Journalist Rachael Brown’s book Trace: Who Killed Maria James? is our last First Book Club book for the year, and it’s a fascinating way to end 2018. Trace is Rachael Brown’s first book, but it’s not just her story. First and foremost it’s the story of Maria James, murdered in her Thornbury bookshop in 1980, and the closure her two sons, Adam and Mark, are still hoping for. Over 16 months Brown developed the ABC Trace podcast in an attempt to prompt people’s memories, bring forward new information and give Adam and Mark a better understanding of just what happened to their mother. This book tracks that journey, and Brown discussed it with our First Book Club Coordinator, Ellen Cregan, recorded live at Hill of Content Bookstore on 21 November 2018.
Since recording, the Victorian Coroner has reopened the Maria James murder investigation: read an update here.
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Meaghan Dew: Hello and welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. I’m Meaghan Dew, and this is the last First Book Club recording of the year, which means 2019 is coming up way faster than it should be. Despite that blip, I’m really excited to be bringing you Rachael Brown in conversation with Ellen Cregan. They spoke about Trace, the podcast and the new book from Scribe, at Hill of Content bookshop a few weeks ago.
Ellen Cregan: Welcome everyone to Hill of Content, we’re here meeting tonight on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation and before we start I’d like to pay respects to their elders past, present and emerging, and tonight we’re also recording for the KYD Podcast. We’re lucky to be here tonight with Rachael Brown, who’s the creator of the podcast Trace, and the book of the same name, which is in her hands, which we’re going to be discussing tonight. So the format is Rachael and I will chat for about 30 minutes and then there’ll be some time for questions at the end, and I’ll give you all a heads up when the time comes for questions so you can be ready and have them in your mind. So Rachael’s going to start by doing a little reading from the book.
Rachael Brown: The reading I’m about to do is quite poignant actually, because episode seven of the podcast, that will come out next week or the week after actually involves DNA testing on two items, and one of the items is the one that I’m gonna be reading about now.
As part of my inquiries into father Thomas O’Keeffe’s family tree to try to find nieces or nephews who could possibly provide a DNA sample, I tracked down someone who used to be a friend of his family. I’ve been putting off calling them just as I did with Father Bongiorno’s sister, as I suspect they won’t be impressed by me doing this podcast if they still have an allegiance to the O’Keeffe family. But, again, assumptions can lead to unnecessary self-censorship. This man, who has asked not to be named, invites me over. As we have a cup of tea, with his heater blasting away in the background, he confirms what I’d feared. Both of Father Thomas O’Keeffe’s brothers, his older brother and his twin, have died. So that’s siblings ruled out. ‘Any nephews?’ I asked. ‘Did the older brother have children?’ The family friend thinks there might be a nephew interstate.
‘What kinds of things do you need for DNA?’ he asks.
‘Oh, it could be anything: saliva; hair; blood, of course is the easiest.’
I tell him they’re even using toenails now. A really strange look crosses his face, and he raises his hand as if to say ‘Wait,’ and disappears into another room. He returns, carrying something. ‘Would this help?’ I keep my distance, utterly confused about what’s going on.
It was […] the priest’s twin brother’s.
‘I don’t know why I kept it, but now that you’re here today, maybe it was meant for you?’
I’ve been really slow on the uptake, but it finally sinks in, and a chill races down my spine despite this sauna of a lounge room. Here I was asking about nephews, and he’s gone one better. The ace card – potential DNA from Father Thomas O’Keeffe’s twin brother. Oh my God, this could solve it, I think. This man, who was I was nearly too scared to call, might have just handed me the missing puzzle piece in the form of a [PAUSE]. He asks me to be discreet about what this item is; while he wants to help with my investigation, he’s equally keen, admirably so, not to open old any old wounds of the O’Keeffe family. What the hell do I do with it? This was not part of my journalism course.
I vaguely remember Ron Iddles telling me something about a snap-lock bag when I’d asked – jokingly – about swiping DNA, so we raid the pantry. I carefully lift the [PAUSE] into a snap-lock bag with the end of a pen, and seal it. Then I can’t help but sit mesmerised by it. As we finish our tea, the little plastic bag sits on a table between us, and it hits me how weird my life’s become. I’m about to have a dead guy’s [BLANK] in my handbag.
EC: Thank you for that, very intriguing. So for those in the audience you haven’t yet had a chance to read Trace or listen to it, can you give us a rundown of what it is, and how you came to the story?
RB: So a colleague and friend of mine, Kerri Ritchie, had done a story for 7:30 in 2014 about Ron Iddles, a detective who was moving from the Victorian police force to the Police Association, and her story for 7:30 was about his two cases that really still bugged the hell out of him, that he’d never managed to solve – and one of them was the Maria James case. So when she filmed that story she spoke to me afterwards, and she said ‘you know what, he said something really interesting off-camera. He said that an electrician has just come forward and given a witness statement about seeing a priest that day covered in blood around the time of the murder, so you should keep in touch with Ron Iddles because I think this is just about to be made public.’ I thought, oh god, this is going to be huge, because this is a case that by that stage would have been 34 years old, and Kerri was going off on maternity leave. So I called Ron a month later, he said, ‘yeah, it’s really weird, nothing’s come of that yet.’ I called him a couple of months later, same thing again, and then in the middle of 2015, Father Bongiorno, who was the priest that the electrician had seen covered in blood, who also interestingly was the priest that Adam James had revealed a year earlier had been molesting him, he was ruled out as a suspect. So it was that that kind of just, something niggled, and I thought, well, I can’t understand how a priest who’s been seen covered in blood, who had the motive of pedophilia, how he could be ruled out, yet this witness is adamant that he saw him that day. And so that started me thinking well is there anyone protecting this priest, is that something I should look into? So that started my interest in in the story.
