Laurence told his wife that he was coming to the Royal Commission to talk about something that he witnessed at school. In fact, he came to talk about the sexual abuse he’d suffered at the hands of his high school art teacher, Brett Farrow.
The abuse began in the late 1960s when Laurence was a 14-year-old student at a state high school in South Australia. One day in class Farrow suggested that Laurence come with him on a weekend excursion out bush to do some sketching. To Laurence, it sounded like an opportunity for adventure.
When the weekend came, Farrow arrived at Laurence’s place with a car full of boys. He took them all out to a river and dared them to strip off and go skinny-dipping, which they did. On the way home he told Laurence that he’d pick him up next Sunday for another outing.
One week later: ‘He picked me up, and there was no other boys in the car. I was terrified, actually, but I felt I couldn’t say “Take me home” or anything like that’.
Farrow led Laurence to a secluded spot out in the bush and threw a playboy magazine into his lap.
‘I wasn’t particularly interested. I was a 14-year-old boy. I felt obliged to sort of look through the pages. Next minute his hand’s across my lap fondling me, and it sort of went from there. So I pushed his hand away several times but he pushed my hand out of the way and kept going. I felt I didn’t have any power.’
Months of Farrow’s calculated grooming had brought Laurence to a point where, in the face of the teacher’s overwhelming influence, he felt trapped, ‘psychological bound and alone’.
A few weekends later, Farrow took Laurence out for another ‘excursion’, and another one after that, and so it went for months. If Laurence refused to come along, Farrow would punish him by giving him D-grades on all his schoolwork.
Laurence knew he couldn’t tell his parents: Farrow had groomed them too. He was a regular guest in the house, often sitting down with the family for Sunday dinner just hours after he’d abused Laurence.
Prior to the abuse, Laurence had been a lively, disruptive kid. Afterwards, as he became increasingly withdrawn, his parents misinterpreted this as a good thing. ‘My dad made the comment that Laurence seems much more settled since he’s been going out with Brett.’
Unable to rely on his parents’ protection, Laurence tried whatever else he could to escape Farrow’s Sunday excursions. Driving home from church with the family he would pray that Farrow’s car would not be there, waiting. When prayers failed he became obstinate, refusing to go. He asked his parents to go out and inform Farrow of his decision, but they insisted that he tell the teacher himself.
‘So I went to tell him I wasn’t going, and he used to talk me around to going … He would challenge me until I gave in.’
When Farrow invited him on a camping trip, Laurence came up with a new plan. ‘I thought, what I’ll do is I’ll get my older brother to come along because surely he can protect me.’
That night, Farrow arranged for the boys to sleep either side of him on a mattress in the back of his car.
‘Then he turned over, turned his back to my brother and then he abused me in the back of the car. In front of my brother. And I don’t know if he tried to abuse my older brother the same night. I don’t know. He didn’t seem to have any boundaries.’
Desperate and scared, Laurence tried a new tactic – one that filled him with so much guilt he still seeks counselling for it to this day.
‘I said, “I won’t go” – but, sort of so I gave him an out, I just actually said to him, “My younger brother might go with you”. So then he homed in on my younger brother.’
In total, Laurence endured Farrow’s abuse for about three years. It petered out around the same time that Laurence got his first girlfriend.
Years passed but Farrow’s psychological hold on Laurence never slipped.
‘He had such power over me that after we got married my wife and I were going off on a camping trip and Brett would invite himself to our camping trip. We’d be camped in our tent and he’d be camped in his car over yonder. He just had so much control. He kept invading [my life] until he died.’
Laurence first disclosed the abuse in the early 1990s. Extreme stress at work had driven him to seek counselling and he opened up during a session one day. When the sessions were done he re-buried the story and went back to work for another 10 years. The story clawed its way back to the surface one night when he was stuck in a small town away from his family.
‘I partied a little bit with the boys and that turned into self-harm, so I ended up burning holes in my arm with a cigarette. I sort of woke up the next morning and realised what I’d done so I went to the doctor and they sent me to a counsellor and hospitalised me for a week.’
Other than the counsellors, Laurence has never told anyone about the abuse. He thinks that his wife might have guessed the truth, but they’ve never talked about it. He’s afraid that she might label him.
To explain this fear, Laurence told the Commissioner about a woman at his church who faces a similar problem. She suffers from bipolar disorder and ‘if she acts a bit happy the comment goes amongst a couple of people is that, “Oh she’s on a high”. [But] she might be just happy’.
Likewise, Laurence worries that if he tells his wife or other people about the abuse:
‘There could be a stigma. She might say something like, “Oh, now it all fits together”. I would then think, so I’ve been in the wrong. It puts a label on me. A sticker: “here’s the abused person … he’s doing that because he’s been sexually abused”. And it might not be anything to do with being sexually abused.’