Gerry placed two photographs of herself on the table and said, ‘This was the little girl sexually molested as a child’. The photos were taken around the time she was removed from her troubled family and sent to live in an orphanage, and they remained visible while Gerry read out a detailed statement.
In the mid-1960s, Gerry was separated from her siblings and placed in an orphanage in Victoria that was run by Nazarene nuns. ‘Alone and absolutely terrified’, Gerry suffered abuse almost immediately. She was hit with rulers and brush handles, ‘smashed’ head first into a wall, and pulled by the hair ‘so hard and so viciously’ that the nun who did it was left holding hair in her hands.
Gerry was humiliated for wetting the bed and during underwear checks, and was forced to wear ill-fitting shoes which deformed her growing feet. By night, she shivered in a cold, wet bed and would cry and rock herself to sleep.
And by day, ‘I would hang onto this fence with my little fingers poking through hoping my father would come and take me away from this horrible place’.
‘My time at [the orphanage] robbed me of my innocence, and set the benchmark of who I would become: frightened, petrified, scared, fearful, not worthy, introverted, isolated, segregated, sad and constantly suicidal. I should have been allowed to be a child, one who was happy and content, not looking over my shoulder to see where the next beating was coming from … I was like a trained animal, knowing when to eat, sit, stand or pray. My personality was destroyed by the very people that were supposed to protect me.’
In the late-1960s, before Gerry had turned 10, she was sent to another orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy who were ‘just as cruel’.
‘I lived in a climate of fear,’ she said. She recalled being beaten for the slightest reason and forced to eat sago which she had vomited back into her bowl. Worked like a ‘slave’ by Sister Mary, Gerry fed, bathed, dressed and cared for the younger children. ‘I was never able to go and play and be a normal child as the chores were constant, and never let up. There was no play time,’ she said. ‘No one loved me or cared for me. I was a nobody.’
When her sister Kitty arrived, Gerry didn’t know her because they had never bonded. ‘I would lay in bed of a night listening to my little sister rock back and forth to sleep. I remember how I would place my hands over my ears so as not to hear as it brought back to me what I did’ at the other orphanage, she said.
Gerry was sexually abused by the father of a Catholic family that, like many others, took in orphans during the school holidays. Knowing now that such families were not assessed by the Church or the police, Gerry feels that as a state ward she was ‘unworthy of being loved or capable of showing love to anyone’. Subsequent holiday periods made her anxious. ‘I used to cry, telling Sister Mary I didn’t want to go, as I couldn’t tell her that I had been sent to another holiday family where the father of the family had touched me.’
Gerry told no one about the physical and sexual abuse. ‘I was scared of the governments ‘cause they let me down, I was scared of police because it was a police car that took me away.’ And besides, she said, ‘the experience was frightening enough where your soul leaves your body and it’s up in a corner of the room; while he’s touching your physical being your soul’s already left’.
After giving birth in her late teens, and overcoming the feeling that she was ‘not good enough’, Gerry managed to keep her daughter Rachel who has stood beside her on the ‘battlefield’ of her life.
Each time Gerry’s lifelong ‘darkness’ drove her to attempt suicide, she was ‘fixed up’ with inadequate ‘Band-Aid’ medication and treatment, and ‘sent back out to the battlefield’. She is malnourished because ‘eating vomit’ has made eating unappealing. She hates being touched, suffers from chronic foot problems, and because she is on a government pension and in public housing, feels ‘still controlled to an extent’.
Despite this, Gerry has been ‘fighting the fight’ for Forgotten Australians. ‘I do a lot of advocating work,’ she said. ‘I’m good when I’m dealing with other people’s problems, but when it comes to mine, I run. I run. I don’t want to know.’
However, when a national apology was issued to the Forgotten Australians, Gerry ‘opened Pandora’s box’ and released the ‘secret’ she had harboured ‘for 40 long years’. She took reading and literacy classes at TAFE in order to write submissions and speeches, and she took part in inquiries into institutional child abuse and redress in Victoria.
However, despite her determination, Gerry was not always ‘psychologically ready’ to tell her story. ‘I was going to talk to youse two years ago,’ she told the Commissioner, ‘but because of the fragile state I was in, I still wasn’t strong enough’. While waiting or the date of her private session she became anxious and disengaged. After listening to evidence given by a Catholic clergyman during a Commission hearing, she attempted to take her own life.
This had been a turning point. Rachel said, ‘This was the first time I actually didn’t have to make the excuses. All I had to say was that she was an orphan, she’s re-traumatised … and it was, “Say no more, we understand”. It’s because it’s out there in the public arena.’ Gerry finally received a thorough mental health assessment, and now has a ‘wonderful triage team’ providing her with holistic care.
Within months, supported by Rachel and caseworkers, Gerry attended her private session and said, ‘I’m shutting Pandora’s box this year … I’ve handed it to you now. It’s not my problem anymore … I’m not carrying this anymore. This isn’t my problem. Here you go, you deal with it. It’s not my guilt, my shame …’
Gerry is now planning to speak with the police and engage with the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing process, despite being ‘frightened of giving the Church power again to make a judgment of her worth’. She has also promised herself that she will focus on bringing ‘light’, ‘music’ and ‘colour’ into her life.
Gerry recounted that before her recent engagement with health services, Rachel had been ‘the only one that’s picked me up on the battlefield of life, and she’s had to do that as a little child, like I did looking after all these little children’. Rachel’s childhood was spent ‘walking on eggshells’ while ‘mothering’ her ‘heavily sedated’ parent who she thought ‘was schizophrenic’. Much of this was done while they were living in a situation of severe domestic violence.
Although Rachel now had ‘an explanation’ for her mother’s condition, she noted that ‘it’s not going to give me back my childhood’. The need to be vigilant and ‘save’ her mother had been a constant in her life.
‘It’s relentless,’ Rachel said. ‘It never stops. There’s no holiday. There’s no, “I’ll move abroad because she’s okay”, because then she’d feel abandoned again … I don’t make plans for the future anymore. I just don’t.’ Rachel described it as ‘a different sort of incarceration’, and asked, ‘Has anyone considered what this has done to the next generation?’
Rachel wondered whether she herself had post-traumatic stress disorder, and the thought of finding out ‘actually frightens’ her. ‘I worry about opening up my own Pandora’s box … I don’t feel I have the support to do that … I feel like a plane that has an inability to crash, and I’m just bouncing. I’ve been bouncing for 40 years, from one crappy thing to the next … When will the mothering stop? … I just feel like there is no end in sight.’