July 2015


The darkness in every one of us

By Helen Garner
The author of ‘This House of Grief’ and ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ on writing about darkness

Last year I published This House of Grief, a book about the trials of a Victorian man, Robert Farquharson, who was found guilty of drowning his three young sons in revenge against his former wife. When the book came out I was struck by the number of interviewers whose opening question was “What made you interested in this case?” It always sounded to me like a coded reproach: “Is there something weird or peculiar about you, that you would spend seven years thinking about a story like this?”

I would slave away in these interviews, trying to come up with sophisticated explanations for my curiosity, but after a while I got tired of being defensive. I thought: A man loves his three sons. His heart is broken when his wife falls in love with another man and ends their marriage. A year later he’s driving the boys home to their mother after a Father’s Day outing. His car swerves into a deep dam. He fights his way out of the sunken car, hitches a ride to his ex-wife’s place and announces to her that he’s killed the kids. He tells everyone that he had a coughing fit and blacked out at the wheel. His ex-wife flatly refuses to believe he drove into the water on purpose. She passionately asserts his innocence at the trial. He is found guilty and gets three life sentences with no parole. He appeals his conviction. The appeal is successful, and he is given a retrial. But by the time he faces court again, his former wife has turned against him. She is the volatile witness from hell, so wild and fearless that she makes the whole court tremble.

What’s not interesting about that?

People seem more prepared to contemplate a book about a story as dark as this if the writer comes galloping out with all moral guns blazing. A friend of mine told me that the woman who runs his local bookshop had declared she would under no circumstances read my book. Surprised, he asked why. “Because,” she replied, “I know that nowhere in the book does she say that Robert Farquharson is a monster.”

If he had been a monster, I wouldn’t have been interested in writing about him. The sorts of crimes that interest me are not the ones committed by psychopaths. I’m interested in apparently ordinary people who, under life’s unbearable pressure, burst through the very fine membrane that separates our daylight selves from the secret darkness that lives in every one of us.

Back in 2000 I was still living in Sydney. My third and last marriage had crashed and burned 18 months before. I was in a very poor state, emotionally and psychologically. I lived by myself on the fifth floor of an apartment block on top of a hill. Its windows had so much air and light outside them that I was constantly drawn to lean my elbows on the sill. I would look out across the golf course with its lines of massive dark green trees, and its hoses sprinkling bridal veils of spray, and further east, the ruled blue-grey line of the sea beyond Bondi. Some days, though, I couldn’t help looking straight down to the well-placed concrete retaining wall directly beneath me, five storeys below. There were days when it seemed wiser not to go near the windows.

Back then my work too was stuck. I was paralysed. I had spent months in Canberra at the trials of the two women who had been charged with the murder of a young civil engineer called Joe Cinque. One had got ten years (she served four) for manslaughter; the other had been found to have no case to answer. The families of the two young women, and the women themselves, had politely but firmly refused my approaches. I had already conducted long and painful interviews with Joe Cinque’s parents, and in doing so had entered into a dangerous relationship of trust with these two suffering people. I had a mass of material to work with but it was all one-sided, hopelessly unbalanced. I was drowning in it. I had no idea how to write the book. I didn’t have a commanding place to stand; I didn’t yet have the right voice to tell the story of what had been done to Joe Cinque.

Around that time I heard there was a place in Sydney, down near Circular Quay, called the Justice & Police Museum. I read in the paper that a curious new curator had gone up into the roof or down into a cellar and come upon a forgotten cache of old black-and-white photographic negatives. A series of crime scene photos from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s had been developed and presented in a small exhibition. I could not get there fast enough.

Since that first public opening of the archive, many more photos from its fabulous trove have been resurrected and displayed. Certain mugshots have become famous, even hip: there are books of them, you can buy them on postcards. They are wonderful evocations of period and of class – precious historical documents. The most popular ones are full-length portraits, unceremoniously shot and unintentionally very beautiful, of men and women who have just been taken into police custody. They front the camera, unsmiling – racy, sinister types, alarmingly worldly or damaged, with a Weimar Republic sort of loucheness in their demeanour. They stand defiantly, chins high, in their pointed strappy shoes and felt hats and unbuttoned wool coats, in the bare stone courtyard of a police station.

Back at the turn of the millennium, though, when I first slunk into the Justice & Police Museum, there was something discreet, almost secret, about the show. Many of the pictures were free-floating, in that they had been unearthed minus any identifying material. Some of the most dramatic images contained no human figures at all. A blighted street corner; the scarred door of a warehouse; an overgrown track curving down towards a river; a bedroom of grim poverty, with a candlewick bedspread on a sagging mattress and cracked lino on the floor; a dingy hotel room whose open window, its cheap lacy curtain lifting on an invisible breeze, looks straight on to a brick wall. Where are the people? What has happened here? The photos don’t say. The police photographers didn’t fancy themselves as artists. Their job was to record what was in front of them, and they did it with a fidelity to duty that sometimes, in its utter lack of rhetorical ornament or self-importance, can reach us, lifetimes later, as an impersonal, manly tenderness.

