Nora Mary's story

Nora has been with her husband Billy for more than 30 years. He came to support her at the Royal Commission. Now retired, they own their home and spoke enthusiastically of an imminent overseas holiday.

Nora has also tried to kill herself six times in the past 10 years. After an attempt last year she spent six weeks in hospital while her mental condition was assessed. However, Nora doesn’t need a psychologist to pinpoint when and where her life was first traumatised.

‘My mother died of a heart attack when I was nine, leaving me and my five brothers. Two months later, our stepfather packed us all up and shipped us off to children’s homes.’

She arrived, alone, at a Salvation Army girls’ home in Sydney. The physical abuse started on the second night.

‘I was caught talking after the lights went out. As my punishment I was given a toothbrush and a bucket of water, and told to scrub the verandah floor. Matron Jones said I needed to learn the rules – and that she was going to break my spirit. I finished about five o’clock in the morning.’

Subsequent infringements brought more direct retribution. ‘She just pulled me out of bed and hit me with a razor strap. I was used to it – my stepfather was a violent man, he used to belt the living crap out of me – but to have someone who was supposed to be caring for me doing the same thing was wrong …

‘We had to speak to them like they were the best people in the world. When they weren’t; they were abusing us.’

Another rough treatment was the baths with bleach and kerosene, which Nora believes were ordered by her stepfather to lighten her dark skin: ‘I wasn’t fair enough for him.’

And then it got worse. First, the older girls began to sexually abuse Nora: ‘They threatened if I told anyone they would kill me … I didn’t really put up a fight ‘cause I’d been taught if you fight you’ll get hurt. And it had been drummed into me from the day I arrived in the home, it was better to give in than to get really hurt or even die.’

Soon after she was being assaulted by male staff – ‘They touched me, and I was refused food for not being able to perform sexual acts.’

A repairman began to demand that she masturbate him. ‘He asked to be relieved by me a number of times – “And if you don’t do it, I’m going to tell them that you came on to me”.’

Church was no sanctuary. ‘I hated Sundays: I had to attend service where I would be touched up by one of the Salvation Army officers.’

And then there was the creepy Matron Jones.
‘With her, it wasn’t direct sexual abuse, but she was always watching us in the shower or when we were getting undressed … On Sundays when we were getting ready for church, she’d make us all strip off in the box room, and we’d have to stare at each other, all the girls from the age of five up to 17 or 18. And she’d stand there and snigger.

‘We were told we had to look at the other senior girls. I’d never seen a full-grown woman naked before – but we had to do it or get the strap.’

Nora might have hoped to escape all this when, after a year, she was moved to another Salvation Army home. Unfortunately, Matron Jones moved with her – and there were other abusers waiting.

‘It was different but the same. There were still areas where you could be taken by a senior girl, a staff member or an outsider to be belted. Or – I hate these words – to be fingered, or made to give a head job to the males.

‘That’s why I’m frigid now – I hate to say this in front of my husband …’

At 15 she was given $20 and pushed out the home’s door. ‘I didn't know where I was supposed to go or do. I ended up back at my stepfather’s house – where I was unwelcome. So I left and ended up at Kings Cross.

‘I found myself mixed up with drugs, alcohol and the working girls and boys. It shames me to say I was selling my body to men I didn't know.’

In her mid-20s she met a man, soon married and moved interstate with him. ‘He turned out to be a violent man: on our wedding night he raped and bashed me.’

After her children were born, Nora made four escape attempts: each time police found her, and brought her and the kids back.

‘I had to get out of the relationship or I would have died. I had no way of taking my children with me and that was the hardest thing I had ever had to do. I ran away and had to leave them behind.’

Nora found herself in Sydney, with no money and few prospects. She’d never had a mainstream job and was illiterate. However, she found courage and some helpful friends, taught herself to read and write, got a government job, finally located her brothers – and met Billy.

‘Billy has never hit me, abused or hurt me in any way. He loves me for who I’ve become, not for the person that lost her childhood. We’ve had our troubles, but we’ve never resolved our problems with harsh words or our fists.’

However, there are other persistent problems. ‘I’m still seeing a psychiatrist about the depression, and a doctor for a skin condition that I blame on the bleach and kero baths.’

Nora once consulted a policeman, father of a friend. ‘He said it was too late to do anything, the limitations … and anyway, you seem to be all right, you don’t seem to be mixed up.’

Nevertheless, some years ago Nora approached the Salvation Army and received a settlement. It doesn’t erase the four years of abuse suffered by a child. As she says, ‘They screwed me up a long way for a long time.’

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