Australian politics, society & culture

Ebony – The Girl in the Room

Anne Manne

Long read6000 words
 

It starts with a triple-0 call at 1 pm on 3 November 2007. A distraught father gasps out the words. A child lies dead. When the ambulance officers arrive at the scene – a modest house in Hawks Nest, north of Newcastle – they are waved towards a bedroom. The father says, “I can’t bear to go in there.” As they open the door, his words suddenly take on a different meaning to that of a grieving father, for an overwhelming stench hits their nostrils. In a bare room littered with faeces is a mattress. On the mattress lies the tiny, emaciated body of a child. She looks only about three years old, even though the father says she is seven. Her little face is shrunken, a “skull wrapped in skin”.

Cover: February 2010
February 2010
AC Grayling's 'Liberty in the Age of Terror'
John Keane
John Safran's 'Race Relations'
Alice Pung
Frederick Seidel's 'Ooga-Booga and Poems: 1959-2009'
Kate Jennings
Vladimir Nabokov's 'The Original of Laura: A Novel in Fragments'
Simon Leys
Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz
John Waters
Peter Conrad
Jacques Audiard's 'A Prophet' and John Hillcoat's 'The Road'
Luke Davies

An ambulance officer looks around the room and breathes in the smell. It looks more like the bleakest of prison cells than a little girl’s bedroom. There are no toys or furniture – just the mattress. The window is boarded up entirely. There is just one decoration, a poster of a Victorian painting of a sad-faced little girl, turning away from the world, leaning her head against the wall.

He knows that what he has seen is no accidental death.

It is time for the police.

The mother is taken to hospital. She has taken an overdose.

*

The police attending discover that only the room of the dead girl, whom we shall call Ebony, is in such a foul state. The rest of the house seems alright, what one might expect. The officer asks an older sister, playing on the computer, how she is coping. She says, “I had a little cry but now I am over it.” He notes the father, too, is “detached”, “robotic, no emotion, very monotone”.

The mother tells police she found Ebony dead at 7 am. She attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but gave up because of bull ants and black vomit coming from the girl’s mouth. Then she sang lullabies to her dead daughter for hours. She did not tell her husband, nor raise the alarm.

The father tells police he “thought it was going to be a good day”. This is because when he got up, sometime after 9 am, going straight to his computer to put on his first bet of the day, he had a win. Elated, he put on another, then studied the form guide.

After a few hours, at about 11 am, he found his wife crying in the toilet. He asked, “What’s wrong? It’s not Ebony, is it? She’s not dead, is she?”

The mother has already taken an overdose of painkillers, but he gives his wife a few extra Valium and then doesn’t know what to do. He rings his aunt and screams at her, “She’s dead, she’s dead”, but hangs up before telling her who’s dead. He sits on the couch for a couple more hours. At 1 pm he calls the ambulance.

Soon there are journalists swarming all over the story of the starved girl. Television crews turn up at the house. The father becomes talkative. He has a pudgy face, a long, bleached ponytail and a strange, inward-looking gaze. Police attending the scene have told him that his daughter has died of starvation and dehydration. “I don’t know how this can be,” he tells the cameras. “She’d eat like anything.” Starvation, we didn’t starve her, she was born small, she was a tiny kid. He regales his audience with tales of mountains of food. Huge Chinese soup-bowls full of muesli and Weet-bix, sandwiches, and biccies and chippies all day. She had been sitting on the couch the night before, all chirpy, watching TV in the bosom of her family, before going to bed about eight. It all sounds so very normal. They are devoted parents, “who lived for their three children”. “I love my kids to death, all three of them, and now one of them is gone,” he says.

