David Cohen: Lake Alice evidence recalls ghosts that made a mess of human lives

10:50 am on 1 July 2021

By David Cohen*

Warning: graphic content in this story might be distressing to some readers.

Opinion - Talk about a story. According to media legend, nocturnal visitors to the derelict site that used to be Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital are liable to bump into ghosts.

An aerial view of Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital

In the 1970s, hundreds of state wards were shunted off to Lake Alice for a dose of what was reckoned to be tough love - shock therapy and mind-altering medicinal regimens. Photo: PUBLIC DOMAIN/ https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7629585

In the dead of night (or, perhaps, more likely, on a slow news day) the spirits reportedly creak and groan, spooking anyone unlucky enough find themselves alone in the grounds of what has been repeatedly described over the past fortnight as having been the country's most diabolically-run mental health facility.

Located near Bulls, in the Manawatū, the rural psychiatric facility was for many years held in something approaching awe by those who administered the two dozen state-run youth residences dotted around New Zealand.

The Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry has just completed another round of public testimony having to do with what is almost certainly the country's darkest chapter in the state's provision of residential care for the young.

In the 1970s, hundreds of state wards were shunted off to Lake Alice for a dose of what was reckoned to be tough love - which is to say, seemingly endless rounds of shock therapy and mind-altering medicinal regimens.

Such techniques were officially tolerated, if not actively sought out, because of the popularity of reality therapy, a particularly "vigorous" approach to kids deemed to be unresponsive to the usual cues.

The idea was for it to be administered with no sympathy for the children. As one staff Department of Social Welfare training manual of the 1970s put it, sympathy only "emphasises their unworthiness and depresses them even more".

Most of the youngsters who endured the hospital's child and adolescent unit were sent there from the Epuni Boys' Home in Lower Hutt, one or other of the residences near Levin, or the semi-rural Holdsworth School in Whanganui. Most returned in rather worse shape.

This past fortnight the ghosts of those who took the ride in both directions emerged to offer their own story speaking the previously unspeakable, naming what used to be unnameable, and hitting back at those who might once have been seen as unhittable.

Solicitor-General Una Jagose told the commissioners that the latest hearings marked an unprecedented opening of the government's files and explanations of decades of malpractice.

Speaking of the 300 former Lake Alice wards, Jagose said: "I have heard the pain of your evidence and the long fight you have had."

A long fight, indeed, according to detective superintendent Thomas Fitzgerald, who is currently the Criminal Investigation Branch director, who admitted that police did not give sufficient priority and resources to investigating the many allegations of criminal offending in the unit. Fitzgerald did not dispute another assessment likening the hospital's style to that of the Gestapo.

The police now wished to apologise to Lake Alice survivors for these "failings," he acknowledged, and one couldn't help but feel that final word was doing an awful lot of heavy-lifting for the country's top cop.

As might have been expected, the most affecting testimony came from the erstwhile residents of the asylum's child and adolescent unit.

Tyrone Marks is a survivor of abuse who went through several state institutions.

Tyrone Marks. Photo: Aaron Smale / @ikon_media

Tyrone Marks already a familiar face at the hearings, offered more details about his own paradigmatic history with the place. Marks went there after being assessed at Epuni as having "shunned any assistance or guidance from staff" and therefore in need, as his case worker noted at the time, "of something firmer than we are able to offer".

This, then, in a nutshell, was the Lake Alice story which is yet unfolding 40 or so years on in what is now its second inquiry. It may seem to sensible people that all this belongs to some far-flung past and perhaps should even be left there. Certainly, it seemed that way to the media executive who privately complained the other week about how stories such as Lake Alice just don't pull in the plumpest viewer ratings.

Yet, as we've just seen, those who testified were not elderly and the punitive convictions that obtained so much cultural purchase during the years Lake Alice did its brisk trade have not entirely faded from view.

Unlike the kind of story often favoured by documentary-makers and long-form journalistic practitioners, however, a story in which we have characters, journeys and resolutions, all neatly worked through by time of the closing scene or final paragraph, this one plainly remains a mess of human lives. This has relevance for the individuals themselves but also the wider community - and maybe it always will.

Which is why, one supposes, we are having these hearings.

Which is why the ghosts still come out at night.

*David Cohen is a Wellington journalist and author of Little Criminals: The Story of a New Zealand Boys' Home. He supplies regular analyses of the Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry for RNZ.

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