Dear Jordan Riak,
I wish to relate some incidents from my boarding school days. I am a product of the Australian Catholic educational system of the Sixties and Seventies. Specifically, I am a product of the Christian Brothers branch of that system, which at that time was a firm believer in the corporal punishment of children. You may publish all or any of this if you like. But please don't use my real name. Just call me Casey.
My school was St. Joseph's Nudgee College, Brisbane, Queensland. The incidents I am going to relate occurred in 1971 and 1972 respectively, and were highly traumatic to me at the time and afterwards. They were also, I believe, the cause of serious psychological damage to myself and others. It has taken me years to even begin to recover from them, so much so that at the lowest point of my life I found myself with the muzzle of a loaded rifle jammed against the roof of my mouth, literally a finger twitch away from death. (One of the characters in James Jones' great novel From Here to Eternity commits suicide in exactly that fashion, apparently because the United States Army in those days didn't tolerate failure. In my time, neither did the Christian Brothers.)
The first incident took place in my first year (1971) at the Junior branch of a famous Christian Brother's school in Brisbane, Queensland. The Headmaster at the time was the sort of man (if you could call him that) who would have made the grade in Hitler's SS, although not as a fighting soldier. Put simply, he wouldn't have had the guts for that, yet anyone as brave as he when it came to beating defenceless children would surely have been taken on as a concentration camp guard. In short, he was what some regarded then, and some would regard now, as the perfect Headmaster, Christian Brothers or otherwise. And I have seen a testimonial to this effect in an old boy's magazine!
He had two characteristics that stand out in my memory. The first was his ability to reduce the English language to a blend of the sounds of the crack of a whip, bottles smashing on a concrete floor, and the braying of an angry donkey. The second was an ability to become enraged on Monday and still be enraged a week later.
As to the latter, we kids soon learned to fear his temper tantrums and the all too frequent loss of self-control that went with them, the more so because the system had given him the power to hit us. As with all the Christian Brothers of that era, his favourite tool for doing so was a foot long leather strap. (Typically, these were several straps stitched together, sometimes interleaved with coins or hack saw blades to add mass, totaling a thickness of about an inch. To their owners, these instruments were cherished possessions, often meticulously crafted for their purpose and given whimsical, endearing names.) Two blows to the hand from one made writing difficult for the rest of the day,* and it wasn't uncommon for him to dish out up to six for quite trivial offences, or even simply because he felt like it.
I was in a class called Seven White. Seven Gold, over which Himself was Lord and Master was located behind us in the same building, separated from us by a wooden partition. Not a day passed by, or so it seemed to my twelve-year-old self, without his carrying on like a lunatic in a slaughterhouse. How was one supposed to learn anything when one had at the same time to somehow block out the noise of his demented ranting and the dull thuds and yelps of pain that went with it? As this extended to night study periods as well, it made for an interesting question.
We in Seven White lived in particular dread of being sent to him for punishment, as quite a few of us were. Inevitably they returned pale faced and in shock with their hands tucked into their armpits. Some teachers even used this threat to make us do embarrassing things in order not to be sent to him. Whether this was vicarious sadism or simply schadenfreude I don't know, but it didn't do wonders for the recipient's self-esteem.
Another dread for Seven White was that he would pay us a visit, which he did one morning that I will always remember because it makes my ears ring just thinking about it.
I remember him storming into the room in a towering rage, bellowing like a tortured bullock. We all froze, because we could feel the anger coming out of him - he wouldn't leave until he'd belted one of us - and none of us felt like being the one to make his day.
All of a sudden, he was right there in front of me, snapping out questions on the Catholic Catechism (it was a religious education period). The answers, or at least some of them, were on the blackboard, but I couldn't read them because I needed glasses and didn't know it. I was hesitant and stammered, which was a bad mistake as he had a very short fuse. Instantly he slapped my face so hard that I saw stars.
He kept on slapping me until I wet myself and passed out. For the rest of the day I could taste copper in my mouth, a reaction to fear I learned later. My head and ears kept ringing for hours, but I got not one scrap of sympathy from anyone.
That was the day I learned to keep a poker face. It was dangerous to reveal any emotion, lest it be thought inappropriate, so one had to keep everything bottled up inside oneself the way professional gamblers do. Of course if one suffered ulcers or worse just as professional gamblers often do, well that came with the territory, didn't it?
As bad as this man was, he wasn't a sexual predator. I was to encounter one of those my very next year at the Senior school, at age thirteen. The discipline in this place was the same as before, except that you could be strapped on the bottom.
