Elaine's Story
I told Mum and Dad but no one talked about it

In a family, even though you all experience the same situation, you pick up on different things as the ones that traumatised you. But one thing we’ve talked about recently is our sense of emotional abandonment and the effect that had on us. Our parents were so caught up in their own situation. We were so busy trying to keep ourselves safe and trying to make sense of it in our own little minds that we all closed down on lots of levels.

It impacted on us in different ways. The major impact on me was that I became very non-demanding and non-competitive. My father’s family was quite sporty, but I didn’t like competing – and I really didn’t like winning, because I couldn’t handle the attention. I became a background person, someone who just supported everybody else and made an effort to be what others wanted me to be. This happened both within the family and outside of it. I think what happens in the family translates into all other relationships.

I grew up being the responsible good girl, partly because I was the eldest. I had a telephone conversation with my father recently and when I told him about my job in the justice system he said “I’m not surprised because you were always a good girl”. That’s how he perceived me to be. You try to line up with those perceptions when you are in these violent family systems. As a result, you can grow up totally removed from who you really are. Later you’ve got to work to connect with your real self. But you’ve also got to come to terms with the fact that all those awful experiences have impacted on you, and you have to integrate that stuff because it is part of you.

One of my sisters developed mental health issues, and I believe that was a direct result of her violent childhood experiences. She has had to process out a lot of the trauma, and to have medication in order to cope with life. My brother was into drugs and alcohol, but he gave it away because he knew otherwise he’d be dead by 30. That’s the level of damage that family violence does.

When I was 14, I was sexually attacked. I was staying in the workers’ quarters on a farm. One night after I fell asleep a man wandered in looking for sex. He pinned me down by the neck. I couldn’t breathe, and I thought I was going to die. I went into a form of shock, but eventually I squeaked something out and he backed off. In the doorway, he turned and said, “I’ll be back”. I got up and had a shower because I felt really dirty and ashamed. I got a butcher’s knife from the kitchen and sat on my bed waiting for him to come back. When the others returned from a party they found me traumatised.

I had bruise marks all up my neck for weeks. And I felt numb for a long time. It was as if I was here and everyone else was over there. Although I told my parents, there was no conversation about it, no mention of going to the police. It was just something that sat with me, and I tried not to think about.

It was one of those pivotal incidents that change you for life. It took my self esteem to a much lower level, and I developed a sense of not having any worthiness in connection with males.

Not long after that, Mum got to the point where she simply couldn’t cope any more. I didn’t understand it that way at the time. To me, she deserted us. That’s the term Dad used. He was really bitter, and he was always trying to get me to collude with him about how bad Mum was for leaving – and I did feel angry towards her for leaving us with Dad.

I left school at 15 – partly because I didn’t think I had a chance of getting School Certificate, but it was also as a result of Mum leaving. We were ‘home alone’ children because Dad was away so much, and I had a deep-seated fear, almost a paranoia, that if people knew what our lives were like we would be split up and put into a children’s home, so I used to cook the meals and look after the others.

My little brother was too scared to let me out of the house, and I found that really demanding. My younger sister got into religion and then into boys. My youngest sister seemed to be away with the fairies. Dad used to haul her out of bed to do hula dances in front of his mates. There were lots of boozy parties at our place. I’d cook for them, and clean up afterwards. Sometimes there were fights, and I’d be cleaning up blood.

Mum had escaped to Australia but we didn’t know that for about a year. Then she tried to commit suicide because she couldn’t live with the guilt of having left us. She tried to gas herself and ended up in hospital. Dad went over and brought her home.

After a couple of weeks she left again, taking one of my sisters with her. After that, the family just fell to bits. The house was sold. Dad went to live with a mate, my other sister went to live near relatives, my brother went to boarding school, and I boarded with a family.

I had wanted to get into hairdressing, but I could not support myself on the small apprenticeship wage you got in those days. So I got a job in a shop.