Harriet Sally's story

Harriet was very young when she was sexually abused by her uncle, Oscar Smith, and his friend Ben McDonald. Because she was so young, her memories of that time are patchy. She remembers some things in vivid detail – ‘I can tell you what the bed looked like, I can tell you where it was, how the room was laid out, how the whole floor plan of the house was laid out in that place’ – but Harriet can’t recall many details of the abuse itself.

At first, Harriet’s parents had no idea the abuse was happening. Caught up in their own problems, they separated in the early 1960s when Harriet was seven. Left to raise the children on her own, Harriet’s mother was soon overwhelmed, so Harriet and her siblings were made wards of the state and put into foster care in a nearby home in regional New South Wales.

In foster care Harriet was free from Smith and McDonald, and suffered no sexual abuse. Harriet remained a ward of the state for the rest of her childhood, but after a short stay in foster care she was sent back to her mother. Almost immediately, Smith and McDonald began abusing her again.

One day the police got involved. Harriet remembers a tall policeman ‘standing in a doorway’ and a nurse examining her. After that, Smith and McDonald went away. At the time Harriet knew something was happening but she didn’t understand it.

Decades later Harriet tracked down a relative who helped her to fill in the gaps and build a fuller picture of what had happened. Her mother had ‘found some underwear or something’ and realised that Harriet was being abused. She reported McDonald to police, and he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years' jail. Harriet’s uncle, Oscar Smith, was not reported to police, but he left and Harriet never saw him again.

As Harriet grew older she came to believe more and more that she had somehow caused or attracted the abuse – ‘something I was doing was wrong’. This feeling was reinforced when, at age 14, she got a job at a shop and ended up being sexually abused by her boss multiple times.

Eventually Harriet just ‘had enough’ and tried to kill herself. ‘And I remember my mother telling me later they said to make arrangements, I wasn’t coming back, because they had to start my heart twice.’

Soon after that she decided to get out of town. She went away to a training college and then to work. She married young and had several kids, but not as many as she would have liked. In her late 20s she had to have a hysterectomy. ‘And I often wonder if it’s related back [to the abuse]. But it’s not something you sort of say to your GP.’

In addition to these physical problems, Harriet also struggled emotionally when it came to sexual intimacy.

‘Not just the trust thing – I don’t know if it’s just me or others feel the same, the sexual side of it too. To me, they might just say something or do something that’s meaningless to anyone else, but it’s something that jogs your memory and then you just go cold.’

Harriet’s marriage ended in divorce. Still, her children and grandchildren are all doing well. Harriet has never told them about the abuse – aside from the Royal Commission and one friend, she’s never told anyone. This is partly because she still doesn’t understand much of what happened to her.

‘I was hoping there was some way I could find out, like I said, what actually happened. I know that sounds a bit horrible but I was a young child … was it full penetration or was it not?

'I don’t know that, and I supposed for closure for myself I needed to find out if there was some way I could find that out, from documents or whatever … I supposed I was after answers, and I thought of writing like a small diary about it all, so that when I’m not here, the children might understand.’

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