Lara described her mother as a woman who never knew what she wanted ‘and lived her dreams through me’. So when Lara, then a teenager, asked permission to live permanently at the alternative community centre that she’d been visiting every weekend for the past few months, her mother enthusiastically agreed.
The centre had two leaders, a man called Harrison, and a woman called Nina. Unofficially, Nina acted as a kind of guardian over Lara and the other kids. ‘Much more of an authority than a maternal figure’, Lara said, adding that both Nina and Harrison were ‘violent people’ who created an atmosphere of terror and obedience which paved the way for the abuse that followed. She told the Commissioner:
‘The kind of people who were drawn into the community were people a bit like my mum who were really vulnerable and didn’t really have their own sense of who they were, and the community did provide this structure. You didn’t have to worry about anything. There was no uncertainty in the world in terms of “I know where my food’s coming from, I know where I live, I know what I’ve got to do every day, I don’t have to question anything”.’
When Harrison started to groom and then sexually abuse Lara, no one challenged his behaviour. Lara said it was a ‘very slow, gradual process’ that started with touching. There were eventually regular sessions of sexual intercourse.
At this stage Lara was studying high school by correspondence and barely spoke with her mother, so she was effectively sealed off from the outside world. She said that she was so naive that even when she saw other girls visiting Harrison before and after her ‘sessions’ she didn’t comprehend that they were also being abused.
When Lara was in her late teens, Harrison ‘lost interest’ and abused her less frequently. Lara carried on with life as usual until one morning the centre awoke to discover that Nina had packed up and left in the night, leaving behind only a brief note urging everyone to look after Harrison.
It was ‘Lord of the Flies’ after that, with kids running wild and disappearing for days. Harrison became increasingly violent and erratic. Fortunately, Lara was an enthusiastic student and kept her head together by focusing on her final high school exams.
After school she drifted away from the community, spending more and more time in the city with her boyfriend. But she remained thoroughly ‘brainwashed’, which was why she didn’t realise what a bombshell she was dropping one day when she mentioned Harrison’s sexual abuse to her mother.
‘She said, “Well, why did Nina leave?” I said, “I don’t know. Probably because of what he was doing to the kids”. She said, “What do you mean what he was doing to the kids?” I said, “You know, having sex”.’
Lara’s mum ‘completely freaked out’. She made some of her own investigations and then called the police.
Harrison was charged and convicted of multiple offences against children. He served about a year in prison before successfully appealing several of his convictions.
During the trial, Lara felt detached and unmoved. ‘It took me years to snap out of my not knowing it was wrong, what the fuss was about. All I knew was I felt enormous shame my whole life, and that I was looked at like I was some sort of dirty slut.’
For a decade after the abuse, Lara also suffered from physical and psychological problems. In her late 20s she sought treatment.
‘Once I was diagnosed with the major depressive disorder I was put on a medication regime and I did some very intensive cognitive therapy for over a year every single week and it really set me up for a much more stable life.’