Music Lessons

A guest post by Matilda Duncan. CW: sexual assault

There was an Australian music industry campaign last year entitled #meNOmore. Along with hundreds of others, I signed the open letter, in which the first story mentioned was mine.

There I was, a young musician. There he was, the nationally-lauded musician and teacher. So many years have passed, yet I continue to work at shaking off the shame of letting my voice be taken from me as a teen.

My teacher became a friend, a mentor, and a father figure to me. I met him when I was 15, after winning an award at a national music event. He told me repeatedly I would pursue music to the highest levels, that I had the most potential he had ever heard in a young musician. When I returned to the event, he again selected me for more awards. For him I had soon built a pedestal; I took on every shred of his advice, and I trusted.

At 19 I moved cities to study with him. I was coming off two years of illness, following a medical accident that almost took my life, and I was especially looking forward to dedicating myself to music full-time. After six months, hugging was normal: with all of his students. On the night of a gig, it was only a tiny step further for him to press his crotch into my leg. Not long after, he grabbed my shoulder in his office, kissed me with his stale mouth, then sent me off to class. On my way I passed people I knew in the hallway and immediately felt distanced from them. Alone with a secret.

Those first episodes marked the beginning of months of abuse, progressing into incidents in cars, classrooms, his office, a storeroom. As the abuse intensified, my young life dipped into a destructive downwards spiral. I withdrew from learning and ceased to eat enough. I began to believe suicide to be the only logical response. He threatened my career, or at least the hope of a career I had believed achievable before he touched me. He told me he loved me, that I couldn’t tell anyone. And so I didn’t.

My health worsened. I told him I wanted to move back home to repair my health but he kept convincing me to stay, telling me to “put my troubles on the backburner”, to put music first. One morning when the urge to take my own life felt out of control I disclosed my deteriorating state to him; he assaulted me later that day. To him, I can only assume, my little life meant nothing.

Towards the years end he must have said something, finally, to another staff member, because school counselors came round to my house and took my intended method for taking my own life from my hands. Yet rather than seeking help for me, the director called my mother and told her I was to leave, saying I was “no longer [the schools] problem”. So I packed up. I drove alone for six hours up the highway. I was crying so much I didn’t notice I’d swerved onto the other side of the road and narrowly missed a head-on with a truck.

You might want a neat narrative arc about how I’ve defied ruin, how I went to court and found justice; perhaps you want to hear that I was able to build a thriving music career despite what happened or that the man showed remorse and apologised. The reality is murkier: in the years that followed, as many survivors do, I became dysfunctional and struggled to choke down my trauma enough to participate in daily life, though I might have looked outwardly productive. I came to feel isolated, no matter who I was with, and I kept fleeing, never comfortable sitting within myself, no matter where I was. Years have passed and the teacher has had plenty of opportunities to apologise or show even a sliver of remorse, but, similar to many perpetrators, he has not. I walked away from music—I couldn’t help but see him, and hear his criticisms of my ability and my body, whenever I played.

Through my years of rage and depression burned the question:why did he hurt me? How could somebody be that cruel? Was he hurting himself, with a deep need to take it out on another? Did he genuinely believe he had been teaching me, helping me? Was this type of behaviour with a student accepted by the circles within which he had previously moved? Had he never been called out before? Was he a psychopath with a deeply-rooted intent to harm? Was he bored of teaching, bored of his marriage, and using me for entertainment? Or was what he did soul-crushingly normal, something I should have expected, just another unremarkable piece of our culture? For so long I wanted concrete answers; now I’ve accepted they aren’t ever coming.

Others reached out. Some were nasty: that a person could be duplicitous, managing to maintain multiple roles as a wonderful educator to some and a mean-spirited abuser to others, fell outside of their comprehension. What has been equal to the abuse itself is the way people have denied my truth, and moved to silence me to ensure their own agendas kept advancing without trouble; they let the powerful sail through unchallenged, because it benefitted their bottom line. But when abusers and their enablers travel through life without consequence they receive the message that their behaviour is permissible. Inaction means their disregard for others is allowed an even greater stand.

Some were kind, some consolatory: we all knew he was like that. I have a friend who. For years we knew. Back in the day, people used to say. The comments came as a revelation, because, finally, I was not alone nor was I going crazy. And yet. I had been in contact with some of these musicians in my younger years, when they knew I was heading towards study with this person. Why was nothing said? To me they seemed complicit, but then, I also understood what it was to have a career threatened and taken away.

My abuser and the peers who have protected him—some of whom are famous, and work internationally—continue to be celebrated. Their names continue to be etched into national history through awards, recordings, teaching posts, positions in halls of fame, and adoring press articles. Their charming fronts are accepted unblinkingly by the nation, and so on rolls another cycle of abuse, similar to the ones that are ongoing in our schools and gyms and homes, without an end in sight.

As long as abusive behaviour is permitted to thrive it will continue to fall to survivors to speak, though we’ve already been through pain enough, though sexual assault and rape are never the fleeting actions they are portrayed as, never merely “twenty minutes of action”. They live on in possibilities that can be visited upon the survivor: physical injuries, mental illness, trauma, isolation, self-doubt, an inability to trust, difficulty maintaining employment, relationships and friendships, and in some cases, pregnancy, abortion, and the fraught journey of raising a child resembling an attacker. These possibilities spread outwards to the lives of families and friends, through our communities, senselessly. But lately, in these watershed months, so many are united in wanting a safer culture and in that there is hope.

My identity as a survivor is one that nobody would choose but it has connected me with people who I wouldn’t have otherwise met. I assume I have defied whatever future that troubled man intended for me, because I am still here. And I will continue to be here, listening, if and when you raise your voice—your story is important.




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