Port Augusta, South Australia. The town is filled with small aluminum government-funded housing, each identical in simplicity and barrenness to one another. The roads are wide and ordered, but empty of cars and people. The community could be mistaken for a film set of a carefree Australian town with the picturesque Flinders Rangers in the backdrop and Spencer Gulf dividing the east from the west. The Port Augusta Council webpage advertises it as “the crossroads of Australia”.
It’s hard to believe there is unfathomable death and grief, lingering beneath this pristine surface. After more than two centuries of indigenous struggles, a new type of violence has grown on Australian shores: Aboriginal suicide, particularly among young males.
Suicide and death from ”non-natural” causes pervades this seemingly quiet town. With a population of just 13,400 — 2200 of which are Aboriginal — an Aboriginal funeral takes place at least once a fortnight. Sometimes, more often. In Port Augusta, people lose track of funerals and deaths.
Parents and elders of the community are in a state of disbelief, unable to comprehend the reasons why their young men are taking their lives in droves. They grapple with the reality and try to contain the epidemic that is devouring their young.
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At 19, Arron Lester was a popular and budding musician. He was studying music at Adelaide University for a year and a half when he wandered out the back door of his family home in Port Augusta at about 11am on the November 11, 2010, to hang himself in his family’s shed. He was discovered by his younger brother Bully soon after.
Recounting the events of the 24 hours before Arron’s death, his parents are still baffled. Arron played soccer with his father, Leonard, and Bully the evening before. “We came home all happy, you know. We had been laughing and mucking around and I went to work the next day,” Leonard Lester recalls.
The following day started like any other. Arron woke up at around 10am, showered, and then his mother, Noeleen Lester, asked him to help her fix her laptop. Over and over. But he did not respond verbally to her repeated demands. He was in a trance-like state.
Noeleen Lester did not pick up that anything was wrong with Arron’s behaviour because it happened over such a short time frame. Her attention was also diverted by her daughter and granddaughter’s visit. Other members of the family and friends were home too. It was just another Monday morning in the Lester household.
Noeleen Lester says she and her husband have tried to work it out. “We went over and over what happened that morning and went through the whole scenario inside and out. I was communicating with him and he was responding but he was not verbally communicating back to me. He was deep in thought. He would respond but he wasn’t there,” she says.
“He followed my directions but he didn’t once answer me. I had my laptop on the table and I said ‘son, come here look at mum’s laptop. What do you think I should do, do you think I should take it to the office shop and get them to look at it?’ Normally he would just look at it and click a few buttons and away it would go and it would be fixed. He would be standing there looking at the computer and he wouldn’t say anything or actually do anything. He was just standing there looking at it.
“But because it happened in such a short space of time it didn’t alert me that anything was wrong. He just wanted to walk out the back door. Three times I stopped him from going out the back door, just subtly, because I just would be like ‘son don’t go out there, just wait I want you to look at this computer’.”
Leonard Lester thinks to this day that Arron may have even been sleep-walking due to his mental and emotional detachment. “Some people can be up and cook a meal or drive a car when they are sleepwalking,” he says, a quiet desperation in his voice,” he says.
But Arron had never slept-walked before; had never taken sleeping tablets; and was not a drug user. He was the sensitive guy that all his friends went to when they had a problem. His music was his life and he adored his family.
Aboriginal hip-hop artist James Alberts, 26, met Arron when he was 16 in one of the community workshops Alberts leads, that encourages Aboriginal boys to express themselves through hip-hop.
“I met this young fella — he just blew me away with his attitude and energy. He was a guitarist, a songwriter, a singer and a rapper. He had this enthusiasm; he had such a good head on his shoulders and he just wanted to do so much. I had been doing workshops for four years and I had never seen someone like that before,” says Alberts.
“After, I made sure I kept in touch with him. I never thought that he would do that — he was so caring, always looking out for everyone else and he seemed so strong for such a young age as well. I thought this kid had the strongest head and heart that I knew.”
At the time of his suicide, Arron was mapping out an Aboriginal youth program with the help of his mentor Steve Carter for The Graham “Polly” Farmer Foundation. Alberts said everyone close to Arron, particularly his family, can’t make sense of his actions, even one year on.
“It is still a mystery. No one really knows. It’s kind of tough and none of us saw it coming a mile away. We are all still scratching our heads about it,” says Alberts.
Noeleen and Leonard Lester work at Centacare Catholic Family Services as family mediators for the Aboriginal community. They have empathy, understanding of relationships, and patience. Both are kind, warm-hearted parents and have become even closer to each other since their son’s death. They run support programs for other families and parents.
Noeleen and Leonard Lester are the kind of parents who seem to only exist in the fictional realm of the picture perfect 1950s TV family sitcom. A son that committed suicide under their watch in their home is difficult to imagine, let alone believe.
“When I got the news I just ran home. I just ran out of the office down the road. Got there just after the ambulance did,” says Leonard Lester.
Despite the high level of pressure faced by Aboriginal communities, particularly with the frequency of death and suicide, Noeleen and Leonard Lester have adapted to the situation and brought their children up believing in open dialogue, unconditional love and guidance. “One thing as parents in our family is that we definitely instilled in our children communication, good communication. We always kept open communication with our children,” Arron’s mother explains.Arron, like all Aboriginal members of the community, had witnessed an array of death. Three of his classmates in high school committed suicide in the past three years. When Arron was a very young boy, two of his second cousins suicided. Arron’s aunt, his “elder mother”, also died from cancer in recent years.
