The Monthly Book – September 2014 – Helen Garner’s This House of Grief

The Monthly Book for September is master storyteller Helen Garner’s new non-fiction work: the devastating, utterly compelling This House of Grief (Text Publishing).

Here’s my interview with Helen Garner conducted at the Opening night event of the Melbourne Writers Festival. (The transcript appears below.)

Helen Garner begins This House of Grief in a time-honoured way, with a phrase that almost seems to be out of a storybook: “Once there was a hard-working bloke who lived in a small Victorian town …” There are shades of what Flaubert does in Madame Bovary, taking the point of view of the humiliated husband who has been left by his wife. She did him wrong, like in a country and western song, and out of rage and shame he killed their three sons on Father’s Day in 2005, driving them into a dam off the highway near their home. Or that is the case the prosecution presented during Robert Farquharson’s two murder trials in the Supreme Court of Victoria.

The defence would claim that Farquharson blacked out at the wheel after a rare complication from a coughing fit, that when he regained consciousness the car was in the dam, and that his ten-year-old son opened a car door and let in the water that was to engulf the car and from which the father would emerge the only survivor.

Which was the true story?

This tragic case is astutely observed by the most wise and expressive of writers. As Garner describes the first time she came upon the children’s graves, she notes that in the seven years to come – as she followed two trials and two appeals – she would regret that she had not simply blessed the children and walked away.

When Garner said she wanted to write about the trial, “people looked at me in silence, with an expression I couldn’t read”. Were they concerned that Garner was entering the heart of darkness that is a father murdering his children for revenge? Or were they suspicious that she would question that view, that she would accept Farquharson’s side of the story? As she said in our interview, recorded at the opening night of the Melbourne Writers Festival in late August, “I think they just disapproved … I think they thought, Oh, she’s soft on men. I think that’s probably what they thought. That’s the kind of stuff people have been saying about me for quite some years now, I believe.”

This House of Grief begins with two epigraphs. Each one either mentions or implies the idea of explanation, for exactly what happened, for how it happened, for why it happened, for how it could have happened. In the end, we might be left with something a little further away from the truth than we might wish. But court cases are supposed to give us a story that on balance we believe about what might have happened.

In the first murder trial, Farquharson’s ex-wife, Cindy Gambino, the mother of the boys, accepted his story that it had all been a tragic accident. She had sworn at the committal hearing that Farquharson had loved his sons. Garner writes, “Since when has loving someone meant that you would never want to kill them?”

The book also provides a fascinating insight into the legal process. Garner describes the awe and the adrenalin she felt when she entered the Supreme Court of Victoria, “this house of grief”, and she sets the stage for the theatre that is a court case – wigs tilted forward, wigs tilted back, the tiny diamond stud in the lobe of the judge’s left ear. Her writing is almost painterly in these sections. The actors – the families of Cindy Gambino and Robert Farquharson, the journalists, the lawyers, the witnesses – all play a role like a Greek chorus, summing up at stages, raising questions that people outside the story are asking too.

Helen Garner observes who looks at whom in the court and what their expressions tell us, and she is a master interpreter of body language, of gesture, of looks and of sighs. She quotes Janet Malcolm:Jurors sit there presumably weighing evidence but in actuality they are studying character.”

As you read This House of Grief, you might like to consider the following:

– Can a court case give us an explanation of what happened or simply the most plausible story? Is this enough if you are looking for justice?

– What do we do with events that are inexplicable?

– Garner was not able to interview any of the central figures. What can we tell of character without interview? Aren’t we just imposing our own experience of people – not these people but people like them?

This Monthly Book for September will have your heart in your mouth, even as you know the outcome of the trials described, and it will leave you wondering what you might have decided had you been on those juries yourself.


(Video opens with Helen Garner reading the dedication, epigraphs and opening from This House of Grief)

RAMONA KOVAL: Well, when you said you wanted to write about the trial, you said, “People looked at me in silence with an expression I couldn’t read.” I imagine I can I guess they might be thinking, How can you go into the heart of darkness that is a father possibly murdering his children for revenge? It’s something that people don’t want to think about, lots of people don’t want to think about. But in order to explain it, you need to go there, I guess. How do you limber up for this kind of journey? Do you recoil first, as others do? And then what happens?