EC: It’s certainly an intriguing image, a priest running, covered in blood.
EC: You couldn’t leave that, could you?
RB: And the way he describes it too, he’s not, um… I know a lot of people had doubts about Allan Hircoe when I first ran this story, about why would you come forward so many years after. And I had that same thought, and so I went in there quite sceptical about what I was about to hear, to that interview. But he was, is highly credible, he said look, you know, on the day I saw him, he remembers he had blood on his hands, blood on one arm and blood on one side of his face, so the same side of his faces as the arm. One sleeve rolled up and the priest had said ‘I fell in the rosebush near the fence,’ or ‘I fell, I scratched myself on the fence near the roses,’ he couldn’t remember which way round that was, but he remembers it vividly. He said to the priest, ‘hang on a sec, I’ve got a first aid kit in the car, I’ll go get it,’ and then when he came back the priest was gone. And the next thing he heard was inside the presbytery, someone’s screaming in Italian, a woman’s voice, at the priest. And he thought ‘oh god, he’s got in a lot of trouble for getting blood on his shirt.’ And then he didn’t think about it, he didn’t join the dots until 2013 when the Adam James molestation story was in the Herald-Sun and Father Bongiorno’s photograph was in the paper, and Allan Hircoe went ‘oh my god, that’s, that’s the guy that I saw with blood on him that day,’ and then finally he joined the dots. But it took, you know, this sat on his to-do list for about a year, he thought, ‘oh, I don’t, what if it’s nothing what if I…’, you know, and he told his friend, a policeman, he kept nagging him saying ‘go in, go in and report it,’ so finally he did.
EC: So what was the timeframe between him seeing this man and then the news breaking about what had happened to Maria?
RB: He found out, he would have found out, he said, in the afternoon, so he said the news came over the radio and he’d heard – when he got back to his office he’d heard his colleague say, ‘avoid High Street, it’s been closed off’, so he just thought there’d been an accident or something like that, so he didn’t even connect High Street being closed off with the priest covered in blood. He heard about Maria James either on the radio that night or would have heard about it the next day, didn’t think anything of it, even though the church is three doors down from the bookshop.
EC: It’s so interesting the way that our brains kind of keep those things apart sometimes, I think.
RB: And think about it too, I mean… cops never interviewed Father Bongiorno, or Father O’Keeffe who was the other priest living at that presbytery. So it’s, I don’t blame Allan for not joining those dots, I think back in the 80s there was this veil I think, or a lot of people had blinders on about what priests were capable of. The stories that we’re hearing now in terms of the stories that are coming out of the Royal Commission, they weren’t so common back then. So Ron, you know, and I mean he tears up about this – he says ‘I should have spoken to Adam, we never interviewed Adam,’ but he said, ‘we never thought to interview the priests, why would we?’ They were God’s men on earth, they never did anything wrong, they never thought they’d be capable of pedophilia, let alone murder. So I can kind of see how Allan fell in that same basket, it wouldn’t even have crossed his mind that the priest could be connected to a murder that was in the same street on the same day.
EC: And just to return to Ron Iddles, so can you take us through what his connection to the case is?
RB: So this was his very first homicide case in 1980, he was this plucky 25-year-old who’d come from, I think he cut his teeth on the mean streets of Collingwood, so with, you know, the crooks and prostitutes, and that was the Painters & Dockers era, and so he kind of grew up quite quickly on those streets, and then finally got his dream of being asked or invited into the homicide squad. Because he used to watch the Homicide TV show as a little kid when he was working on the farm, his parents’ farm, and so to him that was always his dream, to make it into the homicide squad. So this was his very first case, and I think that’s why he remembers it so vividly, I think that’s why he started crying at the Wheeler Centre a couple of weeks ago when he was asked about it, and he said, he said to me that he felt a lot of pressure because it was his first case, he was working with three other detectives who were far more weathered than him, so he had a lot to prove, other people have told me that there was a lot of egos involved – I’m not sure, I haven’t been able to corroborate that. But they all would have been trying to prove themselves in this tiny little homicide crew. And it’s beautiful listening to him speak about what he thought was his job, and the honour of the job, he describes it as an honour, getting to investigate the murders of Victorians and try to bring their family answers. And he said, ‘we did that without any discrimination – colour, creed, you name it.’ And he really held true to that through his career, he’s been one of the most unbiased policemen that I’ve ever met. He charged someone once with a murder and then realised when he was doing more investigation that this guy hadn’t, couldn’t have done it – so then he worked to get the guy clear, to get the guy’s name cleared. You know, I don’t know how many other cops would do that. And so he’s got more integrity in his little finger than most people have in their entire body.
EC: So what happened to Maria was really horrible, she was stabbed to death in her home which was also a bookshop, but from reading the book I really got the feeling that you didn’t want Maria to be kind of just that horrific crime and just that statistic, and just that kind of historical instance. Her life before her death is kind of, it is quite fleshed out, and you don’t let her death overshadow her life, I suppose. Why did you choose to approach her story in that particular way?
