The words "This is not a nice book" cut through the deafening silence of a crowded room.
Menslink's chief executive Martin Fisk pauses for a moment, letting the sentiment sink before repeating himself. "This is not a nice book. But it's an important one."
It's a solemn moment in what is an overwhelmingly heartfelt night. One of the many emotional moments that make up the book launch of Nathan Spiteri's memoir, Toy Cars.
Many in the room have already wondered aloud whether they'll bring themselves to read it. Spiteri's story would be hard for a stranger to read, but for this crowd, the pages are filled with the story of a loved one. Their boy from Queanbeyan.
Toy Cars is a story of the unimaginable. It's a story of severe trauma, child sex abuse, grooming and manipulation. It's a story of addiction, sex, drugs and violence. But as much as it is about all of those things, Toy Cars is a story of hope, because, despite everything, Spiteri is still here to tell it.
"It's always hard because you don't know how someone is going to react, or how I'm going to be judged," he says.
"But I've written this book for anyone who's been through any kind of trauma. Any kind of PTSD, mental illness, domestic violence, physical abuse, mental abuse, bullying. It relates to everyone who's been through any kind of trauma because it's all relative."
It all started on a day that began just like any other. Eight-year-old Spiteri joined the crowds at the Queanbeyan swimming pool on a hot summer's day where he spent the day playing in the pool, enjoying himself in the way only a kid on school holidays can. Slowly, one by one, his friends left for the day and Spiteri was left alone. It was when the young boy headed to the change rooms that the Man - as Spiteri refers to him in Toy Cars - followed him in.
What followed was a brutal assault that left Spiteri lying on the floor of a shower cubicle, bleeding and crying.
"The young boy had disappeared and was never coming back," Spiteri writes.
That day was just the start of years of sexual abuse, grooming, lies, manipulation and violence.
The Man would pick Spiteri up from the bus interchange after school and take him back to his house. Spiteri's friends wouldn't think anything of it. The Man was always so casual that they presumed it was a family member giving him a lift home.
Sometimes it was days between visits. Other times, it was weeks or months apart. And all the while, the Man would be threatening to kill Spiteri and his family if he ever told anyone what was happening.
For four years this continued, until one day, Spiteri realised it had been a while since he had seen the Man. He rode his bike over to the Man's house only to find a woman and a little girl living there. Spiteri was left dazed and confused, wondering why the Man would ever leave him. For even though he hated the Man, Spiteri also thought he loved him.
"I had so much self-anger and self-hatred; I believed I deserved failure and to live in shame. My biggest problem was that I kept it all inside, pushed it so far deep down so that I could keep up with my life," he writes.
This is only a small fraction of Spiteri's life - the events only take up the first 68 pages of the book. The other 247 pages focus on the fallout. Toy Cars follows Spiteri as he lives a Jekyll and Hyde life. From the outside, he was an unassuming teenager. But in reality, he would find himself in Fyshwick's sex shops and cruise lounges where he would have underage sex with men, before proceeding to physically assault them.
This continued into his 20s, when he would also struggle with drugs and alcohol. When anyone tried to get close to him - friends, family, girlfriends - he would put up walls, closing himself off.
The young boy had disappeared and was never coming back.Nathan Spiteri
And so he lived, until one day, he couldn't keep it in any longer. Spiteri was living in New York, studying acting at the prestigious HB Studio, when in the middle of a cafe he blurted out to a friend the entire story.
It's been about a decade since that day. A day that led Spiteri to get help, to go to therapy, to join support groups and eventually work up the courage to tell his family what happened. Three years ago, Spiteri decided to tell his story publicly with The Canberra Times.
The story was met with a flood of messages from strangers as well as his oldest and dearest friends. Some had been through the same experience - at the same swimming pool, even. Others were from further afield, with messages coming (and continuing to come) from across the world, telling tales of men and women who have been raped.
"It's a worldwide thing. It's not just a Queanbeyan or a Canberra thing, or just in Australia or the US. It's a worldwide pandemic, but it's still such a taboo subject," Spiteri says.
"It's still swept under the carpet. People think it's too hard to talk about, so they don't want to know about it and just go on with life and pretend it is all rosy when it's not. Especially with men.
"It's 2021 but we still live like it's 1921, where men aren't allowed to cry, men aren't allowed to talk about their feelings. No matter what we're going through, we don't talk about it and then it just builds and it churns inside until one day, you f***ing explode, and you abuse your partner, or you beat them up, or you kill yourself or you kill someone else, and you go on this rampage."
- Little boy lost: How a brutal paedophile groomed this small-town boy
- SUBSCRIBER: If only one in 1000 rapists are punished, it's time for a new system
- 'Important recognition': Child-safety advocates welcome designs for national memorial
- Law changes in ACT sexual assault reforms not enough, government says
Today, Spiteri continues to share his story. Waiting in the wings and set to follow the release of Toy Cars, is the book's first incarnation, the Toy Cars screenplay.
When Spiteri first sat down to write his memoir - piecing together passages he had written as part of his therapy - he originally did so as a film script. The script made way for the book and now - following talks with his producers in the United States - he's looking at turning it into a limited series, allowing the script to go into the detail.
"You need to go deep, you need to tell the story, you need to talk about how it really does happen and what it does to people and not just touch the surface of it," he says.
But perhaps the most unexpected path Spiteri has found himself on concerns the work he goes for different not-for-profits. He has aligned himself with organisations that take a stand against sexual assault or focus on mental health, such as Canberra's Menslink. He's also a global ambassador for the Child Liberation Foundation - a not-for-profit organisation that aims to eradicate child sex trafficking.
Child sex trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world. It has surpassed the illegal sale of firearms and is expected to surpass the sale of drugs - becoming the largest criminal industry - in the coming years.
"The issue is I can sell you cocaine once, I can sell you heroin once and it's gone. I can sell you these kids 10 times a day," Spiteri says.
"There are more people around the world enslaved today than there ever has been in the history of the world. There are over 10 million kids in child slavery and the average age is 13."
Spiteri says you only need to read the news - taking note of every person facing court on child pornography charges - for evidence of how widespread the issue is. But it's still an issue that society tends to avoid. Out of sight, out of mind.
"This is the shit we need to be marching about," Spiteri says.
And so he will. He's in the process of organising a worldwide march for later this year and is meeting with UN representatives regularly to make it happen.
"I think it is baby steps with this stuff. But I think the only way it's going to progress is by people coming out with their stories," he says.
"I'm just a little boy from Queanbeyan. I never thought this would be the road I'm going down. I never thought I'd be organising a global march. I never thought I'd be having my story be this book. But what happened to me, happened for a reason. And the reason why it happened to me is to educate the world, is to share my story, is to save a life."
- Toy Cars by Nathan Spiteri. Three Little Birds Press. $28.99.
- Lifeline 13 11 14. beyondblue 1300 22 4636.