HELEN GARNER: I didn’t recoil, no. I don’t think I recoiled at any point from this. I just really love courts, and every time I walk into one I feel a strange sense that I’d love to stay there forever. That I wish there was a little bed that I could sleep in, in there, so I didn’t have to go home. I don’t know what it is about what goes on in courts, but I find it more and more fascinating the older I get. But when people gave me that funny look, I interpreted that as a look almost of disapproval. And that’s something that happened as the many years passed during which I worked on this book. I was really quite surprised by the number of people who seemed almost angry with me for going to the trial. They seemed to – some of them actually blatantly said – “Why are you there? Why are you doing this? He’s obviously guilty. And so why are you bothering to pay it any attention?” I was a bit shocked by that, actually.

RK: What were they afraid of?

HG: What would they be afraid of?

RK: Afraid of you presenting a different view of him?

HG: No, I think they just disapproved … I think they thought, Oh, she’s soft on men. I think that’s probably what they thought. That’s the kind of stuff people have been saying about me for quite some years now, I believe.

RK: I’m surprised because what I think of when I think of you going there is How can she do that? How can she go so deeply into a horrible thing? One imagines the children drowning. One imagines what happened afterwards. One imagines the mother hearing, and then one imagines the family completely devastated. But I’m just trying to ask you, “How do you go there?” Because it is a special gift you have of boring down into the story.

HG: Because on the first day when I walk in, I’m not really thinking of any of that. I’m thinking, Have I brought the right notebook? Where is my pen? And where am I going to sit? How am I going to get close enough to the action to see what’s going on? How am I going to get the transcript emailed to me every night? You know, Where’s the list that I’ve got to put my name on? You know, I’m sort of entering that …

RK: You already think this is your story to write?

HG: I think it might be. The thing is, I had already been to his committal, which was down in Geelong, my home town, which was another reason for going. Just ‘cause I’d never been to a court in Geelong.

RK: But you could have gone to any trial if you like courts.

HG: I reckon I could get a book out of anything that was happening in a court, even the most minor traffic infringement (laughs).

RK: But you didn’t. There are a lot of traffic infringements you could have chosen …

HG: That could be my next … Yeah, well, no, I read about it and, as I said in the beginning of the book there, when I first heard about it, I had this shock, as everyone did, this shock of complete horror, and then follows after that a sort of curiosity that I’ve learnt to take notice of. It’s what Janet Malcolm calls the first stirring of reportorial curiosity, or words to that effect. I think, Maybe there’s something here that I’d like to know.

RK: So a bell rings? And what’s the tone of that bell? Is it subtle?

HG: It’s not shrill, put it that way. It’s more like when your phone goes off in the next room. When a text has come in: bing! Just like that.

RK: Do you have to be ready and desperate for the idea to come?

HG: Ready and desperate?

RK: You know, for the next idea, for the next book.

HG: No, totally not. No, I mean, I spend a lot of time between books thinking, Oh God, I wouldn’t care if I never wrote another book. I just think maybe I’ll just stay home and be a hands-on nana or make myself useful in some way. But I think by the time I’d been to the committal and I’d seen some of the people who were involved in the story, that’s when I have a tremendous feeling of being drawn to this story. And, of course, I didn’t know how awful the trials were going to be. I mean, I knew there was going to be distress in the room and some terrible things would be told, but I couldn’t really have foreseen the extremity of awfulness and horror that there was, and by the time I got to that I couldn’t get out.

RK: You begin the book in that time-honoured way with the phrase – from a story book almost – “Once there was a hard-working bloke who lived in a small Victorian town.” You start like Flaubert does in Madame Bovary with a point of view of the discarded, humiliated husband, left by his wife, as you say, like a country and western song. Did you have a sense of presenting him, gaining sympathy for the man who, after all, is now sitting in prison, found guilty of triple murder? What was the idea of starting like that?

