Reading Readit: Illegitimate, fatherless, raped at 16

Rape, teen pregnancy, illegitimacy, domestic abuse – in 1970s Australia all were shameful secrets that trapped women in poverty, loss and ongoing emotional trauma.

I Belong to No One is Gwen Wilson’s story of all she lost and how hard she fought to survive. She suffered all these horrors but went on to become a successful happy woman.

Gwen was illegitimate in a time when illegitimacy carried a stigma. She grew up in Sydney’s western suburbs without a father and virtually without a mother. Her mother suffered from mental illness and was in and out of psychiatric hospitals her whole life. Gwen and her brother mostly raised themselves, living in abject poverty. It was enough to make most people give up – but despite her inauspicious beginning in life, Gwen was a promising student who looked as if she could fight her way into a better life via a scholarship and education. She appeared to have a bright future – so what happened?

Gwen met Colin who promised her love, the love she desperately craved. Gwen was raped by Colin’s older brother, possibly with Colin’s knowledge and compliance, although this fact was never clearly established. Not unusually for the 1970s, the police did not believe Gwen’s story and Colin was no help, claiming he had been hit on the head by his brother, left unconscious and didn’t know what was happening. Colin was scared of his brother and consequently the rape went unpunished.

At only 16 Gwen found herself pregnant, and although she had her doubts, she decided to marry, mainly to give her son a family and save him from the slur of illegitimacy. Marriage, however, was not a sanctuary, it was the beginning of a life of even more hardship and poverty. Colin continued to be one of the lads, to gamble and start a new job with monotonous regularity. He also didn’t hesitate to use his fists when displeased.

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We must remember that in the 1970s, Australian society was not as tolerant of illegitimacy and teenage mothers as it is now. From our position in 2015, we may ask why she didn’t have an abortion or why she didn’t raise her son on her own. What we forget is that the unmarried mother’s benefit was almost non-existent and that for someone like Gwen, who knew personally the stigma of illegitimacy, a husband and father for her son seemed if not the only solution, then certainly the best solution.

In 1974, in the dying days of the forced adoption era in Australia, this isolated teenager was compelled to make a decision about her child that would tear her life apart, one she would never truly come to terms with. My heart broke for Gwen, but in the long run, she is not a victim she is a survivor.

I Belong to No One is an honestly written story of one woman’s life, of all she lost and of how hard she fought to become the woman she is today. I feel nothing but the highest admiration for this remarkable woman.

Coincidentally just as I finished reading this book I stumbled across the following quote from the Dalai Lama – We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us, and make us kinder. You always have the choice. Those words could be written about Gwen Wilson.

Sincere thanks to Hachette Australia for my ARC of this truly inspiring book.

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I Belong to No One, by Gwen Wilson is published by Hachette Australia and is available to purchase at Dymocks.

 

About the Author

Wilson, GwenGwen Wilson started writing her memoir in her fifties. Essentially self-educated, Gwen worked as a motel receptionist, dental nurse and switchboard operator until at nineteen, in the exciting days of the pre-container era, a chance opportunity saw her land a role in customs clearance on the male-dominated Port Adelaide waterfront.

A stable marriage and successful career in shipping and logistics followed until she retired, after which Gwen entered university for the first time and now holds a Master’s degree in Electronic Commerce. Gwen and husband Bill live in Wollongong, New South Wales.

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