This story contains descriptions of violence and abuse.
NATASA CHRISTIDOU’S EARLIEST memory is of her father Peter masturbating over her as she lay in bed. It was December 1971. She was not quite three years old. Her mother Ruby was in hospital, having given birth to her sister Helen. Natasa and her year-old sister Anna were in Peter’s care in the family home in Alfred Street, Richmond, Melbourne. As her father wiped his penis across Natasa’s mouth, she felt ‘something wet’ splash on her lips, and thought he had ‘pooed’ on her. Later, when the family visited Ruby in hospital, the girls were placated with stuffed toys: a red dog for Natasa; a blue dog for Anna.
Soon after, Peter took Natasa to a railway bridge, and dangled her by the legs over the side – a warning of the consequences of disobedience. To magnify the threat, he pretended to drop her, loosening his grip then tightening it so that she fell a short, terrifying distance. Back home, Peter began paying her bedroom regular masturbatory visits. When on one occasion she turned her head away, he suddenly tore her pyjamas off and started rubbing his penis on her vagina. Natasa cannot remember if he penetrated her on that occasion. What she does remember is the immobilising terror that accompanied his assertions of strength. It would feel like she was being dangled again, and could be dropped at any time.
Nor was there solace from Ruby. One night, when Natasa was four, she sought comfort after waking from a bad dream by going to her parents’ bedroom. They were both naked; her father dragged Natasa into the bed and started kissing and fondling her vagina. ‘Tis aresi,’ Peter said to his wife in their native Greek: ‘She likes it.’ Then she lay there as her parents had sex. Soon enough he would turn his attentions to Natasa, using spit as a lubricant as her vagina could not yet accommodate his adult penis.
INCEST IS THE original form of sexual abuse – primal, folkloric, fiercely tabooed. Yet it bulks darkly, out of sight. Institutional abuse has had its own royal commission; abuse of the disabled will shortly receive similar attention. Ritual and network abuse exert gruesome and controversial fascinations; paedophile rings consorting on the dark web are a modern bugaboo. But incest, argues Dr Warwick Middleton, a Brisbane clinician who has specialised in the field for decades, remains underexplored: ‘While the royal commission concentrated on institutional responses to child sexual abuse, it was no mystery to them that the vastly bigger issue was the abuse taking place in the home. Their estimate was that 90 per cent of sexual abuse was in non-institutional settings.’
Why the incuriosity? Perhaps because we look to the family as a bulwark against chaos; perhaps because the state, out of conservatism and thrift, defers to the family’s presumptive autonomy. The sex offender of cliché is the creepy priest debauching innocent altar boys – it is not the predatory father exploiting the ultimate power asymmetry: that between adults and children.
Incestuous abuse is uniquely destructive. It defiles the purest of all relational bonds. It is disproportionately damaging, for it can start so young and last so long, due to the perpetrator’s authority and opportunities. And partly because it usually involves an older male, socially deferred to, and a younger female, unformed and inarticulate, it has, historically, been disbelieved – even by victims. Victims such as Natasa Christidou.
Now fifty, Natasa lives in a small, dark, airless unit in Morwell, 150 kilometres east of Melbourne in the Latrobe Valley. She is agoraphobic, legally blind, suffers hearing loss, incontinence and osteoarthritic back pain. She sleeps with her hands cupped anxiously over her vagina; implanted teeth have replaced those destroyed by years of neglect because she associated her mouth with fellatio. Because they remind her of the brothels in which she spent many years, she also dislikes clocks and showers; only with help can she bathe. Her chief companions are a cat and three dogs: a playful pug, Oreo; a lugubrious Great Dane, Denzil; and a psychiatric-assistance Chihuahua, Josie, who accompanies her on medical and counselling trips.
An approaching visitor’s first glimpse of Morwell is of the four dormant chimneys of its old power station. Natasa smokes enough to make up for them: after each of my visits, over the course of several months, I reeked of cigarettes for days. I was also bearing witness to a decidedly rare phenomenon: a survivor determined to detail her abuse, after a long and tremulous journey.
Coincidentally, Morwell also became home to probably Australia’s most widely reported incest victim, Katherine X, whose 2015 memoir Behind Closed Doors (Simon & Schuster) divulged a life in which she bore four children to her abusive father – although not, in the end, her identity. Natasa exhibited no such reticence. ‘Have you got your tape recorder on?’ she would ask as we began interviews that eventually extended over thirty hours. Sometimes she would lose track (‘I’ve forgotten what my point was’); sometimes she would turn things over to me (‘I don’t know what I’m trying to say, but you work it out’); on occasion her face glistened with tears. But back we went, and back, through decades of recollections, through thousands of pages of documentation, ever deeper into the past still ruling her present.
PANDELIS AND RUBINI Christidis were married in his home town of Florina in north-western Macedonia, Greece, fifty-three years ago. They made a handsome couple: he was a trim six-footer, fair-complexioned, square-jawed; she had long dark hair, a winsome smile for photographs. Their marriage, however, proved abidingly volatile with regular quarrels, separations and reconciliations. After one such reconciliation, Natasa was born in Munich on 9 January 1969. She was eleven months old when her parents emigrated.
After a spell in a migrant hostel, Pandelis and Rubini paid the deposit on the aforementioned Richmond house. Like many European migrants, they partly anglicised their names: Pandelis to Peter, Rubini to Ruby, and Christidis to Chris. They also achieved an outward functionality. Ruby was employed variously as a cleaner and factory machinist. A labourer for Vulcan, and later for Nettlefolds, Peter’s work was more intermittent, but he brought money in by teaching Greek dancing, using costumes Ruby embroidered.
Yet their marital flare-ups never abated. On one occasion, when Peter grew violent, Ruby fled with the girls; on another, after Ruby tried stabbing him with scissors, Peter fled. What precipitated these disputes is long forgotten. All we know is that everyone remained together. When the family moved to a new home in Burwood and Natasa to a new school at Narmara Primary, the knot tightened further. In Burwood, six-year-old Natasa had her own bedroom with a lockable door, to which Peter would pay dawn visits for the purpose of increasingly overpowering sex, usually on the floor. Natasa grew averse to underwear because hers was routinely left clammy by her father’s semen. She still leans forward when seated from the memory of the bruising and burning she suffered from the bedroom’s abrasive woollen carpets.
Ruby’s attitude also hardened: on one occasion, she chased both Peter and Natasa through the house with a knife. But gradually the focus of Ruby’s ire became Natasa alone. She belittled and ridiculed her. She would not tolerate her at the dinner table, would feed her scraps – even dog food. Natasa suffered a squint and scoliosis, yet Ruby deprived her of the glasses and back brace she was prescribed. Natasa’s mother enforced her own regime of physical abuse. At the sound of the door as Peter left of a morning, Ruby would storm into Natasa’s bedroom, rain blows on her head and bundle her into a laundry cupboard, where Natasa regularly soiled herself.
The household was pervaded by a distorted, diseased sexuality. One day, like many a child, Natasa took her mother’s high heels, handbag and lipstick, and wandered outside: it was twisted into a story of how she had always been ‘on the hunt for cock’. The tone of conversations between father and mother became that Natasa was the sexual aggressor: ‘She’s the one that grabs my balls and sucks my cock,’ Peter would joke. The premature eroticising extended to Natasa’s younger sister Helen, whom Peter took to pinching between her legs, as if to convey that she was a sexual rival or option – with consequences. One day when she was about nine, Natasa did the same, and was horrified at the look that crossed Helen’s face: ‘Nat, don’t.’ The expression of distress burned itself into Natasa’s mind: she had done something ‘like what men did to little girls’. Who was she? What was she?
Peter seemed aware that his behaviour might cause trouble. He never allowed Natasa to do physical education, lest teachers grow aware of her injuries. Just to make sure, when Natasa was ten, Peter took her into the backyard, filled an ice-cream container with water and with macabre deliberation drowned the family’s kittens one by one. ‘Blepies etsi that se pinxo kai esena,’ he said weightily. (‘This is how I will strangle you.’) All the same, especially when Natasa was in Year 6 and her mother spent several months in Greece, she puzzled over her status: at home, her role was almost wifely; in public, her father deflected her affections. There was so much she did not understand; so much she still does not.
