Emerging from the forest to reclaim his life: Dr Gregory Smith talks to Australian Story
It’s one of those inspiring tales where the truth is more remarkable than fiction. From abused child to homeless alcoholic who retreated into the wild for a decade, Gregory Smith has since achieved two university degrees with Southern Cross University and a book deal. Now he shares his journey with ABC’s Australian Story.
Watch ‘Out of the Woods’ the Australian Story episode first broadcast on Monday September 3 at 8pm on ABC TV and ABC iView.
For most of his life, Gregory Smith struggled to fit in let alone articulate the trauma of what had happened to him as a result of a violent upbringing and being sent to institutional care after the break-up of his family.
“It’s only through the process of a university education that I developed the language to be able to relate my story. Prior to that they were just frustrations in my consciousness,” he said.
Exhausted and unwell by years of living off the land and sleeping rough, Gregory was in his late forties when he finally emerged from the forest in northern NSW, ready to change his life. He went to Southern Cross University and gained an undergraduate degree in social science followed by a PhD which investigated how the experience for Forgotten Australians of institutional life (his own lived experience) has impacted on their lives as adults. He now works at Southern Cross as an academic.
Gregory’s educational outcomes are all the more remarkable considering his self-belief was dealt a blow at the age of 14 by the assessment that he was "functioning at the lower level of the dull range".
His story inspires not only his students at Southern Cross, where he graduated with the academic title Dr, but moved and enthralled thousands of listeners who tuned into Conversations with Richard Fidler two years ago. This year, Penguin Books Australia published his memoir ‘Out of the Forest’.
Gregory recounts the initial approach by his Penguin publicist Sophie Ambrose: “I didn’t see the point of another dark book sitting on shelves gathering dust. There’s enough trauma out there. But Sophie didn’t give up. Took about eight months but she convinced me.”
As expected, the memoir resonated with readers at each book launch around the country and most recently at the Byron Writers Festival.
Kerry Pritchard, one of his students who features on Australian Story, said: “Gregory represents the capacity for transformation against all odds and a real triumph over adversity. How to take the crap in life and grow beautiful things out of it."
Gregory believes the two most powerful things in anyone’s life are education and health.
“I believe that education is the most powerful tool on the planet to work with any of us dealing with homelessness, mental illness and poverty. Now I get to work in education, how cool is that? I’m actually participating in what I believe in and facilitating that change for other people. What else could you ask for?
“And I’m not shy is saying that I’m very grateful to Southern Cross for that opportunity. The other thing I don’t mind saying is that it is Southern Cross, because if I had gone to another institution there would be different outcomes, I have no doubt about that.”