They fuck you up…

The latest issue of the South Sydney Herald, which I picked up in Glebe the other day when dropping off my bike to be serviced, has a number of ads from Adults Surviving Childhood Abuse.

Some of these ads have also been run on television, and you may have seen them: the father-of-the-bride speech with the “joke” (in fact all too true) by the father that after having sex with his daughter, the first thing he said was “Don’t tell your mother.” Or (and it was the print version of this which caught my eye) a bloke cheerfully doing the ironing whilst wearing a t-shirt saying “My ‘Uncle’ raped me when I was 8 and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”

At the bottom of the ad and another print ad in the same magazine is what is presumably thought to be the second punchline (once attention has been grabbed by the t-shirt) and the message:


(They don’t do subjunctive in ad-land.)

At the ASCA site there is some explication of this statistic:

Statistics on Australian adults surviving child abuse: In 2008 an Australian University-initiated study of over 21 thousand older Australians, the largest of its kind to date found that over 13% reported having been sexually or physically abused in childhood. These figures did not include those emotionally abused or neglected or forced to live with family violence. In an earlier study from 2005, a personal safety survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics 18% of people over 18 reported having experienced physical or sexual abuse before the age of 15. Emotional abuse, neglect and being forced to live with family violence were excluded yet again. Australia’s current population is around 21.5 million. So as you can see 10% of this number exceeds the 2 million we have used- let alone if we used the real percentages from these studies and added the additional figures from the forms of abuse and neglect not considered by them. The figure is more likely to be double that quoted.

We’ve all heard statistics like this in the past. I always wonder to what extent they lump together minor and major incidents, and isolated and sustained abuse. If child abuse really as common as all that (note that ASCA wants to bump the figure up to 20% of the population), then a lot of people are going to have to learn to get over it, because there just isn’t enough counselling to go round so many. My own suspicion is that in fact a lot of people do learn to “get over it,” at least when the incidents were relatively minor or isolated. Admittedly, I may be generalising from my own experiences: I suffered much worse and more harmful abuse from my fellow children on account of my sissiness than from any adult, and I expect this is so for many gay men.

The first study referred to by ASCA is presumably the one summarised here:

OBJECTIVES: To determine whether childhood physical and sexual abuse are associated with poor mental and physical health outcomes in older age. DESIGN: Cross-sectional, postal questionnaire survey. SETTING: Medical clinics of 383 general practitioners (GPs) in Australia. PARTICIPANTS: More than 21,000 older adults (aged >60) currently under the care of GPs participating in the Depression and Early Prevention of Suicide in General Practice (DEPS-GP) Study. Participants were divided into two groups according to whether they acknowledged experiencing childhood physical or sexual abuse. MEASUREMENTS: Main outcome measures targeted participants’ current physical health (Medical Outcomes Study 12-item Short Form Survey, Version 2 and Common Medical Morbidities Inventory) and mental health (Patient Health Questionnaire-9 and Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale). RESULTS: One thousand four hundred fifty-eight (6.7%) and 1,429 participants (6.5%) reported childhood physical and sexual abuse, respectively. Multivariate models of the associations with childhood abuse indicated that participants who had experienced either childhood sexual or physical abuse had a greater risk of poor physical (odds ratio (OR) = 1.35, 95% confidence interval (CI) = 1.21-1.50) and mental (OR = 1.89, 95% CI = 1.63-2.19) health, after adjustments. Older adults who reported both childhood sexual and physical abuse also had a higher risk of poor physical (OR = 1.60, 95% CI = 1.33-1.92) and mental (OR = 2.40, 95% CI = 1.97-2.94) health. CONCLUSION: The effects of childhood abuse appear to last a lifetime. Further research is required to improve understanding of the pathways that lead to such deleterious outcomes and ways to minimize its late-life effects.
Revue / Journal Title
Journal of the American Geriatrics Society ISSN 0002-8614
2008, vol. 56, no2, pp. 262-271 [10 page(s) (article)] (36 ref.)

When I read that, it isn’t clear that the two figures for physical and sexual abuse are mutually exclusive categories, so it may not be correct to add 6.7% and 6.5% and get “over 13%” as ASCA does, and it is far from clear that all of those 13% reported problems as a result of this, as opposed to the higher risks (OR) referred to. So, in other words, I think the second line of the punchline, “for over two million Australians,” is an exaggeration, even though it is undeniable that the effects of childhood abuse can persist throughout people’s lives.

