Grace Tame raised her voice and started a revolution that would change the national conversation. But being Australian of the Year has taken a toll.
Grace Tame has lost track of the number of speeches she’s given since being named Australian of the Year. She just knows she can’t keep up this pace forever.
But the speech that had perhaps the most profound impact on her is the one she gave to senior students and teachers at St Michael’s Collegiate school in Hobart.
For it was here, 11 years earlier, that she was groomed and sexually abused over six months by a teacher. She was 15, he was 58.
“We all know why I’m uneasy,” she said, looking out at a sea of girls much the same age as she was when the abuse had occurred.
“And it has nothing to do with anybody in this room. He’s been in here, though, in this very hall.”
Grace Tame is an exceptional communicator, capable of delivering a clear, powerful message and talking about her own personal trauma in a way that doesn’t alienate her audience.
“She’s so fiercely strong while being incredibly vulnerable at the same time,” says close friend Maddison Cutler. “And I think that’s why so many people can connect with her.”
But it wasn’t easy being thrust into the limelight in January this year and telling her story over and over again while still processing her trauma.
“I’m a 26-year-old survivor of child sexual abuse on this healing journey while under intense public scrutiny,” Grace explains.
“I have a sense of humour and I present as being robust but the re-traumatisation of being asked questions repeatedly that force me to relive my past, you know, I’m taken back there.”
“A lot of people see her talking about the rape, the sexual abuse and they think she’s distanced herself from it, she’s processed it,” Maddison says. “When in reality, she’s just learnt how to talk about this because it’s important and it needs to be talked about.”
Sexual predators choose their targets carefully and at 15, Grace was vulnerable to abuse.
A gifted, outgoing child, she had a loving but disrupted childhood. Her parents separated when she was two and she spent the next 13 years moving between two homes.
“Until I was 15, I had not lived in the same place for more than a week at a time,” she says. “I mostly lived out of a school bag.”
At six, Grace was molested by an older child, who first made her go into a closet and then take off her clothes.
She also had undiagnosed autism, which contributed to difficulties she had relating to her peers, and to subsequent bullying.
By 12 she had developed anorexia, which saw her hospitalised at 14 and relapse again a year later.
It was at this point the grooming began.
In April 2010, Grace returned to school from a doctor’s appointment to find the rest of year 10 on an excursion. A senior teacher, Nicolaas Bester, spotted her wandering the playground and invited her to his office.
Over the course of a long conversation, Bester asked about her anorexia and told her she could beat the illness on her own. “He was telling me everything that I wanted to hear,” Grace says. “And that subtle process of gradually undermining my genuine support network started from that moment.”
By the end of the week Bester had given her the key to his office. Greatly disturbed to hear this, Grace’s parents complained to the school and Grace and Bester were told not to spend time together. But the grooming continued in secret, and Bester eventually introduced physical abuse.
Grace had confided in Bester about being molested as a six-year-old and when he began to sexually abuse her, he did so by recreating her childhood trauma, telling her to go into a closet and take off her clothes.
“This is what abusers do,” Grace explains. “They often pick up where previous abusers have left off.”
The abuse continued regularly for the next six months.
It has only been in the past few years that Grace has been able to process what happened to her and understand the mechanics of grooming and how she was manipulated. She can now see how her fear of abandonment led to her fixating on the attention he gave her.
And when that attention elevated to sexual abuse, she still had the compulsion to be in his presence.
“If he would pull back, then I would think that to get his attention, I needed to do something sexual, because that’s what he liked,” she explains.
“Confusion doesn’t even cut it. It’s the closest thing that I can imagine would be like being possessed.
“It is, in a way, a form of possession that is designed by the perpetrator.”
‘I didn’t have any boundaries’
On average, survivors of child sexual abuse take almost 24 years to disclose their experiences. Grace Tame is an anomaly, reporting her abuser to her principal, who then informed the police, just months after the abuse ended.
