Born in 1951, Robert Tickner was taken from his mother and adopted into a new family. In his early forties, he decided that he needed to find his birth family. Ten Doors Down tells the story of his quest, in a fascinating and often moving account that deserves to be widely read.
It was never hidden from the author that he was adopted, and in many ways, his adopted family provided an idyllic childhood. Tickner details his early years near the beach, the character of his father and mother, his schooling, participation in sport and early political ventures in Sydney. He never felt a burning curiosity to know more about his birth family. That desire arose when he became a biological father himself for the first time, interestingly at about the same age as his adopted parents when they adopted him. His son's birth was "the catalyst for my change of heart and my increasing resolve that perhaps the time had come to lift the veil and see if my birth family were still alive - and if so, if they were remotely interested in meeting me".
Robert Tickner will be known by many as a former MP and Minster for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, and the book is greatly enlivened by the way that his quest to find his birth family is undertaken at the same time he is fulfilling this incredibly demanding role.
Tickner is very clear on the fact that his own experience in no way equates with the results of "the racist assimilationist practices that underpinned the separation of Aboriginal children from their families over many generations". Yet as minister he was involved in the public call for the enquiry into the Australian Human Rights Commission that eventually produced the Bringing Them Home report, at the same time that he was dealing with the reunion with his birth mother. "Thus, the personal overlapped with the political, and I have to believe that overlap helped to positively shape and reinforce the public policy outcomes - at least in a modest way." That an adopted child, getting to understand something of the pain suffered by his birth mother, might have more insight into the pain of others would seem to make sense. It's certainly refreshing to read an ex-politician spelling out his thoughts on these matters.
The author's birth mother is, in many ways, the central character in this book. Single mothers were treated as pariahs until quite recently in Australia's history, and the moving story of Maida brings this shameful history into focus. She never had another child, due to the fear that it too would be taken from her as her son had been. She could talk about the experience to very few people. Tickner accidentally revealed that he spent some time staying in the same street as his birth mother in one of his first letters to her, causing immense pain (the book's title refers to this.)
Maida has the last words in the book, detailing her own experiences of rediscovering her son, in a document written at the time. It is hard to imagine any reader remaining unmoved by these concluding pages. The National Apology for Forced Adoptions was adopted by the Australian Parliament in 2013, and the experiences of women such as Maida lay behind this development.
While not wanting to reveal the entire story, it is clear that Tickner is very much in a minority in terms of the ongoing connections he has built up. One person who deserves some credit for the way these connections are rebuilt is the case-worker 'Sandra' - not her real name - who demonstrates great skill and commitment in her dealings with Tickner and his birth family. Very seldom does one come across a positive portrayal of a public servant! Or, for that matter, read a book by a politician that places personal matters at its centre, and where the narrative is more than a procession of amazing successes.
The book examines Tickner's life after leaving politics, including a brief time living in a shed without employment. He goes on a totally unplanned drive around Australia - cars have played quite a part in his life - and the reader may feel that this event deserves more space.
Ten Doors Down is an intelligent and readable account of one man's attempt to reconnect with his birth family. It is also a reminder of the inhumane adoption policies that existed in Australia, that have affected, and continue to affect, so many people. Tickner comes through as a committed and likeable man, trying to deal with the intricacies of finding his own, hidden history without hurting anyone. To read of this journey is truly a privilege.
- Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier.
- Ten Doors Down comes out on February 4. Robert Tickner will be in conversation at a free ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author event on February 13, 6.00pm in the T2 Lecture Theatre at Kambri Cultural Centre, ANU. Bookings at anu.edu.au/events or 6125 4144.