“When we felt the loss of our son we were just left shocked because we couldn’t understand it ourselves because we were a very open, very communicative family. We were very aware of suicide and every time there was a death or suicide in the family, or a suicide in the community and it affected our family, we always spoke openly to our children,” says Noeleen Lester. “We always debriefed with our children and we would listen to their feelings and we would always try to debrief with them the best way we knew as parents.”
At the time of his death, Arron was experiencing problems typical of many 19-year-old Australian males: he felt girls didn’t like him: he had experienced a few rejections; he had feelings of inadequacy about his musical ability and talent, natural to anyone pursuing a career in the entertainment industry; he was self-conscious of his short stature; and he didn’t have a disposable income to keep up with his big city peers. Arron, like many teenagers, was trying to figure out his identity — being Aboriginal made this even more complex.
“Arron made a comment at a very early age and it’s a comment that’s stuck with me,” Noeleen Lester says. “As a lot of children do, they grow up with TV and they grow up with their favourite TV characters. I asked him, like all parents ask their children ‘what are you going to be when you grow up son’? He said: ‘I’m going to be a white actor or a black footballer’. And I said ‘well you’re half way there, son’.”
The Lester family is a blended family. Noeleen Lester is an Aborigine from the Adnyamathanha people of the Flinders Rangers. Leonard Lester’s father is white and his mother is a Native American. Since he met and married Noeleen, Leonard Lester has been accepted as a member of the Aboriginal community.
Leonard Lester says: “I think identity is an issue for our young men. When your culture is lost and you’re not exposed to who you are and what group you belong to, or you don’t know well, then that’s a big thing. The thing is, Australia has this white culture that’s imposed itself — it’s our way and you got to do things our way. We are familiar with it and we are part of it and it’s our DNA but for some of our Aboriginal people, they still struggle with it.
“The Aboriginal kids now go to university. Arron went to university and he’s got to make a niche for himself — how is he going to do that?”
Many Aboriginal youth are born into a legacy of grief, hardship, of the Stolen Generations, of racism, cultural loss and endless deaths. “In the Aboriginal community, there is so much compounded grief — it’s like peeling back the layers of an onion — there’s just so many layers and it goes back 200 years,” Noeleen Lester explains.
“I think in Aboriginal families, we don’t realise how much our children are exposed to grief and we don’t realise how much it is affecting our children. They are exposed to family members’ grief. It’s not just the passing of a loved one once a month — it could be the passing of a loved one every week or every fortnight. There is just compounded grief in the Aboriginal community.”
Leonard Lester says: “I grew up white until I was 20 and I started meeting Aboriginal people and I saw the injustice and inequality. Australians have a disdain or contempt for Aboriginal people and I don’t know why. We don’t realise it’s there but it is, and there is still a bit of anger and rebelliousness because of history.”
Unlike white Australians, there is talk among the community of Aboriginal males of a haunting by a black shadow, urging them to harm themselves. Arron himself complained of seeing a black shadow soon after he left to go study in Adelaide. “He started to tell us that he could see a shadow in his room, a dark shadow. We didn’t dismiss it and we talked about it but we never really followed it up,” Leonard Lester says.
Many within the community have stories of shadows terrorising Aborigines to an early-premeditated death.
“In the Aboriginal realm, there is a spiritual world where I guess Aboriginals could see shadows or I guess a loved one that has passed on and that happens quite frequently in the Aboriginal realm,” Noeleen Lester explains. “He did describe the shadow as an elderly man crouching down in the corner. He was always sleeping with the light on. I remember telling him one time that if he was afraid of this shadow, I said ‘so son leave the light on’ so that he could have some rest.”
After an hour-and-a-half, the composed Noeleen Lester can no longer take the topic of her son’s suicide calmly. She raises her voice in anger. She is unrepentant: “Suicide is a silent killer, ’cause there was people home at the time — myself, and his brother and his sister — and he just decided to walk out the back. It’s a very silent killer. You never expect it.
“I just keep telling myself suicide is so preventable even though it’s out of our control, it’s just unacceptable. It’s unacceptable, suicide is. That’s what I wanted to say.”
Leonard Lester: “If one message we can get across is to get people to really think about the impact it leaves behind. That’s what I try to say to some of the fellas I say ‘if you’re really going think of it, you got to think of the questions in your mind, of your family’.”
Soon after their son’s suicide, Noeleen Lester became enraged at Arron for causing her and her family so much pain; for not talking to them about whatever the issues were that he was struggling with. And most of all, for leaving her with just a void to tell off, not a son.
“It was pretty soon after, I just took a lone drive and just screamed and shouted at him at the top of my voice and just told him right off. I felt better. I felt better afterwards and that’s the only way I could deal with that anger at the time. I can’t stress it enough that it is preventable and it is unacceptable,” she says.
*Tomorrow in this four-part series on Aboriginal suicide rates: another tragic case of suicide from Port Augusta. Kate Horowitz presented this work as part of masters assessment.