Sally felt that her parents never really wanted her. After an accident which, in the eyes of her violent and alcoholic father, left her ‘damaged’, she was often ‘palmed off’ to live with her strict and religious grandparents.
In the late 1960s, Sally’s father walked out on the family. The pressure of caring for her siblings, and holding down two jobs, was too much for Sally, so in her mid-teens, she left home and moved in with a friend.
One night after work, the police knocked at the door. Her friend had been arrested and hospitalised, and needed Sally to bring her some clothes. From the hospital the next day, a welfare officer took Sally to a police station where she was locked up and wrongly accused of ‘playing around’ with boys.
‘You try doing that in a Catholic home where you’re made have your shower with your undies on, and things like that’, Sally said. ‘I mean, that’s taboo.’
Confusing her friend’s behavior with hers, Sally’s mother signed papers which branded her ‘uncontrollable’. Dumbfounded, as she was sent to a remand centre, Sally kept asking, ‘Why am I going? What have I done?’
At the remand centre, Sally was stripped. Her belongings were confiscated, and she was given other clothes to put on. Then ‘the punishment started’. She scrubbed floors and was told that she would amount to nothing.
Sally underwent two internal examinations. The first time, as a nurse held her down, a doctor ‘shoved this steel thing’ up inside her and told her, ‘You were a virgin. You ain’t now’. Afterwards, the nurse just left her on the table and walked away.
‘When I came out, I was bleeding, I was upset, I was cranky’, she recalled. ‘You were made sit in the waiting room and you were made shut up … From that day on, every time something was done, you put up with what happened because you knew if you didn’t shut up, you were going to cop more and more and more and more.’
After a month, Sally was transferred to a government run girls’ home in western Sydney which also had routines of punishment and abuse.
If she questioned anything, she would be made to wash stacks and stacks of dishes, or peel kilos and kilos of potatoes.
If she broke the bedtime rules, and didn’t sleep on her back with her hands visible, or with her pants off and placed on the end of her bed, she was forced to scrub floors in the freezing cold until her hands were red raw.
If she got her period, she had to show her pants and beg for pads, and feel like she was ‘scum’.
Once, when a pair of scissors went missing from the sewing room, Sally and the other girls were strip-searched and detained overnight without any meals. When the tutor returned the next day with the scissors in her bag, she just laughed about it. The girls lost their privileges anyway. No Saturday movie, no Sunday visitors, no mail. ‘You’d think it was a practical joke’, she said.
Sally remembers the guards ogling the girls and calling them all ‘sluts’. With no shower curtains or toilet doors, guards walked in on the girls whenever they pleased. If supervisors ‘wanted to touch your breast, they’d go right ahead’, she said. ‘If they wanted to put their hands inside of you that was fine. That was your punishment. You just took it.’
She also remembers a visiting priest who would put his hand up her uniform, and slap her or force her to scrub floors if she tried to stop him. Every time he touched her, Sally felt ‘filthy’ and ‘dirty’.
But where was the matron? Didn’t she know what was going on? The room in which Sally was abused by the priest was right next to the staffroom. ‘Why didn’t she ever come in and stop things?’ Sally asked. ‘It would have been going on under her nose.’
The inevitability of punishment stopped Sally from telling anyone about the ‘torture’ she endured. After many months, her aunt and grandfather managed to secure her freedom, but she was not free from the legacy of abuse. She has attempted suicide, and had an addiction to pills and alcohol. She has locked herself inside her flat, and cut herself off from her family. She has nightmares about people touching her, and just wants ‘the memories to stop’.
Sally also has difficulties with physical intimacy and trusting men. ‘I get to a situation where I can’t go any further when it comes to sex’, she said. ‘It’s out of the question, or you clam up or you don’t want to go any further.’ These problems partly caused the failure of two of her marriages, and prompted one of her husbands to respond violently and make her feel like she was back in the girls’ home. She showers two to three times a day because she still feels ‘filthy’ and ‘dirty’.
Other than her first husband, Sally told no one about the abuse until a TV program prompted her to get in touch with Bravehearts. She has starting counselling, and has begun to mend some estranged relationships and regain the respect of her family. She is reluctant to tell her son. She still bottles things up, and is frightened of getting a ‘flogging’. ‘It’s still a very, very, very hard road’, she said.
Sally proudly completed a course in her 40s, and is qualified to work in aged care. She also lives for her grandchildren who keep her going, and is very protective of them, especially the girls. ‘If any of my grandkids got themselves into the situation that I was in, I’d give my life for them to get out’, she said.
Sally has heard that the girls’ home might be turned into a museum. Her opinion is unequivocal. New paint will not get rid of what happened within those walls. The building should be blown up.