Again, you could be punished for just about anything, and we had one Brother who loved serving up that particular punishment. In fact he once made several of us run the gauntlet past him in the dormitory over which he was in charge. He also loved strapping boys in front of their class, so as to enjoy their added humiliation.
I'd like to share with you my recollection of the running the gauntlet incident. The only way I could write about this was to write as if it had happened to someone else, otherwise, as with another incident I will relate, it would have been too painful for me.
The blond kid haunts you.You remember Grade Eight, and the night you stood quivering against a stone wall in the dorm upstairs left of the clock tower. Towhead and five others were made to run the gauntlet between two of the cast iron double decker bunks you slept in while you stood vibrating with fear, trying to make yourself smaller than you were.
Cold gun-metal alleyway, pale flesh running in the middle of it, and the swine of a black-clad Brother you called Pig-Face flailing away at thin pyjama-covered behinds and legs with an inch thick strap. The thing felt like the wrath of God when it landed, but otherwise didn't make any sense, just put the fear of Christ into you.
Wham! Towhead catches it and half turns, looking at Pig-Face over his right shoulder. Pain and hurt twist his face into a grotesque mask, and from his kerosene blue eyes there blazes a look of hatred and disgust such as you never want to see again. Not this side of Hell, anyway.
But Pig-Face is so wrapt in his little corrida that he takes not one blind bit of notice, just keeps on bashing away in a good and workmanlike fashion. Which is why the blond kid haunts you so.
The above was one of my nightmares for many years. The other was more personal and caused me to suffer from PTSD. Again I had to write as if it had happened to someone else.
The small room is the other nightmare. You, a pubescent thirteen-year-old naked from the waist down, and Pig-Face staring at you with bulging green eyes, mirrors of a putrid soul, swimming behind thick-lensed glasses. Staring at you, then fondling you. And then beating you with that same strap until you heard yourself scream.
A sweltering Saturday afternoon, a take-the-missus-and-kids-to-the-beach afternoon, and you bored witless. Then a stupid boyish escapade, after which you were locked inside Pig-Face's room and made to lie half-nude, face down on his bed.
Pig-Face towering over you. Short squat little man wearing black trousers, a grey jacket just made for the Iron Cross, and a dog-collar. His florid face glowed in sadistic delight, for wasn't he your lord and master under heaven; and didn't he have two shiny crucifixes on his lapels making him so? Bejesus he did, and Christ look down on you if you ever forgot it.
Your subconscious fear of the Church being greater than your fear of Pig-face made you just lie there in abject submission, feeling his eyes roving over you in leering appreciation of your adolescent curves and yourself recoiling in instinctive shame and disgust. It was like being a living Michaelangelo's David locked up with a raving nancy.
Then came his cold clammy fingers stroking your thighs and buttocks, and his lisping dirty-old-man-over-the-phone voice telling you how much he'd enjoy breaking you; while you, flesh crawling and cold shivers starting, fled in spirit to a tiny corner of your psyche.
Next, the beating. Great pistol-shot loud cracks followed by searing branding-iron hot blasts of pain that erupted at the base of your spine, ran white-lightning fast up your backbone, and exploded inside your brain like a million flashbulbs. Pig-Face, driven by sadism to greater efforts, grunted like an old sow enjoying a good wallow, and your fingers clawed into his bed in agony.
Finally the pain became such that your pride and self-respect crumpled, which was when, from the wreckage of your personality now completely dominated by Pig-Face, you heard a reedy voice screaming, after which nothing seemed to matter any more.
Because Pig-Face had broken you, made you his creature, you didn't care when he, with acrid sweat oozing out of him and dripping onto you, gloated over the purple welts he'd raised. Nor did you care when he ran his hands over them like a craftsman proud of his work. Nor did you care when, with a vacuous, just-got-his-bloody-rocks-off grin, he whispered various indecent sweet-nothings to you.
You wandered about afterwards like a lost soul somewhere between this world and the next. At last, in a shock-induced trance, you sat against a sandstone wall, arms hugging drawn-up knees and staring into space, unable for some terror-laden minutes to move or even speak.
There was no pain, just a nagging, empty numbness worse than pain, and a black shadow of fear, guilt and shame settling over you. And forcing its way deep inside you to a point from which it could not be easily reached, let alone cast out. The man I call Pig-Face in this story committed suicide in 1998. He was being investigated by Task Force Argos as a serial paedophile. (Argos is a Police Task Force responsible for policing these offenders.)