HG: Well, I imagine that most books have their beginnings after their ends are written. You have the beginning to a book and then you just keep writing and get to the end, and you think, Gee, that beginning is really pathetic. I’ll go back and rewrite the front of it. Well, that’s what I usually do, anyway. ‘Cause you don’t really know what the book’s about until you finish writing it. I wasn’t really trying to arouse sympathy in other people but to express sympathy – or the empathy, I suppose is more the right word – that I felt myself. This whole story went on for nearly eight years, and I went to all the hearings over all that time. During those eight years, I also wrote another book. Usually a year would pass between one hearing and the next; it would advance in a series of year-long steps. But most of the time I was just thinking about this story or it was more hanging over me like a horrible black cloud. I can’t remember where I was going with this …

RK: About starting with Farquharson’s position.

HG: Yes. Well, I soon found that the kind of … Put it this way: it was an unpopular view to think that he might perhaps not be guilty, and that interested me greatly that people seemed to find it unbearable to contemplate the matter. You know, they wanted to quickly get it out … They think, Get it out of my sight. Don’t talk to me about this; I don’t want to know. And if anybody would ask me “What are you writing at the moment?”, I’d say, “Well, I’m following this series of trials.” And their next question would be, “Well, did he do it or not?” And the young woman I had with me in the court, Louise the gap-year girl, she said, “That is the least interesting question one could possibly ask.” That was a rhetorical statement, I suppose, but I rather sympathised with it.

RK: So, just to make to sense of our conversation tonight: what were the elements of the story, each side – the defence and the prosecution. What were they asking the jury to believe? The prosecution was saying what?

HG: The prosecution was saying that this man drove into the dam on purpose; he wanted to kill his children in an act of revenge against his wife, who had left him for another man. His defence was that he had in fact been unconscious at the wheel of his car. That he’d had a coughing fit and blacked out at the wheel and the car had gone into the water. When he came to in the water, he said his son opened the front door, the biggest boy, and the car filled with water, and he said he got out and swam around and tried to get them out the other side, but the car went down. And that was the end of it because the dam wasn’t really a dam; it was a pit that was left behind after they’d dug out the dirt to make the overpass over the railway line. So it was 20-feet deep, or 7 metres in modern parlance. That’s the gist of it. Was he conscious? The question of the trial was: was he conscious when the car went off the road?

RK: So then starts the painstaking effort of people on both sides – prosecution, defence – stacking up the evidence for their particular story. The evidence that you say was soporific at some points, technical evidence. Just describe what the argument was about, the technical evidence.

HG: OK, well, there’s the outfit in the police force called Major Collision Investigation Unit and they’re the guys – and women, there are women there too – who go out to car crashes where either people have died or they’ve suffered life-threatening injury. Major Collision were called to the scene on the night and they got there late at night. This was in the spring, so it was dark, and their job is to measure the site. They’re surveyors and they survey this site and draw up plans of the scene – one isn’t supposed to call it a crime scene. And that’s their job and so they do a lot of very detailed measurements.

I should say, there were a set of tracks that led from the road to the dam  – a flat arc. The point of this being there was no sign of skidding, no sign of braking; there was no sign that the car had been out of control, and this was the rather devastating conclusion that the Major Collision investigators had come to. There was an enormous amount of very technical evidence about arcs and radii and how you measure tracks of a car.

RK: The camber of the road.

HG: The camber of the road, yes. Whether the road sloped in the correct way, or whether it was possible it was that the slope of the road could have caused a car with an unconscious driver to follow that exact trajectory into the water. So there were huge masses of this, and not just masses of evidence but painstaking cross-examination of police investigators. It was evidence that was almost impossible to make interesting. The jury really did look as if they were falling asleep quite a lot of the time. I didn’t fall asleep even though it was super-boring, but the thing about courts is that even the boring bits are interesting. Well, I think they are.

