Australian politics, society & culture


Mother courage

At home with Rosie Batty

Rosie Batty at her son Luke's funeral, February 2014. © Jake Nowakowski / Newspix
CoverOctober 2014Medium length read

One hot afternoon in February 2014, in the pleasant Victorian township of Tyabb, south-east of Melbourne, an 11-year-old boy called Luke Batty was playing in the nets after cricket practice with his father, Greg Anderson. Without warning, Anderson swung the bat and dealt the child a colossal blow to the back of his head, then crouched over him where he lay, and attacked him with a knife. The police shot Anderson and he died in hospital the following morning.

Rosie Batty, the young boy’s mother, came out her front gate to address the media. Her thick fair hair was tangled, her face stripped raw. “I want to tell everybody,” she said to camera, in a low, clear voice with a Midlands accent, “that family violence happens to everybody. No matter how nice your house is, how intelligent you are. It can happen to anyone, and everyone. This has been an 11-year battle. You do the best you can. You’re a victim, and you’re helpless. An intervention order doesn’t stop anything like this from happening.”

It wasn’t so much what she said as her demeanour that stopped people in their tracks. There was something splendid about her, in her quiet devastation. Everyone who saw her was moved, and fascinated. People talked about her with a kind of awe.

The night before I visited Rosie Batty, in July, I had a dream. I found myself in a house with her and several other provincial Englishwomen, broad-browed and composed, like characters in a George Eliot novel. Their faces were swollen and stark, as if they had been swimming in grief for an eternity. But there was at the same time a gentleness in the room, a mysterious patience – a sense that the women’s pain was not the only thing that existed in their world; that they knew this, and that they were prepared to trust the knowledge. By the time I had spent a day with the real Rosie, the singular Rosie, I understood that the quality people found so impressive in her was not merely the authority of the brutally bereaved, but also this wisdom, this trust.

Rosie Batty lives on a small green acreage on the outskirts of Tyabb. In her paddocks goats wander. Donkeys utter their strange cries. We sat by her living-room fire all afternoon with a young dog lying on the mat between us. She is wonderful company: a straight-talking, irreverent and very funny woman of 50, a self-mocking mimic who really knows how to tell a story.

The terrible time after Luke’s death was very taxing to the independent soul of someone who lost her mother when she was six, and who had lived as a single mother for years.

“I spent two days on the couch,” she said. “I don’t think I even got changed. I didn’t want to go into my bed because Luke used to sleep with me there. I was basically comatose on the couch. A lot of wonderful people came to help me, but soon they started trying to make decisions for me. ‘Oh, Rosie, you can’t go out to the media! You mustn’t!’ I had to keep saying, ‘If I need your help, I won’t have any problem asking.’ One hug’s all right, but I had to say, ‘Do not keep touching me! Do not keep trying to embrace me!’ And somebody was always vacuuming or blowing leaves around. The noise! It got into my brain and I lost it – ‘WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?’” More to her taste was the old and dear friend who phoned her after she had appeared on TV looking slightly unkempt. “He said, ‘Clean yourself up, woman. You look like shit.’”

Then the Homicide detective came round to tell her that somebody really important wanted to call her that evening.

“Bruce Springsteen was touring,” Rosie told me, “and I’d been supposed to go to his concert. It’s low of me, isn’t it, but I thought to myself, ‘I love Bruce Springsteen. Maybe he might get to know my story and give me a call.’”

The very important caller, announced the detective, was the prime minister, Tony Abbott.

“I went, ‘Ahhh!’, but inside I was thinking, ‘Oh, damn’.”

In the months since Luke was murdered, Rosie Batty has become an advocate for victims of domestic violence, speaking publicly about her frustrating experiences with the government bodies whose job is to protect women and children. She did not scruple to shout at a callow TV presenter who made sanctimonious pronouncements about mandatory reporting. She is working hard with the lawyers who are preparing a brief for the coronial inquest into Luke’s death, slated for mid October. When the Commission for Children and Young People announced at a directions hearing in August that its report would not be ready in time for the inquest, she spat the dummy outside the Coroner’s Court. Bureaucrats ducked for cover. Like many a bereaved mother, she has lost all fear of people in power. She has an unerring bullshit detector, which she applies equally to her own public persona. “I have to be careful,” she said to me, with her wry grin, “that my little halo doesn’t slip down and strangle me.”

Rosie had never intended to have a child. But when she found herself pregnant at nearly 40, during a brief rekindling of an affair with her former workmate Greg Anderson, she went ahead. Anderson was an intelligent but prickly and rather rigid man with a lot of peculiar religious and philosophical ideas that he liked to argue about, but he could be fun, and she had always liked the way he was not intimidated by her. By the time Luke was born they had parted for good, but Anderson was keen to have some involvement with the child, and when he came round, Rosie was grateful for his practical help. Photos of him holding Luke show the baby’s tiny fist locked around the tall man’s forefinger, the father gazing down, rapt.

