When Australian Women’s Weekly journalist Sue Smethurst heard about the terrible story of a woman who had been systemically abused by her father for over three decades, giving birth to four of his children, she felt compelled to find out more.
This case didn’t happen on the other side of the world, but occurred in a small mining town in Gippsland, Victoria, where Smethurst grew up.
“I knew we would have walked past each other at some point and I found it quite distressing that a woman in such close proximity to me had endured such a horrific ordeal,” says Smethurst. “Literally a couple of kilometres from where I was growing up in a loving and happy environment.”
However, tracking down the woman who Smethurst came to call ‘Katherine X’ was no mean feat. Katherine’s identity was kept secret by authorities for good reason – she wanted to raise her boys without the shadow of their unfortunate history.
One day when Smethurst called the local police at Morwell, the officer who prosecuted the case happened to answer the phone and she struck a rapport with him. Eventually Katherine made contact with the journalist.
“Through him I got to know Katherine and it was a long process of building trust with her to tell her story. She does not trust anybody; she’s had so many disappointments and betrayals in her life,” says Smethurst. “She’s an intensely private person so the prospect of having her story out there for all the world to see was really daunting.
“But she has said to me all along that if telling her story could help one other person then it was worthwhile.”
Katherine also hopes that it will inspire others to speak up. It is the need to speak up that Smethurst views as crucial to prevent further stories like Katherine’s.
“We’ve become a society of people who throw things in the too-hard basket and it’s easy for people to turn a blind eye,” she says. “Many, many people knew what was happening to Katherine. There were teachers who knew, social workers who knew, police officers who knew, some of her neighbours knew and nobody spoke up.”
Katherine’s abuse at the hands of her own father started back in the 70s when she was only 13 years old, and at this time there was no mandatory reporting of child abuse as there is today. So even though one of her teachers suspected what was happening, Katherine simply denied it.
“Katherine was so terrified of what would happen – her father threatened to kill her if she breathed a word to anyone, so she denied everything as a young girl would,” says Smethurst.
By the age of fourteen Katherine was drinking, running away from home and self harming but when police caught up with her and brought her home, she was accused of being a liar and a troublemaker. “That was the culture,” says Smethurst.
While things have improved, Smethurst has no doubt that there are still similar cases happening in Australia today and she gets thousands of emails from people in similar situations who have come forward after hearing Katherine’s story.
When Katherine, now in her 50s, did finally come forward with her story, her father was tried and sentenced to 22 years in prison. She is now trying to rebuild her life and that of her children. One of her four children by her father died shortly after birth and two of her three boys suffer intellectual disabilities.
Now Katherine X and Smethurst are hoping that in telling her story in the book they wrote together, Behind Closed Doors, it will help others to speak out – both victims and authorities.
“The most important thing is that we educate the educated – so the social workers, the police officers, the teachers, the people who have a first point of contact with a vulnerable child in need – in how to listen to the child, to react appropriately and work with that child to get the best outcome.”
Smethurst acknowledges that each situation is different – “There’s no textbook that can tell you how to handle a situation like this but we need to empower the people who can help.”
“My life could’ve been so different if someone had spoken up for me,’ Katherine says in Behind Closed Doors. “People knew what was going on but they turned a blind eye. It only takes one person to make a difference. If you see something, say something.”
Smethurst worked closely with Katherine to tell her story. The book begins with an introduction from Smethurst and then Katherine tells the story from her point of view – she recalls the details of her life in a direct and straightforward manner, without self-pity, but simply as she remembers them.
“It’s her story,” says Smethurst. “I felt a great responsibility to let her tell her story well and appropriately.”
The book has had a profound impact on Katherine’s life, according to Smethurst and last week she gave at evidence at the Royal Commission, meaning she has had her ‘day in court’.
“That was a fantastic moment. It meant that her story has been heard and respected – a very powerful thing for her. From her evidence, there will be a new police inquiry.”
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