Twelve months ago, I found myself in a situation that eerily replicated scenes from childhood. I had done everything in my power to avoid the circumstances, knowing the damaging effect they would likely have on me. In the initial example of traumatic repetition the matter was taken out of my hands by the other party in a betrayal of trust that continues to leave me stunned, and exhausted by the fatigue that accompanies the struggle to come to terms with events over which one has no control.
I behaved exactly as I had when a child. I became compliant. I tried to anticipate the other’s wishes. I did what I thought the other wanted me to do. I felt outside of myself, an observer rather than a participant. I fled, as I did as a child, into the persona I came to think of as the recording angel, the only part of me with any agency, the part of me that witnessed, the part of me whose role it was to remember.
I’ve watched and listened as survivors of childhood sexual abuse give their wrenching testimony to the Royal Commission. Every one of them has, like me, their own recording angel who witnessed, and remembers the events that determined the course of our lives. Every one of us found ways in which to stay alive except for those of us who didn’t, and who died of grief, and despair, and wounds that would never heal. Every one of us knows what it is to live a life in which every choice we make, every step we take, is steeped in the aftermath of our experiences and so is never free, and all too often self-destructive or at the very least, not in our own best interests. We have tainted perspectives on our own best interests. How could it be any other way?
My experience of a year ago plunged me into an ongoing nightmare of flashbacks, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, terror, self-blame, and ultimately despair that I will never be free of my history. I thought I was free, or at least as much as I could expect to be. I thought I had learned to manage the ongoing fallout from childhood. I thought that managing it was the best I could hope to achieve and all in all, that wasn’t too bad an outcome. Yet out of nowhere I encountered circumstances that released the demons; as an adult I failed to protect myself though I was certain that I had, and in a matter of minutes I found myself as powerless as I was when I was ten.
My life-long belief in my ability to manage, even overcome the damage of childhood was destroyed in those few minutes. That was the scaffolding on which I built my adult life, and it collapsed.
When survivors tell the Royal Commission their lives were stolen, this is one of the things they mean. We are never free. We never know what circumstances lie in wait that might hurl us back at the speed of light into the terror and powerlessness of childhood experiences. We cannot trust that our scaffolding will hold fast, subject as it is to the vagaries of memory provoked by unforseen reminders of hideous events.
There is what the abusers did to our bodies. There is what the abusers did to our hearts. There is what the abusers did to our spirits. And there is the recording angel, witness and testifier, speaker of truth.
To Cardinal Pell I would say, find the courage to face the testimony of the recording angels. If you wish to salvage something of your soul.