Few people knew that Alexandra Tapp had been struggling with the trauma of childhood sexual abuse, as she had only mentioned her ordeal to her closest family and friends.
Now revelations that the popular young vet, who died in June, had been sexually abused as a child and teenager have compounded the grief of her shattered family and the tight-knit community of Narrabri, in north-west New South Wales.
The sudden death of the talented 32-year-old equine vet from a drug overdose left the community reeling. The coroner is investigating the circumstances of Ms Tapp’s death.
Her younger sister, Virginia Tapscott, was one of the few people Ms Tapp felt she could confide in.
“This was part of the problem, I suppose,” Ms Tapscott said.
“When you disclose any sexual abuse or sexual violence you’ve suffered it’s a really vital part of recovery, being able to safely disclose to people and feeling comfortable to do that.
Since her death, Ms Tapp’s family has been sharing her story in the hope that it will help others.
Ms Tapscott knows how confronting it can be to discuss such personal traumas, because she too was a victim of child sexual abuse. The sisters were both abused by an older family member who has since died.
“I guess I suppressed my memories until I was 28, until a couple of years ago,” she said.
“That’s when I spoke to my sister about what had happened. I knew very clearly how she felt about it.
Ms Tapp was also the victim of a separate rape when she was a teenager. That matter was reported to police.
According to Our Watch, a not-for-profit organisation that helps prevent violence against women and children, one in five women in Australia experience sexual violence after the age of 15. That figure rises to one in three women when physical assault by men is also included.
“The courage that this family is showing in talking about this, it gives me great hope that we can drive change and people can use their experiences to help other people,” Our Watch CEO Patty Kinnersly said.
“This is in every community, and I think what’s happened in [this] community, demonstrates that it’s not just poor communities, it’s not just Aboriginal communities.
“It doesn’t matter who you are or what level of influence you have, we can all do something and it’s based in respect for women and girls in everything we do.”
A catalyst for change
Ms Tapscott said acts of sexual abuse and violence were some of the toughest to talk and hear about, but that was changing in the wake of her sister’s death.
Since Alexandra’s death, Ms Tapscott has launched her own online support group for sexual abuse victims and has been “overwhelmed” by the number of people who have contacted her to discuss their own experiences.
She said it was vital for people to speak up — where possible — if they suspected abuse was occurring because by remaining silent, they enabled it to continue.
“People are sick of the social standard that has developed that tolerates it — and that’s exactly what it is. People don’t like it, but they tolerate it by not speaking up.”
An unbreakable bond
Ebonnie Whan became friends with Ms Tapp when their families attended the same primary school north of Narrabri.
Ms Tapp was Ms Whan’s bridesmaid at her wedding, and the pair spoke on the day Ms Tapp died.
“I knew in my heart something bad had happened to her, but she wasn’t able to disclose the full situation or what she had endured,” Ms Whan said.
Ms Whan is keeping the tough conversations happening by launching a podcast in her best friend’s honour called Conversations for Ally.
She describes the pain and grief she experienced when Ms Tapp passed away as “crippling”.
“When you’re faced with something like this, you need to start to question your views on things and why you think the way you do and why you say the things you say,” she said.
“I just felt I was left with no option but to speak up for her and for other women who might be in similar situations.
“And that’s when I thought of sharing other women’s stories of hardship, women from the bush, just to get some other ideas out there, and to get people to think in different ways.”
Small community pulls together
Since Ms Tapp’s death, the outpouring of support for her family and friends has started important conversations and has raised funds for the prevention of sexual violence.
“It’s really heartening to know there’s such kindness in the human spirit as well,” Ms Tapscott said.
Just one example of support has been a fundraiser organised by the Corrigan family who run Rennylea Angus at Culcairn in the state’s south.
They created a fundraiser for Our Watch in the best way they knew how — by putting a bull up for auction.
The bull sold for $15,000, with the auctioneers adding an extra $5,000, taking the total to $20,000.