RK: And that was the devastating evidence in the end, wasn’t it?

HG: Well, I found it devastating, and obviously both the juries did.

RK: There would have to be inputs into the steering wheel by someone conscious to get to where the car was.

HG: Yes. That was the Crown case.

RK: The court as you paint it – I mean, I haven’t spent time in courts like you have – but it seems like a theatre set in the round, or something. The lawyers are the major players, the way you describe them: the blustering and the hawk-like concentration and the performance, and the jury, and the person in the dock, and the witnesses and the families. Is that why it’s so interesting for you? Is it like a human play that’s being performed?

HG: It’s a very formal space. I think the thing about courts is that in courts you can contemplate the darkest thoughts of human behaviour, but you can contemplate it in a way that’s so strongly formalised. The judge is almost a sort of paternal figure. He sits up high. There are women judges too, so let’s say a parental figure. Everything is done according to traditional ways.

I used to think, when I was young and wanted everything to be smashed and changed, I thought this was terrible. I thought lawyers shouldn’t wear wigs, I thought it was pathetic that they wore wigs and that the judge wore a wig and robes. I thought, What is all this bullshit? It’s so old-fashioned and straight from the 18th century.

But I don’t think that now. I actually think that wearing wigs, however ludicrous they may appear, a person wearing a wig and a gown doesn’t look just like an ordinary bloke or an ordinary woman. It looks like somebody who is performing a function on behalf of some larger force. I think that’s very crucial in these matters. There is a kind of spirit of the law. I know some people will think this is really naive of me to think this, but I’m sticking to it.

RK: These people who you talk to who don’t approve of you, who think that you’re …

HG: There are a lot of terrible, cynical old lefties that I know.

(Audience laughs.)

RK: You should get a wider circle.

(Audience laughs.)

HG: I know plenty of people who also think it’s cool and interesting. I do feel a bit embarrassed to be so besotted with the court. I mean, it got to the point where during these trials I just couldn’t wait to get there in the morning. I wanted to be the first person to get in. I was sort of like that swot at school, I suppose, who wants to bring the apple for the teacher, but I never took anything for the judge (laughs).

(Audience laughs.)

RK: But you do describe it sometimes as a beautiful space before the people come and then they get on with the grim job that they’re there to do.

HG: Yep.

RK: There are many objects in this book and in that reading – the ironed hanky, that may have been later, and the yellow capeweed, and the dark cypresses, and the wigs titled forward and the wigs tilted back, and the tiny diamond stud in the lobe of the judge’s left ear – which makes your style of writing very painterly, I think. I can just see the little touches of these objects, and I just wondered how these objects composed themselves in your writing? Or are they toeholds for you in life and in note-taking?

HG: Well, I mentioned a moment ago the matter of being able to have the transcript emailed to me every night, as the journalists do. If you get the transcript delivered to you every night, that means you don’t have to take notes of what’s being said, except the crucial ones that you want to remember and remind yourself of. But it means that you can spend a lot of energy, you’re free to look around and describe things and notice things fully, and that was a wonderful thing. I’d never been in a court in that situation before. Because it meant that I could — Courts are supposed to be places of reason, and they’re not supposed to be places of emotion but they really are. A court in a trial like this is a bath of emotion. There are great floods of it flowing back and forth in the room, and not always distress, sometimes laughter. Sometimes the whole court would burst out laughing. Everybody, including Farquharson, at some strange joke someone made or some retort that somebody would come up with.

RK: Looking for relief?

HG: Yes, everybody’s looking for relief in the court because it’s so tense and painful.

RK: Noticing the diamond stud in the lobe of the judge’s left ear – what does that tell you about the judge, tell you about the story?

HG: Well, I wonder if it tells more about what the … more about … what the judge would like people to think of him. You know, I’d never seen a judge with a diamond in his ear before. I thought it was pretty hip, actually.

(Audience laughs.)

Some people might not share my view.

