‘I got through 70 years of my life and didn’t commit suicide – I thought of it – I’m just too scared of doing something to myself when I know there’s something at the end of the rainbow. There’s got to be something at the end of the rainbow.’
In the mid-1950s, when Eliza was 11, her mother had to stay in hospital to give birth and Eliza was at home with her father.
‘At the age of 11 he raped me, my father, and I went on to the road to destruction from then on. Let any man have me. Did anything ‘cause that was the way you was treated.’
Eliza’s older brother was also a perpetrator of sexual assault. Soon, Eliza’s abuse by her father escalated.
‘Dad was … horrible. And he used to sell me to people … on the wharf he’d sell me for grog … I’ve been over it so many times it doesn’t hurt me much anymore. Yeah, he used to do all this to me, sell me for grog. And that’s what I always did was give in to men because that’s what I got taught … it put me into a bad place.’
She ran away from home many times but was picked up by the police and returned to her father. When she was 14, she and her younger brother were taken away from their parents. Her younger brother was placed in a boys’ home and Eliza was sent to a Catholic convent in Hobart.
Eliza worked six days a week in the laundry of the convent and received no schooling while she was with the nuns. She was not paid for her work and had to work ‘flat out’ in the laundry performing physically demanding work.
‘I didn’t even know how to spell or add up, no one at the Catholic convent sent me to school.’
The girls were also regularly sexually abused by male workers at the convent.
‘[They] tampered with us girls … we’d get a cigarette, we’d get rewarded [by them]. But we’d go and tell the nuns … “Oh don’t tell lies, you’ll go upstairs and put mustard on your tongue, or soap”. So, you’d never be able to tell them. For 12 months it went on.’
Eliza ran away from the convent and travelled interstate. She was forced into sex work and was sold across South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. She was still only 15 years old.
‘That was terrible. I couldn’t have anyone to tell. Who? Who could you tell? The police just turned a blind eye in them days … [the late 50s] … They didn’t give a shit … I was still trying to prove a point that I was a good girl but no one would let me be one.’
The police did pick her up in Sydney, and charged her with being ‘uncontrollable’. Because she was still under age she was sent to a second convent. She was also pregnant.
The nuns found her factory work so she could save some money to go back to Tasmania to have her baby. While she was working at the factory she was raped.
‘The bloke [in the factory] just raped me and I was pregnant. Went back to the nuns and told them what happened, I even knew his name then. And they just said, “Eliza, you all tell lies, you girls”.’
The baby was born in Tasmania. Eliza ended up going overseas for some years, and supporting herself as a sex worker.
‘I would have liked one husband with me children and a nice home. I didn’t get that. And me kids all feel I’m a nothing … because I’ve got nothing.’
Her younger brother, who was abused sexually and physically in the boys’ home he was placed in, took his own life as an adult. ‘I do miss him so badly. He protected [me]. He did but the police picked on him too much … he was angry because of dad and [our] older brother.’
Two of Eliza’s children also wound up in institutions after she lost custody of them to her ex-husband. She wasn’t told or consulted about their removal to institutions.
‘I didn’t know they were in a home. I didn’t know … They bring it up. You know, “Mum why did you have to put us in a home?” I didn’t. I didn’t know.’
Eliza’s grandmother had been removed from her family and placed in welfare institutions and a number of Eliza’s grandchildren have been removed from her daughter’s care.
‘She’s [a] drunk. Lost all her kids. It just goes on and on and on and on doesn’t it?’
Her mother died 20 years ago and she decided to pursue some form of justice for all the abuse and neglect she experienced.
‘Mother dying, opened all them little doors. She would have gone off her head. Honestly. She wanted me to tell someone but she didn’t want to be involved.’
Eliza applied for and has recently received her own welfare records but it has been a difficult and lengthy process. Some of her records have been destroyed or are missing. She has received redress from Tasmania and New South Wales as well as through the Catholic Towards Healing scheme. But each time the process has been convoluted, with a number of applications having to be made on her behalf.
Eliza’s Towards Healing experience was the most disheartening. Initially, she was offered a very minimal amount. A reapplication produced slightly more compensation but it was not the money that Eliza was especially interested in. She feels that her abuse and neglect by the nuns has been given minimal attention.
‘I was put on the road to destruction. You have to say that because it was destructive for my life. My family. My marriages. They failed. My kids failed. I failed them … They [the nuns] put too much under the carpet. They did. They brushed it under the carpet … One of the nuns told me “You’re evil. You’re bad … You’ll always be bad”.’
Despite her optimistic and hopeful approach to life, every now and then Eliza gets ‘very depressed’.
‘It still goes on in my head. That’s why I’m on Valium, I have Valium at night so I can block it but it doesn’t block it. Because you wake up and it’s still there.’
Carers now help Eliza every day and she also receives support from the broader Aboriginal community. One of her children is a great support too.
Eliza wanted to speak with the Royal Commission to ‘help the girls get on the right side of the road’.
‘When I leave here [the Royal Commission] I will be in a lot better mind that you’ve listened … it’s listening. Hearing me … it helps.’