Growing up on a rural property, Sherlee was a quiet and obedient child. Her parents were strict Anglicans who gave her little attention or affection.
Sherlee attended a small state school that was a 40-minute bus ride from home. The headmaster was an ineffectual alcoholic, and ‘country kids’ were bullied by other students.
When she was 12 years old in the mid-1970s, one of her teachers, Mr Haines, started paying attention to her. Haines was in his late 20s and ‘a popular teacher … He always had girls clustered around his desk in the science building and talking to him in the playground’. Initially Sherlee was flattered and welcomed the affection she’d never received at home, but that would soon change.
‘I had just turned 13 when he started the abuse. It continued regularly for the next four years ... His abuse was everything from touching and fondling through to full sexual penetration and everything in between.
‘He was always telling me it was our special secret and I was his special friend, and that if I said anything then he wouldn’t be able to spend time with me anymore … He used to say, “You’re the only one who understands me”. And I’d never been special to anyone. No one ever paid me any attention. We had no affection, there was no physical affection in our house.’
Shortly after the abuse began, Haines started visiting Sherlee and ingratiating himself into her family. ‘He was welcomed as a constant visitor to the property. He regularly had dinner with the family – weekly, fortnightly. And when he came out he’d bring presents for my sisters and my mother. My parents thought he was so important because he was a teacher and he was just absolutely charming … And looking back I can see how clever and cunning he was. He knew how to talk to my father and my brother about agricultural things, and he was just so confident.
‘The abuse went on for so long and so often, and I could never escape him. I saw him every day at school, he was on school excursions, at the property, in my home, at athletics meetings … Nothing was sacred, nothing was secret. Every secret place I had on the property and obviously in my body and my mind I couldn’t escape him. He was always there somewhere, and I knew what would happen so I was always on guard ...
‘I felt utterly powerless. I couldn’t do anything, and everywhere I looked – my parents, my brother, the other teachers, the principal – no one seemed to see anything wrong with a male teacher who was at least 15 years older than me spending so much time alone with me. No one seemed to think it was abnormal at all, so after a while I thought, it must be normal. I had no way of knowing, I had no comparison. We were so isolated … I didn’t really know what a normal social network or a family looks like.’
Sherlee said that, once Haines was accepted by her family, she ‘just knew that no one would believe me’. However, at one stage she did try to tell her mother.
‘She just didn’t want to know. She was very clinical, she only wanted to know questions like, “Did he penetrate you?” That’s the way she talked. And I’m not sure I would have answered that honestly at that point because I was, as I said, really obedient and I was terrified of being thought badly of and getting into trouble, and hugely afraid of being sinful and of disappointing my parents.’
After a while Sherlee began to dissociate when the abuse occurred. ‘I learned to go anywhere I could in my head, to be anywhere but in my body.’ In her mid-teens she developed an eating disorder because ‘I thought if I became thin enough and ugly enough then he might leave me alone. And anyway I was so disgusted by my body and everything that was being done to me that I just wanted to disappear anyway. And I couldn’t see any other way to escape’.
Her father refused to allow her to see a psychologist, and at one stage after she’d collapsed at school, she tried to tell the principal but he simply told her mother to take her home for a few months so she could ‘rest’.
Over the years Haines wrote Sherlee letters and gave her small presents. She kept these for many years in order to prove the abuse. However her mother convinced her to destroy the items, claiming it would be too late to report it to the police, anyway.
Sherlee eventually escaped from Haines when she finished school. She wanted to be a teacher but completed a degree in a different discipline because ‘I couldn’t think of teachers the same way after that’.
By the time she reached university, Sherlee began drinking heavily for ‘its numbing effects’. She ‘fell into a dark hole’ and twice tried to take her life. She had a series of ‘disastrous relationships with men’, including her now ex-husband who was violent. She left him after seven years. She has not had a relationship for some time because of trust issues. In addition to chronic health complaints, Sherlee has been prescribed antidepressants and tried for many years to distract herself by constantly working.
‘I’ve left jobs and positions when they were going well because I was always afraid people would find out that I was no good, that I was a failure and they’d see the dirt and the filth in me. And I’d leave before they would see what I really was. I’ve been in jobs where I was blatantly and publically sexually harassed in the workplace by male bosses and I did nothing because I still felt so powerless and it was hopeless trying to stop them or fight back so I just resigned and left.’
Eventually Sherlee returned to study and completed her teaching degree ‘but then when I went into the classroom I got panic attacks so I became too afraid to pursue that’. She started degrees in other fields but ‘I didn’t finish them because I didn’t think I could’.
‘My nerves are shot and I can’t sleep and I feel disgusted and worthless, and that’s how I’ve felt all my life. Filthy. Most days I just want to tear my head open and take all the thoughts and the memories.’
Sherlee has sought counselling in the past and found some of it helpful and some ineffective. She is currently supported by a counsellor from a service for survivors of sexual abuse. She also no longer drinks, and engages in ‘a lot of self-healing and therapy’.
She has never made a claim for compensation because until recently she didn’t know this was a possibility. Initially she viewed the idea as insulting but may consider pursuing it in future. In recent years she reported Haines to the police and during that process discovered he is still teaching.
‘I live every day with the fear that the teacher’s going to get away with what he did. If he does then it will be my fault because I didn’t come forward before … Meanwhile he’s still out there, still working with young people. And I’m absolutely certain there is so many other victims.
‘I’ve thought about why I haven’t told anyone all this time or haven’t come forward and it’s because I blamed myself … Something was wrong with me so obviously if I hadn’t had something wrong with me then he wouldn’t have done that to me.’