Re-post: First published 23 May 2010. It means a great deal to me that I still receive correspondence from people about this story. With the NSW Special Commission and Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse I thought it might be timely to share again.
I don’t really believe in angels, but if I did, Liz Mullinar would surely be one. Warm, funny, smiley … smart, tough, feisty. A woman of two careers. The first long and very successful career as Australia’s leading casting agent for film and television – from Picnic At Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career and Dead Calm, to Shine and Little Fish – it is an exhaustive list of fine Australian cinema and television, and many spectacular careers, that had their start in the hands of Liz Mullinar (I’m looking at you, Cate, and you, Geoffrey.)
Liz Mullinar’s second career was unexpected, and perhaps unsought. After becoming ill in the early 90’s, for no known reason, Liz began a journey of recognition. Understanding that having been sexually abused as a child was something that she would have to accept in order to become well again. But how do you accept something as truly terrible as child sexual abuse and trauma? How do you find the courage to accept it and admit it, when your life has revolved around feeling … inconsequential.
I left a very rainy day on the coast to drive into the hidden parts of the Hunter Valley, “We are sign-posted from Quorrobolong!” Indeed. If you are driving from the Cessnock side, not from my side of the Watagan mountains. “Just call if you need directions … here are my home and mobile phone numbers …” Great. No signal. Sigh. Nearly an hour late, I finally drove up the correct dirt road, around bends, up and over the hill … and down to one of the most beautiful, peaceful locations I’ve seen. Mayumarri (now the Heal For Life Foundation). Peace.
“If you look around you, you’ll notice you can’t see any other homes at all. This is important. If you need to scream as part of your healing, you don’t want the neighbours calling the police!”
Liz was one of the co-founders of ASCA – Advocates for Survivors of Child Abuse. She walked away from her very successful business after realising how little was being done to help people, just like herself, whose lives were damaged by childhood trauma.
Mayumarri is beautiful. It is picturesque and tranquil. Would have made a good movie set. I had read a PhD thesis which includes an interview with Liz in which the author describes feeling like an ‘intruder’, and it gives the impression that here is a woman who will only talk to you, tell her story, against her will. Grudgingly. Because she has to for a ‘greater good’. That she is extremely guarded. Given her childhood abuse it would be easy to assume this is true, and understandably so. And perhaps, once upon a time, she was. But not now. I don’t know that Liz Mullinar.
I arrive, late, at Mayumarri with my family in tow. The kids’ soccer had been cancelled, and I thought they might enjoy romping around a Hunter Valley property, so I quickly called to seek permission for them to accompany me. “Of course!”, said Debbie – one of the Mayumarri volunteers, “We’re expecting you for lunch!” As I parked the car and started to remove recording equipment, cameras, kids, bags of European biscuits I had brought for Liz … a small, elegant, silver-blonde woman came striding towards me, all beaming smile and warm manner to wrap us all up in a warm welcoming hug, “I’m Liz! Come on, lunch is ready!”
Before we knew it, we were in the enormous earthy space of the main Mayumarri building – a log fire roaring on one side, a bustle of activity in the vast kitchen, and a massive timber table set for lunch for about 30 very hungry people who were all rather pleased to see that I’d finally arrived. They could eat! After a communal simple ‘grace’ of thanks, each member of Mayumarri introduced themselves to me. Carers. Facilitators. Guests.
I explained why I was there, and that no-one had to talk to me, to be interviewed, unless they were entirely happy about it. Comfortable would be the wrong word, how could you ever be comfortable telling a stranger that you’d been sexually or emotionally abused as a child. Happy is probably the wrong word, too. I offered that we would stop our interviews at anytime. That I would delete or edit anything they may have said to me that they perhaps wished they hadn’t. That their privacy and identities would be protected. Yet everyone in that warm room wanted to talk. Nearly everyone was happy to be photographed for my stories.
