Forgetting to remember

Learning to remember means…transforming individual memories and struggles into collective narratives and larger social movements.
Henry A Giroux, The Violence of Organized Forgetting, (City Light Books, 2014)


WHEN I WAS a little girl, I began poking and prodding the world with an infernal curiosity for historical detail:

How old were you when you bought your first bra, Mum?

What did you wear to your senior prom?

Did your date give you a corsage?

Why did you divorce dad?

What was my birth like?

Did you need drugs?

Did you hold me right away?

My mother had one answer to almost all of my questions: ‘I honestly don’t recall. You know what a bad memory I have.’

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I beat my head against the brick wall of my mother’s amnesia. She told no stories from her past, and rubbed out my own personal history with the same mental eraser. After I emerged from my teenage rage, I simply stopped asking her questions. My mother lives blissfully in the moment and I have learned to love her for her accidental enlightenment. I am certain she was never being deliberately deceitful or tricky by sidestepping my questions. I once thought her ‘bad memory’ as a benign, if annoying, idiosyncrasy; even the language of forgetfulness is mild and obliging – my thesaurus offers up ‘absent-minded’, ‘scatter-brained’, ‘dreamy’, ‘vague’.

There was other evidence of her forgetfulness. It took years for the penny to drop that after every visit to my adult home she left little keepsakes for me. Her watch hanging on a cup hook, her rings next to the sink, a library card, even her wallet. She would call me later that night to ask if I had found the items and I would dutifully return them without rebuke. Only after I figured out the nature of our psychodynamic game was I able to grasp that Mum’s forgetting was a modest act of aggression: she was marking territory. The things she left behind would remind me not to forget her.

After I had my first child – a gruesomely long labour culminating in foetal distress and a traumatic birth by emergency caesarean – I realised there was a dangerous side to her memory loss. Standing in the hospital ward, cooing at our miracle baby, my father marvelled that history should repeat itself.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked through the fog of my post-op pain relief.

‘Well, your mother had such a long and difficult labour that the doctor told her she should never attempt another vaginal birth. She had some sort of funny twist in her pelvis.’ Mum had an emergency C-section when my sister was born eleven years later. Clearly she’d forgotten the doctor’s advice. And I had a twisted pelvis, something I didn’t realise we shared. It had never occurred to me to ask my dad what my birth was like.

IT IS POSSIBLE that national historical inheritance operates like the familial bequest of personal information. Historian Anna Clark argues in her forthcoming book, Every Now and Then (MUP, 2016), ‘The need to be told, and retold, the story of our lives shows the need we have to be placed into a longer, multi-generational narrative of belonging, a narrative which then informs our own historical consciousness.’

Clark’s insight into how mindfulness of one’s individual past contributes to a sense of emotional confederacy begs the larger question: how does a nation construct its ‘narrative of belonging’? What is the mechanism for bestowing collective, multi-generational historical consciousness? Is national forgetfulness simply a case of benign absent-mindedness, or is it a ruse?

Psychologists understand that the transfer of information from short-term to long-term memory typically has some import. ‘Imagine how difficult it would be to forget the day you graduated, or your first kiss,’ the Virtual Psychology Classroom notes in its online Psychology 101 course. ‘Now think about how easy it is to forget information that has no significance [my emphasis]; the colour of the car you parked next to at the store or what shirt you wore last Thursday.’ Forgetting is the counterpoint to memory: ‘It is possible that we are physiologically preprogrammed to eventually erase data that no longer appears pertinent to us.’ [i] How magnanimous of our brains to engage in this act of ‘displacement’ – freedom from childhood trauma to remember PIN numbers.

As a historian, I have an alternative explanation. Fortunately, historical memory rests securely in archival and oral inheritance. I don’t need a smell or a song to retrieve the past. I simply need a computer, a keyword, a catalogue number and, finally, physical access to the letter, diary, newspaper, government report, parliamentary debate, shipping log, painting, poem or published account that is the legacy of one man, woman or bureaucracy’s casual attention to the color of the car/buggy/horse/possum he, she or it sighted. I can also go into people’s homes with a tape recorder and an open mind and ask the right questions. Short of burning libraries and cutting out tongues, eradication of the past is not an option.

