Content warning: This feature contains descriptions, though not the details, of sexual and physical abuse, which may be triggering to survivors.
When I walk into the courtroom I see the back of my father’s head. It is grey-haired now, but I still want to smash it into pieces with some large, pointed, heavy instrument. Something big enough that I don’t have to touch him. Later, when we compare notes, my sister says when she saw him she’d imagined her hand turning into a spear to stab him. That would have saved us a lot of time.
I’m at his trial for the physical and sexual abuse of me and my sisters.
At this exact moment I am 33. My sisters are in their late forties.
I haven’t lived in the same house as him since I was 16.
I found out he had abused my half-sisters (his step-daughters) when I was 17.
I told my mother what he had done to us all when I was 18.
This is the first time I’ve been in the same room as him since then.
After I told her, my mother took nearly three years to decide that she couldn’t live with him. By then I was 21. I made the initial complaint to the police when I was 24. It took another six years to convince my sisters to make their own statements to the police and join the case.
My sisters are terrified of my father. For some reason I am not.
The problem is I don’t know where to go with this story. Forward or backward. It’s a big circle of fuckedness either way.
I was a very unsatisfying victim for my father once I’d turned 10. Unlike my sisters, I didn’t go quiet or respond to threats; instead I avoided being alone with him at all costs. With few opportunities for sexual abuse, that left only the violent and emotional kinds.
But the threat of violence and the routines I had to undertake to protect myself were exhausting. I’d jam the bathroom door shut with the laundry basket and my bedroom door with a chair so he couldn’t walk in while I was getting dressed. I didn’t sleep particularly well.
At 16 I began to obsess about taking one of his rifles and shooting him. I really weighed it up. I was a good shot – it was the only thing he ever taught me. From the time I was a small girl, he’d give me an old tin can and leave me with enough bullets for hours of practice.
The threat of violence was always present, and as I got older it escalated. The week of my School Certificate exams he idly threatened me with a sharp knife while he was making a sandwich. I can’t even remember what I had done but suddenly the end of a boning knife was six inches from my face. It felt different this time, more dangerous, because he did it in front of my mother. I didn’t let him see I was scared. I said “You’re a stupid cunt” and got out of the room. I didn’t turn my back on him.
I finished my exams and had a flat and a waitressing job a week later. I said I was 17. I wasn’t.
The courtroom feels like a tired hotel seminar room, one that has been cleaned too many times. There is a kind of partial plexiglass screen around the back of my father but, apart from the disengaged security guard next to him, he is the closest person to me in the witness box.
I’m asked if I want to swear on the Bible. I don’t want to, because the Bible means nothing to me, but I’m aware that this is all theatrics and if I do anything that seems “off” the jury might judge me for it. They might all be a bunch of Bible lovers. So I am sworn in.
When I’m seated I get a look at the jury, a fairly even division of men and women and a mix of races. There is only one woman who I get anything like a sympathetic glance from but I am aware that I am not in proper shape to take everything in. These strangers – unqualified, unprepared strangers – are about to hear things I have only told a psychologist.
My first word was the dog’s name. Not Mum and certainly not Dad. Apparently I was eight months old. Later that dog would hustle me into the back of his water tank kennel and guard me. I worked this out because I wondered why my first strong visual memory was of the silhouette of a dog surrounded by a bright halo of light.
It was the water tank hole. He was guarding me as I lay dozing inside. At this stage I was maybe three. My mother would have been working at a local factory. My father was meant to look after me after working nightshift. Not an ideal situation, made worse by the fact that he was a paedophile.
I always want to apologise after I say that, because good-hearted people get such a kick in the solar plexus when they hear it. But I don’t know what else to call him.
My father’s defence lawyer harangues me for hours. It is one of the most pointless, banal and ultimately sinister exchanges of my life. It’s right up there with the time my father couldn’t convince me to go on a long car ride with him and so declared I “wasn’t a good girl like [my] sisters”.
The lawyer keeps saying “You’re lying” and I have to decide each time if I should respond, and how.
“No I’m not” is my go-to. In hour three I change it up a bit: “No. You are.” It has a pleasingly adolescent feel of “I know you are but what am I”.
