Photo by Joseph Duncan
My adoptive family was a quirky, mixed bunch from various backgrounds – four adopted kids with working class parents and one much older, natural daughter to my mother. We went through a series of foster kids, pets, renovations, above ground pools and complete re-purposing of everything in the backyard with the exception of dad’s shed in our early years. My mum had such a generous heart; she was capable, gregarious and very often found to be the life of the party. When she was angry, boy, did we cop it! My mum was passionate and she cared. My dad was a motor mechanic and he drank Carlton Draught; we used to stack the empty beer bottles by the side of the red-brick housing commission place we called home for the first 15 years of my life. I don’t know where mum and dad lived before that, but they moved into our house around about the time they got me from the adoption agency.
Apparently I was only nine days old when they took me home from the hospital and as lazy as I was I never put any effort into making sure I was fed or changed, rarely crying out to get attention. Apparently, I just lay there peacefully, waiting.
The most delightful thing I remember from my early years was my nana on my mother’s side. I thought she was the best thing since sliced bread! She lived with us for a few years and she was blind as a result of diabetes. Once I actually saw her getting her insulin shot – put me off needles for life. Anyway, I learnt to read just as soon as my sister went off to school. I would listen in as she practised her ABC’s, plus my favourite pre-school TV show was University Challenge (which must have scared my mum a bit) and it didn’t take me long to figure out how it all worked. You see, I was determined to learn to read as soon as possible so that I could read the paper to my nana. Years ago, when she was younger she ran a boarding house for jockeys and she still loved to bet on the horses.
My favourite memories of nana involve me sitting on her lap reading the form guide out loud, she would place her bets over the telephone just minutes before we listened to the races being called on the radio; sometimes cheering, sometimes disappointed. The thing is, she had this bee in her bonnet about Harry White – who turned out to be a great jockey – but my nana, oh she had it in for him. Every time I found myself looking at the name H. White on the form guide for the next race, I would giggle and squirm and eventually get myself under control and announce, “And the jockey is….H. White!” At this point my nana would put on a very high-pitched voice and say “that bloody Harry White he couldn’t lie straight in his bed!” Too funny. It was like pressing a button – it played out pretty much the same way every time.
For many years I held this bizarre image in my mind of this small man in brightly coloured riding silks who couldn’t straighten out his crooked body because he spent too much time riding horses. The memories became so much more heart-warming after I finally figured out what she was really saying about him What a funny lady!
My nana was my protector and for the most part I loved and respected her deeply. Although, occasionally I would try out something quite naughty and I can remember just how ashamed I was at those times to have disappointed her; how afraid I was that we might not end up being close anymore. Eventually though, her health was failing and we were getting too many kids for the house, so she moved to the Blind Institute. We used to go there and visit on the odd weekend. My little brother and I were intrigued by the pedestrian crossing with the tick- tick-tick sound to alert the blind people as to when it was safe to cross the street. The last time we visited nana she told mum that she could actually see us, she looked at each of us and made a personal comment and she was so happy and shining that I am glad to remember her that way. My nana passed away a very short time after that last visit. My mum was devastated. I still miss her.
Around this time, my mum and I had to spend a lot of time together due to the demands of my dance training. My older sister was focussed on swimming so my dad would take her along to training. Whenever possible, mum would arrange to spend time with my sister and I would attempt to help dad with whatever he was doing; such as servicing cars at the workshop, cleaning banks, reading the paper (I never could get it through my head that the newspaper wasn’t mine), watching the motor racing on TV, etc.
I would have been around seven or eight years old when he called me into the bathroom that first time and locked the doors and showed me what I had to do. It was completely surreal, I said no a lot and cried, but I was so scared of how different he was that I tried my hardest not to make him any angrier. To try and understand what he wanted so it could end quickly. But I couldn’t understand; why was he shaking so much? Why is he squeezing my hand so tightly? I seriously had no clue what was going on as he tried so many different things, then he would say “no, no good” or something like that and try some new configuration of our bodies always centred around some part of my body in contact with his penis – none of which seemed to make him happy. The tiled floor was cold and it hurt so much and I was so angry and heartbroken – I did not know why this happened. When he finally said that I could go, he pulled my arm in tight and said in a low voice “if you tell anyone about this, ever, I will kill you”.
