Suzanne is the youngest of a family of sisters who ended up in care after their parents divorced, in the early 1960s. Suzanne was about 18 months at the time. For much of her life she repressed memories of the abuse she experienced as a child in several different institutions. But a few years ago she sought her records from the first of them, an Anglican Church home in Sydney. Reading through the file she came across references in her medical records to a swollen vulva and bleeding anus, which she’d been treated for on more than one occasion.
‘I shut it and I didn’t read it again … I tried to forget it but I haven’t been able to’, Suzanne told the Commissioner. ‘It’s just not what I was expecting. It just hasn’t helped me at all. I wish I’d never got it. I really do … It’s like my life’s just been flipped upside down and I don’t know which way’s up.’
Suzanne was moved from that institution to a government-run one when she was about six. A chance encounter with a woman who’d been there at the same time brought additional memories to the surface. ‘Whatever happened with Mr Bruce?’ the woman asked her. ‘Well, that just triggered – I was just right back there’, said Suzanne.
Owen Bruce was a house father at the home. He would come into the dormitory at night and touch and fondle the girls. ‘He threatened us that if we said anything to anyone that there would be direct consequences.’ Suzanne recalled being one of about 10 girls who ran away from him one night. When they were brought back, a staff member asked why they’d tried to escape: ‘We were all too scared to say anything’.
Bruce abused Suzanne on numerous occasions. She remembered him organising an outdoor game of hide-and-seek one evening, then locking her in the home’s bus and sexually assaulting her as the game continued outside. She suffered from tonsillitis, and was often kept back from school. Bruce would come to her bed in the dormitory and molest her.
‘It made me feel like I was special out of the girls. He touched me in places he shouldn’t have, but it felt nice so I didn’t stop him. And I didn’t feel powerful enough to stop him, anyway.’
At the third institution she was sent to, when she was about 11, there was a groundsman who masturbated in front of the girls and did other ‘obscene things’. The supervisor at the home physically abused the girls, poking a key into their backs to make them stand straight, stepping on their heels and whacking their elbows on the corner of the table if they leant on them. She was replaced by a man who seemed an improvement at first, but it wasn’t long before he ‘started doing things that he shouldn’t have been doing’.
Suzanne worked in health-care services for many years, until a workplace injury meant she could no longer continue. She loved her job, she said. ‘Since then I haven’t worked in that field. I can’t do that job any more.’ The trauma of her injury, together with the trauma of her recently surfaced memories and trouble in the lives of her adult children have left her feeling sad and out of control.
‘I don’t feel very strong at the moment. I felt stronger before all of this. I felt of more value to society – I felt I was doing a good job and now I don’t know where I’m at.’ She still regrets looking at her file. ‘It hasn’t helped me, to be honest. It’s brought my life undone.’
Suzanne is now being assisted by a lawyer to explore options for redress. She has made a statement about Bruce and his abuse of her to NSW Police, and he is currently under investigation. But the prospect of seeing him again or appearing in a court case has contributed to her anxiety. She has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is taking anti-depressants.
Now living in a small Queensland town, she has been knocked back for a disability pension, so is struggling financially and can’t afford to access the regular trauma counselling her psychiatrist has told her she needs.
She did manage one session with a counsellor, she said, but would try to find someone else another time. ‘She was so young and pretty – she was going by the book, not life experience.’ She wished she could return to the counsellor she’d seen some years ago, who’d encouraged her to pursue her career and seen her through some dysfunctional relationships.
‘I just wish I could talk to her again … She was really good for me. She made me want to be the best I could be.'
When Suzanne told the counsellor she couldn’t remember much about her childhood, the counsellor explained it was the brain’s way of protecting her. ‘You don’t need to open old wounds.’
But those wounds are open now, and it’s very painful. ‘It’s a whole new ballgame ... Why can’t it just stay buried? Because it’s not fun. I have terrible dreams and I don’t know what’s real any more. I don’t know who I am any more.
‘I don’t know what I’m going to do now – I don’t know what job I can do. I don’t even want to live any more. I just want to die. Because I can’t find any hope. I can’t find a reason to go and get well … I don’t know. I’m struggling with suicide every day. I can think of a million ways to end my life but I don’t have the courage to do it.’
She’s afraid that her children’s difficult lives are a result of the example she set. They’re so mixed up, she told the Commissioner. ‘I can’t help them. I can’t even help myself. So I’m just sort of totally lost in all of this. I just want to stop and go away.’