Criminologist Michael Salter, of the University of New South Wales, who has interviewed scores of abuse survivors, interpreted Natasa’s case as classic. When I asked him to describe a ‘standard’ incest scenario, it was as if he knew the Chrises already. ‘A lot of these men have families with the intention of abusing their children, and undertake a long process of grooming both,’ he explains. ‘They may corrupt the female partner so that she’s not protective, or even participates in the abuse. Or they may simply defame the child within the family, isolating her, defining her as “promiscuous” or a “liar”, breaking the bond with her siblings.’
Salter explained, too, the special dynamics of retrospective blame. In discussing her father with me, Natasa was surprisingly dispassionate; it was as though he was to one side, a force rather than a man. About her mother she remonstrated far most forcefully. Standard, said Salter: ‘They [victims] don’t necessarily exculpate their fathers, but they do “understand” them. They cannot understand their mothers, why they failed to protect them. Getting victims to talk about Dad is quite easy. They’re calm, clinical. They have some mastery. With Mum, it’s so grief stricken, so much more real and raw.’ It may be why Natasa, unable to testify bodily to her father’s secret brutality, commemorates instead a single act of baroque sadism inflicted by her mother.
NATASA WEARS A patch on her right eye – very handsome, in brown leather, bought online. It’s a badge of trauma, challenging any jot of disbelief in her story.
At her best guess, the injury was inflicted when Natasa was about twelve and attending Mount Waverley High School – nominally anyway, as she was off school as often as not. Having endured her usual morning rape, Natasa ‘felt wet’ while watching television. Panicked by bleeding down her legs, she rang her mother at work.
Arriving home in a fury, Ruby went to her sewing box, tucked a tapestry needle into her collar and used a reel of white elastic to truss a terrified Natasa to a cane chair. Grabbing a handful of Natasa’s hair, she pulled her daughter close. ‘You have your period,’ Ruby hissed – incest victims often begin menstruation early, a physiological adaptation to their circumstances. Now that Natasa was ‘a woman’, she qualified for grosser revenge. ‘It’s not enough that you humiliate me all over Melbourne,’ Ruby said. ‘Now you want to take out my eye.’ The allusion was to a Greek expression that translates as ‘it is better to lose an eye than a reputation’. ‘I will take yours as you have mine,’ she continued, ‘so that you remember what a prostitute-whore you are.’ Then she pulled the needle from her collar, jabbed Natasa in the right eye and stormed from the room. Natasa feared Ruby might return with a murder weapon; she was relieved to hear her mother lighting a cigarette outside. That evening Ruby told Peter what she had done in a tone of triumph.
The eye, left untreated, soon began deteriorating, misting until it was nearly opaque. Natasa became reluctant to attend school, Ruby to have her attend. At this point, the Chris family began accumulating a record, subsequently made accessible by freedom of information searches. In June 1982, Sue McPhee-Wright, a Department of Education guidance officer, investigated why thirteen-year-old Natasa was so frequently absent. She found Ruby ‘in a distressed state’, her English unintelligible, her demeanour ‘crying and shaking’. McPhee-Wright connected the family with the Eye and Ear Hospital, who diagnosed Natasa with a ‘mature right cataract’; Natasa also confided circumspectly in McPhee-Wright ‘that her parents hit her when she disobeyed them’.
On 9 August 1982, Natasa was admitted to hospital for cataract extraction. She remembers the day with almost ecstatic gratitude. The morning’s sex with her father was unusually gentle; she was allowed for once to shower afterwards. In hospital she was spared violation and torture. Medical staff were puzzled. Cataracts in one so young are usually a sign of trauma. They asked Natasa whether anyone had hit her. Loyally, fearfully, she denied it. They remembered her anyway, for the ‘inappropriate’ way Natasa interacted with her father in the clinic: the sister in charge reportedly recommended the involvement of a social worker, observing that ‘there was something awfully wrong with the girl because she was all over her father in the clinic with very heavy sexual activity’.
The injury’s immediate impact seems to have been to sunder the marriage. When McPhee-Wright visited the family to investigate Natasa’s further post-operative school absences, she found an agitated Ruby openly ‘contemplating divorce’, and Natasa ‘confused’ and ‘depressed’. When McPhee-Wright tried initiating a family discussion, Peter avoided her home visit and Ruby exuded hostility: ‘Mrs Chris seemed to be angry that Natasa had told me she was depressed and hadn’t told her mother first. She suggested to Natasa that she should leave with me and said that she felt her marriage would be better if Natasa was not at home.’ Natasa rang McPhee-Wright the following week to report that both her parents were beating her: that she ‘didn’t want to report them’, but that she was thinking of running away.
When McPhee-Wright visited again, shutters had been raised: ‘Natasa said her mother had requested I not visit the home again.’ The marriage had been bizarrely stabilised by Peter’s willingness to beat Natasa on Ruby’s demand; with the loss of that understanding, Ruby felt her humiliation complete. Shortly after Christmas, she flew into a rage, scattered belongings, flattened the Christmas tree and levelled a charge at her husband that he duly documented: she ‘in front of the children, accused me of having my eldest daughter as my wife’. What Natasa recalls is her mother, in a parting histrionic, holding forth her wedding ring: ‘Since you’re fucking your father, become his wife too.’
On Natasa’s fourteenth birthday, Ruby reappeared for a last confrontation; this time Peter summoned the police. Continuing the uncomprehending interventions that exacerbated Natasa’s predicament, the police surgeon admitted Ruby to Bundoora’s Larundel Mental Asylum. Not that any outsider could have credited the horrors beneath the Chris family roof.
THOUGH CRIMINALISATION OF incest began in the late nineteenth century, those reporting it have long courted disbelief, in psychiatry and in law. Freud performed a notorious volte face. Having at first ascribed female hysteria to childhood sexual trauma, he later dismissed such claims as merely ‘the typical Oedipus complex in women’. ‘Almost all of my women patients told me that they had been seduced by their father,’ he reminisced of his early clinical work in Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. ‘I was driven to recognise in the end that these reports were untrue and so came to understand that the hysterical symptoms are derived from phantasies and not from real occurrences.’ As critics have noted, Freud could not tolerate the threat that incest posed to the status of respectable patriarchal families as bastions of normality. When the law, likewise male and conservative, turned to psychiatry for expert testimony, the disciplines reinforced each other’s prejudices: John Henry Wigmore’s renowned textbook, A Treatise on the Anglo-American System of Evidence in Trials at Common Law (1904), postulated a female predisposition to make false allegations against men of good character. This fantasy figure of the ‘seductive daughter’ was and remains a literary staple, from Lot’s daughters to the immortal Lolita, ‘utterly depraved’ by ‘modern co-education, juvenile mores, the campfire racket and so forth’ – Nabokov’s novel, noted psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman, is ‘a brilliant apologia for an incestuous father’.
Later, social scientists played their part in downplaying incest’s significance, even straining at times to normalise it in the struggle for sexual enlightenment. Alfred Kinsey, whose survey samples suggested surprisingly pervasive incidence of incest and a generally negative attitude towards it, nonetheless thought that children suffered more from adult prudery and legal restriction: ‘It is difficult to understand why a child, except for cultural conditioning, should be disturbed at having its genitalia touched, or disturbed at seeing the genitalia of other persons, or disturbed at even more specific sexual contacts.’
Violence against children was clinically named in C Henry Kempe’s famous paper, ‘The Battered-Child Syndrome’ (1962), in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But understanding of the sexual exploitation of children within the family remained unevolved. In this country’s first case study, ‘Parent–Child Incest’ (1967) in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, Reg Medlicott accepted that parental incest occurred, but cited the work of contemporary researchers to ascribe the blame to daughters by their ‘promiscuity and submissiveness’ and to mothers who frustrated ‘their husbands sexually’.