RK: I found it interesting that Louise, the young woman who’s with you for a lot of the time, the families of Cindy, the mother, and Rob Farquharson, the father, the journalists, they all sort of play a role like a Greek chorus in this text. They sum up at stages. They raise questions that people outside the story, the reader, are asking. It’s a really great way to present the story. And sometimes they do that job in vaudeville, they hold up a sign to say, “And now there’s going to be this bit.” Like they say, “This afternoon it’ll be the divers.” It’s just a wonderful way to write the story.

HG: And it’s all handed to you on a plate, you know. It’s all happening there. It’s just a matter of noticing and paying attention. This incredible rich spectacle that plays out day after day. It’s all handed to you if you’re alert.

RK: You quote Janet Malcolm saying, “Jurors sit there presumably weighing evidence, but in actuality they are studying character.”

HG: Yes.

RK: What can we learn of character? What does the evidence tell us of character? How can we find out about the character of people from just observing them or hearing them answer questions?

HG: Oh, great streams of meaning come pouring out. The court’s a very intimate space. You can see when someone breaks into a sweat, you can see it, or you can see, sometimes I noticed when a person nervously on the witness stand expresses their nervousness by clenching their buttocks, you can see this terrific clenching going on.

(Audience laughs.)

RK: You were up the front, weren’t you? You got there early.

HG: That’s why I got there early (laughs).

(Audience laughs.)

RK: So you could see the buttocks clenching.

HG: Well, that was just one thing I was looking for (laughs). But it is true that if you’re close up you see what people are going through, you know, in order to play out this strange drama. The other thing about it of course is that, especially in Farquharson’s first trial, at that point his former wife, Cindy Gambino, was still supporting him and declaring that he was innocent and that she believed that he was innocent, that meant that the court wasn’t rigidly divided into two parts. I think sometimes a court can be a bit like a wedding, where the husband’s friends sit on one side … But in the first trial there was a sense of courtesy between the two families. By the time the second —

RK: In fact, Cindy’s parents said, “There are no sides.”

HG: Yes. Yeah, they did. And the tipstaff in the court was always sensitive to these questions. You didn’t want to put people next to each other if they hated each other’s guts or were going to be upset to be sitting beside each other. But by the time the second trial came around, and this is sort of the hinge of the book in a sense, and one of the reasons why I kept going with it, even though it was so exhausting and sad … He appealed his first conviction and was given a second trial, and by the time that came around Cindy Gambino, his former wife, had changed her position.

RK: And what had changed her mind?

HG: Well, she was grilled on that in cross-examination. Many people asked during the first trial, “How come she’s supporting him? Can’t she see the evidence?” But I think she couldn’t – this is my guess – she couldn’t bear to believe that it was true. And in a sense I felt that myself too. I longed for him not to be guilty. I longed for it to be an accident. Because it’s just unbearable to think that a man would do such a thing. Even though of course I’ve read the papers and so I know that people kill their children.

So Cindy Gambino came out fighting in the second trial. In the first trial she was a grieving, broken figure, a tragic figure, and it was almost unbearable to listen to her speaking – it was so painful. But in the second trial she was a fighter. And Farquharson’s defence counsel, Peter Morrissey, really took her on. I mean, he ran her through gruelling a cross-examination. But I thought, it was plain to me, that underneath this weeping, grieving woman was this really tough woman who was mad with rage and grief and who was spoiling for a fight.

And those cross-examinations were absolutely terrifying to witness. She’d be handed a photograph, saying, “Here’s a photograph of you and Rob Farquharson outside the church at the funeral of your children and you’re standing with your arms around each other, both crying together. What does this mean?” And she would tear up the photo and fling it on the floor of the court, and you just don’t do that in courts. But she didn’t care. She just didn’t give a damn. It was kind of thrilling, you know. You sat there with your hairs standing on end and people were shocked by it. And the judge would say, “Mr Tierney, I think you should increase your degree of control over your witness,” but she was wild and it was an extraordinary thing. You felt that people wanted to barrack for her in the court.