He is always the victim. He blames the NSW Department of Community Services (DoCS) for inaction. “Now they are claiming I didn’t want anyone to see Ebony because she was sick. I don’t know. It is all wrong. Life’s not fair.” DoCS used to visit regularly, but no one’s checked on them since they moved up the coast, he complains. “They’re disgusting. They should be shut down.” He blames the removalist guy, too, who refused to bring Ebony’s toys when he transported the family, two months earlier from Matraville, north to Hawks Nest on the coast, fleeing the “druggies and drunks” of Sydney. Ebony was depressed, off her food, pining for those long-lost toys.

The father begs police to get to the bottom of the mystery.

“Someone help me find out what happened to my little girl.”

*

At the autopsy, it takes no time for forensic pathologists to find out what happened to his little girl. She has died the most horrible of deaths: of starvation and thirst. In fact, in all their years as pathologists they have never encountered anything so extreme.

Ebony has three pairs of socks on, top layers put on over dirty ones. They have been on so long they have melded to the skin. As they peel off the socks, the skin comes with them. She weighs only 9 kilograms, almost three times less than her expected weight of 26 kilograms. Her body has so little moisture that the normal process in a dead body – of fluid moving to the lowest point – has not occurred. There is no food in the stomach, no liquid in the bladder, no fat in the bowel. She is so wasted away she does not have enough muscle left for rigor mortis. The black vomit is dried blood mixed with stomach acid. There is no evidence of bull ants. It is likely beads of this mixture that the mother saw. Ebony’s limbs are distorted because she suffers rickets, the nineteenth-century bone disease caused by lack of vitamin D, or sunlight. Her lungs are pink, suggesting she had no contact with the outdoors for many months, perhaps years. They have never witnessed a body like it.

We have washed the bodies of the dead since the beginning of time, preparing them for burial. Their forensic work done, the pathologists wash Ebony’s body. They cannot rid the body of the stench of urine and faeces.

Relatives organise a funeral for Ebony. Only six people attend, as the tiny coffin is lowered into the ground. The parents don’t go. They have been on the run from police. They are found on a railway station with more than $4000. As they are arrested, the father turns on the wife, pointing: “It was her, all her fault.”

It is like that from then on. At the trial, they never look at each other.

All falls apart.

*

The neighbours start talking. In Matraville, the mother looked alright to begin with. Towards the end of their time there – from 2006 onwards – she was “thin and pale”. The whole family is reclusive, antisocial and nocturnal. At 11 pm, the house springs alive. Random people turn up at odd hours. The father comes and goes in the V8 cars he religiously washes and polishes on weekends. He is a gambling addict and is often down at the TAB. The older girls never seem to attend school. Instead, under the cover of darkness, they whiz up and down the street on scooters, dressed in scruffy clothing, often shorts and thongs, even in winter.

Shopkeepers talk too. About the mother who fills her trolley at the supermarket but puts it all back when the father tells her to. They walk out with nothing except for several 24-packs of Diet Coke. The father goes into butchers and asks about different cuts of meat, but always walks out without buying anything. At the bakery, he only buys enough pastries for four people, never five.

No one has seen Ebony outside for a long time, not since she was seen in a pusher. This was odd in itself, given the pretty, red-haired child with the lovely wide smile was then five years old. But she looks healthy, even chubby, in early 2006. A tradesman visiting the house sees a bedroom roped shut. The father says his autistic daughter is in there. A neighbour, Janice Reid, sees Ebony always in her room, alone, with the door firmly shut. She hears Ebony calling for her Mummy and her Daddy. Her cries are never answered. One day, Reid looks up at the window where she so often sees the little child standing in the frame, peering out, looking at the world she cannot get to. The window is boarded up. She no longer sees the little girl. She can hear her, though, moving about in her room.

When Reid can no longer hear her moving about, early in 2007, she can’t bear it anymore and takes action. Reid asks Debbie Jacobsen, an experienced foster carer, to ring DoCS. Jacobsen insists on staying on the line and demands the conversation is recorded. “If you don’t do something about this child she will be dead. And if she dies I am holding you and DoCS responsible for her death.” DoCS tells her they are already acting. But they are not. The energy of Reid and Jacobsen’s outrage is quietly dissipated, dissolved by government red tape and inertia.

