Marilla's story

In the mid 1950s, when Marilla was three, she was removed from her parents and made a ward of the state. Initially she was sent to a government-run children’s home in Sydney, before being fostered by Mrs Percy who lived in a coastal city. Percy, who was about 50 years old, was ‘evil, sadistic and cruel’.

‘This woman sexually abused me from a very young age. When she had a bath, she would call me in to wash her back … She would then grab my arm to wash other parts of her body, including personal parts, and she would hold my arm so I could not pull away.

'She would seem to be in a trance when this was happening. But after she had had enough “washing” she would become violent, either holding my head under water till I thought I would drown or slapping, punching and even biting me … Every time she called for me to come to the bathroom, I would be terrified of what was to follow.’

One day when Percy called her, Marilla hid. By the time the woman found her, she was furious. She dragged Marilla to the outdoor toilet, which was full of faeces, and pushed her head into it.

‘She was almost frothing at the mouth. Then she roared with laughter, dancing around me, calling me names, telling me I finally looked like what I was. Shit.’

In addition to the sexual abuse, Percy would make Marilla take off her clothes before belting her with the ironing cord. She would humiliate Marilla by dressing her in a nappy, sticking a dummy in her mouth and then making her stand outside while the school bus drove past. She also locked Marilla in the garden shed overnight and pretended to be a man outside who ‘cut up children and put them in his sack’.

Marilla lived with Percy for seven years before being returned to the children’s home: ‘I was told I made her sick.’ Marilla was now 10, and upon arriving at the home was given a ‘standard internal examination to see if I was sexually active’. Marilla did not receive any explanation for the examination and ‘it was not done in any gentle way’.

After being sent to live with another woman, and enduring more cruelty and humiliation, Marilla was placed with a foster family whom she remembered as ‘very welcoming’. They had a tradition of the two sons and daughter meeting in the parents’ bed every Saturday morning. Mrs McCann would then take her sons to sport, leaving her daughter Rebecca, and Marilla, in bed with her husband.

At first McCann would tickle and play games with the girls, but after a while he started having sex with Rebecca, who was nine. Marilla described McCann as ‘very loving and extremely generous to Rebecca’ and said she felt left out, wanting to be ‘as loved and special as her’.

One day Marilla was in the backyard when McCann called her into the shed. She went in to find he had his pants down and was holding his penis. He made Marilla masturbate him and tried to put his tongue in her mouth. ‘I didn’t like any of this. It was rough and rushed, and I knew it was not right. This is not how he was with Rebecca – so tender and loving – and that’s what I wanted him to be with me.’

McCann abused Marilla this way numerous times, always giving her money afterwards. His two sons would have sex with Rebecca and play the same games as their father, but they never touched Marilla. As an adult she’s often wondered if they were instructed not to touch her, ‘so as not to leave any evidence’.

Marilla eventually left after the McCanns’ marriage broke down. After a short time back at the children’s home, she was told she was old enough to look after herself.

‘When I first left the home I tried drugs and I tried freedom because I didn’t have anyone telling me not to. And I just knew somewhere in my head – mad, crazy, mixed-up head – that I needed to be away from Sydney.’

She moved to a small town in regional New South Wales where the community ‘welcomed me, supported me and became the family I’d never had’. There she met Anthony, who became her husband and the father of her children. Although the marriage didn’t last, Marilla remained very close to Anthony’s sister who was ‘the best person I’ve ever met in my life’.

As an adult Marilla obtained her welfare records, only to find that a large amount had been redacted. She was told that the redactions applied to information about other people, but as it all related to her life she has never accepted this justification.

Although she is supported by an advocacy service, before speaking with the Commissioner Marilla had never told anyone about the sexual abuse. She has never reported her abusers to police nor sought any compensation as she guards her privacy carefully. Her children, who are very supportive, are aware their mother had traumatic experiences but don’t know the details. ‘I never want them to have to deal with it. You know, not have to carry it.’

Marilla has worked hard to provide a happy and stable environment for her kids. More than anything, she wants to prevent the horror of her past from occurring to any child in the future.

‘Our childhood experiences remain with us forever, for better and for worse. Our memories of these experiences will always shape us … Knowing events is not enough. If you only know events you will never know what happened. I want you to know what happened.’

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