Dean was almost 40 before he consciously remembered being sexually abused in primary school. Around a decade before, he’d seen a psychologist for work and bereavement issues, and ‘I then spent the next six years seeing a variety of therapists of different persuasions’.
At the time he started to recall the abuse he was seeing a psychotherapist. At first, the memories came back as a flash of light, like a camera flash; then, slowly, more details emerged.
The abuse had happened in the early 1970s, at the government school Dean attended in the Australian Capital Territory, at a time when he was lacking any secure attachment to others. Mr Leahy, a teacher, had offered him comfort.
‘He said I looked sad. I said I was. He said to go with him. He took my right hand and we went to the school hall. He got me a drink. He said if I wanted a cuddle, because I was sad. I said I did.
'I was a bit worried, about the drink and the cuddle. I didn’t know him. I didn't have any money for the drink. But I did want a cuddle. He was a teacher, so it must be all right. You have to do what teachers say. And at home, nobody ever gave me a cuddle.
‘He sat down and said for me to sit between his legs. He gave me a cuddle. Then he put his hand in my pants and started to rub me there.’
Dean tried to get away but Leahy punched him. Then he made Dean perform oral sex, and hit him again. He told Dean that he’d kill him if he ever reported what had happened.
Many years later Dean began to recall these details, and told his psychotherapist one morning. He went to work after their session, but could not deal with the visceral nature of these memories, and had to go home sick.
‘I'm in bed for two days, with a bucket, gagging and vomiting … Over the next eight months, I remember other things.’
Dean became ‘obsessed’ with learning about this kind of abuse and its impacts, studying up on memory, language, emotional and sensory processing and responses – including the fragmented recollection of his own experiences.
‘The whole thing is in pieces, with the sensations somehow there, but not connected to the emotions, or connected to the story. So the thing is not a coherent whole, anchored in time, but a collection of disconnected bits.’
He now better understands the impact on his sexual development, and how the abuse inhibited him from participating in sexual relationships as an adult.
‘I don't want anybody to touch me, ‘cause in a second they might hit me in the head, and strangle me and stuff. If they do touch me, I'll get away. If I feel that feeling, I might be going to do something horrible to the other person. I won't touch them. It felt very horrible when he was touching me.’
Sometimes during therapy Dean finds that he regresses to the age he was when this abuse occurred. ‘I realise if I'm in the middle of it, suddenly I'm using short sentences. I don't understand big words, and feel scared, anxious or angry – but never embarrassed.
'I'm eight years old. I want to sit on the therapist’s lap, curl up and bury my head in his chest … The times when I've been in that space and he's managed to match it with a response suitable for an eight-year-old are the ones that have helped me the most.’
As Dean’s therapy progressed, he disclosed the abuse to other people. He told a couple of mates that he was sexually abused as a child, and was getting help for this. ‘I watch their faces go blank. One's not spoken to me since. Another recovers, makes a sympathetic comment. And suddenly, the floodgates open, it's pouring out.’
Although he had been concerned about how he might manage his emotions during these conversations, ‘I hadn’t anticipated that people I’d known for 20 years – I was godparent to two of their kids – would just cross me off’.
Dean told the Commissioner he is concerned about the stories the media constructs about child sexual abuse and people who have experienced it, and the ways these limit the support options and outcomes for survivors. In particular, if survivors could access therapeutic interventions earlier on, their healing could be improved.
‘It seems to me the narrative presented in the media of the sexually abused child is generally one of “irrevocably damaged”. This is a limiting representation of the possible outcomes, and as the outcome is partly socially determined risks embedding that outcome as normative in our society.
‘I reckon it’s actually the same as a broken arm. Get it set straight when it’s just been fractured, and you might have a bit of residual ache on and off, but it won’t impede you. Leave it until 10 years later, the bone is solid and you’ve now got associated, well-established abnormalities of surrounding musculature and limitation of joint function.
‘If we all knew that that was the inevitable outcome, then … I didn’t start to work through my experiences until 20 years later, by which time it was a far more tedious, time-consuming and expensive process.’