Brennan went from being an easy, happy, slightly wild kid to one living in ‘five years of hell’ when his mother moved him from a state-run primary school to become a boarder at a private school run by the Presbyterian Church.
He had certainly had troubles in his childhood before. His father died suddenly in the early 1960s, when Brennan was seven, and his older sister was quite cruel to him, something his father had always protected him from. His mother moved the family to Sydney, leaving Brennan quite isolated.
‘I lost my father, I lost my social network, my home environment, I lost everything at that particular point.’
He went to the local primary school but didn’t settle in well. He said he was an angry, unsettled young boy, and acted out by bullying other kids and getting into fights. But in Grade 5, he was fortunate to have a teacher who took time with him and turned things around and by the end of the grade he was looking forward to the years ahead.
However, on the advice of a man from Legacy who had fought with his father during the war, his mother decided he needed more discipline and he was enrolled at the private school from Grade 6.
Brennan told the Commissioner that during his five years at that school he was physically, sexually and emotionally abused, and he had nowhere to go with his stories. He likened his experiences to carrying a heavy trunk of ‘uninvited burdens’ through life. ‘There were some heavy items in the trunk and lots of little bits. Each on its own could be carried, but the collection together was quite unmanageable.’
While physical abuse was common, with frequent beatings and harsh punishments, he said there was also a culture of inappropriately intimate behaviour led by the housemasters. One would play a game of pretending to spank the boys at bedtime, while another would watch them in the showers, closely supervising whether they had soaped up correctly. Once, he fainted in the shower and was caught by the master because he was standing so close. After Brennan reported this to the infirmary, that master was never seen again, but nothing was said to the boys.
When he was in Grade 9, Brennan was moved into a house with a student called Eric. Eric involved Brennan in sexual activity, sometimes alone and sometimes involving other boys, which continued through to Grade 10 when he moved dorms.
‘It was clear that Eric was highly experienced sexually for a 14-year-old and had a lot of access to pornography. I don’t know how as he never revealed this, but I expect he was being actively utilised by an adult person. Eric was organising lots of people to have sexual contact with, I was just one of them … it was abusive, but seductively abusive.
‘There was one other boy, Grant. I was moved into a dormitory with him and we were on our own a lot there. The other boys would come in late at night. Grant was forceful and demanding about what he wanted to do until we were caught by the older boys coming back early one night. It only happened a few times. I didn’t like it.’
He didn’t tell anyone at the school about the abuse and he didn’t mention it to his mother.
‘When I first went there I told her it was absolutely awful. We had to write letters home but it was very clear that the letters would be read so we couldn’t actually write what was happening.’
He said it was also clear to him that she was so delighted he was going to that school, that she wouldn’t hear anything bad about it. On top of this she was a single working mother, so having him at home would have been difficult.
Finally in Grade 10 he was caught smoking and was caned and asked to leave. The school said to his mother, ‘The important thing is the school, and not the boy’. He spent his final two years boarding at a different school outside Sydney.
After leaving school he got heavily into drugs and hung around with ‘some pretty unsavoury characters’. He became involved with an outlaw motorcycle gang.
‘There was a lot of drugs going on and it was pretty wild for a couple of years there … I was drugged and sold and raped and all sorts of nasty things happened to me during that time.’
He moved away from the area and ended up joining a religious cult in the mid-1970s, where he stayed for nine months. Being there was ‘pretty weird’, but it allowed him to get off drugs and clear his head.
He started to take control of his life, went back to study and started university when he was 26. He went on to have a long and successful career as an academic. He had a long-term partner and they had a child together. Although they are now separated, they are still friends and she supports him. While he has had counselling in relation to events within the motorcycle gang, he has never had counselling about the childhood sexual abuse. Coming forward to the Royal Commission was the first time he had told anybody about it.
Four years ago, things became too much for him and he had a breakdown. He started drinking heavily and taking drugs again. He resigned from his university position and has been unemployed since. He said he’s not sure how he has survived.
‘I have absolutely no idea. I was always surprised that I survived beyond my 23rd year quite frankly, and perhaps I looked at that and thought everything after this has been a bonus.’