The photo that haunts me most, though, from the show I saw in 2000, did have a plaque beside it: it stated that a young woman had committed suicide in a cave, in the Blue Mountains. As a viewer, you stand at the cave’s mouth looking in. On a rock shelf just inside, the woman has placed her handbag and an ominous-looking black bottle. Her dropped shoes lie on their sides. But where is she? You scan the surface of the photo in vain. Then you spot her face, tiny as a coin, far from you in the depths of the cave. She’s taken all her clothes off, to die. She’s lying on the ground as if asleep, her hair drawn back off her brow and her head turned to the light. She’s a figure from a timeless world of myth – a strange, slender, naked little cave-dwelling nymph.

I treasure the memory of this photo because of the purity of the recording eye: its respect for the deep calm of a place where a person has died, or been murdered, or has killed herself, its reverence for what I would even call the holiness of a place where something unthinkable and final has happened. Such a place, if you can bear to stand there, is imbued with a rich and sacred meaning.

I see now that for some years already I had been trying to turn myself into the sort of person who could look steadily at such things, without flinching or turning away. I remember how my friends reacted when I begged them to come with me and look at the photos at the Justice & Police Museum: most of them really did not want to see them; they couldn’t understand why I thought they were beautiful; and they gave me odd looks when I tried to persuade them. So I went back, again and again, usually on my own.

I would be drawing a very long bow indeed if I made out that the photo of the naked nymph in the cave, the powerful effect it had on me, was the inspiration for the following passage from Joe Cinque’s Consolation. But, as everybody knows, influence works well below the level of conscious awareness. It’s only in retrospect that we can perceive it. And if it had been a conscious influence, I would have stripped my writing back even further, trying to mimic the brutal simplicity of the police photographs.

This passage occurs when I’m going each day to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in Canberra to read the transcript of the murder trials and have stumbled upon the crime scene photos:

The police photographer was uninterested in argument and immune to ideas of art. He had roamed through the house and into the mortuary, brooding on detail. I followed his eye, and this is what I saw.

A colour snap, propped on a shelf … of a merry young man standing in front of the Trevi fountain. He is wearing a dark bomber jacket unzipped over a very white T-shirt, and a dark peaked cap. He is grinning, gesturing dramatically with one hand: Look! It’s me! I’m in Rome!

A black briefcase stuffed with prescription drugs still in their packets …

The bar of a mechanised treadmill.

A window shielded by diaphanous curtains.

A pink leather lounge suite. A dining table with six chairs …

On the table a single plate of food, a glass of wine …

Two tan suede men’s work boots, carelessly dropped on the carpet.

A pair of dark green corduroy men’s trousers slung over a cast-iron chair, with a tan leather belt still threaded through the loops.

A young man stretched out on his back, naked, on the bedroom floor. He is as relaxed as a sunbaker. His body is healthy, smooth and strong. His uncircumcised penis lolls to one side. His arms lie loose against the carpet. But he is already livid: blood is pooling in his thigh muscles, a dark, uneven flush. And behind him the sheets of a double bed are wrenched askew, dragged halfway to the floor, and stained with streaks of black fluid.

… It is the young traveller from the Trevi fountain. The youth and tenderness of his face, with its smooth curves. His thick, dark, curly hair … The springy hair. The beauty and freshness of the hair. The only sign that he is not simply dozing on a beach is a thin trickle of black muck running from one corner of his gently closed mouth and disappearing under his left earlobe into the dark.

I belong to a reading group. We wanted to get real about mighty works of literature. We started with Paradise Lost. Then we tackled Homer. This year we’re working our way into Virgil’s Aeneid. Whenever the story explodes into bloodshed and dismemberment, one of the women in the group, an experienced and respected journalist, becomes convulsed with laughter – paroxysms that she can’t muffle or control. It’s hysteria, she really can’t help it and she’s terribly embarrassed by it; the rest of us have learnt to pay no attention, we just calmly go on reading, taking it in turns around the ring, and in a while she gets a grip, returns to herself and takes her part again. It’s actually quite endearing. We don’t even comment on it any more. It’s her defence against the shocking, ancient darkness of what we’re reading.

Human beings have many shields against the darkness. A woman is raped, or murdered, and the old cry goes up: What was she doing out on the street alone in the middle of the night? Women shouldn’t take shortcuts through parks on their way to work, or go running along the riverbank with headphones on. These official warnings drive women crazy because they seem to proceed from an enraging assumption that the public space belongs to men, and that women have no claim on it: we broach it at our peril. But I’ve come to think that the subtext of what the politicians and police chiefs are saying, in their clumsy, poker-faced way, is this: “No matter what the political rhetoric is, please do not assume that because you should be safe in public spaces you will be safe. There is no way that we can police the world and guarantee your safety. We are as helpless as you against the darkness.”

