At 15-years-old, Grace Tame was insidiously groomed, stalked and sexually assaulted by her 58-year-old maths teacher. He thought she’d be silent, but hadn’t counted on Grace’s resilience, her sense of justice, her fighting spirit.
At 16 Grace found the courage to report Nicolaas Bester to the police, after which he was convicted and imprisoned. At 22, she campaigned against an archaic law that allowed her abuser to speak publicly while she was forbidden from using her name to tell her story.
Grace has helped to change laws, spread understanding, and has given strength and hope to other survivors of abuse.
Now, at 26, she is Australian of the Year.
“Well, hear me now,” she said as she received her award, “using my voice amongst a growing chorus of voices that will not be silenced.”
We sit down with Grace for a one on one following her incredible achievement.
AWW: What was life like, growing up in suburban Tasmania?
Grace: As a kid, I was full of love, life and energy. I was an active kid. I played sport – soccer, I loved to run, to hang out with my cousins and friends, and spend time outdoors.
I was a tomboy, always climbing trees and falling out of them. Most of my friends were boys. I was the only girl on the soccer team.
I was very enthusiastic. I loved school, I loved to have a laugh. I threw myself at everything and gave 110 per cent.
How did life change when you went to high school?
I’d never given much thought to image or size or anything like that. Then I went to an all-girls’ school and it was a different environment, different values.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot more focus for women on how they look and I’d never previously given much thought to that. I’d always just been this happy-go-lucky, goofy kid.
Then, at around the age of 13 or 14, I began dealing with the traumatic memory of being molested as a six-year-old by an older child. And that’s when I started to struggle with anorexia.
I was hospitalised for about six weeks in April 2009. That’s when things started to really slip and become difficult for myself and my family.
Were there things that made you more vulnerable to abuse?
My parents separated when I was about two and they both remarried. They’ve been with their respective partners for as long as I can remember. Despite the fact my parents were separated, I always knew I was loved, but both my parents were very occupied. And because I split my time between the two houses, I didn’t have a sure-fire concept of stability and consistency.
This was nobody’s fault. The only person to blame for the abuse is the abuser. But that instability lent itself to being utilised by the abuser, who was able to destabilise it even further.
Sexual abuse is characterised, not just by physical abuse or violence, but by incredibly meticulous, calculated psychological manipulation.
That is so important and we don’t talk about that enough. Abusers identify victims whose circumstances make it easier for them to get away with the abuse. They’re looking for people who are vulnerable, who don’t have stable circumstances; lonely, isolated people.
He wasn’t counting on someone who would grow up to be such a powerhouse, was he?
No. He got me at a weak point but he underestimated my resilience.
Can you talk us through the process of grooming?
Of course. It’s important that we understand this as a community so we can work towards preventing abuse.
The first aspect is targeting, identifying a victim, looking for someone who is vulnerable or already isolated.
The second aspect is gaining trust, developing a rapport with the victim, conning them into thinking they’ve got support and validation.
The third is filling a need. The predator is identifying a gap in the victim’s life and then filling it. In my case, I was not without love or support but the love I was receiving at the time was tough love, and I was resisting that. My abuser saw an opportunity to tell me everything I wanted to hear, putting me on a pedestal, praising me, telling me that I didn’t need my family.
The fourth aspect of grooming is to isolate – driving wedges between the individual and their support networks.
The fifth is insidious and gradual – it’s the sexualisation – subtly introducing the concept of sex into conversation, exposing the individual to sexual content: movies or books or whatever. I was exposed to blatant examples of pop culture that glorified sexual relationships between really young people and much older people.
The sixth one is maintaining control, and that involves the abuser striking a perfect balance between causing pain and providing relief from that pain, so the victim is programmed to feel intense confusion and guilt if they ever get the confidence to speak out.
I remember him saying, “You can’t tell anybody, I’ll lose my job,” so there was the guilting. And there were indirect threats.
