Voyage around my father

Voyage around my father

FOR Felice Wainer, her father’s legacy is vivid and his absence a void, even 25 years after his death. She is proud of him and his work, even as she reflects on a Melbourne childhood in which his presence was sometimes sporadic and often too intense for a young child to make sense of him.
Nanjing Night Net

Her father was Bert Wainer, the controversial campaigner who fought a war against backyard abortion in the 1960s and 1970s and became a household name. As he fearlessly took on corrupt police and the conservative establishment in pursuit of the cause that consumed his life, his daughter grew up fearful that she would be harmed, or that her father would be killed.

As a Wainer, she was vilified. She was the daughter of the man they called the ”baby killer”. As she recalls today: ”I was aware of the fact that we were Wainer children … and when I was in high school I knew that he may be killed. I thought he would be assassinated one day.”

Hers was no ordinary childhood. But Bertram Wainer was a man who lived no ordinary life, and a life of no ordinary consequence for those whose destinies were defined by his cause. They are women, in the main: his daughter and two wives among them – as well as countless other women for whom safe and legal abortion is now a right.

The Wainer name will resonate with older Victorians who recall who he was and what he did, even as younger women draw a blank, unaware that his life had consequences for them.

When they learn about him, as they can tonight by watching the ABC movie about Wainer’s war against illegal abortion, Dangerous Remedy, many will surely thank him.

Some may consider him a sinner. In common, though, they are likely to be shocked by the Victoria depicted through his story: the cops are corrupt, the politicians contemptuous. But it is ordinary women who are the criminals as well as the victims – humiliated, harassed, frightened and ever in danger of an even worse fate: death at the hands of an illegal abortionist.

Through this brutal landscape strides Bertram Wainer, a Scottish doctor who had had enough of a system that corrupted the medical profession as readily as it did the police force. He rallied support among sympathetic colleagues; he forced the issue into the media; he launched his own war against the corrupt police.

In the process, he became a folk hero to some and the Devil incarnate to others. But as the movie depicts it, and his daughter confirms, Wainer didn’t care what forces opposed him or how hopeless his cause or what dangers he faced.

”He was a very powerful man,” she says of her father, who was a doctor in the Australian Army before starting his private practice, ”a very strong man. When he walked into a room you knew he’d walked in. A huge presence.”

When Felice, a Fitzroy fashion designer, first saw the actor Jeremy Sims in character, she was stunned. ”I went to the movie set and I met him and I just couldn’t really look at him. My father had enormous charisma … this huge persona and big charisma and Jeremy had it.”

Felice herself features in several key scenes in the film, and she admits finding it difficult to watch her family’s life portrayed on screen. ”I had to watch it three or four times actually … we always get surprised that it’s our life,” she says. ”It seems strange when you watch it in a movie because when you’re actually living in it at the time, it’s quite normal. It’s surreal.”

And then there’s the time frame depicted on screen. In reality, the years covered by the film reflect a period of about 12 years, but as compressed for dramatic purposes it seems much shorter. ”Anyone who sees that movie is going to think, ‘She had a pretty full-on year’, but that was all spread over time.”

It would be a harrowing and confronting period to live through, whatever the time span. When Felice Wainer is asked to describe it in her own way, she starts by noting that she, her parents and her three brothers came to Melbourne from Queensland in 1961. Her father and her mother, Barbara, separated soon afterwards. Felice was only three.

”Dad had his clinic in St Kilda,” she says. ”And the rampage started from that point forward, and to be honest we didn’t really see him a lot. We couldn’t. It was too dangerous.”

”The rampage”, as she describes Wainer’s campaign, gathered pace, and his children had to adjust to an extraordinary life in which contact with their father was dictated not only by his hectic schedule, but by the growing danger to his safety.

”We used to have to ring three times and then hang up and then ring back so he’d know it was us and he could pick up the phone. He did make efforts to see us but it was always so clandestine or random, just turning up so that nobody would ever know. I think Barbara, my mother, was terrified. She didn’t let on to us.”

As Felice grew older, the danger intensified rather than eased. As she entered her teens and began spending more time with her dad at his home in Ivanhoe, Felice grew to understand that she and her brothers were also at risk.

”He was acutely aware of security. We had an incredibly secure house. I had an emergency alarm button beside my bed that would go off to a private security company. I’m sure the government thought they were taking on this little GP from Scotland. But he was a highly trained military man, my father. He was not a little suburban doctor, he was a highly trained man and he trained all of us quite well. He taught me never to walk on the side near the gutters. I learnt a lot about security for myself, about watching who’s around.

