tv

The true story of Cornelia Rau, the woman who inspired a gripping new ABC drama, Stateless.

ABC’s new six-part drama Stateless weaves together the stories of a number of characters.

There’s young father-of-two Cam (Jai Courtney), a newly employed guard at a detention centre, the centre’s general manager Claire Kowitz (Asher Keddie), Afghan refugee Ameer (Fayzzal Bazzi) who is fleeing persecution with his family, and the story of flight attendant Sofie Werner (Yvonne Strahovski), who has escaped a cult run by Pat (Cate Blanchett) and Gordon (Dominic West).

If that last story sounds familiar, it is because it is based on the real-life experience of Australian permanent resident Cornelia Rau.

The trailer for ABC’s Stateless, which is partly based on the story of Cornelia Rau. Post continues below video.

Video via ABC

The name Cornelia Rau, a German-Australian woman and former Qantas flight attendant, gained attention in 2005 after she escaped a controversial cult called Kenja, only to be held at the Baxter detention centre in South Australia as a suspected illegal immigrant.

Rau arrived in Australia with her family from Germany as an 18-month-old in 1967. She spent her childhood here, until they returned to Germany for two years in 1980. After a year in Indonesia, the family resettled in Sydney permanently in 1983.

Kenja.

For years, Rau was a Qantas flight attendant. In 1998, Rau took time off her job. She was showing the first signs of mental illness and in April of that year, she became involved with a Sydney sect named Kenja.

Cornelia Rau. Image: ABC.
ADVERTISEMENT

Kenja was established in 1982 by World War II veteran Ken Dyers and his partner, Jen Hamilton. At the core of the sect was a practice called Energy Conversion, which is described as a way to "permanently eliminate the suppressed emotion, thought or energy that can divert us from what we want to achieve".

Rau was involved with Kenja for six months. During that time, her family noticed her moods change. Her sister Chris told The Monthly, Rau attended a Kenja 'eisteddfod' in Melbourne on October 3 and 4.

What took place that weekend was reportedly known as the "confront". It involved airing her innermost secrets, gathered during Energy Conversion sessions, in a public forum without warning, The Monthly reported. Dyers berated her. It was this, according to Rau's family, that broke her.

On October 6, police picked her up driving erratically. She was taken to hospital and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but doctors later diagnosed her with schizophrenia.

Between 1999 and March 2004, Rau found herself in and out of hospital several times. She would vanish frequently, often venturing overseas. She refused to take prescribed medication because she disliked the side effects.

Eventually, Rau's doctors and her family scheduled a community treatment order hearing for March 18, 2004, which would have compelled Rau to take her medication, but the day before she discharged herself from Manly Hospital and disappeared.

Rau was reported as a missing person, but this information was limited to NSW.

Brisbane Women's Prison.

The next time Rau was spotted was on March 26, in Hann River at Cape York, in Far North Queensland, sitting on the side of the road. Locals were concerned for her safety and called Queensland Police.

abc stateless
Yvonne Strahovski plays Sofie Werner, a character based on Cornelia Rau, in Stateless. Image: ABC.
ADVERTISEMENT

There, Rau gave several versions of her story, identifying herself as Anna Brotmeyer and Anna Schmidt. She spoke in both English and German, claiming to be a tourist from Munich.

The police constable contacted the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA), which could not find any record of 'Anna's' arrival in Australia. She was questioned by police again, produced a stolen Norweigan passport, and was detained as a suspected unlawful non-citizen.

On April 2, Rau was visited by Iris Indorato, the honorary consul for Germany in Cairns. They spoke in German, and during their conversation it became clear to Indorato that Rau - who they then thought was named Anna - was unwell.

'Anna' was flown to Brisbane on April 5 and detained in the Brisbane Women's Correctional Centre. She was placed among the general prison population, though charged with no crime.

While in prison, Rau was met by Debbie Kilroy, who ran an organisation called Sisters Inside, to support women in prison. They first met in May, when Rau had been without medication for two months. She identified herself as Anna, but spoke fluent English with her Australian accent.

More than once, Rau asked Kilroy to contact DIMIA for her, to ask when she would be released from prison since she "had done nothing wrong". 'Anna' would try to contact DIMIA herself, but wasn't able to as she couldn't remember who she was.

DIMIA asserted it was Rau's responsibility to identity herself, not theirs.

It was clear to other prisoners and Kilroy that Rau was extremely unwell. German authorities had also confirmed no Anna Schmidt or Anna Brotmeyer was unaccounted for, and Rau spoke in perfect English. But yet, no one questioned her story about being an overstaying German tourist.

Rau did not undergo a psychiatric evaluation to have her mental health assessed until late August, during which doctors failed to diagnose her schizophrenia.

Baxter Immigration Centre.

By the end of September 2004, DIMIA officials planned to move Rau to the Baxter Immigration Centre near Port Augusta, South Australia. Rau refused to sign the transfer forms, but on October 6 she was transferred anyway - having to be sedated and restrained in order to get her on the plane.

abc stateless
Image: ABC.
ADVERTISEMENT

At Baxter, she paced. She stole food, had erratic mood swings and would strip off and wander half-naked around the centre.

Still, the centre's psychologist put her problems down to a personality disorder. Instead of treatment, she was punished, put in Red One - a compound of isolation cells, where she spent 18 hours a day.

On January 31, 2005, an article was published to The Age, titled 'Mystery woman held at Baxter could be ill':

"They (detainees) believe that she is mentally ill. Her unpredictable and bizarre behaviour, lack of communication and distress continue to worry them," said Pamela Curr of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne.

"She exhibits psychotic symptoms, screaming and talking to herself at times, and screams in terror often for long periods especially when locked in the cell."

The woman is allowed out for six hours a day. "Such is her terror of being put back into this cell that it takes six guards in full riot gear to manhandle her back into the room and close the heavy door," Ms Curr said.

Visitors have been unable to get a response from her.

Refugee advocates say the woman clearly needs psychiatric care rather than incarceration.

The article was seen by friends of the Rau family, who realised that the woman described in the article could be Cornelia Rau.

Her family contacted the NSW Police, who emailed DIMIA officials at Baxter with details and a photograph of Rau, allowing them to officially identify her.

Later that night, South Australia Police officers entered Baxter and removed Rau. She was transported to the nearby Port Augusta Hospital and, on the morning of 4 February, committed to the Glenside Hospital mental health facility.

Cornelia Rau's legacy.

After Rau was identified, the Federal Government launched an inquiry into the circumstances around her detention led by former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer.

The Palmer report was released in July 2005, and led to an apology to Rau from Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs Amanda Vanstone and Prime Minister John Howard.

Rau's liberation brought to light a number of wrongful detentions, including the unlawful deportation of Australian citizen Vivian Solon, who has a disability.

In a 2005 interview with 60 Minutes, Rau said she had lied to authorities about her identity because she feared being tracked down by Kenja.

“I didn’t want to get involved with that group again,” she said.

“It would have been known where I was and what I was doing and I just felt pretty vulnerable.”

Following her release, she said all she wanted was for Australians to understand she was unfairly treated.

“Well, I think it’s important that I get truth in this matter. That people understand that I’m a person who has been unjustly treated and that I’d like to have people respect that."

ABC's Stateless will tell a fictionised version of Rau's story, with The Handmaid's Tale's Yvonne Strahovski playing Sofie, based on Rau.

Cate Blanchett, who co-created the series, and Dominic West play the cult's leaders.

Stateless begins Sunday, March 1 at 8.30pm on ABC and iView.

00:00 / ???