‘I was a small child. I wasn’t a … nine year old who could really remember, or a teenager. I was a tiny child.’
Nette was four or five when she was abused, and her memories of the incident have come forward in fragments at various times throughout her life. The details have been unclear, and her records have apparently been burnt, but her body continued to carry what had happened to her, and eventually she managed to assemble a more complete picture.
In the mid-1950s, without her mother’s consent, Nette’s father took her and her siblings from their Hunter Valley home and left them with relatives in a regional town south of Sydney. The relatives could not look after them, so Nette and her sister were sent to live in a nearby orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy.
Nette can’t recall much about the orphanage. She knows that something happened in the garden shed, and remembers ‘absolutely freaking out’ a few days later when she came across people in black robes in a boat. She believes she was molested by someone in a black robe, but cannot recall much detail about the person involved.
Nette left the orphanage after less than a year and went to live with her father back in the Hunter Valley. Her ‘extremely cruel’ stepmother hit and starved her, so she stole lunches from school bags to feed herself and her siblings, and was eventually sent to a Catholic girls’ home in the diocese of Maitland. While not abused in the home, she was shocked to be suddenly ‘out the door with no warning’ on the day she turned 15. She completed her intermediate school certificate while living with her father, and after a call from the orphanage’s Mother Superior, moved to Sydney to work as a nanny.
Nette had a ‘very good experience’ with her ‘instant family’. They provided a safe place in which she could care for the family’s children, and explore some opportunities for herself. A couple of years later, Nette decided that she needed to ‘do more with her life’. She left to study mothercraft nursing, but continued to see the family who were very sad to see her go.
However, a childhood spent largely in institutions left Nette without good boundaries and guidance. So ‘I had a job to do,’ she said. ‘I had to grow myself up, and I had to be an adult in a world that I hadn’t had a lot of experience in.’
Nette got married and raised her children. She became a single parent and worked hard to earn an income to support them. This was ‘a huge task’, so she put herself to one side, tucked her memories away, or disassociated, ‘until it was safe’.
As an adult, Nette would sometimes experience inexplicable behaviours. ‘I’ve always been really resilient and really sort of straight down the middle’, Nette said. So, when she became pregnant, and began to shower three or four times a day, and suffer episodes of obsessive compulsive disorder, she was ‘really surprised’. She asked her father if she had been sexually abused, and the silence at the end of the phone made her wonder if he had removed her from the orphanage for this reason.
When Nette visited the orphanage in the mid-1980s, she had another strange reaction. When she saw the laundry where her sister would have to put her bed-wet sheets, and when she saw the garden shed, she ‘fell apart’. ‘I absolutely lost it’ she said in tears as she recalled the pain and mistreatment she had suffered. Nette tried to talk to her husband, who had accompanied her, but he didn’t know how to handle her reaction, and ‘closed down’.
An experience Nette had about a year ago prompted her to get help. While being treated by a dentist, she began to gag and choke, and had a ‘real out of body experience’ where she watched ‘this grown adult doing this’. ‘I felt like a child again, a little girl again, without a doubt’, she said. She realised that her abuse must have involved oral sex, and made contact with a counselling service that very day.
Nette is now in ‘a really different space about it all’. The apology to the Stolen Generations by Kevin Rudd, and the Royal Commission process, has helped to encourage her to own and speak publically about her experience for the first time in 60 years. She also felt ‘empowered’ to learn that her abuse was not an isolated incident at that particular orphanage, and felt that her lifelong feelings ‘are really real’ and validated. ‘It was like a breath of fresh air’, she said.