So it went. In the 1970s, in the general spirit of liberation, there developed a pre-emptive repudiation of the phenomenon’s significance: in an article in Hustler in 1978, German sexologist Edwin Haeberle decried children being denied their ‘right to sexual satisfaction’. In the 1980s, incest was caught up in the pushback against repressed and recovered memory, led by American psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, and welfare overreach, as in the UK’s Cleveland child abuse inquiry. A further complication is that incest is a hybrid of the two great crimes against women, domestic violence and sexual assault, which have tended to be addressed by separate service silos. So many influences. In Natasa Christidou’s case, they had a solitary outcome: when her life was in mortal chaos, there was nothing to arrest it.
‘SCANDAL!’ SCREAMED THE headline in Neos Kosmos on 20 January 1983. ‘THEY WRONGFULLY SENT A GREEK WOMAN TO A PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL IN MELBOURNE.’ ‘X’, readers learnt, had rung the Greek-language broadsheet from Larundel after falling victim to a ‘trap’ sprung by her husband despite being perfectly sane: ‘The police came, I was screaming that I’m innocent but no one was understanding me.’ Fortunately, NK wrote, their timely intervention would now secure her release: ‘As for her husband, he may face justice soon for his brutal behaviour against his wife, as well as because there are allegations that he behaves brutally towards his first child.’
Suddenly Peter found himself under pressure. He retorted in Sydney’s Greek newspaper Nea Patrida (‘NEOS KOSMOS MUST BE SENT TO COURT’). But after Ruby filed for divorce a few weeks later, seeking sole custody of the children and occupancy of the marital home, the swirl of allegation began attracting unwanted attention, including from the Children’s Protection Society (CPS) and the Australian Greek Welfare Society (AGWS). Peter slipped into apathy and alcohol, interspersed with bouts of anger.
Nobody could work the Chris family out, or Natasa’s place in it. The outsider who knew them best was Mount Waverley’s pupil welfare co-ordinator Olive Shrimpton, who had taken a grandmotherly interest in Natasa, providing her with food and refuge, and deflecting a continual flow of abusive communication from Ruby. But to read the hundreds of pages of records the family generated is like observing the onlookers at a car accident, where everyone knows the victims are bleeding to death but no one knows first aid. In March 1983, for instance, Shrimpton joined Elizabeth Crean of the CPS and John Ioannou of the AGWS in an attempt to interpret the household’s toxic sexual chemistry.
[John] had made several visits to the family. His last talk with Natasa he felt was quite interesting in that Natasa was speaking of her mother as ‘mad’ but it was almost as though she was trying to prove that she, Natasa, was not mad. Natasa had also stated at the time that her father regularly sleeps in the children’s room and that showed an intimate awareness of her parents’ sex life or rather lack of it, which I pointed out would indicate the parental and spousal boundaries were being crossed in many ways and that would account for some of Natasa’s complete confusion…
[Shrimpton said] that there had been a number of times when [Natasa] had told members of the staff very strange sexual material regarding her parents. She has expressed on a number of occasions her need to be away from the family and that in general they found her behaviour disturbing… She [Shrimpton] felt that it was entirely possible that there was an incestuous relationship although Natasa had not spoken of it openly.
In their interview, Crean found Natasa angry, alienated and fiercely committed to her father – her version, perhaps, of a wife’s commitment to her husband.
Natasa…started the interview in an exceedingly hostile manner and the anger continued to show throughout… I did not feel that it was directed at me. She focused a great deal more of it on her mother, but it was more diffuse than that and more an approach to life…
Natasa described her relationship with her father in very loyal and glowing terms, although she did indicate that there was some problem with his almost jealousy and overprotection of her and that it restricted her activities. She was exceedingly hostile towards her mother. She is basically feeling that she has received no love from anyone in the family…stating that her mother had accused her of so many things that she no longer cared for herself but wanted to protect her sisters from the accusations of being whores and sleeping with their father.
She stated that her mother knew these things weren’t true, she used to believe her mother but now she knows her father is right and her mother has done all sorts of horrible things… Natasa on the one hand was stating that things were not very good at home even since her mother had moved out and on the other stating that everything was fine with father and being glowingly supportive of him…
We then talked about the problems of the accusations that her mother had made. She is feeling the pressure from the entire Greek community and felt desirous of proving to them that the accusations were untrue, especially those of a sexual nature and feeling helpless that she was unable to do so. She said that this was the real reason she was so angry with her mother. I left feeling very distressed about Natasa that she had internalised a great deal of the problem and that she was coping very very superficially with the stress that she was under. The best plan would be for her to be away from the family for a period of time.
It was not the plan they adopted. Instead Crean had David Baxter, a counsellor at The Bouverie Centre in Carlton, draft a contract binding the parents to better behaviours, including less violence and more communication. It failed instantly. Peter would not sign it, Ruby refused to observe it. At counselling sessions the couple were symmetrically abusive, although Baxter concluded that the children seemed closer to Peter. Baxter concluded that ‘he could make no case that the children were grossly disadvantaged from being with the father’, while also noting Natasa had ‘seen herself and is seen by the father as a substitute wife’. Yet that, it would also seem, was changing.
SINCE HER MOTHER’S gesture with the wedding ring, Natasa had indeed nourished fantasies of wifely status. Suddenly, her ‘husband’ was ambivalent. Days after Ruby left, Natasa noted Peter lying on the couch watching television, and thought to do what she had seen her mother do. She undid the drawstring of his pyjamas, rubbed his penis until it was erect and tried, fumblingly, to take it into her. Peter threw her onto the floor, pushed into her and ejaculated immediately. But when Natasa wondered if it wasn’t time for her to share the marital bed, Peter drew back and slapped her violently on the right side of the head, the force sending her staggering through the lounge room. Soon after, Natasa tried again, insinuating herself into her father’s bed and fellating him after he had fallen asleep drunk. Again he responded violently. ‘You ruined my life,’ he roared, holding a pillow over her face. ‘I want you dead tonight.’ He desisted only in response to Anna’s pleas.
Then, one night, Peter drove Natasa to the Mount Waverley home of his friend Stamco, where he raped her. At length, he pulled away. He invited Stamco in, turned his back to Nat and said sternly: ‘I know that you like fucking and you like cock… But you can’t fuck me anymore.’ Instead, Stamco did, and then another man, brutally, terrifyingly. Afterwards, Peter exuded satisfaction: ‘Now that you have fucked someone else, everyone will fuck you.’ Her father then started selling Natasa for sex to a circle of friends and acquaintances. As she told the police decades later:
During this period I had sex with thirty to fifty different men… The men would say, ‘Your dad told me to come and pick you up,’ and I’d ring dad and ask him if I should go with this guy and he’d say, ‘Yes, go.’ Every day these men would come to the house and I would ring Dad and he’d say, ‘Go with the man.’
Sometimes there would be three or four at a time and they would wait in line to have sex with me. Some were even older than my dad. They would pull out their cocks and make me suck them… A lot of them would fuck me in their car, but there were some that would take me down to a beach and try to do it there, but I would get scared and run away.
This was, again, a standard switch. Even when overt incest peters out, a set of power relations endures, analogous to those of a pimp and a prostitute, involving the degradation of the child into an object of exchange. In some ways, having paid with their bodies for protection that in normal circumstances is freely given, it is what victims have been groomed for.
Those in social services appear to have intuited Natasa’s escalating peril without fully interpreting it. Social worker Crean recorded a meeting in
April 1983 at which Ruby ‘spoke specifically of the father[,] accusing her [Nat] of prostituting etc etc’, while appearing to discount such testimony in view of Ruby’s ‘very inappropriate and somewhat crazy acting behaviour’. Writing to counsellor Baxter a week later, Crean noted that Natasa appeared to ‘accept both her mother’s accusations and father’s protection while also fighting it’. In an undated file note, Crean summarised the Chris family as ‘exceedingly disturbed, complex and destructive’, their problems ‘punctuated by allegations of incest, which are likely to be true and violence towards particularly the eldest daughter Natasha [sic]’, while admitting that none of the various welfare agencies involved had ‘made any real progress’.
