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.