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Academic research and publishing

Care leaver research: lived experience is vital to challenge past narratives

Jacqueline Wilson at the St Patrick’s Cathedral Loud Fence, Ballarat. Photograph by Nell Butler.

This podcast is an interview with Associate Professor Jacqueline Z Wilson of Federation University, Ballarat. Jacqueline is an expert on care leavers and historical justice, and, like me, she is a care leaver. This means we both lived in the care of the state as children.

The Loud Fence pictured above is an example of of grass roots activism in Ballarat. Community members have tied colourful ribbons to the fences of churches and other institutions as a show of support for survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. Cardinal George Pell, who officiated at the cathedral, has been convicted of child sexual abuse.


Nell Butler: Associate Professor Jacqueline Wilson, thank you for talking to me

Jacqueline Wilson: Thank you for asking me, Nell.

Nell Butler: I want to ask you, what academic publishing achievement are you most proud of?

Jacqueline Wilson: Probably my article in Australian Historical Studies, which was one of the first things I got published, and includes a passage about visiting my brother in Pentridge [prison], which I still talk about, it’s very dear to me. I wrote that article at a time when I was just discovering what university was about, in the first year of my PhD. I was very interesting in writing about history from below, and inserted my own narrative into that article. It’s something that I still will look at occasionally.

Nell Butler: Do you think it’s becoming more acceptable for academics to use their lived experience in their writing?

Jacqueline Wilson: No. Not really, I think it’s still a taboo thing. When I insert myself into my writing- It’s not always all about me, but I use my own experiences to reflect on what it is that I’m discussing and writing. There are not too many people in academia who were made wards of the state, whose brother was in Pentridge, and who have got a lived experience that’s challenging the professional experience, and it doesn’t always go down well. People are not always happy with it.

And I think also, historians are starting to talk about- people like Nell Musgrove who is just brilliant- she’s talking about walking along with people that she does research on: she wants to do research with. Things are starting to change but not in the traditional areas like English literature or history so much, but we are finding them in unusual disciplines, so for instance informatics, where they look at record keeping. They seem to be very open to people’s lived experiences: Aboriginal people, care leavers, women, domestic violence survivors, all sorts of things. It’s not to say that historians don’t do this, of course they do, but I think it’s been a bit of a battle, actually, to have credibility.

So now I work a lot in the area of care leavers, historical justice.

Nell Butler: What would you like to see happen with academic writing and diversity of voices of academic writers, especially those coming from a care leaver experience?

Jacqueline Wilson: Challenging academic narratives with our lived experience- it shouldn’t be a problem, it should actually be something that can enrich the knowledge base that’s out there, but there needs to be room for us. We need to be able to get the grant money, we need to be able to do the research, to sit alongside historians of social welfare, and for us to walk hand in hand, not as people who are the objects of research, which I have been all my life.

I’ve written about this, I’ve been researched by University of Melbourne academics as a ward of the state, with people with their clipboards coming around and interviewing me. I’ve been photographed and put in the Herald Sun. I’ve been asked about my experiences after my child was born, when I was 25 years old, and I had a researcher come into the hospital and talk to me.

So I’ve been the object of research for a long time, but we want to be the people who design the research now, we want to design the research, we want to challenge what’s been said before, and really that’s all anybody wants to do if they want to be a good researcher and they really truly want to say some new stuff. There should be room for us. There has to be, because we aren’t going away, and I think our voices are getting louder.

Nell Butler: Thank you so much for talking to me.

Jacqueline Wilson: Thank you Nell, and I would be pretty happy, I think, with putting all that on the bloggo.

The music in the podcast is Humoresque no. 7 in Gb Op. 101/7 (Violin and Piano arr.) by composer Antonín Dvořák, Performed by Oliver Colbentson, Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 (No copyright)

Online publishing

Part 2. Adoptees changing the world

Photograph of Young Pioneer doll by Nell Butler

Blogging as a means to achieve political change: Adoptees and mothers forming groups, changing laws, writing books

The critical consciousness that adoptees have raised in themselves and each other has contributed to concrete outcomes, in further publishing, such as books and articles, and in the formation of activist groups which have changed laws.

I have compiled a small sample of sites where adoptees and mothers have spoken out and organised for change. Please note: I will have left out many important sites, simply because there are so many.

Creating change in Australia

Blogging and social media has been important to developing adoptees voices and activism in Australia. The Australian Adoptee Rights Action Group connects on Facebook and campaigns for a wide range of legislative changes for adoptees. Adoptee members organised an Adoptee Round Table Think Tank in June 2017, and produced this fantastic video. They also established an adoptee-only advocacy group called Change Adoption Australia, National Advocacy Association of Adopted People.

