May describes herself as a happy kid when she was growing up in a large, stable family of girls on the New South Wales north coast. Her parents were well-loved and active in the local community. When she was older, May wondered at how nonsensical, disjointed but persistent some of her childhood school memories were.
‘I had constant memories of floating up in the corner of this particular toilet room … Another memory was of being very small and having these two figures speaking rapidly.’
It was only when she was meditating one morning in her early 30s that May remembered the sexual abuse she suffered at infants’ school at the hands of Ann and John Benson.
May felt wholly unprepared for the memories that fell onto the table like jigsaw puzzle pieces. ‘I went “Oh shit, okay, that’s what that is”.’
Ann Benson was May’s class teacher and headmistress of the infants’ school. John, her husband, was headmaster of the entire school.
Mrs Benson was the primary abuser of May. ‘She was a tyrant in the classroom and everyone was terrified of her.’
The abuse started when May was in Year 3 and occurred during school hours in a teachers’ toilet block and in Ann’s office. May was forced to perform oral sex on Ann while being penetrated by John, mostly anally but sometimes vaginally. This happened regularly throughout the year. May was often sent to Ann’s office, which was slightly isolated from the other school offices.
‘I’d be waiting in her office. She‘d go and get him … It was always the two of them.’
The Bensons spoke in a code in front of May – spelling words backwards very fast so they could communicate without her following. ‘I became very good at spelling.’
May doesn’t have many memories of years 3 and 4 but years 5 and 6 are vivid.
By high school May was ‘out of control’. She believes her sexual barriers had been destroyed and her sexuality defined who she was for a long time.
She left school and got ‘stupid jobs’ in factories and hospitality. ‘I had no plan, no idea, no career guidance.’
She got married and had two children. Her husband sexually abused her son. He’d been seeing his father regularly and disclosed the abuse just when May was trying to get domestic violence orders against him. Her son wouldn’t have been allowed any support personnel if he appeared as a witness. Because he was only seven, and his father would have been there in court, May said no. The court case fell over.
She eventually got custody of her children through the Family Court.
May says she was too busy protecting her kids to seek support when she recovered her child abuse memories. Also, her dad had just been diagnosed with cancer. ‘I was in denial too, I just couldn’t believe it.’
A women’s health centre organised counselling for her but the eight sessions were never enough. ‘Just enough to get really vulnerable and then it was over.’
May has since been diagnosed with depression and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Last year was a bad one for her.
‘I just didn’t want to be alive any more … I couldn’t find any light in myself at all.’
Then she started counselling that actually worked and started ‘slowly, slowly crawling out of my hole … I was in that non-feeling place … Only in the last couple of months I’m feeling again, feeling the normal range of human emotions, which is such a relief.
‘I never could understand why I could be intelligent, well-educated and still be in mindless jobs, not able to reach my capacity or potential at all … I self-sabotage very consistently.’
May is now in a loving relationship and is doing a master’s degree. She believes her children have contributed to her resilience: ‘My kids are the reason I put one foot in front of the other each day’.
She has not reported her child sexual abuse to the police. Her experience with the criminal justice system left her disillusioned. She sees it purely as a legal system, not a justice system.
Also, since her memories are still dim, she thought hers was a hopeless case. She realises now that she can go and make a statement and it doesn’t have to go any further and thinks she will do so.
May emailed her public school to get a class photo and a school map. They told her to speak to the New South Wales Education Department. ‘“She’s going to sue us”. I think that’s what went through their head.’ But May only wants closure, not money.
She recommends ethics classes for children to teach them fundamental rights and respect for others. She also wants to break the silence around child sexual abuse with much better sex education classes, conducted by someone with expertise in gender issues and counselling, rather than by a school teacher with their own biases.
‘How do we socially break the really embedded silence and shame that’s there?’