Elly McDonald



Special (19 April 2014)


It was February 1988. I was dressed like a model in a Robert Palmer music video: black high heels, black tights, tight black pencil skirt, fine-ribbed body-hugging black top, huge dangly 80s earrings, kohl-lined eyes. Lots of hair. I sat in a room with about 100 people, listening to the man on stage sell snake oil. Every so often I crossed and re-crossed my legs.

When the presentation ended, a young woman seated near me leaned across. “That man spent that entire presentation staring at your legs!” she said. I knew. I’d noticed.

Might as well face it / you’re addicted to love…” But I wasn’t. I was addicted to rejection.

The man on the stage was on a barnstorming tour from the United States, selling seminars that promised to “transform” our lives. I told a male friend, “This man will turn your life upside down!”

My friend, not a sceptic, looked sceptical. In the event, it was my life that was up-ended.

After the presentation, the man on the stage was introduced to me and asked if I could recommend somewhere he might eat. I suggested he join me for dinner at the notorious Bourbon & Beefsteak in Kings Cross. We went to dinner. We watched the Japanese men at a neighbouring table get more and more drunk and more and more combative.

“That man has an opinion,” I said.

“No,” replied my companion. “His opinion has him.”

I felt very adult, very sophisticated, very seductive. I strode out afterwards into thick traffic and when he queried whether stepping out in front of cars was safe, I glanced pityingly at him over my shoulder. “It’s easy,” I said. “You just step out. They have to give way.”

I felt so powerful and so sexual. I felt special. I felt chosen.

On our third night together I said something about what other people were saying about us. I have no recall of what exactly I said but I do recall his reaction.

“Other people know about this?” he yelped. “You’ve told other people? Why would you want this to live out there as gossip?”

He was 6’2”, close on 200lb, a former combat marine who’d volunteered for two tours of duty in Vietnam. He was yelling and he was red.

Something was obviously wrong, and I was instantly very, very frightened. That was the moment I “went to Jupiter”, as I thought of it later. Psychiatrists call it dissociation. I withdrew mentally, naked in my bed, so that this raging monster in my small bedroom seemed as if viewed through the wrong end of a telescope: far, far away; small and distant; unable to reach me. I did not want to ever return.

In the transformational organisation, where I was a senior volunteer, gossip got around. Eventually I came to understand that in the mere two weeks this man spent in Australia, he had sex with perhaps five other female volunteers, each one of whom believed she was the chosen one. Believed she was special.

When I recall this man now, I confuse his image with others from the same template: Jimmy Swaggart (the disgraced evangelist), Jerry Lee Lewis (the disgraced rock’n’roller), Bill Clinton (the disgraced politician). He was a tall well-built man with silver hair and a cocky manner, a good ol’ boy from the Deep South, from Texas, just across the border from Louisiana. After Vietnam he’d been an angry man. He’d hung out with motorcycle gangs. Then he’d been, variously, a psychiatric nurse and an operative in local Texas politics before transforming into a personal development course leader.

The girls he targeted were of a type. They were pretty girls (“You are such a pretty girl”, he told me), superficially confident but insecure, each one of us an eating disorders sufferer. Each one had a desperate need for affirmation. We each of us wanted to be special, to be chosen.

When it became public that we were a harem, interchangeable conquests, each of us responded characteristically. One girl changed her address and her phone number and her family refused to divulge her whereabouts. It was rumoured she’d suffered a major breakdown. Another girl disappeared altogether. Eighteen months later she made contact from Canada – to apologise for worrying anyone. The girl who had best reason to believe she was the chosen escort broke down publicly in torrents of tears. Two weeks later she met a rising TV star, whom she later married.

I was perceived as the villain and the vamp. I was the one who made the issue public. I was the one who caused the floods of tears.

“How did this happen?” an older woman demanded.

“We just… clicked,” I responded, weakly.

“Well next time you just click, just walk away, okay?” the woman directed.

I went on a day cruise on the river with staff and senior volunteers from the personal development organisation. I watched as the senior manager, who had just lost a large amount of weight, experimented with her ‘new’ sexual allure. I scanned the smorgasbord and reached for the chocolate biscuits. I force fed myself chocolate biscuits for years as my own eating disorder resurfaced with a vengeance. I had no desire whatsoever to be the vamp. I had no desire whatsoever.

Within the organisation, there were internal discussions. Between the USA offices and the Australian offices, it was agreed the organisation bore no responsibility but that this man should “take care” of the damage, which meant “taking care” of me. He didn’t enjoy that. Occasionally I took perverse pleasure in torturing him with forlorn phone calls.

I went to San Francisco to do advanced training as a volunteer. This man was on-site, as an advanced course instructor. The older woman who’d warned me against “clicking” was there as well. I saw a card she sent him thanking him for changing her life, for his insight and understanding. Then she told me he’d told her I’d “made it up”.

On a hill in northern California, overlooking the organisation’s advanced training site, I sat watching a young man repair his car. He was a younger course leader and he was quietly sympathetic. We never discussed what had happened in Sydney. I just watched him work on his red sports car and we talked about INXS, who I knew personally and who at the time had a Number 1 US hit. When I returned to the office that day, I was taken into a room and told not to flirt with Brian, not to get up to my tricks. The woman who instructed me informed me she was a “master of communication”, who could “read human beings”, and she saw I was dangerous. Later, back in Australia, Brian of the red Alfa Romeo sent me a short note, telling me he’d left the organisation, and noting: “No one there was on your side.”

Some years later I was involved in a faux sex scandal – that is, a gossip maelstrom where no sex had actually occurred. It was so stale, being cast as the Scarlet Woman. The vehemence, the lurid nastiness, was all too familiar.

As I write this now, I fantasise an alternative reality, one in which I leap into Brian’s red sports car, cast my sultry gaze his way, and command: “Let’s go!”

I fantasise Brian and me speeding off through the hills above Santa Rosa, out towards Nevada, a male-female Thelma and Louise, revving up towards a deep canyon. I fantasise an alternative version of the faux sex scandal, one where I leap on the office desk – those damned office desks in that glamorous glass tower – and I proclaim, “Yes! I did it! I seduced this lovely man, I harmed his lovely wife! I set out to cause his children pain! I live to create workplace soap opera!”

I visualise me in a red dress, a music video model undulating as Chris Isaak melancholically accuses me in song of playing a Wicked Game: “What a wicked thing to do / to make me dream of you...”

I visualise myself as Jessica Rabbit: “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”

I remember how a few weeks after my trip to Jupiter I was asked out to dinner by a young man with green eyes. A really handsome boy. Interesting. Kind. Someone who – had I travelled with him – might have been a partner on journeys worth making. I recall I was so petrified to date that I could barely converse. I remember us walking through Sydney’s Martin Place, in the dark, in the rain: me opening my palms out to the raindrops, him looking sad.

These days, when I hear reports of sexual exploitation within organisations and institutions, I feel I can relate. There is a spectrum of vulnerability. The saddest cases are those involving the very young and the most powerless. There are also adults who on the face of it were culpably foolish.

Believe me, they do feel culpable. They feel ashamed. In my case, I felt so ashamed it was years before I “stepped out”, in any sense, again. I spent years angry. The upside was eventually I had to work out ways to build myself a lifeline, to build a new life.

When I hear these reports, I want to tell those who’ve been exploited: Don’t let these predators poison your future.

Reclaim your life.