Melbourne mother-of-three Rae Le Fleur, 45, remembers sitting down to write that poem. Her hand shook as she gripped the pen. It was to be called “Wobbly Legs” and a similar physical reaction took over as she tried to write.
“My whole body would shake,” she says. “I told a friend, ‘I want to write, I want to do this, I’m trying to but my body is physically shaking.’”
“My friend told me, ‘It’s called freedom release, you’re releasing this thing from you, just go with it.’”
And so Le Fleur learnt to go with it. As we talk, she leafs through the journals that helped her begin the difficult process of releasing herself from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.
As a child and teenager, Le Fleur was sexually abused. Between the ages of four and eight she was abused by close, Jewish family friends in their home near Caulfield South, when her own family members were not present. As a sixteen-year-old she was again targeted, this time by a friend of her school friends. After years of silence about the physical and emotional trauma of these multiple incidents, it wasn’t until Le Fleur was 25 that she felt she couldn’t keep quiet anymore.
Following failed attempts to speak to family members and counsellors, in 2016 Le Fleur arrived at Tzedek in Elsternwick, Victoria, a support and advocacy group for Jewish victims and survivors of child sexual abuse. It was Tzedek’s CEO Michelle Meyer who helped Le Fleur to find her voice musically and creatively, and to talk about her traumas.
Le Fleur has since worked as a social-justice advocate, a role that will see her perform in song and poetry on September 14 at Sydney storytelling event “MOTH X,” organised by community group Shalom. The evening will explore the theme of “New Beginnings”, as professional and amateur storytellers, comedians and musicians, aged 40+, take to the stage for short, unscripted performances.
As a poet, enlisting the right words when sharing her personal story is important to Le Fleur. She chooses her terminology carefully as she describes herself.
“I call myself a survivor now, but…I was going victim, survivor, thrive, back to victim, survivor, thrive and back to victim. I was in this sort of cycle.”
Le Fleur had been writing poetry for years but says when she finally put feelings about her abuse into words, it had a liberating effect.
“I found that when I wrote it down it didn’t have power anymore. When I spoke it out loud it lost its power. Getting past the shaking, everything has been a step in overcoming fear.”
I was told I was making up stories. They just didn’t get it, they dismissed it. Twenty years of trying to talk to them about it, no one listened to me
One of Le Fleur’s greatest battles was the disbelief she faced from family members when she tried to open up about her trauma.
“I was told I was making up stories. They just didn’t get it, they dismissed it. Twenty years of trying to talk to them about it, no one listened to me,” she says.
Her family’s resistance to accepting her stories was compounded by a post-Holocaust understanding of trauma.
“An underlying theme in my family was the Holocaust, that there was nothing worse than that. Of course it’s awful, it’s terrible, heart-wrenching,” she says.
“The way I saw it though was that me coming to the women in my family, if they had gone through trauma, then they should want to band together and be a sisterhood and help each other to rise, not to dismiss and fob off and say, ‘It’s not important, worse things happened to me.’”
Le Fleur recognises how mass condemnation of the Holocaust provided solidarity for those devastated by the trauma.
“[Post-Holocaust] they were able to digest it, to say ‘these people are evil’…and they had each other for support. They have commemorations, they have acknowledgment and they have validation for the pain they went through. Nobody told them they were a liar,” she says.
However, victims of institutional and community sexual abuse within Melbourne Jewish circles did not receive community compassion and backing.
“Abuse survivors were just thrown to the wind,” she says.
After years of not seeking help for the flashbacks, panic attacks and nightmares that characterise post-traumatic stress, it was a moment with her then two-year-old daughter that propelled Le Fleur to speak up about her past.
“I was watching her and it was like a lightning bolt download,” she says.
“I had the realisation that if that had happened to her, oh my God…I would want to do something about it, I would be doing something about it.”
After her meetings with Michelle Meyer, Le Fleur took the first of “little steps that got bigger and bigger”.
“Michelle and I worked on the effects of abuse on my Jewish identity,” she says. “We co-wrote an article but I did it under a [pseudonym]. I could speak but I didn’t have to let anyone know who I was.”
Le Fleur learnt to see her Jewish community in a new way, distinct from the pain she had always associated with both the religious and secular Yiddish-speaking community in Caulfield South. For the first time since childhood, she recently took herself to Shul – to hear the rabbi advocating for abuse victims, followed by a talk by abuse survivor Dassi Erlich.
“Before I just considered that the Jewish community was abusive,” she says.
“On reflection I don’t think it had anything to do with Judaism. I think it was just individual people. Ignorance, I think that’s what it comes down to, or apathy.”
Following her anonymous publications, Le Fleur spoke at a Royal Commission Multi-Cultural Forum about the importance of culturally sensitive services for abuse victims. In March 2017, she performed her song “Rollercoaster Ride” at Tzedek’s ‘Night of Healing,’ where leaders of the Jewish community apologised for sexual abuse that occurred within families and institutions.
MOTH X will be the next step in her advocacy work, which she hopes to follow with an album and a poetry publication. While her work is gaining greater prominence, Le Fleur sticks to a single goal.
“If one person who is an abuse victim gets something from what I’ve written or one of my songs, and they come forward and they find their voice, even one person…then I’ve done something good.”
Le Fleur acknowledges she still has some bad days but says they are rare. It seems that opening up about her childhood trauma has provided the “freedom release” her friend described.
“It’s sort of like taking the plug out of a sink and the water can just flow out,” Le Fleur says. “You don’t have to hold all of that there anymore. It just empties, you can do whatever you want to do.”
“You start saying good things about yourself and you start doing different things,” she says.
“There’s no more shaking when I write. I run to it.”
MOTH X “New Beginnings” will be held on September 14 at The Sheaf, Double Bay. For more information visit www.shalom.edu.au
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