‘Anyone outside looking at my case, my story, would just go this is just absolutely bananas. Someone else other than my mother and the religion should have intervened when I asked for help. And that’s why I’m pissed off. I accept the religion let me down, I accept my mum let me down, I accept my dad let me down, I accept all my family let me down, I accept that. But why is it that the authorities let me down?’
Marieke’s story is a complicated one of family and abuse, all bound up in a struggle against a religion she didn’t want to be part of.
Marieke’s single mother joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses when Marieke was six and brought up her daughters according to the Church’s teachings. That meant no Christmas or birthdays, no singing the national anthem in school, and Marieke being teased by her classmates.
‘I felt isolated and I felt that I wasn’t normal. I knew it wasn’t me, it was the religion. I never actually believed in the religion … they never brainwashed me.’
The household was constantly busy as her mother would take in and support any children from the congregation who were being physically or sexually abused, and take their cases to the elders. The knock-on effect was that Marieke and her sister were exposed to unsafe situations and people. She hung out with some girls who were staying at the house, and started drinking and skipping school. Through them, she met Ben.
‘He was 23 and I was 14. Because Mum was so busy trying to expose all the paedophiles and all the bad shit in the religion, she kind of lost sight of what was going on and how I was being vetted.’
Marieke felt the need to be protected from the crazy things going on around her at the time, and she also craved male affection and attention as her father was never around. So she and Ben began a relationship. They moved in together and Marieke’s mother rang the police, who arrested Ben for carnal knowledge and supplying drugs to a minor.
Marieke was made a temporary ward of the state, and Ben went to trial. But then Marieke’s mother felt sorry for him, as he was himself a victim of abuse, and pleaded his case. Ben was convicted but was placed on probation and not sent to jail.
A few months later, Marieke was back at home and Ben wanted to resume contact. Her mother let him come and live with them, on the condition that he study the religion, which she thought would help him mend his ways.
‘Mum lost the plot. She started on this path to expose everyone … she wanted to help everyone and it became a passion, an obsession, and she just forgot about us.’
Bible study leaders came to study with them and they encouraged Marieke’s mother to apply for a special underage marriage licence for Marieke and Ben, so they could ‘make the relationship acceptable in the law’s eyes, and therefore in God’s eyes’.
‘But what had happened was Ben had started being physically abusive to me, my mother and my sister. All of us. He’d go psycho, smash the house up …
‘At that point, when I look back on it, I go “How did he not get taken away at that time when the police were called in?” He had breached his parole by being violent, one. He was living there with me, two. In the same house, after he’d just been done for carnal knowledge. How is it when the police were called to those incidences, where he choked me or choked my mother, did the police not … see that I was a child who was in danger?’
Ben would threaten to hurt her mother and sister if she didn’t have sex with him. So she complied.
‘No one ever came out to have a meeting with me … to find out if I was actually okay. Mum didn’t know about the sexual stuff. I was too afraid to tell her about that. It was not long after that I fell pregnant because he committed carnal knowledge again, while he was on probation.’
She decided to keep the child, but desperately wanted to get away from Ben.
However the elders convinced Marieke that it would be in the child’s best interests to keep the family unit together, that the church would support Ben, and that they’d help him change. ‘Really I had no-one else to say this is wrong.’
But the violence against her continued and Marieke eventually realised Ben wasn’t going to change. After one particularly scary episode, Marieke escaped to a women’s shelter. Her mother talked her into giving her interim custody of her daughter in case Ben tried to come and take her away.
Marieke sought out counselling, which helped her self-confidence and made her realise there was nothing wrong with her. She left the Jehovah’s Witnesses but this turned her mother against her and started off a complicated few years of custody battles over her daughter. There were also ongoing battles with Ben over access.
At one time Marieke moved back to her mother’s place, so she could be near her daughter. But the conditions were that she had to live in the shed because she said the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that anyone who is not a Witness brings demons into the house. The elders and her mother conducted exorcisms on her.
‘I have to laugh when I look back … I just think how crazy that must look if anyone was ever watching. And … I feel embarrassed. It’s embarrassing that they believe that and that I was put through that.’
Marieke now has full custody of her daughter but they are both on anti-anxiety medication and she says they live in fear that something will go wrong.
‘All I have now is a restraining order that protects my daughter from my mother and one that protects my daughter from her father. Nothing protects me from either one of them.’