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Bronte's story

Bronte was a gifted child, academically and musically. Soon after starting Grade 1 in the 1970s, she was moved up to Grade 3.

Over the next few years her parents were away a lot for work, and her mother was having some ‘issues’, so the children were sent to boarding schools. Bronte went to an independent Anglican high school which had recently become coeducational.

‘I was terrified, but you just had to do whatever they told you to do. If you had to run a marathon, you had to run a marathon. If you had to chop wood at five o’clock in the morning you had to chop wood. Otherwise you’re just being a girl, and you weren’t allowed to be a girl, really.’

Between the ages of 10 and 13, Bronte was sexually abused by her music teacher, Ward Ferley. She remembered that all she could do was freeze and wait for it to be over. She also started to ‘retreat’.

‘I wouldn’t do anything that made me stand out ... I thought for these things to happen that there was something innately evil in me, and I thought that I must have been incredibly ugly and revolting for this to happen.

‘I also think part of it was … I was two years younger than everybody else, and I do think that had an impact in the sense of my ability to reason and to understand and to communicate my needs.’

When Bronte was able to tell her mother about the abuse, they immediately reported Ferley to the school. But while the teacher supposedly lost his job, he wasn’t the only one punished.

‘The conversation was, and whether they said it or whether I felt it, was that somehow I was responsible … I was then kicked out of all the orchestras and bands. And I was one of the most gifted ... After that happened, it was like they took away my love.’

About a year later, Bronte’s parents separated. A school staff member, Neville Cardon, suggested that she come to live with him and his wife, ‘to save my mother some boarding fees. And so in Year 12 I lived in his house … they would have all known what had happened with Ward Ferley. And I think the thing that revolts me the most is that I was preyed upon’.

Bronte was sexually abused by Cardon numerous times until she left school at the end of that year.

‘I just remember the smell of him and the fear of him coming home. Every night, he would come home drunk, or he would come and find me playing piano. He was very violent ...

‘Again I would freeze, but it was more out of trying to stay alive … it felt like a real war, but I had no armoury to fight with.’

Bronte was also cut off from her own family. ‘[The housemaster] was the person that actually told me that my parents split up. Like, I was never allowed to go home ... It was always decided that I was best to be at school …

‘I never told anybody about Neville Cardon because, after being kicked out of everything that I loved, and my mother wouldn’t let me come home … I had nowhere to go.

‘I thought the only weapon that I had was to put on weight … So I put on three stone in a couple of months. It didn’t stop him but what it did was, it put me on a lifetime of difficulty with food, in terms of overeating ... I started eating to stop that. I started smoking ... I tried. I tried everything.’

When she came to the Royal Commission, Bronte had been living with the trauma of the abuse for almost 40 years.

‘It totally changed everything about my life …

‘The saddest impact for me has been in my relationships. And my career …

‘It was really meant to be another path. I was very talented in certain areas but I never had the confidence, I think, to shine. I was just trying to survive for a long time …

‘Part of what kept me alive was music … I just think I’ve had very fortunate angels or whatever around me, I’ve been looked after.’

Bronte also spoke of her ‘obsessive hunger’ to keep learning, ‘to understand and to find my voice’. She’s done self-help courses of all kinds, and found a counsellor who helped her greatly for many years. ‘I have spent tens of thousands of dollars, yeah, on trying to find a way to have a life that was happy.’

Sometimes, however, she only encountered more problems. When Bronte went to one government support service in New South Wales, she was immediately asked for money. ‘And I thought, “Fuck this” ... I didn’t sign up to an organisation to then be bombarded with “We need money”. It takes enough courage.’

In the early 2010s Bronte received an alumni email acknowledging Ward Ferley for his long service to the school. ‘And I had always thought that he’d lost his job. And obviously what they’ve done is they moved him to another campus, and that was why I’d been kicked out of the orchestras.’ Even with this information, she’s never considered taking legal action against the school.

‘Institutions, they’re very powerful beasts and I just didn’t think I’d … it wasn’t about even winning or losing, it was really that I just want my life …

‘There comes a point where you just go, you know, “Enough”. I have done so much work on myself, I would like to be able to have a relationship … I’d like to actually be able to have a relationship with somebody that I want to be with …

‘I suppose I’m looking forward to a whole new world. I don’t know if I’ll be able to create it, but I certainly feel really lucky to be alive …

‘I don’t like the term “survivor”, I don’t like the term “victim”. I just want to be a human being that fulfils her potential.’

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