Smashing, grabbing, falling: Trauma and the core self in youth offending in Mpwartne/Alice Springs

Let me take you to the heart of Australia, to the town of Alice Springs, Mpartnwe, and the traditional lands of the central Arrernte people. Many of you have been taken there in recent months with blistering headlines megaphoning crisis, destruction, anarchy and calls for the police and military to reinstate order. There is said to be a youth crisis of rampaging, relentless, recidivist crime taking place, and it is taking centre stage in town and Territory discourse.

It is true that Aboriginal youth have reclaimed their town at night, where many now dare tread, but what is the nature of this crisis?

The truth is that the youth—including children in this category—have endured assaults and violations in their external worlds as heirs to the brutalities of colonisation. The truth is that these youth have endured assaults and violations to their internal worlds also. It can be argued that they have lived with a form of ‘soul murder’, a term first coined by playwright Henrik Ibsen. He defined it as ‘the destruction of the love of life in another human being’. Psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold finds soul murder to be when arbitrary edicts or a chronic lack of empathy cause a child to lose vitality, confidence and joy. For Paul Williams, soul murder, as found in the traumatised, is achieved by attacking the uniqueness and integrity of the child.

A key legacy of colonisation, supported by decades of research, is transgenerational trauma. Where a population has been exposed to invasion, massacre, dispossession, interference, impingement and the assimilation of their uniqueness in their external world, it is not farfetched to assume that the generations have also internally endured lacerating violations to their core selves. This is soul murder: the deep trauma that the Alice Springs youth have inherited, robbed of their Dreaming, their core authenticity stolen. Australia has mostly been a dead mother country to the Aboriginal population. It has been largely a country of soul murder, not a country of soul making.

Donald Winnicott wrote of a state of inward being in all persons that requires the utmost privacy and respect. Intrusions into this most intimate of places can result in a violent destruction of personality. The result can be a total catastrophe causing the collapse of the person. In his The Authority of Tenderness, Paul Williams refers to the predatory invasion of minds, and in speaking of psychological death and profound isolation in the case of torture, describes torturers as soul murderers who rely on exposure of the core self to destroy their victims. These are insights that seem fundamental to the internal worlds of many young people in Central Australia today.

In the following, I present brief fragments of some traumatic encounters I have had with youth in Central Australia whilst working with the organisation Creating A Safe Supportive Environment (CASSE). They convey something of the sources and expressions of disturbance and suffering found in their violated states of mind: hunger, assault, silent smashing, hiding, despair and annihilation.


I sat alone at the far table on a leather seat in an Alice Springs hotel restaurant. An Indian meal was placed on the table. Suddenly, a black arm extended towards my plate, a hand grabbing at a piece of naan bread. I really jumped. A youthful body slid close to me on the seat. I looked at this boy. His face was very close to mine. I have never in my life seen such hungry eyes. They bore into me. Glazed from alcohol perhaps. But HUNGRY. So HUNGRY. I wrapped the food into the naan and put it onto a small plate and said ‘mwarre, palye, cullai cullai’. I was urging him to leave quietly and trying to modify his isolation by communicating my Aboriginal affiliations. At the same time, I was also mindful of his gross social exclusion. His presence had silenced the room. All stared in seeming dread. The hotel staff were in a flurry. Despite my efforts, it ended regrettably, with the police taking him home, but at least not to the cells.

Assault 1

Hours before the restaurant encounter I had been in the Alice Springs hospital. There were two girls injured, having been punished under customary law. A colleague and I were taking them home, and their families were leaving town to avoid further trouble. Their girlfriend had been killed by a white man in a hit and run. I felt a sharp sadness and said to one of them, ‘You must be so sad you can’t go to your friend’s funeral’.

She started to cry. ‘Some are saying I pushed her into the car. That I killed her’.

‘But a Whitefella killed her. He did the hit and run, not you. You must feel so afraid.’

She nodded and cried again. The hit-and-run Whitefella had been deleted from culpability for the accident, and the girl had internalised the ‘badness’, a common consequence of transgenerational trauma.

Assault 2

An Aboriginal girl was pleading guilty for assaulting a non-Aboriginal woman in a car park. The lawyer said in her defence that there was ‘no rational explanation’ for the assault. The magistrate suddenly lashed out in fury.

‘No rational explanation? You took offence. You poked. You spat! You stared. You failed! You have no idea what a civilised society is. You have no idea how to behave in a civilised fashion! This is a serious offence …’

The girl remained silent and it took all my restraint not to shout, ‘Stop. Stop assaulting her humanity!’

