Elizabeth grew up in a remote farming community in the 1960s. She attended the local ‘one-teacher’ primary school where Mr Houlahan, a young man just out of teachers college, regularly kept her back after school and sexually abused her in the classroom. Other times he would take her out of class and abuse her in the toilets.
‘Being such a young child the initial impact was minimal. I had no idea of the significance of what had been done. He always encouraged me to keep his actions a secret. But I did somehow always feel different to people.’
The abuse continued for about two years until the school was closed and Houlahan moved away. A few years later Elizabeth’s perspective began to change.
‘It was about when I was 11 and schoolyard whispers got around to the subjects of a sexual nature that I began to realise what had happened to me … I thought it was my fault that it happened to me and it made me feel like a really bad person.’
Elizabeth’s self-confidence plummeted. She overcompensated by acting like a ‘goody-two-shoes’.
‘I was always volunteering to do things but I was terrified to put a toe out of line. I got labelled as the teacher’s pet, which was a demeaning stigma, but it was an easier cross to bear than the fear of others finding out that I was such a bad person.’
At the same time, the misinformed schoolyard chatter confused and frightened her.
‘I started to worry that I might be or get pregnant from what I’d done. I had no contact with the real facts of how these things happened, at that age. I really was quite terrified. For a long time I went around with sticky tape over my navel because I thought that if I was pregnant that would suffocate the baby and it would die.’
Elizabeth’s misconceptions about sex and pregnancy fell away as she got older, but her self-confidence issues were always there.
‘By the time I went to high school the negative image I had of myself was set and I did not feel good about myself or my body. My need to prove to myself that I was an acceptable person was entrenched.’
Elizabeth graduated with good marks and then moved to the city where she got a job with a friendly group of people. After some further study she moved to a new area with a new supervisor who began to harass her.
‘I coped with his behaviour for 12 months. I was too scared to report it and I didn’t know how to report it. A year or so later he started stalking me. He used to put notes under my door with horrible descriptions and I had to report the behaviour.’
Elizabeth’s employers moved her to another area but by then it was too late.
‘I’d endured too much and the sexual abuse as a child coupled with just no confidence and an inability to communicate just completely overwhelmed me. I was so close to a nervous breakdown that my doctor recommended that I enter the psychiatric unit as a voluntary patient to seek treatment.’
It wasn’t a miracle cure, but Elizabeth did find the treatment helpful.
‘The only thing I could really come to terms with was that the abuse as a child wasn’t my fault. We never talked about the nitty-gritty of it in those sessions but I was able to take on board that it wasn’t my fault.’
Since then, Elizabeth has talked about the abuse with her mother and her husband.
‘Fortunately I’ve met and married a wonderful man who’s incredibly patient, and accepts me warts and all. But it breaks my heart. I wish I was a better person for him. He knows I was abused but he doesn’t know the details. We don’t have a good sexual relationship and we don’t have any children.’
Elizabeth was always reluctant to report the abuse to police while her parents were alive, but now that both have died she is considering her options. She said she hoped her story could go some way to protecting others. In the meantime she continues to struggle with the ongoing impacts.
‘I know I have a lot of good things in life, don’t get me wrong, I’m not crying “Woe is me”. But I cry for the opportunities and experience that the sexual abuse deprived me of. I’m getting sick and tired of putting up a facade to other people when underneath I hurt like hell.
‘I hate the guy that did it to me. He was in charge of innocent children and instead of nurturing us he used us for his own personal gratification. That’s so inexcusable. I don’t live the memories of the day but the consequences have influenced who I am. Every now and then something does happen and it opens the ugly can of worms.’