I have been back to my old school on two occasions. The first was an old boy's reunion, the second a private visit with a cousin of mine. The reunion was held at night, and the depth of drunkenness we reached you would have to have seen to believe. It wasn't a happy drunkenness either; it was more like the express method used by old soldiers if you know what I mean. (Kill the pain!) I don't plan to attend another, because I am afraid of myself at such times.
My daytime visit was a happier affair. The dorm where the gauntlet running incident took place is still there, as is the small room where the other incident happened. (Upstairs, left of the clock tower as you face it.) The space that Nudgee Junior occupied is no longer a school, but the dorm and room in the Senior school are both still in use.
There have been many changes for the better. The Christian Brothers are no longer prominent in administration, and the younger boys have a level of privacy that the boys of my time could only dream about. Please understand that my memoir should not be taken as a criticism of the school itself; rather as a criticism of the educational system that allowed such things to happen. Because, to be fair, I did have some very happy times there too, and there were some fine teachers that I shall always remember with great fondness.
There were two aspects to life at St. Joseph's Nudgee, which deserve mention. They concern hypocrisy and double standards.
I remember a movie I saw at Nudgee Junior. (Throughout Junior and Senior school we were shown movies on Saturday nights.) The movie was The Blue Max, starring George Peppard and the then-voluptuous Ursula Andress.
It is a story of Imperial Germany's Air Forces in WW1. I vividly remember two scenes, one I saw and another that I didn't see. The latter was a love scene bewteen Peppard and Andress, at the beginning of which, just as the character played by Ursula had begun to disrobe, the screen was blocked out. We boys were not allowed to see anything like that, oh no! But the scene we were allowed to see concerned hand-to-hand bayonet fighting in the trenches. This we were allowed to see in all its gory detail, with the blessing of our esteemed Headmaster.
As for double standards, consider this. We didn't, at either the Junior or the Senior school, have any curtains on our showers. At shower time, we were supervised by a Brother, as though we were in prison. After that second incident described above, I had to take a shower like that and was treated to ribald comments by the Brother in charge that would have reduced me to tears had I been capable of crying. (Strangely, I was no longer capable of crying, and to this day I'm not, which worries me.) I felt like sinking through the floor.
Of course, we were not allowed to look through girlie magazines. Well, fair enough, I'm not suggesting that youngsters should have access to pornography then or now, but one thing is quite funny when you think about it. Whereas the young ladies who grace the pages of such magazines are of an age of informed consent and are paid for their work, we pubescent boys had to unwittingly provide a free gawk show for dirty old men, and for one dirty old man in particular. I don't use the honorific Brother when I speak or think of them; they may have been Lucifer's brothers but they damn well were no brothers of mine.
During the thirty years or so that have elapsed since I attended St. Joseph's Nudgee, I have suffered PTSD, depression, and alcoholism. I cannot have normal sexual relationships. And I live with the fear that one day I'll simply blow my brains out.
There were 24 of us in that Grade Eight class. Three have now suicided, and of the remainder, I've been informed that 13 are either habitual drunkards or drug addicts of one sort or another. Tell that to some of your child-bashing God-botherers! At last in Queensland, the corporal punishment of children in State and private schools has been forbidden, thank Christ.
Casey's letter of 5/5/03I'd like to start with my last school beating, which occurred when I was fifteen years old. This was given me by Pig-Face one morning between breakfast and school because I'd used a couple of swear words in an altercation with someone. (Ironically, nowadays you'd probably hear stronger words on the six o'clock news.)
I would like to submit a few words covering the after-effects of my Catholic education and the brutalities that went with it. I am not in a position to write a scholarly article on the after-effects of physical or sexual child abuse, but I thought the weird emotional disturbances I sustained through my mid to late teens and on to my adulthood might ring a bell with other survivors and/or mental health professionals. At any rate, I am at a loss to explain them. As before, you may use any or all of this.
He took me into another little bedroom of his which he occasionally used for these bruised-flesh matinees. This one was adjacent to a shower room wherein he got his voyeuristic late afternoon jollifications.
I wasn't made to strip this time, just made to lie across a pillow he off-handedly tossed across the bed as though it was a prop for a favourite performing dog. I believe he didn't make me strip either because he feared the possibility of witnesses or because someone had rattled his cage. (I have heard he was had up on charges later that year but the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence.) Nonetheless, he couldn't resist a little thigh and buttock squeezing.
The ShadowHere's where the first strange thing happened. Somehow, it was as though I wasn't there; it was like I was floating above myself watching the scene. I could still hear the blows landing, but they sounded like a distant cannonade, a slamming of huge doors somewhere in my head. The pain was there, but that too was muted, just a dull throbbing ache that was nothing like the earlier experience. All in all, Pig-Face might just as well have been bashing away at a lump of dead meat on a butcher's slab.
