Updated: Nov 2, 2020
I have heard many stories from people who lived at Centrepoint when they were children, or teenagers, or both. I have been listening carefully, and I have heard one theme over and over come through. When they talk about the adults who were responsible for their care, people keep saying "no one has said sorry". Many of them have said, "I can't speak about these things with my family", or when talking about their family, "they deny any abuse ever happened". These children of Centrepoint continue to surprise me with their generosity and compassion as they say such things as "they had their own stuff to sort out and they were victims of abuse themselves". For many people I have spoken to there seems to be very little space in their families for the story of what happened to the children of Centrepoint, including their own children. The silence is deafening.
This silence sends the message that there was no suffering for the children of Centrepoint. Or, if there was suffering, it was minimal, occasional, exceptional or imagined. The story is twisted around until the adult child (then and now) is the one with the problem, and they are shamed further as the pain is blamed on a sensitivity or a weakness within the person with the wound. But this is simply distraction - a smoke and mirrors slight of hand game which is working to obfuscate and confuse, to keep us all from seeing the real truth. This truth is that many of the children and youth of Centrepoint did actually experience sexual and emotional abuse, were taken advantage of, were controlled, bullied, used for the gratification of others, manipulated, and neglected. Time and time again for many children of Centrepoint, their reasonable rights for safety, love and the basics of care were not provided consistently, and they were not protected from predatory behaviour. They were told that their outrage, disgust or distress - all extremely reasonable responses to systematic institutionalised trauma - was not to be trusted. They were brainwashed into believing that what they experienced was beautiful or loving, adding another awful layer to the trauma, as they were taught not to trust their own deep knowing of right and wrong. Instead of this awful reality being addressed over the years by the adults who should have prevented this from happening, the solution to these uncomfortable truths has been to dismiss, deny, minimise, distract and all in all wriggle out of facing up to this horrible relationship-damaging reality.
The silence has had a profoundly negative impact on the maturation, emotional growth and whole-person integration of these events for many children of Centrepoint. When the adults in our lives told us that only good things happened at Centrepoint, or they said nothing about the past, yet sent the strong message that they were not able to listen to our stories, the silence taught us not to talk about it. We learnt to keep silent. We were excruciatingly aware of the fragility in the relationship, and sensed that if we ever pushed through it to state what it was like for us, something would shatter. The adults who should have been putting our needs first instead gave us the job of keeping silent, because the telling of our awful stories forced them to see themselves in a way which was irreconcilable with how they wanted to see themselves. Their burden became our burden; the burden of maintaining their fragile sense of their own self-worth. Our silence enabled that self-worth to remain intact. We put their mental health and the relationship before our own needs and missed out on the opportunity to discuss these experiences, and therefore the opportunity to heal. Distressing childhood memories ended up poorly processed, little understood, shrouded in secrecy, and held as solitary, isolating burdens which have damaging effects on many areas of life.
I wish to engage with the members of Centrepoint who were adults when we lived there, the mentors, the parents and the care-givers. These were the adults we looked to to protect us, to guide us, to meet our needs, to watch out for us. They were the ones who set the rules, or followed them, who chose to stay, who spoke up when things needed to change or kept silent and did nothing, and who had power where we had none. They were the adults while we were the children. I speak to you now. You are now in your 60s, 70s or even 80s. You may feel that you have had enough of being reminded of those years at Centrepoint, which for you may have left you with some hard to process thoughts and feelings yourself. You may not wish to go back there to open up the conversation. You may feel that you have done your work, that there is no good reason to open this up all over again, and that you have settled it all for good.
I wish to speak to you specifically because I believe that there is good reason to push through the inertia, the discomfort, and the emotional pain to open this up again. The silence which you have forced on us has had devastating consequences for us, the generation below you, and your engagement in this conversation could make a huge difference to this generation moving on. You were tasked with the responsibility of protecting us as children and young people but you did not do so. I ask that you consider doing now what you should have done then, and put our needs before your own now.
I understand that you may have been harmed there yourself. That you may have been manipulated, controlled, bullied and persecuted into doing things that you are ashamed of now, or that you would never have done in any other social context. I understand that you were (mostly, with some exceptions) not inherently bad people, and that you wish you had behaved better, that you had stood up sooner when you realised things were not right. I understand that you were weak and vulnerable yourself, that you brought the pain of your past experiences to Centrepoint, and that while you thought you were safe, you also were not. I understand that the dream you carried of a safe place for you and your family, that you gave everything to, did not eventuate and that that has left you broken-hearted. I understand that your good memories of beautiful relationships, profound change and the personal growth that you experienced has been poisoned by the twisted path it took you and others down. That devastated you. All this happened to you, and you were damaged terribly by it. I expect many of you have tried to live a life since then that is good and that atones for it all as recompense for the harm that you know in your gut you allowed to happen. I recognise this, and I get it.
