The second in a three part series considering lessons from the Australian Royal Commission.
To protect their privacy all survivors have been given false names.
The necessarily limited scope of public inquiries means that certain groups and individuals are excluded from participation, which is upsetting for many survivors. In addition, survivors whose experiences fit within an Inquiry may also be excluded if the Inquiry does not help survivors participate.
Understanding the complexities of people's lives and abuse experiences, and being flexible and responsive, can help an Inquiry be fair and accessible. It is encouraging to see that the New Zealand Inquiry has recruited specialist staff to support diverse communities in making submissions. As well as striving for culturally inclusive practices and addressing disability access issues, it is important to consider other issues that can cause survivors to feel like they do not fit.
In an interview conducted as part of a PhD project at University of New South Wales, Charlie described the impact of not fitting within the requirements of the Australian Royal Commission. Charlie explained the ways that this mirrored the dynamics of her previous experiences of abuse, marginalisation, and institutionalisation. She found the process of making a written submission extremely distressing, due to the ongoing impacts of abuse and trauma, as well as the daily challenges of life with physical disabilities. The explicit questions on the form were very triggering for her, and she began to feel that she would not be believed by the Australian Royal Commission if she could not provide enough clear and accurate detail.
Charlie talked about the difficulties she had in separating multiple perpetrators in her memory in order to fit the structure of the submission form. Remembering traumatic events can be complicated: survivors might have dissociated or 'spaced out' at the time of the abuse. Extreme stress can affect the brain's ability to store memory as a clear chronological narrative. Often, survivors’ memories are fragmented, sensory, and difficult to retrieve (Blue Knot Foundation 2018; Freyd 1994; van der Kolk 1995; Bremer & Marmar 2002). Remembering can be so painful that survivors need to ‘dissociate’ to manage the distress, making it extremely difficult to present a neat, time-lined account of abuse experiences.
Charlie's experience serves as a reminder that the impacts of trauma can provide significant barriers to participation and highlights how crucial it is that survivors can access appropriate support.
Everything with all of my experiences were extremely traumatic and mixed. They wanted us to put it into one institution, one abuser, one perpetrator and one of everything. Then the whole form was set up in that way. So if you were trying to explain multiple perpetrators and multiple institutions, and multiple dates, and multiple issues, the form wasn't set up in the way it could accommodate that. It made the form impossible to fill out.
Charlie felt unsupported by the Australian Royal Commission and was re-traumatised when trying to complete the form on her own. Although deeply distressed and physically unwell, Charlie was supporting a number of family members who were also trying to fill out their forms before the final deadline, placing her under even greater strain. Some are living with the impacts of institutionalisation, such as homelessness, and problems with reading and writing.
It was just impossible. It just became that way for me, and then I couldn't even fill it out. There was no support to get it done. It was almost like it just traumatised me so much that I became so unwell from doing it that I couldn't even get it in on the due date. I couldn't even function well enough to know when the due date was in the end because I was so traumatised by the whole process of having to be asked such intense questions and dig up so much trauma.
Charlie finished her written submission despite these difficulties, only to be told that she had missed the deadline and it would not be accepted.
…being told, "No, we're not even going to accept your submission." That was like for me, I went through a lot of self-hate around that. It just compounded all of the trauma. Because there won't be another Royal Commission, it's done. Do you know what I mean? There's not going to be another way to do that truth telling. And in a safe way.
Another survivor, Nathan, also felt that he didn't fit with the Australian Royal Commission's requirements, which meant that he too felt unheard. Nathan was disappointed that the Australian Royal Commission could not find a way for him to speak from his experience as an abuse survivor and as someone with significant professional expertise in the area of institutional responses to abuse. Nathan wanted to have two private sessions, where he could separate his experience as a survivor from his experience working in religious institutions.
