‘I was very young when I went in; three, something like that … My dad died and then my mum started drinking a lot and became an alcoholic. Then we were taken off her.’
Marelle and her siblings became wards of the state in the mid-1960s. The girls were placed in a Sydney orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy, while their brothers went to a different institution.
At the orphanage Marelle was regularly beaten and forced to drink castor oil. ‘They just treated us really badly … If I wet the bed they’d make me carry the sheet around … We weren’t allowed to look at ourselves in the mirror. We weren’t allowed to wash our hair once a week. I’d jump into bed with my sister when it stormed and that, and they just used to say we were dirty and that God was gonna get us and nobody wanted us and Mum didn’t want us, that we were no good.’
The nuns would often tell the girls that ‘men are evil’ while simultaneously sending them on weekend placements with men who had not had background checks. Although Marelle was never sexually assaulted on these placements she was frequently physically and psychologically abused.
The nuns would also try to convince Marelle that her stepfather had sexually abused her when she had no recollection of that ever occurring. She learned later, in spite of her protestations, that the nuns claimed Marelle had reported it. ‘One of my first memories was when one of the nuns had me on her knee and was trying to convince me that my stepdad had done stuff to me when he hadn’t. And I found out later on that they had accused him of that and I had to apologise for that when I got older.’
On some weekends Marelle was able to return home to her mother, who was almost always too drunk to care for her children. It was during this time that Marelle’s grandfather took the opportunity to sexually abuse her.
‘He’d come into the bedroom and he’d do stuff to me. And I still feel ashamed and I couldn’t tell anybody ‘cause he’d say “You’re never gonna see your mother again if you tell anybody”.
‘Later on in life I realised he was doing it to my sisters and my brother as well. And then I realised that he’d done it to my mum, because my grandmother killed herself.’ The abuse continued ‘up until I left the orphanage, 14 and nine months. And then when I left I never went back there. I was in the streets within a week of leaving the orphanage’.
During her time in care Marelle was never taught any life skills. While living on the streets she became pregnant with her first child, but still refused to return to the home where her grandfather had abused her for so many years. She became an alcoholic and felt incapable of relating to people if she wasn’t drinking. ‘I’m socially awkward when I’m sober.’
Eventually Marelle met the man who would be her husband for over 20 years. She disclosed her abusive childhood to him and he was very supportive.
‘I was lucky that my kids’ dad actually rescued me for a while and my kids were my life … He was the only person I told. He was good for me. He helped me get through a lot of stuff … And he just loved me.’
As an adult Marelle experiences guilt over being what she believes was an unfit parent. ‘I don’t do well with people. I couldn’t go to my kids’ school because I was intimidated by the teachers … So my kids didn’t really get much of a chance. All I could do was show them that I loved them.’ However, one of Marelle’s daughters, who supported her mother at the Royal Commission, told a different side to the story.
‘When I sit down and talk and I can go “Hey, no wonder why you are the way you are. The things that happened to you are going to be a long-term effect if you can’t deal with those”. She’s never spoken really to anyone about the things that happened … I don’t know how I would cope if that’s how I had’ve been in that situation …There might have been issues along the way but Mum always showed us that loving and taught us to be happy with who we are and never hide those feelings.’
Currently Marelle lives in crisis accommodation but is being assisted by the Salvation Army and will hopefully have a home of her own one day. ‘I want my own place and I want to be able to be normal.’ She has received counselling in the past relating to her parenting skills, but has never discussed the sexual abuse nor reported it to the police. ‘I still feel shameful.’
Although she no longer drinks excessively and has built strong relationships with her children, Marelle is still trying to come to terms with the impacts of her childhood.
‘I do have triggers. Even some smells and stuff like that. Or confrontation, I can feel if there’s any confrontation in a room, even in a hotel. Somebody starts to get agro and I am out of there …
‘Not being able to give my children the life that they should have had, not learning how to live and interact with people. And just being intimidated by most people because I never thought I was good enough for anyone ... And I feel ashamed that I couldn’t be there for my children. And I’m proud of all of them, they’re really, really wonderful human beings.’