Bester was jailed for what he did to Grace as well as the possession of child exploitation material. Although Grace’s identity was not made public during the trial, she was bullied on her return to school, eventually leaving to complete her HSC elsewhere.
“Grace needed a lot of help,” says her mother, Penny Plaschke. “She was dabbling in drugs. She needed to get out of Hobart.”
Not long after finishing school, Grace moved to the US, where she based herself for the next seven years.
While the anonymity provided some relief, she remained traumatised by her experience in Hobart, deadening the pain with alcohol and other substances and falling into a series of bad relationships.
“I didn’t have any boundaries because mine had been completely eroded,” she explains. “And what I had been groomed to tolerate was also what I had been groomed to expect. Abuse was familiar to me and in the US, I found myself in more abusive relationships.”
It was while she was overseas that Grace was diagnosed with high-functioning autism.
“The autism diagnosis was certainly a vital piece of the puzzle,” Grace says, “but it’s also very confronting. You know, I already felt there was something wrong with me.”
“Grace doesn’t necessarily read social cues,” her mother says, “but I think it’s what contributes to her fierce honesty. She can only tell the truth as she sees it, and she can be very blunt with the truth. It might upset some people, but I think perhaps truth is what we need to hear.”
Another piece of the puzzle to Grace’s past came from conversations she had in 2017 with Nina Funnell, a journalist and advocate for sexual abuse survivors who had heard about her story.
Grace came to understand that her case was a textbook example of grooming.
“I remember going online and looking up the term and I fell to pieces,” she recalls. “Every textbook example, every layer I could relate to. And as confronting as it was, it was also so validating.”
With Funnell’s help, Grace decided to tell her story to help educate others. It was then they discovered an archaic Tasmanian law that prevented survivors of child sexual abuse from being identified, even after they had turned 18 and even if they wanted to speak.
This was particularly galling, given Grace’s abuser has no such gag on him. He had boasted on Facebook in 2015 about the abuse, posting explicit details that eventually saw him jailed again, and appeared online in a sympathetic interview with men’s rights advocate Bettina Arndt.
Motivated by the injustice in Grace’s case, Nina Funnell launched the Let Her Speak campaign in November 2018, which quickly grew to support 16 other abuse survivors. That campaign led to Grace being given an exemption by the Tasmanian Supreme Court to speak publicly, and eventually overturned the law.
Grace comes home, finds love
Finally free to tell her story, Grace returned home. But it was not an easy transition.
“Coming home can also be a really hard thing for a sexual abuse survivor, particularly in a small place like Hobart,” Funnell explains.
Grace was virtually unemployed and still struggling with anorexia.
But through telling her story she was making an impact and her advocacy saw her nominated for Tasmanian of the Year.
One week before the award, Grace met Max Heerey who, like her, was a keen runner. From their first date they became inseparable and he has been by her side ever since.
“He’s got the biggest, biggest heart,” says Grace, fighting back tears. “I never in my life thought that I would ever find this after everything I went through.”
Grace and Max met one week before she was named Tasmanian Australian of the Year. Supplied: Instagram Grace Tame
A week after meeting Max, she was named Tasmanian of the Year, which automatically put her in the running for Australian of the Year.
“We went to Canberra approximately six days beforehand,” Max recalls. “After being there for a couple of days, we were like, ‘Well, this is a pretty big deal, and we probably should stop walking around with no shoes on and start taking things a little bit more seriously’.”
When Scott Morrison announced Grace Tame as 2021 Australian of the Year, the applause was so enthusiastic it almost drowned out his final words: “Let her speak.”
He was, of course, referencing the campaign that brought her to prominence, but looking back over the past 10 months his invitation takes on a certain irony. For it’s hard to recall a more outspoken Australian of the Year than Grace Tame, and much of her criticism has been aimed squarely at the Prime Minister himself.
Grace’s appointment first focused attention on child sexual abuse survivors, but emboldened a a broader movement condemning all sexual abuse and the treatment of women.
