real life

'I was tormented by my sister for decades. I truly thought she might kill me.'

This story discusses abuse. 

Mary Garden's first memory of her sister’s abuse was from when she was about seven years old. Her sister was just five. 

Their family had moved to a small, two-bedroom house. Mary’s brother was given the second bedroom, and the two girls were forced  to live in a wooden hut about 100 yards away from the house. 

"She would attack me, usually at night, bite, scratch. My screams would bring dad running down the path, and I was always blamed. I must have done something to upset her."

At the time, she didn’t think of the attacks as abuse. It was just life. "Despite her bullying, my sister and I were best friends and talked a lot," says Mary.

Watch: Child Sexual Abuse - Why Kids Don’t Tell. Post continues after the video.

Video via YouTube/Committee for Children.

"I’ve discovered that this is called the 'friend' response. We hear of flight, fight and freeze responses to our body’s response to fear, but there is also another response: befriending the person who is attacking you. So, although I usually fought back, my long-term response was to appease her, be friendly with her, and forget about the abuse."


When Mary was around 16, she and her sister were sent to live with their aunt. Here, the abuse became even worse. 

On one occasion, she smashed up Mary’s door with an axe as she lay in her bed, terrified. Another time, Mary stopped by her sister’s room to say hello and was screamed at to get out. She did as she was told, but soon felt a sharp pain in her back. 

"She had flung a compass, and it had lodged deeply. Blood was dripping down my blazer. I asked her to call an ambulance, but she just crawled into her bed." 

An X-ray later revealed the compass had just missed her spinal cord. 

When she was in her early twenties, Mary moved to India, where she lived for several years before settling in Brisbane. Although she was physically removed from her sister, the torment continued, only now it was psychological—phone calls threatening suicide and cruel letters. 

"She wrote a letter to say I was the reason her life was such a torture. I was devastated, and tried to reach out to her over the years. I’d have my letters returned with abuse scrawled on the envelopes."

It wasn’t until Mary was in her forties, and undergoing therapy, that she realised what she’d experienced with her sister was, in fact, abuse. And that the abuse she experienced at the hands of her sister, also impacted her other relationships. 


"I’ve carried a lot of shame and often blame myself when there is conflict, or when I am abused or attacked. The same pattern set up in my childhood abuse played out in my relationships with men. I blamed myself.

"I have often felt my sister could kill me. That is what it was like when she attacked me, I thought she’d kill me."

Although the pair became estranged over time, Mary’s sister still found ways to torment her. 

"The very worst betrayal was when she plagiarised and copied my book, Sundowner of the Skies, which took me about 10 years to write and research, and wrote her own. I had to take legal action to have it removed. I stood up to her at last."

What is sibling abuse?

Sibling abuse is exactly what it sounds like, any type of abuse perpetrated by one sibling against another sibling (including step/half-sibling). It includes sexual, physical and emotional abuse and it can occur throughout all developmental stages and ages.

"In younger children it can include sexual abuse: sexual behaviour that is beyond the developmentally acceptable realm of exploration. It can also include physical abuse such as punching and kicking, and emotional abuse such as bullying behaviours, manipulation, coercive control and ostracisation," says relationship counsellor, Susan De Campo. 

Sibling rivalry, on the other hand, is generally made up of small resentments, bickering and verbal altercation, maybe even the odd screaming match. It’s unpleasant, but it’s rarely significantly damaging to a person’s mental or physical health. 


"Sibling rivalry can actually teach kids some of the skills needed to navigate conflict in other relationships," says De Campo. "There is also potential for them to learn the downside of jealousy, stubbornness, pride and egotism."

Abuse, on the other hand, is severe and chronic, causes harm to the victim and is deliberate. According to De Campo, sibling abuse is one of the most under-reported types of abuse. 

"This is because of messages a child is given within a family system: what happens in the family, stays in the family; misguided loyalty to the perpetrating sibling and, most importantly shame, that underpins helplessness."

That shame means many victims will never disclose their experiences.

Further complicating matters is that many parents feel some sibling conflict is normal—which it is—and fail to recognise or act on abusive behaviour. 

"I have also worked with families where the parents feel completely helpless as to how to deal with abusive behaviour."

De Campo says the potential impacts of sibling domestic violence are the same for anyone who has experienced abuse or trauma. 

"If the victim-survivor is validated and supported and there are consequences for the perpetrator, the outcomes are much more positive than if the abusive behaviour is minimised, negated or ignored."


Mary’s sister, who was ultimately diagnosed with schizoid affective disorder, has since passed away, and Mary has written a book about her experiences, My Father’s Suitcase, to be released in May. 

My Father's Suitcase comes out in May and is currently available for pre-order. 


"What disturbs me the most with writing my current book is how sibling abuse is such a taboo topic. People dismiss it as sibling rivalry, or there is this expectation you have to get on with your siblings," she says. 

"There is also taboo around estrangement, and yet it can be the healthiest thing to do, to cut off from toxic members of your family.  

"I keep meeting people who have shared with me horrific stories; some have never spoken about the abuse before, they didn’t even realise there was a name for it. Some have physical scars from assaults. 

"This is a conversation we must have, we must bring it out into the open."

Feature image: Supplied.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. 

Mamamia is a charity partner of RizeUp Australia, a Queensland-based organisation that helps women and families move on after the devastation of domestic violence. If you would like to support their mission to deliver life-changing and practical support to these families when they need it most, you can donate here.