The Darkest Shadows

Sexual abuse has cast a shadow over my family’s life. I was abused as a child and a teenager by three men I am too afraid to list, my mother was abused as a child, my siblings were abused and my young cousin was abused for years by our uncle. And somehow of all the stories, the last one is the story that has held the tightest grip on me. I didn’t think I could talk about it before, but now, with the encouragement from my cousin and my family, I am talking about this openly in hope it can help others. Often the hardest things to say are the things that need to be talked about the most.

This particular story has many parts and this is only mine. Not the most significant part, but nonetheless real.

It was a summer afternoon and I was sitting with my three girl cousins in a circle on my sister’s bedroom floor. I was visiting my hometown and I was so happy to be reunited with them again. Throughout my teen years I had looked after them almost every weekend and it was bittersweet to see how much they’d grown in the short time since I’d left home to chase my dreams.

They had something to tell me and I waited patiently while they gathered courage, whispering secrets in each other’s ears. Then the stories came tumbling out all at once, like nightmares retold in the middle of the night. Stories I can’t repeat. This sweet little girl I have loved and known her entire life had been hurt and raped for years by someone we all deeply trusted.

I felt sick but I calmly urged them to tell their Mother. The youngest of the sisters began crying, “I am scared I am next” and so I took her into my arms as I had so many times before and I promised her she wasn’t, that it wouldn’t ever happen again, that everything would be okay. My words felt empty in my mouth and I didn’t feel nearly as big or as strong as they saw me.

I am ashamed to say I so desperately wanted it not to be true that it took me weeks to call their Mother. I had kept my own abuse secret in the past, under the impression that it was my fault for being a ‘pretty’ girl. I thought the men just couldn’t help what they did and I didn’t want to hurt anyone by telling, besides, I thought it wasn’t such a big deal. But it dawned on me that this was much darker than anything I’d experienced and I needed to help stop it from ever happening again. Under the weight of the knowledge it would tear apart our family, I picked up the phone. When I finished speaking to my auntie I knew it was the right thing to do. They went to the police.

The detective on my cousin’s case sent me email after email begging me to testify and when I never replied she began calling me. I cried to M, that I was being torn apart and I couldn’t do anything about it. My silence was a betrayal to my cousin and my family and my words were a betrayal to my Uncle. My Mother cried to me that she just wanted to invite him around for coffee. In our heads we couldn’t separate the kind, sweet man we knew from the monster he had secretly been, because he was both. But we also felt great aching pain for the girl we loved with all our hearts. A little while later she did invite him around for coffee but the police were waiting for him there.

Then I stayed with Megan and their daughters. Earlier in my life she’d always been in my Uncle’s shadow and so I missed her light. Here was this unbelievably strong woman, who was pregnant with their third child when he was arrested for abusing her niece, now raising three girls on her own. Just by being with her and the girls made me realise I needed to be brave too, I needed to testify. It was the very least I could do. And so I answered the phone and before I knew it I was staying in a bare little hotel room across from the police station, terrified of what was to come.

During those days, memories played like films on repeat in my head. Late night drives with my arm dangling out the window, a cigarette dangling out of his mouth and my favourite songs playing too loudly on the radio. Bleaching one other’s hair bright yellow in the motel bathroom. Him throwing me high into the clouds above the pool, where time stood still for a magic moment. Staying up past midnight eating pizza and too many sweets and watching the movies I’d picked out at the video store. Him sneaking me wine on Christmas day and laughing about inside jokes only we understood.

He truly believed I could be anyone and he told me so. Once he promised if I wasn’t smoking by the time my 18th birthday came around he’d give me $500, but when I was 18 I knew nothing between us would ever be the same again.

He loved me and I loved him. He had been the coolest grown up I knew and here I was standing before a court room numbly reciting my statement to send him to jail. His lawyer asked me questions that confused me and they preyed on my love for him. I felt him watching me and I almost couldn’t go on.

Afterwards I snuck away from my family and found him in the smoking area. The light in his eyes was gone. He was like a hollowed out man, only a shadow of who I knew. As I ran at him a police officer grabbed me by the arm but I tore free and I buried myself in my Uncle’s chest, my arms wrapping around him desperately. I let the tears flood and I said “I’m sorry, I love you, I’m sorry” and he held me and said “it’s not your fault Roo. Maybe you can come visit me after this and everything will be okay.” But my arms dropped and now I was hollow too, he was acting as though he had done nothing wrong, as though this could all be forgotten.