And yet…

We commemorate Remembrance Day each year – bowing heads to recall the war dead, stopping the nation with a minute’s silence. But what would happen if we downed tools for Forgetting Day? In this meditation on the nature of historical memory, I want to think about who we remember and what we choose – to our psychic and civic detriment – to forget.

Acts of national forgetfulness are inherently aggressive. An implicit value system cordons off – and then rigorously polices – historical consciousness for state-sanctioned hierarchies of belonging. Institutional memorials, whether shrines and monuments, or moments, like public holidays, tell us which people and deeds merit commemoration.

In an era when, as Henry Giroux argues in The Violence of Organized Forgetting, ‘modern society is increasingly defined by the realities of permanent war, a carceral state, and a national surveillance infrastructure’, the ‘Last Post’ is not a dog whistle; it is a whopping great foghorn and we hear it loudly and clearly. [ii] Only some of our ghosts are sanctioned to rest in peace.

History professor Joy Damousi writes: ‘Historical memory is not only what we choose to remember, but…that which we disavow…the past we recreate becomes a repository of our emotions, our loves, desires and fantasies.’[iii] Australians know we should honour the memory of militaristic actions performed by white men on Anzac Day, the colonising actions of white men on Australia Day, and the gambling and drinking actions of sporting men on Cup Day. Commercialising commemoration is big business. In Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession (Redback, 2014) James Brown estimates that the ‘Anzac Industry’ costs the Australian taxpayer many millions of dollars, and insulates the bottom line of brewers that sell beer under the guise of ‘recognising the ultimate sacrifice’. As a former soldier, Brown’s concern is that the emotion and expense of this obscures the realities of serving soldiers. There are other casualties of historical tunnel vision: Damousi argues that we should be asking ‘not which stories we choose to tell, but why we choose the stories we do, to tell about ourselves at this particular moment in time’.

The very act of concealment confirms the truth of its existence. To borrow again from psychologists, it was Freud who demonstrated that elements of memory preserved in the unconscious tend to reappear, resurfacing through cracks in the seemingly stable facade, just as the roots of a tree must, under duress, ultimately disgorge the earth in which they reside. This is the return of the repressed.

IF BOOK TITLES are a key to the zeitgeist, we are now witnessing a resurgence of national historical consciousness. Three titles that have been prominent in recent debates, controversies and literary awards – Henry Reynolds’ Forgotten War (NewSouth, 2013), Peter Stanley’s Lost Boys of Anzac (NewSouth, 2014), and my own The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Text, 2013) – indicate a shift.

Words matter, and there is a difference between something that is ‘lost’ and ‘forgotten’. The distinction is vast and telling. When casting about for the title for my book, about the previously unrecognised role of women in the Eureka Stockade, ‘The Lost Rebels of Eureka’ was one of the suggestions. I didn’t buy it; ‘lost’ suggests that the dopey sheilas simply wandered off into the bush and got themselves in a pickle. The women of Eureka didn’t get lost – they knew exactly where they were and what they were doing. For the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary in 1884, one woman even published a poem in the Ballarat Star about the affair using the pseudonym ‘A Lady Who Was There’.

May all your sons and daughters

A glorious future see

And ne’er forget the old, old spot

Where we fought for liberty[iv]

The unbiddable women of Ballarat didn’t get lost. We forgot them. The moral compass of that word points in a very different direction.

Henry Reynold’s latest book, Forgotten War (NewSouth, 2013), makes a clear and compelling case for finally acknowledging the frontier wars that were waged here. If it had been called ‘Lost War’, the implication would have been very different.

Conversely, the title of Peter Stanley’s most recent book, Lost Boys of Anzac, draws on the literary legacy of JM Barrie, and flags that death is at the core of the narrative. Stanley retraces the steps of a hundred and one men at Gallipoli who never grew up, having been killed on the first day of that ill-fated landing. They were fallen, though not entirely forgotten, unlike the unidentified woman killed in the Eureka Stockade who remained buried in the archive until my research exhumed her. Fancy if we referred to her as ‘a fallen woman’.

Language is important. But it is a question of what to do with information that for one reason or another – misogyny, racism – has previously
not appeared pertinent but is empirically present, that is the real test of national maturity.

