How recent Australian true-crime books have rejected male authority in court narratives and explored ‘truth’ through feelings.
The law and its courts are a mystery, a shadow beyond the cardboard stereotypes of Law and Order or Crownies. While technically its doors are open to the public, the courts’ justice is veiled to those who don’t speak the language or wear the costumes.
We imagine it as a tawdry environment, where anyone called upon is shamed before an audience of strangers. Where every expert is discredited, every witness disparaged, every motivation and secret shame of the accused examined like a jeweller peering at a diamond. The history of human suffering is laid plain: Cain’s betrayal, King David’s adulterous transgression, the violence of the men who beat Christ. And all judged by a surly character in a black gown and preposterous wig.
But a court case can capture humanity’s darkest truths, and its exposition can make for captivating storytelling. Perhaps this is why there is an emerging genre within Australian true crime: the court narrative as a lens to explore a societal issue.
First pioneered by Helen Garner’s The First Stone in 1995, the publication of true-crime books exploring the machinations of the court, and the characters who inhabit its rooms, have multiplied in the last fifteen years. Recent examples include Anna Krien’s Night Games in 2013, which explores consent, masculinity and footy culture, and Wild Man by Alecia Simmonds (2015), which looks at the institutional care of the mentally ill.
In Michaela McGuire’s Last Bets (2014), it’s casinos and gambling ethics; in Silent Death by Karen Kissane (2006), the myths and truths of domestic violence are explored, while in Chloe Hooper’s acclaimed The Tall Man (2009), institutional racism and Australia’s violent colonial history are examined with a curious yet unflinching eye.
And, of course, Helen Garner’s recent This House of Grief (2014), which was a devastating portrait of a father’s capacity to commit an irreconcilable crime.
These narrative non-fiction books are marked by a sharp subjectivity, as the first-person narrator grapples openly with the case before them – and they’re all written by women.
Speaking about This House of Grief onstage at Adelaide Writers’ Week in early 2015, Helen Garner declared that she ‘greatly admire(s)’ and ‘is greatly influenced by’ Janet Malcolm, the long-time New Yorker columnist and author of the acclaimed book, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), which explored the ethics of journalism – and features the famous line: ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.’
Malcolm and, earlier, Joan Didion, are the most notable female proponents of New Journalism, which began in 1960s America, and included Truman Capote and Hunter S. Thompson. This style of non-fiction uses novelistic techniques like suspense, metaphor and plotting, and allows authors to include themselves as characters.
We can see this influence when Garner expresses Malcolm’s characteristic from the above quote in Joe Cinque’s Consolation, her 2004 book about a young woman who deliberately injected her boyfriend with an overdose of heroin.
There is a passage in the book where she listens to the concerned father of an accused murderer:
I said nothing. I dropped my pencil and listened to his version of another family distorted, shamed, brought low. I was affected by it. What further hurt might I inflict? What right did I have?
Julie Szego, author of The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama (2014), has a similar attack of conscience. In her struggle to get access to Farah Jama, the young man charged with rape, she attempts to discuss the book with his uncle, Abdurahman Osman, a leader in the local Somali community. ‘This is his story!’ Osman challenges her across a restaurant table.
‘I flinched,’ Szego continues. ‘He was right. Journalists swoop on other people’s stories, pick the eyes out, mangle and reshape until they’re something entirely different. We thieve and desecrate for a living.’
Anna Krien’s book Night Games followed the rape trial of a young state footballer who partied with Collingwood players. When I speak to her recently, she confirms the influence New Journalism has had on her writing:
Malcolm’s work was not only a story but also an investigation into the human condition and the role of the narrator. In most of my journalism I aim to investigate not only the obvious players on the stage but the observers and the narrators whose roles are equally, if not more, important.
And, significantly, Krien agrees that this technique is gendered:
Books like In Cold Blood are vastly different to, say, Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, in that there is no pall of doubt or questioning or reflection on behalf of the writer in Capote’s book, whereas Malcolm’s work and others like it, are all about that. ‘I’ is all out there in the open and trusting the reader to be sophisticated enough to tackle more difficult questions.
Didion, in her role of observer, is another founding mother of this convention. She writes in the introduction to her seminal essay collection, Slouching Before Bethlehem:
My only advantage as a reporter is that I’m so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.
Alecia Simmonds echoes this sentiment when we discuss Wild Man.
‘There’s a practical element that you’re just not as threatening,’ she says. ‘People become more rapidly intimate with women than with men. It’s a product of the lack of institutional authority that women have in society that it allows us to get in with people and get information.’
During the investigation of Wild Man, Simmonds attended the coronial inquest into the death of Evan Johnson, who was shot by police in northern NSW. She doubts that she would have been able to develop a relationship with Evan’s mother if she hadn’t been female.
‘I don’t think Pamela would have opened up to a thirty-something man,’ she says.