The removalist taking the family’s things to Hawks Nest is probably the last person outside the family to see Ebony alive. He sees a little girl, very, very thin, lying motionless on the floor of the main bedroom, eyes staring. The girl does not move or speak. This is two months before Ebony dies. After the family moves, Reid goes into the Matraville house and finds rubbish knee-deep in every room. The bathtub is full of cigarettes, cockroaches scuttle about in the filthy kitchen and used nappies are lying around. But it is Ebony’s room, she later tells the court, which is the worst, with piles of faeces on the floor. She contacts DoCS again. There is still time to save the little girl. Reid’s call is filed away.

*

At the trial, we become privy to what happens in one of those families that the poet Randall Jarrell once described as “God’s concentration camps”. A world where the unthinkable becomes thinkable. The story of their life together is mired in the desperate dependency often found in domestic violence, the weird logic of “I had to kill her so she couldn’t leave me.” Estranged from their families, their door has long been slammed shut on the outside world. There is no one who draws them away from their strange, fatal embrace – the scorpions’ dance of death.

They meet in 1990, when she is a young and vulnerable teenager, only 17, at a complete loss, as her parents’ marriage falls violently apart. He is much older, at 29, and seems a safe haven. In 1992, when she is 18, they marry. She thinks he is someone to depend on. Before long, the dark side of that enveloping embrace is revealed; her sanctuary has prison walls. He suffers from agoraphobia, severe chronic anxiety and panic disorder. He has been a Valium addict since he was 18. He has never held a job. This is not a man to help her find her feet and join the outside world, but someone who will enclose her in his strange claustrophobic one, shutting off all exits. Any sign of independence is a threat that she will leave him. When she wants to learn to drive, he teaches her. But he won’t let her venture out of the driveway. That is the end of that.

He controls everything, where they live and what they buy. Like many violent men, he treats her abusively but is also, paradoxically, completely dependent on her. By the end of their first year together, she attempts suicide as a way out, but fails. By the time of Ebony’s death, the mother’s suicide attempts number in the double figures. The father, impassive, tells the court, “She was always doing that.” He is pathologically possessive of his children, too. He tells people, “My kids are my life. No kids – no life, that’s how I see it.” He can’t bear them going to school; besides, school represents the interfering authorities. They are all trapped.

The mother writes a sad letter to her estranged mum, blaming her husband for not letting them see each other. She wishes her mum could have played a role in Ebony’s life. “Fifteen years, nearly, married that is. I still can’t believe I’m alive really.” She needs her mother, but “we know that can’t happen”, because her husband forbids contact. He blows their joint $900 weekly welfare payments on internet gambling or sits on the couch in a Valium fog. He gives her no help. She testifies that only when she ends up at the doctor’s does her husband rouse himself to say: “he cannot live without me and how much he loves me. Ha!”

It is after Ebony’s birth, however, that things really go off the rails. The mother has a fall during Ebony’s pregnancy and then suffers chronic back pain. She develops a Valium addiction of her own – 15 tablets per day – and a painkiller habit of horrifying proportions – more than 20 per day.

Crown Prosecutor Peter Barnett wants to prove to the court that both parents are culpable, both wanted the girl dead. He shows the court a police video of a rubbish bin at the house, full of photos of the dead girl, along with a man’s shirt with a matted clump of red hair.

Ebony disappears from her family photos. They hold a weird birthday party in March 2007, with candles and a cake. But the birthday girl, Ebony, is not present. She stays in that foul room with the door tied shut. The mother explains, “She would be running around like a mini tornado and getting into everything. And she has broken presents.”

