Lifechanging: Out of the Forest, into study
GREGORY Smith's story so defies belief, it is hard to know where to begin.
Perhaps the beginning, where all extraordinary stories start.
Born in Tamworth in the 1950s and raised by a confused mother and an abusive alcoholic father, Gregory was doomed from birth.
Regular beatings from his father set the pattern for feelings of shame and low self-esteem. But nothing could have prepared the 10-year-old to be bundled into the car with his sisters, told by their mother they were going on an outing to their Aunt Muriel's, only to be dumped at an orphanage in Armidale.
The abuse continued, with the Sisters of Mercy showing anything but mercy, dealing out regular beatings and terrible punishments including locking the small boy in a dark cupboard under the stairs.
"It was a time in Australia (the 60s) when there was a lot of poverty, a lot domestic violence," Gregory said. "There was a perception that nobody interfered with another family. Abuses happened next door and people would feel uncomfortable, but they never interfered."
When his mother picked him and his sisters up from the orphanage almost two years later without explanation, his spirit was so broken he was convinced he had no place in society.
Taken out of school at 14, labelled as a 'simpleton' and sent to work at the local flour mill, Gregory's teenage years were a blur of petty crime, running away, and the inevitable confrontations with authorities. Later, when he was wrongly diagnosed as a sociopath, his descent into alcoholism and drug addiction led to homelessness and almost total isolation from society.
On one of his many treks to nowhere, ill and depressed, he found himself wandering into the forest in Northern NSW, going deeper and deeper without purpose or intent.
He did not come out of the forest until a decade later.
"Going into the forest to live was never a plan" he said. "I didn't just wake up one morning and think 'I'm going to go into the forest and live there.' Like so many other things in my life I just ended up in the forest."
For 10 years Gregory slept on ferns and lived on bats roasted over a fire. He brewed his own noxious beer from a creek, grew a few marijuana plants and ate magic mushrooms. On one terrifying occasion he killed and ate an enormous diamond python - after he woke to find it on his chest.
"It slithered off after is exploration of my body and I killed it and ate it," Gregory said. "I hadn't eaten for days."
The ensuing nightmares after the snake feast were so terrifying Gregory never touched a reptile again.
"The forest was a beautiful place, it was where I lived," he said. "I had a sense of belonging there, a sense of security. That stayed with me for quite some time. All my experiences outside of the forest were painful, everything I knew out of the forest was stigmatic, shameful."
During his ten years in the forest occasional ventures were made to the surrounding hippy markets to sell lizard skins and marijuana, and, with the little money he made, to get blind drunk at the local pubs. His long unkempt hair and a near-waist length beard gave him a wild man look which led to drunken fights and beatings.
"There was a certain amount of security to go out and make those sojourns into hippiedom and into bars, knowing that I had my forest to go back into," he said. "It was about killing the pain."
After a decade in the forest, Gregory began hallucinating about aliens and ancestors. His weight had dropped to just 40 kilos. He knew he was near death and it was time to leave, to go back and give society another chance.
With no plan or goal, he drifted around various locations from Tweed Heads to Byron Bay, sleeping in parks and on the beach, until one day sitting on a park bench he watched workmen erecting a building across the road. His curiosity piqued, he asked the workmen what they were building and when they replied 'a university' he knew he wanted in. Education, an inner voice told him, would be the key to going forward. From that moment, he decided never to take a drink or indulge in drugs again.
"That day I walked away from the park bench and past a church with a little sign that said, 'today is a gift that's why it is called the present.' That moment gave me inspiration to go on for another couple of weeks. I'd be frequenting the soup kitchens, or if there was a free cup of tea somewhere I'd be there, and somebody would say something that would hit home and that would build."
With no IT knowledge, Gregory knew the first step to education was to learn about computers. It turned out a free TAFE course wasn't quite the answer when he realised he had signed up to learn how to build computers.
But by this stage he was taking one small step at a time letting his thirst for learning and his natural and long-suppressed talent take him forward until he completed TAFE courses and was accepted at university, although he was still homeless. After a couple of mentors helped him find modest accommodation, he began his long, slow way back into society.
Today, at age 63, Dr Gregory Peel Smith, has a PhD and teaches Social Sciences at Southern Cross University.
"Routine is the centrepiece of my life now...ritual and routine," he said. "I do a lot of work, and spend a lot of time around the country, and give a lot of talks. It is a big difference to how I lived."
Part of Gregory's work involved studying The Forgotten Australians, those who like him were placed in institutions as children and have suffered terribly into adulthood.
"Hopefully my study will resonate with the broader public to shed light on the background of homeless people today," he said. "I am not alone in all this, there are so many people out there like I was. Learning and education is so important. Education helped me to become a part of society."
Dr Gregory Smith's extraordinary story is told in full in his memoir Out of the Forest, in bookstores now. He will be in Brisbane to talk about his book and life:
Redcliffe Library, June 12, 7pm
Avid Reader, June 13, 6pm