In many ways Dawn never escaped the abuse. Every time she thought she’d put the memories to rest, something – or someone – would drag them all back up again. She told the Commissioner:
‘There are things in our brain that our brain locks away for our own safety sometimes. And if you start digging too much they can start bringing things into your life that are most unwelcome indeed, and can cause a lot of trauma and pain.’
Tasmania in the mid-1950s: Dawn, less than a year old, was fostered by the Stanhope family. From the age of two until she was 13 she was sexually abused by her foster father, Len Stanhope.
‘By the age of seven or eight I experienced horrific nightmares of my father chasing me, of me hiding from him and him catching me. I told a neighbour what Len Stanhope was doing to me. She told me that I was a bad girl. I told a school counsellor when I was 13 and no action was taken. I was an invisible child.’
These were the first blows that Dawn endured: the abuse itself and the isolation that came from not being believed. Next came the betrayal.
‘The woman that adopted me, I adored her, absolutely adored her … And her betrayal of me was just horrendous, just horrendous, when I realised that she must have known. She kept quiet for her own marriage and her own reputation, and that killed me.’
Dawn escaped the Stanhope household in her late teens and went to live with her boyfriend. She married him at 18 because of pressure from her adoptive mother who disapproved of the young couple ‘living in sin’. Dawn didn’t want to marry him – she could see the danger ahead. But she didn’t know how to refuse.
‘It’s like a pyramid. My life started off being an abused kid, and because I was an abused kid I married an abuser. And I’ve got four emotionally difficult kids.’
Dawn escaped from the relationship in her mid-20s. By this stage the impact of the abuse had affected her sexuality.
‘It certainly made me turn towards being gay as well. I was obviously bisexual because I had children but I couldn’t bear another man to get me pregnant and I couldn’t bear any more pain and suffering in my life, so I chose to be with women.’
Dawn has been in a relationship now for many years. It’s not been easy. That relationship, too, has cracked under the weight of her history.
‘My partner’s father died and I couldn’t comfort her, because I’ve got no idea what it’s like to have a father. And in my 30s I cried a lot about it at the time, but then you just get hard. That’s how you sort of handle it. But it’s not right.’
Dawn said she was ‘just not emotionally really there’ for her partner and children.
‘I think it comes because we cut our brain off somehow to be able to survive. If you focus – I remember lights a lot, lights on the ceiling, looking at lights. So if you spend a lot of time away in your brain like that for a long time then there might be times when you’re not going to quite function as well as you could and you should.’
At age 40 Dawn decided to confront her demons, returning to her childhood home to discuss the abuse with her adoptive mother for the first time. Here she was re-traumatised, not only psychologically but physically.
‘I was staying in the house and my adopted father was there, and I begged people not to leave him with me. Even as an adult – I asked, “Please, I don’t want to stay with him”. Nobody believed me again. Nobody did anything. So he actually tried to molest me when I was 40. So that’s the last time.’
Even then Dawn’s adoptive mother refused to acknowledge the truth. She wasn’t the only one. As part of a state government redress scheme in the early 2000s, Dawn told her story to a counsellor and then to a panel of assessors. They disbelieved her and denied her claim for an ex gratia payment. Fortunately a social worker intervened and drew the panel’s attention to the weight of evidence in Dawn’s favour. The panel then reversed its decision.
But by then Dawn had been re-traumatised yet again.
She described her experience of sexual abuse as a ‘life sentence’ and she doesn’t expect she’ll ever be free of the bad memories. But she can use them to help others.
‘I know that there are lots of people that can’t talk like me; there are lots of people that have died. So it’s up to people who can talk and can make themselves heard to do something. So that’s why I’m here.’