January 28, 2022

Sexual assault

Grace notes

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Image of 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Grace Tame’s sexual abuse as a child, also experienced by the author, makes policing her manners misguided at best

The columnist’s enthusiasm for adjectives was probably a better sign of his desperation than his displeasure. After all, Peter van Onselen had only one thing to say: Grace Tame’s frosty encounter with the prime minister this week was “rude” – a trivial complaint better expressed on Twitter, but which was instead torturously stretched to fill a column.

And so Tame’s behaviour was not merely “rude” but also “unbecoming”, “unnecessary”, “ungracious”, “brazen”, “embarrassing”, “naive”, “juvenile” and “childish”. This tedious repetition is a sure sign of a man trying to build a cabin from toothpicks.

But my irritation with the column, besides its redundancy, was that van Onselen did not bother to consider the possible origins of Tame’s contempt for authority and respectability. Instead, he chose to express a lazy puritanical despair, while idly wondering if Tame was simply performing for “the mob on social media”.

I’m not convinced van Onselen was that concerned – I’ll return to this – but it’s worth briefly revisiting Tame’s history of abuse and contemplating what possible lessons she might have painfully derived from it.

In 2010, as a 15-year-old struggling with depression and anorexia, Tame was repeatedly raped by her 58-year-old teacher, Nicolaas Bester. It was precisely Tame’s vulnerability that commended her to Bester’s predations, and he spent months grooming her with flattery and special attention within their prestigious private school. After his imprisonment in 2011 (Bester was also convicted of possessing child pornography), Tame was prevented by an archaic Tasmanian law from speaking publicly about her abuse.

Bester was released early, serving just 19 months, before one evening in February 2015, after a few glasses of wine and an attack of self-pity, he published this nauseating boast on Facebook in response to some criticism of him: “Zip up your testicles in the feminist handbag, you sorry little prick. Judging from the emails and tweets I’ve received, the majority of men in Australia envy me. I was 59. She was 15 … It was awesome.”

This post returned Bester to prison for four months – it was considered by the court to be “child exploitation material” – and he lost his appeal against the “severity” of the sentence. Bester’s post was seen by Tame when a Hobart Mercury article about his comments appeared in her own Facebook feed. Unsurprisingly, this was severely re-traumatising for her, and Tame’s mother submitted to the court a victim impact statement on her behalf. “The mother took advice from her daughter’s psychologist, and flew to visit her on short notice,” the judge summarised. “She said that her daughter was still suffering nightmares and anxieties; that the intensity of her suffering had been significantly exacerbated by the Facebook conversation; and that she would never return to Hobart to live.”

Let’s now skip to December 2017, when commentator, men’s rights activist and self-declared pioneer of sex therapy Bettina Arndt published a long and effusively sympathetic interview with Bester on YouTube. As he had done previously, Bester declared himself the real victim, having lost his job, wife, reputation and relationships with his adult children – grave losses, to be sure, but each of which seem the natural and proportionate consequence of his crimes. But Arndt cooed her understanding, and generally described the behaviour of school children as “sexually provocative”.

Let’s skip ahead again. Two years ago, on Australia Day, Arndt was conferred an Order of Australia for her “significant service to the community as a social commentator, and to gender equity through advocacy for men”.

Grace Tame was a vulnerable child who was abused and exploited by a teacher, who was for a long time gagged by law from talking about it, who was later re-traumatised by his sick boastfulness, and who watched the high-profile commentator who had defended him – and made disturbing implications about her complicity – bestowed an honour from the Queen. Then, as Australian of the Year, she watched the federal government variously ignore, mishandle and desperately qualify its responsibility for the alleged rape of one of their own staffers in Parliament House.  

Now, what lessons do you think might flow from all this? What attitudes towards authority, the law and the Queen’s honours? And yet some are upset that Tame didn’t pretend to like the prime minister? Where, do you think, does upholding this pretence sit on the order of Tame’s priorities? And where do you think it should sit? Keep in mind that this is a prime minister who uses a “protective masculinity” to appeal to voters, whose office “backgrounded against Brittany Higgins’ partner” and of whom “there really isn’t anything of substance under the political marketing veneer”?