WHY DID THE family’s secrets stay that way? Scholars of abuse talk of two phenomena: the construct of ‘abuse dichotomy’ mooted by American psychiatrist John Briere, where children resolve their abuse in light of belief in their parents’ inherent perfection by deciding they must deserve maltreatment; and the theory of ‘betrayal trauma’ delineated by American psychologist Jennifer Freyd, where children separate abuse experiences from memory and consciousness in order to maintain the relationships with caregivers they need to survive. Natasa behaved typically for someone in this situation, to the extent that she lunged at the slightest semblance of kindness: she loved her Greek dancing classes with Peter; she smothered Ruby with hugs and kisses when her mother visited Mount Waverley High School with a bag of goodies. But the cognitive conflict could not be managed indefinitely. On 8 August 1983, Crean perfunctorily logged a telephone call from Ruby: ‘I was not available, however she informed the Office Manager that Natasa had run away.’
Natasa had been able to normalise her parents’ abuse; the prostitution felt immediately more brutal, more squalid. Finally, one of her father’s friends, a milk bar proprietor, wanted her to have sex with his German shepherd. In panic, she fled, and her memories of the ensuing months as a runaway are a correspondingly gappy jumble, seared with flashbacks: there was the night she was raped in a garage by a man with genital warts; there was the night she was lured into a trattoria by three youths who enjoined her to fellate them; there was the flat rented by one of them, a young waiter, where Natasa lived for some weeks, a virtual prisoner. At length, when he developed qualms about having sex with a minor, Natasa sought out her mother.
Natasa barely recalls their reunion. She remembers Ruby enrolling her in a secretarial course at Ashby’s Business College, and moving them both to a flat in Hawthorn’s Barkers Road. She has forgotten her parents’ next unexpected jag, when Peter suddenly decided he was desperate to reconcile, and the ensuing counselling sessions at The Bouverie Centre that started noisily and degenerated into violence as the children looked on. Natasa, Crean noted, was devastated: ‘She sees her role to soothe this out and bring her parents together then is constantly being failed by the fact that she can’t make it right.’ Then when Natasa returned home one night, Ruby flew into a rage about a damp spot on her jeans, which she construed as evidence that her daughter was ‘seeing boys’ like a no good ‘prostitute whore’. Natasa fled again, in the direction of St Kilda – at the time synonymous with the trade in flesh and drugs.
Natasa was seeking neither – rather was she trying to find a safe distance from her parents as their divorce roiled. She was leery of her father, but could not avoid him if she wished contact with her sisters; she craved some rapprochement with her mother, even taking her flowers on Mother’s Day, and ringing to boast of her serving coffees in a Fitzroy Street pinball parlour. Yet her dream of independence soured quickly in seedy St Kilda. The elderly Greek proprietor of Fantasylands Amusements proved anything but a saviour, demanding sex in return for allowing Natasa to sleep in the toilet at the back of the premises.
Natasa first heard the word ‘suicide’ when she saw a girl her age in a convenience store trying to slash her wrists, although her own subsequent first attempt failed when the only pills she could avail herself of were for the treatment of acne. Other experiences confounded her altogether, such as attending a drag show and watching a ‘girl’ tucking his penis into a bikini. Was she, Natasa wondered, the opposite – a boy without a penis? Why else would she have pinched Helen as her father had, those years earlier?
At the time, St Kilda was regarded as a locus of a new social phenomenon: the ‘street kid’. It was the scene of Leigh Tilson and Rob Scott’s groundbreaking 1982 documentary Street Kids; the Department of Community Welfare Services had recently employed five youth-project workers as the Inner City Street Kids Project to work with the community policing squad. It was a policewoman who rounded up ‘street kid’ Natasa in a hostel in Windsor. ‘Why did you run away?’ commences Constable Pauline Lowe’s poignant record of their interview:
‘Just too many family troubles.’
‘What sort of family troubles?’
‘My parents are divorced and they both put the blame on me. I lived with my dad and he blames me and says one thing. Then I lived with my mum and she blames me too, they say I caused the troubles and I get emotionally upset…’
‘Do you have any other family?’
‘Yes, two smaller sisters. They live with dad and I get really upset because he won’t let me see them, I get frightened that they will believe what dad tells them about me and mum being prostitutes.’
Natasa warmed to Pauline, and vice versa: ‘She [Natasa] was clean and appeared well-fed when we came across her. Her attitude was very good and she was co-operative and pleasant.’ But there was one place only for a ‘street kid’, and that was Winbirra, the remand unit of Nunawading’s Winlaton Youth Training Centre. Natasa was admitted on 19 May 1984 pending the police’s care application, slipping in the process from one welfare jurisdiction to another. Elizabeth Crean’s parting advice to Susan Jones of the Inner City Street Kids Project was to ‘expect maximum chaos from this family no matter what was done’.
THIRTY YEARS AFTER opening as a ‘juvenile school’, Winlaton resembled a prison – dilapidated, overcrowded, fortified with razor wire, premised on the idea that every inmate was a wrongdoer. The ‘Winnie girls’ reminded Natasa immediately of Prisoner. She adopted an aggressive swagger, trusted nobody and co-operated as little as possible with the facility’s ‘triad sessions’, an innovation of the American superintendent in which inmates were part of their own disciplinary processes. Natasa’s sole aim was to get out. But while both her parents wanted her in their homes, neither was obviously fit, especially as their divorce proceedings intensified. As Jones advised Justice Barnes of the Family Court, Natasa was ‘very confused about her emotional allegiances to her parents and has internalised guilt about the family’s dysfunctioning’, emphasising that ‘both parents have accused the other of either physically or sexually abusing Natasa’. Jones concluded with a shrewd observation that Peter ‘would present as the most rational parent, partly due to his greater comprehension of the English language’, while warning that ‘his presentation is likely to be more contrived as he is aware of the alleged sexual molestation against Natasa’. To Doug Davis, a social worker at the Department of Community Welfare Services, Jones recommended a wardship involving supported accommodation in a hostel:
We agreed that home release to either parent at this stage is inappropriate. Home release to Mr Chris is undesirable due to the allegations of sexual abuse and the physical abuse Natasa has received from her father… Home release to Mrs Chris is also inappropriate. Natasa requires an environment which provides structure and consistency, and currently Mrs Chris is unable to provide this due to her emotional instability.
No sooner had agreement been reached, however, than the system, like Natasa’s parents, started feuding. At the time, Winlaton took what might be regarded as a robust attitude to incest, with a preference for ‘family therapy’. In Behind Closed Doors, Katherine X has described how Winlaton staff – aware she was being abused by her father – nonetheless invited him to visit because they did not want him to ‘feel bad’. It strengthened his hold over her: ‘To this day I still consider that day amounted to one of the greatest betrayals of my life.’ Likewise Natasa was visited serially by both her abusing parents. Over the next few months a Winlaton social worker, Derek O’Hare, persuaded himself that returning Natasa to her father was the best course of action.
Today O’Hare is retired and living interstate. I spoke to him by phone. He was an unlikely recruit to social work, his interest aroused when as a twenty-year-old truck driver he began meeting runaways. He then took a diploma. He did not recall Natasa’s case; he said he believed that ‘between 30 and 40 per cent’ of ‘Winnie girls’ were incest victims. ‘When a girl between thirteen and sixteen runs away from home without any other obvious explanation,’ he said, ‘it’s usually the big I.’ But his preference at the time, he conceded, was not to involve police; rather he tried persuading fathers to ‘beg forgiveness’ of their victims. Why? For one thing, it was quicker. Winlaton was not a place anyone benefited staying. ‘My job was to keep things moving,’ he said.