Mark Austin, the father’s lawyer, attempts a defence on the grounds of drug addiction clouding his judgement. The father’s habit involves a staggering 25 Valium tablets per day. It is the worst case of benzodiazepine addiction his doctor has ever seen. He was completely bombed out on drugs in the last weeks before Ebony’s death. Austin asks, “At Hawks Nest, did you have any concerns in relation to (the child)?” “No,” says the father. “Were you concerned about anything at Hawks Nest?” “Tablets. Getting more.” Not Ebony. He admits only sighting her twice in nine weeks.

It is a strange thing to say in his defence. But the point of their case is that responsibility for the child lay elsewhere. He didn’t know. It was all the wife’s doing. The father looked after the older girls, the mother looked after Ebony. From about 2006, the child avoided him, wouldn’t let him wash or feed her. So that was the arrangement. He tells the court that when Ebony is found dead, the mother said, “We have to get rid of the body.”

The father was indignant, “That’s criminal, that’s like we did something.”

He tells the court that the mother insisted, saying, “If you don’t get rid of the body, I’m going back to bed.” Which she did.

The angle of the mother’s defence barrister, Dennis Stewart, is the other standard manoeuvre in the denial-of-responsibility stakes: taking orders. She was not responsible for her actions because she was a battered wife to a violent, possessive man, who carried out his will – Kapo to the camp commandant.

She alleges he pimps her, dresses her in schoolgirl outfits and invites men round to spank her, sometimes to have sex with her. Witnesses say the whole family is terrified of the father. Shopkeepers allege he orders her to put food back. But evidence goes in the other direction, too. A neighbour hears him berating her about Ebony’s state: “She’s not well, what kind of a fucking cunt of a mother are you?” Not the language of conventional moral indignation, but it is a reproach. They have both lied so much it is hard to trust either testimony.

Decisively, the mother admits that she alone cared for the child, and that the father didn’t. Now the mother turns to interpretative denial – the facts are not what they seem. Ebony wasn’t starved, but sick. The mother tells of a huge last supper of mush – Weet-bix, muesli, rice, vegetables – all mixed together and heated in the microwave the night before she died. But she has stomach flu, so vomits it all up on the living room floor. Under a spirited cross-examination by Barnett, the Crown Prosecutor, her claims dissolve. She says she walked Ebony to her bedroom, holding her hand. Only that is a lie, too. The child would have been comatose by then. She had no muscle tone left to support eating or sitting, let alone walking. Barnett is remorseless, unremitting. Finally, he gets the mother to admit that she didn’t give Ebony enough food. He pounces. “Hadn’t eaten enough to feed a mouse, correct?”

Beaten, the mother agrees. “Yes. Not enough to feed a mouse.”

Forensic psychiatrist Dr Olav Nielssen tells the Newcastle Supreme Court that the mother displays “no sadness or anger” in talking about Ebony’s death, but describes horrifying things in a flat, bland way. While she has no discernible mental illness, her absence of emotion in response to trauma is “highly abnormal”. It is possible that this “restricted emotional range” is the “battered wife syndrome”. Possible, but not certain.

Stewart does his valiant best to counter the prosecutor’s charge: “It was never your fault, was it – it was always someone else’s, wasn’t it?” Stewart asks, “Do you feel responsibility for her death?” This is her only chance at the lesser charge of manslaughter. To finally accept in death what was never accepted in life. Responsibility. The mother blows it. “Mostly, yes …”

Stewart skips bravely over the qualifier and asks about her failure to notice Ebony’s increasingly pitiful state. “I just didn’t see it.” He seeks an explanation in all the drugs; how did they make her feel? “Feel like I was in a dream-like state, like I wasn’t there. They slowed me down.” Stewart sums up before the jury; she was a loving and caring mother whose drug habit has made her “negligent, foolish, reprehensible”, oblivious to the child deteriorating in front of her. But not a cold-blooded murderer.

The jury doesn’t buy it. None of it is enough to counteract the photos of Ebony’s body.

Ebony’s mother is found guilty of murder. Her father is found guilty of manslaughter.