TWO CURRENT EXAMPLES of national institutions, and their responses to the return of the historically repressed, demonstrate quite different approaches to addressing remembrance and forgetting.

The first is the new Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka – MADE is its funky acronym – which opened in Ballarat in 2013 on the site of the Eureka Stockade. MADE uses the Eureka story as the centrepiece for a wider exploration of the nature, function and process of democracy, both in Australia and globally. Imagine a stone thrown in a lake: Ballarat circa 1854 is the splash from which circles of discourse emanate. According to its website, the museum is, at its core, outward looking and remarkably free of both jingoism and parochialism.

MADE is the catalyst for a new national conversation about what Australian democracy could look like and mean to each of us… MADE explores many concepts: what it means to be an effective, engaged Australian; how we can create a more inclusive and connected society in a digital era; how we can thrive as a nation through harnessing our creativity and energy; and, what we can offer to a globalised world.

Its catchphrase is ‘Democracy is not what you have, it’s what you do’, a motto that was put to the test early in the museum’s life. The curatorial team wanted to erect a new monument to those who had lost their lives at Eureka on 3 December 1854, both the miners who were defending their rights and liberties, and the soldiers who were doing their duty. As a consultant to the development, I was asked to scrutinise the wording that would be etched on a bronze plaque. The text read: ‘We honour the memory of all those who died at the Eureka Stockade, 3 December 1854. Those known to us as well as those whose names are unrecorded.’

A list of thirty-four names followed, compiled from various primary and secondary sources. Some were nicknames; others were just fragments. All belonged to men.

I had no problem with the sentiment. But I had a big problem with the history. The language on the plaque was gender-neutral, but the list implied a certain truth. It suggested that the historic Eureka was one and the same as the mythic Eureka – the familiar national narrative of male passions inflamed, male blood shed and manhood suffrage won. My research at the time, published in refereed academic journals and accepted as the latest scholarship, had busted that myth and demonstrated that at least one woman, and possibly more, had also been killed in that lethal affray. Was this new museum going to ignore the evidence? There is a mighty difference between forgetting and eliding. It is one thing to fail to recall something that once happened, quite another to deliberately overlook the existence of data – a sliding scale of civic culpability between amnesia, inertia and bald-faced denial. I proposed an alternative text: ‘We honour the memory of all those who died at the Eureka Stockade, 3 December 1854. Those known to us as well as those women and men whose names are unrecorded.’

The institutional response was swift and decisive. The museum proceeded with the following wording on the plaque, which would be unveiled at MADE’s opening a few weeks later: ‘We honour the memory of all those who died during or because of the events at the Eureka Stockade on 3 December 1854 – the men known to us, who are recalled below, as well as the other men and women whose names are unrecorded.’

The Museum passed its own test. Democracy is not what you have, it’s what you do.

THE SECOND EXAMPLE of a cultural institution that memorialises those who have died in armed conflict is the Australian War Memorial (AWM).

Almost thirty years ago, Peter Stanley, then AWM’s principal historian, gave internal advice that the Memorial should recognise and represent frontier conflict. He argued that acknowledging and commemorating the fatal combat between the original inhabitants of Australia and the colonial powers was within the Australian War Memorial Act’s charter: to remember Australians who have died ‘as a result of any war or warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service’. Other historians, including Geoffrey Blainey, who is more infamously remembered in progressive circles for coining the phrase ‘black armband history’, supported Stanley.

The AWM still refuses to accept frontier conflict as part of the story it has been legislated to tell. Journalist Michael Green argues that ‘the Memorial’s position appears to be a matter of politics and extraordinary inertia’ given that it has not changed its position in the face of three decades of advice, advocacy and evidence.[v] Indeed, Stanley contends that ‘the historiographical battle [is] over’.[vi] Yet the Memorial’s repudiation of any responsibility to include frontier conflict in the commemoration of Australia’s fallen is not technically denial. Psychology 101 defines denial as an ‘ego defense mechanism’, whose function is to ‘argue against an anxiety-provoking stimuli by stating it doesn’t exist’. The AWM does not claim that the frontier wars did not occur, so why isn’t this history of martial conflict in its remit?