Natasa’s ‘moving’ can be traced through Winlaton section reports and questionnaires. Her predicament stood out immediately. ‘Natasa had a mini-triad this morning…that went over 2 hrs,’ reads a section report on 6 July. ‘When incest was mentioned, Natasa got very upset and didn’t want to talk about it, so I feel incest could be a possibility.’ At this stage, O’Hare was averse to Natasa having home leaves with Peter, while thinking those with Ruby ‘okay’. But after a visit from her father and sisters on 2 August 1984, the dynamic changed. A section report captured all the confusion of Natasa’s allegiances:
Crying in her room today saying that she told a lie about her father sleeping with her [redacted] and that her father visited her yesterday and was in tears that Natasha’s mother was telling these lies but that he doesn’t know Natasa has also said this. Very upset because she wanted to visit her father today and then go to see her Mum without Dad knowing.
Natasa recalls that visit as a turning point. Peter made it clear that if she did not deny her mother’s allegations, thereby consolidating him in the family home when the divorce was finalised, he would ‘sell them’ – referring to Anna and Helen. Yet more than intimidation won her back. She was also – no other word suffices – seduced. She had home leaves with Ruby on 3–5 and 10–12 August, then with Peter on 17–21 August. When she returned from the last, the day’s section reporter found her ‘very high and very silly’, having ‘clearly been indoctrinated by father’, and saying ‘she is choosing to live with him’. In a questionnaire, she replied cheerfully: ‘I would like to go home as soon as possible. Things are going fantastic with my dad and sisters and my life now is peaches and cream.’ Peter was promising, for example, that Natasa could take a beautician’s course at Box Hill TAFE; her eye injury, meanwhile, evinced Ruby’s deranged malevolence.
A ‘case planning meeting’ involving O’Hare on 5 September 1984 at the department’s Lilydale branch finally reversed the original departmental decision, with a paternalistic flourish: ‘The Christidis family is one which exhibits the most common difficulties experienced by families from foreign cultures settling into Australia. It appears that the rate by which Mr Christidis has settled into Australia has by far exceeded the rate in which Mrs Christidis has settled in.’ O’Hare insisted that while Peter displayed a ‘rather limited understanding of the needs of young people growing up in a society like ours’, he impressed as a ‘caring father’ who had ‘shown potential’. O’Hare later reported himself ‘very involved in the case’, believing ‘all aspects of the plan’ to be ‘working out extremely well’. On the day Natasa was released to her father’s care, he released her for sex to four men. She remembers her plaintive protest afterwards: ‘Dad, they raped me.’ She remembers, too, the way he laughed.
AROUND THIS TIME Peter photographed Natasa to advertise her as an escort. In the photograph she wears a bathrobe, her head canted to one side in a child’s mimicry of sexual beguilement. Round her neck, incongruously, dangles a crucifix. Her hair is combed forward over the eye she felt increasingly self-conscious about (she was suffering pain from a retinal detachment for which Peter would not let her seek treatment).
Her father wanted Natasa working because she was essentially paying for her parents’ divorce. The property settlement agreed in May 1985 committed Peter to buying Ruby out of the family home when Helen turned eighteen, some four years hence. Natasa’s body was the readiest source of cash. Peter also developed what seemed to Natasa a preternatural ability to obtain her compliance. He had a ‘look’ that summoned up the memory of being dangled from that railway bridge, that sensation of being totally in his power. To tighten his control, Peter decided Natasa should work full time as a prostitute at the Pink Palace in South Melbourne. She was allowed at least to choose her own name: ‘Pauline’ – an affectionate remembrance of the solicitous policewoman she’d met those years earlier.
Natasa’s manager at the Palace, thirty-three-year-old Jocelyn Snow, was learning the ropes after stumbling into the sex industry from a job in promotions. But even she sensed ‘Pauline’s’ uniqueness among her fifty girls. ‘Pauline’ was gentle, innocent, an uncomplainingly hard worker, turning over between a dozen and two dozen men a night. She was also guileless and callow, unaware of feminine hygiene, unclear about boundaries. ‘Her mother hadn’t taught her anything,’ Snow recalled, when I located her, semi-retired, on Victoria’s surf coast. Learning ‘Pauline’s’ background at the time, Snow had grown even more alarmed: ‘She started telling me stuff. I was going: “What? Your father is dropping you off? And you’re giving him your money?”’
It was a lot of money too. ‘Pauline’s’ leather satchel regularly brimmed with banknotes. One night Snow observed the ritual herself: a ‘Greek bloke’ in a grey jacket accepting the satchel from Natasa outside. It disgusted her. But Natasa’s high traffic was also a cause of peer jealousy. Snow reluctantly let her go. Because she was fired, Peter beat Natasa savagely, breaking her nose.
All the same, Natasa had periods in this time free from her father’s direct influence, both when she ran away and when he twice made long trips to Greece. She played guitar. She formed a dance group at the nightclub Inflation. She toured with the house musicians Black Box. She even went overseas for the first time, briefly to Hawaii, although there she was raped at knifepoint by a bartender. She palled around with the boxer Stan Longinidis, who proved to be ‘a gentleman’, and the gangster Alphonse Gangitano, who involved her in a scary counterfeit money scam. Above all, she began comparing experiences with others round her. At a second brothel, the Daily Planet, Natasa encountered another Greek girl, Julie, one of six sisters, who invited her to her mother’s Prahran commission flat. Julie’s story paralleled Natasa’s. Her father had had incestuous relations with all his daughters; Julie had then been sold into sexual servitude by her husband, an amphetamine user. It was the first time Natasa grasped that she was being exploited, financially as well as sexually, and that this would continue as long as she remained in her family’s vicinity. Getting away became, at last, an imperative. So in February 1989, with $60 in her pocket, twenty-year-old Natasa fled Melbourne for Athens. From Helen she later heard that Gangitano had warned Peter to leave her be.
IN GREECE, NATASA took at first a ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ approach – there would be no looking back. Welcomed by a maternal uncle, encouraged by a cousin, she started writing songs, winning a competition staged by television station ERT1. To circulate more easily among musicians as a back-up singer, she presented herself as a ‘rich kid’, estranged by her musical urges from a shipbuilder father who had sent her to an English boarding school. She hid her damage in plain sight, explaining the patch over her right eye as stemming from a car accident that had taken the life of a fiancée – a story she could also use to keep men at arm’s length.
After a few years, Natasa began to sentimentalise her mother, and to feel guilt about siding with her father in the divorce. She named a puppy Ruby after her mother. She sent cards and gifts. They began to speak regularly on the telephone. Ruby, in her later years, had become a successful fortune teller in her Greek community, and was earning a tidy living. At length, Natasa invited Ruby to Athens.
Yet the visit at Easter 1997 went badly. Ruby was volatile, at times vindictive, annoyed that divorce had affected her standing with relatives, and resolved that they would know who was to blame. ‘Did you know that Natasa fucked her father?’ Ruby asked one of Natasa’s friends. ‘Did you know that Natasa was a prostitute?’ Ruby asked patrons in Natasa’s favourite coffee shop. Her unpredictable and destructive behaviour continued when Ruby returned home. She began writing letters to Natasa brimming with love (‘Natacha you are a very good person and good girl’), seasoned with hope (‘I want you to be happy and your vision coming good’), self-pity (‘From the beginning sense now nobody love me and understand me’) and regret (‘Natacha must you learn to forget the past and hope it never never never comes again’). Not that Natasa knew – she only discovered the letters, unsent, among personal effects after her mother’s death. And Ruby had one vicious sabotage left.
In Greece, Natasa improbably prospered. She collaborated with a range of prominent musicians; she performed on television. Inspired by a glimpse of the Wiggles, her production company Nat4Kids developed a successful song-and-dance children’s act for the Greek television channel Antenna. On The Pirate Princess, Natasa’s eyepatch became her signature. She earned enough to live in ritzy Psychiko and to send money to her sisters, including what Helen would later concede in court were ‘tens of thousands of dollars’ to her. Natasa also made an unlikely appearance on Channel 7’s Today Tonight, having alerted the RSPCA to wallabies being sold as pets in Athens. Unable to bear their plight, she had bought as many as she could afford, turning them over to a wildlife sanctuary.
