February 2009, somewhere in regional New South Wales, Australia

Two streets back from the rows of neatly trimmed, middle class garden edges, we sit under a tree next to a rusted, wheelless HQ in an overgrown front yard and drink tea while little Mae runs about with the dogs.

The windows of the house have been broken and boarded up so many times that the frames are peppered with empty nail holes in between the flakes of peeling paint. The weatherboard cladding is pock-marked by age and a broken down-pipe hangs loosely from the corroded guttering above.

A scorching nor-wester spins dusty Willy Willies across the melting bitumen: little vortices of malevolent spirit seeking the wayward and unwary.

The boys (Mae’s first cousins) have been staying here for the past few weeks, waiting for things to settle down back home, an hour’s drive north. They were both on parole from juvie and ‘needed to keep their noses clean’ after a recent brawl, according to their old man.

But, trying to keep teenage boys away from trouble without giving them something else to focus their boundless energy on is like carelessly storing hay. Both have the tendency to self-combust as the result of a complex chain of biological events and chemical reactions.

The process, with both hay and teenage boys, goes something like this: exothermic internal reactions preclude thermal runaway (rapid acceleration to high temperatures) and finally, ignition. With hay, spontaneous combustion is the leading cause of haystack fires. Boredom-induced ignition produces similar effects in teenage boys, too often resulting either in time spent in juvie, or in an adult prison. The little marks on a rap sheet build up, like compounding interest, until a magistrate is convinced that the community is better served by one’s absence for a stretch of time.

Being locked up introduces teenagers and young adults to a pecking order based on indefinitely increasing personal capacities for violence and rat cunning. The system establishes a social order of institutionalised relationships that are mediated by what Pierre Bourdieu refers to as social capital – a range of actual or potential resources given value by the network of relationships in which they are embedded.

As teenagers grow up within the criminal justice system, the system itself is reinforced. Michel Foucault saw this recycling of people through the legal systems of Europe and observed that, while prisons punish unlawful activity, ‘delinquency is for the most part produced in and by an incarceration which, ultimately, prison perpetuates in its turn’.

New South Wales imprisons the largest number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the country, and the state continues to lock up more every year. The social determinants of high imprisonment rates in Aboriginal communities have been well documented in countless government reviews and reports.

One of the key findings of the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody (1991) was that ‘the most significant contributing factor is the disadvantaged and unequal position in which Aboriginal people find themselves in society – socially, economically and culturally’.[1] This situation has gotten worse, not better in the two decades following the Royal Commission. Incorporating a justice target in the Closing the Gap framework would appear a no-brainer, yet the current Coalition government continues to drag its heals on policy reform in this area.

There has been a raft of recommendations to governments over the years to keep Aboriginal juveniles and young adults out of the criminal justice system, with improvements mooted for education, health, wellbeing, access to employment and job-readiness. As is the case in most Aboriginal communities I’ve hung out in, Kooris here attach a healthy measure of cynicism as to whether there have been any real-world improvements.

The gaze of the casually interested State, one which levers layers of bureaucracy towards short-term funded programs and projects for short-term political gain, sweeps over regional communities in New South Wales from time to time, but never stays there long.

Kids get involved in petty crime, grog and drugs at a young age. There’s not much else to do, and when the older teenagers (one’s immediate role models) are doing it, it’s as much of a rite of passage to throw a brick through a window, get your head punched in (or punch someone elses’) as it is to get drunk on Fruity Lexia, or pinch Mum’s durries or yarndi.

This is not a race thing. It is socioeconomic and part of history.

It is practical too: the more you get in trouble, the more trouble finds you.

Before he passed away, Old Tom used to say that Willy Willies came into being when the spirits were angry with particular people. ‘The heat builds up in bushfire season, with the wind out of the north. The devils rise up from the dust and spin in the air. They find the bad young fellas and go for them to teach them a lesson. Right up their noses!’

I hear sirens echoing down through the valley – heralding a new brush fire in the escarpments? Smoke haze has been lingering in the hills for days now. Perhaps it was a police car, or an ambulance? Sounds are hard to distinguish in the buffeting wind. Mia and I jump on the roof of the car to look for signs of fire, but can’t see much except for an orange-hued stain across the afternoon sky.

The phone rings and I hear footsteps running inside and voices shrill with alarm. I can make out a few words amid the chaos:


Jai and Aiden.

Blood everywhere.

Exothermic thermal reactions producing thermal runaway and ignition. Little Mae runs inside crying.

Laying low for two weeks in the middle of the February heat (whilst being conspicuous in their absence from the trouble up north), the nephews ran into trouble down the street. A carload of enemy gangbangers had cruised south, blitzed on snow cones of methamphetamine and hydro cannabis.