The figure which ASCA purports to get from the ABS also seems to add together figures which must count the same people twice. The figures I have found, on a cursory search, are:

9.4% of men and 10% of women experienced physical abuse before the age of 15 years.
4.5% of men and 12% of women were sexually abused before the age of 15 years.

In the meantime, in the Supreme Court of NSW, well-known-softy Justice David Kirby (probably now just Justice Kirby now that his brother is off the bench) has extended the limitation period to allow CG, now aged 28, to sue her father and her uncle for some pretty horrendous sexual abuse which she experienced as a child between the ages of 4 and 11.

At least as against her father, it is undeniable that some abuse occurred, as he pleaded guilty to two counts in November 2006. The uncle didn’t commit the abuse. He was told of it when CG was about 6, after she had told her sister about it, after which he and the mother intervened in some way with the result that (CG said) the abuse stopped for about a year (and then it resumed). There were some of the familiar sequelae:

16 During the period of abuse and after, [CG] found it difficult to concentrate at school. Her behaviour deteriorated once she went to High School. She began to associate with an older group. She smoked cigarettes and soon became addicted. By the age of 12 she was regularly using alcohol and cannabis. She began to truant. Unsurprisingly, her school results were poor. She was repeatedly suspended and ultimately expelled. Dr Pickering recorded the following history, providing her reasons for such behaviour: (p 3/4)

“ … if she was not under the influence of some substance, she felt stressed and agitated, and more importantly she could not stop herself thinking about the abuse. Attempts to block these thoughts therefore became the central theme of her (existence) through this period of time. Indeed, [CG] stated that through her life she has been trying to feel ‘normal’ and to do so she needed either to be under the influence of some substance or to have something that was strongly distracting.”

17 Having left school, Ms G. began part time work in a veterinary clinic. She had had, by that time, a number of sexual partners, usually much older. One partner introduced her to heroin. She then lost her job because of drug use. Her boyfriend was arrested for armed robbery and imprisoned. She was, by that time, injecting heroin. By the age of 18 she began working as a prostitute. She also resorted to crime, in association with other prostitutes. She was charged with robbery in company after snatching a bag, and also for stealing a motor vehicle and the possession of a prohibited drug. She was placed on probation for 12 months and required to undergo counselling at the Juvenile Justice Centre in Blacktown.
18 Her drug taking reached the point where her family intervened, apparently on the initiative of her sister who contacted her uncle. In mid September 1999, her uncle arranged for her to enter a 24 hour detox programme with The Poplars Hospital at North Epping. Upon discharge, she was provided with various medications, including Naltrexone, which she took for seven months. The treatment was ultimately successful, although she replaced her addiction to heroin with heavy alcohol consumption and cannabis. She gave the following history to Dr Lisa Brown: (p 7)

“Ms G. said that … she used both of these substances for their calming effect and also because it distracted her from thinking about her past experiences of abuse.”

19 During the period that she was taking Naltrexone, [CG] lived with her parents on the south coast She felt uncomfortable in doing so, but had no choice. She was destitute. During 1999 to 2001 she occasionally worked, mainly as a cleaner. She described herself as having many brief sexual encounters, “one night stands”, and as a result of one she became pregnant. Her daughter, Jessica, was born in July 2001.
20 By the time of Jessica’s birth, [CG] had met her boyfriend, Glenn. Glenn urged her to move out of her parents’ home. At about this time, she had the following realisation, which she described to Dr Lisa Brown: (p 8)

“When her daughter was around three months of age, [CG] said that she experienced the realisation when looking at her father holding the baby that there were possible risks to her daughter of being sexually abused by her father.”

21 Ms G. disclosed these concerns to an early childhood nurse, who contacted DOCS. Soon thereafter, Ms G. moved out of her parents’ home, as her boyfriend had been urging. She was able to satisfy DOCS that the child was not at risk. She did not see her father.
22 Ms G.’s boyfriend also urged her to report her father’s sexual abuse to the police. Her sisters had also been abused. She therefore sought their support. The older sister was said to be too fragile to provide such support. The other sister aligned herself with her mother.
23 On 5 June 2003, Ms G. did report the matter to the police. She described how she was passing a police station and made a “spur of the moment decision” (Dr Brown: p 11). She felt that if she did not do it immediately, she would avoid it, possibly indefinitely. Over the months that followed, she saw the police a number of times. On 17 November 2003, she signed a statement that formed the basis of the prosecution of her father on two counts of indecent assault of a person under the age of 16 years under his authority.

