BEAUTY Beyond Darkness
by Lilla Benigno
When I had discovered my mother was Italian, I was excited because I had heard and read so much about the wonderful large Italian families where everyone loved everyone, where there was always plenty of food and laughter at big long tables. My illusions were all too soon shattered.
So when I began reading this book, I was prepared for the worst. I’d already read some of the author’s posts on Twitter and Facebook, but nothing could have prepared me for what I read within those pages.
Lilla Benigno was born in Sicily; her mother gave birth to 15 children in total, three of whom died. The family was poor, but they managed to eat fairly well. Lilla contracted polio when she was six months old. She only had one arm she could use, and she suffered muscle atrophy in both of her legs. Her lungs were also affected. She pulled herself around on the floor with her good arm. Although her parents did what they could, it was eventually decided it was in her best interests to take Lilla to a Catholic home for disabled children in Milan. She was well cared for, and for the most part, was very happy there. There was good medical care by the nuns and qualified doctors. But she rarely saw her parents; Milan was just too far away for family visits.
Lilla’s true nightmare began when the family emigrated from Sicily to Melbourne, Australia in 1970 when Lilla was 12 years old. Lilla was very happy in the care of the nuns, and she had friends there whom she loved dearly. She had her own bed and there was plenty of food. She didn’t want to leave.
Life was very hard in Melbourne where her father worked long hours to pay the bills and for basic food for such a large family. Her parents were exhausted caring for 12 children on little money. The boys shared one double bed and the girls another, sleeping top and tail. Lilla bore the brunt of her father’s rages and endured sexual abuse by a family member. It finally came to a point when she could no longer stomach her father’s violence and the humiliating verbal abuse he meted out to her. Lilla was lonely and she missed her friends at the Catholic home in Milan. She eventually ran away from home to live on the streets of Melbourne. She was fifteen years old. There she descends into a world of drugs, casual sex, prostitution, and rapes. All this while wearing heavy iron callipers on her deformed legs. She couldn’t walk far let alone run. The abuse hurled at her for being a “cripple” is heartbreaking.
In my wildest dreams, I had no idea there was an undercurrent of rape, violence and sexual slavery right in the heart of Melbourne, namely St Kilda and Fitzroy Street at that time.
Lilla endures many months in various rehabilitation centres over her years on the streets, to combat her drug and alcohol addictions. Whenever she drank heavily, she wanted sex, and this invariably led her into very dangerous situations, many of which ended in gang rapes and sexual slavery. Through all of this, Lilla never forgets her mother and her younger siblings. Whenever she made a lot of money, she would take a taxi to her parents’ house and give most of it to her mother. The family was struggling and desperate for decent food and clothing. They had to be careful that Lilla’s father didn’t find out or come home while Lilla was there.
Lilla does meet people over time who genuinely care about her and who help her, but mostly the men who helped her wanted sex, and nothing less. Even a priest who had helped her and in whom she trusted, sexually assaulted her. It is no surprise that she ends up hating the Catholic Church and its god. She used to pray to god, but she realises her prayers don’t achieve anything, and she gives up.
Lilla gets the opportunity to move to Cairns and her life changes for the better. Her mother encourages her in the move and when she falls pregnant with her daughter, Caroline, her mother gives her the strength and support to keep her, albeit over the telephone. During these troubled times in Cairns, her mother is her lifeline. Lilla needs plenty of help to care for her baby, and she does find this in Cairns. She still suffers some dark episodes, but she ultimately finds peace and happiness with her beautiful daughter. During her former drug and alcohol haze in Melbourne she is compelled to give up a daughter and a son, whom she has never forgotten. Her mother has since died, but after growing closer to her while living on the streets of Melbourne, she believes her mother’s spirit is always with her.
Lilla Benigno is a remarkable woman. A woman who has survived so much tragedy, violence and sexual abuse to become the mother she always wanted to be, and a talented artist of some repute. And now she has published a book. I urge you to read it. You will be horrified, overwhelmed, but at the end, inspired.
BEAUTYBeyondDarkness has since been translated into Italian.
-Anne Frandi-Coory 2 May 2016