Barbara’s parents divorced in the mid-1940s, when she was very small, and her mum returned to the workforce. With no suitable childcare available, Barbara was sent to live-in care.
When she was five years old she went to live with her dad. He sexually abused her many times, including a very violent incident of rape in which she was significantly injured. He explained her injuries to friends by saying she had fallen off a swing. His new wife physically abused Barbara too, beating her ‘black and blue’ with the stick from the copper.
‘It was just awful, truly awful. Not only was I copping sexual abuse from him, I was copping abuse from her, my stepmother ... I think they were both alcoholics actually.’ Although her mum visited regularly she took no action when confronted with Barbara’s bruises and pleas not to stay there.
Barbara was eight years old when neighbours called police after an altercation, and she was eventually removed from her dad’s care. He and his wife went on to have a number of daughters, and she fears they would have been sexually abused as well.
Barbara was sent to board at a Christian school in southern Sydney. The janitor used lollies to entice Barbara away from other students so he could sexually abuse her. This abuse continued ‘on and off’ for the four years she attended the school.
‘I guess one would ask, why did you let that happen Barbara, you know. And I think because ... My father having presented this bad role model for me, I kind of thought this is what men did, you know, and it was pretty normal. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? ... And I never told anybody, because he would always warn me quite stringently that if I did I wouldn’t get any more lollies ...
‘You can’t tell anybody you know because you’ll be in a lot of trouble, because you know you’ve done a terrible thing.’
Barbara left the school when she was 12 and went to live with her mum and alcoholic stepfather (‘he was all right, he never abused me’), then later went to another boarding school that she loved.
As an adult she wondered why she seemed to constantly make ‘crook decisions’, particularly regarding relationships. After her second marriage ended ‘I knew I needed help, I knew that this was having an effect on my life – a really bad effect, and for my children as well ... It was then I started realising that it wasn’t my fault, and I didn’t need to carry that baggage with me’.
She started attending church and dedicated her life to God, finding this gave her peace. Through the church she connected to a psychologist in her 40s, and disclosed the abuse to him. This was the first time she told anyone about what had happened to her.
‘Because I didn’t know that it was a crime ... Only when I sought counselling through my psychologist, you know, that he said he was the criminal. Because there’s been a lot in the media, and a lot of stories of people with child sexual abuse, and particularly in those days – I’m going back to the 1950s ...
‘Women didn’t report this, mothers didn’t report this, even if they may have suspected, because they were terrified of losing maintenance if the fellow got dragged off to jail, and so they let them get away with it. And I guess to some extent this is where I didn’t like my mother, because I thought, “how could she not have known, and [then not] done something about it?” So I did half and half blame her, yes.’
After a while Barbara was able to forgive her father, which she found extremely powerful and healing. ‘I knew then that that was what was needed to heal me. Because all that time I’d been carrying around this dreadful hate and this dreadful bitterness and this dreadful memory.’
When Barbara disclosed the abuse by her father to her mother ‘I was devastated at her response. It wasn’t one of love and “oh you poor thing, I never knew” [it was] “Oh don’t lie to me … that is ridiculous” ... She didn’t believe me at all. We then became very estranged. Yeah, that was sad.’
At the same time, Barbara’s mother confided about her own sexual abuse as a child, which Barbara felt might explain her lack of reaction and disconnection to Barbara’s situation when she lived with her father.
Barbara attempted to identify the janitor who abused her, but was advised she would need to do this through the freedom of information process. But this was too difficult so she left it.
Her personal faith and relationship with God is a great source of strength, and she hopes other survivors of abuse can find peace about their own experiences.
‘I just know looking back on my life that this always haunted me, and still does to a minor degree. The memory will never go away ... It’s fine now, but for a long time before I did come to God, it just haunted me ... If some of these other victims could experience that healing through forgiveness of their perpetrators, it would go such a long way to helping them.'