For years after that, he would call me aside and tell me to put on a dress before we went to clean the bank, or if everyone went out and we were alone at home. He had this ointment, Rawleigh’s, that I was always being asked to rub on his and my mother’s feet at night, it was horrible sticky stuff and I hated it when he tried to use that, but it was better than the cold cream and that is all I can say about that. My dad had a physiological problem that prevented him from getting a full erection, but to this day I still cannot accept this as a justification for his behaviour.
I was around twelve or so years old when I finally worked out how to stop it from happening – it was shortly after I had discovered how to stop the fighting in school. For months, I started getting up very early on weekends and disappearing – going on long adventures and exploring the neighbourhood, sometimes with my little brother, sometimes on my own. The trick was to be far enough away that no-one could easily track me down and make me go help my dad. He was onto this pretty quickly and I knew I was taking a serious risk defying him like this, but I was trying to self-heal. Both my parents were unaware that I had already tried to commit suicide in my own naive way (paracetamol can’t kill you, but it definitely makes you throw up, lol) and this had to stop.
Over time I eventually figured out what name to call what was going on, and more importantly, that it was illegal (which I totally agreed it should be). So, armed with full awareness but no life experience whatsoever, he cornered me one day and I was completely out of options, so I simply said to him, “No, or I will tell the police” and then I ran off. He was furious but he did nothing, just turned cold towards me from then on. That ended that stage of my life and right up until this moment I have felt rejected by him because I defied his wishes. So a small blessing from writing this…
I didn’t tell my mum about this period of my life until she drove me to school one day when I was about thirteen or fourteen. It was unusual because we always walked to school or a got a lift with the next-door neighbour. She pulled over the car and wanted to talk about how she had been going out to dances lately and enjoying herself. That she had met someone new and “your father”, she says, “well, your oldest sister said that he used to make sexual passes at her when she was still living at home, that is why she got married so young.” I did the maths quickly in my head, my mum is about to leave my dad plus she already knows he does horrible things, so we should be able to slip this in under the radar. Wrong! I said to her, “the same thing happened to me” and she freaked out. Mum started up the car then swung it around to drive me back home, all the time so angry and repeating over and over, “tell me you’re not lying, you better not be lying, are you sure this is true, can you prove it?” She was so casual about my sister I didn’t expect it would be a shock to her.
That day my next-door neighbour came over to our house and the two of them fired a million questions at me to prove that I was making it up or to prove that I wasn’t making it up – who knows? There were lots of ad-hoc honesty tests, but my physical description of some of the events they both found shockingly accurate. The most curious conclusion I remember them drawing was “and now we know why you bite your fingernails, you must stop now that it is over”. The fact that I told my mother in that way, and that she called my father and told him he was kicked out immediately, meant that it would never be over.
The new guy moved in the same or next day and my family have many times let me know they hold me responsible for the entire sequence of events. Mum refused to let me be examined by a doctor when she discovered that the doctor was required to report the incident to the police. I was not allowed to see my father again except once when they sold the house. He died of stomach cancer when I was about 30 years old, my mum instructed me to stay away from the hospital and the funeral because I wasn’t welcome. In his will he left everything to my sister and one of my brothers which is fine by me, but the irony exists in the fact that even though he protested his innocence until the day he died, the two black kids he sexually abused were omitted from his will as though they didn’t exist. The Statutory Declaration, signed at the local police station that mum sent to me after the reading of the will, advised me that I am no longer her adoptive daughter and that I have no legal or financial claim on the family. In a way she knows I will do almost anything to protect the interests of my youngest brother who did not get such an easy a time of it as I.
So here is my apology to my adoptive family for everything that happened – I love you all with all of my heart and I have to agree, I should never have told you what was going on in that way, it did break the family apart. I should have gone straight to the police – for my little brother’s sake. There is a cycle to these events and although, mum, you survived a similar childhood I am sorry that you were unable to prevent the cycle from repeating in your children, natural and adopted.
To my birth mother, I apologise that you based part of your decision to give me up for adoption on the hope that I would be prevented from this very type of experience. You too, were unable to prevent the cycle of abuse from being handed down to your child.
No-one has failed here especially because the story is not yet over. Please, to both my mothers; trust that god has given me or will provide enough strength to bring this cycle of abuse to an end for all of us.