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Rattled and stalked

My latest for Primer, interviewing Ellis Gunn about her experience of being stalked…

It was in a park in Adelaide, cherry blossoms catching in her hair, that Ellis Gunn’s world came tumbling down. The poet and furniture restorer had just dropped her son at school and was walking home when she heard someone call her name.

It was him. Again. A man who had approached her twice before and who had left her with a peculiar, uneasy feeling each time.  Perhaps it was his overfamiliarity with her, or his intensity.

Now, on this spring morning the man had cycled up beside her, and once again struck up conversation. Within a few moments, Gunn’s unease returned with sickening force; it was clear this man knew where she lived, her daily routine – even that she was a vegetarian.

Fear, like “rattling stones of panic” settled in her stomach. “On the surface he was behaving so casually, so normally… on the inside, I was freaking out.”

That morning, as the pair left the park, the man calmly cycled away. But later, he would show up again and again – at her house, at an auction house she liked to visit – and message her via email and Facebook.

Eventually, Gunn approached the police and later confronted the man himself, telling him to leave her alone. He did, leaving both relief and chaos in his wake.

Years have passed since that morning in the park – her three children have all left school – but its shadows have stayed close, demanding attention, nudging her to ask what exactly the “point of all that” was.

The result is her book Rattled, which is released this month and rewrites the story of Gunn’s life, piecing together previously unconnected episodes – an abusive former marriage, being harassed in a bar, along with being stalked – to uncover a thread of misogyny that will be familiar to many women.

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Today, the Ellis Gunn who speaks to me on the phone from Adelaide couldn’t be further from the terrified woman she describes in Rattled. The gentle lull of her Scottish accent is calming to listen to, even over the phone.

“As women, we’re always told to look at ourselves when we’re harassed or when something goes wrong,” she reflects. Her own reaction to being stalked was to first doubt (“I tried to convince myself I was getting things out of proportion…reading things into it,” she writes), then, blame, herself (“Why on earth had I been so friendly?”).

Once she finally accepted that the man (who she refers to in Rattled only as The Man) was in fact following her, she became engulfed in uncontrollable, all-consuming fear – the kind of fear that gnawed away in the dead of night and left her trembling on sunny street corners.

Everything she knew to be safe and dependable – her home, her neighbourhood, her daily commute – became terrifyingly entangled in a psychologically exhausting game of cat-and-mouse.

“This idea that a stranger could just suddenly decide to follow me and there was nothing I could do about it and the police weren’t able to do anything about it – it changed my worldview,” she says now. “It just felt like I was living in a very unsafe world that I hadn’t fully understood.”

Should she have reported the man to the police sooner? Gunn reasons that unless you’re certain something suspect is going on its hard to tell someone to leave you alone the first time you meet them.

Instead, her advice to anyone being stalked is underpinned by the complexity of the problem.

Not only are there many kinds of stalker and stalking, but state and territory divisions make the process of prosecuting stalkers more fraught still, as police don’t automatically share details of criminal histories. Britain, Scotland in particular, has resource centres dedicated to stalking. Australia has nothing comparable.

In the absence of adequate government support, Gunn advises women to trust their gut. “Listen to that voice that says I don’t like this, I’m uncomfortable here, especially when it’s a stranger or somebody you don’t know well. If you’re thinking something’s not right here, then it probably isn’t.”

Besides addressing the failures around stalking legislation and support for stalkers’ victims, Gunn believes we need to unpick the social culture that allows this behaviour to happen.

In subtle ways, patriarchal culture is telling men that they’re entitled to sex and respect and adoration, explains Gunn.

The resulting culture of self-blame, of “just putting up with it” can only be eroded by awareness, she says. Her message to young women is to question things, to talk. She wants those conversations to be put the centre of sex education in schools. Awareness, awareness, awareness.

