I keep secrets. Scores of them. Secrets so horrifying, so brutal and gut-wrenching, that no person should ever have to keep them. I need to keep them secret though because they’re not mine to tell.
I keep secrets. Scores of them. Secrets so horrifying, so brutal and gut-wrenching, that no person should ever have to keep them. I need to keep them secret though because they’re not mine to tell. Like the one about the 72-year-old whose life has been defined by the brutal rape by a senior officer when he was a young Army cadet. Or the one about the teenager who feels that every morning she wakes up is one more night she didn’t suicide.
These people are my clients. They are survivors of sexual abuse.
Grace Tame is one of the few survivors whose story we do know. Her crowning as 2021 Australian of the Year will go a long way in empowering our country’s often silent survivors to speak out and to break down the stigma around sexual abuse. As she says, sexual abuse is “a heavy topic to discuss… but there’s nothing more uncomfortable than the abuse itself”.
Until more survivors feel empowered to share their stories, the deep trauma of sexual abuse will continue to be unspoken and therefore not fully realised by Australians. The public deeply underestimates the shocking prevalence of sexual abuse in our communities. Survivors are next to us on the train, sharing our offices or driving our taxis. They are everywhere, yet we don’t know of their anguish.
I was an ABC journalist for 15 years before I jumped across to the law in 2018. From my first day working in this niche area of abuse law, I was struck by the sheer volume of sexual abuse survivors. I kept thinking to myself, if we are one boutique law firm with hundreds of matters concerning sordid tales of child sexual abuse, this must be the tiny tip of a monstrous iceberg.
For most of the people we represent, I am the first person they share their darkest truths with. For different reasons, these survivors have never felt comfortable speaking publicly about their horrendous experiences. Many of the people we assist are elderly men who suffered abuse whilst in the care of various institutions as children. They’ve never wanted to be considered “a wuss” or someone who “makes a fuss”. The taboo around sexual assault is alive and well. It’s why I know these stories and you don’t.
Survivors suffer in silence for decades. And then, something happens. Someone like Grace Tame miraculously gives them the courage they’ve been missing to come forward. For most, it’s not about seeking monetary compensation. Instead, it’s a deep rooted realisation that what happened to them was wrong and what happened to them, hopefully, is no longer going on in our country’s trusted institutions. We seek an apology and an assurance that whatever organisation breached its duty of care, has atoned for its shameful past.
As legal professionals who work exclusively in this field, our hope is that Grace Tame’s honour will serve as an inspiration to survivors. May they feel less alone; less sidelined and above all, more confident in their conviction that what they endured was not their fault. You will be heard. You will be believed. Thank you Grace Tame.
Anna MacDonald is a former journalist and a final year law student who works as a paralegal at national abuse law firm, Donaldson Law.