The Conversation’s Beyond Prison series, Kathryn Snow and Lynn Gillam argue that our prisons are ‘ineffective and even counter-productive’ because our political policies and cultural narratives lack a clear understanding of exactly what prisons are for. It’s fairly safe to say that the overall goal is to reduce criminal behaviour, but is it through a system of compassion, that focuses on the rehabilitation of the offenders, or retribution, that focuses on punishment?

Studies have suggested that punishment as a means of changing behaviour is only effective in certain conditions, with certain people. Those who are future-oriented, have good self-monitoring and regulation skills, and who can make the connection between their behaviour and negative consequences months later, may well respond positively. But for those lacking these attributes, the effectiveness of punishment relies on a number of conditions — including the severity and immediacy of the punishment — that simply cannot be met by our current justice system because of modern human rights laws and legal ethics. As Andrew Day, Professor of Psychology at Deakin University, writes, ‘many of the conditions required for punishment to be effective will not exist in any justice system’.

And yet, in Australia, it is increasingly clear that the narrative we have built around our justice system is one that focuses pointedly on punishment over prisoner welfare — it’s a narrative of retribution and not of compassion. This is evident in the fact that our rates of incarceration are rising—from 187.2 prisoners for every 100 000 Australian adults in 2014, to 216.2 in the third quarter of 2017—while crime rates are actually falling. In Victoria, from 2002 to 2012, crime rates fell by 1.6%, but incarceration increased due to longer prison sentences; an increased use of prison sentences in the higher courts; and fewer people being granted bail. It’s reduced welfare — the bureaucratic embodiment of a lack of compassion — not crime rates, that have the closest correlation to increasing incarceration.

In which case, prevention should be easy: just support at-risk communities through welfare and essential services [pretty obvious, hey?]. ‘Justice reinvestment’, a policy that was originally developed in Texas, a notoriously conservative state, aims to redirect prison funding into services like education, healthcare and housing, and has been proven to lower crime rates in disadvantaged communities. Reinvestment programs are being tried and tested across Australia, including in Cowra, where the community has recently undertaken a three-year research project under the leadership of Dr Jill Guthrie. The research team proposed that eight categories of crimes — including traffic offences, justice procedure offences and drug offences — should be dealt with by non-custodial sentences, which would save the community $23 million over ten years. That money could then be spent on key services in health, education, housing and employment to help prevent crime.

But it can be difficult to sell these kinds of preventative spending policies to the general public, as any cursory glance of the comments section on any of these articles would tell you. It seems that Australians subscribe to a very simplistic narrative when it comes to our justice system. We buy into morality play tropes of good guys and bad guys—you do the crime, you do the time—ignoring complex compounding factors like poverty, trauma and colonisation. It just feels good to fight the bad guys and win. That’s why crime is such a hot-button-election-swinging topic in Australia. In the context of our national narrative, politicians who are seen to be locking up bad guys must be the good guys and must be worthy of our vote. That’s why we see Liberals trying to stir up racialised public fury over ‘African gangs’ in the lead up to a Victorian election. In Australia — where racism and classism is built into our the very foundation of our nation — people from low socio-economic communities, immigrants and especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are disproportionately represented in prison populations, and in this falsely simplistic narrative of crime and punishment.

It is strange for a nation so enamoured with the idea of the ‘underdog’ and a ‘fair go’ to reject complex narratives in our justice system. We romanticise the criminals of our colonial history— bushrangers are just a bunch of larrikin lads rising up against the British ruling class. We forgive them for murder and robbery and weave heroic narratives around them because they are the victims of an oppressive system (and because they are white; the Indigenous Australians who were also fighting the colonisers during the Bushranger era were not afforded any such sympathy).

Nowadays, many amongst the prison population have stories that reflect that same narrative: they engage in criminal behaviour in response to trauma, poverty or institutional discrimination at the hands of an indifferent (at best) or cruel government. According to the Council of Australian Government Figures, Indigenous Australians are twelve times more likely to be in prison; 63.7% of male and 45.3% of female Victorian prisoners were unemployed when they were imprisoned; and 87% of female prisoners in Victoria were victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse, with the majority being victims of multiple forms of abuse. Even if, on a personal level, we recognise that the factors motivating criminal behaviour are complex and socially constructed, our justice system steamrolls that nuance with its propensity for punishment. By imprisoning vulnerable people without proper support and rehabilitation—which would acknowledge that there were external factors that led to their criminal behaviour—we are reinforcing a narrative that casts them as inevitable villains.

