Personal histories of abuse

Despite years of having been sexually abused by him, Margaret still spoke to her father. They were, in fact, in daily contact. Living a few doors apart, they’d swap chores. He’d buy her groceries, and she’d do his laundry. Their relationship – the most confronting of its kind that I came across in my career as a clinical social worker – was testimony to the deeply woven hold that perpetrators can have over those they abuse.

Margaret and her father had never talked about what he’d done to her when she was a girl. But, at the age of 45, Margaret booked herself in to see me at a rural community health centre for counselling. I was the first person Margaret had ever spoken to about the sexual abuse she had suffered at the hand of her father. And, after being in therapy with me for nearly two years, we decided that I should meet him.
I’m not sure what I expected him to look like. But I certainly didn’t expect an old man with a crook hip.

Coming face to face with him – we had afternoon tea with him none the wiser about what I knew – it didn’t take long for me to see just how assured this elderly man was with his adult daughter. He behaved fearlessly. I thought he was either prepared to deny his crimes if they were revealed, or, a far more likely scenario, he was convinced that Margaret would never tell anyone about what had gone on.
As bizarre as their relationship might sound, it may not be as uncommon as we think. Despite the abuse having stopped nearly thirty years before, Margaret had remained quiet about it all those years. Currently, on average, it takes 28 years for someone to reveal they were sexually abused as a child. She had remained quiet for the same reasons that she’d remained quiet about it at the time: her father made her feel as if she would cause trouble, either for herself or for her family. It had worked on Margaret both when she was a child, and now, as an adult.

That day, I learnt that while we can identify what grooming is, we have a limited view of it. And, if we are to make headway into understanding just how powerful a tool it is, we need to put our minds to its breadth before we can understand how it works in all its forms. Indeed, I have had my own experience of being groomed as a child, and then assaulted. Like so many others, I kept it to myself. Actually it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties, and attending a symposium on child sexual abuse as part of my job, that I truly admitted that it had happened.

With 200 or so people in the auditorium and, after being told that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys had experienced sexual abuse as a child, we were asked, as way of demonstrating the fact, to raise a hand if it had happened to us. As hands slowly rose around me, I was in a dilemma. Surely what I had been through wasn’t abuse? Not technically. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t confused or in doubt about the details of the occurrences. Actually, they stood out in my mind like a flame in a cave. The question was, were they bad enough to be classified as abuse?
I was little at the time, around seven years of age. The perpetrator was the older brother of a friend from school. I can’t say exactly how old he was when it started, but he seemed very big. My guess is that he was fifteen or sixteen years old.

He began putting his hands down my pants and, stimulating my vulva. Well, that’s one way to put it. The other way is to say that he molested me. Mostly, it took place in a large loft at the back of my friend’s huge Victorian house in the old and, what many would call prestigious, suburb of Hawthorn. After the first few times, I knew what going up to the loft would mean. And yet, up I kept going, with this friend and her brother. I have no recollection of the game he engaged us in, but I do know that he orchestrated separating us, and we happily participated. I also have clear visions of lying on a mattress in a nook by myself and, for what seemed like hours – but perhaps wasn’t (there is no way of knowing) – he molested me.

On one occasion, in the large Victorian house in Hawthorn, the young man in question ushered me into a room and pulled down my pants in a feverish hurry. Looking back, I realise he was feeding a need in him to have his hands on me. Like having to get a fix, he was taking a risk that day to satisfy his desire. However, when we heard people at the other end of the house, I was just as desperate as he was, not to be caught.

This is a complicated nexus to unpack for a child. Apart from thinking that I would get into trouble, which I certainly didn’t want, I didn’t want him to either. In fact, if I think about it now, what I most wanted to avoid was trouble in general. The father of his family was a disciplinarian. I’d heard my abuser and his brother being strapped by him – something that had never gone on in my family, and which seemed shocking.