Silent smashing

Two youths smashed the windows of some government offices and broke in but were quickly apprehended. One youth injured his head and face on the broken glass—a sort of defacing—and received treatment and bandages at the hospital. I met one of the youths in the detention centre, who had been living with his mother in a town camp. He stood silently as his mother talked in an outpouring of rage and grief. It emerged that the two youths, two days before, had visited the morgue to find their aunty dead, and defaced. I was shocked to discover the woman was so closely related and therefore glimpsed the proximity of their pain, and was dismayed, along with their mother, that no apparent understanding of their internally smashed worlds was named or dispensation granted by the justice authorities.


One morning, in a remote town, a twelve-year-old youth hid from the bus run to school. I saw him run from the bus and urgently tug at some bushes to cover himself on the edge of the main road. When I approached, he tried to hide from me. I told him I was attending a Land Council meeting up the road so that he could ‘locate’ me. He stared at my Aboriginal bracelet. I asked him if he was hiding from school, and he whispered ‘Yes’. He told me he was hiding because he didn’t want to go to school because he ‘got bullied’ by the Whitefella kids. He then volunteered that he had trouble learning. I commented that it was hard because his lessons were in English and not in his language. He nodded. ‘That one too’. He said he was going to run all day’ by himself and then sneak home. I asked if he got ‘lonely by himself all day’ and he nodded and agreed. I couldn’t persuade him to come out of hiding but he didn’t want to stop talking.


Another youth waved me down (he could see the Aboriginal logo on my vehicle) and asked me for a lift home to his town camp. And then he asked for the water he saw in the vehicle. He told me he had been at a youth program and the security guard there had asked him to leave for ‘giving cheek’. He said he had ‘Been walking all night. Up all night. I am so tired’. He then said, ‘I am so fed up. Fed up’. Finishing the water, he immediately fell asleep in the vehicle. He looked small and young. He told me he was in upper primary school. He sounded like a weary, despairing old man.


Kwemenje Walker was a young Warlpiri man, in the justice system, who was fatally shot three times inside his house, with his grandfather and family present, at Yuendumu in 2019. The police Emergency Response Team had been called in. As reported by Kieran Finnane, at the time of the second and third shots (according to contested evidence), two officers already ‘had control of him’: ‘He was face down on the ground, incapable of stabbing anyone, with an officer on top of him, and with his arm pinned under him, jammed up by a mattress’.

According to body-cam video, Kwemenje, already shot, could be heard ‘softly crying, almost whimpering’.

Kwemenje did not want to return to detention. He had breached his order for a minor crime by returning home on Country and breaking his anklet monitor.

A few days later I met a youth, a friend of Kwemenje, who was next door at the time of the shooting. He had heard the shots. He and his uncle were in Yuendumu for the family funeral. Kwemenje’s shattered friend, usually lively and chatty, was mute and had been for a few days, and his stoic uncle, his grief dignified, was minding him. His uncle muttered to me that his nephew had witnessed the ‘dragging’ of the shot body—the dragging which was an act of dehumanising callousness.

The violation of the sacred core

The land, as Charles Rowley wrote in his 1970 book Outcasts in White Australia, was settled either at the point of a gun or with the knowledge of what a gun could do. Much has been written about the history of invasion and much is now known. The past is replete with murder, racism, violence, violations and theft. I would argue that much of what Aboriginal people have lived with, however, has remained unknown. I don’t have the space here to tell some of the stories of the old people who have died since the 1980s when I first came to Central Australia, but I have them in mind as I write. Suffice to say, while fighting for their way of life, Aboriginal people have been robbed of their lands and resources, their old-time ways, Lore and cultural connections, their languages and often their children in the name of civilisation.

As Robin Japanangka Granites made clear at the commencement of the coronial inquest into the killing of Kwemenje Walker, the past has a living presence:

The ways our lives have been impacted is unimaginable. You cannot begin to understand how deeply this loss sits on our bodies, how it tears our spirits apart and how it will stain our country for generations to come. The pain we feel is real and the past led us here.

These evocative words are redolent with the ‘hurting hearts’ of many Aboriginal people who have shared their stories with CASSE, the organisation I work for. In Paul Williams’s The Authority of Tenderness, we see that tenderness, typical in the ‘holding’ and caressing of the good mother (and father), is an essential building block of evolving one’s inner core. Using this to reflect on the role of settler-colonised Australia, we can say that the cruelty of colonialism catalysed lacerating legacies that have invaded the self as they have invaded and attempted to destroy relations of kin and culture, dismembering into half-caste parts the whole which has been damaged and outlawed. The needs and rights of Aboriginal people were flagrantly disregarded; individually, the culturally authentic core of the person was not protected. The growth of the inner world of the Aboriginal person was vitiated, and remains at continual risk of exposure and injury. Today this can be seen in the dread of human contact many young Aboriginal people have, which leads to radical isolation. As Winnicott observes, ‘Rape, and being eaten by cannibals, these are mere bagatelles as compared with the violation of the self’s core, the alteration of the self’s central element’.

