Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains images of deceased persons.
The death of Malcolm Charles Smith on 29 December, 1982, shocked the entire country.
Taken from his family as a child and having lived a life of institutionalisation and deprivation, he took his own life while he was a prisoner in NSW.
Ten years later, Richard Frankland tried to make sense of the man's tragic passing in the documentary film Who Killed Malcolm Smith?
In the process, Frankland was deeply critical of the state government for not taking the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody seriously.
In the film, Frankland (who originally helped investigate Malcolm’s death for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody) revisits Malcolm's family and friends 10 years after his death. Through them, we hear the story of this man’s life and by extension, how the Indigenous prison population doubled between 1987 and 1991.
In the seminal book Living Black,1978, Kevin Gilbert wrote, "The real horror story of Aboriginal Australia today is locked in police files and child welfare reports. It is a story of private misery and degradation, caused by a complex chain of historical circumstance, that continues into the present." It is this quote that officially opens the Report of the Inquiry into the Death of Malcolm Charles Smith.
The full report describes 'two Malcolms': the Malcolm loved by his friends and family, the real Malcolm; and the Malcolm created by the assessment of experts, full of stereotypes and assumptions.
The following passage from that report enunciates this idea, and the message that is also captured in the film: that Malcolm Smith's death was pointless and fit within a pattern that tragically still occurs.
The two Malcom Smiths
There is an extraordinary contrast between the Malcolm Smith of real life and the Malcolm Smith of the official files. Everyone except those who sat down to write reports on his intelligence found him, despite his illiteracy, intelligent, talented, able to converse on many subjects, a natural leader, an outstanding sportsman and a person of generous spirit. This is the picture that one gets from listening to such diverse sources as a chief inspector of police, a sergeant of police, prisoners who shared cells with Malcolm, his family, his solicitor, a nurse, an occupational therapist, and a parole officer who took the trouble to interview him on a number of occasions and win his confidence.
Yet the official files, compiled by the experts who tested him or assessed him, show a person at best of low average intelligence and in the view of some, a mental defective. There appear to be a number of reasons for this - stereotyping, the use of inappropriate tests, the confusion of illiteracy with intelligence, the failure to recognise the effects of extreme emotional and intellectual deprivation, and Malcolm's non co-operation with those whose attentions he apparently resented, ranging from outright refusal to be interviewed to outrageous leg-pulling with fanciful stories of his past or teasing of the interviewer, A lot of it was probably also due to simple uncritical acceptance and repetition of what was already on the files.
Malcolm's files start at Kinchela which was notorious for stereotyping its Aboriginal boys as of low intelligence. In his discharge report the manager deduced that 'Malcolm's IQ would be in a very low range, as he can do very little academically.', not pausing to consider that Malcolm's academic deficiencies might have been due to Kinchela itself. He was then given a WISC test which found him mildly mentally retarded on a verbal level of functioning and in the dull normal range on the non-verbal level.
Such tests have been found to be greatly misleading when used to evaluate the intellectual potential of children of poor, cultural and ethnic minority groups. But this initial evaluation dogged Malcolm in the files for the rest of his life, sometimes with the lower figure for verbal ability being treated as a general statement about his intelligence. A psychiatrist, with whom Malcolm may have been playing games in the interview, found him on 'rough clinical testing' to be a mental defective, a description which was thought by a psychologist to be confirmed when Malcolm politely indicated that he did not wish to see him.
The description was taken up most enthusiastically by a parole officer to whom Malcolm behaved in an agitated, teasing and belittling manner. She said that the psychiatrist's report 'indicates what is fairly obvious, that this lad is mentally defective, he is also aggressive by nature and no doubt not only born mentally deficient but what brains he may have had have probably been further damaged by his involvement in boxing and his heavy consumption of alcohol'. Malcolm's mythical career in boxing and his heavy consumption of alcohol seem to be part of the fiction which he foisted on unwelcome interviewers, as he was never out of custody long enough to claim either distinction.
The evidence provides a case study in the dangers of accepting 'expert' assessments at their face value. It illustrates too the danger of readiness to accept stereotypes, something which obviously affects many judgments on Aboriginal people.
Who Killed Malcolm Smith? airs tonight, 8.30pm on NITV (Ch. 34). Catch up On Demand
If you are affected by the topics discussed in this article and need support and guidance, please contact the agencies below:
NACCHO Member Services: CLICK HERE for list of Aboriginal health services
BeyondBlue – 1300 224 636
Headspace – 1800 650 890
LifeLine – 13 11 14