RB: I just think a lot of true crime makes my stomach churn when it treats crime like entertainment. And so I tried to keep the book in the same vein as the podcast, which was very much, very respectful of Maria and her boys, and so much so that I’ve – sorry if you’ve heard me talk about this before because I talk about it ad nauseam – but I approached Mark James for his blessing to do Trace the podcast, and had he said no I wouldn’t have done it, and that was my top priority, that they were comfortable, because it’s their story, it’s not my story, and it’s Maria’s story. And I went to a talk recently in the US, and this line was used, and I thought that’s perfect, that’s what every journalist needs to remember – ‘be story tellers, not story takers.’ And so I didn’t want to take her story. I’d had the benefit of Serial, listening to Serial… Have all you guys heard Serial? No? You’ve got that to look forward to, I guess. And that was a good lesson for me because Sarah Koenig – brilliant journalist – she was accused of leaving the victim, Hae Min Lee, who was a Baltimore college student who was murdered by her boyfriend, Sarah Koenig the presenter of Serial was accused of leaving Hae Min Lee glaringly absent in the podcast, and Hae Min Lee’s brother got on to Reddit and wrote, you know, ‘you’re all treating this like an episode of CSI but it’s our life, you know, and you’re forgetting that.’ And so that to me was an early – this is when true crime was starting to come out, and podcasts in general were starting to come out from a niche market into more of the mainstream, and I could see how people as reporters, as podcasters, we need to be careful about that. So that was always top priority for me, making sure that the James brothers were comfortable with what I was doing. So I got their permission, I got Ron’s blessing, I went to Victoria Police to get the blessing of the Assistant Commissioner, and so… It’s just about being respectful and compassionate, and she’s not a story, you know, she’s a woman that lost her life probably trying to defend her sons, and I didn’t want her to be fodder for entertainment. So thankfully the ABC, which I’ve worked for nearly 17 years, was very was supportive of me in terms of keeping the message very respectful the whole way through, and same with Scribe. And that’s why it’s one of the big reasons I chose Scribe as a publishing house, because I felt very safe there, and I felt like that that would be a good home for Maria’s story, because I didn’t feel like it would be a book that would be just churned out, you know, a graphic kind of blood-red cover screaming for people’s attention. I thought, you know, after my meeting with Henry Rosenbloom, the editor, I thought, no, he gets it, he gets me, he gets how important this story is to me, and the entire Scribe team have have followed suit and have been really – probably put up with me a lot! – but very respectful of her story.
EC: That sort of makes me think of that podcast Without a Trace, which came out a couple of years ago, I think? I always got the feeling with that, because the case kind of, it’s a little bit similar that the case is unfolding as the podcast is happening, but it always felt like he was really pushing a narrative rather than, like you say, telling a story – he became very involved, the creator. And I felt like even though it was compassionate, like maybe it didn’t have that respect that I think Trace has. I don’t know.
RB: Yeah, I just, in terms of – that’s a good point, too – I tried, I don’t think it’s my role to say who I think did it. So I tried to present people with all the information, I know Teacher’s Pet have done it differently, it’s quite clear who Hedley Thomas thinks did it, and in a lot of other podcasts that’s the case too, but I wanted to let listeners feel like they were walking through the investigation with me and make up their own mind about the information that they were being given. And also it was a safety thing – so let’s say someone is charged with Maria James’ murder, and let’s say this man is still alive, I would not want his defence lawyer to be able to use my podcast in court to say, ‘oh, well Rach was so adamant it was the priest, so it can’t be my guy. So I just, I wanted to – and also I don’t have all the facts, and I hope that I’ve been quite honest about that. There are 10 cold-case boxes sitting out in a storeroom, a warehouse in Laverton, that police are not gonna let me anywhere near, you know, or any member of the public, not just because I’m a pesky journalist. So there could be someone in there with an equally compelling motive that I just don’t know about.
EC: So with the process of investigating the case, what was that like for yourself and for your team? What were, like, the highlights and the terrible moments?
RB: The team for the first year was me, like you’re looking at her, so that was, that was the traumatic part of it. It was me, and Kerri Ritchie tried to help a lot – so in 2016 I was doing the investigation around my actual job as a reporter for AM/PM and The World Today, the radio current affairs program, so I was interviewing rape victims, dealing with victims of crime, transcribing these brutal accounts of rape, looking into satanic cult abuses, and that was around the time I met James Shanahan, and he made accusations against the second priest at St Mary’s, Thomas O’Keeffe, so in trying to shore up those allegations I had to go back to other survivors of Thomas O’Keeffe and learn awful stories about him. So all that was around my actual job at the same time as I was trying to get Trace commissioned, so I started to have really incredibly bad nightmares through that time. So at the end of 2016 I started speaking to a counsellor about it, and that helped things a little bit – because I didn’t want to put the images in my head into my friends heads, or family’s heads. So my one bit of advice out of Trace is if you’re ever starting something that could potentially be this dark, to start speaking to someone early. So that was the hard times. Kerri was a godsend, she’s been my friend since I started at the ABC as like a green, 21-year-old cadet, so I don’t know what I would have done without her. So she came with me when I visited Father Bongiorno’s sister, she picked up the phone every time I was paranoid about something, or sad that the ABC hadn’t commissioned it yet, and she’s got two little girls and she would have had no time for any of that, but she, you know, she gave me that time and helped me investigate. She was the one that tracked down the electrician in the end – she found him through, we found his son through a local football club on Facebook, but then…
EC: Ah, Facebook.
RB: Yeah, but then, no but what actually works, and never failed in this investigation, was handwritten cards. So we worked out his address and wrote him a card, and then he called Kerri after reading the card, and she said she nearly cried with relief because we’d gone through a series of really bad times and dead ends, and I – we upset one victim terribly because we were late for an interview, so we just had this string of knocks, and then Allan Hircoe called and she said ‘I could have cried,’ like we finally had our Holy Grail. We’d been searching, I’d been searching for him for most of 2016, and really bugging the shit out of a detective called Howard Beer who just refused to help me, so when that happened that was, yeah, that was a real highlight.