* * *

Of the children and young people in detention in the Northern Territory, 99 per cent are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Assessments made by CASSE show that most have undiagnosed depression and anxiety. These youth are psychologically distressed, as is the wider cohort of Aboriginal youth in the Northern Territory, who are always vulnerable to interventions by the justice system.

The youth tell us they offend because they ‘feel scared, stressed, angry, insecure, unsafe, and uncared for, bored or feel nothing at all and some offend just because they are “hungry”’. Yes, they are perpetrators, but they are victims too. They tell us they ‘grow up with grog, gambling, hunger, humbug, fights, brothers and fathers doing jail time or dead too soon’. They tell us they ‘feel shame, miserable, no respect, guilty and bad for hurting their communities, sad and a little bit worried’.Many of these youth have had parents who are Stolen Generation, placed in child protection in institutions or foster care. These youths cycle through the courts on a regular basis, and detention, which works from a paradigm of punishment, has become a perverse rite of passage.

The main offences committed by youth are property offences: theft, home and commercial break-ins, vehicle theft, driving when unlicensed, property damage and substance use, not offences of assault, homicide or sexual deviancy. They often offend in groups from the marginalised town camps, and younger kids may be called upon to assist as partners in crime. In short, these young people primarily steal and damage property (their forbears endured manifold thefts and damage), and sometimes they throw rocks (their forbears were assaulted and many were killed with far worse than rocks). It is possible to say that their delinquent acts are not mindless, but rather are driven, unconsciously and consciously, by past criminalities enacted upon them.

Offending Aboriginal youth attract an array of diagnoses, from antisocial personality disorder—though not at the severe end—to PTSD, ADHD, borderline personality disorder, foetal alcohol syndrome, and depression and anxiety. Most Aboriginal offenders do not meet the criteria of severe psychopathy. From my experience of working with severe psychopathic mainstream offenders elsewhere, in Central Australia it is despair, not murderousness, that is central to the aetiology of youth offending.

Russell Goldflam, an Alice Springs barrister, describes a legacy of ‘anomie’, a term coined by Emile Durkheim from the Greek and meaning ‘no law’ (for Arrernte, Tywerrenge arrangkwe), ‘which is to live in despair, without hope, because in that state there is confrontation of the existential horror of chaos staring you in the face’. Goldflam describes the fate of despairing youth mirrored in all in the justice system. Tommy Watson, a cultural boss, says: ‘A lot of young people live in another culture; it’s not mainstream, it’s not traditional; they are lost in the wind’. Here is the creation of the abject, the non-person; rather than agent or subject, the non-person is violently cast out of the cultural world. As Julia Kristeva puts it, the abject is ‘the place where meaning collapses’.

Using a psychoanalytic lens, the impact of transgenerational trauma features in the ‘here and now’ with the ‘there and then’. With Vamik Volkan’s concept of the reactivation of trauma in mind, we can see how a collective trauma—referring to the shared mental image of a deeply traumatic event in the history of the ancestors—is relevant to youth offending in Central Australia. The agent of terror in trauma is monstrosity: the monstrous internal object. Timothy Keogh too highlights the reverberations of the psychic pain of unbearable loss and rejection—a pain that cannot be tolerated—and the need for the young person to psychically kill the pain off in criminal activity and repeated offences. In this view, young offenders may in their actions be unconsciously seeking punishment, which obscures their needs, cries for help and quests for hope under the guise of ruthlessness and despair.

One might speculate further that there is a confluence with what the neglected child has ‘Not got’ in the external world with the ‘Negative’ reality of their internal world. Thomas Ogden conceptualises the realness of the negative, referring to a quality of being alive in the realness of what is NOT there—namely an absence, a gap, the deprivation pervading the entire personality: ‘The gap, the death, the nothing is what feels real and alive’, a potentiate to crime. Ogden has described Winnicott’s work on the ‘moment of anger’ (one can add cumulative moments of anger) in relation to maternal/caretaker absence, and how such loss may be addressed and mitigated by and for the child. However, if the anger is not expressed it will always carry the potential for and the fear of violence. Ogden says the object of the feared violence is not the ‘dead’ mother but the child or person themselves. When that anger is expressed, a question typically surfaces: ‘And what will you do about it?’ I think this question is fundamental to the criminal enactments of Indigenous youth in the NT justice system. ‘And what will you do about it?’ is their defiant question.

