Let the healing fountain start…

23 Nov

Image by Quint Buccholz

I went to St Michael’s Collegiate School in Hobart, at a very different time from Grace Tame. Grace’s story and in particular the references to the school, have stirred memories I thought no longer had the power to move me. I want first to acknowledge Grace’s experiences and her steadfast telling of them, and have it noted here that the recounting of her story by a woman can sometimes break through the defences of those of us who have survived, and in turn free our voices. 

When I was at St Michael’s, or Collegiate as we called it, the school was run by the Community of the Sisters of the Church, a group of Anglican nuns. I was sent there not because my family was particularly interested in high Anglican ideology, but because it was a school with a strong reputation for educating girls and apart from that, I needed to be got out of home and it was a boarding school.  My story is also one of childhood sexual abuse, not by a teacher but my stepfather. 

We lived in the small east coast village of St Marys, where my stepfather was the local doctor. He was also a lay preacher in the Methodist church where he played the organ on Sundays. He was a much-liked, even revered figure in the community. Many years later, in one of the confounding synchronicities life can occasionally present, I met Gwynneth, who was a nurse at the small hospital in St Mary’s when my stepfather worked there. We established that Gwynneth knew me when I was a child. She visited our house for dinner, though I do not remember these occasions.  What was I Iike I asked her, as this was the period when the rapes had just begun and I have no memory of myself.  You were quiet, she said. Shy. If I’d known what was happening I would have stolen you. 

What was he like, I asked her. We thought he was a very good doctor, she told me. He let us do things nurses weren’t supposed to do. He encouraged us. 

I hated her for a moment for speaking well of him.

St Michael’s was for me a sanctuary, a refuge from a home where there was no peace to be found, no respite from fear, a house of life-threatening violence and unpredictable adult fury.  At St Michael’s I slept safely in the knowledge that I would not be disturbed either by the sounds of heavy footsteps thudding down the hallway and my mother’s screams, or my stepfather pulling back my bedcovers to slip in beside me. At the dining table at St Michael’s I was permitted to leave food I could not eat. I was allowed to like and dislike. The only times I knew fear were when I received the fortnightly notes from my stepfather telling me which day he would visit to take me out for a drive.  Then it would start again, the cold in my belly, the wakeful nights, until the visit was over and I knew there’d be respite until the next time.  It felt like happiness, after it was over. The euphoric relief, I thought it was happiness and this misunderstanding distorted my perception of how things should be between people for a long time.

This situation continued for some five years. In my fifteenth year, something gave way in me. I had for many months imagined how it would be to tell someone of my secret life. I knew whom I would choose. Her name was Sister Elizabeth May. At this time the nuns wore full black habits with white wimples, we saw neither their hair nor their ankles and their waists were bound with wooden rosaries. I never found them intimidating, though I expect it would be quite difficult to intimidate a girl who knew as much as I did about the terrible things that can be done by adults. 

I experienced only kindness from these women. Though they knew nothing of my story, my distress expressed itself in sleep-walking, nightmares, and a complete inability to learn, though obviously I was not stupid. Children aren’t stupid, despite what some adults may think. The only thing I could do with any confidence was play the piano, which I had been learning since I was five from, confusingly, my stepfather who proved to be an excellent teacher. Sister Elizabeth May used to sit with me of an evening when I was practising. She sat near the piano, knitting black mittens for the winter. She suffered terribly from chilblains. I’m quite sure she knew something was badly awry. 

One evening I said, what happens if you forgive someone seventy times seven and they still do something wrong?  Who are you forgiving, she asked. So I told her. Everything. 

And was believed. 

Which in itself was quite remarkable for the times, which were before these things were spoken of. Before mandatory reporting, so Elizabeth May did not have to go to the police with my story. Instead she went to Sister Jessica, the headmistress, a formidable figure we girls did not know well. I was called to her office. Elizabeth May came with me. I cannot remember Jessica’s questions, I remember only her gentleness and how much I wanted her to take me on her lap. She didn’t, of course, but she did stroke my hair and pray for us all.

Later, I learned that the sisters took their dilemma, and what a dilemma it was at that time, with no framework of regulations within which they could seek guidance, to the Dean of Hobart, Michael Webber. The Dean was a frequent visitor to the school, we knew him well. Between the three of them they formed a plan to confront my stepfather and mother. Yes, my mother knew of all this from the start. But that’s another story. They decided to brief a lawyer who also attended the confrontation. I have no idea what passed between the four of them, but I do know that not one of them ever questioned the veracity of my story. 

I was believed.

On the day of the confrontation it was decided I would be sent to spend the afternoon with one of the secular teachers who had a house in the school grounds. They wanted me safe and out of the way. I spent the day in terror. I was afraid he’d find me. I was afraid he’d kill my mother if he couldn’t find me.  

I was afraid of breathing. 

I can’t remember anything of that day apart from the feelings. At some point, Elizabeth May fetched me from the house and took me to see Jessica. Together they told me my stepfather had admitted the truth. I would not have to go home again, they said. I would not have to endure anymore. I remember the relief. I remember I cried because I didn’t have a home. I remember I feared he would kill my mother and my baby sisters because of what I’d done. 

Many years later they told me they’d given him an ultimatum. Either he gave the nuns charge of me, or they’d report him to the police. Of course, my parents agreed to relinquish me.

