“I think that that’s what it means to really be a leader. To realise that a leader is just a role within a whole party working together. Like a domino in a line, you can be the catalyst to knock over something really big.”
CONTENT WARNING: this article discusses child abuse and sexual assault. If you or anyone you know needs help, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you're at risk of violence, contact 1800 Respect 1800 737 732.
Mist swirls between the pylons of Hobart’s Tasman Bridge. The mercury inches towards double digits as glimmers of daylight begin to eke from clouds on the eastern horizon. Dawn approaches.
The Tasmanian capital sleeps, but one lycra-clad figure drives her stiff knees forward through the darkness.
“One step at a time, one foot in front of the other,” Grace Tame mutters to herself between strides. “It’s all you can do.”
It’s a motto that has carried the up-and-coming runner thousands of kilometres, including to her first marathon win at the Ross Marathon with a women’s course record time of two hours 59 minutes in October 2020. It helped her re-learn how to walk after her muscles had atrophied as a 15-year-old girl, hospitalised with anorexia, her condition so bad that her legs could not hold the rest of her bones up.
But it has also helped Tame to take within her stride the seemingly insurmountable trauma of child sexual abuse.
“I lost my virginity to a paedophile,” she told a silent audience when she accepted the award for 2021 Australian of the Year in January, in a speech that has gone viral on multiple news websites and been viewed on YouTube more than 13,000 times.
“I was 15, anorexic. He was 58, he was my teacher. For months he groomed me and then he abused me almost every day. Before school, after school, in my uniform, on the floor.”
Many Australians were familiar with Tame’s story before she took the trophy from Prime Minister Scott Morrison with a sprinkling of trademark dry humour: “Straight to the pool room!” She was the pivotal, for a long time anonymous woman who sparked the #LetHerSpeak campaign run in collaboration with journalist and sexual assault survivor Nina Funnell.
The campaign sought to overturn an archaic Tasmanian law preventing survivors from speaking publicly about their abuse – the same one that silenced Tame. Tame won special leave from the Supreme Court to reveal her identity in 2019, while Funnell lobbied the Tasmanian government to amend its Evidence Act to allow other victims to speak up, achieving success in state parliament in March 2020. The legislation was amended to allow adult sexual assault survivors to use their real names in media if they provide consent in writing.
“Hear me now!” Tame shouted down the microphone on the eve of Australia Day, after years of forced silence.
“Yes, discussion of child sexual abuse is uncomfortable. But nothing is more uncomfortable than the abuse itself.”
Tame’s determination to tell her story has thrust her into a powerful advocacy role as a leader and inspiration for survivors of child sexual abuse and sexual assault. Her message comes amid a time of societal reckoning against family violence and violence against women. She is among a growing chorus of young women speaking out about assault and abuse, some of which transpired in previously closed-door environments, from Sydney private schools to the halls of Canberra’s Parliament House.
Lounging in her Hobart living room with the Zoom screen bouncing around as her laptop wobbles in her lap, Tame seems relaxed and confident. Her cheeks bear the warmth of sunlight, exercise, wide grins, and good food. She has already clocked 13 kilometres on the trails of Hobart’s hinterland this morning (less than she might usually pound out because she’s tapering for a 10km race on the weekend). She’s talking about how she has the renewed optimism of “a glass half full person”. But, she admits, it has taken her the best part of 11 years to refill that glass.
“It has been a very long journey. I’ve abused alcohol and drugs and, you know, I have cut myself,” she tells LSJ.
“I have a big scar down the left side of my left thigh that says ‘fuck’. I came home after being raped on the floor one day, and I just went ‘fuck it’, and I drank about – I must have drank about 500 mls of straight vodka. I was 15, on my bedroom floor with a kitchen knife. And I literally carved the word fuck into my thigh. I was 15 and my daily life was the most degrading thing you can think of.”
Tame’s candour can be confronting, but it is incredibly potent. The #LetHerSpeak campaign she became part of has provided direct legal assistance to 17 individual survivors since its inception in 2018, and spurred reform of victim-gag laws in the Northern Territory, Victoria, as well as Tasmania.
“I certainly hope I’ve given other people courage. I mean, there’s nothing more empowering than empowering others,” Tame says.
“I think that that’s what it means to really be a leader. To realise that a leader is just a role within a whole party working together. Like a domino in a line, you can be the catalyst to knock over something really big.
“When people start to doubt their contributions, saying, ‘What’s five cents here’, or ‘What’s the impact of my signature on your issue?’ As a domino, even if your contribution is really small, it can be the difference in creating change. And if you took that domino away, the chain might not have continued.”
Opening up about her abuse marked a new chapter for Tame, and winning the right to tell her story publicly in 2019 was clearly a turning point. After several dark years living in California, her days punctuated by drugs and alcohol, Tame moved back to Hobart in 2020. She lives a couple of streets away from her mother Penny and the bedroom floor where she once cut herself, but her life couldn’t be more different.
Most mornings begin with an early run – either solo or with her partner Max (who dubs himself “run bae” on their Instagram posts together). She prioritises eating well, yoga, spending time with her family and friends and getting out in nature. As for bigger-picture priorities, she tells me: “Hell yeah, I’ve got heaps of goals!”
Normalising the conversation about child sexual abuse and sexual assault is a high priority. Improving education as a means of prevention is next on the to-do list; she says the uncomfortable conversations should begin at a young age in schools and continue through adulthood in workplaces. She also wants politicians to consider legislative reform of sexual consent definitions: “We’ve got eight different jurisdictions with eight different definitions of consent in Australia, creating all these grey areas on something that should be absolute and consistent,” she says.
Her advocacy is not easy work. The hours are long and the toll of retraumatisation is high. Tame will repeat her story over three separate interviews today alone, but she’s taking it all in her stride.
“All you can do is put one foot in front of the other,” she says. “I use the same motto when I’m running my marathon races. I don’t think about kilometre 42, just the next step.
“This award is for every survivor. It has granted us permission, as a whole community and as a whole society, to be vulnerable to share our truths. I’m getting up there and owning it. And going, this is it, this is who I am. I’m not afraid, and I’m not ashamed to say it.
“We are redefining what it means to be a survivor of this issue. And I feel super proud to be a part of this paradigm shift that we’re creating as a nation.”