• In Every Family Has a Secret, Michelle White delves into the past to find out why her mother went to jail when she as 19. (Supplied)
In Every Family Has a Secret, journalist Michelle White delves into her mother’s past to find answers to a four-decade-old mystery.
Nicola Heath

4 Jul 2019 - 2:08 PM  UPDATED 26 Jul 2019 - 8:49 AM

Perth journalist Michelle White always knew that her mother had a secret – a troubled period of her past that she refused to speak about.

Michelle’s mother, Yamatji woman Yvonne Driscoll, was born in Geraldton and spent much of her teenage years in and out of institutions. In the new SBS series Every Family Has a Secret, Michelle describes some of the harsh treatment her mother suffered at the hands of authorities. “She spent a lot of time in solitary confinement for 'being bad'. There was a concrete box, it had bars at the front, and she would just have to sit there and think about what she had done,” she says.

In an interview with SBS Voices, Michelle recalls memories of her mother. “Mum went through a whole lot of awful stuff in children’s homes and institutions, but she always told it in a funny way. I think a lot of blackfellas do that – they use humour as a coping mechanism,” she says. “It was only as I got older that I realised these stories are steeped in tragedy.”

 Does your family have a secret that has impacted your identity? We want to hear it. Click here for more info. 

 As a child, Michelle was confused by her mother’s coldness, but as an adult, she came to respect her mother’s resilience. “She was a beautiful mum. She was loving, but I suppose didn’t really know how to show love,” she says.

“Maybe she’d been so beaten down by the system, she just didn’t know how to be affectionate. She couldn’t hug me, she couldn’t tell me she loved me…On the other hand, you could tell she definitely wanted me to have a good childhood and have things she didn’t have. It’s just that emotionally, she was quite crippled.”

When she was 19, Yvonne was imprisoned in Fremantle Gaol. She never disclosed the details of her crime to Michelle – or anyone else – and made her daughter promise that she wouldn’t dig around in the past while Yvonne was still alive. “I’d had a vague idea that she’d been involved in some kind of violent act, but I’d heard it was self-defence,” Michelle tells SBS Voices.

Five years after her mother’s death, Michelle decided it was time to try to find out more about her mother’s past. Every Family Has a Secret documents her search for answers. “I was a little bit terrified of what I would uncover,” she says.

Michelle begins her search with George Driscoll, her mother’s British born father. He was “a scoundrel” who trained his children to steal on his behalf, White says on the show. “He was clearly a ratbag.”

Michelle learns about her grandfather’s time at Fairbridge Farm School near Pinjarra in Western Australia, which took in underprivileged children from the UK between 1913 and 1982. Like many children before and after him, George experienced harsh treatment at the school. Michelle was surprised to discover the parallels between his childhood and her mother’s: both dealt with poverty, abandonment and institutionalisation from a young age.

Michelle’s research inevitably takes her to the “dungeon-like” Fremantle Gaol, where she learns more about the events that led to her mother’s imprisonment and the period of her incarceration.

She meets Pauline Eyles, the daughter of a matron who worked at Fremantle jail in the 60s. Jean Eyles had been a rare mother figure for Yvonne, and a glowing progress report the matron wrote at the time reveals the regard she had for the young woman. Citing her excellent prison record, Matron Eyles recommended that Yvonne be released. Yvonne, sentenced to five years, was freed after serving just three years in jail.

More than four decades later on the grounds of the now-defunct Fremantle Gaol, Pauline hands Michelle her mother’s parole release. The document is dated May 1969 – only a short time before Michelle’s birth. “That broke with me,” says Michelle. “I was so overwhelmed with emotion, knowing that she was free, that she gave birth to me as a free woman. She got out of jail, she turned her life around, she met my dad, she had a child, and ultimately before she went into labour, she got the papers releasing her from parole – she was a free woman.”

Michelle says she is still processing everything she learned during filming Every Family Has a Secret. “I’m glad I know the truth,” she says. “My journey is only just starting – there’s a lot more I need to find out about other institutions where my mum was placed. There’s more to uncover.”

Nicola Heath is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @nicoheath 

Does your family have a secret that has impacted your identity? We want to hear it. Click here for more info. 

Every Family Has A Secret airs on SBS on Tuesday 9 July at 7:30pm. The three-part series continues on Tuesday nights. Episodes will stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast.

National NAIDOC Week runs 7 - 14 July 2019. For information head to the official site. Join the conversation #NAIDOC2019 & #VoiceTreatyTruth 

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