Usually, you have until you are 18, and then 6 years after that, to sue for a wrong done to you in your childhood. If you are suing in relation to a personal injury which was caused negligently or as a result of nuisance or breach of duty, a shorter period of three years applies. However, there is provision in the Limitations Act for the clock to be stopped for any period when you are under a disability. CG’s uncle said (or to be more precise, his insurer’s lawyers said, as to which more below) that, if CG could give a statement to the police, then she could have gone to her lawyers, so that even if the clock was stopped after she was 18 until then, it in any event started running in 2003 so that the proceedings, brought in 2008, were out of time. (At first they assumed that a 6-year period applied, and so latched onto the time when CG told the nurse about the abuse and her fears for her daughter which led to her moving out of her parents’ house.) CG said, and Kirby J accepted, that it was not until she heard her father plead guilty in the District Court at Nowra in November 2006 that the weight was lifted from her so that she was able to go and see lawyers about suing anyone. As a result, the clock was “stopped” until then, so that the action was brought in time.

It is a terrible story, but it is hard to know exactly how this case is going to make anything better. Well, some money will help CG, but this will presumably be at the cost of impoverishing her mother (assuming she lives in a house jointly owned with the father, who is now in gaol) and also, indirectly, taking money away from both her sisters who, according to CG, were also abused. It does not seem possible for a parent, being sued directly or indirectly in this way to bring into account whatever benefits they have provided to their child.

The [maternal] uncle is being sued because CG says that he “acted as the family medical practitioner, writing prescriptions when they were needed and performing similar tasks.” This may be the case, but it may also be disputed: how many avuncular prescriptions make you the family medical practitioner? He is being sued for negligence and breach of statutory duty, namely, a failure to report as required by s 148B(3) of the Child Welfare Act 1939. I expect it is the deep pockets of his medical defence union which are thought to offer the prospect of gold at the end of the rainbow.

PS: the title of this post (for those few who may be unaware) comes from Philip Larkin.

5 Responses to “They fuck you up…”

  1. NK Says:

    Well, at least now the laws are beefed up to protect the victims and bring justice at this part of the world. I strongly support the tough laws against such criminals.

    I was repeatedly sexually molested as a child by a male teacher many years ago and he got off scot free and he still is. I can’t believe how he can betrayed my trust in him. At that time, I really had no one to turn to for help and you could imagine that the anger, shame and disgusts that I had to endure for many years.

    I have learnt to get over it but the pain and fear sometimes will rear it ugly head to haunt me. But I will survive, I already have…

  2. Jim Belshaw Says:

    Marcellous, I do admire the way you keep dealing with this issue.

    If you look at what NK says, and accepting his words as an accurate picture, then we have a clear and real case of child abuse. I know that such cases happened.

    But you point to the broader problem, the way in which such things have become an obsession and the damage it causes, including to victims.

    I find from my own experience in discussing this issue that it is almost impossible to get across the idea of balance. As I think of it, balance involves dealing with problems like NK’s on an individual basis without creating a general climate that leads to damage, distortion and failure – the collapse of child welfare in NSW under the burden of reporting requirements is an example.

  3. marcellous Says:

    NK’s own previous rather more detailed account is here.

    NK is circumspect about his country of origin, but I can hazard a guess and I am sure the law (and society) then and there would have imposed quite severe consequences on the adult concerned if NK had reported the incidents and was believed (an important proviso). However, this could well have been only at a very high practical price or at least risk to NK himself, because the total proscription of homosexuality imposed an isolation and lack of information on NK (who was younger than his post necessarily suggests) and left him in fear not only of what might happen to the adult but also what effect a denunciation could have on him and his family.

    Unlike Ms Glennie, NK could bring the relationship and the abuse to an end without taking such a drastic step.

    Some of this comment (and in particular the allusion to NK’s age) is based on a subsequent communication from NK after I sent him a draft of this comment. Despite what NK says in his comment about strongly supporting tough laws, it seems to me that quite a few aspects of his experience have implications for what you have said, Jim.

  4. Jim Belshaw Says:

    They do, Marcellous. I don’t know. It’s all very difficult.

    I do know one thing, however. I had one experience as a child, not with a family member. It was all very mild by the standard of these things. I felt very silly and thought the man strange, then forgot about it. It only came back to me in recent years because of all the current focus.

    I am very glad that it was then and not now. With current awareness it might not have happened. But if it had and I then told my parents, the likely outcome would have left me badly traumatised.

  5. Cassandra Says:

    AHAHAHAHA you all have know idea on what its like to be ME !!! Even now my life is ruined. I can’t even hide from the abuse as the internet tells all.

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