Her mother was raped on the ship bringing her from Europe to Australia in the late 1950s. So when Larisa was born with disabilities, her Roman Catholic and unwed mother, who was joining other members of her family in Victoria, intended her baby to be adopted.
But it was not possible at the time, due to Larisa’s predominant physical disability that affected her movement. Larisa was made a ward of the state until she was 21, which was longer than usual.
In the late 1960s Larisa was sent regularly from a residential care facility in Melbourne to a holiday host couple, Denise and Herb, who lived on a farm near a small town in rural Victoria.
One night she was taken to the drive-in theatre by Charles, a friend of the couple. He was the town bank manager ‘for quite some time’, Larisa told the Royal Commission.
‘Charles was in the driver’s seat and I was in the middle, and another kid was on the other side’, Larisa said of her only clear recollection. ‘I remember him taking my hand and putting it on his penis.’
Larisa is not sure how many times she was sexually abused by Charles between the ages of eight and 12. She ‘suspects there were other instances’.
She asked a counsellor why it was ‘that I don’t remember everything’ and was told she ‘might have suppressed quite a lot of stuff’ as her recollection is ‘quite blurred’.
But the impact of the sexual abuse, together with the physical and psychological abuse Larisa suffered from cottage parents at a second residential facility, has affected her ever since.
‘The first set of cottage parents I had only lasted a year. They sucked.’ Larisa was physically and emotionally abused, dragged out of her bed and forced to look in the mirror, whereupon she was repeatedly told she was ugly and deformed.
‘The nuns [who ran the facility] found out, knew something was wrong’, Larisa said. ‘So they got a second lot of cottage parents … It is what it is.’
Overall the sexual and psychological abuse – about which Larisa did not complain at the time – ‘has affected my ability to trust people, my ability to speak up if I am uncomfortable with something. It made me feel uncomfortable about sex and intimacy. It made me frightened of being vulnerable and sharing it.
‘I started to put a wall between me and other people. I think it also contributed to putting other people’s needs before mine – always trying to please people.’
With her disability, the abuse also ‘added to feelings of being different and on the outside’.
‘It has left me with confusion about whether this sexual abuse influenced my sexuality, and what this has meant for my intimacy. All these things’, she said, influenced her ability to have long-term relationships and robbed her of unrealised possibilities.
‘At times it made me question and blame myself for what he [Charles] did. What was it about me that made him do that? If I had been a boy would he have done that?’
Larisa wanted to have children, but the abuse affected her perception of her own body, sexual intimacy and feelings.
‘I feel like the development of my sexuality and sexual experiences was interrupted and stunted.’
She came to the Commission in the hope that she would not ‘feel alone anymore … I feel talking about this is an important part of my healing journey’.
In the 1980s Larisa was able to access her adoption file and discovered members of her extended family. However, her meeting with her grandfather ‘ended quite badly’.
A decade later she made her only contact with her mother in a telephone call. Later still, she learned that ‘I am the product of rape’ but has forgiven her mother and understands the circumstances of why she has shunned contact.
More recently, Larisa contacted one of her siblings to warn the family that hers was an inheritable disability. ‘It can happen again. And they had a right to know.’
A younger brother was shocked to learn of Larisa’s existence and demanded proof – which she provided.
Larisa recalls feeling ‘relieved’ when she found out Charles had died. She has never talked of his abuse with her former holiday host, Denise.
‘I just don’t want to connect with her anyway. Do I blame her? I suppose in some ways I do because I feel like she should have known not to send me out with an adult male she didn't know.’
However, Larisa has ‘always wondered … whether he actually did it to anybody else?’ –and in case he did, she acknowledges it ‘would be useful’ for the police to hear from her.
Larisa found it ‘quite powerful’ to declare before a commissioner that ‘I am a survivor of sexual abuse’. She has never self-medicated with drugs or alcohol.
‘I could have gone down that path and I made a decision very young that I wouldn’t do that … It’s not going to change the reality of what happened.’
Larisa wanted to stress she was grateful to have a diversity perspective from her placement in mainstream, rather than disabled, residential facilities.
Her non-English speaking background and state ward status, she said, had bigger impacts on her than her disability – which others might not appreciate.
Even so ‘sexuality was for me that first area that had greater impact’ than any other factor.
She told the Commissioner: ‘I just want to say I don’t know how you sit on the other side and hear all the stories … I want to acknowledge you for stepping into the role and making a difference.’