One of the first things Mariella did when she left care was change her name, ‘so I wouldn’t remember what happened. I wanted to be a new person. But it never worked’.
Mariella and her family migrated from Italy in the mid-1960s, when she was around eight years old. Shortly after they arrived her father left her mother with the children.
When Mariella first went to school she was humiliated and caned by the teacher in front of the class for not being able to read English well. ‘I used to stand there and they used to laugh at me.’ She started skipping school, going out for the day and coming back around the time school finished so her mother didn’t know.
Her school absences caught the attention of the authorities and Mariella was taken into care. When she was made a ward of the state she did not understand what this meant, and neither did her mother.
‘They took me away, because I wouldn’t go to school. What I never understood, I never went back to school again.’
Mariella was sent to a state-run children’s home in Melbourne at around the age of 10, and was physically abused by a staff member, Mrs George. There was also a man at the home who fondled the girls, touching their breasts.
After this Mariella was moved to a Sisters of Mercy convent boarding school in regional Victoria. The nuns ‘would always say to me that I was stupid, and a wog, and a dago’.
One day she told a Sister she did not know why she was there, as she could not read or write. She was then put to work in the laundry and packing room, where sheets were stored.
Father Graham was always in this room, and would ask Mariella to sit on his knee. When she refused, he would pull her onto his lap and tell her it was nice to have a ‘cuddle’. He felt her genitals and fondled her breasts, saying she had ‘baby nipples’. He would also rub himself against her and make her touch him.
Mariella started having trouble eating when she was around 13 and would often refuse food. ‘I wanted to kill myself. I stopped eating.’ As punishment one of the Sisters would make her kneel for hours in the dining room, telling her to pray so that God would forgive her bad behaviour.
One time Father Graham came in and said that she could leave the room if she did what he asked, as he would ask the Sister to let her go. Then he raped her.
She was bleeding between her legs, and spent a long time trying to make herself clean in the toilet. One of the other girls came in and knew what had happened, and advised her to get herself together and not let the priest see she had been crying.
Mariella also told one of the nuns what had happened– ‘That was a mistake’. She continued not eating much, and spent a lot of time washing herself and cleaning everything.
The nuns kept saying she was ‘misbehaving badly’, and had to get help. She spent time in a children’s hospital for treatment of her eating and behavioural issues, including being tube-fed and given electroconvulsive therapy.
She was sent to another government facility, and told the woman who ran it about her experiences at the convent. This woman then helped her get out of care.
When she was 16 her social worker found her a job. She was left to her own devices, with few life skills and low literacy. Reading and writing is still very hard for her, even though she has tried to learn.
Returning to her family was difficult. ‘I felt like I was a stranger to my mum ... Who is she? I love my mum, don’t get me wrong, but she was a stranger to me.’ She doesn’t blame her mum for what happened to her after her father abandoned them, ‘but at the same time, she sort of abandoned me’.
Her mother’s response when she disclosed the abuse was devastating. ‘She grabbed me and shook me told me to stop making up lies. How could I speak about the nuns and the priest like that? And she told me to go away.’
Shortly after this Mariella moved back to Italy for a while, but felt like an ‘outsider’, and began using drugs to get some relief from the pain she felt. ‘I think I wanted to escape what had taken place ... To just try and forget about it.’
She was constantly on the move, hitchhiking between cities and countries, barely eating, always looking for ‘home’. ‘I tried to commit suicide, by taking a whole thing of drugs ... because I felt like I didn’t fit in, in society.’
Before she took these drugs, she cleaned herself up and put on a good dress. ‘I was going to be nice and ready to be buried. That didn’t bloody work out ... I woke up, and I was really angry that I had woken up.’
Although she was still a ward of the state, nobody seemed to even realise she had left the country.
In her late 20s, and back in Australia, Mariella had a child who was taken away from her. After some months she regained custody of her daughter. She had never even met any of the welfare people who spoke about her in court, and the judge warned her that he didn’t want to see her back there for abusing her child. This hurt her, as she had never done anything to harm her daughter.
Mariella has now turned her life around. She does not take drugs, is employed, and can pay her rent and other bills. Learning to parent was hard, as she had never had any role models, and is conscious that she never had an education.
‘I think I’m dumb and she’s smarter than me and I don’t know how to relate ... I never want her to be alone in this world ... She knows that she can always ring me up and I’m always going to be there. And I tell her I love her a thousand times.’
The only place Mariella has ever felt at home is in meetings with other people who grew up as wards of the state. ‘Because I felt that I didn’t have to prove myself, or talk about it, or be anybody else but me. They understood me.’