I wrote this a couple of years ago, but was not ready to publish it at that time. I’m ready now.

When I was fourteen years old my friend was brutally raped and murdered at my cousin’s 16th birthday party. That’s some opening line, right? You can sometimes see resentment in the eyes of fellow conversationalists if I mention it – they are a little bitter at being forced out of their collective comfort zone.  They are intrigued, but uncomfortable nonetheless. 

Leigh Leigh's law failure | Newcastle Herald | Newcastle, NSW
Leigh as I remember her. Courtesy The Newcastle Herald, 2012

Now that I have finally accepted adulthood at the not-so-fresh age of 44 years, I have begun to address some of the issues that have led to (sometimes) crippling anxiety and depression, low self-esteem, and an insatiable appetite for justice. My recent reading has led me to this idea that so often we find ourselves trapped in this constant cycle of frustration and unhappiness as we play situations over in our minds.  You know, the conversation you might have had with your boss where you wish you had handled things differently?  You play the scene over and over in your mind, and each time you physically feel the same anger and frustration that you did when you were there in real life. So, I guess this is how post-traumatic shock syndrome plays out. The physical memory of trauma doesn’t go away. 

But what if your memory isn’t real?  See, I wasn’t at the party where Leigh was killed. My last memories of her are etched forever in my mind – the way the sun hit her face, the tone of her voice, her big smile, the joy that was Leigh – a smile that was always there. That memory isn’t a difficult one. She ran over to ask me if I was coming to the party, so excited to be going herself. I wasn’t going for a whole bunch of reasons, but mostly because the people going weren’t really my crowd. Leigh, on the other hand, was friends with EVERYONE. 

Despite not being at the party, I somehow created my own memories of that night. I knew the people, I knew the venue, I have played Leigh’s movements out in my head, right to the very worst of it, almost every day of my life. And over the years, I became a little numb to it all.  Desensitised. I think I just adjusted to this feeling of terror that would wash over me every time, and it started to seep out of me in the form of severe anxiety.  I was suffering from PTSD related to an incident I wasn’t involved it.  More recently I have started to wonder how many of us from this idyllic beachside town have had a similar experience. Shall I call the roll? 

My cousin, whose life had just begun, would never recover from finding her – how would you?  He would never shake the feeling of responsibility, despite his youth and innocence, because it was his party. My Aunty and Uncle, who carried their own disproportionate sense of guilt, and then grieved the loss of their son and what he could have been. My friends who didn’t attend the party, but who showed up at school on Monday in a trance, just like I did – shock and disbelief taking over our bodies and brains. The friends and acquaintances who were at the party – kids drinking, possibly having lied to their parents about their whereabouts – do they wish they’d stepped in and stood up to the boys who were giving Leigh a hard time? And are there those who saw more than they admitted to, but feared getting in trouble, either from the police or from their parents? How many people have lived with PTSD-like symptoms from that one event? 

But the ripples that move through the community go much further than this.  How did the teachers cope? How have Leigh’s family coped? How much has this event from my early years shaped my own approach to parenting, and hence impacted my own children’s lives?  See, I still live in this town, and I can tell you that not many people from my generation are still around. Some fled as soon as they were old enough to leave, others drifted away later as they realised that this place held bitter memories for them, still others have taken their own lives, or made life choices that led them away from reality.  The town is full of new faces who have heard about Leigh’s murder, but they don’t feel it on a cellular level like we do. Some have even told me to “get over it – it was years ago”. 

What I realised last year is that my own experience of this trauma is real and valid, and worthy of being addressed. I have been through anger before, but more at the injustice of the actual incident.  Now I have reached a new level of anger. How dare they rob us of our grief by drowning out the loss of our dear friend with this very loud, bungled police investigation?  How dare they charge no-one with sexual assault, despite the overwhelming evidence that Leigh was raped?  How dare the media and the gossip decide that Leigh was in some way responsible for this because of her reputation – a reputation that was proven to extend no further than making friends with every soul who crossed her path? 

For so long now I have wanted to do something to bring closure and healing for those of us who have held onto wounds, but almost every avenue examined saw people being forced to reopen wounds, whether they were ready to, or not. And so, I have chosen to write. Not about what happened on that night, not about all the ways in which the police investigation failed Leigh and her friends and family, but about the impact that one pocket sized girl’s death has affected thousands of lives.  I have far from exhausted the list, but I have given a starting point. 

So, how do we heal?  We start by acknowledging that what happened was horrific and traumatic, and shaped our lives.  We talk about it.  We open up about things we have kept inside for eons. We understand that whether we were there that night or not, we were still at the heart of it. We remember that we lost a very special girl, and we cry for her and for ourselves.  But what is the most important and most valuable thing we can do?  We can learn from it. We can build a society that values women and girls for what is at their core and in their hearts and minds – far more than just their bodies. We can build a society that seeks justice and supports all victims through trauma. We can build a society that Leigh would have been proud of. 

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