In the Name of the Father
My father didn’t admit to having a past. The story of his early life was a mystery lost in his lack of
words and an inability to expose anything that could be vulnerability, humanity or even kindness.
My mother would eventually and begrudgingly supply me with a few details, but this only went on
to provoke more questions. He was an enigma to the end; leaving no suicide note, no apology and
no peace for those who survived him. I am only certain of one thing. My father’s hate for me was
The dynamic of the real family is rarely the all-encompassing love of the fairy tale or the softness
of the detergent commercial, but my family was extreme by any standards. Violence was our
currency and the absence of genuine love left a void that was filled with darkness, betrayal and
humiliation. We were an Australian family and Australia was an uncompromising place in the
sixties or at least that is how it appeared to me. We were told we were growing up in the lucky
country. We were told we could achieve anything through hard work and spirit yet, at the same
time, I was being brutalised and made to feel worthless by the people I loved the most.
It would happen at night. I was small for my age, a premature twin, the smallest to survive in
Victoria at the time, I was easily carried out of the house and into the garden by someone of my
father’s build. He would be drunk, clumsy and rough. I would be hastily stripped. My clothes were
torn from me and I would have to stand defenceless and naked in the yard. I would have to take my
chances. I wouldn’t wait to see if he would stop at the humiliation and spare me the violence, he
never did. I would take advantage of his drunkenness and feel for his grip to loosen or slip and then
I would go. I would run through the neighbourhood to escape the attack. Was I worried about the
neighbours seeing me naked? Hardly, this had happened so many times before. I knew what it was
to run barefoot on cracked bitumen that was baking from the day’s biting sun. I knew of running
naked in the near-freezing winter nights too. I knew what it was like to be running for your life. I
spent a childhood running the streets and I’ve spent a lifetime escaping my father.
My father was born in South Australia in 1929. He was the son of a prostitute and born out of
wedlock. He must have not known his father in any meaningful way, but he will have had
suspicions about the hundreds of men who visited his mother’s house. My father had inherited a
large build, olive skin, deep brown eyes and tremendous capacity for anger. My father’s hair and
mood were black for his entire life.
The earliest photograph I have seen of my father is him as a boy holding a black dog. He had a
patience with animals that he was never able to show to people. He was tall and skinny with a mop
of black hair. This child would develop into a man of six foot four with a powerful build clothed in
skin scarred by the Australian sun. He was mutilated emotionally and carried a pain that could
infect anyone in his vicinity. His hands would grow to be huge, always at least twice the size of
mine yet he was quite graceful in his movements and well kept. He was clean-shaven and took
pride in his appearance. At home, he dressed in casual jeans and shirt and he insisted that they were
clean and ironed, which meant my mother would often discover lipstick stains on his collar. A fight
would then ensue with the devil rising into those brown eyes and consuming the man.
My father’s childhood was as fractured as any other part of his life. He would always be on the
move, changing jobs and locations, and even personalities but his consistent companions were
alcohol and misery. He was christened Robert Sheriff, the same name he gave me. He left school
early and worked a succession of tough, unskilled jobs. He was a station hand and a fruit picker
and went from one manual labour to another, building callouses and emotional hardness.
The one anecdote I know from his youth is an incident where he nearly drowned. At age nine he
was pulled from the water at Port Pirie. Pirie was, and still is, a small industrial town in the shadow
of grain silos and a lead smelter, about a three-hour drive north of Adelaide where grain shipping
and industry had called for unskilled immigrants to come and build a town. All of life in Pirie takes
place with the backdrop of the smell of sulphur, a soft scent of hell from the lead smelting process.
One day my father fell into the water that carried the grain ships, and plunged toward oblivion in
the waters that reflected the belching chimney stacks. A man walking past at the time saw my
father fall and dived into the water to save him. The story made the local press where it describes
my father’s saviour as a hero. This stranger’s act has ensured thirty-five descendants, I exist
because of him, my children and grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, my sisters, my beloved
twin brother were all offered a chance of life because my father didn’t drown that day but I wonder
if my father had any appreciation for his rescuer and those bitter and soulless years he lived until
he decided to meet his maker at his own hands.
Though my father’s history was patchy my memories of my own childhood are not. The site of his
near-death became significant for me as a young boy as he took me there to teach me how to swim.
Father’s lesson involved throwing me off the jetty with a grin on his face. I sunk in the same waters
he had, in the shadow of the same industrial chimneys, in the run-off of the same toxic processes. I
didn’t have a hero on the banks poised to save me. I would have to save myself. I had already
learned by this stage that I would have to fight to survive him and I swam for the surface and
pulled myself out of the water to spite him repeatedly.
I have an image of my father, when he was outside the house, as a well-dressed man, a man who
wore grey pants a white shirt and a two-tone brown and grey jacket that was considered respectable
at that time. He was always drinking. He drank West End long necks at breakfast time. He had
three cartons at home every week but that was nothing to what he drank in the pub. I think my
mother had tried to get him to cut back once but she was never foolish enough to suggest it again.
Every image I can conjure of him has him glass in hand or glass to lips. People feared him. He
dominated every space he entered and other people, even adults, were as affected as me. He had a
dark energy; a belligerent nature and he would live life with a dangerous soundtrack of his beloved
country music or loud rock and roll. Our house echoed with the sound of Johnny Cash and Hank
Williams. It made me hate county music and I’m only starting to get over my aversion now.
