This week the story of the "Colts" made headlines around the world. But why does it take a story of four generations of incest for us to talk about sexual abuse at home?
In early June of 2012 NSW Police and Community Services drove out to a remote bush block some three and half hours southwest of Sydney. They were there to chase up some kids missing school, but instead they found a filthy encampment of caravans and tents housing an interbred family of four generations. There were forty people in total, including twelve children under sixteen, all living without running water, electricity or sewerage. The children were filthy and afraid of the strangers, while many of them were deaf, blind, mentally handicapped or physically deformed. DNA tests subsequently showed that only one of them wasn’t directly related, while the rest were the offspring of a brother and sister who first procreated in New Zealand some sixty years back. The couple, dubbed Tim and June, later married and moved to South Australia where their own children interbred and the whole weird, malfunctioning dynasty moved between Victoria and Western Australia for the next forty years, drifting around isolated communities to avoid attention.
The police returned en mass July 18 and removed the twelve kids. The adults were later taken into custody without any details being released to the press for over a year. Only now has a report been published by the New South Wales Children’s Court, with the family receiving the pseudonym surname “Colt”, while the town’s name and description have all been hushed up under a court suppression order. In fact it’s amazing the story was released at; an anomaly the children’s court explains by claiming the case is so disturbing that people need to know—a feeling echoed by newspaper headlines: “Australia Incest Shocks Country” says The Guardian, and “Shock as Incestuous Clan Discovered in Australia” from Time Magazine. This is a shocking case, but then at the same time, is it? Why are we all so surprised?
“Incest is actually not that uncommon” Says Julie Aganoff, a Queensland psychologist who’s worked in family trauma and child abuse. “And in time, across the world, cases like this one are not unheard of either. It’s only because victims are so reluctant to come forward that we think they’re rare.” Julie points to the statistics on sexual abuse as an example. A 2003 UN study concluded that one in three women worldwide are sexually abused before the age of eighteen. On top of that, an Australian Bureau of Statists Report from 2004 found that two in five sexual assaults were perpetrated by a family member. So you can see that between those stats, it’s not as uncommon as we’d like to believe. “I see people in their 30s, and in their 50s and 60s who have never talked about their abuse before.” Julie says. “I’m often the first person they’ve discussed it with and a lot of that is to do with shame and stigma.”
And incest certainly carries stigma, one that’s deeply biologically entrenched. An American study by cognitive psychologist Dr Leda Cosmides in 2007 concluded that repulsion to incest is actually an instinct to deter us having sex with family and producing sick offspring. When researchers asked six hundred volunteers a series of ethical dilemmas including questions about sex with siblings, the responses were universally negative, despite the fact that the volunteers hadn’t been told what the study was about. That deep repulsion is what often allows the perpetrators to continue with so few questions asked. As Aganoff explained, “The shame of incest certainly helps paedophiles to avoid being caught.”
But it isn’t just the incest that’s shocking. The other confronting aspect of the “Colt” Family is just how premeditated it all is. All that hiding and moving around wasn’t accidental. In fact, when the police first asked who the children belonged to, the mothers allegedly claimed a series of non-existent backpackers as the fathers. But systematic abuse isn’t new either. There’s a Royal Commission into the case of church sexual abuse right now, trying to deal with comparable tragedies. These certainly aren’t issues confined to hillbillies.
The point I’m making is that the Colt Family story is just a big, in your face, manifestation of stuff that’s usually too complicated to fill newspapers. The NSW Children’s Court certainly deals with cases that would make your skin crawl all the time, but it’s only when it comes packaged like this do we look at it. We should probably recognise that right now, near and close, there are dozens of closed doors where all manner of horrors are going on. We’re designed to be appalled by them, both by our culture and our own Darwinist architecture, but is it helping? I’d say no. Horrible shit is a reality for many and it might be more useful to give victims a less “shocked” space to share. As Julie Aganoff explained “Cases like this happen, but the victims don’t report them. They’re often just too ashamed.”
Follow Julian on Twitter: @MorgansJulian
For more on abuse cases: