BOOKS: The social worker in me knows that some kinds of harm can ripple on for generations

Boarding school boys bullied me mercilessly – but 30 years on I’ve found empathy for them

Helen FitzGerald

Helen FitzGerald, the writer of the hit TV show The Cry, has set her new novel in a small rural town plagued by cycles of abuse – like the one she grew up in
Silhouettes of boys at a skate park.
‘It’s been four decades, and I’m 12,000 miles away, yet boisterous blazered teenage boys still scare the living shit out of me.’ Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

So far we like it, but our boiler’s on the blink. I can hear my husband pretending to understand what the masked, socially distanced gas engineer is saying downstairs. It’s at times like this that I fantasise about heat. I was never hotter than in my childhood.

My parents moved to Kilmore, Victoria, when I was three. It was a small town back then, and I grew up knowing about sheep-dipping, netball and God (the Catholic one). Dad designed and built our family home on an acre of rocks and dirt, then he and Mum turned it into a beautiful haven for our big family.

Growing up I always felt we lived in the wrong street. The Church of England was at the end, and we were the only Catholics. To get to St Patrick’s Primary, we had to walk past the state school, where the children would chant at us:

Catholic dags
Dressed in rags
Eating [something?*]
Out of bags!

(*If anyone remembers what we ate out of bags, could they please let me know.)

As I get older, it’s the local boys’ boarding school I remember least fondly. Sure, it had a pool and a cinema and an oval, which we were sometimes allowed to use in the summer (although I would not have recommended it), but the rest of the time it had boarders: thousands of them (seemed like it, probably more like hundreds). Boys aged 11 to 18 with little to no supervision, dressed in dapper uniforms, walking in groups of at least four and always winning at footy. They used our park and they crammed our main street and they took our girls.

They changed the dynamic of the town. For three quarters of the year, there were just too many teenage boys, divided unhappily into the following groups: state school locals, Catholic locals, Catholic boarders, and Catholic locals openly identifying as Catholic boarders (the worst).

My fear of boarders started in grade seven, and grew. They chased and harassed me. They gave the local girls nicknames I don’t want to repeat. Mine wasn’t too bad, looking back: Boneface! Actually, I always thought of it as a kind of a compliment, as it referred to my prominent nose and chin, characteristics my mum says are “beautiful, in fact, patrician!” The boarders were lazy, and gave all the females in my family the same name. Mum was Mother Bone, my sister’s newborn was Baby Bone. They loved a good chant, these boys: Boneface! Kilmore Slut! FitzGerald is a slut! Boneface! slut! (There was a theme.)

I didn’t expect to feel any empathy for the boarder-characters when I started writing Ash Mountain, but I did.

I’d just left my job as a criminal justice social worker, supervising men on probation and parole, including sex offenders, and I began as I always do: by gathering information. The part-time chaplain I heard rumours about at 12; the Marist brother everyone whispered about when I was 15. It was all true. They have since been charged and convicted. And the victims’ stories are heart-wrenching.

I realise that those blazered boys were so vulnerable, that some were victims of sexual abuse. Their “haven” was toxic and hostile, and some of them passed it on. The town became victim of a cycle of abuse, and it rippled out from above.

But the social worker in me knows that some kinds of harm can ripple on for generations and I wonder if Kilmore ever feels it now. I don’t know, I haven’t been back there for 30 years.

But I know sometimes I feel it, a tiny ripple from my childhood town: it’s been four decades, and I’m 12,000 miles away, yet boisterous, blazered teenage boys still scare the living shit out of me.

• Ash Mountain by Helen FitzGerald is out through Affirm Press on 23 February. Top picture is of Helen Fitzgerald


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