I wanted to scream at him to stop lying, to apologise for fucking everything up. I thought: my family loved you, I loved you, you have three beautiful daughters, you lied to us all, we really trusted you, you were so important to me, how could you do this to us? At least be sorry. Please, please, please…

I ran away as quickly as I’d come and I found my cousin, her hair golden in the light and her blue eyes bright and wise. I cuddled her and as I cried again, she looked up at me and said gently “it’s okay Nirrimi, don’t cry.” And I was ashamed that I was the one falling apart and she was the strong one, when it was meant to be the other way around.

It was years later that I sat in the courtroom again, biting the inside of my cheek and digging my nails into my arms, waiting for the verdict. I was pregnant and just beginning to understand the intensity and vulnerability of being a Mother. I wanted to hear ‘guilty’ as much as anyone else. For my cousin, for my aunties, for his daughters, for my family and in a very strange way, for my own daughter growing in my womb. And he was guilty, on all counts, and I breathed a sigh of relief weighed down by sadness. Sad that this was the way it had to be.

My auntie, the Mother to his three girls, is one of my closest friends now. Another auntie has quit her job to write books and develop a website with resources on child sexual abuse.

When I was younger I felt completely alone with the weight of my experiences, nobody talked about abuse and so I didn’t either. But I am far from alone in having scars and there is power in uncovering them. Power in saying this is real and it hurts and it is okay to talk about. I hope we can help to create a world where if our children are ever hurt, they have the courage and support to talk about it too.

Midnight Streets

I took these of my friend Nicole under the lights of a small suburban street in the Blue Mountains. It was following a day of filming and I couldn’t bear for the day to come to an end, I just wanted to keep on creating forever.

Fleeting Heart

(Note: There are times I feel we are all tiptoeing in an online world made of eggshells. Our lack of openness and honesty may save us from judgement and vulnerability, but it keeps so many lessons and so much raw beauty from being shared. Today I’m deciding not to tiptoe, instead I am going to leap and dance and run. I think love stories are the best kind of all, even when they don’t end in a happily ever after.)

I was not expecting to fall in love as soon as I got back. Perth was only a quiet stop-over on the way home after the intensity of Bali. But love found me anyway.

The very first moment I saw him something came over me. I felt like I was only a single star in a galaxy of him. Right away I knew there was something about us, something I couldn’t explain. A feeling I couldn’t shake long after he’d left. I did what I always do, I wore my heart on my sleeve and I told him. He said he felt it too.

He saved me tickets to a big show he was organising a few days later. I had butterflies all day long. I danced, ran a bath, drank homemade mulled wine and braided my hair as time crawled by. Then it was night and I was there with my friend Claire and my heart was in my throat as we walked down a dark hallway caught in a rush of excited people.

We rounded the corner and there he was. Burning like a sun. I was overwhelmed again, so little and insignificant beside him. Then he saw me and his embrace lifted me into the air and I closed my eyes and I wished I could stretch out that moment to last forever.

I only saw him fleetingly through the night, he was constantly surrounded by people but every time our paths crossed his hands found mine and his eyes lit up. “Do you think he likes me?” I asked Claire. “Yes,” she said, and I skipped around like I was a thirteen year old with a crush. I couldn’t believe it.

He was doing some interviews the next day and he asked if I wanted to join him. I kept my cool but inside I was delighted. He picked me up in his car the next morning. During the interviews he answered questions about his passions with an excitement I recognised in myself. His hand found my knee while he spoke, like we’d been lovers all our lives. And when he was driving back he kept my hand under his on the gearstick so our hands wouldn’t have to be apart.

Late one night we were walking the city streets after an exhibition. It was cold and I was shivering so he wrapped me in his warm jacket. He pulled me into a cinema, buying us tickets to whatever was playing. We sat near the back so I joked “is this the part where we make out?” And for the first time he kissed me, fully, spectacularly. My mind was all explosions and confetti and him, all him.

For the brief time we shared together we were almost inseparable. The knowledge that I was leaving in a few days gave weight to every moment. There was so much joy in the littlest things; the dimple that appeared from nowhere when he smiled or the way he reached for my hand as we walked down the street. We lay wide-awake in bed until almost morning, laughing and cuddling and fighting off the sleep that’d bring another day to a close.

