Sexual abuse has cast a shadow over my family’s life. I was abused as a child and a teenager by three men I am too afraid to list, my mother was abused as a child, my siblings were abused and my young cousin was abused for years by our uncle. And somehow of all the stories, the last one is the story that has held the tightest grip on me. I didn’t think I could talk about it before, but now, with the encouragement from my cousin and my family, I am talking about this openly in hope it can help others. Often the hardest things to say are the things that need to be talked about the most.
This particular story has many parts and this is only mine. Not the most significant part, but nonetheless real.
It was a summer afternoon and I was sitting with my three girl cousins in a circle on my sister’s bedroom floor. I was visiting my hometown and I was so happy to be reunited with them again. Throughout my teen years I had looked after them almost every weekend and it was bittersweet to see how much they’d grown in the short time since I’d left home to chase my dreams.
They had something to tell me and I waited patiently while they gathered courage, whispering secrets in each other’s ears. Then the stories came tumbling out all at once, like nightmares retold in the middle of the night. Stories I can’t repeat. This sweet little girl I have loved and known her entire life had been hurt and raped for years by someone we all deeply trusted.
I felt sick but I calmly urged them to tell their Mother. The youngest of the sisters began crying, “I am scared I am next” and so I took her into my arms as I had so many times before and I promised her she wasn’t, that it wouldn’t ever happen again, that everything would be okay. My words felt empty in my mouth and I didn’t feel nearly as big or as strong as they saw me.
I am ashamed to say I so desperately wanted it not to be true that it took me weeks to call their Mother. I had kept my own abuse secret in the past, under the impression that it was my fault for being a ‘pretty’ girl. I thought the men just couldn’t help what they did and I didn’t want to hurt anyone by telling, besides, I thought it wasn’t such a big deal. But it dawned on me that this was much darker than anything I’d experienced and I needed to help stop it from ever happening again. Under the weight of the knowledge it would tear apart our family, I picked up the phone. When I finished speaking to my auntie I knew it was the right thing to do. They went to the police.
The detective on my cousin’s case sent me email after email begging me to testify and when I never replied she began calling me. I cried to M, that I was being torn apart and I couldn’t do anything about it. My silence was a betrayal to my cousin and my family and my words were a betrayal to my Uncle. My Mother cried to me that she just wanted to invite him around for coffee. In our heads we couldn’t separate the kind, sweet man we knew from the monster he had secretly been, because he was both. But we also felt great aching pain for the girl we loved with all our hearts. A little while later she did invite him around for coffee but the police were waiting for him there.
Then I stayed with Megan and their daughters. Earlier in my life she’d always been in my Uncle’s shadow and so I missed her light. Here was this unbelievably strong woman, who was pregnant with their third child when he was arrested for abusing her niece, now raising three girls on her own. Just by being with her and the girls made me realise I needed to be brave too, I needed to testify. It was the very least I could do. And so I answered the phone and before I knew it I was staying in a bare little hotel room across from the police station, terrified of what was to come.
During those days, memories played like films on repeat in my head. Late night drives with my arm dangling out the window, a cigarette dangling out of his mouth and my favourite songs playing too loudly on the radio. Bleaching one other’s hair bright yellow in the motel bathroom. Him throwing me high into the clouds above the pool, where time stood still for a magic moment. Staying up past midnight eating pizza and too many sweets and watching the movies I’d picked out at the video store. Him sneaking me wine on Christmas day and laughing about inside jokes only we understood.
He truly believed I could be anyone and he told me so. Once he promised if I wasn’t smoking by the time my 18th birthday came around he’d give me $500, but when I was 18 I knew nothing between us would ever be the same again.
He loved me and I loved him. He had been the coolest grown up I knew and here I was standing before a court room numbly reciting my statement to send him to jail. His lawyer asked me questions that confused me and they preyed on my love for him. I felt him watching me and I almost couldn’t go on.
Afterwards I snuck away from my family and found him in the smoking area. The light in his eyes was gone. He was like a hollowed out man, only a shadow of who I knew. As I ran at him a police officer grabbed me by the arm but I tore free and I buried myself in my Uncle’s chest, my arms wrapping around him desperately. I let the tears flood and I said “I’m sorry, I love you, I’m sorry” and he held me and said “it’s not your fault Roo. Maybe you can come visit me after this and everything will be okay.” But my arms dropped and now I was hollow too, he was acting as though he had done nothing wrong, as though this could all be forgotten.
I wanted to scream at him to stop lying, to apologise for fucking everything up. I thought: my family loved you, I loved you, you have three beautiful daughters, you lied to us all, we really trusted you, you were so important to me, how could you do this to us? At least be sorry. Please, please, please…
I ran away as quickly as I’d come and I found my cousin, her hair golden in the light and her blue eyes bright and wise. I cuddled her and as I cried again, she looked up at me and said gently “it’s okay Nirrimi, don’t cry.” And I was ashamed that I was the one falling apart and she was the strong one, when it was meant to be the other way around.
It was years later that I sat in the courtroom again, biting the inside of my cheek and digging my nails into my arms, waiting for the verdict. I was pregnant and just beginning to understand the intensity and vulnerability of being a Mother. I wanted to hear ‘guilty’ as much as anyone else. For my cousin, for my aunties, for his daughters, for my family and in a very strange way, for my own daughter growing in my womb. And he was guilty, on all counts, and I breathed a sigh of relief weighed down by sadness. Sad that this was the way it had to be.
My auntie, the Mother to his three girls, is one of my closest friends now. Another auntie has quit her job to write books and develop a website with resources on child sexual abuse.
When I was younger I felt completely alone with the weight of my experiences, nobody talked about abuse and so I didn’t either. But I am far from alone in having scars and there is power in uncovering them. Power in saying this is real and it hurts and it is okay to talk about. I hope we can help to create a world where if our children are ever hurt, they have the courage and support to talk about it too.