In his National Press Club address on 18 September 2013, AWM director Brendan Nelson made a telling remark. Discussing the recent inclusion of the Afghanistan chapter of Australia’s military history at the Memorial, he said, ‘I suspect that those men returning from Vietnam might not have suffered quite as much as they have, if the Memorial had been able to more deeply and broadly tell the story of their engagement and what they did sooner rather than later’.[vii] Nelson now invites returned soldiers from Afghanistan to spend a month at the Memorial, engaged in various programs. ‘I think it’s therapeutic for them, in fact I know it is, but I also know it’s good for us and our staff to see someone in a uniform there every day, so we never lose sight of why we’re there.’ There is, to my knowledge, nothing in the AWM’s Act that stipulates freedom fighters, patriots, heroes and other combatants must be identified by the fact that they wear uniforms.

Brendan Nelson says the national icon he runs ‘represents the soul of our nation’. But he also says this: ‘the Australian War Memorial is not in my very strong view the institution to tell [the] story [of the] cost borne by Indigenous Australians’ through frontier violence. He doesn’t deny the reality of those armed conflicts, but suggests that the National Museum of Australia is the correct place to tell that story. This is because it is ‘most likely to have whatever artifacts or relics that exist from this period in our history’. Yet the legacy of the frontier wars is not ancient history. Battles were being fought into the 1920s, when the bodies of Anzacs were still being laid to rest in Europe.[viii] Many of those who fought in frontier conflicts, including ‘women who carried out resistance actions’, as Indigenous activist Celeste Liddle reminds us, have descendants alive today.[ix]

Like MADE, the Australian War Memorial is also investing in new plaques. A portion of the $32 million redevelopment of the First World War galleries will be spent refashioning the room that houses the unknown Australian soldier. Currently, the text surrounding the tomb of the Unknown Soldier reads at one end, ‘Known unto God’, and at the other, ‘He symbolises all Australians who’ve died in war’. The more secular new engraving will say, at one end, ‘We do not know this Australian’s name, we never will’, and at the other, ‘He is one of them, and he is all of us’.

Reading the Memorial’s monuments as a whole, a visitor might be pardoned for surmising, ‘We do not know this Australian’s name, we never will, but we sure know he isn’t black or female.’

CITIZENS READ SILENCES just as expertly – if reluctantly, belatedly – as I read the meaning of the lost property my mother left in my house. Anxious detachment – distancing the modern polis from its intractably murderous origins – is as palpable as anxious attachment.

I love my Mum. And I forgive her defense mechanisms; they are what make her – and us – human. My mother has never been anything but kind and generous to me.

I love my country, too. But I find it hard forgive the way that ‘the politicisation of historical memory’, as Gary Foley dubbed it in the Age on Anzac Day 2014, continues to protect our darkest historical roots from exposure, implicitly defending the indefensible and perpetuating a legacy of national immaturity.[x] It is neither kind nor generous, nor does it make ‘the national narrative of belonging’ more inclusive. Democracy is not what you forget, it’s what you are brave enough to remember.



[i] [accessed 17 December 2014]

[ii] Giroux. 47

[iii] Joy Damousi, ‘History Matters: the politics of grief and injury in Australian history’, Australian Historical Studies, 33 (118) 100-101.

[iv] The Ballarat Times, 26 July 1884

[v] Michael Green, ‘Lest We Remember: The Australian War Memorial and the Frontier Wars’, The Wheeler Centre Dailies, 24 February 2014 [accessed 21 May 2014]

[vi] Peter Stanley, ‘On Anzac Day we remember the Great War but forget our first war’, The Conversation, 25 April 2014 [accessed 17 December 2014]

[vii] Brendan Nelson, National Press Club Address, 18 September 2013. [accessed 21 May 2014]

[viii] Bart Ziino, A Distant Grief: Australians, War Graves and the Great War (Perth: UWA Press, 2007), 99-105.

[ix] Celeste Liddle, ‘We must remember indigenous warriors who fought war itself’, the Guardian, 11 July 2014, [accessed 5 December 2014]

[x] Gary Foley, ‘Gallipoli not the only war to define Australian warfare’, the Age, 25 April 2014, [accessed 17 December 2014]

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