‘Go away and die.’
That’s what Edyth’s mother used to say to her. But Edyth did anything but die. Now in her early 80s Edyth has lived with lifelong stresses. When she reflected on what has sustained her, she told the Commissioner ‘I think the feeling that I … that I’ve fought. Stood up a little bit … Had a bit of guts’.
Edyth’s mother had herself been at a home for babies in Sydney and was adopted at the age of two. She didn’t find this out until she was a teenager and about to get married. Edyth believes this derailed her mother’s life and that was when she started drinking.
Both of Edyth’s parents were alcoholics. Her father was regularly violent towards her mother. ‘I used to try and stop the fights, pull him off her where he used to beat her.’
One night when Edyth was 11, she and her older sister were taken away by two welfare officers. They had no idea why this was happening to them. Edyth tried to run away but didn’t succeed. She and her sister were taken to the police station. Edyth remembers everything being dark as there was a blackout. Later that night the two girls were taken to a shelter. Nothing was explained to them.
‘This terrible, cruel-looking woman came when they rang the bell. She had a big belt with a … bunch of keys … When she opened the door … the welfare people went and she took us into the dormitory … It was very dark … and all I could see, from the streetlights shining through the window, were bars … I thought we were in jail. And I thought, I haven’t done anything wrong. And then she locked the door behind us … It’s never left me, all this. It’s ruined my life.’
The next morning Edyth was told she had to have a medical examination. She was confused as she wasn’t sick. ‘He made me lay on the table and internally examined me. I didn’t even know about that sort of [thing] … I’ve never forgotten. It was horrible. I’ve never had a pap smear in my life because of that.’ No one else was in the room with Edyth at the time.
‘My sister had to do the same thing and she never ever spoke to me about it … It was too horrible. Never ever. And she passed away. Never ever talking about it.’
Edyth has never spoken about her childhood abuse in any detail until she came to the Royal Commission. ‘There was a lot of shame as well. I felt ashamed that I was a state ward. I hadn’t done anything wrong.’
From there Edyth and her sister were taken to court. Again, no one spoke to them. ‘I was just there and it was all done. They weren’t asking me anything.’ They were then taken to a government-run children’s home.
The children’s home was a cruel place run by a head matron who frequently belted the girls. The girls were referred to by their number, not their name. Humiliations included lining up and showing their used underpants. Punishments were harsh, including being stripped naked and put in isolation. ‘This night [the Head Matron] picked and picked me until I just couldn’t stand it anymore. And she … beat me so I started to try and wrestle back with her. I was so sick of it.’ The head matron then called on the other girls to help her. The head matron had herself been a resident at the girls’ home.
Edyth ran away a couple of times but waited until her sister was no longer a resident at the home. She knew her sister would have been punished. Edyth travelled by train, avoiding the ticketmaster and walked a long distance back home. But on arrival her mother just called the police. ‘So it was all for nothing. I was just taken back.’ She received a belting and was locked in solitary.
The second time Edyth ran away, she was taken by police to the police station. ‘And welfare officers … took me back to that awful shelter again and I … had to go through that awful thing with that rotten doctor again, the second time.’
Because of her behaviour, Edyth was sent to a psychologist. In recent times, she has read his report. ‘When I saw that it’s just so many lies in there … It’s all against me. They were allowed to say what they like. I was never asked anything.’
After three years, when Edyth was nearly 16, the home arranged a placement for her to work as a housemaid. Even though a friend of hers had done that, Edyth turned it down. She wanted to go home, despite her mother’s negative reception.
Things changed for Edyth when she met her husband at 17. At 19 she married and they stayed together until he died in recent years. ‘The first person that ever showed me any love. The first person ever.’ He ‘thought the world’ of Edyth and he didn’t drink, which Edyth really appreciated. If she hadn’t met him she feels she could easily have ‘gone the wrong road’.
‘Unfortunately he passed away … I looked after him. I got into trouble from the doctors because I wouldn’t put him in a nursing home … It wasn’t easy for me … I’ve got fractures in my spine from lifting him … He had Alzheimer’s for a couple of years. He didn’t know me but I wouldn’t part with him … If I put him in a nursing home it would be like that [children’s home]. No way I’d do that … he was only two days in hospital … I feel very proud of that.’
They had children but Edyth is only in contact with one of them. Although Edyth has ‘battled’ depression all her life, she has only started counselling recently. She is not on medication as it just makes her sleepy. She’s never sought compensation. ‘That doesn’t worry me, money … I’m trying to get peace of mind so I can die peacefully.’