Mention Rena Owen’s name and most people think of Beth Heke, the unforgettable character she brought to life in the iconic Kiwi film Once Were Warriors.
Yet it is not Beth – the battered wife who eventually stands up for herself – who Rena identifies with in the movie. Instead, it is the character of Grace, Beth’s daughter, that the actress is able to relate to most.
Like Grace, Rena (51) was a sensitive and creative teenager who immersed herself in her own world. And like Grace, Rena hid a devastating secret that was to have a huge impact on her life. She too was sexually abused as a child by a man who held a position of trust. She was also raped on two separate occasions when she was 12.
Unlike Grace, who took her own life in Once Were Warriors, Rena has come through some dark times intact – although she admits there have been periods in the past when she contemplated suicide.
Now she describes herself as not just surviving, but thriving.
“What happened to me damaged so much of my life, but I won’t let it twist me up any more. I want to live a great life and make a difference.”
The actress, who also played Hine Ryan on Shortland Street, is taking the brave step of speaking out for the first time about what happened to her, and the impact it has had, because she hopes it will help other people who have been through something similar.
She is horrified by the number of sexual abuse cases coming to light in New Zealand, especially in Northland, where she grew up. The recent Roast Busters case also left her feeling deeply disturbed and wondering just how many girls and young women are keeping quiet about having been raped or abused.
“I can understand why people keep it hidden – I did for years. But it is important to bring that which is dark into the light,” she says. “Not only is it okay to talk about what has happened, but it is vital to talk about it or it will eat you up on the inside.”
An intelligent and articulate woman, Rena is also extremely emotional and doesn’t keep her feelings in check as she talks about what she has endured.
There are a couple of very brief flashes of anger, but mostly there is tremendous sadness, and the tears flow freely for the “damaged little girl who became a sick young woman”.
But by the time Rena walks away after an intensely draining interview with the Weekly, her head is held high, she’s smiling and exudes a palpable sense of calm, dignity and strength.
Rena was about seven years old when a trusted neighbour started abusing her. One of nine siblings, she was an insecure child who’d been emotionally and physically bullied from her first day at school, when her new classmates pulled off her woolly hat and laughed at the botched haircut her father had given her.
“It was like I had written all over my face, ‘Pick on me’. For some reason I was an easy target,” she says.
Looking back, she can see how the neighbour, who has since died, worked at winning her over, telling her she was a good girl when she ran errands such as buying him milk and bread at the shop. When the touching started, he told her “you shouldn’t be so pretty”.
“I blamed myself,” she says. “It was my fault for being a temptation. He told me that. He also told me I was sexy. I was seven.”
What he did to her left Rena feeling dirty. “But I didn’t tell anyone. What was I supposed to say? Back then you didn’t talk about this sort of thing. I kept my guilty secret to myself.”
The abuse ended after a couple of years, but Rena’s nightmare was by no means over. When she was 12, she left a function at a local hall to play outside and was approached by a man in his twenties who was there with a group of his friends. He cMaxed her into some pine trees nearby with the promise that he would teach her to kiss.
“I was at that age where I was starting to get interested in boys. I was curious so I went. He started kissing me and then proceeded to go the whole nine yards. I couldn’t stop him. One of the worst bits was his mates watching and laughing.”
The tears are streaming down Rena’s cheeks as she recounts this incident. Then she takes a deep breath, brushes the tears away and carries on.
“A few months later this mongrel’s brother dropped a bunch of us kids off at our homes after we had been to athletics. I was the last one left in the car and I realised he wasn’t going the way to my house. He took me to the dump, forced me in the back of the car and said he wanted what his brother had had.”
After being raped for a second time, Rena retreated into a bubble she created. “I had this imaginary world where I was safe,” she recalls.
But in the real world, the then 13-year-old coped by going through a period of promiscuity that lasted for two years.
“I thought that was what the boys all wanted and I might as well give it to them. You think it is all you are good for.
“I got into all sorts of trouble. I went from being a good little girl who wanted to be a nun through to a rebellious teenager. My parents didn’t know what was going on with me – my poor, poor mum.”
The future was looking bleak, but when she was 15 several things happened that changed her life. The first was falling in love. Although her boyfriend would later cheat on her and break her heart, the relationship stopped her being promiscuous.
“At the time all I wanted was to marry him and have lots of babies. I could have ended up as a real-life Beth Heke.”
Next, to everyone’s surprise, Rena passed her School Certificate exams.
