In the first of a new InDaily series about resilience – Adelaide people who have bounced back from low points – Nicole Cornes talks about finding strength in the midst of public and private suffering.
Having to confront the man who sexually abused her as a four year old has been the hardest life experience for Adelaide identity Nicole Cornes.
“I don’t know how to begin to describe that feeling,” says Cornes, referring to the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her accused, Gordon Clarke, and the years of emotional fallout. Facing Clarke in a court room for four days in 2007 bought it all back.
“It’s like you become a little girl again,” she says. ”So, you’re outside the court and he arrives and I found myself hiding behind pillars, I became irrational momentarily, I forgot that I was a grown up women of 37 years of age.
“Then you’ve got to gather yourself and give evidence, and the defense weren’t easy. This is a man’s liberty at stake, he’s being accused of horrendous crimes and they weren’t easy.
“But because I had truth on my side I wasn’t afraid of any questions … if I couldn’t recall what I was wearing at four years old when he did that, then you start to obsess about it and they try and break you. But I got through it. I don’t want to be a victim.
“It’s never a good feeling sending a man to jail. I don’t think about it any more; it’s done and he’s served his time.”
Cornes knows a lot about the concept of resilience. She defines it as being “about the way you react to a hard time, it’s not about the good times”.
Today, Cornes is enjoying the good times.
Sitting in the modern beachside home she shares with husband and media identity Graham and their three children, Amy, 19, Charli, 10 and Gia, five, Cornes is relaxed and happy. Prior to the recent state election the former lawyer spent the past four years working as a ministerial adviser, most recently to then-Transport Services Minister Chloe Fox, who lost her seat of Bright.
However, the 44-year-old has given up the political pursuits to spend more time with her family. She’s painting the inside of the house, cooking, seeing friends and enjoying time out.
“When we (Labor) got back in by the skin our of teeth it was a sense of elation but after careful consideration I decided not to continue,” she explains. “At first I felt incredibly guilty, surely life can’t be this good and because I’ve always worked, or done something professionally, I really thought I’d have a sense of loss, but I don’t.”
When talk returns to bad times, inevitably the 2007 federal election comes up. Cornes ran as a Labor candidate for the seat of Boothby and freely admits the process was one of “overwhelming public humiliation”.
Relentless criticism for not being up to the task, for lacking political nous and having no grasp of basic election issues took a toll.
“I did think about quitting,” recalls Cornes.
A defining moment was when she was standing next to a set of stairs on the campaign trail.
“It was a national press conference and (then-Opposition Leader) Kevin Rudd came to town,,” Cornes says. “It was at the Adelaide Festival Centre, and Mia (Handshin), Rudd and I were there. We were standing near some stairs and I was so nervous, shaking inside and out.
“The national press gallery had assembled and (Channel Seven political reporter) Mike Smithson was leading the charge with all of his questions and I looked at those stairs and thought, I could do a massive runner right now. Just run and keep going.
“Anyway I didn’t. I decided to stand there and look them all in the eye.”
Cornes was forced to look herself in the eye when her face was splashed across the front page of the paper during the election campaign. Another low point.
“The make or break moment was when I woke up and saw my face, they’d magnified it so huge I could see I needed to pluck my eyebrows, on the front page of the paper looking a bit tearful,” she says.
“The story was basically that it’s too hard, she can’t cut it, trying to get me to quit. Once I got over the initial confrontation of that and reading that story, it just made me more determined, because that was not a truthful portrayal.”
When asked if she would describe herself as resilient, Cornes pauses: “I’m stronger than I think I am and I surprise myself. Resilience is your attitude.
“Graham has been a great support in this area with his experiences like Vietnam, football, team work and coaching. He’s really been a great provider in the strength and support that you need to stand your ground.”
Cornes had to dig deep again in 2011 when she took on Network Ten in a defamation case involving comedian Mick Molloy. At the time she was also suffering post-natal depression.
“There were parts of that that were really hard,” she says of that court case. “I got pregnant just after the election and was diagnosed with ante-natal and post-natal depression with my third child.
“I remember ringing my lawyer Greg Griffin and just crying on the phone and saying, ‘I can’t go on with this any more,” and he said, ‘yes you can. We will just take little steps until you are stronger’.
“I really think resilience is about the people around you as much as it is about your own strength.”
Cornes eventually won the case and was awarded damages and costs of $93,000.
Meeting ex-Guantanamo Bay inmate David Hicks a few years back was also a lesson in true resilience, according to Cornes.
“We went to Natasha Stott Despoja’s farewell from the Senate and Terry and David Hicks were at this same function and I ended up speaking to them,” she says.
“David was a very quiet man but he said to me, ‘you know what you went through was so terrible’, referring to the election. I looked at him and thought this man who has been vilified by so many people, by the State and Federal Government, and what he went through at Guantanamo Bay, the stories that have been said about him, truth or not, and he is saying to me, ‘I can’t believe what you went through’. That was perspective. I gave him a hug and said, ‘that was nothing’. Then I read his book and learnt in detail about what he’d been through. Now that’s resilience.”
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