Eileen was born on an Aboriginal mission in South Australia in the early 1940s. She told the Commissioner that there was a lot of sexual abuse happening at the mission while she was growing up. But, for the first few years of her life, she was protected from it by her grandfather who taught her about the insects, the birds and the stories of her people.
Sadly, Eileen’s grandfather left the mission in the late 1940s through the only means available at the time: he was deemed to be white. Eileen said, ‘It was called the exemption. You were exempted from being black and then you were white, and then you couldn’t go back to being black because you were white. My Papa had to be forced to take that when I was about six or seven, which left me to the mercy of the predators’.
Over the next few years Eileen was sexually abused by two men who lived at the mission. She didn’t see any point in mentioning the abuse to anyone because they all seemed to know about it already. ‘Nobody talking about nothing. It was as though you were meant to be going along with it, because everyone turned away their eyes somehow or other.’
It was only while playing with the other kids that Eileen, and other victims, could express themselves.
‘What we did with that story business that we’d learned – like, our Aboriginal ways – is that we would as kids collect together and the stories of the sexual abusers would come out in our play. At the time some of the others were really being brutally sexually abused and it would come out in the way they played the game.’
Eileen escaped her abusers at age nine when she was sent away to a Salvation Army girls’ home. There she encountered new forms of abuse, both physical and sexual. She was severely beaten by one of the staff and also suffered sexual bullying at the hands of the older girls. However, she also got to go to school, which she loved and excelled at.
Eileen was sent back to the mission at age 12. Almost immediately she confronted both of the men who had abused her. Their reactions were radically different. The first man ‘broke down and cried. Fell into a heap. And I felt sorry for him’. As for the second man, ‘He said, “You’re not the only one and you won’t tell nobody because you’ll be in trouble.” He just laughed at it and thought it was a joke’.
Eileen still felt like she couldn’t report her abusers to anyone.
‘To say something about him would bring the whole house down. The whole family life would be affected. And my Aboriginal Dreaming mind would come to me and show me in a picture ... I had the dream where the house would be in a big storm, and it was on a precipice on a cliff and it was a big house, and my mother and father was in it over there and I got all the kids to the door and as we stood at the door, when we got off the door, then the house would go and they’d go with it.’
Eileen left the mission in her late teens, still carrying the scars of the abuse. She said she had ‘internalised the wrongness of it’. She had difficulty with relationships and became disillusioned with the world. ‘It made me feel like the world was ugly and I didn’t really want to be amongst all the ugly people.’
On occasion the trauma got too much for her to bear. She told the Commissioner she’s attempted suicide six times.
‘What made me fail was, the sixth time I thought, “Oh well, God doesn’t want me, I’ve got to do something on this Earth, I suppose. Wonder what that is”. And so I found what it was. It was taking the journey back to the source of our old ways and to try to bring that understanding to the others.’