No matter how hard you try, it seems you can’t escape your childhood. Even if you unfriend everyone you went to school with, leave the WhatsApp chat group, ignore invitations to your 5, 10, and 15 year reunions, and move interstate — you can still turn on the news and come face to face with your past when your religious school becomes a hotspot in a global pandemic.
This was the case for me a few weeks ago. It has been almost 20 years since I graduated from school — and I have never set foot in the place since. But as the days passed and the COVID-19 cluster grew, I felt a familiar sense of anger rise to the surface, one that has bubbled beneath the veneer of my godless life for almost two decades.
At the end of last year, I wrote a piece about my experiences at this school and it was set to be published by a major media outlet. Then the bushfires happened, followed quickly by a pandemic. In the relentless bombardment of national and international events, my personal story suddenly seemed small — and no longer newsworthy. Until there was a COVID-19 cluster.
I wouldn’t wish this virus on anyone, but I did think that perhaps this would lead to more public interest in what actually goes on inside a school run by a secretive religious sect in suburban Sydney. Maybe questions would be asked, like “What exactly is a prayer retreat anyway?”
My family was not in the sect so I never went to “The Centre” after school, as a lot of the girls did — which specifically organised prayer retreats for students at the school.
We had prayer retreats with our class though —they replaced our outdoor camps after I got a Saturday detention for flirting with the camp instructor when I was 13. For the record, I was wearing shorts above my knees and sitting with my legs apart, because I was 13.
The Principal brought me into her office — one of many visits throughout high school— and raged, “Where’s the fidelity?”. My sin was being unfaithful to my future husband by showing another man… my 13 year old knees, I guess?
There were no pesky male camp instructors at our prayer retreats, but there were priests — so there were definitely no more shorts either. “The priests are still men so you need to be careful,” we were regularly reminded. We were 14.
At the retreats, we said our rosaries and were instructed how to be virtuous women. We had training sessions to learn how to sit with our knees together and not wear white blouses so that men couldn’t glimpse the outline of our bras underneath. We were shown how to set dinner tables the right way to impress our husband’s business associates. And we prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed.
At one of these retreats, a teacher was not happy with the way in which I prayed, and told me the Virgin Mary would turn her back on me at the hour of my death. I was 15.
The prediction that I would be abandoned by God on my deathbed was not a revelation at this age. It had already been drummed into me, year in and year out, all through my adolescence. Different teachers had their own versions: “I will pray for you every day for the rest of my life but I don’t hold out any hope”; “I don’t care if you’re going to hell but I don’t want you to drag the rest of the class with you.” One day in Philosophy class, the School Principal compared me to Hitler because I dared to ask how we know chairs and tables exist. I was 16.
By 16, our teenage bodies were becoming problems that needed to be managed, so as not to lead men to their doom. There was a dazzling array of euphemisms: men were wild stallions and women held the reins; men were like dogs and if you put the food in front of them they had to eat it; men were cars and if you revved up their engine and left them stuck in neutral, they would explode.
Gay people didn’t get off any better, mind you. Homosexuality was like a disability, according to our Religion teacher who was also the Vice Principal. We could be friends with them, but she “wouldn’t advise getting too close to a lesbian,” she scoffed. That same teacher made us feel as miserable about our changing bodies as she could: we were “fat”, “flabby”, and “needed to lose weight”. We were 15 and 16.
But most of all, we were made to understand, in no uncertain terms, that our intrinsic worth as human beings was no greater than our purity. The sum total of my sex education — also taught in Religion Class — was watching an American Evangelist explain that girls who have sex with more than one man are like sticky tape who lose their stick.
If we were sexually assaulted, we all knew whose fault it would be: the woman who foolishly let go of the reins and was probably wearing a white blouse with a visible bra.
From my childhood, before I even knew what any of this meant, I had a firm belief that I was responsible not only for my own sins — but for those of men. In the final year of primary school, we were given prayer cards for St Maria Goretti, an 11-year-old who was attacked by a teenage boy and begged him to kill her instead of raping her. He did and she earned the highest honour of being a Virgin Martyr.
So we prayed to this little girl saint that we might have the same strength which led her to give her life to her “husband” Jesus. Had the boy raped her, she would have gone to Hell, the teacher explained to our class of 11 and 12 year olds. It was better to be dead than to be impure.
Although I was branded the class troublemaker, I was, in fact, a deeply religious child and in no way a rebellious teen. My sin was that I asked too many questions.
We learned from a book called Jesus Christ: Lord of History which glorified a whole host of Catholic atrocities — from the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition. I raised my hand too often and spent a lot of time on the bench outside the classroom. I failed my Religion exam for writing an essay arguing the Crusades were not justified. I was going to Hell.
I would like to say that I found this laughable — but I truly believed in Hell. These sentiments didn’t just wash over me, they became deeply embedded in my sense of self-worth. Because most of the adults in my life were telling me the same thing, this feeling was normalised. I didn’t understand how wrong it all was until years later. And so, for the most part, I didn’t tell my parents.
In writing this, it has just occurred to me that in 13 years, there was not one single teacher who told me I was good. I was good at things: they wanted me on the debating team and to represent them at public speaking competitions and to win awards for them. But I was not good.
For a very long time, even after I left school and the Catholic Church, I felt this to be true.
It has taken years to rid myself of this damaging self-belief. And then, when I least expect it, a news story can make it come flooding back. But just as quickly, the cluster is contained, a different hotspot opens up, and the news cycle moves on. But for me, it doesn’t. Not really. Perhaps it never will.