‘During all this time, all the absconding and whatever, all I ever wanted to do was get home. Even though I don’t think I liked Mum very much at that point I just wanted to get home to Mum. I wanted to have a mum.’
One day in the late 1950s, five-year-old Margery and her siblings were waiting for a train at Sydney’s Central Station when the authorities swooped in and removed them from their mother. The reason: Margery’s mother was white and her father Aboriginal so ‘there were all these olive-skinned kids running around the station’.
Margery spent the next 12 years being shunted in and out of children’s homes, some state-run, some Catholic, almost all of them cold, cruel places where abuse was a normal part of daily life. She absconded many times. At one point her mum kidnapped her and kept her hidden in the caves outside of her home town for six months. But in the end Margery was always found and sent back.
She was about 12 years old when she was first sexually abused. The place was regional New South Wales and the perpetrator was Margery’s foster father, Andrew Carton, a ‘pillar of the community, really involved in the Catholic Church. Rosary every night … He used to touch me up and, you know, play with me boobs and tell me how beautiful I was’.
Margery kept quiet about the abuse until she got ‘busted’ one day, kissing her boyfriend in the church. Her foster mother gave her a brutal flogging and that’s when Margery spoke up and told her foster mother what Carton had been doing. Margery’s foster mother punched her in the face and sent her off to a state-run receiving home in Sydney.
‘From that I learnt your business is your business. You don’t share it with anybody. You don’t tell anybody anything.’
Margery spent some time in the receiving home and some time as a live-in domestic for a family in Sydney. At 15 she was working for 50 cents a week with one day off each month. She absconded again and lived at her dad’s place for a few months before the cops picked her up.
So it was back to the state-run receiving home until she absconded again and made it all the way to a small town in regional New South Wales where some of her mother’s family lived. Over the next few years she spent the occasional stint in the receiving home but most of her time was spent living with her family and working on a nearby farm.
That was when Margery, now 16, met Duncan, ‘the absolute love of my life’. At last, Margery found some stability: she and Duncan got engaged and Margery secured a reliable office job in town. But ‘because I was a ward of the state, you had to watch your back all the time’.
A few months out from the wedding, Margery and her fiancé travelled to Sydney for a weekend. Margery came home to find the cops at her house. It turned out Margery’s ‘welfare officer from hell’ had been to the house to check up on Margery, and when she discovered that Margery was away she brought down the full force of the law.
Margery was sent straight to the local lockup. ‘It didn’t matter that I had a full-time job and I was going to work every day.’ From there she was sent to a remand centre and then to a state-run home for girls in Sydney ‘where the worst nightmares of my life were’.
Margery’s reputation as an absconder preceded her, and so as soon as she walked into the home, a staff member named Christopher Milne punched her in the face and dragged her to the solitary confinement cells where Margery spent two days with ‘no food, no water, in my own excrement’.
For the next few weeks, as her wedding day drew closer, Margery lived a life of hard labour and humiliation. The home was run like a prison camp: there were no doors on the showers or toilet cubicles, toilet paper and pads were strictly rationed and girls were required to walk with their hands clasped and heads down – one sideways glance would be answered with a flogging.
That would have been bad enough if Margery hadn’t also been singled out for special attention from Milne. It happened on what was supposed to be Margery’s wedding day. She walked past Milne with her arms out and her head up. He called her ‘insolent’ and dragged her down to the cells.
‘And that was when he first raped me, and said, “Here is your wedding present” … After that I was at the point where I just didn’t care anymore. But it didn’t shut me up. That was my problem. Or that was their problem.’
Margery was raped several more times by Milne until eventually he ‘found another toy’ and lost interest in her. At 17 she was released. She returned home to discover that her fiancé had given up on the wedding and moved interstate.
Margery later married a close friend, and though they divorced a few years later they’re still good friends and share custody of their ‘gorgeous’ children. Margery went on to work in the Aboriginal welfare sector and has been an active member of several Aboriginal community organisations – achievements made all the more remarkable by her complete lack of formal education.
‘I taught myself with a dictionary … My dictionary was my bible. If somebody said something to me and I didn’t know what that meant, that would stick in my head – not that too much sticks in my head anymore – and I would look it up.’
Determination has defined Margery’s life and helped her achieve her personal and professional success. She traces it back to a single choice she made when she left the girls’ home at 17.
‘I swore the day I got out of [the girls’ home] nobody was ever going to lock me up again. Nobody was ever going to abuse me again. And from that day to this, it’s never happened.’