In the early 1960s, Nessa’s father, a traumatised war veteran, lost the family’s Melbourne home through gambling, then went to live with another woman. Nessa’s ‘doting’ mother, who was left with his ‘landslide of debts’ and a number of kids, had no support, and started to drink. When she attempted to take her own life, she was sent away for a ‘rest’.
Her mother returned ‘mentally incapable’ of looking after Nessa, who was the only child sent back to live with her. She would leave early for work, and return late after the pub had shut. She cut off family members who interfered or threatened to call welfare, or ‘just move on to another place’.
‘I cared for myself,’ Nessa said. ‘Physically, mentally, emotionally, food-wise. I coped, I survived, I lived on the street. I wasn’t smart, wasn’t a street-smart kid, but I was able to clothe myself from people’s clotheslines, and do all sorts of other things just to survive.’
Before Nessa hit her teens, she had been sexually abused by numerous men her mother had befriended at the pub. ‘One of them actually abused me for about four or five years’, Ness said. ‘Others abused me once or twice. I was raped by another one.’
Just as Nessa managed to stop the sexual abuse, and had decided to stop truanting and take charge of her future, the police wrongly picked her up for truanting. Her school expelled her, and she ended up in care, ‘if that’s what you can call it’.
Nessa lived for the next few years in a Catholic orphanage in regional Victoria. It was a ‘very cold and harsh’ institution, run by Good Shepherd nuns, and the operation of the laundry, sometimes from morning until night, took precedence over girls’ basic education by correspondence. The girls also spent many hours on their knees scrubbing floors and bathrooms.
Mother Maria, the head nun, was ‘a vile, nasty, vicious old bat’ who, in Nessa’s first week, whacked her head so hard with a hand broom that Nessa fell over and ‘saw stars’. ‘She carried that with her everywhere ... And that wasn’t the only time I ever got it,’ said Nessa.
In her early teens, Nessa was strapped to a hospital bed and examined for syphilis. A young man who had raped Nessa before she had entered the orphanage had told her mother that she had given him syphilis and that she ‘should learn to use condoms’. Mother Maria isolated Nessa, made her wash separately, and told her she was ‘dirty’, a ‘sinner’, and a ‘slut’. During the internal examination, the nun sat ‘front and centre. She could see everything that was happening’. She ignored Nessa’s imploring looks when the doctor, who had told her to remove her undies, said, ‘come on, you’ve been doing it for boys a long time now, it’s not going to make any difference.’
Later, to make her ‘dog ugly’ and unattractive to men, Mother Maria cut off Nessa’s hair. When Nessa became sick from the antibiotics – for she did in fact have syphilis – the nun still forced Nessa to do her chores. Fortunately, another nun was keeping an eye on Nessa. She took her aside and tried to fix her hair by cutting it more evenly.
When told of the abuse, Nessa’s mother said, ‘don’t be stupid, they wouldn’t do that’. However, when Nessa was in her mid-teens, the Mother Provincial punished Mother Maria for mistreating other nuns and sent her to work in a convent kitchen in Sydney where ‘she would never be in charge of anybody again’.
Next, Nessa lived on the streets and ‘walked around with a big target on my head, saying, “I’m yours, take me if you wish to abuse me”’.
Still in her teens, she had children to a man who was a violent alcoholic, and, in her early 20s, had no option but to leave him and her children behind.
Nessa’s life turned around when a major accident compelled her to ‘make different choices’. She educated herself, and went on to hold down a senior management position. She also married a man who has been her ‘rock’ and has ‘put up with hell’ during their three decades together. ‘My husband always has a glass half full attitude. When I first met him, I didn’t have a glass. Now I’ve got a glass’, she said. When she told him about her abuse, about 20 years ago, he kept her focused on the fact that ‘they can’t hurt you now’.
Nessa left the orphanage ‘without a clue how to parent’. She was hard on her first children – ‘not as hard as the nuns’ – and even though they later lived with her, their relationship has not been rosy. While the children she had with her husband grew up in a safe home devoid of conflict, and became ‘well-adjusted’ people, Nessa’s ongoing fear of rejection affected her ability to be close to them. ‘I love them, I do love them, but I don’t know how to show them that I love them, and I don’t feel that connection with them that I should have as a mother.’
Nessa formed ‘a little family’ through the reunions she helped to organise through CLAN. ‘I needed to be with people who understood me’, she said, people who could understand the mental, physical and sexual abuse of people who’d been in institutions in a way that her counsellors never could.
About five years ago, encouraged by CLAN, Nessa wrote a book about her experiences which allowed her to feel what had happened ‘for the first time’. ‘I don’t believe it healed me,’ she said, ‘but it’s out there now, and it’s out of me.’ As a child who could not tell the authorities, she eventually became a woman who was able to tell the world.