The boys had seen the car parked at Woolies, heard the subwoofers pounding through the pavement.

Anger. Pride. Testosterone levels peaking. Adrenaline-fuelled thermal runaway. You can smell it in the sweat.


Two teenagers have been admitted to hospital with stab wounds in…{DELETED}…following an altercation in a supermarket car park on Tuesday afternoon. A man from …{DELETED}… has been charged with wounding a person with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, possessing or using a prohibited weapon without a permit, and affray. A second man from …{DELETED}… has been charged with affray.

Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

[1] Commonwealth of Australia, Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, 1991, Vol.1., p.1.7.1.

Bad apples

They don’t use them to pack shelves, they use them to pack cells

Up in the system before they even crack 12

You can paint a pretty picture with all them pastels

But it’s black and white, and the latter still sells

What kind of life is that? They’re getting born and tagged

Teacher can’t reach them, I’m getting fucking bored of that

They couldn’t spell their name off the bat

I bet they can tell you where to score a quarter at.

Briggs, ‘Bad Apples’, Sheplife, 2014.


I am a huge fan of Adam Briggs – Shepparton’s finest Yorta Yorta rapper, satirist, actor, storyteller, record label owner and music producer, one half of the influential Australian hip hop outfit A.B. Original (with Trials from the Funkoars), and all-round badass. Briggs ain’t got time for your bullshit, and calls out racism wherever he sees it. I respect that. His lyrics have a gritty realism that brings the stories and experiences of Aboriginal people living in south-eastern Australia to a wider audience than any anthropologist could hope to achieve. Briggs’ work draws its power from tackling subjects that have long been taboo in Australian popular music – dysfunction in poor, marginalised communities – kids who can’t yet spell but ‘know where to score a quarter [ounce of weed] at’.

But here’s the thing I’m uncomfortable with: I knew 12 year old white kids growing up who were the ones selling seven gram bags of pot. They didn’t get busted, nor did they get targeted by the police. Both are very successful in their chosen fields today, pay their taxes, love their families and contribute immensely to their communities. Neither went on to be addicts or alkies.

From my experience, there are many people like me with no particular reason to be an alcoholic or an addict (well documented risk factors include family history of addiction, socioeconomic status, education level and employment status), who take a wrong left turn somewhere in life and end up at Rock Bottom. While my undesirable behaviours remain hidden behind the closed doors of a house I can afford, it’s a different story when you’re living on the street, or at least by the seat of your pants. Moreover, it’s an entriely different story if you’re a member of a racial group that is routinely the subject of overpolicing – a phenomenon linked to the stereotyping of non-white people as being drunks, addicts and the perpetrators of real and imagined violence.

Our old friend Phillipe Bourgois notes that historically, anthropologists ‘avoided tackling taboo subjects such as personal violence, sexual abuse, addiction, alienation, and self-destruction’.* This is a pity, because in making friends and working with informants during long-term fieldwork, anthropologists learn the taste of the local liquor, numb their lips with kava, or hallucinate with shamans in the Columbian jungle. While anthropologists are well placed to document less-desirable local habits, they may have perfectly good reasons for not doing so, including the need to protect their own health and reputations, and those of their informants.

Dwight B. Heath, an anthropologist who studied drinking behaviour among the Camba, a mestizo population in eastern Boliva in the 1950s, threw the accepted idea that heavy drinking is inherently bad in all cultural situations on its head. According to Heath, the Camba routinely got waaaasteed, but because their drinking didn’t appear to have any negative consequences, it was ok. Among the benefits of the Camba practice of partying to oblivion, Heath reports, is that it helps build ‘rapport between individuals who are normally isolated and introverted.’** It’s worth noting that being isolated and introverted is a trait we alkies share too, although when we’re not too drunk we can be very social creatures.

Health’s ‘cultural model of drinking’ approach was the subject of a scorching critique by sociologist and addiction specialist Robin Room. Room argues that the ethnographic/anthropological literature thoroughly underestimates the social and health consequences of alcohol use. Room suggests that this is because many anthropologists are unfamiliar with the multi-disciplinary alcohol and addiction literature, possess a  concept of addiction in intercultural contexts that is at best vague, or are the products of a ‘wet generation’ who view a cheeky bottle of wine or four at lunch as perfectly normal.***

