Publication Date



Open access

Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PHD)


Interdisciplinary Studies (Graduate)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Steve Stein

Second Committee Member

Thomas Steinfatt

Third Committee Member

Anthony Allegro

Fourth Committee Member

Diane Millette


David Owen, Australian child abuse survivor‘s life story spanning seventy years, is a testament to “the will to survive.” Taken from his mother and sent to Neerkol, one of the most notorious government backed Catholic-run orphanages out in the desolate bush of Queensland, he was subjected to extreme abuse, emotionally, physically and sexually. Upon leaving Neerkol, this functionally illiterate young man became a professional Rugby League player and union organizer. He unexpectedly reunited with his mother and became a devoted son. Later in life he courageously challenged the powerful Queensland Government and Catholic Church. A fifty-two-page petition authored by Owen defending “The Rights of a Child” sits with the United Nations in Geneva. To date, all he has received is a televised public apology from both Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Pope Benedict XVI directed at all of the orphanage survivors for the horrors they suffered as innocent children while in institutional care. My interdisciplinary approach to the Owen story comes from a solid base of documentary filmmaking with BBCTV and PBS. As a freelance writer and producer enthralled with research, both historical and biographical, I jumped at the challenge of creating a culturally important cinematic narrative for the life of the Australian orphanage survivor David Owen. I understood that this would be a highly sensitive story of church and state’s sordid abuse of power. In order to play the politics of getting the story to the screen, I would need to adhere to a determined filmmaker’s credo, "Always respect the intelligence of your subject and audience. Whenever possible keep it kind and gentle, but most importantly, keep it honest and true.” The dissertation is comprised of three parts: a biography, written in the first person, recreating in detail the major moments of David Owen’s life story; a treatment that converts crucial parts of the biography into a seven-part T.V. miniseries designed to create maximum exposure for the story; and a “producer’s journal” that details the exhilarating ten-year endeavor in the creation of Stain on the Brain. The “biography” was initially created around a series of one-hour telephone interviews over a two-year period. The next portion of interviews were more personal, face to face, for a period of three months when David Owen came to the United States, producing fifty hours of tape. I traveled to Australia for an additional three months where David and I wrote a rough draft of the manuscript together. The biography is comprised of 27 chapters, along with an Australian linguistic glossary. The seven-part mini-series television treatment, taken from the spine of the manuscript, converts the biography into a dramatic series that incorporates crucial scenes from over seven decades of David Owen’s tumultuous life. The goal is to focus on these moments as decisive elements that explain both the protagonist’s personal development and the paths that his life eventually took. Key to the biographical narrative is the setting. In this case it is contemporary, but surrounded by a buried, lurid past of Australian history. A final important ingredient is the tease that convinces the viewer to stay tuned until next week. It uses a cliffhanger a glint of hope that there still is a chance for the underdog to win. The “producer’s journal” will explain a ten-year process of ups and downs. Continuous poor health as a Type 1 diabetic on an insulin pump constantly in and out of emergency rooms, financial ruin and losing my home and moving to Hollywood to write a treatment for a seven-part mini-series are highlighted mishaps and triumphs. Throughout final stages of this dissertation I have kept in touch with David Owen who, sadly enough, has given up the fight. He tells me, “Why don’t you just forget about it JJ. I’m just a busted, baldy old man waiting to go up to the ‘Valley of the Bones.’ I try to keep his spirits up and spout off, “You just can’t give up.”


David Owen; Neerkol; institutional child abuse; Queensland; Orphans of the Empire