Demonising victims and understanding grief

Rosie Batty (insert son Luke)

Rosie Batty (insert son Luke)

I commend to you an article about homicide survivor, mother and crusader Rosie Batty by Martin McKenzie-Murray in the relatively new publication The Saturday Paper. I was particularly struck by the following passage towards the end of the article:

Rosie Batty is asking us to bear witness. She doesn’t want us to be intimidated by her pain, but nor will she edit it. “People won’t allow you to be angry,” she told me, “because it makes them feel uncomfortable. We have to act ‘normal’.”

Some of us have responded by blaming her, or questioning her motives, or wrapping our responses in incredulity because she upset our expectations of grief. These responses are mean and narrow. They’re unchastened by the lesson of Lindy Chamberlain, when we informally indicted a grieving mother because we didn’t like the form of the grief. “I thought about her a lot,” Rosie told me the first time we met. “They put her through hell. If people had treated me like that you’d probably get the same fucking anger from me. They weren’t treating her with compassion and belief. It was hideous.”

Rosie is asking us to think about much more than her – or even Luke. She’s asking us to think of molested women and children everywhere; of chronically underfunded shelters; of a court system choked with intervention orders. She’s asking us to unwrap messy knots of imperfect systems and cultural expectations. This inquest is following her some way up that path. She is asking us to view her not as an exotic creature, but one who has much more in common with us than we think. The first night she appeared on our television screens, she voiced what will become an iconic statement: “I want to tell everybody that family violence happens to everybody, no matter how nice your house is, how intelligent you are. It happens to anyone and everyone.”

Of course, Rosie Batty and Lindy Chamberlain are not the only victims of this noxious phenomenon of unsympathetic public reactions to victims of serious crime. Joanne Lees was subjected to a similarly repulsive trial by media and public when she escaped the clutches of murderer Bradley Murdoch after he had killed her fiance Peter Falconio on a remote part of the Stuart Highway near Barrow Creek in the Northern Territory. Rape victims experience it to an even greater extent, depending on whether they project what the public regards as a proper demeanour for a victim.

But surely a talent for projecting a genuine but dignified grief, feigned or otherwise, should have nothing to do with the way we respond to and analyse horrendous crimes. Are socially awkward victims less worthy of our compassion or more fitting objects of suspicion and scepticism than tastefully histrionic victims?  Nevertheless, that’s the way it is. As Groucho Marx put it in a slightly different context: “Sincerity is the key for an actor. If you can fake that you’ve got it made.”

Perhaps if the public understood that victims go through stages of grieving, and that the way they do so will differ from person to person, they wouldn’t be so quick to judge and condemn others who are enduring almost unimaginable suffering. Of course, most of the people who exhibit these sorts of thoughtless, almost cretinous responses probably don’t read Club Troppo. Nevertheless, it can’t hurt to try to help them understand.

Arguably the most prominent analyst of human grief of the last 50 years has been psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. She says that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.

Kubler-Ross’s theories have had numerous critics, but her stages of grief certainly coincide with my own experiences following a horrendous crime our family suffered some years ago. They also coincide with my observations of the responses of close family members, and more generally the responses of legal clients to situations involving grief.

Nevertheless, we need to make some qualifications or at least apply more sophisticated understandings in order to identify and deal constructively with grieving responses in people with whom we are dealing (or judging through what we see of them in the media).

First, the ways in which the stages of grieving manifest themselves in observable behaviour will differ depending on the personality type of the grieving victim. For example, an introverted person will manifest anger or depression in a different way from an extrovert.

Secondly, the process of grieving doesn’t necessarily or even usually coincide precisely, simplistically or sequentially with the five stage process Kubler-Ross describes. People may oscillate between denial, anger, bargaining and depression over time, depending on an unknowable range of influences, before eventually achieving acceptance.

Even years later something can happen and you find yourself back in a toxic mix of anger, self-blame and depression. It happened to me only a few days ago. I was driving into the Darwin CBD for an appointment when I passed St Mary’s Cathedral. It was where Rene’s funeral took place almost 20 years ago.  There were lots of young people gathered outside in their finest formal dress-up gear on a hot Darwin morning, as a hearse drew up in front of the Cathedral.

I suddenly realised it was the funeral of Joshua Hardy, a young Darwin law student studying at the University of Melbourne who had been kicked to death on the pavement outside a McDonald’s on St Kilda Road the week before.  In that instant I was back in July 1995 when Rene was murdered, the emotions just as raw and powerful as they were then.  I had to pull over because I couldn’t see the road through tears.  What a weird thing! The difference between then and now is that I can usually compose myself after 10 minutes or so and get on with things, with no visible symptoms.

You can achieve “acceptance”, but the visceral horror and memory of the nightmare aftermath of violent crime are forever imprinted on your psyche. If you haven’t experienced grief flowing from a sudden and horrific violent crime, you can’t really know what it’s like, and you certainly can’t know how you would respond in such a situation yourself. So how dare you judge Rosie Batty, Lindy Chamberlain or Joanne Lees?

