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'When my stepdad died, I went to clear out his belongings. I made a horrifying discovery.'


This story includes descriptions of child sexual abuse.

When my stepfather Rhett died, we were with him in the palliative care unit. He was confused and worried leading up to his death, wanting to go home so he could sort out his papers. I told him we loved him, that we would always love him no matter what, and that he can pass if he was ready. Less than a minute afterwards Rhett died. My 11-year-old daughter Ivy bravely took his hand, giving him comfort in death. Despite being prepared it knocked us deeply. I took time off work to sit with the waves of grief, with my mother and my daughter.

Despite Rhett being a part of our family for years, I didn't feel I knew him well. He had a private study decorated in gentlemanly green wallpaper, heavy with antique furniture. Inside he had several collections, a computer and a printer for photos. The door was always locked. When we had a peek in, it was dark and mysterious — forbidding. As a young child, Ivy was always trying to peep in. He was remote in an English way. He liked to be in his own civilised world.

Rhett had epilepsy all of his life. I think he was handled delicately as a child and grew up separately from others because of having public fits and a private life. I felt for him. When we knew him, none of his family were in touch. They didn't seem to understand him and were staid and conservative. I always thought that was why Rhett married Viv, who was free and open and a little bit hippy. We felt protective of Rhett and happily accepted him into our family nest.

When Ivy was young she was looked after by Viv and Rhett. I was a single mother and couldn't have done it without Mum's help. Ivy was as comfortable in their home as in mine and Viv was wonderful with her. From the beginning, she was keen to follow my direction, so we didn't confuse Ivy.

On a few occasions when I came to collect Ivy, I found her running around in the nude. I told Mum I wanted Ivy to wear clothes. She asked, "What does it matter?" I rattled on about the importance of boundaries and my mother argued that it was natural for children to be naked. I felt like I was being overly cautious, making a fuss about nothing.

After Rhett died, we had the job of clearing his room. We sorted through his collections, selling his NSW rail paraphernalia on eBay, making space as we cleared. I took the photo printing paper home with me as I figured I could use it. That evening Ivy took out the paper in an opened pack and found they had already been used. There were photos of naked women downloaded from the internet interspersed with photos of Ivy as a toddler, maybe aged three and four, naked and oblivious. I instantly felt sick—shock, confusion and fear surged through my body.

Watch: One woman shares why she told no one about the sexual abuse she experienced when she was a child. Post continues after video.


Video via YouTube/Committee for Children.

I rang Mum and told her. She was silent, then said, "We told him we'd love him no matter what."

For a while, I was afraid she would side with Rhett over Ivy. But she was going through her own attempt to make sense of it. The man she loved and married had done this to her beloved granddaughter.

From this point on our world turned upside down. We checked to see if Ivy had been touched by Rhett. She said she had not. Thankfully, my mother had not left her alone with him. We went to the police with Rhett's computer and checked that he had not downloaded other pictures of children and had not been in online child pornography groups. He had not. The risks might not be ongoing but the damage to our family had been done.

I couldn't understand how an 11-year-old girl could deal with the idea that her poppa had sexually gratified her body when she was a young child and that he took this from her. It was discovered at a time when her own body was changing and developing. But Ivy didn't want to talk about it or seemingly even think of it. She didn't want to see a counsellor, and we didn't make her. There were no outward changes in her behaviour.

From my perspective, it was child sexual abuse, even if it was different for Ivy. When she found out about the photos, Rhett was dead so she did not have to share a table with him or walk past him. We were all with her, with our love and support, but quietly so, as to give her time and space to process it. I hope she doesn't distrust male sexuality but she would have every reason to. I hope that she doesn't feel that children are inherently unsafe because an adult can take sexual innocence from them.

Everything shifted as a family after we discovered those photos. The grief Viv and I shared was replaced by a shared anger. We hated that he could do this to our most vulnerable family member, that we trusted him, and that he abused our love of him.

It was now a possibility that his family of origin had distanced themselves from him because they had experienced something similar, even just an echo of it. None of them came to Rhett's funeral or sent flowers. There was talk of telling them what we found, but my mother didn't want to. I suspect that shame intermingled with guilt because she had not picked up on Rhett's capacity for abuse.

We have moved past this now but we still don't talk about him. Our happy memories of him have essentially been erased. His room has been packed up and his heavy furniture has moved out. The curtains are now open to let the light in and the room is filled with the sun at the end of the day. I'm really pleased our family got through this with our relationships intact, even if the hurt remains.

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.

If this brings up any issues for you, contact Bravehearts, an organisation dedicated to the prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse, on 1800 272 831.

Feature Image: Getty.

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