September 2014

Arts & Letters

End of the road

By David Marr

Helen Garner’s ‘This House of Grief’

On Father’s Day 2005, Robert Farquharson drove his car into a dam on the flatlands west of Geelong, Victoria, and drowned his three young sons, Jai, Tyler and Bailey. To this day, Farquharson claims he blacked out at the wheel, but after two trials and two appeals over eight years the law came to a different conclusion. Last year, when the High Court refused to hear yet another appeal, Farquharson was left serving a 33-year sentence and Helen Garner was free, at last, to publish This House of Grief (Text Publishing; $32.99).

Her readers have been impatient, but Garner bears the law no ill will for taking its time. She respects its processes. Long before Farquharson’s trials began, Garner knew her way around the great pile of Melbourne’s Supreme Court. “I could never approach its street entrance,” she writes, “without a surge of adrenalin and a secret feeling of awe.” The book is dedicated to this court, “this treasury of pain, this house of power and grief”.

At its most obvious, This House of Grief is a true-crime tale of a triple murder that appalled the nation and brought undone a handful of families in the little town of Winchelsea. All this is superbly done. Garner is one of the finest reporters in this country, with, she reminds us, the “shit-detector … of a woman who had been in the world for more than 60 years, knowing men, sometimes hearing them say true things, sometimes being told lies”.

But This House of Grief is also something quite unexpected: a love song to the law. Garner has never sat on a jury but boasts to a friend one night: “I’ve seen 12 Angry Men about a hundred times.” She loves the ragged human drama of a trial. She hoovers up the facts brought to light in the court. But she has a deeper purpose here that sets this book apart: Garner hopes the machinery of the law can reconcile her to the “completely unendurable” possibility that a man would murder his own children.

Garner and Farquharson come face to face only twice. They never talk. She never ceases to pity him. Evil as an explanation doesn’t interest her. She wants to know exactly how a man who everyone agreed loved his children might slaughter them. When the evidence of his guilt becomes overwhelming, Garner is swept by “an emotion I had no name for, though it felt weirdly like shame”.

The challenge at the heart of This House of Grief is something hardened court reporters know all too well: grim crimes aren’t necessarily committed by interesting people. It’s a mark of Garner’s resolve and endless curiosity that she sticks with Farquharson, knowing, almost from the start, that he is childish, soft and dull. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but he was ordinary. A man.”

Yet this “stump of a man” with his neatly ironed handkerchiefs absolutely engages Garner’s imagination. Despite the gulf that separates them, they are not complete strangers. Like him, she knows what it is to endure the “unbearable blow” of divorce. And a newspaper photograph of one of Farquharson’s sisters leading him across the street gives Garner her organising insight into his life: he is the little brother. “He trots beside her. She has an impatient, double-fisted hold on his left wrist that yanks his hand like a toddler’s across the front of her hips. As the eldest of six children I recognised that hold: it was a bossy big-sister grip.”

Garner’s genius for finding meaning in small gestures, a novelist’s skill honed over 40 years, is crucial here. The judge and the jury are beyond her reach. So are the killer and his estranged wife, Cindy Gambino. When writing her 2004 book Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Garner became an intimate confidante of the victim’s family. Not here. Gambino turns instead to Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes and to women’s magazines, where, Garner observes tartly, “her interviews were reported in the tabloid language that can reduce the purest human anguish to a pulp”.

So Garner haunts the court. She is there in the dock, on the bench, at the bar table and in the witness box. She is the juror who hears even the evidence the jury is forbidden to hear. Her sympathies are everywhere engaged. Her sharp eyes miss nothing. She is shaken at times by the savagery of the lawyers, but she forgives them even when they begin to bully her. Imagine what it would be like for even the most experienced criminal silk to have this woman watching over their shoulder.

Garner’s rapport falters at times with old hands in the press box. She is mocked by one of them for weeping at the sight of Farquharson’s “ravaged, beseeching” face as Gambino finishes her evidence and stumbles out of the first trial. Garner wonders why this journalist could not hold her fire in the face of what they had both witnessed: “two broken people grieving together for their lost children, in an abyss of suffering where notions of guilt and innocence have no purchase”.

