‘I’ve tried hard to bring my education level up to what it should be but it was just impossible. You just kept getting put down and down and down. I think all my potential was stolen. I think my soul was stolen.’
Herb was the eldest sibling in a large Aboriginal family from South Australia, where survival was a daily struggle.
‘My first memories are my father assaulting my mother all the time. We’d go, if I can recall, five or six days without food … we used to go and steal things to feed the other children because we were just so hungry, there was nothing. My father was an alcoholic, he was pretty much drunk six days a week. Pretty bad. And the bashings and everything that we got from him.’
In the mid-1960s, when Herb was six, he and his siblings were taken from their parents and made wards of the state. They were malnourished and, under the law as it stood at the time, charged with child neglect. Herb said this made him feel like it was their own fault they were taken away.
He was separated from his brothers and sisters and sent to a boys’ home, which he said was ‘horrific’. He was subjected to cruel punishments including, once, being made to eat his own vomit when he was sick.
At the home a nightwatchman would come around with a torch and check on the boys in their dorms. Herb said he would lie there, hoping the man wouldn’t come into his room, but he often did. As he was pretending to tuck Herb into bed, the nightwatchman would place his hands under the blankets and fondle his genitals.
This went on for a long time and Herb said he still has difficulty sleeping because of it. It also affected his relationship with his own children.
‘I could never go into my children’s bedrooms of a night time and tuck them in or kiss them goodnight or anything like that, it was just too painful … it was like a force field was there.’
When he was about nine, he went into foster care. The family had a niece with an intellectual disability, Jenny, who would often stay at the house. Jenny used to go into Herb’s bedroom at night, fondle his genitals and force him to digitally penetrate her.
He said her behaviour scared him, but ‘as it gets done so often to you it becomes like it’s natural, you don’t know any other, you don’t know any different’.
As he entered his teens he developed a very high sexual appetite, which he said now would be picked up on as evidence of having been sexually abused. At the time however, he was simply told he was abnormal.
When he complained about Jenny’s behaviour, he was sent back to the boys’ home. This time he was in with the older boys, and he was regularly sexually assaulted by them in the showers. One particular boy would strip him naked and force him to have oral and anal sex.
‘When we did try to say something we were shut up, you know we were bound or beaten in the homes. In the end you wouldn’t say anything because you knew what was going to happen.’
The sexual abuse continued until he was fostered out to another family, where there were about five other foster kids. He said the foster mother was very violent, and he witnessed a lot of sexual activity between the children there. Welfare officers never came to check on them. When he was 15 he ran away and was sent back to the home, where he stayed until his release at 17.
He said he coped with the abuse during those years by putting himself in a different state of reality and disassociating from it. But that set up patterns of behaviour where, ‘in the end, you disassociate yourself from everyone’.
He said he never let anyone get too close to him, and his marriage eventually broke down.
‘None of these places have ever shown any love towards us. It’s very hard to show the same compassion, as you’re getting on, because the role models you were supposed to have haven’t showed you anything. And you don’t know anything better.’
He kept the abuse secret for a very long time, only disclosing to his then partner in the early 2000s. Over the years he got heavily into drugs and alcohol and had suicidal thoughts. He’s now on multiple medications for mental health conditions, and sees a counsellor.
One of the enduring impacts on Herb was growing up barely knowing his brothers and sisters, something that troubles him greatly.
‘Why wasn’t I told what was actually happening in my family? It was six months after my grandfather died that I was told. You wouldn’t even get up to date on the progress of your parents or acknowledge they were still alive or even your siblings. I remember a five year gap where I didn’t even know whether they were alive or dead.'
‘Even when we were teenage kids, to be honest, if you wanted to go out with anyone you’d actually have to ask them what their real names were and whether they were fostered out because you just didn’t want to interact with your brothers and sisters. It’s true.’
However, he is now making efforts to research his past and reconnect with his Aboriginal culture, with the help of an Aboriginal support service. And he has gone back to doing something he was never allowed to do in the boys’ home or foster homes – painting.
‘I’m trying to get back into doing the art. I’m doing it for myself. I’m trying to make changes in my life and do things that were taken away from me. It’s never too late, it’s just taking a little bit longer.’