All of these quotes are from Peter van Onselen. As he indulged speculation about Tame’s motivation in snubbing the prime minister, I’ll indulge one about him: van Onselen doesn’t much care about Tame’s behaviour, but he’s accepted – like most talking heads – a certain quota of verbal diarrhoea as the cost of his profile. Does he really believe that it’s “unbecoming” to withhold a smile from a man who van Onselen’s own biography tells us is ruthless, duplicitous and chillingly vacant? Or might it be that Tame’s contempt offers something vastly more real than glib, jukebox commentary?

Like Grace Tame’s abuser, my uncle was a teacher, and looking back now the stages of his grooming were textbook. His behaviour was calculated to create a unique sense of trust and intimacy; a sense that nobody else understood me quite as well as he did.

He was staying with us from overseas. He first learnt my passions, which was not difficult given the musical and athletic subjects of my worship were boldly declared by the posters on my bedroom wall. Then he ratified their importance.

Besides ingratiation, there was an additional tactical benefit for my uncle: it helped drive a wedge between myself and my parents, who were inclined to believe my interest in sport frivolous, and my musical taste decadent and anti-social. Forty years separate my father and I, and never will that distance seem as vast or unbridgeable as when I was a teenager playing horrorcore in my bedroom.

These points of alienation – or mutual bafflement – between parents and their children, are places of strategic importance to the sexual predator. By insinuating himself into this space, and by flattering my tastes, my uncle shrewdly distinguished himself from my parents and offered himself as a hip confidante. “Rap has its own language,” my uncle would say. “As articulate as any other. It’s a creative reclamation.”

In gratifying my interest in hip-hop, my uncle was also doing something more subtle – he was allying himself with me on a contentious domestic matter, and thus generating the frisson of conspiracy. Developing a sense of conspiracy is important to the paedophile because it both flatters the victim and helps generate the conditions of secrecy. In my case, the initial conspiracy derived from something trivial. It was a beachhead – a landing ground from which further territory could be progressively claimed.

One night he asked me to play him the latest Oasis album, of which he knew I was enamoured. We were in my bedroom, and he asked that I turn off the lights. I thought this was strange, and politely objected. But he insisted. He said the light of the stereo’s LED display would be sufficient. I obliged, and the room went black. My uncle was a guest, and as discomforting as the darkness was, I was more concerned about being impolite. It didn’t occur to me that this was sinister – it seemed more likely to be an expression of my uncle’s eccentricity. 

Nothing more happened that night, except that my uncle rhapsodised about the genius of the Gallagher brothers. Which was part of his plan.

In the following week or so, he bought me beer and music. He told me he’d once met Roy Keane, then captain of Manchester United, and riffed philosophically on his temperament. He spoke in confounding ways about pop music and Irish nationalism, and by doing so implied his faith in my intelligence. He found ways to be physically close to me, like when he learnt that I cut mates’ hair and asked for a trim. I obliged.  

And while he was carefully eroding boundaries, and secretly replacing them with others, I naively saw a refreshing kind of bohemianism – an unusually relaxed and cultured man, a type of man I’d never known.

One day, he suggested that we go to the local pub, which sat beside a jetty on the local marina. This was another secret conscription and another transgression. My parents wouldn’t have permitted this. Alcohol was strictly prohibited to their underage children, which he must have known.

Naturally, I was thrilled, and I asked my uncle if I could invite some friends. I was excited to show him off. He said no, offering an assortment of now forgotten reasons. Again, I deferred.

I wonder now what innocent excuses he’d prepared in case our pub journey was discovered. It was high-risk, after all: teens can’t typically hold their booze. Maybe he had none, but I’d bet that he did. I’d bet that he’d anticipated discovery. I’d bet that in his lifetime he’d pre-emptively written many excuses and alibis. In retrospect, he seemed practised. Assured in his methods.  