We see in my sister feather how the internalisation of that narrative can eat away at a person. We see Egg both resist and fall into the character assigned to her — a petulant child who never takes responsibility for her own actions. She baits Tilly to anger with indifference and lies. Tilly struggles to maintain her composure: though she claims she didn’t come to fight she finds herself lashing out and reinforcing the narrative that Egg is exactly where she deserves to be. The roles prescribed by our judicial narrative are passionately reinforced: Tilly is the capable one and Egg is the deadbeat.

This binary relationship is defined and shaped by the sisters’ evolving relationship with ‘them’, the invisible figures behind the security camera, the police, the justice system itself. The validity and stability of these identities are therefore reliant on the objectivity of the system, which, clearly, is non-existent. From the outside, we tend to see the system as an impartial object, dehumanised, which is perhaps why we allow it to dehumanise those people that come to live within its confines. The justice system is not a solid, unbiased, independent, artificial structure, but a carefully constructed web of people, from guards to social workers to CEOs and policy-makers, all vulnerable to the influence of cultural narratives.

When it suits us, we prefer to see the system as impartial and unprejudiced — Tilly outwardly refuses to believe that fear of punishment would prevent people, like Egg, from looking to the police for help; it helps alleviate her own guilt in ‘failing’ to help her sister. But she also questions the morality of the system in the way it dehumanises inmates, as the compassionate gesture of providing mammograms turns out to be motivated by research, and not to save lives. In those moments, the system is not a reliable structure in Tilly’s eyes, but a group of spaghetti-breathed guards, flawed and human, who should be capable of compassion.

And herein lies the pathway to a more effective justice system: it should take human, not structural form, whereby it is not only capable of being compassionate, but expected to be. In Scandinavian countries [you can always rely on Scandinavians to show us the way], the justice system is focused on restorative justice, rather than punishment. This manifests in open prisons and shorter prison sentences, but is best summed up by Kirsti Njeminen, governor of Kerava prison in Finland, who says that prison guards and administrators are like ‘parents’ to their inmates. Parents are expected to bear the brunt of their children’s misbehaviours with good humour and compassion, while gently guiding their children through the process of building appropriate moral structures.

In Finland and other Scandinavian countries, this is what the prison system aspires to: they favour the ‘moral-creating and value-shaping effect of punishment’ rather than ‘punishment as retribution’. Though inmates have their freedom of movement restricted within open prisons, they all have access to rehabilitative services such as education and healthcare, and all facilities incorporate “cognitive-behavioural programs rooted in social learning theory”. Often inmates are referred to as clients rather than prisoners. It works. Norway has an incarceration rate of 75 per 100,000 people and recidivism rate of 20%. Adapting these kinds of compassionate spaces, services and language would completely shift the narrative that surrounds prisons in Australia. We need to make this change, move away from the narrative that serves as a faux self-fulfilling prophecy by painting vulnerable people as villains.

When their mother leaves them, Tilly is forced to take on a parental role in her relationship with Egg. It is a huge burden for a child to shoulder. In an ideal world (i.e. Scandinavia) the prison system could alleviate the burden of this relationship by adopting that parental role. In Australia, with a system that favours retribution, the system eliminates the burden by regarding Egg as unworthy of the relationship at all, unworthy of parental guidance and compassion.

It can be difficult to reject this black-and-white, hero-and-villain narrative that is prevalent in Australia, especially if a crime has a clear and vulnerable victim. Karrie Thompson, a victim’s advocate, argues that prison gives victims ‘closure’: it feels good to fight back, and to win.  But, as Justin Burnside points out, ‘you go to prison as punishment, not for punishment’. Prison, if necessary, must be a space of rehabilitation, not retribution. Prison-as-rehabilitation has none of the moral judgement that is inherent in the concept of prison-as-retribution. Retribution is cyclical, and if we pack our narratives, and our prisons, with vengeance we will never find a satisfying resolution. To quote Shakespeare, ‘blood will have blood’, or to quote Jean Tong ‘blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood … [ad infinitum]’ (Jean wrote an incredible coda to Macbeth called Macdeath which should be a compulsory addition to any production of the Scottish play IMHO).

In my sister feather, I want Egg and Tilly to fight. I want the play to be full of yelling and hurled objects. I want them to demand blood in payment for their pain. But no-one wants to see that play. And hopefully no-one should want to see that play out in our judicial system. Allowing two sisters the time and space to sit peacefully with their pain, trying to find a way out of it together, quietly and with dignity, is a reminder — to everyone — to choose love.  

Postscript: the justice system is incredibly complex, and full of many wonderful people working hard to make it better and fairer. This article merely skims the surface of the issue of incarceration in Australia, and I encourage you to investigate further. Let’s change the narrative.

This is the third in a series of critical responses being published weekly on the VIMH blog by playwright (and assistant director) Fiona Spitzkowsky about the my sister feather rehearsal room.

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