‘I went through the first 13 years of my life in multiple, different family homes … and during that period there were about 13 people who either molested me or fully sexually abused me – so incidents of rape. So I guess I was groomed from the age of about five.’
Born in Queensland in the late 1970s, Tahlia grew up in an environment where sexual abuse seemed normal. Before the age of 13 she was sexually abused by her brother’s friend, her uncle, a neighbour and others. But it was not until she was raped by her brother at age 12 that the authorities finally intervened.
Tahlia was made a ward of the state and sent to a children’s home. After some time there she escaped and lived on the streets. She then moved in with a friend for a while before the welfare department sent her back to live with her dad in a small unit where Tahlia was forced to share a bedroom with the brother who had raped her.
Tahlia’s brother never sexually abused her again but ‘he was just a disgusting kind of guy and very dominating’. Tahlia couldn’t cope.
‘I became an intravenous drug user while I was living with my dad. I was hanging out with a lot of street kids. I mean I felt like I was the bottom of society, you know, I hated myself.’
At 14 Tahlia went to the mountains to visit her mum. She loved being away from the city and found ‘solace’ in the forest. So, later when Tahlia’s mother’s neighbour offered to give her a place to stay, Tahlia leapt at the chance. The neighbour’s name was Tom Dunston. Aged in his early50s, he seemed like a father figure to Tahlia.
‘At the beginning he was good for me because he showed like that sort of parental, fatherly role that I’d never had in my life. Proper fatherly role. And then he sort of slowly started feeding me this sort of like romantic suggestions, and after a few months of living with him I began to think of the situation in that sort of romantic light.’
Dunston’s relationship with Tahlia was no secret. Dunston’s ex-partner knew about it, as did Dunston’s son. One of the neighbours even called Dunston a paedophile. Nobody intervened.
Tahlia lived with Dunston from age 14 to 16. Soon after her 16th birthday Dunston ended the relationship. Tahlia believes that he waited until she was ‘legal’ so that if the relationship went public he wouldn’t get into trouble.
From there Tahlia quickly fell into a relationship with a young man and became pregnant. He left soon after the birth of their son. It was an especially difficult time for Tahlia.
‘I had postnatal depression, but I didn’t realise I also had post-traumatic stress disorder, so it was magnified and I was isolated … there were other people around but I didn’t seek any help, been taught through life that you don’t seek help because if you do things get worse. Nobody really helps you, nobody really gives a shit.
‘Yeah, we were by ourselves and it was a real tough time because he didn’t sleep, he had colic and – I wouldn’t ever say I was the best mum but I did absolutely everything I could and, given the circumstances, I’m actually really lucky that I didn’t do something crazy like just go and – you know, I had thoughts of just wanting to throw him out the window.’
For the next two and a half years, Tahlia said, she ‘shut down’. Two things helped her to open up again. The first was her spirituality, which ‘taught me practices that helped me to reflect and get some objectivity, so I kept sort of thinking and practising and trying my best to overcome my childhood – because I knew that was what was behind it’.
The second was a man named Nick O’Keefe, who, Tahlia said, ‘got me out of this mess’. Tahlia wasn’t attracted to him, but she was grateful, so when O’Keefe wanted to start a relationship she agreed. What followed was a destructive behaviour pattern that played out again and again for years: O’Keefe would explode violently, Tahlia would leave him, he’d apologise, she’d take him back, he’d explode again. They ended up having a child, and it was because of this child that Tahlia was finally able to break out of the relationship.
‘It wasn’t until he was hitting me in the side of the head and preventing me from breastfeeding that I went “No, this is shit. I’m moving”.’
Sadly, from there Tahlia went on to repeat a similarly violent cycle with another man, and they also had a child together. Eventually she broke off that relationship as well.
Over the years, Tahlia has been involved in custody disputes with both men. In both proceedings her ex-partners and their lawyers were given full access to her files and tried to use her history against her. During cross-examination one lawyer even suggested that Tahlia had consented to the rape by her brother.
‘That should be banned. I mean, I’m 13 at the time. And does that mean because I was suicidal then that I was still screwed up at the age of 21 through to 24? Well, they could have asked me: “What have you done to help yourself?” Well, I’d seen counsellors, I’d seen psychologists, I’d read so many books … I’d looked at my trauma, I’d felt all the feelings, I was at a point where I was just starting to pick myself up.’
She said she would like to see the family court system ‘absolutely, totally overhauled, because I am continuously being victimised, re-victimised. The trauma keeps coming up and I keep having to use everything I’ve got … I feel scooped out and hollow’.
Still, somehow Tahlia managed to survive the court process and keep her children.
‘I don’t know how I’ve managed. I’m really lucky, that’s all I know. I’m lucky. My belief in God. That’s all it is. I’ve had faith that He’s looking after me – or “She”, “It”. A higher power. I’ve been put here for a purpose.’