Why are we ever surprised by the scorched earth around a broken family? Our laws and strictures and conventions have no purchase on the dark regions of the soul into which we venture when we love. In the Farquharson trials, people would passionately protest, “But he loved those boys!” Again and again it surfaced, the sentimental fantasy that love is a condition of simple benevolence, a tranquil, sunlit region in which we are safe from our own destructive urges. But everyone knows that love is brutal. A thousand songs tell the story. Love tears right through to the centre of us, into our secret self, and lays it wide open. Surely Sigmund Freud was right when he said, “We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love.”

What people find really hard to bear, I’ve noticed, is the suggestion that they themselves might contain their share of human darkness, hidden inside their souls. I believe this refusal lies behind the strange hostility I encountered, many times, when I was trying to write about Robert Farquharson’s trials. Friends would ask me what I was working on. When I told them, they would be at first quite curious – what’s he like? What sort of man is he? I would be barely three sentences into an account of his family background, his broken marriage and his broken heart, when my questioner’s mouth would harden into a straight line and she would make a sharp stabbing movement at my chest with a straight forefinger and say, angrily, “You’re making excuses!”

There’s a term that would often come up at this point in the conversation. A man like Farquharson, some people declared, is simply evil. That’s all he is. This means that neither he nor his crime deserves our attention. He is no longer a person. “He was found guilty by two juries,” one woman said to me. “What else is there to say? I don’t want to hear any more about him.” Sometimes I tried to argue. More often I backed away with my tail between my legs. But I kept thinking, and I still think, that there are thousands of men like Farquharson out there – hard-working, speechless Australian blokes who don’t understand why their wives got sick of them and turfed them out; dull men whose hearts are broken by rejection and by the loss of their children, and who can’t even begin to articulate their pain and rage. Men like these can be dangerous. Isn’t that worth thinking about?

Be that as it may, over the seven years of the Farquharson trials I was obliged to develop my own set of defences against the darkness. I had thought of myself as mature and thick-skinned enough to handle it. I never did what I saw some of the more battle-hardened journalists do while witnesses wept and writhed under cross-examination – they would fill out a crossword under the desk, or read the footy pages, or furtively clip their fingernails, or doodle a whole page full of graves with crosses on them. Like everyone else in the court I allowed myself at certain moments to shed tears or to put my head down on my arms for a moment’s relief. But at times I found my reasoning powers cracking under the strain.

Was there a form of madness called court fatigue? It would have mortified me to tell Louise [the girl who sat beside me] about the crazy magical thinking that filled my waking mind and, at night, my dreams: if only Farquharson could be found not guilty, then the boys would not be dead. Cindy would drive home from the court and find them playing kick-to-kick in the yard … I could not wait to get home each evening, to haul my grandsons away from their Lego and their light sabres, to squeeze them in my arms until they squirmed. Young boys! How can such wild, vital creatures die? How can this hilarious sweetness be snuffed out, snatched away forever?

It seemed fitting, and in a bizarre way almost consoling, that it was a woman who finally got deep enough into the dam, that night, to find the sunken car. She was Senior Constable Rebecca Caskey of the Search and Rescue Squad. The vehicle, they had calculated, was wedged nose-down in the mud, 28 metres from the bank, in 7 and a half metres of water.

Caskey dived again. In the mud at the bottom, working blind, she felt her way to what she guessed was the driver’s side of the vertical car.

“The first thing I noticed on the driver’s side was an open door, just above the level of my head. Its window was closed. I felt around the edge of the door.”

Again, eyes shut and palms exposed, she mimed her fumbling search.

“And then,” she said, “I felt, slightly protruding from the car, a small person’s head.”

On the witness stand she cupped both hands before her face, and delicately moved an imaginary object sideways.

“I pushed it back in. And I shut the door.”

… Soon after midnight Caskey clambered out of the water for the last time. A police 4WD winched the Commodore to the edge of the dam, and a commercial tow-truck dragged it, still full of water, up on to the bank. Caskey had been in the dam for several hours. She was cold. She was keen to get changed and go home.

Before she left, she took a quick look into the car. She saw three children. Two were in the back. Lying in the front was the one whose head she had touched and, for a moment, held in her hands.

At this point, in an earlier draft, there was another paragraph and this is what it said:

The diver’s detachment was exemplary; but had she been pressed for more detail, her composure might have cracked, and then we would all have been lost. Her simple gravity was the only thing holding us back from uttering a great communal howl of horror and grief.