Towards the end of Rattled, Ellis reveals she has been diagnosed with stage four cancer – a diagnosis, she believes, that was not helped by her abuse. A newly milder course of chemo is keeping her alive for as long as possible. She’s taking things day by day, learning to accept. “This is just something I’m going to have to deal with,” she says. She is good at ‘dealing with’.

There is a sense, now that her story is public, that it is only a natural step in a journey that began decades ago. As a poet, Ellis has subtly jabbed away at the system for many years, taking aim at husbands who expect their wives to (in phonetic Scottish) “gie um hiz conjuggles” of an evening. And, while things have improved at breakneck speed, this week’s news of a British newspaper comparing a female MP’s leg movements in parliament to Basic Instinct has her dumbfounded.

“Still? Really?” she asks with a weariness that brings to mind social media posts featuring older feminists holding up posters with the words ‘“I can’t believe we’re still protesting this shit”.

Yes, she’s wary about entering the public fray – Twitter pile-ons and online abuse are part of the territory, she suspects – and anxious about The Man coming across Rattled and how he might react. But to finally speak and be heard, well, that’s something as worth fighting for as it is novel.

“Women have been encouraged to keep silent about this abuse for so long, it is empowering to suddenly be able to speak out about it and have people listen,” she says. “It’s not like I’ve never moaned about the patriarchy before.”

If you know someone who is being stalked or threatened please contact 1800 737 732.

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They did it themselves


There are too many to count and certainly too many to mention: when floods hit northern NSW, thousands of women and men suddenly found themselves in roles they didn’t expect.

They became rescuers, helicopter coordinators, accommodation hunters and food deliverers. They became the mud army, mobilised to leave thousands of homes as liveable as they were before waters rose on the 1st of March.

And they became part of the Koori Mail crew, flooded out of their Lismore HQ but fighting for Aboriginal communities and futures.

Some of these women generously gave us their time amidst the aftermath and exhaustion. Here are their extraordinary stories…

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Kate Noller and Pauline Allin rescued horses and livestock from the floods PHOTO Natalie Grono

THE ANIMAL RESCUERS: Kate Noller, 35, from Byron Bay and Pauline Allin, 37, from Broken Head 

It began with a single horse trapped in rising flood waters in Woodburn.

“A friend posted a heart-wrenching video of a horse that was drowning,” recalls Pauline Allin, who works in marketing and as a horse carer, of the moment she realised this was no ordinary flood. By the next day, she was coordinating a rescue boat helmed by friends including Kate Noller, the owner of Zephyr Horses.

They didn’t find the horse. Battling the sheer scale of the inundation, the trip showed them the enormity of what they were facing.

“It was very dangerous. We were capable, but the reason we had to mobilise was that we realised no help was coming, we had to do it ourselves,” says Kate. “We were not prepared on that first day for what we were going to see … we came back mentally shattered”.

It was the first of scores of missions into NSW’s decimated Northern Rivers region, where the pair have become instrumental in leading vets and farmers in the unfathomable task of rescuing many thousands of horses and cows.

They reunited a newborn calf with its mother four days after being separated and dropped hay where they could. But for every rescue, they watched, helpless, as hundreds more animals drowned. One farmer estimates that 70 per cent of all livestock in the region has perished in the flood.

The pair’s GoFundMe page has now raised more than $140,000, and their goal is to establish a taskforce to help avoid such deadly outcomes in future floods.

“We can’t prevent the rain,” says Kate, “but we are able to make sure that there are systems in place to prevent this from happening again.”

THE TECH HERO: Alisha Williams, 30, from Brisbane created a digital platform to coordinate the recovery.

It took Alisha Williams four-and-a-half hours to write the software that became central to coordinating housing and donations in the aftermath of northern NSW’s floods.

FloodsRecovery2022.com began as a way to support friends affected by the Queensland emergency, but when floods then ripped through NSW, the e-commerce business owner saw an urgent need for accurately connecting those who need help with those offering help. Learning the size of the task, she drove to Byron Bay, basing herself close to where the need was greatest, and started collecting a team of volunteers who now help her with every element of the job.