After six blows he gave up. When he dismissed me he looked like a cardsharp who'd just been swindled at his own game and couldn't work out how.
What was more frightening than the trance state was the fact that thereafter I couldn't control it. It was as if there were a black shadow deep inside me that turned on whenever it felt like it. It still happens today, to my annoyance, but there is one time when I welcome it. That's when I'm playing Bridge, because I bid and play at my best in that state. (Not that I tell my Bridge partner - there's times I'm sure he thinks I'm crazy enough as it is!)
Back then my schoolwork began to suffer because not only would the trances take me away to Nowheresville, they would often lead into glassy-eyed daydreams which I wouldn't have minded had they contained the usual male teen elements of fast cars, motor bikes, and naked women. Instead, the Shadow showed me weapons - rifles, pistols, bayonets and knives. At times these seemed so real I could almost reach out and grab an automatic pistol, say, as it floated past. I could feel the weight and heft of the thing in my hand - some Army veterans call that "shaking hands with the Devil," by the way.
The biggest problem with the Shadow was that it lived inside me. It had gotten inside when Pig-Face molested me; thereafter it struggled to make itself at home, as it were. The only way to be rid of the Shadow was to talk about it to someone, but how did a fifteen-year-old child talk about such things in those days? Or, if he did, what would happen? So it was best to become a loner with few friends.
There was one teacher, a Brother as it happens, yet an excellent teacher and a fine man, who saw what was going on and tried his best to do something about it, as a letter from him to my mother reveals. However he didn't have the necessary skills to talk things over with me, and I, through fear, couldn't initiate the conversation although I certainly appreciated his efforts. (Thanks PJ, if you ever read this, you'll know who you are.)
The Shadow had started with minor magic like trances. When it had become more at home, it progressed to triggering violent daydreams. These escalated into rages; some little thing would happen, it never took much, and suddenly I'd be so angry I could feel my insides vibrating, my ears humming like a jet engine warming up, and a red roar of frustration, confusion and twisted sexuality rattling around my skull. Once, when I was in such a state, another kid was bullying me and before I knew it, I lunged at him with a six-inch long scalpel. Fortunately for both of us I missed. He was a footballer with very quick reactions and a vicious temper. Even so, he saw something in my eyes that told him he was lucky to be alive. I never saw him run quicker on the field or off it.
I longed to be rid of the Shadow, but it was made clear to me through a nightmare that this would be no easy task. Some hideous thing was sitting on my chest, a dead weight I couldn't shift due to paralysing terror, and a voice was telling me in menacing tones, "Don't ever even think of getting rid of me. You try, and I'll be back. Fact is, I live in you, and I know how to defend my house. If you don't like it, you can always shoot yourself".
Over my last few school years, I threw myself into running, swimming and football. I was never much good at these things, and they were just so much macho bullshit really, but they helped by making me so fit I could almost grow feathers and fly. They also helped by making me as strong as an ox with half an ox's brains, and by letting me forget, for a while, that I was damaged goods. But the Shadow was still there.
There was one thing that promised an answer. A few months before I left, St Joseph's Day rolled around. (Patron Saint's Day) The Archbishop turned up, all gold and brass; an ecclesiastical Field Marshall come to bless all and sundry, after which they laid on a barbecue for the kids, and the same plus a piss-up for the adults. Not a bad day.
Anyway someone, obviously a bit elevated and of a mind to free the slaves, handed me a cold beer with a slurred, "Cheers, mate." Getting a drink in here was about as easy as getting one at your own wake, and a sight riskier, so I made haste to drink it. Straight down the hatch and no heel taps. Best damn beer I ever drank.The trouble was that the Shadow had no problems sliding under the table with me, as it did many times afterwards.
When I look back on these events thirty-some years later, I wonder how I have survived up to now. Eleven years of part-time Army Reserve service may have helped in that it made me see there is nothing special about firearms. They rapidly lose their romance when you're a recruit and the Army marries you to a rifle. (And yes, Virginia, God help you if you call it a gun!)
Another thing that helped was having to set the family farm to rights. I managed, over thirteen years, to drag the place from the 19th century to the 21st. (Well, it's almost there now, but that's another story) But I think the greatest thing that helped was to be able to write this story and to be able to send it to people who understand.
*Editor's note: See "Corporal Punishment to Children's Hands: A Statement by Medical Authorities as to the Risks" at http://nospank.net/hands.htm.
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