Judith still has the ‘certificate for cheerfulness’ that her son Max was awarded in Grade 3. Throughout those early childhood years, she said, he was always a light-hearted, happy boy.
Then, at 13, Max became suddenly rebellious. A few years later he had his first breakdown. For the next decade and a half he stumbled in and out of dysfunctional relationships and psychiatric hospitals until eventually, in his early thirties, he took his own life.
Judith now knows the reason for the sudden change that overtook Max at age 13: he was being sexually abused by his Year 8 coordinator, Kevin Hewitt.
It was the early 1980s at that time, and Max was attending a Catholic high school in Melbourne. Judith and her husband trusted the school and they trusted Hewitt. They never considered that he might be abusing their son. Instead, they assumed that Max was acting out because of the recent death of his grandfather.
But Max’s behaviour only got worse as he got older. In his mid-teens he moved out to live with his girlfriend. After the relationship ended, Max broke down and was hospitalised. Judith brought him home. ‘But’, Judith said, ‘he was almost in a catatonic state and would not talk to us’.
Still, for the next few years Max seemed to get back on track and eventually moved interstate to make a ‘fresh start’ with a new relationship and a new job. Sadly, the job and relationship fell apart and in the aftermath Max tried to kill himself.
This time when Judith asked Max to come home with her, he refused. Reluctantly, Judith and her husband returned to their lives, anxious and bewildered, unable to understand why Max was so troubled. When Judith tried to blame herself, her other children intervened.
‘My other children used to say, “Mum, we were all brought up in the same house. We don’t have those problems”.’
No one in the family knew the real reason for Max’s behaviour until Max suffered a third breakdown and was hospitalised. At the hospital Judith and her husband participated in a counselling session with Max and a social worker. There, for the first time, Max opened up about Kevin Hewitt and the sexual abuse. Judith went into shock.
‘At the time we didn’t even think about going to the police. I feel a lot of guilt. I think back and I think, it didn’t even occur to us. And I don’t really know why.’
Life improved after Max’s disclosure. He and his girlfriend moved in with Judith for a while until they found a place to rent for themselves. Max seemed a lot better. He would have been okay, Judith believes, if chance hadn’t intervened.
Around this time a close family member died unexpectedly.
‘This was to be the catalyst for everything that happened after. Max could not cope. He and his girlfriend split up … He had yet another breakdown … One evening he came to my home and told me that I would never see him again. He was angry and I was scared.’
Max moved back interstate. A short while later there was a knock on Judith’s door. A police officer informed her that Max had been found dead in a hotel room.
Judith processed her grief by writing her feelings in a journal, something she said was immensely helpful. Talking also helped, and that’s all that Judith wants to do now: talk about her son and let people know the truth of what happened to him. She has no interest in reporting Hewitt to police or suing the school. ‘I don’t blame the school’, she said. ‘I just blame that individual.’
Meanwhile, she has her own life to live.
‘I just think how lucky I am. And I have a wonderful life. I mean, we go overseas nearly every year. I’ve seen a lot of the world. I wish Max had of lived longer. I wish he could have had the things my other children have had, but he can’t. I can’t bring him back no matter what I do. So I think I make the best of the life we have.’