RK: Talking about barracking, you talked about Robert Farquharson’s sisters in the first trial. Although you never interviewed anyone, really, for this book, you did pass by people and you had coffee at the same little coffee stand. Everyone went to the same coffee stand, and you rubbed shoulders with the parents of Cindy, and Farquharson’s sisters you observed at close range. And your view of his sisters in the court and the connection and the expectations they had of him, it seemed that you were using a measure of sisterliness that you really couldn’t know, although sometimes you did speak to them. What was it about that relationship, or what did you observe about his sisters that led you to draw conclusions about their characters and their expectations of him?

HG: Mm. Well, as I was saying before, both these trials were very long, or quite long. They went on for months. And there was this intimacy in the courtroom among the people who were observing or the people who weren’t actually giving evidence. (Pauses.) I’m surprised that you asked me that question, and I realise it’s a completely legitimate question, but I felt I liked both his sisters very much. I felt very warmly towards both of them, and they felt like familiar people to me somehow. When I say I liked them very much, I don’t think they liked me very much, especially when they found out I wasn’t sympathetic, ultimately, towards the end, to their brother’s, the idea of his innocence. You see, I’m the eldest of six kids, and I know a bossy big sister when I see one.

(Audience laughs.)

And there was a photo that was in the paper on the day that Farquharson was released on bail after his first appeal was successful, and it’s a picture of the younger of his two older sisters leading him, sort of hauling him, across the pavement to get him away from the photographers, and she had this grip on his arm, and I thought, Oh my God, I know that grip. It’s a bossy big-sister grip.

(Audience laughs.)

I had a little brother and I had a lot of little sisters and I know that that’s the way you grab them when you’re saying “Come on, let’s go!” And I felt for them, you know? I sort of understood them, in some way, I felt. And maybe that was impertinent of me, to think that I did.

RK: It’s a kind of novelist’s view, isn’t it, of a situation, as well, that you can interpolate, extrapolate, from your own knowledge of being a big sister.

HG: Yeah.

RK: It may not be the case if you ask them what they were doing.

HG: Well, I would put money on my interpretation.

(Audience laughs.)

RK: I would probably put money on your interpretation any day too! But there is a question there about not interviewing and [instead] observing and assuming.

HG: Yes, well, I suppose they are assumptions, and I suppose there is impertinence in it. Well, what else have I got to go on? If I can’t trust my instincts … Yeah, instinct, that’s what it is. It’s old shit-kicking journalistic instinct that you look at what people are doing and it seems to be radiating meaning at you. I don’t think it’s only writers. I mean, juries must be thinking like that. That’s probably what Janet Malcolm meant when she said jurors are supposed to be weighing up evidence but they’re actually assessing character. She’s talking about the character of witnesses, presumably.

There was one of the police witnesses, from Major Collision. Some of his evidence was severely attacked by Farquharson’s counsel. And those two men really battled. They just went for each other like heavyweights. It was a brilliant sort of fight. But you could see – and I felt completely justified in making these interpretations, I felt – you could see the police officer was a really likeable guy. And I could see that the jury believed him. You could see by the looks on their faces as he was battered, and he kept running his finger around his collar like this, and he was sort of sweating with the labour of this attack, this assault, that he was enduring. And I watched the jurors watching him and their faces were full of … Well, you know how you can go around the world and read peoples expressions? I mean, we all can do that. And in that sort of situation, it’s just a more extreme version of this, perhaps, because you’re in a very tense situation where every little gesture, every movement, seems to radiate meaning.

RK: Reading the book, I suddenly understood that a defence lawyer is there to defend you.

HG: (Laughs.)

RK: I mean, like a female lion defending the cubs and taking no prisoners and not caring about the niceties of, as you describe, cross-examining a woman who’s lost her children in that sort of vicious way.

HG: Mm.

RK: And I wanted to talk about the evidence of the man who had the conversation outside the fish-and-chip shop.

HG: Yeah.

RK: Tell us a bit about what his evidence was.

