‘Back in those days I think, you know, I don’t know about non-Aboriginal children but a lot of the Aboriginal children suffered ... It was like, they can please themselves what they did with the Aboriginal kids.’
Brydie moved around a lot between different families as a young child in the late 1940s. She spent time in a South Australian Aboriginal mission, and was intermittently in the care of her grandmother and parents.
When she was around six years of age, she was admitted to a public hospital for minor surgery. As she was the only patient in the children’s ward at the time, and the women’s ward was full, she was placed in a room with ‘old men’. She remembers one of the men clearly, ‘sort of laying in bed, watching’ her.
‘There was another guy there too, exposing himself, taking his pants off and that, his pyjamas. And it must have been that night. I remember him walking towards the French doors, holding his pants, holding his pyjamas.
‘And then the next morning the nurse come in, pulled back the covers and seen all the blood and that. And she run to get an apron, and she grabbed something, and put it between my legs, and took me up into the treatment room.’
Brydie doesn’t remember anyone talking to her about the fact she had just been raped, or the police being called to investigate. Just that it was ‘very, very painful’ and ‘there was a lot of nurses, and a doctor come in, looking’. She has tried to get her medical records from the hospital, but because it was so long ago it is possible her files have been destroyed.
After the sexual assault, her dad took her to a different hospital to continue her medical treatment. She doesn’t know whether he was aware of the abuse, or if the staff at the new hospital were told about what had happened to her.
‘I looked around, and I said “Don’t leave me, don’t leave me Dad”. And he took off within half an hour.’ She was ‘petrified, I’m thinking this is going to happen again if my Dad leaves me’. So she began screaming, ‘and the nurses got me and tied me to the bed with a cotton rope’.
It is unclear whether her parents ever found out that she had been raped. ‘They never mentioned it. Mum and Dad never mentioned it.’ She certainly never received any counselling or support at the time.
Brydie blocked out the abuse at the hospital for more than 50 years. ‘I was only six years old ... I’ve been in shock all my life. It lasted many years, until 10 years ago, then I discovered that it came back to me.’
She started remembering what had happened when she was making artworks. ‘I didn’t know for years. But I did a lot of artwork, based around that abuse, and I didn’t know why, why I was doing it.’
This assault ‘took its toll’, and as an adult ‘I was open to any sort of abuse. I married, you know, abusive men’. Even before she had kids though, she set rules for herself: ‘That I wasn’t going to abandon my children, I wasn’t going to let them be sexually abused, and I had the gentleness of my grandmother’.
Her children were largely raised in women’s shelters, including interstate, where she would take them to get away from her abusive partners. She has raised some of her grandchildren too. ‘I sort of feel you’ve got to concentrate on the next generation ... It’s hard work, very hard work for us. I mean they won’t listen now, the next generation, but they’ll listen later.’
Despite her best efforts to protect her family, some of her grandkids have ended up in care, and one of her grandsons disclosed he had had been sexually abused by a family member.
Although Brydie’s life has often been difficult, she has been determined to keep pushing through the hard times. ‘I suppose because of the rape, and being abandoned as a baby, six weeks old, I stood strong – no matter what happened to me ... I still kept bouncing back.’
She now has a lot of health problems, ‘that’s not looking after myself properly. Worrying about what’s out there, what was in my home. I look after myself now, by jingo, but it’s a little bit late’.
Brydie remains inspired by the gentleness of her late grandmother, and has kept an old tin full of buttons that she owned. ‘Grandmothers are very important, they’re very important, because they have wisdom.’
She would like to see ‘grandmothers have more input into a say about their grandchildren, really, when there’s abuse’. ‘Even in the Aboriginal community’, she told the Commissioner, ‘they’re not listened to. It’s all about men power’.
Other older Aboriginal women have helped Brydie through traditional Aboriginal healing. ‘I went out bush with my two younger ones, with the grandmothers. Thoroughly enjoyed it ... doing women’s sacred stuff. And yeah, that helped. ’Cause one of the women seen that I was a bit frightened, and said “No, you go out with the grandmothers”.’
She thinks younger Aboriginal women might benefit from this kind of healing too. ‘They [the women] give you their energy, which is so kind of them ... And they also centre your energy, so that you can think straight.’