Her “bare bones” interface answered an enormous need: Within 72 hours, her site had 20,000 followers, with posts garnering 15,000 views each. It led to families being housed, counsellors being linked to victims and homes being cleared and cleaned.

“When you’re here and you see people in these communities, you see how much people desperately need each other,” she says.

She knows that need won’t dissipate with the flood waters – “because it doesn’t feel like anything’s under control yet” – but, like all of the helpers she has met, she suddenly finds herself far from her home and her business, working intensely with strangers.

“Midway through conversations with volunteers,” she says, “we stop and say ‘Isn’t this surreal, how did this happen?’”

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Sarah Black bushbashed her way to flood victims PHOTO Natalie Grono

THE PARAMEDIC: Sarah Black, 40, from Federal spent hours trekking through the bush to reach injured flood survivors 

When the emergency call came in, there was little Mullumbimby ambulance station officers could do to get help to Upper Wilson’s Creek.

A massive landslide had careened through Shafiqa Irwin’s home, crushing her ankles. The only road in was cut off by torrential flood waters and a fallen tree.

“I knew she was up there with some horrific injuries, I knew I had to try,” says paramedic Sarah Black, who monitored flood levels then, with her boyfriend, drove as far as she could before hiking through bush, skirting floodwater by following the ridgeline. More than three hours after they set off – and 13 hours after the accident – they reached the destroyed home and the cabin Shafiqa had been taken to.

“They didn’t expect us to turn up and they didn’t know anyone was coming. It was pretty good to see the look on their faces,” Sarah says of the moment she arrived. Even with a satellite phone, communications were severely impacted and a helicopter was unable to land. They left by road the following day when the water had subsided, and Shafiqa is now recovering at Gold Coast University Hospital.

Sarah is no stranger to working through natural disasters but says this flood is “beyond anything” she has seen. Mullumbimby has pulled together unlike ever before and, on her day off, Sarah and 30 other paramedics worked to help three colleagues who lost homes in Woodburn.

“The community response has been phenomenal,” she says. “It has blown me away.”

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Meditation teacher Jacqui Lewis marshalled the community to deliver aid PHOTO Natalie Grono

THE COMMUNITY CONNECTOR: Jacqui Lewis, 41, from Mullumbimby Creek marshalled volunteers to deliver aid.

“It was absolute carnage left, right and centre,” Jacqui Lewis recalls of the flood disaster that swept through her region. “What I was seeing was so horrific and there was no help coming. To say the stress levels were high would be a total understatement.”

On top of lost homes and injuries, there was no fresh water, electricity and potentially life-saving phones and internet.

With a team of volunteers, The Broad Place meditation teacher and mentor swiftly set up a triage system at Mullumbimby Civic Centre, working out how to dispatch help. It was ad hoc but effective: they organised helicopters, rescue teams, clean water and supplies. They raised many thousands of dollars and, critically, reconnected communities with communications.

She fought for media attention and reached out to Elon Musk via Instagram, eventually securing a donation of 100 Starlink satellite internet systems – an offer that was then stymied by bureaucratic red tape.

It seems a stretch from her usual role, but to Jacqui, the work is a “giant extrapolation” of her skills at a unique moment that has come to define the local spirit. “This community is like a big, beautiful protective web,” she says. “People go out of their way to help others. That’s rare in modern society.”

Her focus has now shifted to ensuring a failure of governmental leadership and crisis services in disasters is never repeated. “The Australian people have been so let down.”

This story originally appeared on Primer.

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Comms down: NSW Floods

I once spent a rainy weekend learning how to report from a hostile zone. 

On the evening the course began, a dozen of us sat around a camp table in a converted shed deep in the Kangaroo Valley, its concrete floor spattered with human blood from squashed leeches. The lights suddenly cut and firecrackers exploded behind us. When we eventually switched the lights back on, one of our number had disappeared – ‘kidnapped’ at the hands of our instructors. 