* * *

Since 2019 CASSE has been delivering an alternative for high-risk youth in detention in Central Australia, in the Shields for Living Tools for Life program. Funded by the NT government with some philanthropic assistance, initially as part of the Back on Track Program, it is anchored in the Men’s Tjilirra Movement. Located in the Western Desert, it works in partnership with five Aboriginal communities and their youth and elders. It takes high-risk youth onto country, a response to the elders wanting their youth on country, not in custody.

Shields for Living is a dual therapeutic and cultural program, the therapeutic being found in cultural tradition. It seeks to facilitate and revive lost and remaining cultural connections. Youth are taught by elders to make tjilirra, which are traditional tools of hunting, ceremony, Dreamtime and Law that were typically confiscated under Western law as weapons. CASSE endeavours to ‘protect the wholeness and integrity’ of the cultural Lore and not forsake it, and this integrity is seen as inviolate for the core self, founded in culture. As Martin Juggadai, a ngangkari, says about the tjilirra: ‘If we do not have these, we have no language, no culture. We have nothing. We are nothing. It’s our history. A part of us’.

So the youth are taught in language, by their elders, who ‘give their knowledge’ to make traditional tools; they care for country, have conversations with the elders, tell sacred stories and talk about gaol time and ‘the problem life’. The men and youth are encouraged to talk about their challenges in living in two worlds and about the trauma they have endured and may have acted out. As part of developing their narratives, the men discover old song lines and waterholes and are emotionally moved by the aliveness of the Dreaming. Shifts in emotional states away from feeling persecuted can be evidenced. On these cultural camps, the making of the traditional shield is symbolic of the protective shield against anxiety. The youth know and say, ‘It’s Law way, Law way’. The making of the spear and throwing of the spear may symbolise the generating/throwing of potential possibilities in the potential space of country. Sorrow, lament, meaning, connection and responsibility are embedded in the culturally sacred, ‘in memory’ of grandfathers. As Martin Juggadai says: ‘Making tjilirra is special—it is the spirit of our grandfather inside you’.

Shields for Living is a cultural healing program acknowledging and working with the importance of relatedness, family and country. Referring to Fred Myer’s seminal work, it is important to note that there is no self without kin. The identity of self is embedded in mutual relations with others and with the Tjukurrpa, with ‘one’s story’, derived from ‘ownership’ and narrative of ‘named place’, and with it the songlines and sacred objects that make it ‘his story’. Geographical location, where events occurred, punctuate the person’s narrative, and sacred spaces and places entail stories and movements of ancestral beings. One’s own country, ngurru walytja, is a place of security and belonging. Lament can be heralded at times of ceremony or ritual. Celebration is evoked by being on country, holding country and dancing on country. Kanyininpa, namely holding, is a key cultural value in cultural healing: the Land holds and links walytja, ngurru and tjukurrpa.

I asked a young man from a remote community if he had made a tool on the last camp. Grinning broadly, he said: ‘Yes, I made a boomerang, for the first time’. I asked him what he plans to do with it. ‘Keep it’, he said, ‘Keep it for ceremony business!’ The youth has a tool of value, something he made, a new skill, a good object, a symbol of strength, pride and protection, ‘in memory’ of his grandfather. The youth tell us they feel ‘happy, proud, safe, supported, and strong on our country camps’. They say they like ‘hitting it hard’ and they feel proud to take the tools ‘back to community, culture way’.

Authenticity and aliveness

It is not my intention to eclipse what is intrinsic to the Tjukurrpa. To work alongside Aboriginal people and their aliveness, honouring their wishes, needs and cultural foundations without interference or intrusion but with acceptance, recognition, respect and trust, is the key to preserving the sacred core. The psychoanalytic intent, in the words of Ogden, has become primarily ontological, having to do with being and becoming and not just with knowing and understanding.

Over time, CASSE has been enabled to experience and pinpoint, in the words of Winnicott, a primary source of real health, which is the feeling of real. Feeling real, in the face of catastrophic psychic trauma, heralds survival, thinking, emotional life, experiential abundance, space and time.

Winnicott builds, somewhat paradoxically, on the notion that the feeling of real arises from transitional phenomena in a person’s early development—from the individual’s imaginative cultural life and communication with the subjective, or personal internal objects. This involves the core of the self, which is a silent self, the ‘isolate, permanently unknown and unfound’. Accordingly,

We have to recognise this aspect of health: the non-communicating central self, forever immune from the reality principle, and forever silent … it is like the music of the spheres, absolutely personal. It belongs to being alive. And in health, it is out of this that communication naturally arises.