Adoptee Thomas Graham publishes Ipsify, a blog with interviews with both Catherine Lynch, who established AARAG, and adoptee activist Angela Barra. Angela publishes her own blog, and is also one of a number of Australian adoptees who is gaining a voice in the mainstream media, for example in the Huffington Post.

William Hammersley’s blog Identity has published a range of opinions. Hammersley argues for a model of stewardship to replace adoption, so that the child’s identity isn’t changed and welfare checks are able to be provided. Hammersley also published a guest post from Pascal Huynh arguing that gay men who want to adopt should question whether adopting is an ethical act.

Chelsea Bond provides an acute summary of recent discussions about Aboriginal adoption on IndigenousX, a news service with a substantial blog and a popular twitter account. Grandmothers Against Removals are one of many activist groups against all removals of Aboriginal children, whether they are being removed into adoption or state care.

The mainstream media is still not paying attention: Despite the many gains made by adoptees, the mainstream media is still resistant to adoptees voices. Special features about adoption often exclude adoptees voices entirely. This article, Adoption In Australia: Everything You Need To Know, is typical: no adoptee or mothers voices are included, only adoptive parents, pro-adoption lobbyists and professionals.

Creating change in the United States

Writing together, publishing books: Lost Daughters is a US site which was established in 2011, and describes itself as an ‘independent collaborative writing project.’ The writers of this site developed a book, The Adoptee Survival Guide, published in 2015. The editor of the book, Lynne Grubb, first started writing about adoption on My Space, and it includes chapters by Lost Daughters founder Amanda Transue-Woolton. Transue-Woolton also compiled the book Dear Wonderful You: letters to adopted and fostered youth.

By Dory Martin, used under Creative Commons license 3.0

Activist groups: Bastard Nation is a US group which campaigns on adoptees rights to identity records. Many states in the US still have closed records: this means adoptees can’t access information about their birth or their biological family. They have reclaimed the word ‘bastard’ because ‘there’s nothing shameful about having been born out of wedlock, or about being adopted.’ Bastard Nation have successfully changed laws that prevented adoptees from accessing records about their identity in the US states of Oregon, Alabama, New Hampshire and Rhode island.

Reshma McClintock started a blog called Dear Adoption, a site which publishes adoptees writing in the form of letters to adoption, and this led to the establishment of Family Preservation 365, an organisation which campaigns for mothers around the world to be able to keep and raise their children.

The US even has an adoptee merchandise site, with part of the proceeds going to provide DNA kits to adoptees.

We live in a world where adults’ wants and needs are prioritised, and this has led to catastrophic outcomes for children, mothers, fathers, communities and whole cultures. Adoptee blogs provide valuable knowledge that can assist us to change the world for the better.

Drawing by Nell Butler
Online publishing

Part 1. Adoption: a violence based in inequality

Blogging is a means to achieve critical consciousness: Adoptees and mothers are understanding their historical and social situation by publishing online

The idea that adoption may not be a good thing is still a surprising position to much mainstream media. Adoptee blogs offer a counterpoint to popular books and articles about adoption, which tend to be broadly pro-adoption, and dominated by the voices of adoptive parents.

Our view of adoption has been formed by professionals and by the adults who adopted the children, not by the children, or by the mothers who lost their children to the practice.

Educator Paulo Freire called this situation, where the narrative of the powerful dominates the public sphere, a culture of silence. The culture of silence describes how when marginalised voices aren’t heard at all, it becomes harder for the problems of the marginalised to be understood and discussed.

Painting of Paulo Freire by Luiz Carlos Cappellano, public domain image.

This is because our language around the problem, and our belief in what the problem is, prevents understanding. Adoption is framed as a problem of a child needing a caring family. A critical adoptee perspective may frame the problem as a mother or a father lacking the social support to raise their child.

Critical adoptees speak outside of a consensus reality formed by the dominance of adoptive parents and adoption professional’s voices. Some online adoptee writers simply want the losses experienced by adoptees recognised, others advocate for the abolition of adoption.

Adoptee blogs began to appear in the early 2000s, with adoptees telling their personal stories, often to speak about the personal pain that adoption had caused them. Adoptees are more likely to suffer high levels of emotional distress, loneliness and despair, and have a higher risk of suicide than non-adoptees. Relinquishing mothers ‘suffer chronic bereavement for the rest of their lives.’

As discussion between adoptees developed online, more adoptees and relinquishing mothers realised that others had experienced the same problems, and the narrative began to shift into communal stories.  Over the past 18 years, as adoptee blogging grew, the personal became political as online writers realised how many adoptees and mothers shared the same difficulties.