From the bench, Justice Robert Hulme makes his judgement, unleashing a volley at the parents with an exuberant moral fury. They were so “absorbed in their own lives”, because of “incompetence, negligence, self-interest and disinterest” that “they did not care about her”. They had kept this “skin-covered skeleton” out of photos, out of sight and out of mind. “A father could show no less love to his child.” Ebony’s life of “abject cruelty” “was of no concern to him”. Ebony’s mother had been “unimaginably heartless and cruel”. Even in her last hours, the child could have been saved by a triple-0 call, but the mother “chose not to lift a finger to help her … For a person to do nothing in those circumstances is so morally reprehensible that it could be no more serious if the person intended that the child die.” It is in the “worst category” of murder.

The mother is sentenced to life without parole. The father gets 16 years.

*

Reading the scathing report by Bruce Barbour, the NSW Ombudsman, into the “appalling” failure of no fewer than five government agencies that received notifications of risk of harm to avert Ebony’s death is sickening.

In that ominous phrase turning up with alarming regularity in successive child death cases, the family was “known to DoCS” since 1993. Despite it being known by the time of her first pregnancy, in 1992, that the mother was suicidal and the father a Valium addict, there is no evidence of any person or agency providing extra support or therapeutic intervention. When Ebony’s older sisters become toddlers in the early ’90s, the parents struggle to manage their behaviour. There are community reports of risk of harm.

By the time the older girls reach school, in 2000, teachers report concerns about physical neglect, bruises, and the possibility that the mother self-harms and that the threatening father has a “severe personality disorder”. By November 2007, Ebony’s sisters have missed an astonishing amount of school – about two-and-a-half years – and are struggling as a consequence. Apart from a brief six months at a preschool, Ebony never attends school. Ombudsman Barbour is sharply critical of the department’s conciliatory approach to the parents in getting the girls to attend school. They should have been prosecuted.

In a pattern repeated in his dealings with every government agency, the otherwise lethargic father is as nimble as an Al Qaeda operative when evading the authorities, ducking and weaving, laying false trails, while the children regularly vanish into thin air. He refuses to answer the phone or door, lies about the children’s whereabouts or claims his wife is dying of cancer. Anything to keep authorities from sighting the children.

DoCS involvement escalates after Ebony’s birth in 2000. She is small and undernourished. She is diagnosed with “failure to thrive” – usually the result of a baby not being fed enough. Such severe neglect can have appalling consequences for a child’s emotional and physical development. The mother finds Ebony’s behaviour uncontrollable; she avoids eye contact and can hardly speak. Ebony is diagnosed with autism. A medical officer marks her file as “an extremely worrying child”. A fourth child, born in 2002, is removed as a baby by a Children’s Court order for “failure to thrive” and placed in foster care. The parents refuse to accept responsibility for its condition. In an ominous harbinger of events to come, they lose interest in regaining the baby and stop visiting her.

DoCS now tries to persuade the Children’s Court that all the children, including Ebony, should be removed from the family. For reasons that are unclear, the case fails. Compared to physical abuse, cases of neglect are notoriously hard to prove as grounds for removal. The family does, however, remain under DoCS supervision by a Children’s Court order until early 2003. Importantly, there is one diligent DoCS worker who keeps tabs on the family throughout this period. She keeps a careful history and is dogged in her pursuit of the children’s welfare, despite the wily and abusive father. The parents do improve their behaviour somewhat. The intensity and continuity of DoCS involvement from 2001 to 2003 shows a beneficial, if decidedly not miraculous, result.

But the family soon spirals downward again and the risk of harm reports multiply. Between 2005 and 2007, there are 17 reports to DoCS alone. The reports include domestic violence, Ebony’s imprisonment, her window being boarded up, the squalid state of the house and each child’s lengthy absence from school.