I’d been warned by our lawyer that this would happen. He met with us all and after a very perfunctory handshake and briefing – because God only knows how many of these he’s done – he turned to me. “They are going to come after you – make no mistake.”
When I think about this now I feel nauseous. That’s the kind of prep a child assassin gets in a movie script. I was a woman in my 30s by then, but the minute you are in court with your abuser the space-time continuum wobbles. Suddenly you are being asked all sorts of detailed questions about things that happened to you as a small child. That does not make you feel like an adult.
While we had to take all due care to prove my father’s guilt, his lawyer constantly asserted that my sisters and I were all liars.
On one level I can barely imagine why a court system exists that is so adversarial toward people who have survived what we did. It defies all logic that such a trial system works in any way. And yet I believe profoundly in everyone’s right to get a decent defence.
But this core belief is also complicated by my experience of my father’s defence lawyer. I hope he has trouble sleeping. And by trouble sleeping I mean I hope he has experienced perhaps half the horrors I have in the night.
I didn’t expect to have every word I said treated as a sacred text, but I don’t understand how what happened in that courtroom helped anyone. Except maybe my father.
I try to look at the jury when I am answering questions. I want them to see me if possible – and looking at them distracts me from my father. The main impression I get from them is disinterest, but still I fret about the impression I’m giving. My shirt is slightly fitted and naturally I worry that the implication of a fitted blouse is that I am a lying slut, because that’s what you think when a group of strangers are staring at you in a courtroom over the course of six hours.
At one point I become aware that my arms are crossed and that my left hand is on my right upper arm. When I look down I notice that my hand has moved so I’m actually giving my father the middle finger.
I don’t laugh but I want to.
My parents were always very proud of my vocabulary. At seven I was tested and they were told I had the reading level of a 16 year old. I don’t actually believe that, by the way. I was bright, but I did not have the words to tell anyone what my father was. Because there was no language in the ‘70s and ‘80s that told kids what the words might be. The first time I ever heard paedophilia discussed was in a Sunday night telemovie in 1985. My mother said, “If anyone ever did that to my kids, I would kill them.” I filed that away with a sense of genuine expectation. (Is it a spoiler to say she didn’t follow through?)
The movie hadn’t been like my life. It was set in American suburbia; I was in a rough isolated environment in New Zealand with guns, booze and casual violence. The dad in the movie had been another creature entirely, a charming groomer.
It didn’t give me the words to describe what was happening with my own father.
I thought everyone lived with a monster. I thought every kid just worked out what kind of monster theirs was and then proceeded to evade them the best they could. I would never stay at friends’ houses as a child because I was scared they might have trickier monsters.
I have been on the stand for a couple of hours and the judge calls for a lunch break. I am not allowed to see my family or our detective. In an exact and unfortunate replication of my childhood, I am all alone. I go downstairs into the large open courtyard area where I line up to buy a sandwich.
As I am queuing, wondering how any more words will even leave my mouth, I realise this is utterly surreal. Maybe, I tell myself in an attempt to self-soothe, this is the moment of peak strangeness in my life and it can only get better from now on, depending on my ability to ask for a sandwich and a drink and pass through the next 40 minutes without finally going insane. I tell myself to sit in the sun and eat in attempt to quieten the mounting hysteria.
This is the first time I cry all day, when I am trying to chew and swallow some bread. Around me is the usual court circus. Bad suits and worse hair, and that’s just the lawyers. There are lots of children running around.
Seeing a child anywhere near my father makes me want to set off a fire alarm even though I know he is currently downstairs in a cell. I wear sunglasses and cry and just try to eat something.
As I chew the same crust I tell myself nearly there, nearly there, nearly there. It takes every bit of belief I have in “the system” and “doing the right thing” to get me back inside and into my little room where I wait to be recalled.
I will spend another four hours on the stand.
Handing my father off to the authorities took so long that I can’t even begin to calculate it. At various points people said “Why don’t you just drop it?” and I’d answer that what kept me going was the thought of him getting to another daughter or step-daughter or girl, and that would be my fault.