The last important qualification to Kubler-Ross’s grieving formula that applies when grief is triggered by violent crime, is that the stages of grieving will be prolonged and confused by the legal process. In the case of Rene’s murder that process took four years to complete, because the case was appealed right through to the High Court of Australia. During that time, acceptance or “closure” was impossible. You re-enter a cycle of anger and depression each time you hear from the DPP’s Victim Support Unit that another appeal has been lodged.1

The legal process can also trigger renewed grief many years later, when it comes time for the offender to be released from prison. That is at least something Rosie Batty and Lindy Chamberlain won’t need to deal with, the former because her ex-husband was (thankfully) shot dead by police shortly after he murdered their son Luke, and the latter because the dingo was never sent to prison. It’s something that Joanne Lees might have to face one day, although with any sort of luck Bradley Murdoch will never be released.

Unfortunately, it’s a situation that our family is about to face. The 20 year non-parole period of Roy Bernard Melbourne expires in less than nine months time. I know that my (now former) wife Jenny is dreading the moment and not handling the situation at all well. He will be 80 years old and probably doesn’t pose a threat, but you can’t really be sure. We never really understood why it happened in the first place; horror descended on us from a clear blue sky, just as it did for Lindy Chamberlain and Joanne Lees.

Anyway, this has been catharsis for me more than anything else, and therefore a bit self-indulgent. Thanks for reading it.

  1. Incidentally, or perhaps not so incidentally, the High Court appeal only failed 3:2 (Kirby and Callinan JJ dissenting).  If only one more Justice had held in favour of allowing the appeal we would have been back in court facing a fresh jury trial.  Our ever-present fear in that regard had been that our daughter, who was the only eye-witness to the crime, might have been required to give evidence and re-live that awful evening.  At the first trial the defence had agreed that Bec’s written sworn statement could be adduced in lieu of oral evidence.  The same would probably have occurred at any retrial, because it wasn’t really in the offender’s interest to emphasise to the jury the fact that he had butchered his elderly next door neighbour in front of her then (almost) 7 year old granddaughter.  But we could never be certain until the last appeal was exhausted. Another defence counsel might conceivably have reasoned that Bec’s evidence could bolster their prospects of succeeding on their chosen defence of diminished responsibility. After all, what person in their right mind would do such a thing?  Being a litigation lawyer yourself isn’t necessarily a positive attribute for the role of passive observer to a legal pantomime that vitally affects your life and future.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic at Charles Darwin University, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law) and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 12 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in he early 1990s.
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8 Responses to Demonising victims and understanding grief

  1. zoot says:

    People may oscillate between denial, anger, bargaining and depression over time, depending on an unknowable range of influences, before eventually achieving acceptance.

    Which is why I prefer the terminology “aspects of grief” (grief is not a linear process).
    A great post. Thank you Ken.

  2. LJS says:

    You’re welcome, and thank you.

  3. Paul Frijters says:

    soulful Post, Ken.

    You ask why do ‘we’ often blame victims? I know it is perilous to answer such a emotional question in an intellectual way for one is by necessity stepping back from the emotions and is analysing it as just another puzzle. Still, you pose the question, so here goes.

    The key is, I think, that when we are openly confronted with a victim’s grief we are implicitly or explicitly asked to rally to a cause: to right a wrong, to avenge something, to share pain, or to live with something. In a sense hence, talking openly about grief is a form of violence inflicted upon us: it brings us out of our other pre-occupations and it is demanding time of us, perhaps even demanding us to put ourselves at risk when righting the wrong. The demand of displayed grief is one of a social kind: our group membership is brought to the fore as requiring something of us. The group norm has been violated, come stand witness, be outraged, and join the cause!

    So how do we react when such a call for group solidarity comes? We think of whether the call to action is ‘worthy’ and we do that by comparing the situation to our notion of how things should be in our group and how much we actually care about that ideal or the group that is implicitly involved. If the situation fits that notion, then we answer appropriately, though usually still minimising effort whenever we can. But if it does not, we feel almost cheated: asked to be part of a cause we do not truly agree with, with our group solidarity abused, and then we fight back against the demand. We blame the victim for not fitting the ideal. We want the issue to go away, essentially out of laziness in that we do not wish to change our ideals, become active on something that does not fit them, or because we essentially dont need that group enough to warrant the energy asked for.

    For most observers, grief is thus a spectator sport: something they observe and perhaps even enjoy seeing (look at how bad others have it, arent we lucky and havent we been clever to avoid these mistakes!), but not a call to do something that is properly answered. Given that the world generates millions of victims everyday, this is not just the normal reaction, but in fact the necessary reaction as none of us have the time to respond to all the calls. Anyone who does not in some way ignore most victims will quickly go mad with grief themselves. This holds even for victims themselves, who will use their own grief to feel entitled to ignore the grief of others, for they will feel, rightly so, that their displayed grief is a competitive call to action.

