Review Blog

Jun 05 2018

Peat Island, dreaming and desecration by Adrian Mitchell

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Wakefield Press, 2018. ISBN 9781743055502
(Age: Adult) This is a sorry story of the history of the institution for the mentally ill, on Peat Island, in the lower Hawkesbury, just north of Sydney. Mitchell begins his account with the dispersal of the Darkinjung people, original inhabitants of the island, and then describes how this place of beauty became a place of ugliness - a holding place, originally for alcoholics and drunks, and then for the handicapped and mentally ill, identified under the Mental Defectives Act, 1926. The concept behind the act was grounded in the theory of eugenics - weeding out from society the subnormal, the people who weakened the moral and political fibre of the nation.
The institution included children, and it is horrible to contemplate what happened to them. Mitchell collects what is available of the evidence on record, and presents it for us to fit together for ourselves the stories behind the sparse words that are collected - the caging of a child, drownings, deaths, filth, disease, tortuous removal of fingernails. People were locked together with no possibility of freedom, hidden away from view on an island only approached by boat.
Whilst some of the plans for the island were well intentioned, not many came to fruition, and no-one was held accountable for what went on there. The people were forgotten inmates.
Over years policies change, and Peat Island eventually became a happier place. In recording the history, the book reveals many of the dilemmas that are still argued today, of institutional treatment vs community programs, and how to best care for people with disabilities or mental issues.
Helen Eddy

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