EC: I often ask fiction writers actually, who write about really terrible things, how that weighs on them when they when they’re putting them together – but for you that’s a completely different thing, because these are real things that really happened. So how does that, like, beyond seeing a counsellor, how do you kind of get through that when you’re putting something like this together, that you’re doing to help people, essentially?
RB: That – like, remembering what I’m doing I think. So on the really terrible days Kerri would just say, ‘just remember why you’re doing it,’ and it was for the James brothers. Because we had, God I had some shitty days where I thought, what am I doing? I haven’t been on a date in a billion years, I haven’t exercised for two weeks, haven’t seen my family, but that, she just kept reminding me of that which I think was important. So have a touchstone about why are you doing it. And yeah, it was harder because it’s real, and there’s this, whether it’s real or imagined responsibility to get answers, because I promised Mark James that I would do my best. So I always feel like that’s sitting on me, and next week I think will be really telling. Next week or the week after, the Coroner is going to announce whether he’ll hold a new inquest, and I think that will be better than any, if that happens that’ll be better than any award that Trace has managed to win, because that’s what I wanted to do from the outset. I can’t solve it, I’m not a detective, I can’t run around swiping people’s DNA all over Victoria, although I’ve tried. But it won’t be me that solves it. But I saw myself as a vehicle for leads from the community, and information that I could pass on to police to help them solve it, or to help the Coroner’s Court solve it. So I always saw myself as a channel, but I thought the most that I can possibly do, bar someone coming to me with a confession, which is a miracle that I’m still hoping for, would be to get it to a point where police or the Coroner says, yeah, okay, we’ll reopen it and we’ll look through and look back through those ten boxes. And we’ll look at Adam’s abuse, because that wasn’t considered by the initial inquest in 1982, we’ll look into the DNA bungle – was that deliberate, was that because an officer was trying to help protect the church? So we’ll look into those big questions that police and members of the church are refusing to give me because they don’t have to – they’re just like ‘oh, I don’t care, I don’t have to answer you’ – but they will have to answer a court.
EC: Definitely. You just gave me the perfect segue before about the public response you had to the podcast which you go into a lot in the book. So what happened when you got all these tips?
RB: So that added incredible pressure to the production process, and so I probably gave my sound engineer Marty Peralta a lot of heart attacks, because it was changing as it was going, as it was evolving, each new lead that came in. So my friend Jeremy who did the digital assets, so the online and socials for Trace, he would triage the emails coming in and then send me the best ones, because you’ve got to remember I was still writing, cutting, so he would say ‘I think you should look at this,’ so I’d call that person and try to corroborate it, go out, interview. If it was worth putting in I’d rescript, we’d recut. So that added incredible pressure to the production process, but I think it was good because it’s what made Trace stand out, is that it was up-to-the-minute, and it was evolving as listeners were hearing it. So we got about 300 emails in the first three weeks I think, a lot of them were just armchair detective theories, as you can imagine – and I tried to write back to everyone but I mean, I think I have now, but at the start there’s, you know, it was nearly impossible. Just because you’d get a lot of people adamant that they’d worked it out, and I would know, well no, because no, John James was home at this time, so it wasn’t the husband because… But I didn’t put all that stuff in the podcast, just because I’d already sorted out, well, that’s not important. So a lot of the armchair detective theories came from information that I left out, if that makes sense.
EC: Yeah, totally.
RB: But then there were really great leads too, or people that called up after hearing the tie-ins that I did for TV news or radio news or online, or I’d go on local radio – which is the beauty of the ABC, many arms – so I thought for people that don’t know what the hell a podcast is, I went on Jon Faine every week to talk about that week’s episode, so from that two women came forward who saw Father Bongiorno around the time of the murder. So they became episode 2.5, and then there were some other great leads about, you know, who saw what when, at what time, and where, so it was corroborating all of that. And then on top of the leads there were really beautiful messages of support for the James brothers, like a lawyer offering pro bono help, a detective who offered to put a memorial service on for Maria James, because she was berated at her own funeral by Father Bongiorno…
EC: That was very uncomfortable reading about that and hearing about that.
RB: So this beautiful detective said, ‘I think we should hold a memorial service,’ which we’re thinking of doing after, like, once there’s a decision on the coronial inquest. But just, that really, and I’d worked in courts for about three years, and just saw, you know, depravity and violence, fraud, horrible things that humans do to each other. And so this is a really dark story too, but the beautiful thing about Trace is that it brought out, it also reminded me of the good in people. Because complete strangers were coming out of the woodwork saying, offering support for the family or offering leads, or, I think one… Even little stuff like offering James Shanahan a book of poems. You know, so that it was a nice reminder to me that, you know, there are a lot of good people out there.
EC: Definitely. What has the impact of all of the publicity and also the steps forward that Trace has definitely incited been on Maria’s family?
RB: Um, it’s been really lovely actually – Mark talks, Mark is the best to talk about it, but he says that he has people that come up to him at shopping centres and say, ‘well done, keep going.’ There was an old teacher of Adam’s that emailed me to ask for Adam’s contact because he wants to reconnect. Old school friends of Mark James have reached out, so they… This was the one thing that really stuck with me – Mark said, ‘we don’t feel so alone anymore.’ Which is really beautiful, they finally feel like they’ve got, you know, the community has their back and they’ll keep pushing, they’ll keep helping to push for answers.