    For some observers in groups very close to the victim, often family, renouncing the group is not an option and the call cannot be ignored. For some, such as the police, it is their group-appointed role to do something and to right the wrong. Some make their living out of exploiting the situation and going through group pantomimes associated with the grief.

    • Ken Parish says:

      Thanks Paul. That’s a really thoughtful response. I certainly agree that there is an element of schadenfreude in the responses of many people to the spectacle of a crime victim in the public spotlight.

      I also agree that many if not most people probably take it as a spectator sport or a soap opera: an essentially fictional presentation that they can enjoy in a superficial way without any real-life consequences to anyone. The problem is that this simply isn’t the case. The opinions about the victim they express, whether in letters pages of newspapers, on talkback radio or to their mates at the pub or club or other social group, get conveyed in all sorts of ways to the victim and family. The latter are people whose nerve endings are incredibly raw; they are in one of the most emotionally vulnerable situations that one can possibly imagine. So I guess in part my post is a plea to readers to keep in mind that they are not just dealing with a fictional soap opera.

      I think the theories of psychologist Jonathan Haidt are also relevant here. People make moral decisions/responses intuitively and instantaneously based on “moral modules” hard-wired into the brain over centuries of evolution. Victims who publicly exhibit their grief in a manner that seems strange or inappropriate are spurned as outsiders from the tribe, to be viewed with fear or suspicion. The problem is that this inevitable shorthand/heuristic method of making moral decisions was formed in another age when most people lived in villages and just about everyone knew each other. Thus these judgements about others, albeit intuitive and instantaneous, were made in a context where the “judge” probably had quite a lot of knowledge about the personality, social background and history of the person being judged. If they didn’t, then they certainly knew someone who did and would probably rely upon that person’s judgement of the person whose behaviour was in question. That is the social aspect of Haidt’s theory of “social intuitionism”.

      By contrast, in today’s electronic global village we are still using this decision-making method to make glib evaluations concerning people we know just about nothing about. Of course, this applies to people’s moral evaluations generally, not just those they make about the blameworthiness of victims of crime. However, it has a much greater effect on victims of crime than on others in the media spotlight (e.g. celebrities) because crimevictims are much more emotionally vulnerable. Haidt’s theory goes on to suggest that even when people give reasoned explanations for their moral judgements they are usually just unexamined ex post facto justifications of the intuitive judgement they have already made. Nevertheless, Haidt also suggests that we are not helpless captives of social intuitionist decision-making. We are actually capable of genuine reflection and revaluation if we choose to make the effort.

      Of course, your comment makes the powerful point that most people just don’t have the time to do any such thing. No doubt that’s true. But I harbour a forlorn hope that it might be possible to educate people at least to realise that the glib immediate judgements they make about these things are precisely that. We can’t suspend judgement because it’s in our nature, but we can at least factor in a realisation that we are making judgements about things we cannot possibly understand and therefore should be reticent about expressing our opinions in a public forum, especially when they are about people in extraordinarily vulnerable positions like victims of violent crime.

      • Paul Frijters says:

        there is another side to that argument, Ken, related to my main point that openly displayed grief is a form of violence itself, a time-demand of others. One might argue the counter-point, that insensitivity is one of Australia’s great charms. It allows the Ozzies to be optimistic and happy whenever they can, unencumbered by the grief of the world.

        Of the countries I have spent time in, New Zealand and the Netherlands have that greater sensitivities you ask for, Ken. And they are not happier peoples, with the public sphere a cacophony of competing grief.

        What you wish for is no small thing.

  4. conrad says:

    Maybe I got a different feel for it compared to other people, but I found that with Rosie Batty, there wasn’t a lack of sympathy from the general public in the way that you see in many other cases (i.e., victim blaming), but rather it was mainly the court system making her suffer (where she really did appear to get treated appallingly).

    The second of these seemed entirely unnecessary as far as I can tell given the perpetrator was killed, and thus was mainly confined to various people/organisations trying to deflect blame as far as I could tell. This might in fact be an indirect public effect where people expect these sorts of organisations to be perfect (which is obviously impossible given the people and constraints they deal with) and so if something goes wrong this then creates more problems for the victim as they try to think of stories to indemnify themselves from the public.

    I know people are always suggesting ways to help the victims in court in these cases (e.g., using video links and so on), and I’m always surprised that they are not used more, especially in cases like this where only secondary organisations are coming under fire. I find this disappointing.

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks for the post Ken. I knew of the deceased whose funeral you passed from my son’s school. Degrees of separation. It was a terrible, senseless murder too.

    The other person your post put me in mind of was Phil Cleary.

  6. Oliver Townshend says:

    One aspect of blaming the victim was the way Joanne Lees was treated by the press. The Australian media would report that the British media were reporting suspicions about her, and the British media did the reverse. So they could all suggest she was actually the guilty party, without having to name the actual accuser. A sad way to report.

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