Laurence’s wife has been insisting for years that they take a long holiday and spend the time writing his memoirs. It’s not hard to understand why she’s been so adamant: Laurence’s story has all the struggle and triumph of a Hollywood film.
It began in Sydney the mid-1960s when three-year-old Laurence was discovered malnourished and neglected in his parents’ backyard. He was made a ward of the state and spent the next few years in a government-run orphanage before being moved into the care of his father and his new stepmother.
‘My father married a very young woman called Ruth’, Laurence told the Commissioner. ‘She was really abusive. Now that I’m 52 I can actually say that she literally verged on evil.’
Ruth beat Laurence and locked him in the bathroom for days. When Laurence tried to tell his dad what had happened, Ruth cried and accused him of lying. Laurence then copped a beating from his dad as well.
He was so traumatised that at age six he attempted suicide. It was midsummer and his uncle and stepmother’s parents had gathered at the house for a Sunday roast.
‘I’ve gone on the verandah and I’ve gone, “What’s that?” to my uncle. And it was this bottle. He’s gone, “Don’t worry about that, that’s poison”. It was a coolant of some kind. And I saw that as an opportunity and as soon as their backs were turned I just drank the whole lot.’
Laurence’s uncle, spotting the trouble, forced him to throw up. Laurence was left covered in vomit, so Ruth’s parents stripped his clothes off and in so doing discovered that his body was bruised all over. They quickly concluded that Laurence wasn’t safe in their daughter’s care and sent him to another government-run orphanage.
Here Laurence suffered more abuse. The house mother used to rap the kids over the head with her knuckles until their skulls were covered in lumps. The house father did worse things.
‘He had a storeroom that no one knew about and it was just choca-block full. It looked like a toy warehouse, all these shiny toys and things like that. He used to take kids in there and basically fondle them, well he fondled me.’
When he was done, the house father gave Laurence a toy and sent him on his way.
‘And I was just sitting there and I’ve just gone, “I can’t do this anymore”. And I just knew what I had to do. I got up and I walked down this very long toilet block and I went down to the end cubicle and I took my belt off and I looped it through and then I tied it round my neck. And I gently – because it was on a chain – I gently let myself down. And that’s the last thing I remember.’
The next thing Laurence knew he was on his way to a home in rural New South Wales. The house parents at the new home were ‘exceptional’ and life on the surface improved. But it wasn’t enough. By now Laurence was deeply traumatised and at nine years old he tried again to kill himself.
‘I jumped off a roof, literally. Landed head first on stairs, ended up in a coma for a couple of weeks.’
Upon recovery he received intense psychiatric care and adult dosages of anti-psychotic medication that left him groggy and confused. Over the next few years he spent some time living with his aunty and some time with his dad. It was a period of broken promises. They told him he would get to live with his mum and that he would get a private tutor to help him catch up on his education. None of this ever came true.
Laurence grew into an angry, rebellious boy. At 13 he had an altercation with the police and was sent to a reform centre in Sydney. Looking back he believes that it was this place that planted the anger inside him and set him on the path to prison.
One night he was playing chess when a kid came past and said, ‘Don’t drink the milk’. Laurence had no idea what he was talking about and ignored the comment. A short while later all the boys gathered in the hall for movie night. Laurence saw that there was a single seat left vacant in the middle of the room. He took it, not knowing that the boys had a tradition, encouraged by the staff, of bashing the kid who took the seat.
‘I managed to get a good punch in to the instigator before they landed on me. I was kicking and screaming, swearing. I was in a real state.’
Eventually one of the staff dragged Laurence out of the fray and threw him in a tiny cell. ‘The guy said, “Just relax, I’ll go and get you a milk. Just relax. That’ll settle you down”.’
Laurence drank the milk. He has hazy memories of what happened next. He believes the doctor – a ‘creepy’ man that the boys distrusted – took him somewhere off site where there were other men.
‘You could actually feel yourself being passed around even though you couldn’t focus, you couldn’t use your brain, you couldn’t even use your voice box. You were just useless … I think there was a criminal enterprise there. They were taking children, dragging them off site. I was one of them.’
Laurence didn’t mention the incident to anyone. He buried it inside, surrounding it with a wall of anger and distrust that he carried with him to another boys’ home and then to his father’s place.
One midwinter’s night his father kicked him out onto the street. A few hours later Laurence was settling down to sleep on a park bench when a man approached him.
‘He goes, “Why the long face?” I told him that I was homeless and I’d just been kicked out. And he gave me a number to this address, and he said, “Look, it’s a halfway house. Just tell them that you just got out of the juvenile yards for B and E, break and entering, and they have to put you up”. And I thought, Why not?’
The halfway house turned out to be the base of operations for a group of hardened criminals, including one man who had just finished a 30-year stretch for double murder. The men taught Laurence how to break and enter and used his small size and agility to help them rob houses.
When Laurence was 17 one of the men asked him to join in an armed robbery. Laurence went along, using an antique shotgun that didn’t function. The robbery was a success but Laurence was later caught and given a long jail sentence.
He spent most of the next year or so in solitary confinement, reading everything he could get his hands on.
‘I didn’t want to mix with the rest of the jail, it was too dangerous for me. … Every time I’d be released out of cell confinement I’d go and hit someone, I’d swear at a prison guard and they’d give me another month in solitary confinement where I felt safe and that’s where I did my studies.’
When he was 18 or 19 Laurence applied for a special release option that was available at the time. Miraculously, his application was granted and he walked free.
‘When those doors opened and then they shut behind me, I said, “Just leave your history there”. And I reinvented myself.’
He worked a number of jobs, saved his money, pursued his passion in the arts, bought a business and one night at a party met Kate, the woman who would later become his wife. Twelve years into the relationship, Laurence told her his story. She was supportive then and has been every day since.
Laurence needs this ongoing support. He said that his struggles are not over and probably never will be.
‘It’s that isolation which is really, really scary. That’s probably the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to face. The abuse you can get over but being alone, that realisation when you’re young, that so hardens you.’
Laurence is not alone any more. Kate was with him during his session with the Royal Commission and will be with him when they finally take that holiday.