HG: Uh uh. Well, Robert Farquharson had a close friend, a mate from childhood, called Greg King. And after the children died, Greg King was in a bad way. He was very distressed, and his boss at work  – he kept bursting into tears at work, this guy was a bus driver, he kept bursting into tears at work – and his boss was a former cop and said, “What’s the matter with you?” He said, “Well, I had this conversation with Robert Farquharson outside the fish-and-chip shop a couple of months ago and he told me that there was going to be … He told me certain things, that he was going to get back at Cindy, he was gonna do something, and there was gonna be an accident.”

So he went to the cops, and the homicide detectives asked him to go and visit Farquharson one night.

I should say at this point that it took them three months after the night the boys died until they charged Farquharson. So there was an enormous amount of gathering evidence.

And that part of that evidence was that they sent Greg King, wearing a wire, to go and visit Farquharson at his father’s house and raise the matter of the so-called fish-and-chip-shop conversation. And he did that, twice. He did two recordings. And he was torn apart on the stand.

RK: About whether he remembered this conversation.

HG: The other thing that he did was he made something like four statements, I think, and the more statements you make to the police, the more doubt people feel about your testimony, because —

RK: Because in the first statement he didn’t give the detail —

HG: In the first statement he took it to a certain point and then in the second statement he said, “Oh yes, and I remember this as well – he said this,” and in the third statement something else again.

But the way memory works is very interesting to me, and the way that in courts you see how memory works or doesn’t work. There seems to be a sort of fantasy people have that memory is a really simple, clear thing, that once you witness something or see something or hear it, it’s in your head and it’s just this file that doesn’t change and you can just go to it, you can just pull out the drawer and go, “Yes, there it is, that’s what happened on the fifth of January,” and that your memory never changes over time. Of course, this is not true. But courts seem to function on that really kind of Neanderthal belief.

RK: Because you talk about going back to your own diaries and discovering things about conversations that you would have sworn happened in a certain way.

HG: Yeah.

RK: And what happened when you go back to see the very day that you wrote the conversation down.

HG: Well, I’ve seen this in previous trials where people are ferociously cross-examined about their memory of an incident. And because I’ve kept a diary pretty much all my life, I’ve got quite a strong idea of how memory works in this one regard, that sometimes something has happened in my past, maybe 20, 30, years ago, and I have what I think of as crisp memories of that event, especially painful things. And sometimes I think, “I’m just going to go back and have another look at what happened that day,” and I get out the diary, I dig it out, and I find an account of it, and I find sometimes – in fact, quite often – that things I’d remembered as speech by me or the other person involved weren’t actually said in speech at all but they were just kind of silent thoughts and insights that I’d had during the incident and that I’d written down as such. But as the years have gone by, my memory has transformed these things and put quote marks around them and turned them into a conversation that I “remember”, but the interesting thing about that is often those are the things that ring the most true to the tenor of the memory.

RK: We want things to be simple, I suppose, especially horrible stories.

HG: Yep.

RK: You want a simple explanation for it.

HG: Well, you want it to be simple.

RK: You want the evidence to be correct. You want that to be the conversation reported.

HG: So we can all get out of there.

RK: What about the behaviour of Robert Farquharson, who left the children in the car, hitchhiked and wanted to tell Cindy he’d killed the kids? And his demeanour when everybody came back and looked for the children in the car that night, that he didn’t dive in with them? And then I thought of Lindy Chamberlain and all of the conversation around how a woman was supposed to behave when a child had been killed.

HG: “Had died”, yeah.

RK: Had died. And it didn’t seem that we were learning much about that first story.

HG: Well, Lindy Chamberlain is the ghost that sort of hovered over this story. Well, Lindy Chamberlain is the major Australian example, she’s the archetype of the woman, the parent, who didn’t behave as everyone imagined a parent should behave in such a traumatic circumstance. And there was a great deal of evidence brought in [the] Farquharson [case] about what it meant that he seemed unemotional or that he’d actually hitched a ride back to his wife’s place. And you can interpret that in many ways. You see, the thing about this was it was a circumstantial case. And a circumstantial case is, some people say, like a jigsaw, and you just put the pieces in and gradually a picture emerges. So, it was a strange trial in that regard, because you’d think, OK, well, this witness about the coughing fit. There was a lot of stuff about whether cough syncope really does exist, and it plainly does exist but it’s quite rare. But days would pass, and both sides would present their evidence about cough syncope and it wouldn’t ever swing the balance either way, and it was quite frustrating and alarming.