That Natasa seemed to flaunt her success enraged Ruby again. ‘It’s time that people knew the truth about you, Natasa,’ she seethed down the phone one day. ‘I’m going to expose you for what you are – that you slept with your father and were a prostitute.’ Natasa’s own deep-buried bitterness welled: ‘You do that and I’ll come back to Australia and put you in jail for taking out my eye.’ Only Ruby had the animus necessary to make her threat good. Soon after, Natasa arrived at Nat4Kids’ rental space to find her belongings on the pavement. Ruby had contacted the owner, who was suitably scandalised: ‘Who knows what else you’ve been doing in your office?’ he leered.
Over the course of the next couple of years, all Natasa’s hard-won confidence evaporated. She ceased performing. Her eyesight and health deteriorated. With a psychiatrist, she brooded on sexual memories: the horrors of her father; the instance of her pinching Helen; the night at the drag show. The psychiatrist prescribed the anti-psychotic drug Seroquel: she overdosed on it. But where was she to go? Her only refuge was the barbed embrace of her family. In February 2007, she returned to Australia. Worse, Natasa learned, she was not an Australian citizen, and therefore ineligible for a disability pension. When the family had anglicised its names in the 1970s, they had not officially changed them. To re-establish herself in Australia, she had to petition her father for help in proving her identity and to share her mother’s unit in Bonbeach.
The consequences were disastrous.
INCEST SURVIVORS FIND it supremely difficult to accept that they are victims. They interpret their suffering as deserved; how else to explain it? Nor are their families about to let them off. Sex may abate; money and property remain to be weaponised. When Natasa visited Peter to discuss accessing his naturalisation papers to prove her citizenship, she was anxious not to seem a burden on a seventy-one-year-old pensioner. ‘It’s okay, Dad,’ she said, ‘I’ve got money.’ He gave her that ‘look’ again. ‘I know you’ve got more,’ he replied. She didn’t, as it happened, but again felt the years’ scorching backdraft.
Natasa’s dependence on her mother’s care drew them, belatedly, closer. ‘You’re an angel,’ Ruby said to her one day, unbidden. Natasa dreamed of having a child, who she would name Ruby. Then a further blow: she was diagnosed with early menopause, and sank into a torpor of grief. Frictions worsened with her sisters, around the future disposition of assets. When Ruby suffered a fatal heart attack on 23 October 2007, it emerged that she had quietly changed her will: although the unit was left to Helen’s six-year-old son, who suffers a neuropsychological disorder, Natasa ($40,000) was a greater cash beneficiary than Anna ($5,000) and Helen ($20,000) put together. Relations dissolved into chaos. For the next five years, the sisters would be embroiled in legal proceedings over their mother’s estate.
With nowhere to go, Natasa remained at Bonbeach, albeit in increasing disarray and desperation. The unit became a mess. To pay her immigration lawyer, Natasa reconnected with Jocelyn Snow, who now owned the Top of the Town, a venerable CBD brothel. Snow took another chance on ‘Pauline’: ‘She was still a very nice person.’
Snow counselled Natasa: she needed a bricks-and-mortar asset. Natasa started combing realestate.com for the cheapest Victorian property she could find, settling eventually on an $81,000 three-room unit in Morwell. Thanks to the First Home Owner Grant, she was able to conclude the purchase in September 2009 with no immediate outlay. It offered security, locking up behind a Roll-A-Door. It offered simplicity, without a second bedroom to remind Natasa of her childlessness. But learning that her sister had bought real estate renewed Helen’s fury: she abandoned a mediated will settlement on grounds that Natasa had eroded the value of Ruby’s unit during her occupancy and concealed evidence of assets and income. At that time, she also alleged that Natasa had sexually abused her in childhood. The dispute roiled so long that by the time judgement was delivered in Natasa’s favour, the unit had to be sold.
IN THE MEANTIME, Natasa had made another decision: at 8 pm on 18 March 2010, she walked into Box Hill Police Station and told two members of the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Team (SOCIT) that she was the victim of historical sexual abuse in that she had been prostituted from the age of fourteen. In the course of her monologue, she divulged to an outsider for the first time her father’s predations.
The immediate impetus for her actions was having seen Precious, Lee Daniels’ Oscar-winning 2009 saga of defeating a cycle of incestuous abuse. ‘That whole movie freaked me out,’ she said. ‘It was like seeing my own life on film.’ Could she be one of the ‘precious girls’ to whom the film is dedicated? A psychologist, Mara Hyler, urged her to take the chance. Established after a three-year pilot program, SOCIT was a new unit: Natasa’s case, codenamed ‘Mummed’ and graded ‘High Victim Impact’, would be one of 6,982 matters it looked into in its first year.
Mummed’s investigating officer was Graham Sproull. He drew from Natasa a painfully explicit eighteen-page statement, gathered volumes of documentation, even located several men to whom she had been sold. Most of all, he ministered to her swings of mood and fear. He held her hand, stiffened her resolve. Natasa reverted periodically to the message drummed into her, that she had caused the family’s misfortunes by seducing her father away from her mother. Sproull strove to convince her otherwise.
On his recommendation, Natasa also began visiting the South Eastern Centre for Sexual Assault (SECASA) in Bentleigh, one of a network of sixteen Victorian centres serving victims of sexual assault that trace their origins back to a 1970s Queen Victoria Hospital rape counselling service. The experience of boss Carolyn Worth spans the whole of that time, from days when rape examinations were conducted at the sergeant’s counter at Russell Street police station to a modern era where half SECASA’s reports come via a mobile app. Natasa was in one respect typical. According to Worth, about 10 per cent of the 3,500 new clients SECASA sees every year are ‘crisis’ cases, and a further 20 per cent involve incidents as recent as the last few months. But most cases are historic, the abuse occurring between the ages of two and twenty. The oldest client she’s seen was eighty-seven, finally acknowledging a rape in childhood.
Natasa was distinguished by the sheer duration and intensity of her sufferings. ‘Our predominant clientele are women forty-fifty-sixty,’ Worth said. ‘They’ve all done the right things – gone and got married, had kids, run the house, got a bit of a part-time job. They come to us because something happened that still bothers them and they need to unpack it.’ Natasa, by contrast, had a lifetime’s unpacking to do, but she was determined, impressing her counsellor Dagmar Jenkins as punctual and well-groomed. Two years earlier, Natasa had been barely able to get out of bed: suddenly she was readying to wage overlapping wars on her past.
She was readying, but was she ready? Classically dissociated, Natasa could still leave a disarmingly functional impression. Barrie Woollacott, a Slater and Gordon solicitor whom Natasa consulted about a possible civil claim, was struck by the contrast between her carefully chosen attire and cataclysmic life: ‘Frankly, her story was so bizarre, I almost could not wrap my head around it.’ Carolyn Sparke, the barrister who represented Natasa in the will case, found Natasa calm, down-to-earth, even slightly blasé: ‘It just seemed so improbable that she could speak about terrible things in such a seemingly lighthearted way.’ To Jenkins, the fragility was observable: during their sessions, Natasa would sit on the floor, back to the wall, rocking slightly, was quick to tears, prone to suicide ideation; she was, she reported, still visiting her father, who continued cadging money. So contaminated was money in Natasa’s life, in fact, that she preferred gambling away her brothel earnings through poker machines rather than spending them. Rates, utilities bills and traffic fines began accumulating.
What sustained her was Sproull, whom she idealised as her rescuer. She plied him with emails, texts, gifts. She even conceived of a painting of the two of them together, Sproull and five-year-old Natasa walking towards a rainbow – a glimmer of the childhood she’d never had. Perhaps, given the admixture of sex, emotion, innocence and experience, it was inevitable something would go wrong.