But I also know what it is to take on the task of raising, nurturing and protecting a child. I know that first and foremost my responsibility is to the safety and well-being of that child. That withdrawing physically, disconnecting emotionally, and abandoning them to their own devices is not ok. That checking-out because you were having a beautiful or spiritual or healing encounter is not acceptable. Even if you were miserable, and in confusion or chaos, if you were mentally unwell, or abused or fearful for your life, this does not change or reduce the obligation you had to the care and protection of that child. For whatever reason, whether understandable or not, many of you neglected your children. You left them alone to negotiate the complex world that many of you found extremely challenging to survive, that most found toxic and damaging on some level. You were busy in your own healing journey or simply surviving Centrepoint, and you were too busy to notice that your child was being swept away by crazy. They had a fraction of the resources that you had to manage that. They had no power, no choice, no volition, no capacity to consent, no ability to safely leave, and that every response they took or gave or actioned was a survival response. If you failed to see that your child, or the child under your care, was taking evasive action to survive, it was because you had disengaged. Being weak or vulnerable or flawed is ok as a parent but disengaging is not ok. We are parents ourselves now, and we know what it is to check out, to abandon, to leave our children to the wolves, and we know that many of you did that to us.
And afterwards... there have been many years of afterwards now. Many of you disengaged back then and left us to it, and if you sat down with me and told me your story today I think I could understand and feel compassion for where you were at at that time, and that would make the disengagement back then make more sense. But what I struggle with now is why so many of you have failed to do the repair work over the last 20 or 30 years, why so few of you have gone back to explore this with us when the factors that made you weak and vulnerable then are no longer active now. Where have you been in the story of the pain your child has experienced since they left a place that harmed them? Did you continue to stay checked-out? Did you explore the issues with your child, create a safe space for them to share their experiences without defensiveness, without your stomach rising to your mouth to deny, to shut them down, to minimise their experiences? Did you try but in the end surrender to your own distress and fall apart in front of them, causing them to take over the role of parent in order to nurture you, so that you wouldn't have to suffer through hearing their pain? Did you disengage again, and abandon them once more? I understand that you may have been hurt by what happened to you at Centrepoint but why have you not gone back to every child you were responsible for to fix this awfulness that has sat between you and them since?
I would like to hear this story finished differently. Right now the story I hear is one of disintegration, silence, isolation and blame. I would like to hear of people who have taken that, and turned it around. I would like to hear how the adults of Centrepoint have gone back to their adult children over the years to check that they are ok. I would like to hear about the adults who created a space between them and their child to say, I am sorry I was not there for you, it was inexcusable, and please trust me enough to share with me your story. Can you tell me when you ever said or showed them through your actions, that you would never make their story small because it is a story too painful for you to hear? Did you ever say, I will not ask you to forgive me before I have even understood the extent of your suffering? Were you one of the brave people who said to their child, I will never tell you it never happened, or try to reduce it to something which is more comfortable to face? Were you a parent who allowed your child, through your space-making, to feel that you would not make their access and belonging to your family for the next 40 years contingent on them going along with your own hoped-for fantasy that only good things happened at Centrepoint? If you said or did any of these things for your child, ever, or better still, on multiple occasions because perhaps once was not enough, then maybe you have taken action to repair the damage.
If you are not one of those adults of Centrepoint who has actively chosen to create space between you and your child for their story, then I entreat you to choose a different ending to this story than the one you have systematically chosen in the past. If you have no (or limited) history of cultivating openness and understanding with your child, then I invite you to revisit the story you have been telling yourself all these years. I know many of you say that you are good people, and you just got caught up in a shitty story and that you were powerless to bring about change. That is one version of events, but if you are not intimately in-touch with the details of your child's story (particularly if it is one which makes you very uncomfortable) then please consider if it is time for you to shift the focus away from your version of events, and to give room for an honest exploration of what it was like for the children in your care.
There is a documentary coming out in early 2021 on NZ television (originally planned for 2020, the pandemic has pushed the airing date out repeatedly). It is likely to upset many people because it will trigger a lot of old and uncomfortable stuff. It is all sitting there just underneath the surface for so many people. I expect you are afraid you will be shamed, exposed, lose something, that innocent people you love will suffer. Well, think again of your children. Are they ok? Have you checked in with them? Have you earnestly, non-defensively, openly sought to understand what it was like for them and tried to repair the damage to your relationship that occurred as a result of letting your needs for avoiding this stuff dominant the relationship?
In the words of Austin Channing Brown, "Will you choose to protect someone else, or protect your ego?". Either we own our story, or our story owns us, and now you have an opportunity if you choose to take it, to write a new ending to this story. Will this ending be one where you actively engage with reconciliation and repair, and take responsibility for the hurt that you caused or allowed to occur? This is an ending where you will have to sit with and face some extremely uncomfortable emotions that you may never have really faced squarely before. But conversely this new ending could be a soothing balm to a relationship limping along and still very much affected by the events of the past.
You are the author of your own story. How do you want this story to end?