Thursday, 30 October 2014

Public Lecture: Martin O'Meara VC

In case any of you were wondering why I was being interviewed by the ABC and getting into trouble about Martin O'Meara VC - it's because I'm giving the Frederick Bell VC Memorial Lecture this year. And you are warmly invited, if you happen to be in the area!

'More than Ordinary Care: Martin O'Meara VC'
Friday 14 November
Cottesloe Civic Centre, Broome St, Cottesloe
6pm for 6.30pm start

Please RSVP to Dr Neville Green, RSL Cottesloe Sub-branch,, by Friday 7 November for catering purposes (light supper beforehand).

Gold coin donation at admission; all funds go to the RSL.

About the Presentation:

Born in Ireland, Martin O’Meara came to Western Australia as a young man and worked as a labourer and sleeper-cutter before enlisting in 1915. He showed conspicuous bravery during the Pozières offensive, repeatedly going out into no man’s land to rescue wounded men and to carry up ammunition. He was awarded the VC by King George V in London in July 1917. 

O’Meara returned to Western Australia in November 1918, and was quarantined at Woodman’s Point because of the Spanish flu pandemic. But within a week of his arrival, he became violent and incoherent, and was diagnosed with ‘delusional insanity’ and taken to Stromness in Cottesloe, a home which was used for returned servicemen with shell shock. From there, he was transferred to Claremont Hospital for the Insane, and remained confined there and at Lemnos Hospital until his death in 1935. 

From this stigmatised obscurity, O’Meara has since become a cult figure for military, Irish, mental health and local historians. This presentation will provide an introduction to: 

• O’Meara’s known biography and war record;
• existing sources of information about his life in hospital; 
• his diagnosis and management in the context of Western Australian psychiatry at the time; 
• the way in which his illness was presented in local newspapers during his life; and 
• the subsequent historiography of his life and death.  

Conflict of Interest

My take on the Nova Peris thing, at QED.

Query: did the organisation for which Peris worked at the time have a conflict of interest policy/procedure?

And if not, why not?

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Martin O'Meara VC

Journalist Andrea Mayes interviewed me via email the other week, and has written what I think is a sensitive and balanced article about Martin O'Meara VC on her online news page.

(I wouldn't have used the word 'debunked', myself, because that's not what I'm trying to do, but that's a minor quibble.)

This article, though, has caused something of a stir. Some of the responses I've had indicate that people think it is insulting to suggest that O'Meara may have had something already in his makeup that turned out to be both a strength and a weakness, and that it in some way diminishes his courage under fire.

So here's some broad responses to some of the criticisms I've received:

1) We can't say with any precision WHAT O'Meara's diagnosis was, because the records are too old and too imperfect. And even if we did have good records, psychiatry is still such an inexact science that we'd still only be speculating. People tend to forget that psychiatry is still uncertain about the origins of almost all mental illnesses.

2) It's not casting aspersions on O'Meara, or on any other war veteran, to speculate that he may have had a pre-existing condition or a genetic predisposition that led to his serious problems after the war, which included a lot of violent outbursts and delusions.

3) Martin O'Meara may not have had what we now call PTSD; he may have had trauma-induced psychosis. This is slightly different, and bears more examination in the light of some of his symptoms. And there's nothing wrong with speculating about this, as long as it's acknowledged as speculation.

4) If pre-existing conditions and genetic predispositions are as widespread in the general population as some psychiatric researchers think they are, then they are going to be represented in the military, as well as in other walks of life.

5) Not everything to do with mental conditions is relentlessly negative. People with diagnoses have reported all kinds of new insights, new talents and new ways of seeing life, as a direct result of their diagnosis. Hence the Churchill comparison; a man whose mental illness was an inescapable part of his life, but which also moulded his character in ways that we can all be grateful for.

6) O'Meara's courage is unquestioned, as is his contribution under fire. It doesn't diminish this to speculate that some of that courage came from an inner disposition which, once the trauma of war was over, also led him to become so very unwell for the rest of his life.

After WWI, most men with psychiatric injury who returned to Western Australia were sent to Claremont Hospital for the Insane. After a huge amount of public campaigning, and some very good machinations by the State government, Lemnos Hospital was built and opened in 1926.

This Hospital came into existence because enough people saw a difference between 'people who went mad of their own fault' - the alcoholics, people with tertiary syphilis, and other undesirables who filled Claremont at the time - and 'people who went mad in a noble cause', such as war veterans.

Do we still think that way about people with mental illnesses? And do we treat them differently because we make judgements about the origin of their mental problems?

Monday, 20 October 2014

Poor Old Gough

UPDATE I: Miranda Devine gets out the pin and pops a few party balloons ...

UPDATE II: Thank you, Tim Blair, for reviving one of the greatest moments in Australian television:

Poor old Gough Whitlam. I can forgive him a lot, because he always made my dad laugh.