We had scripture lessons at my state primary school. A nice simple man would come and talk to us once a week while the teachers had a smoke and a cuppa. I remember looking at the Bible he gave us and thinking that I could give the prayer thing a go. Surely this man’s god would smite the shit out of my father if this was all for real. So I prayed each night.
Dear God, please take him away.
I changed it up.
Dear God, please kill him.
Dear God, he goes out hunting a lot. That would be quite a good time for something to happen.
My behaviour during scripture classes began to get aggressive and questioning. Someone decided that I was allowed to go and sit with the Jehovah’s Witness kids in the library and draw.
After calling me a liar for a couple more hours, the defence lawyer’s voice goes softer. “I suppose your therapist said you were brave?”
Every alarm in my head goes off at full volume. He may as well have pulled out a gun. I physically tense because I sense he is going in for some kind of kill. “Sorry – I don’t understand.” He sneers. “Oh, You’re very smart – I think you do understand the words. Did you get told you were brave?”
This one moment is astonishing in its approximation of what it is like to be abused as a child by an adult. I look at him for a while and then I look at the judge and talk directly to her.
“I understand the question. I do not understand the point of the question.” The judge looks at him and says
I refused to answer that question because my bravery – real or imagined – was not on trial. My father was. Later I was told by our detective that the lawyer was trying to paint me as the smart vendetta-driven daughter bent on revenge. Much was made of me having a “successful career and being highly intelligent”.
With that one question my father’s lawyer transformed me into someone with an actual vendetta.
When I made my police complaint aged 24 I didn’t think my sisters would ever get over their fear and join the case. All I hoped for was that my complaint stayed on record and that if he did something they could join the dots. The police couldn’t find him anyway. After my mother kicked him out he kind of disappeared.
I turned 26 and found out I was pregnant. Two days later a policeman rang to say they had found my father. He was living only 20km from me; we had moved to the same city. My partner saw the look in my eyes and said “There will be no killing Daddy while you are pregnant, thanks.” He did agree to drive me to where my father lived so I could see it. It was a shithole. That was something.
In his police interview, Dad told them the problem was that I read too many books. He regretted taking me to the library. Later, the policeman said to me “It was 8.30am and he was drinking. Look, I don’t normally say this but… he really isn’t a nice person, is he?”
At 30 I was working on a very intense short term contract. My mother called me at work to tell me that someone had seen my father. He had a new wife from a beleaguered nation. She had a daughter. It’s virtually impossible to describe what this set off in me. It was beyond biblical.
The next day I found a phone number for my father. He was in the white pages, so no subterfuge was required. I called after school time and pretended to be a survey taker. I asked the woman if there were any young people in the house who could answer questions about recreations and hobbies. Somehow I got my father’s new stepdaughter on the phone. She told me where she went to high school and how old she was. I asked if she did any sport. “No, but I go out with my dad and help him do his deliveries.” I thanked her profusely for her time and stopped myself from telling her to run out of her house and get to a police station. I lay down on my office floor. My father had started abusing my elder sisters when he took them out to do his work deliveries in a van.
The next day I rang the police and told them I had the gravest concerns for this girl. The officer was very understanding but I also think he was horrified that I was telling him what I’d done. Doing so meant he had to write it down in a file and he obviously knew it would come back to bite me in court. But at the time I had no idea the case would ever get to court; I was simply doing what I could to keep that girl safe.
I rang the girl’s school counsellor and explained the entire situation. I offered her the names of people that she could call to verify both my sanity and what I was telling her. I explained that because it was my word versus my father’s this might never get to court, but that she had a student in her school who was in danger.
I waited until a weekend to talk to my sisters. I am not proud of how any of these conversations went. Over the next six months they segued from conversations to confrontations:
If you two don’t make a complaint to the police then this girl’s life is on your heads.
I cannot live with this.
I cannot let him hurt another kid. We are the only people who can stop him.
If you don’t do this then I don’t know what I will do.
We’d all known it would be me who’d start this process in motion. It’s simply accepted in our family that I am hated by my father the most and that I will be the one who stands up to him. I once overheard my sister explaining to a cousin that it was probably personal for me “because he’s her father by blood but he’s just our stepfather”. I told you it was a circle of fuckedness.