I cut that paragraph. A writer friend of mine told me I had to. I remember it hurt me to cut it, because my own urge to utter such a howl was almost beyond my control. But in the spirit of the diver, and of those police photographers who disciplined themselves in the face of death and simply, purely recorded the facts as they saw them, I scribbled out my fancy flourish, and now I’m glad I did.

I saw what the police went through in the course of these trials, and I wanted to emulate what was calm and shrewd and decent in them. Earlier this year, I turned on the TV news and saw that a Sudanese woman in an outer western suburb of Melbourne had driven her four kids under six into a lake; three of them had drowned. I was so shocked I went numb. I know it’s weird but my first thought was for the furious, exhausted cops in the Major Collision Unit, the ones who barrel out at all hours of the day or night to road smashes where people have died or suffered life-threatening injuries. I longed to get in touch with them, I don’t know why – what on earth could I say to them? All the ones I got to know are gone now, anyway, transferred or promoted or burnt out; and the detective with the silver buzz-cut, who sat with me under the plane trees up the top of Bourke Street one day and gossiped quietly and gently – what would I say to him? I admire you? I pity you? I respect you? No. I envy you – because your job is to get into your car and drag yourself out to the scene and try to do something about it – while all I can do is sit here on the couch in front of the TV with stupid tears running off my cheeks, unable to form a coherent thought or even to locate in myself an emotion with a name.

In Farquharson’s first trial, the Crown screened what they called the submergence videos: the police had fitted up a Commodore like Farquharson’s with internal lights and video cameras. They had lowered the car into a dam with a crane, and filmed what it did and what the water did and whether it was possible for a driver to open the door of a sinking car in the way Farquharson said he had. These videos were shown to the court after the police diver had given her restrained testimony about gently pushing Jai Farquharson’s body back into the car at the bottom of the dam.

When court rose after that horrible screening, the jury looked older, weary and sad. Men’s brows were furrowed, women stowed sodden handkerchiefs. People staggered out into the street white-faced.

On the long slow escalator down to Flagstaff station, I could not block out of my mind those small bodies, the tender reverse-midwifery of the diver. The only way I could bear it was to picture the boys as water creatures: three silvery, naked little sprites, muscular as fish, who slithered through a crack in the car’s rear window and, with a flip of their sinuous feet, sped away together into their new element.

There’s no point roaming around looking for comfort, or so I have found. Comfort is like grace. You can’t earn it, or deserve it. You have to thrash on, bearing things as best you can, and hold yourself receptive for the moments when it comes to you of its own accord.

Towards the end of the second Farquharson trial, during breaks in the proceedings when the court was cleared, I used to walk up and down the great bare Victorian corridors of the old Supreme Court, stretching my legs, trying to get the blood moving. One day I heard what sounded like music, very faint and far away. I thought I must be hallucinating, and kept walking. But every time I passed the entrance to a certain west-running hallway, the same thing would happen: fragile drifts of notes and slow arpeggios, barely audible, as if a ghost in a tightly closed room were playing a piano at a whisper. I was too embarrassed to ask if anyone else had heard it; I thought I must be starting to crack up. But one day when there was no one else around I went in search of it. I found that an intersection of two corridors had been somehow roofed in glass or perspex. Two benches had been placed against a wall, and from a tiny speaker, fixed high in a corner, showered these delicious droplets of sound. It was a resting place that some nameless benefactor had created, for people who thought they couldn’t go on.

One afternoon in a different hallway a lady came out of an unmarked office carrying a flat dish. She saw me sitting waiting in the corridor on my own, and approached holding the plate out in front of her: “Hello. We’ve just had a little party and we’ve got some cakes left over. Would you like a lamington?”

And one night, while I waited for my train home, a young stranger sidled up to me on the platform, offering me his phone in outstretched hands: his wife had just given birth to their first child – could he share the photos with me?

These random incidents seem so strange to me now, such unexpected moments of blessing, that I wonder if I dreamt them. Dreams do come, sometimes: the unconscious works in us and for us, ceaselessly, with its saving complexity and its deep knowingness.

Last year, the Monthly sent me to interview Rosie Batty, whose 11-year-old son, Luke, had been murdered by his father. The night before I went to meet her, I had a dream that I’ll never forget.

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 find so impressive in her is not merely the authority of the brutally bereaved, but also this wisdom, this trust.

Sometimes it seems to me that, in the end, the only thing that people have got going for them is imagination. At times of great darkness, everything around us becomes symbolic, poetic, archetypal. Perhaps this is what dreaming, and art, are for.

This is an edited version of Helen Garner’s address ‘How Can We Write About Darkness?’ delivered on 21 May 2015 at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is a novelist and nonfiction writer. Her most recent books are her diaries Yellow NotebookOne Day I’ll Remember This and How To End a Story.

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