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The spectre of child abuse: Bryan Pickthall’s story

By Charmayne Allison

THE eyes of our elderly hold a thousand stories.

Stories of love and loss, of battles won and dreams never realised.

For many, they also conceal secrets.

Some buried so deep beneath decades of pain, shame and guilt they seem impossible to unearth.

Echuca’s Bryan Pickthall was 65 before he revealed his greatest secret to a trusted doctor.

It would take him another 18 years, until he was 83, before he could bring himself to explain it to his wife Elaine.

A secret so traumatic he had silently blamed himself for more than five decades, left to wrestle with his torment alone.

At just 14, Bryan had been the victim of sexual abuse.

Watch Bryan's story below. Produced by Cath Grey and Charmayne Allison.

His innocence ripped from him in a moment of obscene cruelty, he has since spent every day dealing with the wreckage left behind.

The shockwaves affecting his life in so many ways that he is, only now, coming to grips with it.

“It hit me at the time, but I put it away as a side issue and never discussed it. I was frightened to talk about it until I was in my 60s,” Bryan said.

“It's as if I've been hiding all this inside and never been able to say anything because of what people might think.

“But being able to talk about it all now has been such a relief.”

Born in Glen Huntly in 1936, Bryan enjoyed a happy childhood, the only struggles at his strict Catholic school where he was occasionally the target of bullying.

Leaving school at 13, he began work as a telegram boy and, a year later, was finally allowed his first holiday from work: a trip to Newcastle all by himself to visit his mother’s family, whom he had never met.

Looking back, Bryan describes himself as a very naïve 14-year-old.

He loved being around people and to him, every stranger was a new friend.

Striking up conversations with his fellow passengers on the train ride down, he completely forgot he was headed to Newcastle and got off at Maitland.

“Of course, no-one was there,” he said.

“I didn't know who to look for or even to ask – I didn't even know the names of my family.”

Lost and bewildered, Bryan didn’t think to go to Newcastle but instead travelled to Sydney where he waited for the train back home to Melbourne.

Even in the hours between he formed spontaneous friendships, accompanying a couple – whom he had briefly chatted to in a park – to the zoo for the day.

“Looking back, it seems strange I was so trusting. But it was 70 years ago,” he said.

That night he caught the train to Melbourne.

An overnight trip, passengers sprawled across the floors and seats of the train cars to sleep.

Ducking to the toilet, Bryan emerged to be approached by a figure.

“It was a man. He started talking to me, but it was nothing unusual,” he said.

“After a while I said I was tired and should probably go back to sleep.

“He said, ‘I have plenty of room on the blanket, you could lay here and sleep’.”

Too exhausted to listen to the warning bells ringing in his head, Bryan took one look at the room, crowded with sleeping bodies, and assented.

Lying on the blanket beside the stranger, he instantly fell fast asleep.

And woke with a hand clamped over his mouth.

“The next thing I knew I was being molested,” Bryan said.

Unable to move, breathe, process the horrific nightmare that was unfolding in that moment, Bryan lay petrified.

The following minutes a blur of pure terror.

Until the train car door burst open and a guard approached.

“He told me to go back to my seat. To this day, I don’t know if he saw anything or knew what had happened,” Bryan said.

Walking in a daze, he sat frozen in his seat until the train pulled up in Melbourne – and he never saw his attacker again.

His family was enjoying a Sunday roast when he arrived home.

“They said, ‘What are you doing'? And I just said, ‘I got lost and I came home’,” Bryan said.

Not a word of the trauma he’d experienced in the past 24 hours.

Subjects such as abuse and incest were all but taboo in the 1950s and incidents like Bryan’s slipped through the radar because of a wall of social silence.

Burdened with guilt and shame, the 14-year-old didn’t tell a soul.

“I felt I was at fault because I couldn’t understand why it happened. I thought I'd be in big trouble,” he said.

“So I had nothing to grasp on it except self-blame. I had that for years, I just kept it there.

“It was something that was unusual to hear of in those days, not like today. And I was brought up a Catholic – what had happened was enough to say, ‘bad boy’.

“I can guarantee there are some people today who got into the same situation and kept it quiet. Because it was a different world back then.”

In subsequent years, Bryan dealt with the ripple effects.

Desperately searching for security, he endeavoured to find safety in relationships.

“Because I was blaming myself, I looked for feminine company to prove to myself that just because a man touched me, I wasn’t ‘funny’,” he said.

What followed was a string of unhappy marriages and “wrong turns”.

Joining the Citizen Military Forces at 16 and the regular army at 21, Bryan was about to leave for a posting up north when he met and married a young woman he met at a local club.

“I said we should wait until I got back but she convinced me we should get married beforehand,” he said.

Bryan had barely pulled into the army camp before he was called into the company office and told his new wife was in jail.

“She had been caught in the engineers' camp sleeping around. It turned out she was a prostitute,” he said.

“Turns out there were women who would con army men like me into marriage because part of the pay goes to them.”

Bryan returned to Melbourne to attempt to fix the situation but ended up embroiling himself in a lengthy legal battle that, years later, ended in divorce.

While his next marriage gave him three daughters and lasted 12 years, it ended with a messy split which left Bryan fighting to see his children.

His third marriage also wasn’t a happy one, lasting only two years.

“I just kept going on and on, taking the wrong path – until the day I met Elaine at a friend’s barbecue,” Bryan said.

While he can’t remember the date they met, he can still remember the exact dress she was wearing.

“We just talked and talked and talked,” he said.

It was the beginning of a romance that has lasted 36 long years.

But while the two were close from day one, Bryan felt he still couldn’t open up to Elaine about his deepest scars.

However at 65, he finally revealed his greatest secret to a doctor.

“I went to see Peter and told him I had terrible pains in my stomach,” Bryan said.

“As he was poking around I said, ‘Would something in the past have anything to do with this?’ I don't know why I said it.

“He asked me what I meant and I slowly told him what had happened to me as a 14-year-old.”

While the doctor didn’t say much, he lost no time once Bryan finished, immediately calling in a psychologist.

Pouring out his full story for the first time, Bryan finally began the long, painful but ultimately redemptive road of healing.

Until, recently, he made the decision to tell Elaine.

“One night we were watching SVU and the particular episode had a child in it. At that time I was in a dark place, I was in a frame of mind where it really hit me hard,” Bryan said.

“I raced out of the room and was crying when Elaine found me in the bedroom.

“And then I told her.”

Bryan said Elaine’s response was the best he could have wished for – she just sat quietly and listened.

“She didn’t say a lot. She didn’t start asking questions,” he said.

“She accepts me for the person I am, not for what I have done in the past.”

Bryan hopes by sharing his story, he can encourage others to open up about the traumas of their past.

“Seek help. Don't take it out on your partners, because that can happen,” he said.

“Now it's out, it's not hurting as much.

“It's such a huge relief to me to be talking about it and not being afraid.”