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FEATURE - How Did Mary’s Garden Grow?




Life can be like a garden - we hope for fertile soil and clement weather to grow and bloom, but sometimes the earth is scorched or over-saturated, weeds appear, and it takes perseverance and adaptability to survive…


by Gay Liddington


Memoirist and biographer, Mary Garden, published her first book The Serpent Rising after her experience of living in a cult in India. I posed the question of why people might become involved with such groups?


“Born in the early 1950s, I grew up in a dysfunctional family in New Zealand. My mother, a nurse, was a slave to Dad and his controlling ways and became depressed.”


In her twenties, Mary struggled through university until her own depression caused her to drop out. She went to Auckland and worked as a teacher.


“My depression deepened, but I had no concept of what was happening and didn’t talk about it. At 21, on an impulse, I checked out a yoga ashram in the suburbs.


“I was looking for community, for the family I never had, a place where I felt safe and the ashram ticked all the boxes. In the beginning, it was life changing, but still I searched for answers.”


Seeking solace from her turbulent inner world, Mary travelled to India where she stayed for much of seven years.


“I spent most of the time in the Himalayas with this cult guru. I was lucky to come back alive. On my return to Australia, I arrived in Brisbane.”


A Chinese proverb says, ‘a child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark’. Mary’s marks were deeply imprinted and the childhood that had catapulted her into a cult remained unresolved.


“Dad was an aviator and in 1930, with only 39 flying hours behind him, he flew his Gipsy Moth from London’s Croydon aerodrome. Eighteen days later, he landed at Wyndham, Western Australia, his flight the third fastest after the veteran aviators. The press dubbed him ‘Sundowner of the Skies’ which became the title of my second book released in 2019.


“When Dad retired from aviation in New Zealand, he became a tomato grower. I hardly had anything to do with him because when he came in from work, we all had to be quiet. He was like an invisible figure.


“For much of my childhood, my younger sister, Anna, and I lived outside in an old army hut. Later in life, I wondered why my parents had placed us so far away from the main house.


“I was about seven when I took on a parenting role for Anna, who showed clear signs of mental illness, but my parents didn’t get her any help. I was embarrassed about my sister who used to erupt into rages and attack me. However, I escaped into books and work.


“Mum and I laboured for Dad as he would sack his workers or they would leave. Whilst at primary school and later, I worked weekends packing tomatoes, weeding, lawn mowing and helping Mum.”


After Mary’s experiences in India, Brisbane offered a safe place where she married, had two children and wrote The Serpent Rising published in 1988. After a time, Mary didn’t cope well with city life and in ’89 with two children in tow, she moved to Maleny.

“On that first morning waking up in our rental house in Witta, I looked at the cows and paddocks and thought I was in heaven. I joined Black Possum Publishing Cooperative set up by author Jill Morris, creating community anthologies.


“After my marriage ended, I bought a place in Crystal Waters, being an alternative community, still seeking that sense of family which had sent me to India.”


At this point, I asked Mary about her latest book, My Father’s Suitcase.


“In January 2023, I felt compelled to write about my sister. The words just poured out. About this time, Prince Harry’s book Spare was released. I read it and thought, this is my story too. It’s not about sibling rivalry, it’s sibling abuse.


“We were born into the trauma and baggage of my mother and father. My mother hauled her suitcase of sadness around, but we were most impacted by my father’s emotional baggage. My Father’s Suitcase, a title suggested by writer Carmel Bird, is a metaphor for baggage.


“Two major threads in my book are sibling abuse and mental illness because my sister suffered from Schizoid Affective Disorder. During my book tour, I’ll be doing library events for mental health.”


I asked if writing this latest book has helped free herself from the baggage?


“I’d done a lot of therapy around my sister (who has since died) before I started this book but writing a memoir helps heal, takes away shame and you start to see things that you’ve missed or that you haven’t understood, so the writing is this extraordinary process of gaining clarity. Through the writing, I became quite compassionate towards my sister.


“This book is like a reckoning. While I’m giving a voice to silent sufferers of sibling abuse, the main roar is standing up to all those people who are bystanders, those who support the perpetrators, like those who excused my sister.


“Memoirs make people feel less alone.”

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