Also, God was good to him, in that Whitlam lived long enough to see his own appalling time in government bested by the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd catastrophe. No longer could any of us say, 'Whitlam's government was the worst in Australian history'. Not after that.

I never thought I'd cite The Age favourably, but their article this morning on what they call 'the right' and their recollections and opinions of the Whitlam government is actually well worth reading. It's a painful reminder of just how bad Gough's government was, and just how damaging its legacy was to ordinary Australians. And I think the last paragraph is the unkindest cut of all.

The announcement of Gough Whitlam's death was only minutes old when Alan Jones delivered 2GB listeners a critique of the Labor icon's time as prime minister.

"He damaged the economy through the absence of any prime-ministerial control," Jones said.

Jones was one of many conservative figures attempting on Tuesday to walk a fine line between respect for a deceased Australian prime minister, while standing by criticisms of his time in office.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Andrew Bolt was one of the most strident critics. "Whitlam explored the gulf between seeming and doing, and tumbled into the chasm," he wrote in his blog on the Herald Sun. "The Abbott government is even today dealing with the costly consequences and culture of entitlement bequeathed by Whitlam's decisions to give free universal medical care and university education."

Jones, for his part, acknowledged Mr Whitlam's intellectual ability and dignity. "They [Mr and Mrs Whitlam] were people of significant dignity, notwithstanding whatever your differences might be in relation to their politics." He did, however, tie Whitlam's welfare policies to Jones' own long-running crusade against "dole bludgers".

"He was the man who allegedly created the mentality of the dole bludger," said Jones, referring to the Whitlam government's reformist welfare policies that provided a multimillion-dollar increase in funding for the unemployed. "Mr Whitlam was of the view that if someone lost their job, then we should all pitch in for what would be one transitional payment from one job to the next."

Jones added that Mr Whitlam could not have foreseen "dole bludgers" remaining on welfare payments for long periods of time. "That ideological purity was abused and people became dole bludgers; he never envisaged that people would sit on that forever."

James Paterson, deputy executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank, praised Mr Whitlam for ending conscription and cutting tariffs, but said that his other policies were "regrettable".

"No prime minister changed Australia more than Gough Whitlam. He was a transformative prime minister," said Mr Paterson. "He oversaw one of the largest increases in the size of government in Australian history. It will require a Liberal prime minister as bold as Gough Whitlam to reverse that regrettable trend."

Other conservative commentators avoided discussing Mr Whitlam's controversial dismissal or domestic policies and praised him for fostering a relationship between China and Australia.

"Whatever doubts conservatives and Liberals have raised about Gough's domestic and foreign policies during the last 40 years, there is no question the PM deserves high praise for his overtures to China," said Tom Switzer, a conservative commentator and academic at the University of Sydney.

"He not just spectacularly wrong-footed Liberal prime minister Bill McMahon and even preceded Richard Nixon's historic visit, he established one of our nation's most important diplomatic relationships that has helped guarantee a prosperous Australia that is fully engaged in east Asia."

Malcolm Fraser, the former Liberal prime minister who replaced Mr Whitlam after his dismissal in 1975, and long ago cut ties with the right, chose simply to remember him as a "great Australian".
So poor old Gough, God rest his soul. He knew not what he did.

Friday, 10 October 2014

That Synod on the Family

I watched this first on Fr Z's Blog, and I'm reposting here - it's pretty full-on, so don't watch it if you're easily offended!

If this is too much, you might like to try Bruvver Eccles' alternative solution.
And if this is not your cup of tea either (gosh, you're hard to please), try Dr Gregory Popcak's new book, When Divorce is Not an Option, published by Sophia Institute Press.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Fr Benedict Groeschel - RIP

I was delighted to hear of the death of Fr Benedict Groeschel CFR on 3 October, the vigil of the Transitus of St Francis (the patron saint of this wise old Franciscan).

Why delighted? Two reasons: I knew he'd been in pain for a long time since his car accident, and now I can pray to him, as well as for him. This to me looks like a win-win situation. Plus, what an amazing time to go to God - what a sign of God's favour and a confirmation of Fr Benedict's mission in reforming his corner of the Franciscan family. (PS I was also thrilled at the death of St John Paul II, for all the same reasons).

I have been reading Groeschel's work for years now, starting with The Courage to be Chaste, and through Arise from Darkness and A Still Small Voice. I've listened to him on audio recordings, and watched him on YouTube.

I also met him once, when he came to give a talk at Tyburn, during which he uttered the unforgettable line, informed by decades of psychological practice and solid common sense:

"Most people are depressed because they live depressing lives".

(But you have to imagine this with a Bronx accent.) He was kind enough to give me a blessing afterwards, which I think did me good.

So here, by way of a treat, is the Fr Benedict Groeschel that none of us remember, just so you will be sure to recognise him in Heaven when you meet him there: