Book review: Out of the Forest | Gregory Peel Smith

In 1989 Gregory Peel Smith walked into Goonengerry Forest near Mullumbimby NSW and stayed there for 10 years. He could no longer escape his pain by drinking and picking fights in pubs, engaging in destructive relationships with women, nor even the heroin addiction he had kicked six months earlier in Sydney. While his continued alcoholism and marijuana smoking while in the forest were a daily relief from horrific memories of the physical, emotional, sexual abuse he experienced throughout his childhood, the forest became the first place he didn’t have to run away from and where he could experience peace. It was also the place that kept him from the toxic pull of Tamworth to which he would inexplicably return each time he ran from another tormented chapter of his life.

Smith’s account of his painful childhood in 1950s Tamworth with violently abusive alcoholic parents, being dumped with his sisters into torturous abuse at the hands of Catholic nuns at St Patrick’s orphanage in Armidale, and ongoing abuse at schools and other institutions can be a difficult read at times. Yet ‘Out of the Forest’ is ultimately a hugely inspiring true story of Smith’s extraordinary survival in primitive conditions in a forest where he emerged a near starving, still alcoholic, marijuana addicted wild man, who had used his wits to fund his hermit lifestyle by growing and selling marijuana without anyone finding his camp site or crop.

Even more extraordinary was his will to not only survive when close to death and hallucinating in the forest, but to walk out of the forest, eventually give up alcohol and drugs, and make the choice to get an education on the Gold Coast, a testament to the intelligence he always knew he had. Gregory Peel Smith eventually got a PhD in Sociology and now teaches at Southern Cross University.

Smith is one of the many ‘Forgotten Australians’, children who were physically, emotionally and sexually abused in various institutions between the 1920s to the 1980s, and that makes his story an important read. While his is a story of extreme survival, many of those children didn’t survive the pain of their brutal pasts. This is a story that delivers hope to the ones who did.

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