No-one could have predicted the extent to which those issues would come to dominate the national conversation, embroiling the government and causing discomfort for the Prime Minister personally.
“Looking back at the Australian of the Year awards ceremony, really it foreshadowed a huge shift,” Grace observes.
The government’s handling of an allegation by Brittany Higgins of rape inside Parliament House, as well as allegations of bullying made by former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate, helped create a febrile atmosphere.
By mid-March this mood of discontent manifested in marches across the country. As the year went on, the fallout from a strenuously-denied allegation of historical rape by then-attorney-general Christian Porter only raised the temperature. And Grace was not afraid to weigh in.
“If I did not stand up and speak truth to power, which is what I have always done, I would be a hypocrite,” she says.
“My job is to hear and stand with the oppressed.
“And if I have a platform that allows me to do that, you bet your arse I’m going to use it.”
Grace’s willingness to use her position to engage in direct political commentary has raised eyebrows, even hackles. She has been abused on social media and criticised by some media commentators.
In October, columnist Janet Albrechtsen accused Grace of dividing the country. “By antagonising many Australians with her increasingly political interventions, many people will stop listening even when she has something non-partisan to say,” Albrechtsen argued in an opinion piece.
“More and more, she is surrendering her unique presence as a sexual abuse survivor to dirty partisan politics.”
Grace sees such criticism as an inevitable part of the role. “You have to accept if you are going to dish it, you must be prepared to cop it as well.”
Journalist Karen Middleton, however, believes people who are troubled by Grace Tame’s outspokenness should reflect on why she was appointed Australian of the Year.
“She’s all about being able to speak your mind and not be silenced,” Middleton says. “It was her pushing back against keeping quiet that saw her awarded this honour in the first place, so I think people who are asking her to be quiet need to remember that actually is part of what we are honouring.”
Scrutiny on Australian of the Year ‘horrendous’
Watching Grace’s passionate speeches and polished TV appearances over the course of this year, it’s easy to forget she’s only 26 years old.
That’s extraordinarily young to be dealing with the pressure of being Australian of the Year, even if you aren’t a trauma survivor.
“I wouldn’t wish her year on my worst enemy, let alone someone who’s got a sexual assault history,” Nina Funnell says. “I think that the level of scrutiny that she is under is horrendous.”
When Grace was named Australian of the Year, the 2015 recipient, Rosie Batty, wrote her an open letter, warning of the pressures and demands ahead and pleading with the National Australia Day Council (NADC) to better support recipients.
“If there was one thing I would ask NADC to consider,” Batty wrote, “it is to prepare the honourees more thoroughly. Give an indication of the avalanche about to hit.”
While Grace is grateful to the council for the platform it has provided her, she acknowledges the challenges.
“Usually, recipients of Australian of the Year are much older than I am, they have more experience and they’ve got some knowledge of how to navigate a speaking circuit. Max and I were flying by the seat of our pants — we still are.
“It wasn’t clear how I was going to survive. I was just going to have to somehow figure out how to do all of this and also navigate all of the media.”
In July, Max quit his job in finance so he could focus his energies on managing Grace’s commitments and keep an eye on how she was coping with the emotional demands of the role.
He believes the National Australia Day Council could do more to support recipients, particularly those who don’t have staff or institutions behind them.
“A psychologist or a counsellor for Grace or myself would have gone a long, long way.”
The NADC says that after Rosie Batty’s tenure, it implemented “comprehensive reform” aimed at supporting Australians of the Year.
Furthermore, it says that given Grace’s personal circumstances it took “additional steps to ensure she would be supported financially, emotionally and otherwise”.
While Grace has made use of some of the support provided, she says being Australian of the Year is not a paid role, and that she is only reimbursed for costs incurred for doing promotional activities for NADC. There was no specialist trauma-informed support provided.
One aspect of the role Grace wasn’t prepared for was the number of people who reached out to her with their own stories of abuse. From the moment she was named Australian of the Year, these disclosures flooded in, leaving her feeling overwhelmed with responsibility and vicarious trauma.
