Decades on, a mother’s dark secret revealed

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AUTHOR Biff Ward has always been one to tackle topics that aren’t talked about.

“I’ve had a thing about that my whole life; I’ve always thought that when people talk about things it’s better,” she says.

The trait is evident in the unflinching title of her first book, “Father-Daughter Rape”, which was published 30 years ago. Working as a Rape Crisis counsellor had convinced her that domestic child sexual abuse was far more common than most people knew, except Biff would be unlikely to call it that; in the book she rejects terms such as “sexual abuse” or “molestation” because “they imply that something less than rape occurred”.

Author Biff Ward… “I've always thought that when people talk about things it's better.” Photo by Gary Schafer
Author Biff Ward… “I’ve always thought that when people talk about things it’s better.” Photo by Gary Schafer
Her second published work, “In My Mother’s Hands”, is on sale from May 28 and is nothing like the first. Although, as a deeply personal memoir of family life, it also explores things that weren’t talked about much: her mother’s mental illness and the occasional odd behaviour she attributes to it, as well as the accidental death of her older sister Alison, who drowned in the bath as a baby before Biff was born.

Only a few chapters in, among warm memories of loving parents and a nice childhood before there was television, a very uncomfortable question starts to coalesce: was Alison’s death really an accident?

“We don’t find out until right near the end,” Biff says. “There are various bits of evidence that come to the surface and we do find out what really happened, so there’s a kind of element of a mystery, of what really happened to Alison.”

It’s not actually the book she set out to write. The original idea was to write about her father, Russell Braddock Ward, the historian and well-known author of “The Australian Legend”, a book still in print after 56 years and still much discussed, reviewed and referenced.

In 1953 a young Russell Ward moved to Canberra to join the ANU’s first intake of PhD students, bringing along his wife Margaret, Biff, and her little brother Mark, another of the book’s principal characters whose attempt to say “Elizabeth” led to his sister’s distinctive nickname.

“Russell Ward went into his PhD as an ‘Eng Lit person’ studying the poetry of the bush ballads, and came out a historian, but I wanted to write about him not so much because of that but because he was a very charismatic, big personality, and he had quite a history of ASIO interference in his life because for a short period, about eight years in the ‘40s, he was in the Communist Party, which most progressive people back then were,” Biff says.

“After he died in ’95, various people around the history world started to theorise about his personality and his background and how he came to write this really unusual book and they’d say these things and I’d go, ‘Really? That’s not right.”

Biff’s unique biographical insights into Russell Ward are still in the book, but she says Margaret’s mental illness “just kept taking over” the story. Luckily her father wrote letters, and a lot of them are kept in the National Library.

“I discovered that he talked with his parents and his sisters, in fact, quite a lot about the progression of my mother’s mental illness in my childhood, which he never talked about in front of us, so to me and my brother it was kind of invisible. Like there’s your mother being weird and no-one ever talks about it, so we grew up wondering, ‘Is this really weird? Or is it just us, thinking it’s weird?’

“You know, it was quite confusing and, of course, he was in fact just trying to protect us, so it was quite a relief to me to find he did actually have people to talk to and he did talk to his parents about it a lot.”

In My Mother’s Hands: A disturbing memoir of family life” by Biff Ward is out now through Allen & Unwin.


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