I conducted my interviews in the Mayumarri chapel. An octagonal building made of rammed earth, timber and glass. A warm room full of comfortable chairs, rugs … and tissues. More boxes of tissues than I’ve ever seen. If these walls could talk, they’d cry. Yet it is not a sad place. It’s a safe and loving space.
The youngest woman I interviewed was just 17. The oldest was 67. And there was Harry, too. Harry is a big bear of a man. Now a carer and facilitator, Harry first came to Mayumarri to heal. Right there is another myth busted. Mayumarri is no Dog’s Head Harbour, and Liz Mullinar is no Jenny Field.
Mayumarri is for everyone who needs it – man, woman, young, old, confused, broken, bereft. There are house rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no mobile phones (yes, really), no television, no magazines, no anger, no abuse, no power-plays. Guests arrive at Mayumarri on a Sunday afternoon, and stay until the following Friday. Behaviour agreements are drawn up so that everybody knows what everybody else needs to feel safe. You don’t like people standing behind you? No problem.
The one recurring theme in all of my interviews – aside from the obvious link of childhood sexual abuse and trauma – is one of trying to survive when feeling powerless. Useless. Pointless. Unloved. “How can I care about myself when no-one else does?” Suicide is mentioned. A lot. By young and old. The dark-eyed Cassie tells me about how she would cut herself in order to feel something. Anything. Kira tells me about her addiction to crack cocaine. Kira? She’s so beautiful, and smart … how could someone like Kira fall so far? Kristina. Her isolation from her children and grandchildren. Harry. Useless Harry who would never amount to much. Harry? Harry saves lives! Tears are shed. A lot. I wondered why I couldn’t see the negatives these people had seen in themselves. The failings they had convinced themselves everyone else saw. As I spoke with each one of them, all I could see were their strengths. And there were many. Do I live with rose-coloured glasses on? No. We all have our stories. Some of us aren’t brave enough to tell them.
But here at Mayumarri, somehow, over the course of a week, or many weeks and return visits, the damage is undone. The healing begins. People who’ve lived their lives in pain and shame come to know their true selves, and their true worth. And perhaps most importantly, to love and accept love. Forgetting is impossible, that will never happen. But acknowledgement and acceptance gives back a little power to those whose power had been taken from them. By force. I asked one of the two Chloes, “Is the hardest part letting people love YOU?” I could see her fight the lifelong desire to prickle as she looked at me for a moment, and quietly said, “Yes.” I see you, Chloe.
I had interviewed Liz Mullinar once before. As we were having lunch she loudly proclaimed, “This is Carol. A few months ago she did the best interview with me I’ve ever done. Ever!” Thank you, Liz. It is a great privilege to be able to come to your safe place, to share a meal with you and the Mayumarri people, and to have you trust me to share your stories. I didn’t feel like an intruder at Mayumarri. I asked my husband afterwards what he’d been expecting, and he said that he had thought he would feel like we shouldn’t be there. Strangers. Intruders. But I knew as soon as I saw Liz striding up that hill that we were, in fact, very welcome.
I didn’t see my husband or kids for the next four hours. They were wrapped up in warm hugs and sweet biscuits and cups of tea, venturing to the Mayumarri lake where canoes are kept by the barn. They got rained on. Which meant more warm drinks and sweet biscuits and hugs and throwing logs on the open fire.
I know we were welcome. I think my boys were their own little force for good, too. Mr 8 said to me, “Mummy, the people there are so kind, it’s like they’d never be angry!” I don’t think my boys understand the tiny little bit of healing balm their bright, open faces, their big laughs and warm hugs offered in return.
They don’t claim to be mental health professionals at Mayumarri. They don’t pretend to be anything they’re not. I found them to be so much more. They offer everything that our wonderful Australian health services (and we are very lucky in this country) don’t offer. Time. Warmth. Compassion. Love. Healing. There is no prescription for what is offered at Mayumarri. But maybe there should be.