EC: That’s so nice, because I can imagine with such a big public thing, and such a terrible, terrible story of abuse, and like a murder of a very close family member, that has such potential to, you know, to maybe make them feel like exposed or… In a way that they’re not comfortable with. But like you said before, I think that you dealt with the whole thing so respectfully and you did just present those facts, and you did get their blessing. And it’s it’s really beautiful that people have had that reaction and have reached out to them.
RB: I think it’s really important, like I was saying before about story takers, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I felt that they… Felt that they’d been robbed of their story or that that I was re-traumatising them. And that’s not my style. You know, and I hear about certain true crime being turned into movies for example, like Dirty John, and that I hope that that woman has been, you know, I’m, I guess she has, but I hope she’s been involved in that decision. And that kind of stuff just really makes me worry that someone’s making money out of trauma. And so including them every step of the way, asking how they felt about certain things, emailing them sections, I would always let them in, like, they knew about the investigation and the different steps of it, most of it, way before listeners did. And there was only one thing that I held back, and that was the stuff that I was finding about Father O’Keeffe, because when I did my interviews with them I didn’t want the other things I’d found out about him to taint their recollections of him. So I held back the stuff about Satanic cults and him possibly being involved in other murders within those cults, until one of my later interviews with the James brothers. But I tried to keep them involved in the process the whole way through.
EC: Because that’s certainly like, a very confronting part of the story is all the satanic stuff, and that was very shocking to me. Because you hear about satanic panic and all that stuff in America that wasn’t actually real, but to hear about something so close to home – like Thornbury, that’s just down the road! It’s really shocking.
RB: And I was worried, that worried me about James, because I was worried people weren’t gonna believe him. I believed him, but I’m like, how do I… I was worried about him and how he would feel when his story is out in the open, and what people would make of it. And in the end he got quite angry with me, with the way that I set it out in the podcast, because I went to a lot of people to say, well, you know, you think he’s credible, talk to me about that. And he said it sounded like, I’d made it sound like I didn’t believe him – and I said James, you wouldn’t be in the podcast if I didn’t believe you. So that was a really hurtful time for me, because I felt, you know, like that Janet Malcolm quote – I felt like I’d betrayed him, and he was one of the very people I was trying to help. But he has, he apologised later and we’ve had a chat about it, and you know, I know PTSD is a horrible thing and it can rear its head when people don’t expect it to. But that that was like, and that’s why it’s so important too that I let the James brothers in on the whole stage of the process, and why I sent survivors their sections to check, particularly for the book. When you do something, like art or whatever it is, and you put it out into the world, you might think, ‘oh they’re gonna, the public’s gonna receive it like this,’ but that’s not necessarily how it’s going to be received. So it was very, it was really important for me as a podcaster and also as an author that I checked, even though this is a massive journalism no-no, that I checked with all the people in the story whether they were comfortable with what was going in there.
EC: Yeah, definitely. Because that’s quite a huge thing to have your name attached to, even, you know, even if it is, um… Did you just use his first name, didn’t you?
RB: No, both. He felt that his name would protect him.
RB: Which is different, a lot of people with really… horrific stories like that, that are still scared of the church asked me to give them pseudonyms.
RB: But James was, he’s an amazing man – he just said to me, no, my name will protect me, because if if I’m open about what happened they can’t touch me, because people will know that it was because of that…
EC: Yeah, I didn’t doubt that for a second when I was reading this book, and I remember reading a while ago about a case where a priest had murdered a nun that he worked closely with, and in that way of…
RB: In America?
EC: In America, that really ritualistic killing. And what I was reading about was really tying it back to – it’s about humiliation, and it’s about control and things like that, it’s not necessarily about a worship kind of thing, it’s really about humiliating that person to the point of no return.
RB: It’s power.
EC: Totally, yeah.
RB: And that’s what abuse is really, so the satanic cults, the abuse of children, it’s all power.
EC: Yeah definitely. So true crime is really having a moment right now, and in particular true crime podcasts, they’re quite huge. What do you think it is that fascinates us as a society about true crime stories?
RB: I used to wonder that when I was a court reporter, I used to wonder why people listened to my stories, because they’re horrible. And I just think – for courts I used to think, well maybe it’s the human theatre element, and whether we think about ourselves and think, ‘well, would I do that, would I snap, what would it take for me to snap?’ And I read a quote by Alan Rankin once, Ian Rankin, sorry, the Scottish author – and he said that people love true crime because it’s an opportunity to stand at the shoulder of a monster. But from a safe environment. And so it gives you the chance to explore those ideas and what terrifies you and what you’d be capable of, but you can do it from a very safe environment.
EC: Yeah. I listen to the podcast My Favourite Murder quite a bit, which I really like, but they talk about – it’s like being inside when it’s raining outside, or something like that. Or maybe you’re listening, because they also talk about, you listen to all these stories and maybe that’s a way for you to sort of learn, and to say, ‘if this ever happens to me…’
RB: I have heard that theory, and when I first read it I thought, nah, surely not – like, surely no one is listening to these podcasts as a preventative measure, but then I heard someone else say that too, two people have said that to me, and that they started locking their windows the more they listened to true-crime podcasts, and so that was a good thing – and I was like ahh, I don’t know if that is a good thing, but okay, good on you, if that makes you feel safer.
