We are in the process of upgrading software and the SDN website will be temporarily unavailable for a few hours on Monday morning EST. Once the software is upgraded, this notice will no longer appear and the site will be back to normal. We apologize for any inconvenience.
  • Image 1 of 40

Once Stolen, Always Stolen

Michael Weinhardt | New South Wales, Australia

"Rainbow" (left) checks in on Glen a few weeks after Glen returned home from hospital following his terminal liver cancer diagnosis. Rainbow is one of Glen's closest friends in the Tilba community that Glen and his wife, Merryn, call "our Tilba family". Being near that family was an important factor in Glen's decision to enter into palliative care at home instead of a clinical environment.

13 January 2019. Yuin Country (Central Tilba, NSW).

At 18 months of age, Wolithica Man Glen Atkinson was taken from his family, culture, and country and placed in an infant's home. This happened under former Australian policy that attempted to assimilate Aboriginal people into non-Aboriginal society. Those taken under this policy are collectively called the "Stolen Generations".

At 5, Glen was transferred to a children's home where he was sexually abused and suffered physical and mental abuse and humiliation for years.

As a teenager, he started drinking to forget what had happened and continued drinking heavily for most of his life.

In his 40s, he found the strength to make peace with his brutal past and start his healing journey. He somehow did and his life changed.

He subsequently found and married his soulmate, Merryn Apma-Atkinson, was given the love of a large family, had hundreds of friends, made a home, and was respected by his community.

Though Glen had stopped drinking, he could not escape its impacts. He was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in December 2018.

This story documents the final months of Glen's life.

The death of a person is much more than the moment of their passing.

Glen's story began decades earlier, by being born Aboriginal. I only came to the story a couple of weeks after Glen was diagnosed with his terminal illness, when Glen and Merryn asked me to document the last moments of his life.

Glen's prognosis was "days to a week" but he lived for almost 4 months longer than that. The story subsequently evolved, as it must, from day-to-day to week-to-week and month-to-month.

In the end, I saw this final part of Glen's journey as a poignant confluence and culmination of the two significant trajectories of his life, one tragic, the other exultant, the former because Glen was one of the Stolen Generations, the latter despite it.

He died from liver cancer, caused by decades of drinking to hide from the collective abuses he suffered after being stolen and because he was Aboriginal. The end of this dark, downward trajectory was the impetus for this story.

But Glen was also on an opposite, upward trajectory, one he wrestled for himself from the darkness when he was finally ready to heal.

Healing was important. Glen's longtime friend, Gunditjmara Singer/Songwriter Archie Roach, spoke about why.

"It was good to see two of us, Glen and me, who came through stronger, not bitter, not angry, not violent. And, as men, you know you have to deal with stuff like this [the impacts of being from the Stolen Generations]. You won’t forget it, but you’ve got to get rid of this bad stuff, you’ve got to let go, you’ve got to be strong for your families, your loved ones, for your own well-being." — Archie Roach

It was a years long journey for Glen, but he eventually found peace, love and friendship in the end. Hundreds of people came to his living wake, and hundreds more came before and after.

As sad as his passing was, there is also a satisfaction in knowing Glen had that love and respect at the end, and in knowing many people from all walks of life across Australia remember him.

There were so many people who came together for such a long time that only a longform story could be faithful to Glen's story. These photographs are excerpted from that story, "The Long Goodbye", which wonders if perhaps the measure of a man can be discerned by how long it takes to say goodbye to him.

This story was produced pro-bono and the longform version of The Long Goodbye is available as a free, downloadable digital book via my website.

Culture and Identity

It was Glen's preference to refer collectively to the first peoples of Australia using the term "Aboriginal"instead of "Indigenous" or "First Peoples".

All locations are given first by Aboriginal country then by non-Aboriginal country eg "Yuin Country (Central Tilba, NSW)".

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised this story includes images of a person who has passed away.

Content loading...

Make Comment/View Comments