Together we’d spontaneously improvise scenes in movies that didn’t exist and tell jokes that went on forever. We were ridiculously silly, both of us still children deep down. In other ways we were very different, I was an open book and he was guarded. I was strong-spirited and he was gentle-spirited. But there was fire with us. I’d never met anyone like him. When he and Alba met they played and laughed like they’d always known each other and it made me warm all over.

I was kind of flitting between two lives. Half of the time I was Mama. Staying with my family, taking Alba and my cousins to the park, cooking Alba’s favourite foods, reading bedtime stories and kissing her sore spots better. Then she was with her Papa and I was going on adventures and sleeping in late.

On our last night together everything was lucid. He took me out for dinner with one of my best friends. I looked at his hand holding mine on the table and then I looked at him smiling at me, so goddamn fucking beautiful and I thought, dear god, I know I’ve resolved to not be with anyone for a long time but this is almost enough to make me rethink it all.

I had to leave, like I always do. Me, the disappearing act. It felt like one moment I was falling in love as he was kissing me goodbye and the next I was falling asleep with Alba on the opposite side of the country.

I really missed him when I got back. All the energy I had put into loving him couldn’t just disappear, it had to be redirected. And so I wrote every free moment I had and every story seemed to contain pieces of him. I held onto our memories like souvenirs. It all felt so precious to my romantic mind.

I’ve learnt many times over that the duration of things doesn’t equal their importance. Single moments can influence lifetimes. He left an imprint on me. A reminder to keep on playing and never grow up.

That first night he kissed me I wrote this in my journal.
“This is how I see it. As an artist it is my responsibility to not have a boring life. To feel deeply. To listen to the stories of strangers. To try new things and go new places. To say yes. To question everything. To find beauty in the commonplace. And to fall in love. Over and over. Because through the highs of love and the lows of heartbreak I truly know what it is to feel. “

A Place to Belong

We lived in Bali nearly four months. Four sunkissed, life-altering months. It felt like a small lifetime.

We were back in Indonesia but things were different this time. Me and M were travelling together, but only as friends and co-parents. It was strange in ways I can’t easily explain, but it was so sweet to be back in the place that has felt like a home to me since before I ever visited.

We spent our first days by a black sand beach. I was in the ocean, smiling into the bright sun and bursting through powerful waves to laugh on the other side. All I could see was the sky and the sea and I felt an immense appreciation swell inside me, as though I was experiencing the world for both the first and last time.

I said things aloud only the ocean could hear. Secrets and sorrows that had been weighing me down. On the shore I rubbed black sand over my skin until it was silk. We sat in cafes, me writing in my journal and Alba drawing in hers, with sand still on our feet. Nothing felt broken.

I got a bicycle even though I’ve been clumsy since before I can remember. When I was younger I’d ride my bike to school and crash into electricity poles, gutters and trees on the way. So I gave up and I’d just walk for over an hour in the heat instead. But still, my legs always wore bruises and grazes. My friends all found my clumsiness funny so I kind of embraced it. It became one of my many quirks.

But by this trip I was realising more and more that who I was was up to me. By telling myself I was clumsy I wasn’t giving myself the opportunity to not be, so I let those thoughts go.

I was riding through little Balinese villages on my bicycle, down narrow paths winding through bright green rice fields and flying down streets under a sun shower, waving at the children watching in wonder. I was riding the same chaotic roads I was so frightened of before. I had a few near stumbles, but I rode until my legs hurt and I knew I’d only get better. When we stopped for a juice M told me how proud he was of me and I smiled because I was proud of me too.

Then when I got to Ubud I rented a scooter. I can’t say how momentous this was for me. There was a moment when I was flying through town and I felt like I was going to burst with pride. I hardly recognised myself. I didn’t have to be hopeless, I didn’t have to be dependent on anyone else. I could do this. I could be enough.

I was living in a little villa with my best friend, Kelsey. It was homely and opened up completely to the fields and rice terraces beyond. Our backyard was a living postcard. I had Alba until lunchtime every day and we’d spend it dancing, painting and swimming. I’d buy boxes of organic produce grown on the mountains to cook us lunch. I’d talk to her about all kinds of things and she’d listen intently, blue eyes shining, taking it all in.

