Neilson's story

Neilson always loved the water. As a child, with the help of his father, he worked odd jobs and saved up all his pocket money to buy a small boat which he took out every chance he got. Growing up with his sisters, he was a cheeky boy who played up in school but still managed to get good grades.

In his early teens in the 1980s, Neilson joined the local surf club to train for his bronze medallion and become a qualified lifesaver. He described the club as having a ‘blokey culture, you got your elite alpha males kind of thing and everyone looks up to them’. One of these alpha males was Dan Lewin. ‘He was my squad leader, bronze medallion squad leader. He would’ve been late 20s.’ The squad leader position was official although voluntary.

Neilson and his squad would train at least two afternoons a week after school. One afternoon, Lewin ‘decided that we’d be punished for either mucking up or talking out of turn or something, and his form of punishment was biting people on the bum.

‘And this happened many times, and I got bitten myself. And basically I didn’t tell anybody about it. I went home and basically I continued my training … We were just wearing speedos all the time, and I s’pose it’s a spot where they can’t see. But it was a regular occurrence that the squad would hold down the cheeky member or the one who did the wrongdoing and someone would give them a “chewgun”, which was the name they gave it.

‘I don’t know where the name came about but as far as I know it’s a well-known word in the club … A lot of senior members knew of the word … They’d say if you mucked up you’re gonna get a chewgun or something.’

Neilson received a chewgun on two occasions: once performed by Lewin and another time ordered by Lewin to be performed by another squad member. Another time Neilson was instructed to inflict this punishment himself. He refused but was threatened with receiving one so he complied.

‘He ordered me to, like, to bite another fellow hard on the bum … And it embarrasses me, I feel shameful about biting people on the bum and stuff. It makes me feel very low. And the guy that I was ordered to bite, his bum bled when I did it. I didn’t mean to do it that hard or anything. Now I just feel absolutely horrible. And I’m very embarrassed about it and I consider it brutality and bastardisation.’

One weekend the squad was staying in a hotel while competing in an interstate competition. Lewin walked into Neilson’s room wearing only a towel which he allowed to drape open, revealing his genitals.

‘He went on to offer me 20 bucks to get my gear off … I basically got scared the hell out of my wits. And I was sitting on the bed that was closest to the screen door. I just bolted straight out the door … It was towards the end of the trip that this happened.’

After that incident Neilson left the club. ‘I was in disillusion about what happened to me.’ He never told anyone about the abuse because it was club culture not to talk about these things. He also didn’t report Lewin because ‘I wasn’t confident the police would handle it properly basically, because some of the police had ties with the surf club and I felt like I’d be discredited and called a liar and all sorts of things.

‘I just kind of buried it away and just got on with things and tried to forget it.’

After leaving the club Neilson found he ‘lost trust with older men. I felt like they were all trying to take advantage of me or deceive me. And hence I couldn’t tell my father, I drifted apart from him. And I mean I’ve had a bit of a difficult time career-wise. As I was going from my teens I ended up getting [a] trade but it took me about 10 years to do it’.

Neilson has considerable trust issues which leaves him unable to form relationships, and has been diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. Although he was briefly able to access counselling, his therapist claimed there was a conflict of interest and referred him to another service 40 kilometres away. As his mental health issues leave him homeless and unable to work, he is not able to travel such a distance but is currently seeking advice on finding a more accessible service.

‘Nowadays I feel like I’ve got problems and I can’t ask anyone ‘cause I can’t trust them. And so everything I do is on my own and I’m basically carrying the world on my shoulders. And I’m nearly crumbling every day, basically.’

Neilson has never sought compensation for the abuse. Some years ago he reported Lewin to the surf club but their response was that he should contact the police, which he didn’t feel ready to do. A few years later he contacted the club a second time and was advised Lewin was no longer a member but referred him to their dispute resolution service. Neilson provided his details but was never contacted by anyone regarding his complaint.

More recently Neilson made a statement to police. After a number of weeks the sexual abuse taskforce called him to advise they had received his statement. The matter is currently being pursued.

Although he has no close relationships due to his trust issues, Neilson takes comfort in writing poetry.

‘I’m toughing it out basically. I’ll get through, you know. I’ve been through tough times before.’

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