‘It seemed that everyone knew about it but nobody would do anything to stop it … I just assumed that I had been naughty – the dentist’s version of naughty. I didn’t know what that was.’
In the 1960s there was no resident dentist in the Queensland town where Noeline was raised by her ‘nan and pop’. Dr Hoffman would visit twice a year, setting up his chair in a small room in the hospital across from Noeline’s school. Year after year, from the time she was five until she was 10, Noeline would cross the road clutching her white patient card to see Dr Hoffman, alone with him behind a closed door.
Noeline was sexually abused every time. Hoffman would slap her legs and pinch her while she was in his chair. He would expose himself to her. ‘To me he was the devil and it was the devil’s work.’
Noeline did not disclose the abuse. ‘I truly just thought I was naughty but I did not have any understanding of sex in any way, shape or form.’ Noeline’s nan was a devout Catholic and Noeline felt too guilty about what was happening to tell her anything.
She tried defacing her patient card and refused to go to the dentist, but Hoffman called Noeline’s home to ask why she hadn’t come. ‘I said I was afraid of him, and [Nan] said, “Everyone’s got to go to the dentist”. It was just shut down.’
When she was 10 years old Noeline developed a sore tooth. Her pop arranged a visit to Mr Hoffman, but a terrified Noeline asked him to pull the tooth out with a pair of pliers instead. Noeline believes her pop realised then that something was wrong. He came with her to the dentist. ‘And he went into the dentist’s room and he shut the door. And there was a lot of yelling, there was a bang. … First time I’d ever heard my pop yell in my whole life.’ Noeline had her tooth pulled that day, but the door was left open. ‘“The door’s never going to be closed again”. Pop says that as I came out. “And I’m always going to come to the dentist with you”.’
Noeline’s pop was as good as his word and the abuse from Mr Hoffman ceased. But Noeline still did not reveal the past abuse to her family, nor did she speak of it to anyone else for the next 40 years.
Noeline repressed her memories of the dentist, but the experience has impacted upon her life. ‘I probably became even more of a good girl, if that makes sense. But I became timid, for sure. Even now I hate drawing attention to myself.’
Noeline has a fear of dentists and has stayed away from them all her life. This has led to serious health issues with her teeth. ‘I’d say the dentist changed my life, but he most certainly took my smile away. Forever.’
A few years ago Noeline suffered a sexual assault. While dealing with that trauma with the help of a psychologist, Noeline began to experience flashbacks to her childhood abuse. ‘It was like a little movie in my head that I couldn’t stop, all these horrible smells and senses. I ended up fainting … I couldn’t shut the door on it at all, it was non-stop.’
Noeline was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. ‘We had a current issue and a very old issue.’ Since then she has been receiving treatment and has found a very supportive counsellor.
Noeline has since reported the abuse to the police but that experience was not encouraging. She was put in touch with the Child Protection Unit and waited over a month before she could meet with a detective.
‘She didn’t want to deal with me, she really didn’t. She told me … these old sex assaults and charges take up a lot of time but often there’s no result or win from it.’
Noeline was encouraged to withdraw her complaint. She found the dealings with the police intimidating and does not want to engage with them further. She feels re-traumatised by their treatment of her.
‘When you are ready to talk about it and you want to talk about it and you want to resolve it, when you can’t – then that sort of puts you back into that place where you’re not allowed to talk again.
‘I understand things come up, but this was like a slap, from beginning to end.’