A convergence of childhood trauma, mental health issues, jealousy and revenge led to a terrifying incident that almost destroyed Sunny Grace’s family. Here, for the first time, she describes the night that changed her and her family’s lives forever.
You know the saying, ‘to put a bomb under someone’, referring to people who need to get moving in life? Well, my family literally had a bomb thrown at us and I can attest it actually works. Not without some terrible repercussions, however.
The mention of the firebomb in my recent article ‘Emptying the nest’ seems to have sparked (pun intended, humour being one response to trauma) a reaction in many readers who took the time to message me. Whenever I tell anyone our home was the target of two Molotov cocktails, the first question I am asked is where do we live? When I say Erskineville, they are even more shocked now the area is gentrified and has thrown off its dangerous past. Perhaps they expect me to answer Mount Druitt. Or perhaps they think it is something that doesn’t happen in Australia. Well, it happened to us. In Erskineville. Two Molotov cocktails, AKA petrol bombs. And the aftershocks are still being felt.
The effects of trauma are finally being recognised after being largely misunderstood in the past. All those returned soldiers suffering PTSD in silence and hitting the bottle, or their families. All those women suffering from DV and abuse wasting their lives in fear, having a Bex and a good lie down, drowning their sadness in alcohol. Still, society is not well equipped to deal with it. Meds can be a band aid for a much deeper wound. It takes time to find the right treatments, as we have discovered over the past five years.
But let’s go back to the night in question. It was a normal Saturday night. We had been to our sons’ basketball games at Marrickville PCYC. We stopped, as was our habit, for a pho on the way home. Our youngest son wanted to sleep in the loungeroom, so my husband decided to stay up with him awhile. My oldest son and his friend who was having a sleepover were playing Xbox. I went to bed and was asleep when I woke to the sound of glass smashing and the smell of petrol and thick black smoke on the ceiling like some kind of dark magic, a special effect in a movie.
I ran down the stairs, grabbed the cat and the boys, and told them to follow me. In the living room flames flickered along the roof. My husband was at the door with the fire extinguisher already in his hand. My youngest son was wide eyed awake on the couch under the flames. I gathered him and the dog and herded everyone into the backyard, my phone in my hand.
The operator answered my 000 call and asked who I needed. Police, ambulance or fire? I didn’t know. I called out to my husband who replied, “Police,” as he managed to put the fire out with our fire extinguisher. Everyone should have one. The Fire Department didn’t attend, which in retrospect was strange given the front of the house was charred along with the downstairs ceiling. My husband was a hero that night and yet he is still suffering with PTSD and a feeling of failure because he feels he failed to keep us safe.
The perpetrators both attended my oldest son’s school, Newtown High School of the Performing Arts. Both had traumatic childhoods and decided to blame my lovely son when one of them was suspended for threatening to bring a gun to school and stab one of the female students. This boy came from a childhood filled with neglect and drug abuse. He had been in state care for a long time which is how he ended up at Newtown. There is a stare care facility in the school zone. Both the boys spend some time in gaol.
We were very lucky. Petrol is a very fast accelerant. If it weren’t for the fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and my husband’s bravery, the ending could have been very different. We endured two years of court appearances and dealing with victim services. We moved from Erskineville to Alexandria to escape the memories of that night. Coping became our new normal. My bright, blue-eyed youngest son lost his shine. My oldest son put on a brave face for years, even managing to finish year 12 at the same school despite some kids taking the side of the perpetrator, not fully understanding the nature of the crime – intent to cause grievous bodily harm.
And yet, about eighteen months after that night, the collateral damage became evident. My husband retreated into the couch, away from the world. The combination of the firebomb and his own childhood trauma too much to bear. Sirens triggered his PTSD until he descended into a deep depression with suicidal episodes. He took off into the hills of Byron Bay to escape the trauma and city, resulting in my youngest son also becoming depressed as he watched his hero disappear both mentally and physically.
My oldest son and I held on for as long as we could but during 2018/2019, we both succumbed to mental health issues. It has taken our family a long time to find the right treatments. For me it is the Richards Trauma Process and writing, where I can make sense of the trauma through story (although this is the first time I have attempted to write about the firebomb. I know I will write a piece for performance inspired by it when I am ready). For my sons it is sport, friends and PlayStation. For my husband it is the healing power of nature, quiet and calm environments as well as exercise. He is currently trialling CBD oil and therapy.
They say out of trauma comes growth and this has been true for us. We have made changes to our lives where we may have remained stagnant. I am happy living between the North Coast and Sydney. We have managed to stay together as a family despite the firebomb. If the family unit had collapsed, the perpetrator would have won, given his intention was to destroy what he longed for, a loving family. I hope he finds some peace and a way to move beyond his own traumas. As my husband is slowly learning to move beyond his.
I can only speak for myself, but I feel clearer now, stronger. I have learnt so much about myself, life and my family since the firebomb. It is an ongoing journey. However, I would advise you to proceed with caution when recommending putting a bomb under someone. Especially while our society is still learning how to treat mental health.
Sunny Grace is a Sydney writer, producer and director. Her website is located at sunnygrace.com.au.