Updated: Aug 2, 2021
The TVNZ documentary "Heaven and Hell - The Centrepoint Story" will be airing on television very soon now. This documentary has the biggest budget of any film undertaken before about the community. It's been 11 years since Nigel Latta's 2010 "Beyond the Darklands" and 17 years since the 1994 documentary "A Dangerous Kind of Loving". These documentaries tell some of the story, but for me at least, these re-tellings have too much passing-the-buck, washing-of-hands, and Bert-blaming. These previous tellings did not leave me with any sense other than that I had been informed about history. They told me that a lot of trusting, hurting, well-intentioned, vulnerable, and pretty delusional people came together to worship at the feet of a poorly educated self-styled guru and make-it-up-as-he-went 'therapist'. They told me that during this period of trusting adultation, most of the community's children were exposed on a daily basis to explicit and extreme sexual content, many of the young people were introduced to potent, untested illicit substances, and (more than can be appreciated) children and young people were sexually abused. So I got the facts, but I did not hear much "what can we do to set this right for our children?".
While I appreciate that some things have been done to 'make right' the history, I am not hearing about much of it. I know that in later years there were a group of agitators in the community who pushed back against Bert and his cronies, deeply concerned about the children's involvement in sexual activity. In the early 1990s some people stood with the women who went to court to support them to challenge their abusers. Other people fought and succeeded in closing the community in the late 1990s to prevent further children being exposed to harm - this was indeed a major milestone. This also lead to the Community Growth Trust being set up to protect the financial interests of the community. In more recent years the Trust commissioned researchers to look into the effects of living at Centrepoint on the children. Recommendations were made to the Trust by the researchers about actions that could be taken to help the child generation, though few of these suggestions seem to have resulted in any quantifiable outcome. All in all, these efforts at making right, spanning three decades, have been considerable. I wish we all knew more about these actions, because each time someone does something to repair the history, it sends a deep message of validation for everyone.
The only public admission of wrong-doing I have heard about (and please correct me if I am wrong) was John Potter's at Bert's funeral. John offered an apology for his father's mistakes, which as far as I can tell was just a lot of hot air because it was not followed with any substantive action. Apology without re-dress is meaningless, afterall.
The problem with things that happened in the past is, that unless history is shared widely on some sort of public platform such as a book, events are lost to history. If we don't know about the past, we can't understand the effects of it. Instead, we are left with our personal experiences, silence and lack of connection. So, important steps which assisted with healing may have been taken before, but what use is that to us all now if it is not real to us, and relevant, and addressing the current needs that we have?
The need to have yet another look at the community in the new 2021 docu-drama has been criticised by former members. "Leave the past in the past". "Don't dredge up all that shit again." "Hasn't the story already been told?". Clearly I don't support this party-line, otherwise I wouldn't have agreed to be interviewed for it. For a long time the thought of being part of the documentary made my skin crawl. I agreed to participate in the end, not because I enjoy the limelight (no, I truely hate the limelight). I agreed to participate because this story is not over. It is not finished. It is not done. This is what I know in my gut, and it is what I am hearing over and over from other children of Centrepoint.
The last time this was raised we children of Centrepoint were all a lot younger. We were caught up in our first attempts at raising babies, or dealing with difficult teenagers, or accepting our marriages had ended. Or we were in the throws of a relapse of our drug or alcohol issues, or dealing with a challenging stage in our careers. Or, we were just getting on with the stability we had, wishing never to hear the word Centrepoint again, avoiding the topic when it came up, keeping it light with family, or perhaps even stone-walling a sibling or parent who did want to talk about it. And perhaps we had distanced ourselves from it entirely through cutting all the people out of our lives who connected us to the community, because we were exhausted by years of denial, scape-goating and gas-lighting. Previously, many of us simply did not have the emotional resources to go there, for whatever reason, whether our lives were settled and stable, or they were messy. We did not want to go there because it did not feel safe, and we did not believe that going there would help. We were different then.
But now we are older. Our parents are starting to become frail and we understand we will lose them soon. Some of them are dementing, or we are disconnected for other reasons; we know we have lost them already. Or, we have been protecting our parents from the consequences of their actions all these years and we now realise what it has cost us to keep them from feeling their guilt. We have our own children before us now, who are pushing up against us, who want to know what happened to us, and why we are the way we are. Some of us can talk about it to them, and many of us cannot. We wish that we were not still so disabled by our history, and we are terrified that we have passed this on to them in some way.
Many of us still hold out hope. Many of us know this is not finished, for us, for our siblings, and for our friends. Many of us still hope that we will have a conversation one day with those significant people (often our parents, sometimes our siblings) and have them ask us "what was it like for you?" and actually listen to the answer. Many of us hope one day that they will put aside their guilt, their shame, their defensiveness and will put our needs to be heard and to have our experiences acknowledged, first. Many of us hope that they will hear us, give us a chance to express what it was like, without blaming us, dismissing us, or falling to pieces. Instead of the usual stone-walling, gas-lighting, ignoring, diminishing and dismissal we have become accustomed to.
"Oh, you are such a Drama-Queen."
"Why can't you pull your life together?"
"It was a lovely place. I don't know what your problem was."
"Why are you punishing me like this?"
Some of us are lucky enough to have parents who got over themselves a long time ago and have been letting us talk our hearts out about this issue for years. If you are one of those people, I am so grateful that you have had that validation and support. Many have not.
I, for one, am tired of a narrative of scarcity, and powerlessness. Where my peers live with their stories hidden behind large walls of protectiveness, and defensiveness. Where they don't feel they can be honest with people in their lives about their history, where they see the upcoming documentary as a reminder of poorly healed wounds, and awful raw experiences, and they suddenly feel unsettled all over again. Where they will be re-traumatised by their families failing to stand with them, or being unable to stand with siblings or friends. Where this documentary is just a whopping great trigger, and a pit to fall into one more time, with no hope that once they climb out of it, they will have any greater control over the past. There are too many former children of the community for whom this is their very real experience.
I want to say to you, children of Centrepoint, I am very angry that this history has not been restored for you. That you have not been allowed to talk freely with those you love about your history. That you have not had true, deep apologies which are inextricably connected to real, healing action. I am deeply saddened that so many of you cannot even talk to one another because of shame and fear and isolation. I am saddened that you still bear the symptoms of unrestored history which was not your fault, and that you have experienced so much disappointment when you have tried, and often failed, to address this with your people healthily in the past. While I know many of you view this new documentary as just a repeat of the old stuff, and just another trigger to unsettle your lives, I believe it represents the visible outworking of a change in the narrative, which will lead to our stories being told and heard, and the beginning of a wave of change which will help us all to come to terms with this history which has affected so many of our lives.