Garner, Krien, Simmonds and Szego have written narratives that incorporate their own doubts, prejudices and unanswered questions. The subjectivity of these books is a grounding feature, with many of the writers declaring their bias near the beginning.
In the prologue of Last Bets, Michaela McGuire details her ‘loathing of gambling’, which was propelled by six months of ‘waiting tables in the high-rollers room at Brisbane’s Treasury casino’, and an uncle who lost $100,000 to his gambling addiction.
Similarly, twenty-five pages into Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Helen Garner confesses her own selfish motivation:
I understand now that I went to Canberra because the break-up of my marriage had left me humiliated and angry. I wanted to look at women who were accused of murder…I needed to find out if anything made them different from me: whether I could trust myself to keep the lid on the vengeful, punitive force that was in me, as it is in everyone – the wildness that one keeps in its cage, releasing it only in dreams and fantasy.
Doubt also seems foundational to these true-crime narratives.
‘There’s a feminist tradition on the very basic level,’ agrees Simmonds, ‘that the personal is political, that subjectivity matters, that you can’t pretend you’re a neutral voice, that it’s better to explore your own subjectivity – to do that in a way that disrupts the all-knowing subject that is associated with male.’
Krien accomplishes this as she wrestles with the nature of consent in Night Games: ‘Can there be such a thing as an ignorant rapist, an opportunistic rapist or even a rapist by mistake? And does a jury’s failure to convict such a man…show a lack of sophistication and understanding about rape? Or is there a deep sense of unease among the public about labelling certain young men rapists?’
When I asked her about the gendering of questioning and incorporation of bias, Krien says:
Yes, a female writer probably does find it easier to write about their doubts and failings, and at the same time, I’d say the reader is more likely to accept a female writer doing this, more so than a male writer.
Another marker of these texts is the author’s validating of emotion amongst the impassive face of the law.
One of Garner’s key missions in Joe Cinque’s Consolation was to depict, and therefore honour, the furious grief and strength of Maria Cinque. The Mother of the Murdered. When the accomplice of the murderer was found not guilty, she explodes. ‘In a frenzy,’ Garner writes, ‘Maria Cinque dashed her handbag against the seatback. “Corruption in the court! It’s wrong!”’
In The Tall Man, Chloe Hooper observes the Palm Island women who travelled to witness the trial of the white policeman who killed local Cameron Doomadgee:
All of them were mothers with lost sons: sons in custody, sons who’d died in custody, sons who claimed to have been beaten by the police. To enter the courtroom they had to show ID, before being electronically wanded, then patted down. In the airless room they emitted a low drumbeat of heartache.
Of course emotion is not an experience unique to women. The common misconception that ‘boys don’t cry’ enforces a violent masculinity that strips men of the language of self-expression. But within the convention of gender as it is modelled in Australia today, feelings are still deemed the traditional realm of women.
Perhaps what it being explored here is more about what is acceptable, or even what is accessible; that entry point into the story, and it being a feeling or an emotional response.
Would Tom Doig’s The Coalface (2015) still be a sober narrative of people affected by a coalmine fire if he wrote explicitly of his loving respect for them, as he expressed in an episode of the Rereaders podcast?
Would David Marr’s The Bill Henson Case (2008) remain a clear understanding of the moral complexity of pornography versus art if he had included how he felt about the photographs? Perhaps for these writers to reveal their terror, or sense of betrayal, or compassion, would disrupt their appearance as writers within the male tradition, centred on reason or logic?
Perhaps an excursion from gendered conventions of writing would affect readers’ reception of their books?
But in the narratives of the aforementioned books by women the emotional reality is not dismissed as they would be in court but displayed as a form of truth. As literary critic James Ley wrote in Sydney Review of Books of Garner’s work: ‘All three books are grounded in the idea that to feel something is a kind of fact.’
When I asked Simmonds why she included her own feelings in Wild Man, she said, ‘I used my feelings as a source of knowledge. I tried to show how our gut instinct or tears may lead us to conclusions that go against our ideological or academic positions. It doesn’t mean that they’re more authentic or truthful – simply that emotions can be tested against, and used alongside, other forms of reasoning.’
The court system is a place of punishment and power. And power’s henchmen are almost always male. The Australian reported in 2011 that only fifteen per cent of Federal Court judges are women. And politicians – the legislators, the magicians who create and adapt society’s rules – outnumber women three to one. The system of law is inherently male.
In this emerging genre within a genre – the court narrative that explores a wider issue – Australian writers like Garner, Krien, Simmonds and McGuire have given a feminine reading to the patriarchal institution of law. They have translated the smoky language of justice and made it accessible. And by questioning established meanings, by allowing their bias to reveal the possibility of multiple experiences, and by honouring emotion in a logic-centric arena, their work is dismantling traditional, masculine symbols of power.