Daughter of the River Country is a memoir of survival and triumph from Yorta Yorta woman, community leader and Mingaletta CEO DIANNE O’BRIEN. As HEATHER LEWIS writes, it’s an amazing story of an incredible woman’s fighting spirit in holding onto what is important: family and identity.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is an oft-repeated phrase, but it’s not really universal. Trauma is complex – what can dominate a person’s thoughts, actions and life for decades can allow them means to grow and heal themselves after enough time. It takes remarkable strength and determination to not let your past traumas haunt you, and even more to try to learn from them instead of burying them deep down.
Daughter of the River Country is one such tale of strength and determination. It’s the story of Yorta Yorta woman Dianne O’Brien, known affectionately to her friends and family as Aunty Di, and how she endured untenable abuse and mistreatment throughout her life, only to come through the other end as a beloved mother and community leader.
Aunty Di was born in a country NSW town in the 1940s, the middle of what is now known as the ‘stolen generation’. She grew up believing her Irish adoptive parents were her birth parents, yet found herself confused about having darker skin than the rest of her family and the other children around her.
‘When I was around 12 or 13 I started to feel different,’ Aunty Di says. ‘I’d look at my mum thinking she was my grandmother because she was so white, and my dad was my real father because he was darker.’
As Dianne grows older, her adoptive mother, Val, promises her they will one day go on a trip, where she will tell her an important secret. Before that day comes, Val tragically passes away, and Dianne begins to be abused and neglected by her adoptive father. At 14 she is raped and sentenced to the controversial Parramatta Girls Home, a child welfare institution, after being disowned by her adoptive father. A pivotal moment in Dianne’s life comes when she finds out during her sentencing that she is adopted.
‘When the judge said that, I walked five steps back and just ran out the side door. But I got caught,’ Aunty Di laughs.
When Dianne misbehaved as a child, her adoptive mother used to joke that she’d send her to Parramatta Girls Home. ‘I never believed it until she died,’ she says. Along with countless other girls Dianne endures horrific abuse at the home. She also finds out that she’s pregnant, and that in order to keep her baby she would have to marry the father; the man who raped her. ‘In those days, the doctors got young girls to sign papers to let them have anaesthetic, but they were actually adoption papers. So, I didn’t sign anything. I said, “I’m keeping my child.”’
Dianne marries her rapist and endures continual assault and abuse at his hands, but finds the strength to keep going in her first daughter, Debbie.
‘Debbie just changed my life completely. She arrived after Mum died, and it felt like I was getting Mum back again. I poured my love into Debbie like my mother did to me. I kept it all together for her.’
Aunty Di had a total of six children with her first husband and a succession of other partners, all who mistreated and abused her. Eventually, after forging a life for herself as a single mother, Aunty Di discovers she is Aboriginal through the organisation Link Up. She’s a Yorta Yorta woman, a ‘daughter of the river country’, and even related to famous Indigenous figures like William Cooper and Douglas Nicholls.
‘I used to say, “I don’t know what we are. We’re Heinz Variety,”’ Aunty Di laughs. ‘It made me so proud to find out I was Aboriginal.’
With the mystery of her heritage finally solved, Aunty Di begins forging connections with her relatives in regional areas like Cummeragunja, and uses her experience with drug and alcohol addiction, as well as domestic abuse, to become an activist, community advocate and sexual health worker. She is currently the chair and CEO of Mingaletta, a Central Coast-based community hub which provides health, welfare, culture and education programs to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
‘I am lucky enough to have a job where I watch people change their lives,’ Aunty Di says. ‘It gives me great hope to see people coming in who are down and out, to have them walk out with a job and a home. The look of gratitude on their faces makes my job even better.’
Most important to Aunty Di now is her family, which kept her going through the hardest times in her life.
‘The thing that’s come out through all this drama is I’ve learned how important family can be. I’ve had six beautiful kids, they’ve given me 37 grandkids and 60 great-grandkids. I wanted to have a big family because I never wanted my kids to be alone like I was.’
In fact, family is the reason Aunty Di decided to finally write Daughter of the River Country. She had toyed with the idea of writing a book since the early 2000s, but it was only now, in her 70s, she decided to finally tackle the project.
‘I wanted to leave something behind for the children. I want them to know where they’ve come from, and to help other people get through drugs, alcohol and domestic violence. I used to think I’d have a really good life, and live happily ever after. It was the opposite. I think out of that I did get stronger. I learnt a lesson.’
Aunty Di has been writing about her life since she was a small child and her adoptive mother bought her a journal. Her journals from those days were unfortunately burned by her adoptive father, but from the age of 20 onwards Aunty Di would keep daily diary entries. These diaries, alongside Aunty Di’s memory and great talent for storytelling, make up Daughter of the River Country, written in collaboration with Australian author Sue Williams.
‘Sue Williams writes fantastic books, and I thought she’d be great to put it all together,’ Aunty Di says. ‘The process was that we would meet, and I would tell her my story and she would ask me questions.’
Daughter of the River Country is a harrowing read but an utterly remarkable story. Aunty Di goes through hardship after hardship but still carries hope for herself and her family, even when things are at their darkest. Her constant positivity and belief in herself is something we should all aspire to. And with her past firmly behind her, Aunty Di still has her sights firmly set on what the future holds.
‘The future is all tied up with my kids and my family, I want them all to be healthy and have happy lives,’ she says. ‘For me to stay healthy to carry on, and then when I pass, I hope someone in my family can carry on my passion to help people. With my career I will still keep going with what I am doing – helping people have their best lives. My passion to help Aboriginal people find their voice will never change.’