It was the beginning of a weekend designed to shock, if not convince. We self-consciously fumbled our way through exercises simulating hostage situations, being shot at, dodging improvised explosive devices and midnight dashes through hostile territory. It was all fabulously incongruous with the Porsche parked in the muddy driveway, Sydney a short, easy drive away.  

I did, however, come away with one important lesson: always assume a communications black-out. In war zones and natural disasters, more often than not, the reality on the ground is that phone signal, internet and 3,4 or 5G have been wiped out. I put the theory into practice just weeks later as I reported from flood-hit Dungog after 2015’s massive east coast low. Not only was it almost impossible to reach by road, but no electricity, phones and internet made getting any information in or out doubly tricky.

And here, right now, in NSW’s Northern Rivers, that lesson again rings true. On Monday morning, as reports of Lismore residents screaming from their rooftops for help started reaching the media, Facebook lit up with scores of messages of concerned family and friends pleading for news of their loved ones. People dropped what they were doing to reach the addresses that steadily landed on community pages, updates putting worried minds at ease. But by Tuesday evening, the internet had largely petered out.

SES and emergency services, not to mention community groups, live on social media. But with internet knocked out and patchy phone signals across much of the region, there is no way to remotely check where floods have inundated, which roads are washed away and to connect with communities in danger; there is no way to know who needs what, where and when. 

Beside the urgency of the immediate need – whole towns devastated, thousands without homes and clean water – a comms black-out poses an added layer of chaos across the region, even for those who now face nothing more inconvenient than canned fruit and muddy gardens. 

We are all hugely and overwhelmingly dependent on one thing: the internet. Without it, the systems we’ve created to make life easier end up, well, making life harder.

Where there are shops still open, no internet means no payments by card. Which in turns means a run on ATMs. Non-retail businesses that depend on the internet – most, that is – have gone AWOL. At the pharmacy, e-prescriptions can’t be processed. At the doctor, the Medicare system can’t be accessed. School is closed and NSW’s online remote learning modules sit untouched. Thousands need and want to help, without knowing where to direct that energy. 

We’ve gone from the crisis of the pandemic, which gave us virtual hyper-connectivity, to another that removes that connectivity and replaces it with a strange and quietly unnerving befuddlement. We can’t busy ourselves with work, distract ourselves with Netflix, get bills paid. But we also can’t search for information about donations and fundraising. We can’t check if the motorway has reopened, where fuel is available or which supermarket hasn’t shut its doors because of empty shelves. We can’t WhatsApp relatives overseas – or friends down the road – to let them know we’re safe and dry. As one neighbour said, it is the first time in twenty years that he has not had the internet at his fingertips. 

Instead, the radio plays, non-stop. The local radio station does what it can to deliver vital information. A blind Jack Russell has been found and taken to a shelter in Ocean Shores. St Finbarr’s Church is collecting bedding and nappies. If nothing else, climate change poses a case for saving local news outlets – we saw it with the bushfires, and we see it again, now, as the region depends on radio to deliver news that matters.

And, things turn physical. Neighbours are dropping in on each other to check they are ok, having real conversations. Cafes are feeding cashless locals on trust. Where fuel is available, groups of friends are driving cars and boats to affected areas and taking help to those in need instead of waiting for word to reach them. IRL, the community is taking initiative, bound by its isolation. Where small pockets of 4G are available, word-of-mouth spreads and cars collect, their occupants tapping on laptops in car parks and on curb sides, doing what can’t be done in person – or put off by a mega flood. 

Because what natural disasters show us in scary focus is that we have put all of our chips on the internet being there. Just always being there, dependable and wondrous and super convenient. Until comms are down, that is.

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Life on the breadline

It takes a massive amount of courage to share one’s journey into poverty with strangers. Debe did that, both with me, and with the SBS audience, for the network’s new documentary about living in poverty, Could You Survive on the Breadline? Here’s a little of her story, as written by me for SBS Voices, and I thank Debe for her honesty, drive and care at a time when she has so little left to give

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“Carers are drowning. If we’re not drowning in debt, we’re drowning in lack of self-care”

Could you survive on less than $65.30 a day?