The abuser creates an image of themselves as very powerful, intimidating. My abuser was a soldier in South Africa. He told me about killing people. He used to sit outside my house in his car at 9pm. I’d look out my window and he’d be there, watching me. He was everywhere.
He knew my timetable. I’d turn around and it was like a horror movie – he’d be in the doorway, staring. It was predatory. Then there was the physical abuse, which was incredibly painful. So I was terrified.
What gave you the motivation to break away?
I got angrier and angrier. At 15, I didn’t have a complete understanding of how bad this abuse was, but the degradation, the humiliation, being raped and then having to sit in a classroom and know that, after school, I would probably have to do the same thing again.
In the end crippling fear was overtaken by anger. He used to boast to me about other students he had abused and I finally thought I cannot live with myself if he’s still here at the school and all these people are exposed to him.
So I ended the physical abuse. I requested that it stop at the end of 2010, and it did, but then he continued his predatory behaviour, his stalking.
Eventually, I went into his office and I just let out all this boiling anger. I told him I hated him. I was crying hysterically. I told him he was a monster. I told him I thought he was evil and hoped he burned in hell.
He sat in his chair, in the room where he had raped me every day, and he just shrugged and smiled at me. And in that moment I knew I was dealing with absolute, pure, concentrated evil, and that it needed to be stopped.
I told another teacher first – an amazing teacher called Dr William Simon. I told him because I knew he valued people above policy. He right away arranged a meeting with the principal and he went with me. I told the principal and the police were called. I remember looking the police officer in the eye and naively saying, ‘Please don’t tell my mum and dad’.
At this stage your parents didn’t know?
My parents had suspected, very early on, that he was grooming me and had met with the school to try to keep him away. But they didn’t [find out about the abuse] until that day in April 2011 when I told the principal and the police.
It must have been a shock.
It was devastating and horrific. I remember my dad picking me up from school that day. I had never seen so much emotion come out of him before.
I remember him taking both his hands off the steering wheel and shouting, not at me, but at the world. He actually vomited after I told him what had happened. My mum was shattered. Everyone was shattered.
What have been the personal costs to you?
That’s hard to quantify. The effects of the abuse don’t just stop. It impacts your entire life going forward, and predators know that. They know that, because of cultures of victim-blaming and the guilt they implant, victims are going to battle self-doubt and engage in very destructive coping mechanisms.
I went on to abuse drugs, prescription and illegal, I drank, I cut myself, I covered myself in piercings, I dressed like someone I wasn’t, I found myself in violent relationships and in relationships where I was again abused by older men who knew that I had been abused.
Then you decided to speak out. Why?
I wanted to educate people and shed more light. So little was understood about the psychological manipulation, and what that does to victims and their families. So many victims have their families torn apart.
So I got in touch with a journalist, Nina Funnell, and we started working on a series of stories, and as we were about to share those, we encountered Section 194K of the Evidence Act [which prevented the victims of sexual assault from publicly telling their stories in the Northern Territory and Tasmania].
That’s when we started the #LetHerSpeak campaign.
What do you hope to achieve as Australian of the Year?
I don’t have a limit. I don’t have an off button. Besides continuing the conversation, I want to see more education initiatives that shed light on the issue of child grooming.
That is really key, especially at the primary and early high school level – going straight to where the lessons need to be learned.
Another goal is to make headway on federal legislation, and to work towards a standardised definition of sexual assault and naming offences. At the moment you’ve got eight jurisdictions with eight definitions of consent; inconsistency breeds ambiguity.
You’ve come a long way in just 10 years. What has given you strength and helped you heal?
Love, family, reconnecting with myself and finding the things that bring me joy, like spending time in nature, connecting with the earth, swimming in the ocean, running. After the abuse, I stopped doing those things but now I’m doing them again. In October last year, I actually won a marathon.
If this story raises concerns, call the National Sexual Assault and Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service: 1800RESPECT, and visit the website.