Eventually she and Max employed a psychologist who specialises in sexual assault counselling to respond to the thousands of disclosures.
“It would be unfair to both myself and to each of those individual survivors for me to take on the responsibility of their story,” she says. “I’m not a trained psychologist, I’m not a therapist.
“I can offer my implicit support as I do to every survivor who wants my support. But for me to be giving advice on how to navigate the justice system or reporting, that’s not OK. That would be unethical.”
With her tenure as Australian of the Year drawing to an end, Grace is relishing the chance to recharge her batteries. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited by the thought of having a good sleep and maybe a little bit of holiday.”
Her close-knit family is looking forward to spending more time with her. Since returning to Hobart she has been able to reconnect with her young brother Oscar, who was born during the year she was abused.
“Oscar was born into a world of trauma,” Grace says. “I get very sad when I think about the first years of his life and how disengaged I was with him.”
They now have a wonderful relationship, spending time together on the family boat, a 12-metre motor sailer called Ocean Boy.
While she may soon lose the national platform being Australian of the Year provided, she can be proud of the attention she brought to a cause that many find difficult to talk about.
“I think Grace has done amazing things for breaking down the stigma and putting the blame right where it needs to sit, which is at the feet of the perpetrators,” says Penny. “And she’s freed a lot of people of the guilt and a shame that they’ve lived with.”
For her part, Grace has no intention of slowing down. Next month she will launch the Grace Tame Foundation, which will focus on education around grooming and lobbying for uniform wording of state laws and definitions concerning sexual abuse.
“Child sexual abuse is permanently damaging but it doesn’t have to stop you from doing anything,” Grace says. “In fact, it can be the very thing that drives you to achieve great things.”
Grace ‘makes peace’ with former school
The building at St Michael’s Collegiate School in which Grace was abused was recently pulled down. It is hard not to see some symbolism in this, as the school tries to make amends with its dark past.
For several years, the school’s principal, Adam Forsyth, has been reaching out to Grace and her family, trying to find a way to start the healing process.
“I wanted to make sure that she knew that I was incredibly sorry for what had happened here at Collegiate,” says Forsyth, who became headmaster in 2018.
When Grace finally accepted his invitation to address senior students in August, it provided a remarkable opportunity for her and the school community to deal with what had happened 11 years before.
One of the reasons Grace and her parents felt so let down by the school was that her abuse could have been prevented.
Grace says she is one of at least five girls who were targeted, conditioned and exploited at the school. “Some of whom I’ve spoken to, some of whose experiences of abuse were already known to the school before I was even born.”
Forsyth acknowledges it was “completely unacceptable” that the abuse was allowed to happen knowing that concerns were raised.
“From the information I’ve seen and heard from former students, from survivors, their parents and staff, it is clear that red flags of warning were being raised about this person well in advance of Grace being abused,” he says.
He believes the school can’t move on until the extent of this history is fully understood and he is calling for other former students to come forward.
“We are very much committed to owning that history and giving those survivors justice, hearing their stories, reconnecting with them and supporting them in any way we can.”
For her part, Grace has come to terms with the past, believing that Bester took advantage not only of her, but the institution itself.
“As someone who has been groomed, I know just how deeply confusing and stupefying it is. A lot of people in the system were used by this man.”
At the end of an impassioned speech that left many in the audience in tears, Grace offered these words: “For all that I lost here, I have gained it all and more in return simply by being able to share in this moment with you. I never got to graduate from this school. But this has been an honour.”
“It was quite overwhelming,” the principal recalls. “I’ve never seen a reception to a speaker like it.”
“We were all affected by it,” Grace says. “It wasn’t me against them or them against me or anything like that. We’d all been through this really traumatic series of events and we were all finally able to sit with each other in peace.”
Photography: Luke Bowden, Owain Stia-James, AAP, supplied: Grace Tame
Digital producer: Megan Mackander
Video: Owain Stia-James, edited by Angela Leonardi