From the age of two, Gracie was in and out of children’s homes, spending time between the state government’s care and that of her mother. For reasons she doesn’t know, in the 1970s she was sent at the age of 16 to a Christian residential care centre affiliated with the Assemblies of God.
The youngest person there, Gracie was taken out of school and given domestic work to do around the premises. And from the age of 17, she was sexually abused by Pastor Bernie Landon. In later life, Gracie realised Landon was doing the same to other women in the community. He was charismatic, popular and well connected within politics and business circles, she said. He managed to convince people to join the community and donate all their assets and money. Frequently offered medication by Landon, Gracie refused, but looking back she thought many people were probably in a semi-permanent state of sedation.
‘I mean reflecting as an adult, I’d call it a cult’, she said.
‘People didn’t leave, they stayed. And financially, you gave up everything. I used to be puzzled when I was there why people came and they seemed quite okay, next minute they were walking around drugged like zombies. I didn’t used to think anything; you know, he used to talk about everyone having psychotic episodes and being schizophrenic, and of course you believe that at the time. As you get older you can reflect back, well really was this the case?’
As well as working in the community, Gracie held a job in town, one of only a handful of people permitted to do so. She thought it was because Landon knew she ‘had tight lips’, and would never discuss the abuse or other aspects of community life. At work, she’d always refuse social invitations and she didn’t let anyone get to know her. Part of her reticence to speak up was because she’d been sexually abused as a 12-year-old in one of the government institutions she’d been in, and also she said, she was of a generation where ‘you weren’t game to talk’. Having no family also made a difference. ‘Who was I to talk to? I think he knew who to target. He was an evil, cunning man … He knew I was so silent.’
In her 20s, Gracie left the community and severed all ties with Landon. She married and had children but after 10 years the relationship broke down. She’d never been with anyone else because she couldn’t ‘cope with the intimacy’. At one stage during her marriage Gracie had disclosed the abuse to her husband but ‘things turned sour’ and his response was ‘horrific’. She’d never told her children, nor made any report to police.
As an adult, Gracie worked to finish her education and was successful in gaining professional qualifications in the health sector. She’d always been employed and said her strong work ethic that came from her mother had been a safeguard throughout life.
‘My mother was a worker. She was a severe alcoholic, had all of us kids, had five marriages - so you could imagine the shambles. And social security or the mother’s support benefit didn’t come in till the 70s. I’ve sort of worked all this out in my mind and I’m not blaming her, but you know. So working’s been a coping [mechanism] but it’s also been an avoidance.’
Over many years, Landon received state and national awards and honours for his work in the community. Gracie wanted to see him stripped of all of them, though thought it unlikely because he was now deceased. She’d heard that he’d been dismissed as a pastor in another church before he set up the community in which she lived. Better background checks would have been useful, she said, in preventing children like her being placed in his care.
As an adult, Gracie had reconnected with women from the centre who’d also been abused by Landon, but she’d stopped seeing them after a while because the memories were too painful. For several years she had counselling and found it helpful, and knew it was there if she ever needed it again.
Gracie said that aside from work and her children, what got her through was her attitude. ‘I just see good in life’, she said. ‘I probably shine with a positive attitude so that’s probably been my saviour you know, to think there’s a better situation. And been a very good worker too. So I’ve never, alcohol’s never interested me, smoking, drug taking. I’ve been around it, but it’s never interested me, probably the fact of … having an alcoholic mother. That was sad to think you know, a mother. A father you could cope with but when you see your mother it’s pretty horrific and sad.’
‘I have no anger towards my mother. Back in the 70s there was no child support. How does a single mother cope with little children? We all worked her cleaning business from a very young age. As soon as we could wipe a table we were out working. I probably pushed the sexual bit aside because there’s no answers, or you cannot think anything positive in that. That is so wrong. But other things I can think well, I can reason out.’