Hilda was born in country Victoria in the mid 1950s, after her 18-year-old Aboriginal mother was raped by a white man. As a result of her father’s race, Hilda was the only one of her siblings to be light-skinned. The family moved around a lot, and when Hilda was five, they were living in South Australia.
The day before she was supposed to start school, Hilda knew something was wrong. Her mother was packing up Hilda’s few belongings into hessian bags. The next day two women came to the house and told Hilda she was going to live somewhere else because her mum couldn’t look after her. Hilda can still remember being bewildered. ‘When you’re five you don’t understand why your mum can’t look after you,’ she said. And while they weren’t by any means wealthy, Hilda has some happy memories of her time with her family.
At the time it was a common belief that white and Aboriginal children should be kept apart, and with her light skin Hilda, was considered white. So she was taken from her family back to rural Victoria, to live in a boarding house owned by a widow named Marjorie Nessup. Hilda told the Commission, ‘I used to have to chop the wood, make the bread and dig the vegetables. I didn’t get to go to school’.
Nessup was physically abusive. She’d beat the young girl, leaving scars Hilda has ‘till this day. She’d also call her ‘a bad seed’ and say ‘your mother didn’t want you’. Hilda grew up believing this.
The boarding house had three tenants, all men in their 50s, and all alcoholics. Hilda will never forget their names and faces. ‘I remember it all like it was yesterday,’ she said.
The sexual abuse began when Hilda was six or seven years old. One of the men took her to a shed behind the house, touched her genitals and forced her to touch his. After a few months this escalated to penetration, both vaginal and anal. Hilda remembers that Nessup knew about the abuse and not only did nothing to stop it. She even ordered Hilda to go to the shed with the man. The abuse continued for almost six years until Hilda ran away.
The other two tenants began sexually abusing Hilda when she was eight. This continued for three years and only stopped when the men moved out of the house.
Hilda told several people about the abuse, including a teacher and a female police constable, but she either wasn’t believed or nothing was done. When Nessup found out, Hilda was beaten again.
Hilda finally escaped the boarding house when she was 12 and a half. After getting lost in the local bush she was found and taken to the Children’s Court where the judge ordered that she be sent back to Nessup. Hilda then did the only thing she could think of. ‘I picked up a chair and threw it through the window of the court room.’
Hilda was then declared ‘uncontrollable’ and sent to a nearby girls’ home. There she was subjected to a brutal medical examination, where it was discovered Hilda had internal injuries from the sexual abuse, as well as a sexually transmitted disease. ‘They knew who I got it from. I told them,’ she said. Again, nothing was done. In fact, Hilda remembers a man at the home dismissing it by saying, ‘You’re probably a whore like the rest of them’.
Hilda didn’t stay long at the girls’ home. She and a friend ran away and lived rough for a while. ‘We were safer on the streets than we were in foster care. Safer on the streets of St Kilda.’ Eventually, Hilda met some good people who took her in, cared for her and helped her to get a job. Since then, Hilda has continued to work and study, and today she devotes all her time to the Aboriginal community.
Hilda didn’t see her mother for more than four decades. Fifteen years ago, when her mother came to her and asked for forgiveness, Hilda rejected her because she believed what she’d been told - that her mother didn’t want her. When Hilda looked at her mother she remembers that she was ‘so full of anger’. By the time Hilda learnt the truth, her mother had passed away.
‘I don’t remember my mum ever hugging me, but my brothers and sisters all had my mum. And it’s too late to say I know it’s not her fault. She was left powerless. She wasn’t an alcoholic, she wasn’t a drug addict - she was black.’
‘I just want her back. I feel like I’ve had my very heart pulled out.’
Hilda feels the loss of her mother in another, very important way. ‘I never got to learn the stories of my culture. I never got to learn about my people. I didn’t get any of that.’
‘I can remember slashing my arms and peeling bits off my skin because I thought I was black underneath. They took everything from me, that welfare.’
Hilda has never been able to understand why she was taken from her family, and then abandoned. ‘Not once did the welfare come and say “we’d like to check to see if she’s okay”. Not once. When you are put into the hands of a government organisation or institution, you should be safe. They have a duty of care. Why didn’t someone come?
No one did. Not one single person.’
Like her physical scars, Hilda will always carry the impact of the abuse. ‘People say if it happens when you’re little you forget about it, but you don’t.’
‘It’s like having a silent scream. These things get done to you and you learn not to scream any more. You learn not to cry, and try and push them off or fight back, so you just let them do what they want to do, but inside you’re just screaming. And I always call it now “the silent scream”. The scream that can’t be heard.’
‘I’ll die with that hurt.’
Even with the hurt, Hilda doesn’t want compensation. All she wants is an apology to herself and her mother, some small acknowledgement that what was done to them was wrong.
Hilda hasn’t told many people about the abuse she suffered. She said she came to the Commission because, ‘I hope it helps somebody out there’. More importantly, she said that ‘This hasn’t just been for me, it’s for my mum too’.
‘One thing I got from my mum is strength of spirit. Sometimes you can either choose to be a victor or a victim. If you choose to be a victim they win.’
‘I’m not going to be the weak tree. I’m the strong tree. I like to think that. I like to think that the little tree turned out to be the biggest and the strongest of the trees.’
‘Today I know who I am’.