EC: Yeah, well those two women had a story about one of their listeners who had been walking back to the car and saw a man crouched behind her car, she was like, nup, I’m getting out of here, and she just ran into the car, locked all the doors and like, he sort of stepped out. But he was hiding behind her car, and she got in contact with them and was like, if I didn’t listen to your podcast I probably wouldn’t have even noticed that, or maybe I would have thought he’s just dropped his phone, or like… And maybe he had dropped his phone, but like, I don’t want to stare and find out.
RB: Don’t want to risk it, yep.
EC: So in a minute I’m gonna open up to questions from you guys, so just get them ready – but I have one more question before that, so you’ve got time to sort of put them together. So what was the process of changing a podcast into book form like? Because I can imagine that would be quite extensive.
RB: Should have been extensive! You know, it happened in a rush at the end for me because I was still putting the podcast together until September, and then I promised a draft in January, so it was kind of a mad rush – I’d done all the work and I had all the transcripts from interviews, because I’d done the podcast – so the real kind of grunt for the book for me was about structure, and how because it couldn’t be, and I didn’t want it to be like the podcast, I want it to be to be its own unique entity that you could pick up without having listened to the podcast – I wanted the book to do so many things that I hope it has, so I wanted it to be its own person, I guess. I wanted it to pay a richer tribute to all the people involved in the podcast, and some of the people who might have been kind of surmised in a 30-second clip in the podcast gets a lot more time in my book. So a lot of the abuse survivors of the two priests gave me, were very brave to give me their stories, and some of those stories didn’t make it into the podcast, whereas there’s room for it in the book. So I feel like it pays a greater tribute to everyone who told me their stories. But the structure was the real monster, because I thought, well, how am I gonna do it? Am I gonna do it chronologically? I had an idea of leapfrogging timelines, so jumping from Ron Iddles’ investigation in 1980 to mine in 2016 and 2017, and I thought maybe I can plant leads that he chased in 1980 that I followed up in 2016, or maybe I’d hit a dead end but then he can talk about he hit the same one in 1980 So I did it that way in the end, but getting the structure right was really difficult, so it was a lot of, you know, death by Post-It notes. There was a cupboard in my room and Ron was blue and I was pink and the present time was pink, but I found when I laid it all out there was this awful sag in the middle of all pink, and it was all abuse, it was all child abuse – and I thought, people are going to get halfway through the book and they won’t finish it, because it’s horrible – I don’t want to read it. So that’s when I had the idea to introduce green Post-It notes which represented the podcast, because a lot of people have been fascinated with the workings and how I put it together, and the narrative voice and the physical voice, and how it was received, and the innovation element of it, and the audience mobilisation with leads coming in, so I thought maybe if I can just pepper it with that. And through that I could also pay tribute to people like Jesse Cox, who was my producer, he passed away at Christmastime with cancer. And so I wanted to do him justice, and ‘cause this is just every much his success as mine, so I tried to weave the mechanics of the podcast through the middle and back sections, and I think that lifted it, and so that the abuse is still all in there, because it needs to be, because I wanted this book to be, you know, a true account of history, and pay homage to these people – but I need people to read it as well.
EC: Yeah, because you do see a lot of books like that, where it’s just all, not necessarily doom and gloom, but that really dark, dark place for too long, and it is really hard to get through that. Something that I really liked is that, in the book is that, I guess, they’re sort of different like formats and fonts, and the voice kind of changes a little bit sometimes, and then you have those interviews and it it really felt like, it did feel a bit like listening to a podcast in a way, that it came together in, not necessarily bits and pieces, but there were lots of different, almost clips, like you said before.
RB: Yeah, and with the… I struggle with the ‘I’, because as a journalist, and you know, I’ve been at the ABC for nearly 17 years, and we’re encouraged – well, made to, you know – you’re not the story, you shouldn’t be in the story, you don’t have an opinion don’t analyse anything, you know, you’re a robot. And so that was really difficult for me because I’ve never used the word ‘I’ in reports, and I didn’t particularly want to be in the story, because I just felt really uncomfortable, embarrassed almost, and I just thought people are going to think this is naff, you know, it doesn’t – yes, I’ve had a shitty time of things, and you know, I might end up a spinster with eight cats, but people don’t care about that, you know, like – and I thought, I was embarrassed about putting that stuff in. But I asked a lot of people who I really respect and they’re like, no no, it needs it, because it was you, like, you were driving it. So I put bits in, and I hope it wasn’t – that’s the first question that I always ask people, was it too… Should I just get the hell out of it? They’re like no no, it was… Hopefully it’s light enough. But yeah, that was a real challenge for me, the whole business of ‘I’, I’m really uncomfortable with it.
EC: It’s tough but I think it really it gives the story another angle, like the storyteller as well, but you’re not in there so much that it, that it is unbalanced I suppose, that’s how I felt about it, I really liked it.
RB: Oh thanks, that’s good to hear!
EC: So does anybody have a question for Rachael? Alan does.
Questioner 1: You were talking a bit about Serial at the beginning, and something that I remember from that podcast was when when it finished, a lot of people were kind of taken by surprise, or even in some cases a bit outraged that, like, that it didn’t conclude in the way that they sort of thought it would, that it wasn’t leading up to the case being solved, that it finished with this, the final episode was this kind of rumination on truth, and a few people felt like they were, felt a bit cheated by that.
RB: They were robbed of their Hollywood ending.
Q1: Yeah exactly, which like you say, when you’re dealing with real people’s lives, is a bit… You know, it’s a bit of a raw deal to have to have that sort of narrative imposed. But I wonder how you kind of approached that, because the podcast and, and the book as well, it’s about something that doesn’t have that conclusion yet. And, yeah, how you kind of… I guess a podcast is one thing because you’re making it in an episode format, but when you’re writing a book, how does, how do you deal with that when it’s a story that hasn’t finished yet?