”When I lived with him it was scary. Lots of things happened. The house was built for security, we had really big dogs. I was a very scared child. I was aware of danger from when I was very young.”

She had also become slowly aware that her father was a figure of public notoriety, and over time he educated her as to the reasons.

”He was always on television. At six or seven I started to realise people knew who my father was, then I started seeing him on TV. I didn’t really get what he was doing, I just knew he was well-known in some way.”

When she went to high school, it became clearer. ”I went to Ivanhoe Girls Grammar … and the parents didn’t like me. I had a boyfriend who was Catholic and I wasn’t allowed to go into their house. I think I took it in my stride. It was just our life.”

In two key scenes in Dangerous Remedy, the young Felice brings the perspective of innocence to the abortion wars raging around her, asking her father if the women have done something wrong. Her father explains that sometimes ”there’s a reason they can’t have the baby and the pregnancy is terminated”. She replies: ”And the police don’t like that?”

And in one of the most confronting scenes, Wainer shows his daughter an aborted foetus in a jar – a moment meant to demonstrate that for all Wainer’s advocacy for legal abortion, he took no pleasure in his work. ”Take a look,” he demands of his daughter. ”Look at it. You tell me how good it is.”

His daughter asks: ”Why did you do that?”

Wainer: ”It’s the lesser of two evils, Felice, but that’s all it is.”

It might sound like a scene invented for a screenwriter’s convenience – a way of letting a lead character make a complex point in the most simple way possible. But this, or something very close to it, did indeed happen.

”He did do the foetus thing,” she says. ”I would have been 14. I’d gone to visit him at the clinic and out the front there were all the Right-to-Lifers and somebody grabbed my belt on my jeans and said, ‘That designer belt was bought with the death of a thousand babies’ or something, and I thought, ‘I worked in a milk bar to buy this belt’. So I went inside and I said to him, ‘What is all this about?’ He said, ‘Come with me’.”

Her father then showed her an aborted foetus – not in a jar, but through a microscope. ”There was all this blood and lumps of tissue … I said to him something like, ‘So they’re right, you are a baby killer?’ And he said, ‘Yes, and you need to think about that’. I was annoyed at him for a short amount of time but I started to reconcile what he’d said to me – that abortion’s a terrible thing, but it’s a necessary thing. I started to understand that.

”He never asked any of us to go along with what he was doing. And that is probably the best legacy he gave me. I don’t follow anyone’s rules but my own. I didn’t have to agree with him. If I’d become a born-again Christian he would have been cool with that.”

And it was in the decade that followed – as Wainer stepped back from the abortion wars, having largely achieved his goals – that Felice was to learn the most important lesson about her father: that as a doctor, he dispensed courage as effectively as he did any medicine.

She’d married young, at just 20, to an Italian model. They’d only been married a year when her husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness. It was a devastating blow, but her father made this his new and, as it turned out, final campaign.

”He was this tower of strength,” his daughter, now 51, recalls. ”He spoke to me every day. Every morning he’d ring me and every night and he’d visit me. He was extraordinary to my husband. I got really close to him. I loved his sense of humour, he was extremely funny, and had a totally mad sense of humour. All the things I knew about him that I guess people who didn’t like him couldn’t imagine. He was very funny. He was very compassionate.”

And then, as Felice faced the loss of her husband, suddenly her other rock was gone. ”He died in the midst of all of that. When he died it was horrific because I just needed him so much. It was not only losing a father, it was this person who was my rock. I was wrecked. A total mess.”

That was in January 1987. Wainer, one-time scourge of politicians and policemen and priests, was gone, farewelled at a funeral in the Melbourne CBD and no longer the enemy of the state of recent memory.

His daughter had last seen him a fortnight before, at a family dinner on New Year’s Eve. Exactly 25 years later, on New Year’s Eve 2011, she had her final words with her mother, Barbara, who died of leukaemia that day.

Her mother’s passing is still fresh; her father’s passing she can summon to mind as if it were yesterday. These, not the abortion debates, are the matters of life and death that Felice Wainer feels most keenly. ”My mother was my best friend. And I was great friends with my father. I was very lucky.”

But she knows why the state and the nation will remember him – and having seen his battles freshly depicted on film, she is happy to embrace that legacy. ”Impressed and proud, really,” she says. ”I’ve always been really proud about what he did.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.