The young man hurriedly pulled up my pants, and we both walked into the hallway again, re-joining the family. I remember feeling that it had been a close-call, and that I shouldn’t do it again. I have no recollection if that was the last time it happened or not. The memories are vivid but do not come in a sequence or with calendar dates attached. They are flashes. And often attached to them is the feeling of arousal.

Although my friend went through school with me until we completed year 12, we naturally grew apart. On the few occasions I have seen her I have never mentioned any of this to her. I wouldn’t have wanted to. Now, so many years have passed, and she lives so far away, that I can’t worry anymore about what she might think.

What I do know is that stories of abuse – and mostly they are far more horrific than mine – tell us how important a calm response is when a child reveals something as complicated as an ongoing situation of abuse. Having worked in the child psychiatric field for years, I am well aware of children not wanting to cause trouble for anyone: including themselves, and including the perpetrator.

Margaret, for many reasons, was not able to confront her father about the devastation he had wrought on her life. She was also not able to sever ties with him. I came to understand that she had had enough trouble in her life, enough misery and sadness, and to go another round was beyond her, even if it meant staying friendly with the enemy. As her therapist, acknowledging that I would go on treating her while she continued to engage with him, was paramount. I learnt about the intricate nature of power and manipulation, and that we should never assume that telling children they will be safe if they tell us about something bad, will make them see it to be true. We must show them. We must really mean what we say, and hear what they are saying with calm authority and composure. It is far too common a problem not to. Otherwise a vital part of our effort to stamp out child sexual abuse, will amount to nought.

SJ Finn

SJ Finn is an Australian writer whose fiction and poetry has been widely published in literary magazines and Australian newspapers. Her latest novel is Down to the River. She can be found at

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  1. The way in which a child feels implicated in the abuse is part of why it becomes so difficult to unpack later. The cycle of abuse – victim, perpetrator and sometimes on-lookers or equally those who deny the abuse – make it also difficult to unpack. It’s a good thing that SJ Finn and others continue to try to unravel these mysteries, mysteries that are as old as time.

  2. Thought provoking article, as always — and as is your novel, Finn.

    There’s been talk in my circles lately about ‘sitting with discomfort’ in order to free the young people in our lives to be honest about their situations, feelings, angers, ‘mistakes’ and the things that have happened to them that we as parents/loved ones would rather not know.

  3. What a great comment Clare. It often seems that our tendency is to parent anxiously, step into our children’s shoes rather than let them experience their own difficulties. In some situations it may be better to behave like a friend. That can be a talent in the parent/child relationship for both participants in certain situations.

    And, Elizabeth, unpacking is the key, as in trying to understand what happened, make sense of it; not an easy thing to do.

    Thanks Honey, your words were such a balm back to me, more than you might imagine.

  4. Memories of childhood abuse are like apparitions with talons. Thank you for your personal and professional reflections. The Royal Commission has provided a profound opportunity for many people to air and make sense of such experiences. But even for adult survivors mountains of years are defenceless fortresses, therefore the support that you and others offer for healing is incredibly important. Also, having hope that a difference is being made, and is possible, assists healing. Shockingly though, I’m finding that one of the biggest institutions is impervious to change, is in fact hideously resistant. I’m trying to maintain the courage and vigilance to continue knocking on their door, but my energies are dwindling. Again, many thanks.

  5. Hi Cassy, I’m saddened but, unfortunately, not shocked to hear that a big institution remains impervious, and this is despite all the notice being brought to the topic. So much of what affects people who’ve been through something taboo and traumatic is the way it’s received when they do start talking about it. Institutions are extraordinarily difficult to penetrate even though we often experience them (certainly when it’s from a distance) as responsive and ‘keeping up with the times’, so to speak. The truth is more often the opposite, especially when we’re asking something from them or challenging them. The closer we are it seems the more resistant and fearful they can appear to be of us.

    To offer platitudes here would be simplistic of me, so I won’t attempt. Suffice to say, good on you for having a voice.

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