By Chloe Booker for THE AGE.
Warning – this story contains material which may distress some readers
Most school mornings Di Elderton spent in dread as she waited for her father, Alfred Zammit, to knock on the wall between their bedrooms. Rat-a-tat-tat. Time to come in.
But when she finally worked up the courage to tell the secret she mustn’t tell, we, as a society, let her down.
Di was an only child. Her mother went to work early, so it was her father’s job to take her to school from age nine to 15. The routine always ended the same. She would have to help him masturbate to climax in the bathroom.
“You’d do it if you loved me,” he said, to her protests.
It was normal, he told her. It was their secret. It was what fathers and daughters did.
Sitting in the sun-filled back room of her immaculate Victorian-era inner city Melbourne home, Elderton, a business owner and graphic designer, is now at last able to tell her story without crying.
It can’t be easy to speak to a stranger after years of being silenced. But she does because she wants her message to reach other sexual abuse survivors – 80 per cent of whom never report out of fear, according to the Centre Against Sexual Assault.
“Everyone’s complicit,” she says. “By people not supporting [victims] to do something or not reporting it themselves, I really believe you are almost protecting the perpetrator.”
Elderton wants survivors to know of the healing that justice can bring.
As a child, Di was terrified of her father. She lived in fear of what would happen to her or her mother if she told. For a long time she held the secret close. The oral sex. The shame. The rat-a-tat-tat. Finally, years later, after her parents had separated, she told her mother.
Her mother’s face showed disbelief. She told her not to tell anyone. Today, her mother struggles to look her in the eyes. And so it went. Her teenage friends wept but did not know what to do. Later, when she was an adult, lawyer friends warned against going to court. But most hurtfully, almost all of her Maltese family – on both sides – watched as she broke down in tears, then carried on as though the conversation had never happened.
Her father’s side wasn’t even surprised at the news; they had guessed it, but they continued to support him.
“The reaction was always shock,” Elderton says. “It was ‘Oh my god’ but then it was just nothing.
“It was like, ‘don’t discuss it again. It wasn’t that big of a deal.’ There was no checking in to see if I was OK. They never asked me about it again.”
Their reactions only compounded the fear she had carried as a child.
“When you’re a kid … you go, if I tell anyone, no one will believe me,” she explains, “but you work up the courage to tell someone … It’s really hard when people absolutely don’t mention it again. I would just go, ‘I shouldn’t have said anything, because now I feel just awful.'”
There were years of suffering. Anxiety, bulimia and nightmares. Abusive relationships. She didn’t know who or even how to trust. Then she met Robert.
About four months into their relationship, which began a decade ago, she walked into the lounge room on a Saturday afternoon and told him what had happened to her.
Open, supportive, trusting. He wasn’t like the others. “We have to resolve this,” he said.
Robert’s victim impact statement says he wasn’t shocked at the news. Her behaviour gave away that some kind of serious abuse had occurred in her life.
“I was now faced with a simple choice,” the statement says. “I could either help Di to face her past, and do so quickly, or choose a collective life embroiled in a daily battle of anxiety, trust issues and post-traumatic stress.”
The couple went on to have children. Two daughters. And it was her girls, Elderton says, who finally inspired her to act. “Having kids – and having two girls especially – was the catalyst.”
Three years ago, at 43, she nervously picked up the phone and called the police: “I’d like to report that I’ve been sexually abused.” And so began her recovery.
Wearing neat, smart clothing, her black hair tied back, Elderton details her abuse for this story matter-of-factly, but its enormous weight is palpable in her voice.
Her victim impact statement makes sobering reading. One line stands out: “I constantly feel either judged or pitied for what was done to me.”
This is what Elderton wants to stop.
“For society to change, I can’t not come out and say this needs to be addressed and people need to support people … That’s what’s allowed this whole culture to exist. It’s no different than what’s happening in the church. If we want to change it, we have to all stand together and make this thing spoken about.”
What Elderton does not want is your pity. She doesn’t need it. For she has taken her power back.
From the moment she walked into Fawkner police station on an autumn afternoon with Robert by her side, she says, the police listened to her and took her story seriously. First the gentle older male officer. Then, the young female detective, Louise Serrao, whose support and compassion helped get her get through the “hideous” process of making a statement – and the three years of waiting between then and the final outcome.
“When I first met Di, she was nervous, but she wasn’t reluctant,” Senior Constable Serrao says. “She was ready.”
The detective says reporting can be daunting for survivors of sexual assault, but that Victoria Police’s response has dramatically changed in the past decade. Officers now listen without judgment and, most of all, believe them.
“The change came when [Elderton] was making her statement, when someone, being me, sat down and listened … and believed her. It was like a weight had come off her shoulders.”
Elderton only became stronger each time she told it.
“Telling your story over and over again allows you to come to grips with it and process it,” she says. “It’s still awful and it’s still frightening, but it becomes less shameful.”
The days in court were not easy. The defence lawyer “aggressively” grilled her for up to seven hours at a time and told her she had made it all up to punish her father for leaving her mother.
Her father, whom she describes as “rotten to the core”, denied the abuse throughout, and pleaded not guilty.
Elderton slept little. Her fear her father would come and hurt her and her family was sometimes overwhelming
But when the judge summed up the case in front of a jury and a handful of friends, she felt she had finally been heard.
Alfred Zammit, now 69, was found guilty of multiple sexual offences, including carnal knowledge of a girl under 10, incest by parent, unlawfully indecently assaulting a girl and gross indecency in the presence of a girl under 16.
The judge found he had shown no remorse. “You’ve not only done this to your only daughter, but … you’ve been more than happy to watch her go through this all again,” Elderton remembers him saying.
In November, Zammit was jailed for 11 years, 7½ of which were non-parole.
These days, the nightmares have stopped. Elderton describes feeling lighter. Unburdened. Safe.
“This whole lifetime of being dismissed,” she says, “then … the judge stands up there and apologises to you on behalf of the state. And that just heals so much.”