When Marlene’s father died suddenly in the mid-1960s, the family was left grief-stricken and without accommodation or financial support. Marlene’s mother, who’d never worked outside the home, went to her father, a senior officer in the Salvation Army, and asked if they could stay in his home until she found a job and accommodation.
He told her no, adding: ‘You made your bed, you’ve got to lie in it’. This comment referred to her mother leaving the Salvation Army and marrying a Catholic.
Instead he suggested that the children be placed in Salvation Army homes. Shortly thereafter Marlene and her younger brother, David, were separated from their mother and each other and sent to different institutions.
At nine years of age, Marlene was the youngest by many years of the girls kept in the home she was sent to. She began menstruating the first night she was there and, terrified, asked for help from one of the workers.
‘She said, “That’s the evil coming out of you. That’s the devil coming out of you”. I’ve never forgotten it as long as I live, I’ve never forgotten that, to my age now. That began two and a half years of horror.’
Many of the girls in the home had committed serious crimes but were too young to go to jail. While she was there, Marlene was sexually abused on numerous occasions by older girls – and threatened with death if she disclosed it.
‘I was told that if I told anybody they would suffocate me and kill me and nobody would know. They stuck things inside of me in my private area, in my vagina. They thought I was like the teacher’s pet so to speak but I wasn’t, obviously. I was just like everybody else. The whole time I was there my grandfather never contacted me. My aunt [also in the Salvation Army] never contacted me.’
Whenever possible, Marlene slept curled up around a toilet bowl because it was the only room that had a light and that she could lock.
During the day, the girls were made to work in the laundry, standing for 12 hours at a time, six days a week. They received no training and when Marlene eventually left the home, she entered high school having missed nearly three years of education.
By that time, her mother had remarried and the family was brought back together. In the boys’ home, David had been severely sexually abused and one particular assault resulted in his admission to hospital. Although their mother knew about the assaults on David, Marlene didn’t ever disclose that she too had been abused.
When her mother died, Marlene tried to get an acknowledgement from her aunt, now a senior member of the Salvation Army, about the poor way the family had been treated. Her aunt however, visiting Marlene’s house at the time, was having none of it and demanded to be taken back to her accommodation.
‘In the car she was like The Exorcist. She was absolutely going off her head, saying, “Don’t speak of such things. Don’t say such things”. And I said, “Aunty, the difference between you and I is that I don’t hide the truth.’
In 2013, Marlene was referred to a psychiatrist by the Salvation Army, as a step in application for compensation, and at the time of speaking to the Royal Commission, she was still awaiting the outcome.
Part of the reason for telling her story, she said, was to honour the memory of David who’d been sexually abused as a child and had died in 2012. ‘He spent over half his life in institutions and he was emotionally and psychologically a shipwreck.’
Marlene’s psychiatrist was the first person she disclosed the abuse to in 50 years, and she has recently raised it with her two sons.
‘I never told a soul … The fear. I grew up with such dominating fear and I couldn’t understand why, and now I understand – that little girl wrapped around the bowl of that toilet, terrified. Locking myself in the toilet for all of those months. I mean it’s hard to believe … And because of the way you think about yourself and because you’ve been abused and you’ve been a victim, you only attract abusive people back into your life.
‘If it wasn’t for the Royal Commission, we’d all go to our graves with those horrors in our memory with nobody knowing about them. I think it’s like a miracle really, I don‘t know what other word to use. It’s like a God-send, because all these people that have these memories are actually getting set free.’