Like Father, Like Son

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I read with great interest It’s Lonely at the Top by Andrew West (issue 72, link here). Yet already, Kerry Packer has passed on, both literally, in death, and metaphorically, in terms of the amount of column inches devoted to him in the news media. No doubt there will be a further flurry of hagiography, recollection and criticism when the good and the great (read rich and powerful) gather to attend his State funeral.  

Among the Packer obituaries, however, the one that I found most fascinating was written by the great man himself back in 1977, as part of an anthology called The Twig is Bent: Childhood Recollections of 16 Prominent Australians, edited by Terry Lane. The Sydney Morning Herald reproduced the piece in its Packer-packed weekend edition of 31 December–1 January, 2006, under the title A Fortunate Life.

The piece surprised me in many ways. It was very simple and sad, and surprisingly well written. It was also exceptionally modest. The scourge of Senate Committees seemed much more comfortable talking about his weaknesses than his strengths, indeed only laying claim with any confidence to good ball skills. The tone of the piece, and the poignant picture accompanying it, was that of a diffident and neglected child — the neglected child that Packer to some extent remained.

‘The Punishment of the Jesus Child’   by Max Ernst

Packer was open about many unfortunate experiences in his childhood: the physical punishment meted out by his father, the number of times he was sent away from home, and the fact that he did not see his parents very often even when he was quite seriously ill. Once he did not see either of them for a remarkable four years.

Yet there was no anger in his writing; no blame. It was quite clear that he took responsibility for his sad childhood, believing perhaps, as children often do, that it was something about him that drove his parents away; something about his lack of talent and achievements that led to their neglect. Time and time again he reassured the reader (and himself) that his parents had loved him and that anything they had done, they had done due to unavoidable circumstances (the war, pressure of work, the overriding duty of wife to husband) or for his own good.

A number of letters appeared in the SMH over the next day or two, echoing my own visceral response to this revealing piece. Suddenly, a new, more interesting, more human Kerry Packer had emerged.

Yet while I felt much sympathy for Kerry the child, as I read through the article, I began to worry about Kerry the parent. Particularly when he wrote about his father: ‘he was a great believer in corporal punishment’, and then added ‘as I am’.

The German psychotherapist Alice Miller, author of The Drama of the Gifted Child and For Your Own Good argues that abused children who fail to face up to the truth about the way they were treated by their parents; who minimise, excuse and continue to cling to the illusion that the bad parenting they received was really good, are doomed to repeat the abuse and pass on a continuous pattern of misery, generation after generation after generation.

Miller writes in For Your Own Good:

If these people become parents, they will then often direct acts of revenge for their mistreatment in childhood against their own children, whom they use as scapegoats. Child abuse is still sanctioned, indeed, held in high regard in our society as long as it is defined as child-rearing. It is a tragic fact that parents beat their children in order to escape the emotions from how they were treated by their own parents.

‘How do I bring my own two children up?’ Kerry asked himself in the SMH piece, ‘Well, funnily enough, I spend pretty long hours in the Consolidated Press Building too. I want them to know only one thing, really: that I adore them. I’d do anything for them and they know that.’ (Except come home earlier, perhaps.) ‘They know they’re loved. They’re excited and happy to see me, as I am to see them. That doesn’t mean I don’t put them over my knee — I do, but I hope fairly and never in anger.’

A friend of mine and his sister were also brought up in a very wealthy family. Sent long distances to boarding school at the age of six, on the rare occasions they returned home, they were routinely caned (fairly and never in anger?) for each of the spelling mistakes that appeared in the letters they had written to their parents from school.

The interesting point about their experience was that while they faced up to their own abusive upbringing and were under no illusions about the way they were treated, their father, as he aged, remembered less and less about the way he had punished them. It wasn’t dementia, or Alzheimer’s, it was merely rose-coloured glasses — the tendency all parents have to forget their mistakes and failures; to forget what it is painful to remember. Children, it seems, don’t forget, but they may well continue to collude with their parents by refusing to recognise the wrongs done to them.

Who hasn’t heard the boast of the strictly brought-up middle-aged man justifying his own harsh treatment of his children by saying that he was often beaten as a child and that it never did him any harm? Many parents send their children back to the very schools they once loathed based on just such rationalisations. The Christian ethos that sparing the rod spoils the child is predicated on just this kind of generational blindness. Worse, it is then amplified by society into a tendency to blame the victim for their misfortunes; to treat the poorest, the weakest and the most vulnerable with suspicion and contempt, while admiring, apologising for and venerating those with wealth and power by giving them State funerals and lengthy obituaries. The unresolved and unrecognised misery spreads, like an oil spill, despoiling everything it touches.

A neglected and abused child needs to maintain their illusion that their parents love them, regardless of how they treat them. We are all aware of the desire of even the most cruelly treated children to remain with their abusive parent. It is simply too frightening for a child to face up to the fact that their parents, their supposed protectors, may not, in fact, love them at all.

As an adult, however, and particularly if we contemplate parenthood ourselves, it seems to me it is imperative we examine our own childhood carefully and come to terms with any wrong that was done to us, however minor. Honouring our mothers and fathers is all very well, but if society is to make any real progress at all, perhaps we also need to start honouring the child, particularly the child that all of us, even Kerry Packer, once were.

New Matilda

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