‘We left him with broken hearts because we couldn’t cope anymore. We both still loved him very much. He was never ever – I want to make it clear – physically violent. He was, what do they call it, a sleepy drunk. He would drink until he went to sleep.’
It wasn’t an easy decision for Edwina to leave George after 20 years of marriage, but eventually she and their daughter finally did so because of his chronic alcoholism. Having come from a family that did not drink alcohol, it had at first been hard for Edwina to recognise George’s drinking as problematic.
‘I had no idea of quantities that an individual should limit themselves to. So during our marriage on Friday nights he would come home with a dozen bottles of red, a bottle of scotch, and a bottle of port. And that would be gone by Monday morning. And I never saw him look drunk.’
His drinking ‘took a toll on his work ... At one stage he had actually lost a job but didn’t tell me ... wouldn’t discuss it with me at all’. He refused to talk about his alcoholism and would not seek help, and eventually ‘we lost our home’.
A few years after they parted ways Edwina started having vivid nightmares about George. She decided to check in on him, and they met up for a meal. He had ‘got off the grog’ by then, and they soon became ‘inseparable’ again.
It was then that he first disclosed the sexual abuse he had experienced as a child in a South Australian school run by the Marist Brothers. He and his brothers had been sent there as boarders in the 1940s, when he was only five years old, due to his parents’ marital problems.
‘He had been sexually abused throughout all of the years there. He told me it happened in the showers, which was why he put a lock on our bathroom door, so that no one could walk in unexpectedly or accidentally while he was having a shower.’
The abuse had also happened ‘in private rooms’ and ‘in bedrooms’, and was perpetrated by the headmaster and a number of the Brothers. It continued until he left the school in his mid-teens.
Siblings at the school were discouraged from associating and playing with each other, and were housed in separate dormitories ‘to encourage them to make other friends’. Edwina thinks this policy ‘might have been a bit more sinister, but that’s my assumption, because that resulted in him not having access to his brothers to tell them what was happening’. Edwina suspects that one of George’s brothers – who was the ‘gentlest of men’ but a ‘loner’ and ‘lost soul’ who died in poverty – was also abused at the school.
Learning about the abuse helped her understand George’s behaviour during their marriage. ‘Once he told me he’d been abused he said to me, “Now you know that I wasn’t drinking heavily because of you”. And that was a huge thing for me.’
Other habits now make sense to her too. ‘He had never undressed, except in total darkness, would not let me put the light on ... When he was getting dressed to go to work he would always shut the bedroom door so that no one was in there.’
Edwina suggested reporting the matter to police, but George did not want to do so as ‘he was intensely private’. George died unexpectedly soon after he and Edwina were reunited.
Their adult daughter, Jane, is now aware of the abuse he experienced and this has been ‘helpful for her’. ‘She grew up with him drinking too much, and when we found out ... she said “So it wasn’t my fault, Mum”. But children of alcoholics often think that.’
Jane also told Edwina she feels ‘like a wimp’ for not wanting to hear about the specific details of what happened to her father. ‘I said “You’re not a wimp, there is some stuff we need to know and some stuff we don’t”.’
When Edwina first decided to speak with the Royal Commission, she was focussed on bearing witness to what George had gone through.
‘I wanted to speak on behalf of George’s experience, rather than my own, but as I went through in my mind I realised that when you’re talking about one life, you are talking about a number of lives ...
‘I would be hopeful at some stage that, through the collected stories that the Commission has, that the Marist Brothers are aware of what damage they have caused in history.’
Knowing that George is just ‘one of thousands and thousands’ of people in the community who experienced sexual abuse as children, as well as work she has done in the fields of sexual and relationship violence, has changed how Edwina thinks about the world.
‘I am just amazed that this world operates as normally as it does, because of the amount of sexual abuse in the community ... Some days I’d walk down the street and I’d look at every man and think he was a perpetrator ...
‘I’ve tried to channel my anger into what happened to George and other people into something positive by sharing his story.’
Edwina still dreams about ‘her very gentle man’ at least once a week, but this time ‘it’s not bad at all. And they’re really ordinary boring dreams. They’re not nightmares. They’re like we’ve gone shopping, or we’re visiting Jane. And it’s a jolt when I wake up and realise that he’s not there’.