Periodically, for most of the five years of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, I covered its squalid revelations as both journalist and abuse victim. For years I spoke with victims and their families, listened to naked, fitful testimonies of abuse, and read granular psych reports that were devastatingly resonant. I interviewed a paedophile, and partially recounted my own abuse at the hands of an incestuous predator. I believed in the work, but it was making me sick.
Published in Sydney Morning Herald
I became withdrawn. Cancelled social plans. On a tram home one night, I began reading the play Blackbird — about a woman who confronts her childhood abuser — and suddenly felt weak, dizzy, overcome by a sense of floating, untethered, into the sky. Once home, I was tearfully grateful for the company of kittens.
It’s not a problem until it is. For a long time, I vainly believed that I possessed some rare fortitude. My vanity wasn’t to think that I was impregnably armoured, but that I could commune with the suffering and still continue.
Serious engagement mattered to me. I thought that’s what made a life. Only later did this mentality remind me of my physical recklessness on various sports fields – and the subsequent sprains, cuts and confrontations – but I was confident in my strength and flexibility to withstand any injuries.
That I’ve been following the sex-crimes trial of Harvey Weinstein in the past week with one eye shut is a sign of my new cautiousness. In late 2017, I read a slew of investigative pieces and personal testimonies about the predatory behaviour of the Hollywood producer and dream-maker, and the sinister, sophisticated networks that upheld it. I read them in the way, presumably, most people did: with rapt but nauseated attention.
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The allegations against Weinstein were significant not merely for the sum of one man’s mendacity, but for illuminating the extensive protections that the powerful can buy – and how frequently abusers are protected by the shame of their victims.
Then, on November 4, 2017, Buzzfeed published a personal recollection from the actor Harry Dreyfuss, son of Richard, in which, for the first time publicly, he described being brazenly molested by Kevin Spacey when he was 18. He said what so many had said: he had come forward because he felt a responsibility to do so.
The story mugged me. Dreyfuss’s account, though very different to my story, inspired a sudden, vertiginous sense of responsibility — which I now experienced as trembling hands and a sense of emptiness, as if my body had suddenly yielded some vital essence. I left my work desk for the bathroom and secluded myself in a cubicle.
Has he kept abusing? Probably. His position would help facilitate it. Can that kind of deviancy ever be chastened or controlled by the man himself? Seems unlikely. Why haven’t I done more? I must do more.
It was an obvious realisation to have, but the obvious has a way of being repressed. The obvious dissolves in the exigencies of self-preservation. Which is a fancy way for saying I hadn’t done enough.
Before my reporting job, I’d worked for Victoria Police and got to know a senior detective who led a sexual crimes unit, a man of tender and unadorned decency. He’d retired by the time I called him for advice, but was untroubled that I had. I explained my history and my desire to alert British authorities. I said that while I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of going to court, I’d do whatever I could to ensure this didn’t happen again. “Let me make some calls, and I’ll get back to you.”
When he did, I was humbled to learn that he had enlisted the support of a very senior officer – another man I’d worked with – who would lend his imprimatur to any complaint I made to British police.
Despite my unusual privilege, the process was still practically and emotionally hellish. Twenty years had passed. I lived in a different jurisdiction to the one in which the crimes occurred; the perpetrator lived overseas and was a foreign citizen. Trying to figure out where – or to whom – I should make my complaint was confounding. I faced the same bureaucratic confusions one might encounter making a complex insurance claim.
And then I thought: what if he kills himself? I thought about that a lot. Pursuing this was acutely toxic: I became anxious, enraged, brittle. But this description is poor. Perhaps it’s sufficient to tell you that it made me very sick. I’m not proud to tell you that I abandoned my pursuit. At least for now.
Almost a year later, in October 2018, I went to the Melbourne Cricket Ground as a reporter, where a formal screening of the national apology to survivors of institutional child abuse was being held. Volunteering for this story was arguably stupid, but after years of following the commission I felt compelled to report on this symbolically climactic moment.
“I watched the speeches on a projection screen with a group of survivors, their friends and family,” I wrote for that week’s paper. “To our left was a panoramic view of the empty, sun-kissed stadium. Behind us were tables of scones and coffee. And among us, the event’s emcee had gently declared, were counsellors. Private rooms were reserved for their engagement.”
I didn’t write that I was gently shaking, and that my strategy for repelling an encroaching weeping fit was to quietly perform improvised breathing patterns. I didn’t write that I had lost my appetite, was nervously sucking mints, and pondering the appropriateness of engaging a counsellor.
Nor should I have. There were more important stories to tell. I spoke with Chrissie Foster, two of whose daughters were effectively, and respectively, killed and profoundly disabled by the priest who raped them as children. Foster had watched the speeches beside Julia Gillard, the instigator of the royal commission. And I spoke with Francis Sullivan, who had the job of leading the Catholic Church’s response to the commission’s recommendations, thus fixing him between the wrath and sorrow of victims, and the implacable pride of the church.
There is an embarrassment, I suspect commonly felt among journalists, of considering your own pain when your work asks you to consider the significantly greater suffering of others. In most cases it’s modesty. In my case it was vanity, a lofty and self-harming belief in my capacity to infinitely bear witness.
Martin McKenzie-Murray is a Melbourne writer.
By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Published in Sydney Morning Herald
2 February 2020