Nathan sent many emails to the Australian Royal Commission, because he wanted to share what he believed was valuable information and experience, but he felt that this information was not recorded or used in a respectful way. Emails allowed Nathan to work around the continuing impacts of early childhood abuse on his thinking and communication. Nathan was frustrated because he felt the Australian Royal Commission's expectations of what survivors would be like, and what survivors would wish to contribute, did not have a space for him.
Veronica and Jay both also felt that they didn't quite fit, due to the nature of their abuse experiences, and the identities of the people who had hurt them. Veronica felt that her experience of being sexually abused by a woman went against the Australian Royal Commission's expectation that perpetrators would be men – a feeling that Veronica has had throughout her life, especially when trying to access counselling and support.
Jay talked about the difficulties of separating abuse within the family from abuse (and responses to disclosure) connected to institutions. This caused Jay to feel that some parts of her experiences were unimportant, as they were not of interest to the Australian Royal Commission.
I felt a little bit like I was taking up someone else’s place…that because the large majority of my abuse was the family and the paedophile ring, even though the paedophile ring did have like, a GP and whatever, but within the terms of reference, I felt that, because mine was so little, in terms of the terms of reference, that I was taking up someone else’s spot, who’d been abused by the church for the whole entire time of their abuse history.
Jasmine described a similar frustration.
In my opinion, not only did they need a Royal Commission into institutional abuse, they need to do a Royal Commission into family stuff. You can talk about ‘that’, but you can’t talk about ‘that’. And I guess as well, because I was trying to show them that there is sometimes collaboration between those two worlds.
Participants like Larry, who felt like they had been able to tell their whole story in a setting where they fitted and belonged, described this as one of the most meaningful aspects of their experience.
The fact that I'd been to the Royal Commission for me was like my red badge of courage, if you like. "Here, I've been, I've done that" and I could tell the other guys about it and would feel that in some ways vindicated but also supported because I'm like the rest of you. I have nothing to hide here now. I've told my story. I'm just as ordinary as everyone else here. My story is just like yours. I am the same as you. And I found that really terribly reassuring. That was a wonderful experience for me. I didn't see myself as an odd person. All my life I'd seen myself as an odd person, as a loner, an outsider, someone who wasn't really acceptable. But, strange as it may seem, being acknowledged by the Royal Commission made me part of a group of survivors that I felt good about. And I felt as though I now belonged somewhere. I now belonged to a group of people who have become survivors, who will now live their lives in a different way. Yeah, so it was ... So that sense of belonging was really quite an important aspect for me.
However, many of the 26 survivors I interviewed said that they had trouble fitting everything they needed to say into the time allocated for a private session. Understanding that this was just a practical issue did little to ease the feelings of not being properly heard. Some participants asked for more time and were allowed to talk for longer, but others did not know more time was an option, did not feel able to ask, and left their private sessions feeling they had not said everything they needed to, which undermined the healing potential of the Australian Royal Commission for them.
Understanding the complexities of people's lives and abuse experiences, creating ways for participants to make complaints or requests, and providing flexibility wherever possible can go a long way toward delivering a fair and accessible Inquiry. The impacts of abuse often mean that survivors feel like they do not fit, matter, or belong. It is crucial that an Inquiry charged with responding to child abuse does not repeat that message.
Blue Knot Foundation 2018 The Truth of Memory and The Memory of Truth: Different types of Memory and the Significance for Trauma Stavropoulos P.A.& Kezelman C.A. Available from <https://www.blueknot.org.au/resources/publications/trauma-and-memory>
Bremner, J.D. and Marmar, C.R., 2002. Trauma, memory, and dissociation, American Psychiatric Association Publishing.
Freyd, J.J., 1994. Betrayal trauma: Traumatic amnesia as an adaptive response to childhood abuse. Ethics & Behaviour, 4(4), pp.307-329.
Van der Kolk, B.A. and Fisler, R., 1995. Dissociation and the fragmentary nature of traumatic memories: Overview and exploratory study. Journal of traumatic stress, 8(4), pp.505-525.
For further information about this study please email Rebecca at firstname.lastname@example.org