Gwendolyn was born into a mixed race family living in a Queensland country town during the 1950s. Gwendolyn embraced her father's Aboriginal heritage. She visited his parents often and spoke their language fluently. She said racial conflicts caused her family to move around a lot, but life was ‘good’.
However, when Gwendolyn was 10, her father died. Thereafter her mother forbade the children to speak their Indigenous language or observe any other Aboriginal traditions because, Gwendolyn believes, this brought back painful memories of her husband.
Shortly after her mother had a mental breakdown. ‘My whole family was ripped apart’, Gwendolyn recalls. The children were dispatched to an orphanage in another town, and placed in different areas.
The carers soon began watching Gwendolyn shower, at the lavatory and while getting dressed in her room. She was physically abused by different workers and was often ‘flogged’ for the smallest infraction, largely, she believes, because of her Aboriginality.
On one occasion, Gwendolyn was beaten for protecting her younger brother from being beaten up by a worker. She was hit so hard that she vomited. The worker then forced her to eat her own vomit as further punishment. Gwendolyn contracted a serious illness and tried to tell the person in charge what had happened. She was told she was a liar and hospital treatment was refused.
In the early 1970s, Gwendolyn’s mother came back to collect her children and for several months they lived with her. However, she had another mental breakdown. Gwendolyn and her siblings were then sent to live at a children's home in a different town.
Life was hard at the home; Gwendolyn was belted and starved by the workers, and she never received medical attention. She recalls being forced to brush her teeth until her gums bled. Gwendolyn had to defend her siblings when they were physically abused and as a consequence was refused permission to visit them when the workers housed them apart.
The home’s main carer, Daphne Richards, had a 15-year-old son, Gordon, who sexually abused Gwendolyn. She recalls him saying that she ‘had to do it’ otherwise he would tell lies and get her in trouble with Daphne. The abuse continued for two years.
When Gwendolyn was 14, it all became too much. She ‘lost the plot’ and overdosed on drugs. Gwendolyn was then sent to a psychiatric unit, far away from the children’s home. Here, she was heavily medicated which made her feel like ‘a zombie’. For two years, Gwendolyn was drugged and molested by several different perpetrators.
‘You can say no but saying no didn’t mean anything. People didn’t know that no meant no because you were a nutcase. Who’s going to believe you if you told anyone? I couldn’t tell the psychiatrist, they would think I wanted to get out.’
When she was 16, Gwendolyn was discharged from the psychiatric unit and went back to her mother. She explained that she needed to look after her younger brothers and sisters, who had also returned home. By then, Gwendolyn and her siblings had forgotten their Aboriginal heritage. She still grieves over her loss of cultural identity.
Gwendolyn struggles to trust others, always assuming they wanted something from her. She is suspicious of people in authority. Gwendolyn often feels inferior and vulnerable. She has low self-esteem and can’t maintain relationships. Gwendolyn has several health conditions, and suffers from anxiety and depression.
‘It’s like a great, big bloody monster to me.’
Gwendolyn’s family have suffered significantly from the intergenerational effects of the abuse. Her children have suffered from depression. A granddaughter was taken away by welfare officers, which was devastating.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that Gwendolyn first disclosed the details of the abuse, speaking to a counsellor before engaging in legal action. She received compensation from the orphanage, but was unable to take civil action against the psychiatric unit and the children’s home because apparently her records 'couldn’t be found'.