Throughout Luke’s childhood, Anderson came and went. “Every time I relaxed my boundaries,” said Rosie, “I’d bloody pay for it. There was always a trigger. Something would happen that made him feel inadequate, and he’d start again with his character assassination of me. He was a big, proud man who couldn’t have his own way.”

Anderson’s life began to fall apart. He became abusive and impossible in work situations, and could not keep even a manual job. He thought he was too clever for other people: he was possessed by a warped vanity, a tendency to contempt and scorn. He wound up jobless and unemployable, sometimes even living in his car. Sometimes he would ask Rosie if he could store stuff in her shed, and she agreed, because she pitied him. He would send her the occasional offensive email or text, talking about dark energy and telling her how evil she was, but in the end she got irritated and bored. “I would just think, ‘Oh, fuck off.’ Over the years I got used to him being odd and saying ridiculous things. I’d say, ‘You know what? You’re not dragging me into your world.’ The only thing I could control was how I let him affect me. People would say, ‘He’s going to ruin your life,’ and I’d say, ‘No, he’s not. Ultimately he’s in it, because he’s Luke’s dad, and I can’t do anything about that. But I have quality of life.’ Back then I hadn’t understood that there are different forms of violence.”

Rosie began to think she had Anderson figured out, that she knew how to handle his weird, aggressive behaviour, which was always aimed at her, never at their son. She let it roll over her, and carried on. Despite this tedious black cloud, she and Luke lived the peaceful provincial life she had always wanted to provide for him, with neighbours and friends, a happy school, sporting clubs, all their animals.

Through his misfortunes, Anderson’s love for Luke never wavered. On his visits he was kind and patient with the little boy, and they loved to play together. But one day Luke came home from an outing and told Rosie that in the car his father had said he was tired of this life, and wished he could go into the next one. He had shown Luke a knife and said, “It could all end with this.” A court order stopped his access to the boy. Anderson challenged the order. Under pressure, Rosie compromised: the court decided that Anderson would be allowed to see Luke only in public places, when he was playing sport. Soon after this, the Victorian Child Protection Service effectively closed Luke’s case.

Rosie took Luke to England for Christmas 2013 with her family. In their absence Anderson failed to make court and bail appearances. By the time they got back to Australia, there were four police warrants out for his arrest. Rosie knew nothing of this. Information that might have been a red flag for her, as Anderson’s mental state darkened, was withheld from her on privacy grounds. No one told her that he had been taken in for looking at child pornography at a public library. No one thought to mention to her that he had threatened to cut off the head of a fellow resident of his sharehouse. So on the afternoon of 12 February 2014, when she and Luke arrived at the local cricket ground for practice and Anderson came towards them “with a big smile”, warning bells did not go off. When Luke ran up to her at the end of practice and asked if he could have a few extra minutes of play at the nets with his dad, because they were having so much fun, she was glad to give permission, and off he ran.

The architecture of Rosie Batty’s face may be monumental, but the air around her is so clear that one can ask her anything.

“Are you religious?”

“I was raised in the Church of England,” she said. “But in my early 20s I started to read books. I didn’t read fiction for years. I started with people like Deepak Chopra and Louise L Hay. Then I found stuff about spirituality and Buddhism.”

“Do you find those things any use to you now?”

“Yes, I do. Taking responsibility. We’re here on our own individual journey …”

She sounded vague. Perhaps she was getting tired. She changed position on the couch and tried again, leaving very long pauses, sometimes holding her breath and letting it out in soft, voiceless gasps.

“I believe that we’re here to be tested. To have life lessons. To enhance all the qualities of compassion and empathy and love. To grow. The only other choice is – if you can’t grow, you’re gonna shrivel. So there isn’t a choice, really. You seek to grow, no matter what happens that may debilitate you for a time. But it’s in you to keep growing. To keep rising up, and learning something from it. And surging forward. Some people can’t. Or won’t. They stay bitter, or angry. Or try to dull their pain. They stay blaming other people.”

“Where’s Luke now?” I said. “What’s Luke, now?”

She drew a vast sigh, and said with great firmness and certainty, “If there is an afterlife, he will be in a blessed place.”

“Where’s his father, then?”

“I have to remind myself,” she said, choosing her words delicately, “that Greg died too. I didn’t ever want him to suffer. The best thing that could happen was for him to be … removed. He was such a tormented man. He believed the worst of everybody. It was exhausting. I don’t think of him a lot. He’s just dropped away. All my thoughts and emotions are consumed with Luke. With losing him. With what I’m not going to be able to share with him.” She took several long breaths. “Or see.”

We sat there in silence. The dog slept on between us. She rested her forearms across her thighs and turned her grand, weary face up to me.

“Sometimes,” she said, “it gets so quiet. And I think, what’s missing?” Her voice weakened and trembled. “I know what’s missing. What’s missing is Luke. Was he ever here?”

About the author Helen Garner

Helen Garner is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist. Her books include Monkey Grip, The Children’s BachThe Spare Room and This House of Grief.