In retrospect, this seems a remarkably sophisticated way to deal with a situation that was bizarre for its time, not in the sense that it didn’t happen often, because I am sure it did, but because nobody ever did much about it, especially not the churches. I don’t know if they made the right decision or not, or even how to gauge that. I only know they loved me when I was lost and alone, and full of terror.  

And so St Michael’s Collegiate School became my home, the Sisters of the Church my guardians. In the holidays, other girls would invite me to stay with them. Nobody knew why I couldn’t go home, and I invented a story of parents travelling overseas. Sometimes I didn’t want to go to friends’ homes because I couldn’t reciprocate, and then the nuns would let me stay at school. They took me out with them on picnics and trips up Mount Wellington. I had a record player, books, and a lot of pianos all to myself.  At night, Elizabeth May or Jessica would bring me warm milk and sit with me until I fell asleep. I was free to roam all over the school and the boarding house and I was, for brief intervals, happy. 

Grace Tame, with her fierce courage and her shining spirit, freed in me these vivid remembrances, and for that I am deeply grateful.  Today, for the first time in many years I’ve cried for my Jennifer, and her plight at that time in our life. 

This is what we can do for one another, those of us who survive. 

I believe the nuns saved my life. I believe they taught me truths I would never have known, were it not for their influence. If I could speak to her I would tell Elizabeth May that I still play the piano. I would tell her of my granddaughter, Mabel Jane, who is the child most like me, and whose young life is full of promise and safety and love. I would tell Jessica I have learnt that our children and their children can heal us in ways we could never have anticipated. 

I would tell them that though once I was without both family and home, through their love and care they gave me the chance to grow into a woman who could make for herself her own home and family, and live in profound contentment. This, I would tell them, is what you gave to me, and to Mabel Jane, and I will be grateful for this all of my days.

16 Responses to “Let the healing fountain start…”

  1. Anonymous November 23, 2021 at 7:32 pm #

    Thankyou for sharing your story. I am so glad to hear you have managed to move on to a better life. Good nuns were for me also fine feminist leaders, so great you had good ones too.


    • albydog45 November 23, 2021 at 9:49 pm #

      Thank you


  2. Dear Jennifer,

    Thank you for your eloquent account. And thank goodness you had such wonderful women surrounding you at Collegiate.

    Let the healing fountain start indeed!

    My respect and love to you.


    • vallerian20001 November 23, 2021 at 9:41 pm #

      Thank you for sharing this part of your journey. I read all your words and ached at the telling of what you went through.


      • albydog45 November 23, 2021 at 9:48 pm #

        Thank you for your kind words, Vallerian, they are much appreciated


    • albydog45 November 23, 2021 at 9:49 pm #

      Thank you Dame Queen. I was very lucky to end up with the sisters.


  3. Rhyll McMaster November 24, 2021 at 12:14 am #

    I’m so glad you found you could tell your story. I’m so sorry, Jennifer.


  4. fnmyalgia November 24, 2021 at 7:42 am #

    I can’t comment, have no right to do so. What I do know is that Palm Sunday rally used to be a day of pageantry for the churches in support of refugees. Over the past few years religious presence waned, as Unions took up the cause.
    Except for one outspoken nun, despite her years a tireless worker within the asylum seeker community. Thanks be.


  5. rgarad November 24, 2021 at 8:16 am #

    Dear Jennifer
    Thank you for telling your story. It is heartbreaking to read. Your courage is admirable. You write so well. I feel so privledged to have read this.


  6. SueW November 24, 2021 at 9:37 am #

    I am lost for words, at least it felt that way when I read your story.
    thank you for telling it here.

    It’s not just the abuse, it’s also the theft of a childhood that most of us took for granted that I feel the need to apologise for.
    Jennifer, I am so sorry that this happened to you.


  7. Sam Jandwich November 24, 2021 at 3:51 pm #

    Jennifer – I think I remember saying to you some years ago that it seemed like our society had created a situation where the onus was placed on survivors to explain to the rest of the world – at great personal cost to themselves – what it was like for them and how the rest of us should act in order to acknowledge those experiences and create an environment that isn’t inadvertently retraumatising.

    And while perhaps needless to say nobody will ever be able to fully understand another person, I feel like now there is a sufficient base-level understanding that interpersonal abuse is widespread and can lead to lifelong harms which need to be represented not just in the way we talk and interact, but also in things like legislation and processes.

    More importantly I think everybody knows now that as a society we are all a little bit responsible for the harms that perpetrators cause, since awareness and action can prevent them from having the opportunity.

    There’s plenty more to do of course – including probably some historianship into how these matters were handled in the distant past. What for example did the nuns at St Michael’s know from their own personal experience? A lot of that is gone now.

    Ultimately though it’s entirely due to the work that you and your peers like Grace Tame have done that there is now a level of awareness whereby things start to happen. I noticed yesterday for example that affirmative consent laws have been passed in NSW. Of course you should never have found yourself in the situation that you did, but at the same time you didn’t have to do all the work that you have done either – but in doing so I really believe you have changed our culture and made the world a good deal safer. Thank you.


  8. charlescowell November 25, 2021 at 7:04 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your life. I am sure it will help many others in dealing with their own trauma.


  9. louisaheinrich December 27, 2021 at 4:29 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your story. So glad you had those nuns. Not at all a substitute for a loving family home, but the alternative doesn’t bare thinking about.
    I’m astounded by the resilience of children, or should I say their ability to survive horrible circumstances
    I’m 60, I survived family violence and sexual abuse. I’m far from ok. But my partner and I have a grown up son who is a lovely person, and for him I am very grateful. 💖🌺



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