RB: I haven’t… I don’t know how many people I pissed off with the ending of my book yet, like I haven’t had many people come up to me and go, ‘what are you doing?’ So I can only talk to the podcast and watching the reviews, the iTunes reviews, and using that as a barometer, to give you an answer. But at the start it was, I was really heartened because I thought, oh, people get what I’m trying to do, and they’re thanking me for being respectful, and they’re sending really nice messages through iTunes reviews to the James brothers – my favourite, my personal favourite was, you know, ‘whenever I despair about the future of journalism I’ll think about all the hard work that Rachael Brown’s put into this podcast,’ I thought, oh that’s lovely. But – the problem with an evolving podcast is people love being part of an investigation when it’s moving, but when it got to the points where I had to say, well, we need to wait now while Victoria Police does this, or the coroner considers that, or while I look into ABC, people hated it! And I should have brought them to read out, but there were reviews like ‘where’s the next episode gone? Waiting…’ or, ‘don’t hold your breath waiting for the next episode, sheesh.’ Like they actually wrote ‘sheesh,’ and then the one, the worst one was something like, ‘considering the coverage that this case, that this podcast had when it first started, I would have thought there’d be more about actually finally solving this case. As a podcast it’s been one that’s left unfinished.’ I was like, well, thanks Nazza55, I’m not going to invent an ending, and it’s life, and it’s messy, and I can’t tie it up with a bow. And I kind of feel like they’re… And I maybe I tried to make this point a bit better in the book than in the podcast – listeners were finally getting a tiny, tiny taste of what the James brothers have had to live with their entire, like 38 years. So I end on that, and as a bit of a catty reminder – ‘well, don’t be pissed off with me, because imagine what they have had to deal with.’ And so that was the strongest way I could put people in Mark and Adam’s shoes, and really think about it, and – why are you angry with me? Because this is not entertainment, I’m trying to tell their story, I’m trying to get answers for them, and so I was very unapologetic about not satisfying people, I guess to answer your question. So with the tie-ins that we did, the news tie-ins, radio and TV news stories, online, I got a lot of heat from that too, from people that might – let’s say episode 2, about the priest seen covered in blood, I did an online piece about that, and we got a lot of flack, we got a lot of people writing in saying ‘oh, thanks for the spoiler,’ or, ‘you spoiled episode 2’, and I’m just like, this is news, this is not entertainment, I’m not going to make any apologies for ‘spoiling’ episode 2 for you.
EC: A cold case from 38 years ago!
RB: So I drew that line, that it’s not entertainment – any new stuff that comes out, I’m gonna put it out straight away. Of course listen to the podcast still, and learn more about it, but I’m not gonna hold stuff back for audience titillation, because that’s not what I’m about, and it wasn’t what the podcast was about.
EC: And then does that kind of cross into that territory of making a spectacle of these kinds of things, and putting that narrative on it?
RB: Yeah, I just, I had to be careful too, because I obviously don’t want to piss listeners off, so I couldn’t get angry at them! Because I love that they’re so consumed by this story, and I love that they care so much, you know – I’d be angry if they didn’t care, or if I wasn’t getting reviews like ‘where’s the next one?’ But it’s toeing that fine line of having something that’s so compelling that people keep listening to, to hopefully give me leads, to hopefully help solve it – with the reality that I can’t, you know, I can’t give weekly updates.
EC: Definitely. Any more questions?
Questioner 2: I’ve only read the book, I haven’t listened to the podcast, I’m sorry – but I wondered why did you choose to sort of tell the story as a podcast? I mean, why not through investigative journalism and news articles and that sort of thing, or radio reportage, why a podcast?
RB: Just because I’ve come from news and I know its limitations. So the story – after doing the investigation I thought there’s no way I can do this story justice just in a traditional news sense. So in a TV news story it wouldn’t have worked, and it definitely wouldn’t have worked with Adam. So Adam James has got cerebral palsy and Tourette’s, he takes a long time to get sentences out. So I sat with him for five hours for our interview, and had to keep stopping the tape to give him breaks, and out of that five hours I probably got… Five or ten minutes of usable audio. That wouldn’t be possible on a daily news schedule timeline, and the other beautiful thing about the genre is that it just, it just creates this beautiful intimate space, and I think that did Adam’s story far more justice than a couple of clips on a TV news story or a radio news story. And it just, I let him speak for himself. So because of time – in broadcasting we’re all governed by time – and so because I had half an hour episode to play with rather than a three and a half minute radio piece, or a 1 minute and a half TV piece, I could let, I could give Adam that time and I could let him stutter and I could let him think, so you can hear in his own words what he was feeling, and him telling his story. Because one of the points I make is that with people with disabilities, they’re so used to having other people tell their stories for them, and it’s really disempowering, and so this time I just wanted Adam to tell his own story. And so the the intimate medium gave him the time to do that, I think it was more of a safe space, because there was no camera shoved up in his grill, and same with the other survivors of abuse – they could be anonymous if they wanted. It’s just, I just think the intimacy of the medium suited the story that I was trying to tell. But I knew that a lot of people wouldn’t know what a podcast was, is – so my mum doesn’t, wouldn’t have known, I had to teach her – and I thought, God, this thing that I’ve spent my last two years on, my own family, who haven’t seen me, aren’t going to be able to manage to listen. And so, and also the people, the generation that I wanted to target for leads, people in their, you know, sixties and seventies they, most of them wouldn’t know what the hell a podcast is – sorry, I mean I’m sure they do now, but when I was starting out it was, it felt quite new. And so their sons and daughters would have known, and they could perhaps teach them. But I wanted to give people lots of doors into the story, so as well as the podcast I thought, well, that will be one, and then I’ll have cross-platform tie-ins, so every episode, whatever the news hook is, if it’s episode 2, Father Bongiorno covered in blood, I’ll do that as a radio news story, I’ll do a radio current affairs story, TV news story, I’ll be on the Breakfast News couch, I’ll be on Jon Faine talking about it, and so people are going to be sick of me – and they were, by the time – but at least they knew about it, and so these doors would, it’s another way into it, and then they might see the TV news story and go, ‘oh, what’s this, what’s this podcast thing, I might check that out.’ And so that would drive them back to the podcast anyway. And then I had a very elaborate external publicity plan also. So I didn’t assume that the person holding the missing puzzle piece would be an ABC listener, so I went on The Project, KIIS FM, Gold FM, it was in Vogue, Mamma Mia, Woman’s Day, the Guardian, the Age, you know, I wanted to hit as many diverse community grapevines as possible.