I hold a more optimistic view of the current state of anthropological research on alcohol and substance use among economically and social disadvantaged or marginalised communities, who experience the lions’ share of alcohol-related health problems. I particularly like Angela Garcia’s work among heroin addicted Hispanos in northern New Mexico. Garcia explores the relationship between intergenerational heroin use, poverty and colonial history. Through this, she is shows how smack use is an expression of a long history of economic and cultural dispossession, the fragmentation of social and intimate relations, and an existential desire for release from these present circumstances. ****

In Australia, an anthropologist who I greatly admire is Maggie Brady, who has worked for several decades on alcohol and substance use issues. Brady has published widely in academic journals and books, plus several volumes of practical and public policy-focused work. Through her work with Aboriginal drinkers, Brady understands that there are cultural and social barriers to giving up alcohol, in addition to practical considerations (for example, the lack of detoxification services in the bush). Furthermore, Brady also communicates well the implications, difficulties and harm associated with stereotyping Aboriginal people as being drinkers.*****

Having worked, surfed, fished, drank (I was one of those alcohol-related ER presentations at the Alice Springs Hospital mentioned in an earlier post), attended detox and rehab, and recovered among so-called urban and regional Aboriginal populations in Australia over the past few decades, I can see clear parallels in Garcia’s work with the realities of many of my friends and informants who smoked, drank, snorted, injected and/or inhaled various substances (often at the same time) over the years.

However, I remain comfortable with my choice not to publish this data in my thesis for three reasons. First, it was not directly relevant to my core research questions, did not get mentioned in my ethics application, and to do so would have been an unconscionable breach of trust and respect on my part, I believe. That is the primary reason this blog is autobiographical rather than a work of anthropology or ethnography.

Second, I remain conscious of the negative perceptions and stereotypes this data could reinforce: we alkies recognise that an alcohol-affected, drug-addled, trashy neighbour is still a pain in the ass, regardless of the colour of their skin. Yet, the fact remains that while alcohol is colourblind, alcohol consumption causes more harm amongst poor, indigenous and marginalised populations, including in Australia. Another fact, often ignored, is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to abstain (not drink altogether) than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Those who do drink to excess, however, fare poorly.******

Third, my notes on this are so clearly warped by my thinking about drinking at the time they were written. This is despite me being what some might call a ‘functioning alcoholic’ living in denial at that stage. I normalised other people’s heavy drinking because of my own. I saw no problem in a chef, for example, having his allocated six double scotches after knock off, then a shot with his espresso the next morning, followed by beers in the cool room during prep.

So, when Briggs raps about a Koori kid’s life choices being snuffed out before they even had a chance – ‘what if all you had was bad apples for lunch?’ – I listen from a privileged perspective. I had a perfectly stable middle class, rural upbringing. I have white skin, straight teeth and a penis, have benefited from excellent schooling and health care, and have no alcoholics that I know of in my immediate family. I never got locked up, but could afford a lawyer if I needed one. To follow Brigg’s metaphor, my core was all rotten, despite having only ever eaten new season Fujis. Maybe this means my core was rotten from the start? Regardless, my experience around the rooms of AA suggests that redemption is always possible, even when all our problems are of our own making.


* Phillipe Bourgois, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 14.

**Dwight B. Heath, ‘Drinking patterns of the Bolivian Camba’, Quarterly journal of studies on alcohol, 1958, 19, pp. 491-508.

***Robin Room, ‘Alcohol and ethnography: a case of problem deflation?’, Current Anthropology, 1984, 25, pp. 169–78.

****Angela Garcia, The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession Along The Rio Grande, University of California Press, 2010.

*****Maggie Brady’s Giving away the grog : Aboriginal accounts of drinking and not drinking, (Department of Human Services and Health, Canberra, 1995) includes an astonishing collection of stories of men who were able to quit drinking without any real assistance. I’ll do a deep dive into these stories in the next few weeks, because they provide hope for alkies everywhere, I believe.

See also: Maggie Brady, ‘Giving away the grog: A positive strategy for addressing substance abuse, Australia’, in Inuit Circumpolar Conference (Canada) (ed.), Indigenous Peoples and International Development: Case Study Profiles, Conference Organising Committee, Ottawa, Canada, 2001, pp. 87-97; Indigenous Australia and Alcohol Policy: Meeting difference with indifference, UNSW Press, 2004; ‘On- and off-premise drinking choices among Indigenous Australians: The influence of socio-spatial factors’, Drug and Alcohol Review, 2010, 29:4, pp. 446-451.

******See, for example: World Health Organisation, Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health, 2014, p.9; Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health performance framework: 2012 report, Office for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health, Department of Health and Ageing, 2012, p.105; Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey: First Results, Health risk factors: Alcohol consumption — lifetime and single occasion risk, 2012-13, 4727.0.55.001.