Her Papa would pick her up and I’d ride my scooter into town. My workspace was a kind of bamboo treehouse. There was a raw cafe there where I could feed my chocolate addiction. I was surrounded by other creative nomads and found flow from the moment I stepped in.

It felt so good to be there. I got more work done than ever before and the seeds of projects were planted and watered. I’d head to dinner with friends after. Ubud was health food heaven but I always prefered the smaller places run by local families who became my friends.

There is an indescribable sweetness to crawling into bed beside my sleeping girl, cradling her in my arms, still so small and soft. It brings tears to my eyes the same way it did when she was new. The soles of her feet are rough now, her hair has grown, her body is long, her knees wear grazes from falls. But she is still my baby.

One night Kelsey and I sat on the balcony of a bar, drinking and speaking for hours about how grateful we were. To have one another, to do what we love for a living, to be able to travel, to be young and healthy, to be alive, for all the love and joy we’ve ever felt, for the struggles that helped us grow and the potential of our future. For everything. It felt like one of the greatest nights of all, like the future had never burned so brightly before us.

Kate came to stay with us. She was a beautiful, fearless German girl. I’d let slip a worry I had about what other’s might think and she’d bluntly ask me, “Why does it matter Nirrimi?” And she’d be right, I was the only one making what other people thought matter. She was always asking, “Why not?” and she always had a point.

I made a lot of powerful connections this trip. I skinny dipped with Sarah Britton, caught a boat to an island with Elora Hardy and her father John Hardy and found a sister in Belle Gibson. World changers. It’s strange to be me sometimes. I feel so small but I count my idols among my friends.

We drove to Balangal Beach in Uluwatu, where a perfect sunset was playing out above the ocean. My view was crystal clear, crashing sea and bright blue sky turning fiery above an unbroken horizon. The shore was lined with shacks selling fresh coconuts and Indonesian food. The wind hugged me so softly.

We sat on the shore drinking coconuts. There was a big rock jutting out from the edge of the water where a girl was standing. She was listening to music and dancing as the waves crashed all around her, as though nothing else in the world existed.

I had a skype call the next day with my agent in LA. Disney wanted me to write and direct a short film for them. I ended the call in disbelief. Right away I began to write. I wrote until my hand cramped. Ideas spilling over several pages, refined over several days by the sea. Then I had it. The outline of my film. A little piece of my soul. But a while later the job fell through as they do sometimes and I never got to share it.

I was a little heartbroken but grateful I had gotten to feel that passion again, to know it could still have so much power over me. I knew before long I would be creating again.

Then my passport went missing and I spent long days in lines at the immigration office and the embassy, often with Alba. I didn’t get an emergency passport back in time to extend my visa. More lines, more authorities and more confusion. No one really knew what to do with me. I carried my stress and anxiety alone through those weeks.

There are times I feel desperate to be rescued, like some princess at the top of a tall tower, but I know that I need to save myself. Being alone, as frightening and confronting as it sometimes is, is exactly what I need. The most challenging times in life hold the potential for the most growth and if I can fight those fire-breathing dragons on my own I will be stronger for it.

On the last visit I was pulled into a room and told angrily that I was here illegally and I had to leave the country now. I was forced to book tickets but the payment wasn’t going through. I was shaking. I signed papers saying I would leave the next day and they reluctantly let me go. I hugged my friend in tears, grateful I was not as alone as I felt.

My last night in Bali was spent with M in a cosy place on the side of a hill, where you could see the ocean from the balcony. We let any bad feelings between us just fall away and life was sweet. We played with Alba as she squealed in delight. As I watched her sleeping I said to M “Thank you for Alba.” And he thanked me back.

Later I was in the passport office in Perth with Claire as we made up stories to pass the time. In our stories we went to Hogwarts and there were these two very handsome, talented wizards who liked us. We ran away with them on our broomsticks to a magical treehouse in the Amazonian forest where they cooked us foraged breakfasts and confessed their love for us. I noticed a businessman watching and realised how strange it must seem, two grown ups giggling and playing pretend, but what did it matter?

As a surprise I came home a day earlier. I wanted to take M and Alba out to breakfast, but when I saw him he told me he was busy. Something wasn’t right. A wall had been built in my absence. I had a weird feeling, but I kept pushing it away.