Eventually my sisters agreed to make complaints to the police. I brokered this while we were all barely talking to each other. One of my sisters has a significant anxiety issue. Neither of them have what could be called a healthy or trusting relationship with the police. They both have low level criminal records of the kind that many abuse survivors have.
Eighteen months later we were about to go to trial and it was aborted at the last minute. In the briefing with our lawyer one of my sisters had described another incident of rape that she had been too embarrassed to mention in her initial interview. Our lawyer sighed, said “We’ll have to shift dates and re-interview you”, and got up and left the room. It took all of two minutes.
I went to bed for about a month. The machinery had finally started moving, taking over from me, but I was exhausted. We had to wait eight more months for another trial.
When I was around 10, I was outside the house on the path playing with the dog and my father walked past and lifted his arm as if he was going to hit me. The dog smoothly jumped up between us and put his paws on my father’s shoulders and his jaws around his arm. The dog actually looked him in the eye.
My mother saw the whole thing. My father was completely shaken.
That moment changed everything for me. The dog showed me how to fight back against my father and taught me everything I know about effective compassion.
The week of the trial I decide to work through until I am called as a witness. My sisters, mother and I are not meant to see each other so we don’t discuss the trial, which means I can’t be there to support them. The court facilitators end up letting them sit together in a back room anyway, probably because they don’t live in the city where the trial is. Only my father and I do. I go to work every day in carefully selected court-ready outfits. People at work assume I have a funeral to go to.
The trial starts on a Monday and on Thursday after lunch I am told to get ready. I go in to a holding room and wait. I wait all afternoon and don’t get called. They tell me I will be up first thing Friday morning.
At court that morning I see my detective. He looks down. “I can’t come in with you – his lawyer won’t let me.” I didn’t know this was a possibility. I have not arranged for any other support but, truthfully, I don’t want anyone I love being in the room with my father. He is a contamination that I will not spread. Later I will regret this – I think being alone in court made me appear tough and flinty to the jury. I had reverted to how I survived him as a kid.
I am called by the court and I walk in. I see the back of my father’s head.
A friend from high school is called as a witness. Her mother had a severe mental illness and this gives her a kind of imperviousness to my situation which we both sensed as teens. My father’s lawyer asks her repeatedly how many times we talked on the phone and says we must have practiced our “stories”. She looks the lawyer up and down slowly, shifts her glance to my father and says “We had more important things to talk about than that piece of shit.”
Abuse cases are almost impossible to prove because people who molest children do it mostly in one-on-one situations – meaning no one can corroborate your story. My mother witnessed some of my father’s violence but she didn’t see other things. That both my parents wanted social isolation was a huge gift to my father. We had virtually no family friends.
The jury takes about three days to decide. My sisters have been flown home. Late at night our detective calls me and I walk into our dark lounge to talk to him. I can see lights from other houses on the hills. I feel like I am on a boat at sea sailing into a harbour.
“They found him guilty. He is going away. They dropped some of the charges, some of yours, I’m sorry. But he is going away and you won’t have to worry about him for a long time.”
I feel very light, like I am just a particle and not a whole separate person anymore. Something I have been carrying for a long time evaporates.
I thank him. I say that I will call my sisters now. I thank him again and again. We both sound like we might be crying just a little bit.
At sentencing I am the only one from my family in attendance. I didn’t expect them to travel for it. I wear red shoes. My father is given seven years and the judge says he will serve the sentences concurrently, which means four years.
In court there is a young woman. My detective leans over and tells me that is my father’s step-daughter, the one I spoke to four years ago. We look at each other and she is very beautiful. She is also alone here. Later another policeman will tell me that her mother and grandmother put a lock on her door when my father was officially charged. I wish he hadn’t told me.
I get on with life.
About 18 months later I am in the middle of a work drama when I have a sudden thought: “He’s out.” Not a lightning bolt – more like a tap dripping poison.