At $426.30 a week, the poverty line is something most of us have never had to face. But 3.24 million Australians, many of whom depend on government welfare payments, are living in poverty – a place of fear, stigma and powerlessness that is laid bare in new SBS series, Could You Survive on the Breadline?

For Debe, 62, in Sydney’s west, it was her husband’s illness that threw her into poverty. For 120 hours every week, she is on hand to nurse her husband, Ron, who is 74 and has advanced dementia. He is immobile, incontinent and can no longer talk.

Debe has chosen to provide home care for Ron rather than sending him to a nursing home. To give him the round-the-clock attention he needs, she left her job as a cleaner and has spent all of their superannuation and savings. She now relies on her local food bank to help put meals on the table.

“Carers are drowning. If we’re not drowning in debt, we’re drowning in lack of self-care,” Debe tells SBS Voices.

“My husband literally relies on me to move his body, keep him clean, keep him socially engaged and to help with pressure care and feeding. I’m his arms, his legs, his voice, I’m everything. And people don’t understand how consuming that is,” she says.

The government provides her with a carer’s payment and carer’s allowance totalling $861.20 a fortnight, or around $3.60 an hour. With that, she must first account for the consumables she buys for Ron’s care, including pads, sheets, wipes, medication, food supplements, gloves, sanitisers, creams and cleaning products that are critical to his wellbeing.

Debe is fortunate in that she and Ron have paid off their home, but her latest water bill was about $500 and her electricity over $1000.

Ron is supported by a home care package that does not cover the cost of his equipment and care worker, who is paid $42-$60 an hour, six hours a day.

After using her own support payments towards the care worker, Debe is left with almost nothing. Without the “life saving” charity of her church food bank, which provides her with fruit, vegetables and meat for just $8 a fortnight, even food would be a stretch.

There are no holidays, no meals out, no purchases for herself and even the hairdresser is beyond the budget.

“People need to know that carers are doing it tough financially. People think you’re at home, the government is throwing you money,” she says. “I’m grateful for that amount of money but it doesn’t even touch the surface.”  

Could You Survive on the Breadline? follows three prominent Australians as they attempt to survive on welfare budgets, along the way challenging preconceived ideas about those who rely on government support and the realities of the welfare system. Social security is often called a safety net – and yet, as the program shows, it so often leaves its recipients anything but protected.

Masterchef winner Julie Goodwin, who has first-hand experience of collecting welfare and understands its stigma, spends time with Debe and Ron in the series and says it is “criminal” that the welfare Debe receives is not enough to cover food, let alone a home care structure that allows her any respite.

“No self-care is a recipe for burnout and disaster,” Julie says, adding that there is “no way on earth” the budget she was given on the program – a combination of the JobSeeker payment and the Disability Support Pension – would cover food, rent, bills, a car and clothing. 

The load is taking its toll on Debe and she is now applying for the NDIS because of her own chronic ill-health. In rare moments of downtime, she paints rocks and gives herself a manicure – small acts that she says help “keep your sanity and keep your connection”. She also advocates for carers and studies support in aged care as ways to take positives from her situation.

But it is her community that really keeps her afloat, she says. Her six children, 14 grandchildren, church and carer network are part of the loving community that Ron stays at the heart of by staying at home.

Debe is sharing her story with the hope that it may help shift welfare policy, which must adapt to the needs of carers.

“With dementia, you grieve while they’re still here,” she tells Julie on camera. “Because I know that I’m losing my husband and the government’s not doing what it can and what it ought to do.”

Could You Survive on the Breadline? premieres at 8.30pm, Wednesday 17 November on SBS and SBS On Demand. The three-part series will also be available to stream at SBS On Demand with subtitles in Arabic, Korean, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese and Vietnamese.  See the Program Page for more articles and insights.

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