An inquisitive late bloomer, Barbara is a tenacious and fearless creator of a wondrous family, a number of books, and films. Her story is like a film itself, from being forcibly adopted to tragically losing her birth mom, to the intensely emotional films she makes with her husband, and her new fascination with a village that fell under the spell of witchcraft 100 years ago. She shows us one can make a remarkable life if one is paying attention to what matters to them, at any age.
“Life is short but wide. You can fit a lot in.”
You never went to college when you were young, yet you have 2 books, films, and are now in grad school. Could you connect the dots on this journey for us?
Life is short but wide. You can fit a lot in. I had three daughters early and committed myself to mothering. I became a single parent for seven years. We all know there are easier paths. Add in another marriage of short duration and a fourth daughter. It took a while to get myself together.
But nothing is ever wasted. One thing always leads to another. I set up a magazine store at a time when there were few international publications in New Zealand. I ran sponsorship for a TV game show, event managed the first Pacific Island cultural festival, set up an independent cinema, and started writing out of desperation. I found I could sell op-eds and articles reasonably easily (pre-internet). This led to longer-form writing, making documentaries, and now, books. I acquired a stepdaughter along the way.
Somehow my five daughters survived me as their mother. They are all adults, three with their own kids. There’s an idea that you have to do things in the right order. I’m doing it backwards and peaking late.
Satanists and Witchcraft in New Zealand
What’s with the interest in Satanists and witchcraft in NZ?
There’s a fascinating book called Islands of the Dawn: The Story of Alternative Spirituality in New Zealand by Robert S Ellwood. He discusses why unconventional spiritual movements flourish here. An amalgamation of do-it-yourself pioneer culture, social reform, and isolation. Beneath our conventional skins, we’re a very esoteric country.
I understand you are working on a book about these people. How did Satanism get to a lovely place like NZ?
I’m working on The Mystifications as part of a masters at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University in Wellington. The manuscript is about the daughter of the leader of the secretive occult order, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. They arrived from London in 1912. Within a few months, one third of the villagers had converted to their sect. I live a few miles from the village and there’s still a cohort of believers, most of them very elderly.
“It seems like she has chosen me to write her story”
Why these people? The moment I read about them I felt the pull towards the daughter, Nora Ethelwyn Felkin. She exists in name only and there is nothing written about her. It seems like she has chosen me to write her story, waiting to come out from the shadows of her father. Waiting for me to grow old, for my house to empty, for my passions to reduce. Waiting through my marriages, divorces, friends and lovers. Through my four children and endless cooking and cleaning. All those untrained dogs and incontinent cats. The pet rats and the shape-shifting axolotl. All the chaos of my life. She died in 1962. But here we are, working together on a book.
The Legacy of Forced Adoption
You were taken from your mom in what I understand was a forced adoption. Tell us about how you found your mom, and then tragically lost your mom.
My mother and I were separated at birth. It was 1960 and she was single. Anglicans and Catholics established a strong market in fresh new babies for good, married, infertile couples. They partnered with conservatives within government and created laws that forced single women to relinquish their children. During the peak years, more than 103,000 New Zealand mothers lost their babies. Today that legacy means one in three New Zealanders has a direct connection to forced adoption.
I think of NZ as being so enlightened, but these forced adoptions still go on?
The law that enabled forced adoption is still in place, and still rigorously applied, although the target mother has shifted. Today they are called “uplifts.” The mothers are young and single, caught in poverty and, for the most part, Maori.
The law is so rigid that those taken from their mothers have no right to the files held on them. We must live out our lives under false identities with falsified birth certificates, all connection to our history, extended families, and blood ties severed for life. If the files were opened they would reveal a systematic pattern of child trafficking by the state and religious organizations.
“Gaining access to my birth files was long and drawn out”
Were you able to locate your birth parents?
The process of finding my mother, before DNA, was convoluted and ended tragically. After a number of false leads, finding my father took another thirty years. He had passed away a few years before. Gaining access to my birth files was long and drawn out. In the end, a mistake made by a social worker, determined to block my access, enabled me to access my files. I became one of a handful of people in New Zealand who have succeeded.
A Personal Account of Adoption
You have written a book on this that is out in Sept called Tree of Strangers. Could you give a glimpse into that and what your purpose was in writing it?
As a society, we love the feel-good adoption story. And yet every adoption is founded on loss. Without loss there would be no adoption. The truth behind all those sparkly, happy adoption memes and advertisements is a multi-million-dollar industry built on the commodifying of children. We still believe one set of arms is as good as another. We still think of babies as warm dough. We assume that if you are pre-verbal there is no trauma in losing your mother. We still couch it in terms of needy children and the good deeds of those who save them. When the issue is needy mothers. Yet we still coerce and shame women into relinquishing their babies, convincing them that people with greater means are better parents. The majority of adoption then and now is based on social and structural inequality.
I wrote Tree of Strangers (Massey University Press, September 2020) to give voice to the experience of being an adopted person.
How long have you been married? Do you work regularly with your husband?
Tom Burstyn and I have been together 21 years. Our interests have shifted over time so we work together less now. Currently he’s making Iggy in Love, a film about his father, his mother, and the ghost of his father’s lover.
Where is the town you live in? What is quarantine like there?
We live in Napier, a small, Art Deco town on the East Coast of the North Island of New Zealand. Quarantine here is very strict. You can walk around your neighborhood and go to the supermarket. That’s it. Everything is shut down. A strange time for the whole world.
Emotionally Fearless Filmmaking
There are two incredibly beautiful and emotionally fearless films you have made with your husband. They share a wonderful visual vocabulary and directness. What attracts you to a subject for making what must be all-consuming film projects? How do you get so close to these people, especially the Maori horse family?
Thank you. We are very slow filmmakers. Both films took nearly four years to make. We are drawn to authenticity. We work without a crew. Just the two of us. We use only natural light and we take our time. If we miss a shot, we let it go. With This Way of Life we would often spend time with the family, without our camera. We trust in the gods of documentary. And it helps that Thomas Burstyn has made well over 100 films and television shows as a cinematographer.
You have an amazingly creative family. Is it true one of your daughters was on the cover of Italian Vogue, and is now herself a filmmaker? Please tell us about your family.
That would be Lili Sumner. She lives in New York and is having a great career in the fashion industry. She’s a talented writer and director. Her first short film Lucan Asks Why was part funded by Gucci. She has an online show in production and a couple of great scripts ready to go. My oldest daughter is a journalist, one works in animal rescue, another is an industrial designer, and one is a television producer.
Besides ghosts, Satanists, and witchcraft, tasty topics no doubt, what else are you interested in?
Adoption reform, naturally, and broader issues of social justice.
I am guessing the kids are out of the house? That must free up a lot of energy and ambition. What are you looking at in the future as far as challenges to be conquered?
Three of our daughters live nearby and they each have two kids, so we all spend a lot of time together.