Two events in recent years have changed Elena’s understanding of the brief relationship she had with Harry Ebsworth, in the late 1960s, when she was 16.
Ebsworth was a support teacher at Elena’s Western Australian public high school, and one of his roles was driving instructor. Elena was his student. Over the two months that he gave her driving lessons, they became very close – so much so that when Ebsworth drove her to an out of the way suburb one day, parked the car, lay down with her in the back seat and had sex with her, Elena willingly complied. She thought they were in love.
So she was surprised and devastated when the school term ended some weeks later and Ebsworth abruptly broke off all contact.
‘Having been singled out as being special and worthy, to be suddenly abandoned was terrible’, Elena recalled. It was her last year of school, and in the weeks that followed her acute unhappiness meant she was unable to concentrate or study. She eventually failed her final exams.
As time passed the shame and embarrassment Elena came to feel about the sexual encounter made it impossible for her to talk about it to anyone. She felt she’d been gullible. She thought that because of her age she should have known better.
‘Even when I realised that it was he who had done the wrong thing I thought that because I hadn't resisted, that it wasn't rape but somehow my fault’, she explained.
The first event that led her to see her experience differently was the arrest of Western Australian paedophile Dennis McKenna. In reading news coverage of his trial she came across a term that was new to her – grooming. Reading about the way McKenna groomed his victims, she saw parallels with the way Ebsworth had treated her.
‘At that time I just thought I was special. That he’d singled me out. How naive can you be?’
Now able to recognise she’d been groomed, she also saw that was why she’d been so compliant. Finally, she was able to stop blaming herself for being a willing participant in what had occurred. She’d always believed that because she consented, what Ebsworth did to her wasn’t rape. ‘I see it in a completely different light now, but that’s how I felt at the time.’
The second event was an unfortunate coincidence: Ebsworth and his family moved into the street where Elena’s daughter and partner live. When Elena visited her daughter she could hear Ebsworth talking and playing with his puppy in his backyard, just a few fences away. As a result, old memories have resurfaced.
‘In the past I’ve been able to almost ignore it, or suppress it, but now I can hear his voice … So suddenly it’s just in my face all the time.’
Elena told her husband about Ebsworth some years ago. And she told her daughters, without identifying Ebsworth, as part of teaching them about stranger danger when they were young. She feels that on the spectrum of abuse, what happened to her was relatively minor – she doesn’t want counselling, or compensation. But she now understands that it was abuse, and that it has had an enduring impact on her life.
‘I can now process it quite differently and it’s no longer about me, it’s about him. And that’s been an important shift’, she said.