BEHIND THE SCENES with Kirsti Melville

An interview with Kirsti Melville

TCF: This story is so personal – Erik is your ex-partner. At what point did you decide to make the story public, as a radio piece, and why?

KM: Erik actually approached me to tell his story and, initially, I was extremely hesitant. He wanted to contribute to the conversation, to keep people talking about this issue, to show people how devastating the impact of childhood sexual abuse can be even many, many years later. He also saw speaking out as part of his healing process. I was very concerned that telling his story might make him even more vulnerable, that reaching back into those traumatic memories might hinder, rather than help, him. I was also worried about the impact going public would have on our then 20 year old son.

From a professional point of view I was also conscious that there were a lot of sexual abuse stories currently in the media (the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was set up in 2013 and was garnering a lot of media attention here in Australia). IF we were to tell his story then it would have to take the debate further, and provide a point of difference to other stories being told.

What made this story unique was that, as his former partner, I knew him intimately. I could bring something to this story. We could talk on tape about the impact of his abuse on our relationship and he could open up to me in a way he never could with a journalist he didn’t know.

I waited six months before I started recording and checked in on Erik regularly to make sure he still wanted to go ahead. He never wavered.

TCF: The Storm contains detailed description of abuse. Not proud of this, but at some points it was so dark that it made me angry – at the abusers certainly, and at you, even, for ‘making’ me learn about it. I had to stop listening at a couple points, and resume. Did you worry about such reactions, and did that influence what decisions you made about details to include?

KM: I understand that reaction and I know for some people, particularly for those who’ve survived childhood sexual abuse themselves, it was just too hard to listen. But I feel very strongly that people need to know how dark, how traumatic, how utterly devastating this kind of abuse is. Erik lives with his pain every day and the least we can do is bear witness to it, do all we can to prevent it happening to other children and understand why survivors often can’t live as functioning members of society.

Having said that, there was a lot of detail I cut out. I walked a very fine line between wanting listeners to hear how bad it was, protecting Erik and our son, and not turning listeners away.

Not long after I finished The Storm I randomly received a postcard in the mail and it said: “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.” And I think that pretty much sums up our duty as journalists and storytellers.

TCF: Can you talk about the role of the Australian bush – and the sounds of the natural world - in the piece?

KM: I knew there needed to be a counterpoint to all the darkness of the story and the bush was it. As you learn pretty quickly when you hear The Storm , Erik LOVES the bush and its animals – he is so connected to it, it’s part of who he is. The bush became a character in its own right. Also, I didn’t want Erik to be defined purely by the abuse. I wanted listeners to know more about him, to hear his humor, to hear the lighter interactions between us, to appreciate what a gentle, kind-hearted soul he is.

The main challenge of crafting the piece was how to keep people listening for 53 minutes to an extremely traumatic story told predominantly by one person. How do I bring light and shade to this piece? How do I illustrate it with sound and music? I realized pretty quickly that the bush was a gift.

There’s also another key reason why I highlighted his connection with the bush and I can’t say much more without giving away the ending. So you’ll have to listen to find out what that is!

TCF: The doc has won awards from Amnesty International and the UN Media Peace Awards, among other accolades. What have you seen of its impact?

KM: The Storm gave people an insight into the ongoing, long-term impact of childhood sexual abuse, of the deep self-loathing that never goes away. The trauma in Erik’s voice, in his stuttering, is palpable. You get such an acute sense of his pain. Listeners responded to this with deep compassion. Obviously, people understand that being sexually abused as a child is an awful thing. But I think people also expect survivors “to get over it” and “move on.” The greatest impact of The Storm was showing people that it’s just not that easy, that as a society we need to maintain our compassion and understanding.

TCF: How is Erik doing now?

KM: Erik is still not well. He’s trying so hard to heal himself through art and counselling but I wonder whether he’ll ever have the strength to be a fully functioning member of society again. He certainly doesn’t have the capacity to work and his social anxiety is extreme. When Erik first “came out” to his family and friends about his abuse, when he started counselling and made a submission to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, he thought it would be a process of healing. But it’s been a far more stressful, traumatic process than he ever imagined and there are times when he wishes he’d never opened his mouth. I think in the long run it will prove a healing process but I wish I could wave a magic wand and make all his pain go away.