June 2005

The Nation Reviewed

Punishing Lauren

By Helen Garner

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

One Tuesday morning in August last year, Lauren Curnow, a 17-year-old student at Ballarat Secondary College, told her parents that she felt sick and wanted to stay home from school. Her mother assumed Lauren had a cold. But at about four in the afternoon, while Mrs Curnow was outside washing the car, Lauren gave birth, on hands and knees in her own bed, to a full-term baby boy.

She cut the umbilical cord with a pair of scissors. Then she gave the infant several hard punches to the head, wrapped him in a towel, put him on the floor beside her bed, and went into the bathroom to wash. While she was in the shower, Mrs Curnow, who had not known Lauren was pregnant, came back into the house and saw blood in her daughter’s bed. Lauren said she had a very heavy period, but then Mrs Curnow found the baby, bundled in his towel. She made up the bed freshly and let Lauren sleep for a couple of hours. Then mother and daughter took the baby to hospital, where he was declared dead.

Lauren claimed that in her exhaustion after the labour she had collapsed on top of the baby. But when homicide squad detectives pointed out that such a fall could not explain the bruising, the haemorrhage and the eight areas of fracture that the autopsy had revealed, she confessed that she had struck the baby several times in the head, intending to kill him, for she did not want to keep him.

The prisoner who faced Justice Bongiorno from the dock at the Victorian Supreme Court on April 28, 2005, was a slip of a girl with long, fine, dark hair, dressed like any teenager in low-slung flared pants and a cotton top. To hear the charge of infanticide read out against her, to be told that she had managed to conceal her pregnancy for its entire duration, had laboured furtively and in silence, and had delivered the infant alone, staining her girlhood bed with blood – this was terrible enough; but one’s mind veered away from the rest, as did one’s eyes from her downcast, expressionless, rather handsome profile. When she pleaded guilty to the charge the air in the court was thick with shock and pity.

Lauren Curnow’s counsel sketched out a provincial Australian life poignant in its ordinariness. She was the eldest of three sisters. Her father, whose tough discipline and “yelling” she feared while longing for his approval, was a fitter. Her mother was a part-time retail assistant. At the time of her baby’s birth and death she was in year 12; she finished the year with a tertiary entrance score of 38.8, and was now studying visual arts at TAFE. She played in a basketball team and worked 20 hours a week at Safeway. Several friends had accompanied her to court. Twenty-one Ballarat people had produced character references.

She had had no further sexual relationships since she broke up with the child’s father, an unnamed person whose existence was otherwise never mentioned in the proceedings. Her mother, a pleasant-faced woman, told the court of her daughter’s distraught tears, her remorse, her need for comfort.

How should the court deal with such a girl? Justice Bongiorno’s face, one fancied, showed the distress felt by all those present. His brow was creased, his mouth turned down at the corners. The maximum penalty in Victoria for killing a child in the first 12 months of its life (after that, the charge becomes murder) is five years. The very notion of infanticide acknowledges that the balance of a new mother’s mind may remain disturbed for many months by the shock and physiological changes of childbirth.

Only one expert witness gave evidence: Professor Anne Buist, a clinician and researcher in the field of post-partum psychiatric illness. Buist introduced a further refinement: the concept of neonaticide, where a mother kills her baby within 24 hours of its birth. It’s during the first day of a baby’s life, said Buist, that it runs the greatest risk of being murdered. And there is a very strong correlation – as high as 50% – between girls who conceal their pregnancy and those who kill their baby.

In many of these girls, the knowledge of the pregnancy never reaches a conscious level. Lauren Curnow knew all right, but she “kept squashing the knowledge down”. She was child-like, said Buist, with little insight, poor judgment and few planning skills. She sought no antenatal care or advice, she didn’t consider an abortion. She “just kind of hoped it would all go away”. But in the panic and terror of giving birth alone, she entered a brief state of dissociative psychosis in which she killed the baby. Even the Crown offered no objection to this interpretation.

What is bewildering about these stories, and almost every woman knows of one, at second or third hand, is not only why a girl hides her pregnancy but how. How can her family, her intimates, fail month after month to see the obvious? Lauren Curnow’s mother told the court that she had “suspected” it when Lauren appeared to be putting on weight; but once Lauren had denied it, she asked no further questions. It’s as if a girl’s iron refusal of her state can induce in others a sort of hysterical blindness.

One psychologist, Steven Pinker, believes that most neonaticides remain undiscovered. Anthropology shows, he says, that neonaticide is wired into humans, and he argues, provocatively, that our disinclination to imprison these young mothers, and our pity for their plight, points to our unexpressed sense that newborns have not yet reached full human status.

Researchers say that girls’ will to deny pregnancy can be so powerful that they suppress the symptoms. They can give birth within earshot of other people, and not cry out; some even say they felt no pain. Some, when they return to awareness and find the dead infant, have no idea how it got there. Babies are found under beds, in cupboards, stuck in bags. One girl put her dead baby into a filing cabinet that she shared with others at her office.

“My guess,” Professor Buist told the court, “is that if Lauren’s mother hadn’t come in and found the baby, Lauren would have just left him there. Even to try to hide him would be to face that it had happened.”

When the court resumed that afternoon for sentencing, the girl sat in the dock, frozen-faced.

“Lauren,” said Justice Bongiorno. “Would you stand up? I am not going to send you to jail.” A tremor passed along her lips. “You know that jails are nasty, violent places. All of the purposes of punishment can be achieved without putting you in jail.” He gave her a three-year good behaviour bond on condition that she continue to see a counsellor. “But if you fall foul of the law, you’ll be brought back here and sentenced to imprisonment. Do you understand?”

She opened her mouth and uttered a tiny, strangled squeak of assent.

“Come down here, Lauren, and sign the undertaking.” She obeyed, then made as if to return to the dock. “You don’t have to go back there,” said Justice Bongiorno gently. “Go and sit with your mother.”

As the court rose, Lauren’s father put one arm around her and held her close against his side.

Scarcely out of childhood, the girl had endured an anguish so unimaginable that even the thought that she had killed a helpless infant with her fists could not make people want to punish her. She left the court shielded by her parents, with her sister and friends clustering behind. They crossed William Street in a tight phalanx. Cameramen backed away in front of them. Lauren kept her head low, but later, on the TV news, one could discern in her face, through the screen of her hair, the faintest trace of softening, though nothing as free as a smile.

Helen Garner

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

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