Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Strange and unusual stories have been a feature of Australian life since colonisation. As we all become more familiar with new cultures our collection of unusuality is expected to expand. We’ll hear other strange, and perhaps unexplainable incidents. There is a rich harvest to emerge as yet from indigenous and Asian cultures. But will anything be stranger, and more stunting of natural creativity, than the case of the Doherty family in the 1950s.
This decade saw an unnatural fear of Communism. It was the time of McCarthyism in America when people were destroyed by unwarranted suspicion, when one checked for ‘a Red under the bed’. This social disease spread to other countries. In Canada and then in Massachusetts a spy network centred on the Foley family was demolished by the FBI and two teenage boys were deported to Russia, while their parents were jailed in the USA. The boys knew nothing of their parents’ activities, and spoke no Russian.
The 1950s was a period of enormous fear of Communism.
Joan and Dudley Doherty were caught up in the hysteria and believed avidly in the Communist menace. Working as ASIO agents, they went to the trouble of installing a giant listening device in their flat so that they could listen to conversations in the apartment below. It is seen as lunacy from our perspective but necessary from theirs. The Dohertys went further: they gave their children methodical training in espionage techniques, and insisted that they carry them out.
While the children became expert in their duties, any breach of secrecy was punished severely, usually with a strap. The effects of ‘locking certain secrets in a mental box’ are seen played out in the emotional and mental disruptions in the adults the children became.
Sandra Hogan has opened for discussion any number of issues, not least of which is the truth of the whole story. Stories of day-to-day dealings with the Petrovs, the holidaying and drunkenness, Evdokia’s wild claims about the obnoxious behaviour of her husband – these are tales from comic books. It took me a while to comprehend the momentousness of what had allegedly occurred. The police interview, that followed the attempted abduction of Sue-Ellen’s daughter, shook me.
As Sue-Ellen told the story, she was able to describe the man’s appearance, the make and number plate of the car, where he parked, what direction he drove off in, at what point precisely he stopped watching them (154).
Given Hogan’s more than satisfactory reputation as a journalist, and the complete intermeshing of the story elements, there can be no doubt that the story is true. We have, then, another form of social and political history of this country in the period since the 1950s; this one differs only in its urgent necessity to understand what happened to those children in such an environment. If government agencies were disposed to set up such a situation again, what damage could they be inflicting on growing minds?
Why involve the children? Why place such a load on young shoulders? Sue-Ellen, as reported by Hogan, says that her mother drew parallels with the brutal abuse she and her siblings suffered at the hands of her own father. She believed that the children should have reported what was happening. Hogan writes, “As a mother, Joan wanted to be sure there were no secrets in her family. In any family that’s a tall order, but in an ASIO family it is impossible” (139).
All that is left is congratulations to Sandra Hogan on a fine piece of research and a hope that people like Joan and Dudley Doherty find a place to nest elsewhere.
By Sandra Hogan
Allen & Unwin
$29.99; 240 pp