The neighbours were always scared of my father. Wherever we lived he created an empire where
his actions were uncriticised for fear of violence and retaliation. All our neighbours witnessed my
humiliation plenty of times. They were scared to get involved and even if they witnessed with
closed mouths they were greeted with a barrage of snarling and swearing. I know there was an ugly
silence around our house and people were witness to horrific crimes without ever speaking up or
intervening. I don’t carry any resentment for those people. This was a time when men were masters
in their own house. It wasn’t uncommon for children or wives to be abused and the men who were
their abusers to meet the sergeant in the hotel for a quiet word and a pint later. In the early sixties
in Australia, there were no safe houses, no campaigns against domestic violence and a belief that a
family was a man’s property.
I think there was only one occasion when an adult intervened on my behalf. He was called Mr
White and I remember that he always wore brown, was six feet six inches, around 240 pounds with
blonde wavy hair and couple days of beard growth. He was solid as a shithouse that used to be at
the back of Auntie Blanche and Uncle Albert’s house. Mr White was briefly my saviour, my man
on the shore who saw my fall and dived in to save me. We lived on Hargrave Street in Northfield at
the time and Mr White was a neighbour who tired of my father’s version of childcare and belted
the crap out of him. The police arrived just as he was walking due east and we never saw Mr White
This was a rare adult intervention on my behalf. An act of violence that didn’t teach my father a
thing and didn’t save me from further abuse. As I have said I am not angry at the witnesses who
didn’t come forward or the authorities that didn’t protect me. People knew right from wrong but
unless you were Mr White you were not armed enough to take my father on. Justice was only
available to the physically strong and more often than not my father was by far the strongest. My
father was an advocate for the merits of physical strength. He hated my smallness, my frailness and
my inability to hurt the same way he could. He systematically set about teaching his children
strength and suffering.
He would fill two buckets with water and tell me to stretch my arms out. I knew to do as I was told
and despite knowing what was coming, I would always do exactly as he asked. When my arms
were out and steady, he would loop the bucket handles over my wrists and demand that I hold then
there, straight, for as long as I could. I would hold the buckets, my arms screaming with pain,
desperate not to disappoint or spark the anger of my father. He would watch me and justify his
actions with the defence that he was driving me to be healthier and more vigorous. This was the
start of my father’s torture and it began when I was six years old.
I have other recollections of this early abuse. He had caught me swearing and decided to chastise
me to teach me a lesson. He took me outside and removed my trousers and underwear. He then put
me over his knee and beat me with a garden hose. The strokes were so violent that I was left with
blue and red strokes over my backside and sitting down was impossible for the coming week.
These memories are vague and without detail, but I recognise them as the start of patterns of abuse
that would culminate in broken bones, emotional damage and a world of hate that not everyone
My mother met my father in 1952. He was working for the RAAF and she told me it was love at
first sight. I believe that she did love him before they were married, at that moment when he first
arrived in her life and before she really knew him. He was tall and good looking. Her family had
been very strict, while his upbringing was wild and libertarian. She must have seen him as a
glamorous escape. In 1953 they married. She told me that all his mates came, and he joined them in
getting very drunk. She was appalled but she must have known that alcohol and my father were
synonymous by then. His heritage was beer-soaked with his mother being a heavy drinker and the
addictive gene being passed onto me. I wonder if she knew how tormented her new, young
husband was. I wonder what sort of life she had dreamt of and if she thought that my father could
bring her happiness. She could never have known she would die with her husband lost to suicide
and her family absent from her bedside.
My father was twenty-four years old when my brother, Peter, and I were born. My mother recalled
that he was upset by the drive to the hospital to see his new sons. It had been an inconvenience to
come to visit and he was happy for her to know it.
I can’t remember much of those early years at home with my mother and brother but that is no
reason to assume they were comfortable or without incident. My father would often remind me that
he had hated me from my birth. He told me that he wished I had never been born or had died at
birth on many occasions and it was like I had been born into his hatred and lived there my whole
life. His particular insult to me was that I was, ‘fucking stupid’. He would use that insult for my
entire childhood, and it did the damage he intended.
My father’s need for destruction was always going to end with his own. We were just lucky he
couldn’t take us with him. He had been known to come home drunk with a can of petrol and
threaten to set himself, the house and us alight. His pain wasn’t a personal matter but something
everyone else had to pay for. At night I would lie awake waiting for him to come home. I was
terrified by the cast of the streetlight outside my room. It would reflect in the dark of his eyes if he
came into my room. It would make him look like the demon he was and convince me that this
small industrial town was a corner of hell.
He would stalk around the house brooding over something that happened that day, last week, a
month ago or not even at all. He would look for his target. My mother, my brother, my sister or me.
Then he would punish, seek vengeance. All his misery and hatred and disappointment would be
played out on his victim. Often I was that victim, the focus for his spite. Everyone was terrified of
this man and I became a scapegoat. My father once told me he was more frightened of me than I
should be of him. Perhaps this is why he reserved a special hatred for me. I can remember his hand
around my throat. His thumb on my Adam’s apple.
‘Four or five seconds of pressure is all it will take,’ he would say. Perhaps he was promising to end
my pain as well as his.
I know my mother blamed me for things she did. She stole money and blamed me. She even buried
two thousand dollars in the garden once and dad went over it with the lawnmower. She laid the
responsibility on me. She was just trying to avoid another rape or beating.
And so the violence continued. We moved around Australia taking my father’s misery and torture
with us. I was beaten by my father at the pie-cart. I was beaten by him in the street. I was beaten at
home. Fists and abuse was the landscape of my childhood as much as the hot, dry summers and
crabbing down at the jetty. Days out with my father were tours of the hotels or waiting in the car
outside a brothel. Every lesson I learned under his tuition was self-destructive and selfish. The
irony was that I still loved that man. He was my father and I was his son. It would take a
particularly brutal assault to give me any chance of escape and once again my rescuers would not
be hauling me out of the water but dragging me further under. I wouldn’t be able to take a breath
for some while.