I wait a day and I call my detective. I lie for the first time ever to the police. “Um, look I heard something, I think he is out, can you check?” He reassures me that this can’t be the case, he would have been told by Corrections.
But he says he will check. He calls back half an hour later. “Are you driving? Pull over. I am so sorry – he is out, you should have all been told.”
I have to tell my sisters. They panic. I tell them that his firearms were confiscated by police. I am the one who lives closest so I will be the first target anyway and we all know he is too cheap to book a flight. You’d be surprised where you can fit a laugh into all of this. I say “He is a coward and now he is a convicted paedophile on bail – he wouldn’t dare.”
My sister says “I wouldn’t have done it if I knew this would happen.” I feel sick. Later we are told, second-hand, that his parole was based on compelling letters from doctors about a potential health situation. We never received a letter from Corrections explaining it formally, or an apology for not telling us (or the police) he was being released.
I’ve found out since that this was no fluke or one off accident. Victims, including people who have had family members murdered, are regularly left uninformed about the offender’s release. It’s a fucking outrage.
I said that my father had a ‘potential health situation’. Perhaps I should be really accurate here – we are told that he is on medication to prevent him from having a stroke.
“Are you shitting me? I am going to have a fucking stroke in about two minutes,” says my sister. “Well I wish the fucker had been on a lot more medication to stop him having a stroke about 35 years ago,” I reply.
I told you the laughs popped up at surprising times.
About a month later I realise that my father might have gone back to where he was working before the trial. I find out who handles HR for the company and I call them. I don’t think about what I am going to say. It just happens.
I believe my father is an employee of yours.
He’s just of out of prison.
He was actually charged with crimes of sexual abuse and violence against me and my sisters.
At this point the man is struggling. “He said it was a consensual sex from years ago and that the girl lied.” I am very calm. What I say next emerges from my most central core where all of this has lived for decades.
“The girl you are talking about is actually my two sisters. They were about 10 and 11 when he started abusing them. There was no consent. I knew he would lie to you. The problem is that you have young women in your employment and you have a duty of care to provide them with a safe workplace. I am going to give you a detective’s name and phone number. You can call him to verify everything I am saying.
“It’s Friday and I will call on Monday to check that you have actually fired him. If you haven’t, I will call every women’s group who will want to picket your organisation and then I will alert every newsroom in the city. This isn’t personal. You can solve this. Thank you for your time. I’ll talk to you on Monday.”
When I call back on Monday I am told my father has been fired. I can’t help but think that his defence lawyer helped shape how I behaved the moment he asked if I thought I was brave.
Then I leave it alone. I’ve done everything I could. Everything. I handed him over. I bore witness. I tried to save another girl child from him, and I refrained from killing him.
After his trial, I tracked down my father’s sisters. I wanted to know if he had been made into an abuser or abused into being an abuser.
My father is not a New Zealander so it took a while. My partner ended up making me follow up – my urge to run at the last minute and to not know was strong.
When I got them alone I plainly but gently told these two hospitable women that their brother had not been a good dad to me. “Actually, he is in prison right now and that’s the best place for him. Sorry.”
So while my partner and kids played outside in the sun I sat in a dark little lounge with these two women. They weren’t surprised.
They told me that he loved violent films when he was a kid. They assured me that he had not been abused (he said he had been in court) and that they had a ordinary working class childhood that was only marred by his emerging violence and abuse of his younger sister.
One of them started to cry. “Once he kicked me so hard with his desert boots on that you could read the size of them in the bruises.” She went to the police station and took her top off and showed them her back with its pathway of my father’s boot prints. Nothing was done. She was in her teens. It was Australia and it was the ‘60s.
She had a series of mental health breakdowns over the rest of her life. And here’s the headline: she was his favourite. When he said her name he would get a certain look in his eye. She did not use the words ‘sexual abuse’ but when I said it she nodded and said “me too”.
Three years after he gets out, the police call. They are very sorry but they think they will be forced to give my father his firearms back. We can make statements to try and avert this but they don’t know what will happen. Unbelievably there is no law to prevent him from having firearms.
My sisters panic. Actually, this time, for the first time, they are worried for me. Echoing our lawyer at trial, they tell me: “He will come for you.”