Traumatic experiences, Winnicott says, that lead to primitive defences can belong to the threat to the isolated core—the threat of its being found, altered and communicated with. Therefore, as therapists, Winnicott underlines, our most important responsibility is to recognise the power we possess to violate the person’s sacred core, by knowing too much and instead of waiting for the patient/person to creatively discover. The country of Australia has presumed knowing in the name of civilisation and assimilation, but has indeed threatened, dictated and dismembered the colonised.

Winnicott speaks of the co-existence of two conflicting psychic trends—the need to communicate and the need not to be found. He says it is ‘a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found’. A mitigating resolution to the contradictory need to communicate and the need to be incommunicado, Winnicott expands, is sharing what belongs to the whole range of intermediate cultural experience. And for Australia, this heralds the equal sharing of inter-cultural spaces.

Ancestral Lands are the place and space of awakenings of sacred selves. The feeling of real for the Pintupi people, Fred Myers says, is equated with ‘from the Tjukurrpa’—it becomes real. In this space, the SFLTFL space, Aboriginal people do not have to manufacture false selves engaging in compliant object-relating with Whitefellas. Instead, there can be real relationships and communications with human receptive companions. CASSE does not transgress this space with knowing, preconceptions, determinations or expectations, but let the spaces be and let the Beings Become, in silence, stillness, recognition, waiting and movement, and facilitate the cultural experiences and inconceivable possibilities.

Tjanimaku Tjukurpa story—how one man came good

Seven at-risk youth were engaged for a day cultural camp, and they were taken to the town bush site for a reflective and tool-making meeting. A tool-maker elder had prepared the fire cooking the kangaroo tails and was sitting calmly making a boomerang. On arrival, the youth watched and then began to rhythmically cut the wood in concert.

A minor incident of aggression erupted between two participants, with a youth I call Jordan having delivered a kick. In vivo reflection followed, and some high fives settled the ‘I’m a street fighting man’. The emergent trigger was the pending separation and the anticipation of loss between them.

In the aftermath, I began to read the Tjanimaku Tjukurpa book, produced by NPY Women’s Council and the Pitjantjatjara elders, which is about a grandfather helping his troubled grandson Tjanima get back on track by teaching him the Lore. The youths wanted to see the photo of the contributors. I showed them and started to read. None of the youth appeared to be paying much attention, but I was being watched with some vigilance. Another youth I call Aaron, caught for stealing cash and cars, came and sat side by side and began to read with me in a soft, tentative voice. It was very touching, and I was surprised by his proximity and spontaneous participation. All the youth edged closer, including Jordan. The most distracted youth pulled his t-shirt over his face, seemingly unseen, but sat still for the duration. At the end of the reading, Aaron asked to see the photo again and then he pointed to Kwemenje Hoosan, saying,

‘He is my Jamu’.

‘Your grandfather?’ I asked.

‘Yes!’ he said with pride.

‘So,’ I said, ‘He can help you with stories and making tjilirra and staying out of trouble?’

‘Owa’, he said, as he nodded very seriously.

The youth crowded around to see the photo again and began to point to their Jamus, which they hadn’t done initially. The words of the book created resonant, live experiences for them. They were in touch with the spirit of their grandfathers, which they could now share: their authentic origins and relations, the hopefulness in the story, the resolution of the incident and being settled on country.

Note: Creating A Safe Supportive Environment (CASSE) is an Aboriginal, psychoanalytic organisation established in 2011 based in Mparntwe, Alice Springs, and in Melbourne. Over the years, CASSE has held town and organisation forums and conferences as well as presenting at international and national forums to promote dialogue and recognition of the racial and cultural divide and trauma and losses Aboriginal people experience. It has delivered workshops on trauma, suicide and violence, undertaken community-directed research on domestic violence, developed and trialled a group program on violence, and supervised and mentored short films and publications. CASSE’s modus operandi is to develop programs that are determined by Aboriginal people, and they have primarily wanted to strengthen traditional cultural practices on their ancestral lands with the Elders. CASSE works ‘two-way’, which implies relational companionship and working together in a healing process promoting equality and reciprocity. For more:

About the author

Pamela Nathan

Pamela Nathan is a clinical and forensic psychologist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist and was previously a sociologist. She has worked in the public sector in clinical and forensic settings, in private practice, and with CASSE (Creating A Safe Supportive Environment) in Central Australia. She has worked alongside Aboriginal people for over forty years, publishing books on Aboriginal health and the homeland movement, as well as publishing in psychoanalytic journals.

More articles by Pamela Nathan

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