I met Sproull in a café near his latest headquarters in country Victoria – a burly man with a klaxon-like voice, who nonetheless did not wish to be quoted. He has since investigated scores of cases for SOCIT, a unit that today keeps 450 detectives busy; Natasa’s was one of his early ones. I commented that the statement was difficult to read; it had also been, I gained the impression, difficult to take. It certainly grew difficult to share. Boundaries blurred. Relations between the two disintegrated. Natasa was devastated. She felt, again, the burdens of blame and shame. She had represented Sproull to co-workers at the Top of the Town, many with their own abuse histories, as an avenging angel; she felt their faith shattered as well as hers. Thinking to kill herself on the night of 25 August 2010, she downed a bottle of Mogadon; in fact, it only knocked her out for twenty-four hours. ‘I adored him,’ she lamented to Jenkins. Now she had nightmares of Sproull coming to arrest her, to shoot her. When she visited Sproull one last time, a colleague sat in. The police file refers merely to the case being transferred to a female detective at Moorabbin SOCIT ‘due to personality issues between he [Sproull] and the complainant’.
At first cathartic, Mummed assumed a more impersonal and bureaucratic character. A second statement, forty-eight pages, was compiled. But the case lacked the compelling corroborative evidence of Katherine X’s: that her children carried her father’s DNA. To make good the case’s ‘forensic disadvantage’ of traumatised memory standing in for incomplete or non-existent records, supplemental questions took on an excruciating precision:
When [redacted] played with your vagina when you were in bed with [redacted] and [redacted] how exactly was he playing with your vagina? (both times, first time in bed and later when 7 after he said ‘How much do you love me?’) …
[Redacted] drove you to men’s houses – whose houses, how much paid…? What sex acts did you perform, how was the jobs arranged [sic], what exactly did you see when [redacted] got handed the money? What money did you see? What was said by [redacted] and these men?…
How did [redacted] exactly ‘beat the fuck out of you’?
When police questioned suspects, including Natasa’s father, they encountered the inevitable wall of denials. Nor were her sisters, with whom Natasa remained in legal conflict, about to help. To cope with her conflicting loyalties, Natasa had also given contradictory evidence about the incest. There were those Winlaton section reports that recorded her ‘crying’ at having ‘told a lie about her father sleeping with her’. This was the day after which Peter had threatened to ‘sell’ her siblings if she did not return home, but a skilled barrister would exploit such discrepancies. Could Natasa withstand the rigours of cross-examination? She had a taste in June 2012 during the three-day Supreme Court hearing into the will dispute. Helen brought Peter to court, which unsettled Natasa acutely. ‘It’s really hard having my dad in this courtroom and I don’t think it’s fair,’ she complained at one point. He had actually, at this stage, recently left the room: she had simply felt him.
Perhaps fortunately for Natasa, Helen cut an even more benighted figure: her psychiatrist described her in a report to the court as ‘dishevelled, poorly organised, easily distracted, with a thought content of hopelessness, negative thoughts, self-reproach, poor self-image, suicidal’. She denied any abuse in her family, claiming simply that ‘Dad was very strict’ and ‘Mum really liked to keep the house nice and clean’, while also admitting that she now ‘blocked a lot of my childhood out’ with the help of ‘drunken hazes’, none too successfully. ‘I just tried to commit suicide three weeks ago,’ she lamented. ‘All my childhood memories are coming back. For what? For what?’ Sparke sensed the mutual exhaustion: ‘There was no anger in the room. Just despair.’
The day in court she did not want perhaps deprived Natasa of the day in court she did. On reading the Supreme Court transcript, the police deemed her a ‘poor witness’, her case ‘extremely historical’: ‘Notwithstanding that offences may have been committed upon the victim, without any corroboration, and the competence and credibility issues identified in this file, it is unlikely that any prosecution would be successful.’ Natasa, whose faith had slowly dwindled, accepted this fatalistically. With a $65,000 mortgage and $16 in a savings account, she had enough trouble in the present.
SEX ABUSE UNFURLS as predictably as a morality tale. But whatever feelings ‘justice’ may alleviate, it neither feeds nor clothes nor cares. For victims, the overriding question is how best to live now, when the burden they bear is worsened daily by their social and financial precariousness and by the accumulating injuries of their fringe existences, which they perceive as further evidence of their nothingness.
Moving to Morwell with the will case staggering on, Natasa, now forty-one, had only a tiny disability pension to draw on. She supplemented this, unwillingly, with sex work. ‘Why should this be my future?’ she emailed Jenkins beseechingly, attaching her new escort photo. ‘I did not move to the country to be a hooker at the local brothel and smirked at in the local supermarket.’ The photograph showed a still slim and attractive woman; Natasa now set, determinedly, to desecrating that sexualised image of herself. She gained a lot of weight, grew increasingly reclusive, again stopped bathing, cleaning her teeth, washing her hair. She even began collecting her urine in jars, and ceasing to flush faeces in the toilet – a reminder of the cupboard she would soil when locked there by her mother. A visitor found the unit thick with dead flies and mouse droppings, surfaces covered in cooking fat and dirty dishes. At last, Natasa could do her sex job no longer. She was not working, she realised, so much as punishing herself. She duly fell behind on her mortgage and went within scant dollars of foreclosure.
Knowing Natasa needed money, Jenkins encouraged her to pursue a claim in Victoria’s Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal (VOCAT), a body set up in 1996 to provide assistance in meeting expenses incurred as the result of crime. SECASA had a relationship with Springvale Monash Legal Service (SMLS), a long-running clinical program attached to Monash University’s law school where aspiring lawyers offer advice and assistance to the disadvantaged as part of their ‘professional practice’. ‘Then they can go off to corporate bastardland,’ supervising solicitor Meghan Butterfield said.
Butterfield met Natasa and warmed to her. ‘I’m probably going to cry when I say this,’ she warned when we talked, ‘but she’s got a huge spirit. You just think: how do you have any kindness left in your heart? But she does. She’s a really kind woman.’ Natasa also proved a staggeringly challenging client, frequently ‘going dark’, prone to accidents she may or may not have engineered by her own corroded self-worth. Having finally agreed to a psychiatric assessment in Dandenong, for example, Natasa lost her car keys, conducted a fruitless, panic-stricken search for them, got thrown off the train because she was carrying God’s Gift, her Chihuahua…and never got to her destination. ‘I do not know what is wrong with me anymore Dagma,’ she emailed Jenkins. ‘Am devastated I missed the appointment and I tried so hard.’ A few months later, Natasa’s car was repossessed, precluding visits to SECASA. Jenkins referred her to Morwell’s Gippsland Centre Against Sexual Assault (GCASA). Natasa did not keep this appointment either. Nor after her first meeting did she return to Slater and Gordon.
The Latrobe Valley has a high concentration of abuse victims. One of seven CASAs that in the last decade have been co-located with SOCIT squads as ‘multidisciplinary centres’, GCASA sees the results. But from the furtive way Natasa’s file was slid across her desk, counsellor Anne McKenzie sensed a challenge on the way. McKenzie’s forty-year career began as the second employee at Victoria’s original drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, Odyssey House. She is hard to shock. This file shocked her: ‘The sheer relentlessness – I was just aghast. But I told myself: I’m just reading it; she lived it.’
Like Butterfield, McKenzie liked her new client instantly. Natasa, she realised, was addicted to caring, first for her animals, although they often caused trouble, and also for her sisters, although they were damaged and needy. But while Natasa kept trying to fix things, her self-denigration was such that she could do nothing for herself: obtaining a bank statement or a tradesman’s quote was a Herculean labour. What she needed was practical guidance in best use of local social services, and personal patience, such as with her hard-to-ignore smell – McKenzie would book GCASA meeting rooms out for an extra hour to allow the odour to disperse. It was a turning point the day that Natasa confessed: ‘I’ve started to notice that I smell.’