A few days later I’d put Alba to sleep in the villa I shared with friends and I walked a few steps away, to the villa where other friends were staying. I wanted to talk to M but when I knocked on his bedroom door he wasn’t in, so I thought I’d ask my friend Jess if she knew where he was.

All of my memories past this point feel as though they caught flames. When I entered Jess’ bedroom they were laying in bed together. Suddenly things began to make sense. Although I had no desire to be with M (our break up was for the best) and I’d wanted him to find love, a feeling swelled up in me that was made of fire. I lost my self-control and smashed a lamp against the wall. I was yelling. I’d never felt so out of control.

Memories of us raced through my mind. Being fourteen and telling my Mother I’d found my soulmate. Meeting him in person for the first time at sixteen and being higher than high on love. Our first tiny apartment in the city. Travelling the world shooting big campaigns. Our cabin in the Blue Mountains. Him speaking softly to our child growing in my belly. Holding Alba in our arms, both of us raw with love.

Every selfless thing he did for me, every poem he wrote me, the way our bodies had fit, the way we had thought our love was invincible, the times we had said with such conviction we could never love another. Seven years in love, five years as one. All of it suddenly felt meaningless.

I lay under the outdoor shower sobbing while cold water rushed over me. I was wearing a long sleeved white lace dress and my hair was braided into a crown. For a moment something ridiculous flickered through the haze of suffering and I thought that this would be a great scene in a film. I almost laughed at myself.

I felt like my friends couldn’t understand my pain. After all, I’d had feelings for other boys and I had even said that Jess would be a good match for M. It seemed so hypocritical for me to be upset. I tried to explain how intense we had been when we were together. How immense our love and lives together were and how it all felt like nothing now. How it felt like a betrayal. But it was all just words. Still, my friends gave me all the love they could, I could cry just remembering how they much they cared about me.

Deep down I knew it was a good thing. I could see why they’d fallen in love. My emotion had overwhelmed my logic that night, but I was happy for M, and thankful it was Jess. I loved both of them.That didn’t mean it was easy, but at least my logic was prevailing.

Our tickets were booked at different times because of our visas and a shoot I had yet to do. So I hugged my girl and kissed her all over, telling her I’d see her in a few days. I hugged M too.

A bunch of people from my workspace invited me on a trip to Amed on the other side of the island. I went on the back of my friend Sevi’s motorcycle. Sevi was from Spain and I named him the King of Metaphors. He always came up with the most brilliant metaphors for things that were difficult to explain, in spite of his language barrier, or perhaps because of it.

It was an unbelievably beautiful ride. I listened to music as we passed some of the most spectacular landscapes I’d ever seen. I watched in quiet awe, thoughts throbbing with appreciation, knowing I could never truly take in how much beauty was before me. Amed was sweet. Little rooms by the beach, days snorkelling and nights on the sand staring at the stars.

When we got back I was housesitting my friend’s villa in Canggu. I took Rose with me. It was the most wonderful place we’d stayed so far. We were both shouting to each other in glee, “Isn’t this wonderful? Can you believe this place? We’re so lucky!” I put on music and we stripped off and swam in the pool until the sun went down and the lights of the villa shone on our bare skins.

The last days of any trip always carry a poignancy with them. I could smell every scent in the air, hear every little sound and see the things I’d normally overlook. My last sunset was the most breathtaking of them all. I was on Echo Beach and the sky was dripping with colour. I looked at my friends. They were strangers a few months ago and now I will never forget them, even if it’s decades before our paths cross again.

That’s the beautiful thing about connecting with other people, you’re opening doors that will likely stay open no matter how much time has passed. In this way I kind of see every stranger as a door waiting to be opened. Stories and perspectives just waiting to be unlocked, laughter and love waiting to be shared.

I came back to Australia the same way I always do, changed. My daughter was back in my arms and the unknown of the future loomed before me like some great scary monster. So I looked it in the eyes and I said “I can do this.”

The Storm that Chased the Sun Away

I took some portraits with Ajier yesterday. One minute the sun was bright and the sky was blue, and the next lightning was piercing the sky and puddles were forming at our feet. I had no umbrella but I shot through the rain for as long as I could before huddling inside a little cave. It was Ajier, Jo (who was assisting) and me, and with nothing manmade in sight I imagined we were living in ancient times. We watched the rain beat on the cliffs and the grey sky light up. I felt like I could have stayed in that little cave watching the storm for hours.

Edited with Dust.