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Soul Murder

“Soul murder” — not a phrase one comes across every day.


Oliver Sacks and "soul murder"

By Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0,

Sir Roger was listening to the ABC Science Show today. It was Robyn Williams’ homage to Oliver Sacks (Awakenings, The Man Who Thought His Wife Was a Hat, Seeing Voices, Uncle Tungsten etc. etc. etc.) and was jolly-well enjoying it immensely. The sun was shining into the conservatory, the hounds had been walked, the ice was clinking cheerfully in the Glenfiddich, all was right with the world … when suddenly his Lordship was shaken by these words:

Listen to the complete ABC Science Show feature 

Sacks recalled his early (wartime) childhood experience after being evacuated to the country from London during the blitz.

He called it “soul murder”.

Sir Roger’s glass slid from his hand and he watched it slowly fall, like an overcranked silent film, to be dashed on the Italian tiles of the conservatory floor.

The idea of murdering a child’s soul – what would that mean? To thrust a knife into the heart of the spirit of playfulness and enthusiasm and joy, to cut off the hands that grasp so eagerly for learning, to amputate the arms that long for love, to sever the legs that long to walk tall, to blind the imagination and every dream, and to gut the body of hope. To replace it all with what — an interminable desert of dust and ash and despair, and the nightmare of blank nothingness.

Repairing to the Library Sir Roger blew the dust off an article about “soul murder” by Leonard Shengold who said:

“Soul murder is the term I have used for the apparently willful abuse and neglect of children by adults that are of sufficient intensity and frequency to be traumatic. By that I mean that the children’s subsequent emotional development has been profoundly and predominantly negatively affected.”

The mind of the master of Migently Estate flashed into flame, like ancient nitrocellulose film in a poorly maintained projector on a hot day, with the thought that the treatment of asylum seekers by successive Australian governments, and particularly their Prime Ministers and Ministers, their bureaucracies and bureaucrats, and their profit-driven corporate contractors, matches the description of “soul murder”. Especially – though not only – when it is perpetrated against children for whom as a society we are collectively responsible. And more damningly, as a Culture – which we so pridefully contrast with others we call barbaric, backward, primitive, knuckle-dragging, inhumane –  we are deeply shamed.

And so Sir Roger slumped into the rattan and pondered to whom, on Shengold’s definition, the term “soul murderer” might be applied. Who had publicly and wilfully perpetrated, advertised and perhaps boasted of abuse against children who are, after all, in the broad sense in Australia’s care (you know, to discourage people from getting on boats and to break the people smugglers’ “business model”)?

And he mused, “those would include Dutton, Morrison, Turnbull, Abbott, Rudd, Gillard, Howard, Keating, Evans, Bowen, Ruddock, Vanstone. Who have I missed? All those who voted in parliament for them and their policies. And all those who are complicit because they voted to put those people in parliament”.

And he shouted to the cat, “You can say ‘not in my name‘ as much and as loudly as you bloody well like, but actually it is in your name and you are not absolved unless you do something about it. It is in your name if you vote for either of the major parties party.” 

“And that’s all right, puss,” he said quietly, “as long as you are clear with yourself that that is who you are: someone who is okay with the murder of children’s souls.” 


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