It didn’t go well for my uncle. Having barely touched my pint, a neighbour notified the manager that I was underage. We were asked to leave. Any novelty or excitement about being asked to a pub by an adult evaporated with the humiliation, and I wanted to go home. My uncle wouldn’t have it. After all, he said, the pub had a takeaway bottle shop. I demurred; he insisted. He bought a six-pack, maybe two, and suggested we drink the beer on the rock wall of the harbour. And so we did.

I suppose my uncle would have preferred me cripplingly drunk. And I wonder what would’ve happened if I was. But my humiliation and creeping unease ensured that I drank very slowly that night, and I never got drunk. As I sipped from my tin, and he powered through them, my uncle revived his tactical flattery. Before the tiny, gentle waves of the harbour, he invited philosophical reflections from me, and then applauded their acuity. 

Tired and confused, I suggested, again, that we go home. We did. My uncle brought the remaining beer with him, and when we got to the side door he whispered that we should be quiet so that we didn’t wake my parents. Then he suggested that he bring the beers to my room.

God, I was tired. And strange as this will be for many people to understand – and, trust me, I know just how difficult that is – I agreed. I felt some unease, but greater unease with the thought that I was badly misinterpreting my uncle. The fear of offending someone – of getting something so serious, so wrong – was a vastly greater force than my judgement of the situation.

When he was on top of me, kissing my face, I felt the harshness of his whiskers, a sense of disgust, and profound confusion. And I remember telling myself two opposing things, over and over, in a fierce loop: This still isn’t what it seems; and Surely this can’t be happening again (another story – I haven’t been terribly lucky in this regard).

I experienced a kind of paralysis, so I’m unsure how I got my uncle out of my room. I don’t remember. Then I said nothing. To no one. And I should have. Because on another night, he’d return.

It’s difficult writing about the next time. But I can lean upon one detail because, in my mind, it’s become a synecdoche for the abuse. Earlier that evening, I’d gone with my family and uncle to a relative’s house for dinner. They had cable TV, and while the adults were gathered round the dining table, I was pleased to find live coverage of the opening round of the English Premier League. It was Saturday, August 16, 1998. The broadcast fixture was Southampton at home to Liverpool. The Saints were in their typical red-and-white candy stripes; the Reds were debuting a garishly yellow away strip.

For a time early in the match, a sports reporter recorded, it was tempting to believe that Liverpool’s enduring problems at the back of the last few seasons were beginning to be solved. Jamie Carragher and Phil Babb dealt competently with Egil Ostenstad and Mark Hughes, but once Southampton began to achieve more pace and accuracy with their crosses some familiar doubts returned. I think he’d drunk a lot that night. I remember smelling the booze on his breath. Maybe he required drink’s blotting of conscience, its loosening of inhibition. But then again, his grooming was practised sober.  

Nevertheless, Liverpool did show more resilience and character. Heggem’s presence on the right meant that McAteer played in central midfield, helping Ince to protect the back four. I think I slapped him. Did I slap him? How could I, when I was paralysed? And yet, there was some physical rebellion. I’m sure of it. Or am I? Is it that I just need to believe that I physically rebelled? Is that it? And has this need, over years, consolidated itself as a false memory? 

Southampton appeared to be at an early disadvantage when they lost John Beresford from the left of their midfield after only seven minutes. I remember him laughing when I hit him. Well, I think I hit him. Certainly, he laughed. I remember that. Why did he laugh? Was my slap, punch, wrestling so weak? Were my objections funny to him? He was replaced by Wayne Bridge, an 18-year-old local product who steadily combined with Scott Hiley to threaten Liverpool down that flank.

When Southampton took the lead in the 36th minute, however, the goal followed one of Ripley’s crosses from the right. How amazing it is now to contemplate how infinitely elastic the benefit of my doubt was. After taking a ricochet off Staunton the ball looped into the middle where Ostenstad’s head glanced it down into the far corner of the net, touching Ince on the way.

