Lately, Eve has been having flashbacks and nightmares.
She was taken from her family in the early 1950s at age five and sent to an orphanage for Aboriginal children in Western Australia, where she spent the next 10 years. Her recurring nightmare is about going into the toilets at the orphanage.
‘I enter one of the toilets and sit down and do my thing then I hear heavy footsteps coming into the toilets and the toilet doors being pushed open slowly one by one. I can see myself jump off the toilet, pull my panties up and jump up on the toilet seat with my feet off the floor, fists clenched, crying, sweating and trembling. Then the person comes and pushes my toilet door open slowly. I look up and everything goes blank. I cannot remember what happened after that. I wake up shouting, screaming, trembling and in a cold sweat. Something very traumatic must have happened to me that I cannot remember.’
What she does remember is years of hard physical labour working in the kitchen or the laundry for the Benedictine nuns who ran the orphanage. She remembers terrible food, harsh punishments, and regular sexual abuse by the Brothers who came to deliver items or drop off their dirty clothes for washing and mending.
‘By the time we were 13 we were sort of well-developed and back then we didn’t wear the appropriate, you know, like bras or whatever and they always was staring at us and pinching us and whatever.’
One Brother who delivered food to the orphanage would make Eve climb inside the van to pull things out. As she was backing out of the van he would pull her backwards towards him and onto his erect penis.
Two other Brothers who regularly came to the orphanage together would often grope her and other girls where everyone could see, although ‘they made sure the nuns were out of sight’. Eve would shout to try and frighten off the Brothers and get the nuns’ attention.
‘When the nuns came they would blame us, think we were putting on a show so they would clout us around the ear or just with a scrubbing brush or whatever they had in their hands. I think they did [know], but they just didn’t want to do anything about it.’
There was a priest who took older girls into a separate classroom for what he said was sex education classes. One time, Eve looked into the classroom through a keyhole and saw the priest take out his penis and make the older girls masturbate him. One of the nuns caught her looking through the keyhole and punched her in the face. Eve said she’s sure that nun knew what was going on in the room.
Eve said she knew at the time the abuse was wrong, but she couldn’t do anything about it. Back then she couldn’t talk about it with the other girls because there was too much shame. She never reported the abuse to anyone, as there was nobody to tell. She didn’t even know what a policeman was, and no welfare officer ever came to check on her.
An ongoing impact of her time at the orphanage is the lack of education she received. She was only given schooling until half way through Grade 7 and this created significant problems for her after she left. She married and had children, but struggled to find work. She eventually went to further education as an adult and had to relearn everything from scratch.
Eve’s husband also grew up in the same orphanage – in the boys’ section – and their combined traumatic pasts created a lot of difficulty in the relationship, which eventually broke down. Eve went through Redress WA but she didn’t enjoy the process as it brought up a lot of bad memories.
Years later, after going through counselling, Eve was able to talk about her experiences with friends and family with whom she’d managed to reconnect. ‘We all just sat around the table and spoke about things and then they would come out, “Oh, that happened to me”, by the same people, you know.’
Eve’s friends are very important to her, and they support each other in turn. She has also managed to keep her faith and, as she says, ‘cling to hope for healing’. She has been back to the orphanage a few times with her sisters and visited the old toilet block, in the hope of remembering what happened to her there.
‘We have a reunion every year. We didn’t have it last year because we lost a few of the old girls, our friends. We organise it [ourselves]. The nuns are all passed on but the new abbot is pretty good. They are all different … different people there now.’