A drive for political change and political action started to form part of blogs, and in some cases became the whole purpose of blogging. A complex and intersecting analysis of adoption was developed by bloggers from different backgrounds.

Transnational adoptees contributed an analysis of adoption as racist institution, where brown and black people’s babies are made into commodities and sold to rich white people. The adopters are often citizens of the same countries which originally colonised the babies’ homeland, and created the poverty which produces the conditions for adoption. The colonizer effectively continues to loot the country, taking the babies of those they formerly enslaved.

Slavery has been used not only as an analogy by adoptees, but claimed as a possible label for adoption. Some adoptees state that inter-country adoption is a form of slavery: a human being is taken, and money is exchanged for them. Profit is made by adoption agencies: adoption is big business: with babies being bought by orphanages for as little as $236 and sold for tens of thousands of dollars. Adoptees argue that slavery is an appropriate term because the baby has been put up for sale and bought and that the purchasers expect the child to perform the work of being ‘their’ child.

Many countries have put a stop to inter-country adoptions of their children due to corruption. Most children in orphanages are not orphans, and many have been kidnapped for sale and profit.

From a critical adoptee viewpoint this obvious corruption is only the visible problem, and in fact the whole system of inter-country adoption is corrupt. It’s corrupt because human beings are being sold, it is a continuation of colonisation, and because selling children to fulfill a role for adults is slavery. As well as this, once the children are adopted there are no checks on their welfare, and in the United States this has resulted in a huge, unregulated secondary market for adopted children.

Daniel Drennan ElAwar, an inter-country adoptee raised in the United States who has reclaimed his identity as Lebanese, has argued that from a class conscious point of view, there is no difference between domestic and international adoption. Domestically adopted children can be described as being adopted from a domestic ‘third world’, a poor underclass seen as inferior and unable to even raise its own children. ElAwar writes that ‘Adoption is, in and of itself, a violence based in inequality.’

In Australia, domestic adoption of Aboriginal children by white people could be argued to enact the harms of both inter-country and domestic adoption: being an act of ongoing racial colonisation as well as child theft from an oppressed domestic class of people. The history of Aboriginal adoption includes the Stolen Generations, where many children were stolen for slave labour. When adoption happened under these circumstances adoption really was slavery, not a metaphor, or a way of thinking about it, but a horrific reality.

The extraordinary depth and breadth of adoptees challenges to narratives about themselves couldn’t have happened without the internet, specifically without the mostly self-publishing phenomenon of blogging. Online publishing by adoptees includes articles in online magazines and adoptee-run writing collectives, but blogging in particular has enabled the adoptee community to develop ideas, perspectives and political positions.

The mainstream media has begun, very occasionally, publishing adoptee perspectives, but for the most part adoptee voices are still ignored by the media. The reason for this is that to hear adoptees means challenging the culture of silence about what adoption is, and facing some unpleasant truths. When adoptees challenge the belief that adoption is a good thing, they are also challenging the reader to see the colonialism, racism and classism driving it.

It can be argued that adoptive parent’s actions damage communities, families, and children’s lives.  They perpetrate this damage because their desire for a child matters more to them than the health and wellbeing of communities, or even the wellbeing of the children they take.  The mother of the adopted child is left bereft, and even if reunion is possible it doesn’t undo the harm to mother and child. Some mothers reject reunion with their children, and this creates another layer of loss for the adoptee.

Most adoptee bloggers emphasise that individual adopters can still be good people, and wonderful parents, but they are good people who were enrolled into a widespread program of social engineering.

The premise of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is that adults should meet the needs of children, not the other way around. Blogging allows adoptees to speak, to ask important questions, such as: if we really want to help children, why aren’t we supporting the child’s mother, or her community, to raise her child?


In the next post I present a small sample of the thousands of adoptee blogs on the internet.


Writing about serious things online can lead to publishing a serious book

For almost 20 years now writing online has been seen as a good marketing tool for writers. Publishers expect new authors to have an online presence. Some blogs are really books in short installments, just waiting for a publisher: humorous blogs like Stuff white people like and Cake Wrecks fall into this category. But some authors have written serious things online that aren’t as obviously book material, and it has resulted in their first book being published.

Online writing can lead to creative and interesting books

While the blog to book phenomenon tends to favour funny, lighthearted material, there are examples of online writing on serious topics leading to book publishing. This writing can take any form from tweets to comments and allows writers to create different kinds of work.

An online comment results in a book deal

Linda Tirado made a comment on poverty in 2013 on an online forum; it went viral, the comment was then published by the Huffington Post as an article and read by millions. She started a GoFundMe donation fund and raised $60,000, which bought her time to write a whole book on poverty.  Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America was published by Penguin in 2014.