We come now to a stark fact: not one government agency lays eyes on Ebony in the two years before she dies. Despite the many notifications; despite the fact that one child has already been removed; despite a policy released in July 2006 on child neglect, which reflects “a new focus on the severity of neglect and seriousness of the harm neglect can cause, including loss of life”. Many reports are closed due to “competing priorities” – code for overworked staff.

In 2007, this picture gets even worse. Although Ebony is in child protection, where a case history can be the basis of life and death judgements, a work experience student is given the job of writing up the case. She botches the job. The sloppiness means Ebony’s file history is so inadequate that the implications of Debbie Jacobsen’s crucial phone call – warning of Ebony’s imprisonment and likely death – fail to be grasped. It is filed away by the helpline as “information only”. It is thought to simply add to previous reports of dishevelment at the house.

Most decisively, in April 2007, a new caseworker is instructed to visit the house and – imperative in child protection cases – sight the children. Lacking judgement, or even the ability to follow DoCS protocol, she eventually sights the older girls, but leaves without seeing Ebony. She allows herself to be fobbed off by the father, who says Ebony is asleep in her room. Even more incredibly, her senior manager accepts that, given the description of the older girls, who seem OK, it is unlikely “there would be anything different with Ebony”, despite reports that the little disabled girl is shut away in a boarded-up room.

The caseworker does not check whether medical appointments to assess the children are actually attended. No doctor lays eyes on Ebony. No case review occurs for 12 weeks. Ebony “was not a high priority”; other cases are considered more urgent. The caseworker leaves DoCS at the end of July, but does not properly brief her successor. The third caseworker does not thoroughly acquaint herself with the file, merely briefing herself by looking at the “last two pages” of the hopelessly inadequate summary by the work experience student. This last caseworker is often sick and takes several weeks’ sick leave. More delays. Towards the end of August, she is instructed to visit the premises at Matraville to sight the children within 24 hours. She makes a few phone calls, but no home visit.

After the family moves to Hawks Nest, yet more risk reports are received, including one about Ebony’s soiled prison. Surely now they will act? As Ebony’s life ebbs away, over September and October, DoCS slowly moves towards finding a forwarding address and contacts the new child protection office in her area, the Raymond Terrace office. An evaluation of a case, called a ‘risk assessment’, is meant to be completed promptly: within 28 days, if it is unsubstantiated; within 90, if it is not. It has taken 210 days, but finally, by 30 October, the risk assessment is complete. The case is now officially transferred to the Raymond Terrace office in Ebony’s new district. Her case file is marked “extreme” risk.

Finally.

Four days later, Ebony is dead. Raymond Terrace has not yet allocated Ebony a caseworker.

*

In her famous account of Daniel Valerio, the toddler beaten to death by his stepfather, Helen Garner asks an important question. Of Daniel’s mother, she writes: “What deal did she do with herself to allow her child to suffer the brutality of her boyfriend … ?” We may ask the same question of Ebony’s father. How can ordinary people do such terrible things or let them happen? During or after the event, how do they find ways to deny the meaning of what they are doing? These are also questions at the heart of Stanley Cohen’s States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering.

Cohen draws on an illuminating moment in a Saul Bellow novel. Does the doctor, who is dying, know and face the fact of his imminent death? “Did he know this? Of course he did. He was a physician so he must know. But he was human, so he could arrange many things. Both knowing and not-knowing – one of those frequent human arrangements.” “A frequent human arrangement indeed,” remarks Cohen. Perhaps a more precise way of explaining states of denial, however, is to say that knowledge is possessed, but not acknowledged, and therefore its meaning is disavowed.

There are very many forms of denial and disavowal in this case. The father who denies they could have starved their daughter to death because they are not those kinds of people, who insists they love their children “like gold”, giving them new toys, new furniture, the pool table … Who claims he didn’t know. He wasn’t there. He never looked at the child or went into “that room”. Who denies the meaning of her starved body by reframing it in the euphemisms “unwell” and “thin”. Who locates responsibility outside them both for withholding food, and projects it onto the removalist who makes Ebony pine away for her long-lost toys.

