Conversation: On the other side of the institute - Anne Henderson, author, wife and mother
By Kathleen Carmody
Anne Henderson (pictured) has many strings to her bow. Her children may have grown up and left home, but the author, executive, ex-teacher, newspaper contributor, wife and mother, is busier than ever. Already the author of four books, and co-editor of another, she has a book coming out next year on the life and death of Sr Irene McCormack.
Anne is heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the Sydney Institute, which she heads up with her husband Gerard Henderson, organising speakers and functions and editing the institute’s quarterly The Sydney Papers. And she still has time to churn out the occasional article for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian or The Canberra Times.
So how does a woman, who just over 10 years ago was a schoolteacher, better known as ‘Gerard Henderson’s wife’, become a high-profile author, speaker and commentator in her own right?
Anne says that she had been teaching for 17 years and was looking about for something else to do when the opportunity arose to do some work with the recently launched Sydney Institute.
“Gerard was about to do some work on a book … and had some money for a researcher so it was my big chance to move from school teaching – which a lot of school teachers look forward to doing eventually,” she recalls.
“So I went in firstly to do some work with Gerard as the researcher on the book, but then I found myself more and more working with the institute and, after a year, I just became part of the institute.”
Husband and wife are director and deputy director respectively of the Sydney Institute, a privately funded think tank which holds weekly discussions on a wide range of subjects that are then written up in The Sydney Papers. The discussions are wide-ranging – education, the republic, the environment, drugs – if it’s a matter of public interest, it’s probably been debated at the Sydney Institute.
The institute is bipartisan and, while Anne and Gerard, are careful to retain their objectivity in their guise as “the Sydney Institute”, points of difference quickly rise to the surface behind closed doors.
“He calls me the Sydney Institute’s ‘lefty’,” Anne laughs. “I’ve always been that. I would probably be more likely to question things that are mainstream; I’m more likely to stir the pot a bit – privately, anyway.”
One issue they do agree upon is immigration – that Australia’s quota of migrants and refugees should be increased and asylum seekers welcomed.
“We should,” she says, “let a lot of those genuine refugees that are finding their way to Indonesia or wherever, these boat people, into Australia if they’re genuine refugees.
“First, they’re got an interest in the country and, second, as with the Vietnamese boat people, once processed and found to be genuine, they’re usually people who are fairly bright, intelligent, care for their kids, they’re the kind of people who are looking for freedom – they’re not going back to fight for the Taliban. And they’re usually not very well off either.”
Anne’s interest in immigration and refugees certainly isn’t recent. Her first book, From All Corners: Six Migrant Stories, tells the story of a disparate group of female migrants who had come to Australia at various times over the last 70 years. She says the genesis of the book was a simply personal interest in recording the stories of a few of her friends and acquaintances.
“It was really because there was a woman, Lily, the partner of our electrician,” she says. “She got out of southern China early in the 1950s after China became communist.
“I also interviewed my Hungarian friend who came out after the Hungarian revolution, became a Dominican nun and then left, and did a science degree and is now married.
“And there was my friend, this old Italian woman, who she came out in the 1930s to Victoria with her sister because of Mussolini. Then there was a friend I shared a house with who is now a Carmelite nun – Lila. She came out from England as a ten pound immigrant in the 1960s. And there were my two Vietnamese foster sisters.
“I realised I had six women who all came to Australia as single women, so I told each one’s story, three Asians and three Europeans; and then there was me. It all became a sort of micro vision of Australia because we’d all got to know one another because they came to Australia, and I got to know them and all their cultural background and they got to know Australia.”
Anne’s latest book, The Killing of Irene McCormack, tells the story of the Josephite missionary from Perth who was shot by Peruvian terrorists in 1991. Her research took her from Perth to the mountaintops of Peru – the scene of the crime – a frightening experience.
“Before we got there I was terrified! I used to think ‘what am I doing?’ because everyone used to terrify you about the terrorists.” She describes the nun’s story as “fascinating”.
“I just tried to put it all together and also some of her own background. Because there are things about her that are very Australian and very typical of her generation – why she stayed a nun, whether she had any doubts about being a nun, why she went to the mission. She had to learn Spanish – and why would anyone do that? Good question even now; why would anyone even do that?”
The book comes on the heels of Mary MacKillop’s Sisters, a book about the “Brown” Josephite order and the women who answered Mary McKillop’s call. Anne says she was drawn to the story because the focus had been so much on the saint and not on the order. She adds that it was also a chance to tell a “good news” story about nuns.
“I was getting a bit tired of hearing that endless alienated story about how nuns were all monsters, and people were badly treated and all of that. There’s an element of truth, but I think it’s been exaggerated.”
Anne denies that she has an obsession with nuns. She says instead that she has an interest in the preservation of history – particularly the history of ordinary people.
“In Catholic history again and again, we always honour the archbishops and the popes, up in the cathedral; I don’t resent that, but who remembers the parish priest? Who remembers the sisters?”
Her relationship with her husband appears to have come full circle. They met when they worked together in a Melbourne bookshop in 1965. For much of the early part of their marriage they were separated, with Gerard working as a political adviser in Canberra and Anne and the children in Melbourne. Their moments together were limited to weekends. The separation, says Anne, was horrible.
Now they are working together again – something some couples might find difficult, but which Anne says is a breeze. “It’s really easy because if I want to tell him I’m not happy I just do it. When you’re with a boss who isn’t related to you, you’ve got to kowtow and be nice.”
In some relationships, people could not work together. “It it would ruin their private life,” she adds. “Gerard and I have always been politically active, so home conversations have always involved current affairs.
“When Gerard worked for politicians I was just as interested in what he was doing as he was. It’s just the same now with whatever’s going on in politics.
“We’re doing this because we’re both interested in this, this is our creation,” Anne concludes.