Amy Siskind’s list

Amy Siskind’s book, The List, published in March 2018 by Bloomsbury, is exactly what the name advertises, a list. Since the election of Donald Trump as US President she made a weekly list online of all the changes in her country. She shared the list on Twitter, Facebook and Medium, and by the ninth week her list was getting over two million views.

The list items range from:

“Trump tweeted his apparent displeasure with the ratings of Celebrity Apprentice” (Week Three)


“Trump said, ‘I think there’s blame on both sides’, insinuating that the ‘alt-left’ was just as much to blame as white supremacists and neo-Nazis” (Week 40).

Siskind’s List illustrates a gradual descent into corruption, totalitarianism, and white supremacy over the first year of Trump’s presidency. Each weekly list is preceded by a statement:

“Experts in authoritarianism advise to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember.”

She continues to add to the list.

Linda Tirado’s insight into poverty

When she wrote her online post about being poor Linda Tirado had been working in two jobs, including as a night-shift cook, raising two children and studying. This “initial, howling essay” explained why she didn’t have any hope, how life in poverty left no time for striving for anything better. She has called it a “simple, fumbling explanation.” Tirado had a number of privileges that helped her be able to write her post, and later her book, such as middle class beginnings, being white and able bodied. But the reaction to her writing was so dramatic because the poor are often voiceless. Poor people are assumed to not be able to write about, or have insight into, their own lives.

An authentic voice of experience

Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote Nickle and Dimed, a book about pretending to be poor and working in low paid jobs, contacted Tirado and offered her support. When Ehrenreich’s book was published, critics said that she wasn’t able to truly understand being poor as she always had her real, financially stable life to go back to if things went really wrong. Tirado, however, is in the distinctive (but not unique) position of having genuinely lived in poverty and being able to express that experience in writing.

The potential for social justice

Tirado shows the potential that online writing has to create social justice. The poor may be able to articulate their situation, but the barriers to writing about their situation and publishing it are often insurmountable. Online writing can enable more marginalised voices to be heard.  Novelist James Baldwin said:

“The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.”

There is immense power in the writing of those who are more often written about.

Connecting writers to allies and the publishing industry

Connections made online can cross over class lines that usually prevent a marginalised writer getting access to powerful people. Amy Siskind was not marginalised at all, but she also wasn’t a writer. Her online writing gave her access to a different career and the ability to become an activist. For Linda Tirado, it led to funds for further writing and connected her with Barbara Ehrenreich, who became her ally and used her power to support the publishing of Tirado’s work. Online writing is regarded as a way of market testing, and it does test the market for a book’s topic, but it also offers opportunities for networking and experimentation to the author themselves.

New ideas and new voices

Tirado’s internet comment was a direct challenge to the victim blaming narratives that dominate public discussion around poverty. Rather than challenge the idea that the poor make bad decisions, she wrote that the poor do make bad decisions, and then explained why. She wrote that working two jobs, and studying, and caring for two children is tiring, depressing and stressful. Having no time or money to prepare healthy food and having no hope that things will improve, means it feels pointless to buy vegetables. Tirado expressed the internal experience of poverty in a way that Ehrenreich couldn’t. No-one who gets four hours sleep a night has the time or motivation to waft about their kitchen activating almonds, or sprouting bean sprouts.

Soybean Sprouts by Milivanili. Creative Commons Public Domain Image

When online writing becomes books, formats become more creative

Amy Siskind is likely to have eaten plenty of salad: before she started writing her list she had a very successful career as a Wall Street executive. Siskind is a capitalist with institutional power: what is interesting about her progress from online posts to publishing a book is the creativity of the format. Many blog to book successes are also comprised of lists, but items tend to be far closer to full pieces of writing, with quotes, anecdotes, discussion. Siskind’s list really is simply a list, with only a brief summary paragraph before the items.

Week 75, April 21 2018, no.146: “On Friday, the Democratic Party filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the Russian government, the Trump campaign, and the WikiLeaks organization for conspiring to disrupt the 2016 campaign and elect Trump.”

The serious online writing that results in serious book publishing

Writing online creates more possibilities for the voices of marginalised writers to be heard, as well as more possibilities for creativity in books. Whether the writing is on a blog, a forum or social media, the writing that gets noticed tends to address a current concern. It might do this in a creative way, or discuss a topic from a perspective that has been unheard until now.  Serious online writing has the potential to enable more creativity and more diversity in book publishing. It hasn’t removed all the barriers, but writing about serious things online can lead to writing and publishing serious books.

Istanbul book shop.jpg
Serious book shop, Istanbul. Copyright Mike Collins 2016, used with permission.