The swiftness of Liverpool’s response was encouraging for those who feel this may be Anfield’s season to make a serious title challenge. Why didn’t I fight more? I was big enough, old enough. Within two minutes McAteer had found Owen on the left and from the youngster’s cross the timing of Riedle’s leap left Richard Dryden earthbound as the German nodded the scores level.

I got him out of my room – or maybe he just left. Either way, I vowed never to tell anyone. I remember lying in the bath the next morning when I made this pledge. And I remember staying in that bath for a long time, periodically refreshing the hot water, and staring at the rippled skin on my fingers. And I remember some of my thinking, which was greased with adolescent grandiosity: my parents had too much to think about as it was. I would save them some trouble.

The next night, I went to a party. I played spin the bottle and kissed a girl. Then I stayed the night at a friend’s house because I couldn’t bear to return home. The next day I made sure to stay out, and when I reluctantly but necessarily returned home late in the afternoon, my uncle was gone. My parents’ discovery of what happened is another story. But Dad had packed my uncle’s bags, then driven him away.

My bed was an irradiated site, and I made my way back to it slowly, in stages. For the first 48 hours, I tried to avoid home. Then for the next week or so, I slept in front of the television in the family room. When I returned to my bedroom, I slept on its floor for a few weeks. Then, when I finally re-entered ground zero, I made sure to sleep with my head at the other end of the bed. Baby steps.

None of this is the worst of what happened. Not even close. I can’t write about the worst, but I can tell you one lesson I learnt from it: crimes were concealed because of respectability.

I learnt some other things: victims will often feel filthy and contaminated, and others will accuse them of inspiring their own abuse. I learnt that wicked things aren’t automatically treated as wicked things, but can be conveniently diluted or altered or forgotten. I learnt that it takes time, and mettle, to speak with precision and confidence about abuse without feeling hysterical or obnoxious. 

And for the past year or so, watching Grace Tame in the public eye, I’ve thought about these things again. I trust that many other victims have too. Among other things – such as helping to overturn the law that had once gagged her – Tame has patiently, and very painfully, detailed the steps of grooming. Few could do this. “In April of 2010, I was battling severe anorexia,” she opened her National Press Club speech last year. “Truth be told, I still am. This illness had nearly taken my life the year prior, and seen me hospitalised twice, bed-ridden and tube-fed … I was picked on [at school] for the way that I looked … One of the senior teachers noticed me walking around aimlessly in the courtyard. He was well respected, the head of maths and science at the school for nearly 20 years. He taught me in Year 9. I thought he was funny. He told me he had a free period and asked if I’d come and chat with him in his office. He asked me about my illness. I talked, he listened. He promised to help me, to guide me in my recovery.”

Victimisation confers neither intellectual omniscience or moral purity, and I’m not one to make a saint of anybody, but Grace Tame’s story should attract something deeper than superficial scolding and clickbait puritanism. We might ask, for instance, how well she’s been supported – if at all – as a young rape victim who suddenly, as Australian of the Year, became a cipher for countless traumatised people. Rosie Batty, who was awarded the same title less than one year after the murder of her young son, told me that her year was frenetic, lonely and anxious – an improvised crusade embarked upon by a deeply traumatised woman with little help but plenty of scepticism. “I was still broken and fragile,” she said. “It was a strange celebrity status I found myself in, and I didn’t have a manual for it. When you have the likes of Mark Latham saying that I was benefiting from my son’s death – I mean, how do you deal with that?”

And you’ll forgive me if I’ve little time for “respectability” if it’s defined by fake smiles and an automatic deference to authority. I’ve seen where that goes – and so has Grace Tame.

And perhaps you’ll understand if I have little patience with bloated columns fretting about Tame’s “side-eye”, especially when she casts it upon a political leader who has shown a “thoroughly disturbing” “lack of curiosity and humanity … following revelations of rape allegations in the nation’s capital”.

I’ll let you guess who wrote that.


Lifeline: 13 11 14

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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