Farquharson mowed lawns, washed windows and had three children with a good woman who did all the heavy lifting in the marriage. “If I didn’t do a lot of what I did in our relationship,” Gambino tells the court, “there wouldn’t be much done.” What passion there was died and she asked him to move out. He left her the good car. The kids visited him every other weekend. She took back her maiden name and found a new man: the contractor who had poured the slab for the house she was still trying to complete. This provokes a few lines of pure Garner:

Having recently watched a bunch of blokes pour a concrete slab in my own backyard, I was equipped to imagine the effect of this sight on a young woman in Cindy Farquharson’s stifling situation. A concrete pour is a dramatic process. It demands skill, speed, strength, and the confident handling of machinery; and it is so intensely, symbolically masculine that every woman and boy in the vicinity is drawn to it in excited respect.

Only ten months separated Farquharson’s exile from home and the fatal night on the Princes Highway. Gambino saw her former husband become a better father once he had the boys on his own. The rough and tumble stopped. He started calling them by their first names rather than jokey nicknames. That he loved his children was a given. She never doubted it. But now he came to know and love them more deeply. “Since when,” Garner asks, “has loving someone meant you would never want to kill them?”

On Father’s Day, Farquharson is driving the kids home in the early evening. It’s dark. After the old Commodore crosses a railway overpass, it veers to the right, bursts through a fence, crosses a paddock, clips a tree and sinks out of sight into an old quarry. Only Farquharson emerges. Wet, oddly composed, he flags down two passers-by and talks of having had a coughing fit and coming to in the water.

That 50-metre journey of a few seconds and the rare condition known as cough syncope are picked over by lawyers for weeks at Farquharson’s trials. Garner takes their work seriously. She weighs the evidence scrupulously. We are not let off lightly. And she wins my undying admiration for facing what few journalists will ever dare admit in print: for days at a time, trials can be utterly tedious.

“As the hours and days ground on, the air in the court became a jelly of confusion and boredom,” she writes. The jury members fight sleep. So does she. It comes to her that the tedium is not an accident but rather a lawyer’s tactic deliberately deployed to sow confusion. Nothing does that so well as cross-examination on material that is “fiddly, maniacally detailed, and catastrophically lacking in narrative”. But always those moments come when the trial snaps into focus and the court is thrust “back into excruciating realms of human behaviour, where reason fights to gain a purchase, and everyone feels entitled to an opinion”.

Farquharson’s first conviction, in October 2007, is set aside because the judge mishandles the evidence of one of the witnesses. By the time of the second trial, in May 2010, Gambino has changed her mind: she now believes her former husband meant to kill their children. The centre of the drama shifts. This time Farquharson gives evidence in his own defence. It’s a catastrophe Garner captures in heartbreaking detail. He goes down again.

Garner is the tough and loving schoolmarm of Australian writing. Bad behaviour has always been her subject, from Monkey Grip all the way to This House of Grief. She doesn’t celebrate Farquharson’s fate as a triumph. In the crimes and misdemeanours we commit against one another, she has always found clues to being human. That’s so even here. This stumpy bloke with a harsh haircut disappearing into the cells for the last time is still one of us.

Has she explained his crime? She comes as close as humanly possible. The reasons she finds for this man turning right towards that paddock and heading for the water are compelling. I’m not going to give the game away, except to say that This House of Grief is an unflinching attack on what this wise woman calls the “sentimental fantasy of love as a condition of simple benevolence, a tranquil, sunlit region in which we are safe from our own destructive urges”.

David Marr

David Marr is a writer and journalist. He is the author of the award-winning Patrick White: A Life, Quarterly Essay 38, ‘Power Trip’, and co-author of Dark Victory. He has been a reporter with Four Corners and the host of Media Watch.

Robert Farquharson leaves the Supreme Court in Melbourne, 30 December 2005. © Joe Castro / AAP

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