In the early 1950s, to cover up the bruises caused by her ‘very cruel’ mother, teenage Gwen wore slacks to her school in suburban Sydney. However, one sports day, the PE teacher noticed the bruises beneath her short tunic. Gwen said, ‘they were all over me legs, up me back, over the backs of me arms, and I just said, “Me mother done it” … The teacher just said to me, “This can’t go on”’.
Gwen was then taken to the police station where she was locked in a cell. Not allowed to go home, or to stay with her father who lived separately from the family, Gwen was then made a ward of the state and sent to a government-run girls’ home in western Sydney.
Gwen wasn’t scared to go to the home because she knew that her sister Clare and friend Sally would look after her. Clare and Sally were bigger and older than Gwen, and protected her from ‘cruel’ residents who used to bash younger girls in the shower ‘dungeon’ or ‘if they got goodies from their parents’. If Clare and Sally ‘were locked in solitary confinement there’s no way in the world I’d have a shower’, Gwen said. ‘No chance.’
However, Gwen had no protection against the staff who checked her virginity the minute she arrived. The staff were not nurses. ‘Unless you had a bad cut or something like that, you were lucky if you seen the nurse’, Gwen said. ‘If they wanted to know if you were, whatever, they’d just put their hand in there and, whatever.’
Among the ‘screws’, Gwen remembered ‘kind’ Mrs Kelly who took her shopping or back to her house on days out, or to visit Clare who was eventually admitted to a psychiatric centre because, Gwen said, ‘it affected her more than what it affected me’.
Another ‘screw’ was ‘nasty’ Mrs Ryan who threw cast iron keys in Gwen’s face, and got stuck into her after outings with Mrs Kelly. Mrs Ryan ‘just didn’t like me, and I didn’t like her’, Gwen said.
‘I can fight, don’t get me wrong, but I would never ever hit her. If I did, I think I would’ve killed her … Well, you just don’t hit people … You just don’t do them things.’
As well as being hit, Gwen was forced to scrub floors with a toothbrush that she was then expected to use to clean her teeth. She was also humiliated when she got her first period. ‘You had to hold your sheets up and show everybody. And that’s when we used to get hosed by the fire hose, you know, to make us clean, because we should have known about it. In front of everybody, that used to happen.’
In addition to a virginity check, Gwen and the other girls had to submit to routine internal examinations, especially after visitors left on Sunday. ‘If they thought that you had drugs or anything, everybody would have to go down for a search. Well, sometimes they’d think that you’d put something in your vagina. Well, they wouldn’t care. They put their hand in, and they’d feel … That’s what they done.’
These examinations caused irreparable damage. ‘I can’t remember whether it ever happened to me but there were feather dusters used, the end of the feather duster used, but I know when I was 17 I had to have a hysterectomy because my insides are stuffed.’ Gwen remembered being in ‘heaps of pain’, and went on to say ‘some things I block out, and some things I don’t. Just can’t be bothered thinking about ‘em … otherwise you’d go mad’.
When Gwen left the home at 15, she lived with Clare’s foster mother Ellen George. Ellen adopted ‘quite a few girls’ from the home, and her son Harry always called Gwen ‘his sister’, never ‘his foster sister or anything’. ‘She was the best mum, and he was the best. I used to call him Pop. I was his little Cinderella’, Gwen said. ‘They were the best set of parents I ever had.’
In her late teens, Gwen went to a boys’ home in regional New South Wales and ‘kidnapped’ her brother. He was free for a short time, until the police caught them and took him back. ‘I was lucky I didn’t go to jail’, Gwen said.
In her early 20s, after she’d married her ‘good husband’ Alex, Gwen had better luck hiding another sibling from the authorities. Knowing ‘what went on in homes’ there was ‘no chance in the world’ that she would send her younger sister Dawn back to the Catholic home she’d run away from. Dawn moved in, and the authorities ‘looked for her for years’.
Gwen became close to Dawn, and told her about the abuse in the home. ‘She knows what went on with me … And when I said, “Did anything like that happen to you?” she’d just walk away from me. She won’t answer me.’
Gwen told no one else about the abuse, not even her husband Alex. If anyone else ever inquired, she’d simply say ‘go to jail and find out’. She has never seen a counsellor, and sees no need to. ‘Why would I? I know what went on. Why would I tell a counsellor?’
Essentially, Gwen dealt with her experiences by blocking out her memories and making herself ‘tough’.
‘I try not to let too much worry me because, if you do, it’ll just get you down, it’ll drag you down’, she said. ‘You hear people saying oh they had a bad childhood … That’s an excuse, it is an excuse. You want to get out and better yourself.’
Gwen left the workforce in the 1990s due to a health condition, and is now cared for by Alex who is ‘the best’ husband. She gets sad when she thinks about Ellen who is ‘in heaven now’, and she likes to visit Harry a couple of times a week, and speaks to Dawn on the phone every day.
Gwen’s childhood protector and sister Clare took her own life in her late 20s. Gwen still regularly puts flowers on her grave.
As for the people who hurt Gwen so brutally in the home, ‘those people would be dead by now … what can you do?’