For heavy psychiatric lifting, McKenzie relied on psychiatrist Sandra Hacker. Hacker had seen Natasa a couple of times in 2010, then in her early phase of SOCIT euphoria; when their contact resumed in February 2013, she was shocked at Natasa’s dishevelment, at the additional weight, matted hair and dirt acting as a ‘protective shell’. They began Monday sessions, first at her rooms in Prahran, later by Skype, squeezed into a busy schedule Hacker showed me with a brisk, authoritative air, finger running down the page: ‘Sex abuse, sex abuse, sex abuse…’ Part of the treatment, Hacker explained, is the decision to treat: ‘You look to provide a long-term relationship to confirm that they are worthwhile, in which the betrayal to which they are accustomed does not occur.’
Hacker was especially concerned about Natasa’s infected teeth, a classic pathology of abuse victims – she has had one client for twenty years whose dentition he is only now preparing to address. Rather than address hers, in fact, Natasa abandoned her medication, hoping she would feel bad enough to kill herself, then was perversely disappointed when she didn’t. ‘I find it so hard to want to pull these teeth out, death seemed better,’ she emailed Hacker. ‘Now death is not an option HOW do I do what I have to DO?... What now? Doctor Hacker?’ Not surprisingly, the VOCAT application stalled. ‘Students turn over, of course, and we kept losing her,’ Butterfield recalled. ‘She’d go AWOL. She just didn’t think she was worthy of assistance.’
IN OCTOBER 2015, however, Natasa experienced an unexpected grace, on its face quite trivial. McKenzie organised for a community mental health worker from Mind Australia to collect all Natasa’s various fines, penalties and infringement notices, which had compounded to more than $14,000. These were forwarded to a solicitor, with Hacker’s assessment of Natasa’s complex trauma, in hope of clemency. The process, McKenzie recalled, was surprisingly moving: ‘The solicitor read Sandra’s statement and said to [Natasa]: “How are you even still alive?” Which puzzled Natasa. She said: “Why would she say that?” When it went before the magistrate, he drew a line through everything. “You’ve got enough going on,” he said.’
Such official lenience astonished Natasa. So did acknowledgement of her handicaps. Natasa had always struggled with the notion that her eyesight was impaired. Her mother would skirt the subject, imply that it was a ruse she used to gain sympathy. Natasa adopted workarounds: she had a small, bright wardrobe whose items she could distinguish; she bought milk powder rather than milk so she did not have to rely on use-by dates she could not read. When her Vision Australia case worker Sarah Lucas tested her eyes, Natasa tested Lucas. ‘Are you sure I’m blind and I’m not just tricking you?’ she asked. ‘You’re a smart lady, Nat,’ replied Lucas. ‘But you’re not that smart.’ Again, this was a revelation. Natasa was further cheered by her ‘mind dog’ Josie, entitled to accompany her anywhere, widening her limited sphere of operations.
Plenty of setbacks lay ahead. But by early 2016, Natasa was collaborating with her latest SMLS student, her sixth, Holly Tan. Butterfield, an ardent Hawthorn supporter, gingered the twenty-three-year-old Tan with an unlikely simile: ‘This woman will try everything to get rid of you. Don’t let her. Put a tag on her like Liam Shiels in the 2013 Grand Final.’ Tan had no idea what Butterfield was talking about, but heard the last bit: ‘Get it to a hearing and there’s [a High Distinction] in it for you.’ Learning that Natasa found male tradesmen difficult, Tan found a female service, Lady Tradies; inspired by Sarah Krasnostein’s book, Tan budgeted for a trauma cleaner.
The work done by SMLS was not complex, but it was minute. VOCAT requires only a civil standard of proof with ‘any question of fact to be decided…on the balance of probabilities’. But it demands that compensation align with quantifiable needs, which in Natasa’s case were extensive and ever changing, sometimes for positive reasons. Initially, for example, Hacker recommended money for new teeth; Natasa resisted this. But one day, Natasa propped in a dentist chair and committed to a clearance: half at once, half later. What’s more she wanted dentures of ‘Hollywood white’. This time her carers were astonished.
In its way, the past was also sealing itself off. In July 2017, Helen summoned Natasa to a Springvale nursing home where their father was expiring of Lewy body dementia: he could see and hear but was unable to move. When they were alone together, the thought struck Natasa: he now felt as she had, powerless and immobilised, when under his carnal control. But what was there to say? ‘Don’t be scared,’ she whispered. ‘You’ll be with your mother soon.’ When she reached for his hand, it seemed like he pulled it away. She did not attend his funeral. She has no photograph of him.
By the time the VOCAT application was lodged five months later, it had twenty-one detailed attachments, and constituted what Butterfield called in her covering letter ‘the most serious case of childhood abuse’ she had seen in twenty years, meriting payments at the statutory maximum of $60,000 each for the abuse by father and mother. That did not mean it was bound to succeed. VOCAT is colloquially known as ‘judge lotto’, some magistrates treating the granting of compensation as if they’re writing personal cheques. Much hinged on who would hear Natasa’s counsel Marita Ham on 23 April 2018 in the Latrobe Valley Magistrates’ Court.
Arriving at the court to meet McKenzie, Tan, Ham, Natasa and Josie the dog, Butterfield was delighted to find them listed before Simon Garnett, a former partner at the plaintiff law firm Ryan Carlisle Thomas. ‘I have seen the system work so badly,’ Butterfield recalled. ‘But Simon was just wonderful. It was: we’re equals, my seat might be higher, but hats off to you. It so lightened the feeling in the room.’ Tears flowed freely as Garnett awarded $120,000, whereupon Natasa, who had resisted the process for the better part of a decade, proceeded to steal the show. With Josie sitting on the bar table, she called to mind a Greek myth: Pandora, opening her box from which everything escaped but hope. I asked McKenzie, who has a gift for pithy simplifications, why she thought that this process had helped Natasa where so many others had failed. ‘Because none of us ran away,’ she replied briskly. ‘What happened to Natasa will never be behind her, but y’know, if she can just move it over there a bit…’
AS THIS STORY evolved, child sex abuse was experiencing one of its periodic phases in public focus. The verdict against George Pell was delivered; there was criticism of delays implementing a national redress scheme for victims of abuse in institutions; Leaving Neverland, the documentary about Michael Jackson, was released; the R&B singer R Kelly was charged with sex offences against minors. Incestuous abuse, however, continued awaiting its moment, despite its unique iniquity in that it originates in the very unit to which we turn for safety. The displaced readily engage our sympathy; the stranger is easy to fear. The harsh reality was succinctly put to me by Anne McKenzie: ‘Historically women and children have been safer on the streets than in their homes.’
Suffering, too, is but one plane of Natasa Christidou’s story. What’s incalculable is the deprivation – not just of parental love, but of opportunities to build friendships, forge relationships, find community, enjoy fulfilling work, to experience simply. Instead, weighed down by her complex traumas, Natasa must navigate a world of triggers. Visiting a café, she has been overwhelmed by the memory of childhood hunger. Seeing a little girl hug her father, she has had to remind herself that this has nothing to do with sex.
At least Natasa has a home where control is attainable, and that since her VOCAT settlement has contained nice things – things that make for comfort, for ease, for pride. She has a new bed – on removal, the old one was found to contain a nest of redback spiders. She has a red leather couch – we shared it while talking, surrounded by flamboyant souvenirs of Natasa’s life in Greece. She has a big-screen television on which we watched excerpts from The Pirate Princess. Regular cleaning has done wonders; there are plans for a kitchen rather than merely a sink. These hardly make good her losses. But Natasa’s life now has a degree of restful dignity. When she saw me off the last time from her little driveway, dogs at her feet, blinking in the sun, she paused by the battered car she has not driven in years with the unselfconscious number plate ‘IBLIND’, and recalled some of her more hair-raising experiences at the wheel. She gave a husky laugh: ‘It’s a wonder I’m alive!’ Her lips parted to reveal a Hollywood white smile.