‘Home was a loving family. When I got in there it was like purgatory. Hell.’
In the mid-1940s when Tessie was four years old her mother noticed that she was walking awkwardly and took her to the local hospital. The doctors diagnosed a condition that had to be treated by completely immobilising Tessie’s leg.
‘They put me on this leather hospital bed. It was like a frame, the shape of myself.’
Tessie was moved into the hospital and stayed there, with her legs and chest strapped to the frame, for the next five years. The boredom was excruciating, and her personal hygiene was neglected. She wasn’t allowed to go to school and only learned to read because of the generosity of a visiting teacher.
‘I don’t know how I coped, really, looking back on it. Damned if I know.’
Tessie wasn’t alone. There were five other kids in similar situations, most of them boys. At 10 o’clock each morning the staff would wheel the kids out onto the lawn to get some fresh air and sunshine.
One day, when Tessie was about nine, a man wandered through the grounds. He saw the kids all lined up on the lawn, saw Tessie, and sexually assaulted her. Tessie was ‘devastated’ and didn’t mention the incident to any of the staff.
She had several reasons for keeping quiet. First, she was certain that the staff already knew what had happened. ‘They couldn’t have helped but see … They just left me out there. They ignored it.’
Also, Tessie was embarrassed, not only by the assault itself but by the fact that she didn’t scream out for help while it was happening. As an adult she’s often wondered why she didn’t scream out. The reasons are complex and arise from Tessie’s earlier experiences at the hospital.
From age four to age 10, Tessie barely saw her parents, who were permitted to visit her only twice a week, for two hours at a time. Staff quickly tired of the tears that followed each visit so they told Tessie:
‘“If you cry when they go, they’re not coming next time.” This is a four-year-old kid. “If you cry, Mummy and Daddy won’t be able to come next time.”’
Tessie was effectively ‘trained not to make a fuss. You do not yell, you do not scream’.
At the same time, Tessie was also deprived of human contact. ‘Two hours twice a week isn’t enough. Your parents would come, and I’m on a frame – how difficult, like trying to cuddle a hedgehog, someone trying to cuddle me on that frame. No one cuddled me, mate. No one touched me. Maybe I even wanted that boy to do that, or man, to do that, because I had none of that. No one ever once gave me a hug.’
By age 12 Tessie was out of hospital and back home. Instead of lying on a frame she now wore one, locked around her leg. School was a nightmare. She was labelled ‘slow’ and bullied. Her leg remained a problem well into her adult years. She couldn’t straighten it, which meant she couldn’t sit on a chair or a toilet seat.
‘I spent my whole life being embarrassed about passing water or, you know. I couldn’t go to a toilet, sit on a public toilet, because I’d have to lay across it sideways. And it always leaked down my leg. I’m paranoid about this sort of thing.’
When Tessie was in her 60s, she underwent surgery that fixed many of the problems with her leg. It was ‘wonderful really’ she said. ‘A miracle.’
Many of her psychological problems, on the other hand, have persisted. Tessie still feels stuck with the stigma that ‘I wasn’t valuable, I wasn’t viable, I wasn’t important enough to save’. It hurts her now to look back on her childhood self.
‘The visual I get is [my parents] walking away and me in a cot. And I look at it and it makes me feel heart-wrenched, just to hear that, just to see it, to recollect it and to see it.’
Despite everything, Tessie managed to raise several kids who have all gone on to lead successful lives. ‘I’m a very strong lady’, she said. ‘I guess it made me strong.’ But, she added, ‘I hate myself for being so strong. I wish I could cry’.