As Cohen says, “Denial is always partial; some information’s always registered.” The father, on finding the mother crying in the toilet, arrives within just two sentences at the possibility that one of his children is dead. He asks, “What’s wrong? It’s not Ebony, is it? She’s not dead, is she?” On finding his wife distressed, a father does not normally move within the space of a mere seven words from the fact of her state to the idea that one of his children is dead. Unless it is already a strong possibility in his mind – that there is every likelihood of his daughter dying.

We speak of being absent-minded, of what’s on our mind, or at the top of our minds, or what’s furthest from our minds. These are all common forms of speech, which reveal the subtleties and gradations of attention and inattention. The free association on the psychoanalyst’s couch depends upon highly charged but repressed emotional content surfacing. What surfaces here, so quickly, is that the father is aware Ebony is near death, even as he determinedly holds away acceptance of that fact.

However, another deeper form of denial lies at the heart of this crime. This is the denial, because of her autism and disability, of Ebony’s full humanity.

Consider how Eva Kittay, a moral philosopher and the mother of a profoundly disabled child, writes of her determination that her daughter “presents a face to the world that is as attractive as possible … so the first response to her is as positive as I can make it.” Kittay makes daily efforts, more than for her able child, to ensure that “Sesha goes into the world looking clean and fresh and well cared for, and hoping the message that she is worth caring for will be absorbed by others …”

Kittay is rueful that our “fear and prejudice against those people with a disability means such efforts are necessary”. Another way of putting what Kittay is doing, however, is to say that she is drawing our attention to Sesha as a human person, signalling her rightful place in the human community. So simple, yet so deep, are the little things a loving mother does.

Ebony’s treatment carries the opposite logic, an escalating denial of her humanity. Early photos show Ebony plump and pretty in a little dress, smiling radiantly. But over time, Ebony becomes the scapegoat, the receptacle, the dumping ground for all the despair and rage of this toxic family. As Ebony is progressively dehumanised, it becomes more and more possible to do yet worse things to her. What she becomes, as a result of her abuse, is a further invitation to cruelty. She is gradually, step by step, being excluded from the human community and its most intimate representative, her family. The parents gradually reduce her to living in a non-human state. I will not say animal-like state, for so many of those who share the lives of animals treat them with infinitely greater tenderness than this little child was shown – feed them good food, sleep with them, caress them, pay thousands of dollars in vet bills, mourn them when they die.

Around 2005, the mother decides Ebony is not worth schooling. She rebuffs the special-school teachers eager to take her. Ebony can’t learn, can’t speak, is disruptive and difficult. No point. She becomes ever more difficult. She screams at the sight of water, so she is washed with a flannel, then not at all. She slips into the category of not worth washing. Then she pisses in her clothes and is not worth dressing. She is five, six and seven years old but wears nappies. In that state, she is not worth photographing, so she disappears from the family album. Her birthday is held in her absence. Her existence is quietly being erased.

Then she is not worth changing. The nappies are left off and she pisses and shits all over her room. Now the room stinks and she is not worth visiting. She is characterised as a wild creature in need of more caging, so the door is tied shut. Locked up, she screams and screams the two words she has left, “Mummy” and “Daddy”. The room is so foul no one, not even the mother, wants to go in there. Ebony is given less and less food and water. She becomes weaker and weaker. She is now unable to sit or speak, lies lifeless. She has become thing-like, fading out of existence in “that room” that the father “can’t bear to go into”. She has become the fulfilment of their treatment of her.

But when Ebony dies, as they confront the brute reality of her corpse, they can no longer live in the state of denial of what it is they have been doing. The father dials triple 0. He first fumbles for the words and then he finds them. He tells the operator that his daughter is dead.

Anne Manne

Anne Manne is the author of Motherhood and Quarterly Essay 29, ‘Love & Money’. Her memoir So This Is Life was published in 2009.
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