In the mid-1960s Rohan started at his state high school in suburban Perth ‘as a high achiever, tipped to do well in life’. His friends from primary school were there too, and he continued to do well in most subjects.
The sports master, Mr Smythe, ‘was a cruel, sadistic, depraved man who revelled in the suffering of the boys by means of sexual, deviant punishments’. Smythe ‘was always talking about his physical attributes’, but most of that went over the young students’ heads. He would also walk among the boys when they were showering, and sometimes flick towels at them. Other times he would kick boys hard between the legs.
At some stage all of the boys were subjected to one particular punishment.
‘Basically, he would get other boys to hold the victim down and then the rest of the class – all boys – would have 30 seconds to remove the victim's pants and underwear. If the victim fought back or escaped he would be chased and subjected to the punishment again.
‘To my knowledge, he never actually touched me, but I can't say the same for all the others. He seemed to draw his pleasure from watching. And the 30 seconds would be a very variable time as well. It was humiliating and degrading for the victim at a very vulnerable time of their lives as they entered puberty, some more developed than others, such that many boys were ridiculed by their peers and became fair game to the bullies in the school as well …
‘When it was my turn, I simply allowed the others to do it, without fighting, since I could not see any advantage in resisting ... But from that moment on, I hated that man and I hated going to school. My grades slipped almost overnight as I felt so vulnerable and humiliated. I could not tell my dad about it as I was too embarrassed.’
After this abuse, Rohan felt ‘stigmatised and vulnerable’ and ‘that everyone was looking at me a different way’. Still, he did not disclose this incident to anyone at the time. ‘My parents just couldn’t understand what was going on, and I couldn’t speak about it.’
There was nobody he could tell at the school. ‘The school structure wasn’t the same as it is now, with counsellors and people you could confide in. Teachers were on one side of the line, and the students were on the other. And the only time you mixed was when you were in the classroom.’
His father wanted him to attend university, but his academic work deteriorated. ‘All I could feel was the trauma of that day. I still feel a sense of horror in my stomach when I think about it. I wanted to leave that school, but had nowhere else to go. I feigned illness and looked forward to the weekends and holidays just to avoid the possibility of being attacked again. When I finished my Junior Certificate I literally ran away from the high school ... He [Smythe] destroyed my father’s dreams as well.’
It was easy to see the impacts of these incidents on other students too. ‘There were guys who refused to shower with the rest of the guys after those sort of treatments, and obviously some of the spectators, if you like, would also be very withdrawn as well.’ He suspects his own brothers may have been abused by Smythe too, though they have never discussed it.
It wasn’t only the boys Smythe abused, and he got one of the girls pregnant in her mid-teens. ‘Chatting with some of the girls who were in my year, they would also mention his activities with them ... This man ruined my life and also, I believe, the lives of many other boys ... Maybe some of the other boys have managed to block out their feelings or maybe are of stronger stuff than me. But my feelings for Mr Smythe are that he rots slowly in hell.’
Rohan eventually started an apprenticeship, achieved numerous qualifications, and had a successful career. ‘It took a few years after I finished school to get my head together again, but once I applied myself, I succeeded in everything I applied myself to.’
Forty years later Rohan returned to the school, for a reunion. ‘Amazingly, the sports master was there as well and an announcement was made that we could go and see him in a particular room. I didn't go, because if I had I felt that I would have applied actual bodily harm to him.’
For many years Rohan kept himself busy with his work and family, but when he became ill around a decade ago he had time to reflect more on his experiences. He had a breakdown, and now ‘I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist, and also a psychologist to help my social abilities’.
The abuse continues to impact on his life today. ‘Despite my attempts to be normal, with a normal family life, I am very wary of people, particularly men who approach me from the sides or walk up behind me. I hate any man touching me, even in a friendly situation, such as a pat on the shoulder ...
‘I prefer to be alone more times than often, which makes people suspicious of me. I can look after myself in many survival situations. But my social skills are very low. In groups of people I am very shy and awkward and will never make the first move to establish a contact or create some form of rapport.’