EC: The other thing that I really felt reading the book was that that sort of method of having that time for interviews, that really long period of time that you could have actually gave a lot of the people and the victims more agency than you sometimes see in a news story where, as you say, you’re on a really tight schedule, maybe they just get a line. And you feel like, back to that thing of, you do have some texts and some things in there that gives their story a lot more agency, definitely.
Q2: But did you realise from the outset that you were going to do a podcast, like immediately?
RB: Yes, immediately – so um, I had two things playing around in my head at the start of 2016. One was this – well three actually. I was restless at work, and I was getting tired of the daily news grind, and I just felt like, I don’t feel rewarded, I’m not helping anyone. So that was one. Two, I knew about the electrician thing that had been festering for a long time, and I was wondering what the hell was happening with that. And three, I’d read an article in the Guardian by Paul Farrell about how we’ll never see a Serial in Australia. And I thought, damn, he’s right – like he was talking about things like, there’s limited, far more restricted access to documents here, and police documents, court documents, you can’t interview jurors. So all these things that Serial did so well, he was arguing aren’t possible in Australia. And I read it and I thought, oh, damn, he’s right – and I didn’t, I wasn’t seeing myself as doing an Australian Serial, I wanted to listen to one. So I had those three things kind of marinating. And then I woke up one morning in 2016, in February, and I must have been dreaming about the Maria James cold case, because I woke up and I thought ‘oh, that’s it, maybe I should do a cold-case podcast,’ so if it’s not current, it’s not sub judice, therefore I won’t be kind of affecting anything to do with courts. I thought the family might be more open to speaking with me because they’ve been waiting on answers for so long – I was right about that. And I thought maybe police would welcome a spare pair of hands – I was wrong about that.
EC: I think we have time for one more question if anybody has one… That’s all right, I have one more question. So you mentioned before about the coroner this week or next week, maybe opening it back up again – and as you say as the book ends, it’s real life, there’s no neat resolution to this book, or to the podcast, or to the story itself. So the case really is still in motion. You’ve kind of already said what’s the latest in the case, but what is the future for Trace? Whether it’s another book, or more podcasts, what’s the sort of next step for that?
RB: So for the podcast, hoping that touch wood, the coroner announces an inquiry, a new inquest, and then that means we can do more podcast updates on that, next year hopefully. So that’s for the Maria James story. I always thought when I started the podcast that if this template works, you know, if we manage to help a family, if we manage to mobilise audiences and can get this really phenomenal kind of public force thing happening, I’d like to do another cold case. So I’m looking at two at the moment that might be the second season of Trace, yeah, so I’m deciding between those two to see which would be good fit, and then I’ll go to the family and see how they feel about it. So that’s probably what’s next on the cards, podcast-wise.
EC: That’s really great because you have made a lot of impact with Trace, and I think that for that to happen, because I mean the police maybe didn’t want to help you so much, but they do only have so much time, and things are happening all the time, whereas if you’re looking at a cold case from that sort of perspective, of a storytelling perspective, you do have that space to kind of give it the attention it needs, and to really drive that, and Trace is just a perfect example of that, how you can bring it back into people’s minds and really make an impact there.
RB: And it was a really nice reminder that we can all affect change in the world in our own little ways.
RB: Like Charles from Wodonga emailing me about, like, he could potentially affect change, just because he bothered to send me an email. So that, the whole audience mobilisation thing can’t be understated. It’s incredible, and I was so kind of humbled and blown away by how willing people were to get behind it and help – and you know, you can tell, some people would write, ‘oh, I want to help, because I want to know something about this, and I don’t, but I wish I did!’ Because I, you know and that was so beautiful to me, I think that was the best thing about it, so I’d love to be able to keep that force, and effect change through this amazing medium that is podcasting.
EC: That’s a very uplifting ending for this. So thank you everyone, so much for coming, you can purchase the book downstairs and I’m sure Rachael will be happy to sign any books that you want to buy, and thank you to Hill of Content for having us. And I believe Jacqueline has a little giveaway that she wants to do, and the podcast is over. Stop recording! [LAUGHS].
Meaghan Dew:That was Rachael Brown, speaking about Trace, out now with Scribe. Thanks to Scribe, Hill of Content, Rachael and our First Book Club coordinator Ellen Cregan. We’ll be back in a few weeks with some holiday recommendations for you, your loved ones, and the people you have to see this time of year, even if you’d prefer not to. Until then, and as always, don’t forget to keep at least one eye on the website. See you next time!