I don’t sleep much and I have a conversation with my kids about being alert to strange people hanging around the street. I am not happy to have to bring this into my kids’ lives. I have run an unleaky ship up until now, in that none of my childhood history will accidentally taint their lives.
We all make statements to police. I talk to a female police officer in my lounge, the same lounge where I looked at the lights and nearly evaporated into relaxed dust the night he was found guilty. She asks me if I am scared of my father. I take a breath.
Fuck, I am so tired. I am 38. I want this done. Make it stop. Get him out of my life. I don’t know if I can do this anymore. Please take him.
I look at her. I reckon she is about 26. Same age as when I was pregnant and realised that if I was a parent then I shouldn’t attempt to kill my father because then I would be carrying it over to another generation and I would be on the same moral playing field as him.
I tell her that my response is complicated. Will he read this statement? Because I’m scared, but I am more scared of him knowing that I am scared of him. I think I only got through all of this by fooling him. I convinced him that I wasn’t scared and that saved me. It was an elaborate trick.
She tells me yes, he can read it. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if I can give him that now. It’s all I have left. And I am worried that if he knows I am scared that he will feel bold enough to come to my house and do something. I have kids. I don’t know what to do.
Neither does she because she is 26. We drink a lot of tea. We agree on some wording for my statement that alludes to my fears but does not reveal my abject terror that this man, this monster who is my father, will be emboldened by age and illness and finally show up with a gun at my house.
When I was small he used to say “If someone tried to take you or the dogs then I would shoot you all.” There was never any context for this statement, just a paranoid rambling and a threat. He also made sure that I knew he had taken a life insurance policy out on me when I was eight. Make of that what you will.
I tell the policewoman this but I also undersell it by saying I know he is massively paranoid and still a coward. I am still 12 and telling him he is a stupid fucking cunt. I dare you.
He gets his firearms back.
I’m sorry, I wish I had a better ending for you. I wish no one else had to go through anything like this but they do, all the time, and worse. Our court system is adversarial and nonsensical in regards to these kinds of crimes.
I try to avoid ever talking to other people considering making the same sort of complaint because I cannot look them in the eye and encourage them. So I very rarely discuss this aspect of my life with anyone in any detail except my therapist and occasionally my partner.
A handful of friends know some of the facts. I still truly feel that telling people who love me the details is in some way abusing them, because how do you get this shit out of your head? I have thought about writing this before so that it could be of some use for lobbying for change but I wanted it all over and gone. I also despise that he gets name suppression because of my poor terrified sisters.
He profits from our fear and misplaced shame still. When I started writing this I had grand ideas about trying to work out what the financial costs of his actions have been. I’ve had some therapy paid for by ACC and some payments from ACC because they consider us as having sustained permanent emotional damage. We have. My sisters had the worst of it from him. I am not minimising my own abuse, I am being factual. But I had the worst of it in court. I spent twice the time they did on the stand and I was hunted by my father’s lawyer because he needed someone to cast as a baddie other than his client.
All together the costs wouldn’t have added up to as much as even one year of prison for my father (approximately $97,090). So he cost us all more – that includes you.
You should know that I get on with life. I laugh a lot. I try to experience joy as much as possible because it burns out all the past. I am permanently affected by what happened to me but that means I am, unlike my parents, very engaged in my community. I gravitate towards people and relationships. A downside is if I see someone in distress then I feel a compulsive duty to attend to them. One of my children calls this the “Mummy Police” effect. Don’t worry, the Mummy Police are here.
About once a year I check into births, deaths and marriages to see if he has died.
Author’s note: Now as an adult I realise how unusual it was for me as a child to effectively go to war against my abusive father. What I did was right for me but I would not want other abuse survivors to compare their own experiences to mine and feel that they should have done something differently. We only do what we can in these unimaginable situations and the blame must fall on the adult abusers. My desire is to see the New Zealand court and justice systems handle these cases in an infinitely more humane manner, which is why I have told my story.
“Evie South” is a pseudonym.
If the events depicted in this story have been triggering in any way, please consider contacting any of the following organisations:
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.