“I went from being the girl the principal wanted to expel to everyone being proud of me. It made me want to work hard at school and do well and I began to settle down. I even got University Entrance.”
At school Rena also discovered a love of acting. However, it wasn’t a career option in those days so she trained to be a nurse.
Her compassion for people made her good at her job and when she went to London on her OE in 1982 she had no trouble getting work.
With money in her pocket and enjoying the freedom of being far from home, Rena was keen to have lots of different experiences – which included experimenting with drugs. Still traumatised from her childhood, Rena ended up hooked on heroin.
“I couldn’t understand how my friends could walk away from it and I couldn’t.”
Soon, Rena was close to hitting rock bottom. The heroin was costing more than her wages and she was on the verge of either resorting to theft or other criminal behaviour, or else working as a prostitute.
“I didn’t want to prostitute myself because of what I had been through earlier in my life, but that would have been the next step. I just couldn’t give up the heroin, despite trying to stop multiple times. The self-hatred I felt caused me to mutilate myself.” She still has the scars today.
Rena now sees what happened next as “divine intervention”, although she didn’t feel that way at the time. She was arrested at her drug dealer’s house, while helping the woman to sort out drugs for sale to earn herself some extra for free. Without legal advice she incriminated herself in her police statement.
She spent seven months in jail, with the bulk of her sentence served in Cookham Wood Prison in Kent, England.
Being locked up meant the then 24-year-old was able to get the help she desperately needed to get over her addiction.
“In the beginning, I painted a perfect picture of my past to the counsellor. Everything was happy in the imaginary world I had created in order to survive.”
“I had to deal with the past I’d buried. It was like pulling a plug and all this rage I had came flooding out. I was lucky in a way – prison gave me the time out I desperately needed to help and save myself. Without it, I might be dead in a gutter somewhere.”
Not only did the therapist help Rena to deal with the abuse, but she encouraged her to unleash the creativity she’d stifled for so long. Rena began writing and finished a play. She also began thinking about trying her hand at acting.
When she left prison she went to drama school and spent the next few years working hard to hone her craft. She loved acting because she could be someone else. But off stage, she struggled.
“I hid away in baggy clothes – I had an amazing figure, but I didn’t want any attention. I’ve been through lengthy periods in my life of being celibate, I couldn’t handle a relationship.”
When Rena returned to New Zealand in 1988, she told her mum Cynthia, who has since passed away, about the abuse and rape. “She was shocked – she said, ‘How could I not have known?’ I pointed out that she had nine children and spent half the day in the wash house and the other half in the kitchen. She was an amazing person – I don’t know how she did it.”
In 1994, Rena landed her dream role as Beth in Once Were Warriors. The irony of appearing in a film that included a storyline about sexual abuse was not lost on Rena, but she did not let it get to her and put her personal feelings aside.
But she was still fragile – and the fame and attention that came after the film was released was overwhelming at times. It eventually led to moments of self-destruction.
One was the widely reported incident in a Northland pub when Rena hit another woman with a pool cue. It came after an exhausting international tour to promote the film and she was trying to unwind when the woman harangued her.
“The moment it happened I was so sorry – I knew it was wrong – but it was as if all the frustration of not being able to fight back all those years ago against the bullies and the people who hurt me just came out in that instant.”
It’s been a slow journey for Rena to get to where she is now.
“I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, and I’ve had a lot of therapy. I’ve got to the point where I am more comfortable in my own skin,” says Rena.
“Everything I have been through has made me the person I am today, but I’m still a work in progress.”
Her family has been a huge support and in the past, when she’s lived overseas, it’s been important to Rena to visit often. “I don’t believe I would still be here if it wasn’t for them.”
Neither would she have come through the trauma without her strong Christian faith. “I am a big believer that God uses everything for good.”
One day she’ll write a book about everything she has been through, but for now she hopes that sharing her experiences through the Weekly encourages others to seek help.
“You can’t bottle it up – you are only as sick as your secrets. Shame and guilt is debilitating. If I can stop it from destroying even one other person’s life, that will make me happy.”
photos: Caren Davies • hair & make-up: Kate Smith • stylist: Sonia Greenslade • P16 & 18 (main): Rena wears Laura Ashley dress, gregory jewellery. P17 (inset): Rena wears little stitch dress. P18 (main): Rena wears little stitch shirt, workshop jeans. location: Hampton beach house, Devonport