Brinley only recently realised that things that were done to her at an alternative community centre amount to sexual abuse. ‘I sort of have never given this whole thing a lot of thought,’ she said. ‘But now that I have I can see it for what it was’.
Brinley was very young when she and her mother went to live at the centre. It was an idyllic place where Brinley was free to roam with the other kids, play in the river and care for the animals.
There was discipline too – stern warnings and the occasional slap in the face administered by Stanton or Katrice, the couple who ran the place – but most of the time Brinley enjoyed her new, alternative lifestyle. Then her mother was sent away to work elsewhere.
‘I remember being very upset and crying. I soon realised, however, that I needed to tough it out. At the centre we were taught to be detached from our families and to let go of all personal and material connections.’
But Brinley could not completely ‘let go’ of the need for personal connection; instead she transferred it to Katrice who became ‘like a mother’ to her. Brinley was in her early teens when Katrice left the centre. After that, things started to go wrong.
Brinley was assigned to do chores in Stanton’s hut every morning. When she greeted him she would ‘give him a hug and a kiss. For my part, the affection I showed him was like the affection between a daughter and a father’. Stanton saw the relationship in a different light and soon began groping Brinley’s breasts and tongue-kissing her.
Brinley was ‘shocked and grossed out’ by Stanton’s behaviour and felt more lonely and confused than ever. In this context she formed a friendship with another resident of the centre, a man in his 30s.
‘In retrospect I must have been looking for a father figure, which I’d never had, or a close friend or love and affection.’
Brinley and the man would talk and sometimes lay together on his bed and cuddle. She told him what Stanton was doing to her and he was sympathetic but never took any action. Eventually Stanton found out about the relationship.
‘I received a verbal serving and a few slaps across the face and a warning to stay away from him … We continued to hang out but became more sneaky. And I recall lying on the floor … talking and cuddling, which at some point progressed to fully-clothed simulated sexual experience.’
The relationship continued for some time and ended gradually; Brinley can’t remember exactly why. Life at the centre continued as usual for a short while and then Stanton was arrested and everything changed.
It turned out that several women from the centre had come forward with claims that Stanton had sexually assaulted them. The matter went to trial but the outcome was disappointing. ‘He got off pretty lightly’, Brinley said. ‘And we were left to get on with our lives.’
Brinley left the centre, finished school, and then began the slow process of building a new life in a world she didn’t understand.
The other man who abused Brinley was never charged. She still feels conflicted about his behaviour, as she does about much of her time within the community. Life there warped her moral boundaries, left her ill-prepared for the real world, dulled her interest in sex and broke the bond she once shared with her mother.
But it also provided ‘the sense of family with the other children and strong connection with community, creative pursuits, dance, music, art, reading books, writing stories – benefits of no television – the river, the caves, games, fun, animals, freedom’.
One of Brinley’s coping strategies over the years has been to focus on these positive aspects of life at the centre, even perhaps to the point of ‘denial’.
‘I’ve always understood that what happened to me, sexual abuse-wise, was minor in comparison to what [the other women] endured, so have believed I had no reason to be affected or traumatised … I don’t want to consider myself damaged goods or a person with issues. And maybe that’s why I’ve stayed away from counsellors.’
Now, however, Brinley is hoping to try a new approach.
‘Perhaps now I could benefit from undertaking counselling, but I still feel some apprehensions about it. I hope it can assist the confusion feeling between my recollection and the accounts given by others, and also break down and help me better understand the impact of the centre on me as a child.’