RK: And then you go shopping and find that the green grocer had a story about this as well.

HG: Yeah. The green grocer, when I went to buy some vegetables, he said, “What are you writing?” No, his wife said, “What are you writing?” And I told her, and she said, “Oh, my husband had a coughing fit and blacked out at the wheel. Ange, come out here and tell Helen about your coughing fit.”

(Audience laughs.)

So Ange came out from the back room — Oh, he took me out to the storage room and told me the whole story and drew diagrams. And I thought this would dispose him to believe Farquharson’s story, but actually it didn’t. Because he said that it took him several minutes to come to after he’d been unconscious on the freeway. I told him Farquharson’s story in the most neutral possible way, and he kept saying this one thing over and over, he said, “The car slowed down.” He said it with great emphasis, that he couldn’t understand how the car would’ve kept going at the speed that would get it into the dam. He said that his car slowed down.

RK: What was the point at which you thought you knew the truth of what happened?

HG: Oh, it wasn’t like there was a loud click or anything. Sometimes I wake up at night and think, Was there a moment where it all clicked into place? The whole book is in a sense quivering on some edge, and it might look as if I did that for effect but actually it was because that was how it was. In a sense the book is — I’m trying to make people understand what it was like to be there, in this incredibly tortured story, [in] which it seemed for a long time that neither side could lay a killer punch. And just when you think, Yeah, OK, now I get it, he definitely did it, then some other witness would come, and you’d think, Oh wait a minute.

But a lot of people that were there didn’t share my luxurious wallowing. They though that it was pathetic. There was one, the woman that I call in the book the veteran journalist, who’s a woman whose work I greatly respect, a very experienced journalist, and she was furious with me right through the trial. And I once said, “Oh God, isn’t it pitiful, tomorrow’s the anniversary of the deaths of the children, how pitiful this is and how pitiful Farquharson was,” and she turned on me and said, “What do you mean ‘pitiful’? This man who’s done the worst possible thing anyone could do.” I mean, she pinned my ears back, and I thought, She thinks I’m a wimp. She think I’m refusing to see the truth. But it took longer for it to develop.

RK: Would you be a juror?

HG: In that trial?

RK: In any trial?

HG: Yeah! Well, why don’t they call me? I’ve never been called (laughs).

(Audience laughs.)

I think I’d be a great juror. But I thought about the jurors. I’d tried to think if I was a juror — No, what I’m trying to say is after I had this clash with the veteran journalist I kind of slunk off feeling really pathetic, as she despised me and thought I was wet. And I thought, Well, what I’m going to try to do is I’m going to try and keep myself in a state of mind where I can be persuaded by argument rather than saying, “Right now I’ve got it, this has been going for a week, and now I get it, and now I’m just gonna sit here and wait until they agree with me.” I thought, No, I won’t do that, I’ll try to go with every wind as it blows. And it’s a great luxury. I mean, journalists have to report something every day and they quickly come to conclusions, whereas as a writer I don’t have a deadline, I didn’t even have a contract at that point. I was just sitting there. And I thought, Well, I’ll just go with the flow of it and see where I end up.

RK: So, finally, how close to the truth do you think the court was able to get about what happened that night?

HG: About what happened that night. Hmm. Close enough for there to be a verdict. But one thing, if we’ve just got a moment, I want to complain about how they … courts are hopeless at psychology, they don’t like it.

This is a whole new can of worms – would you rather I didn’t open it?

RK: I think it’s your can of worms and we’re here to listen to it.

HG: I just find that the kind of version of human behaviour that is articulated in a court by either side often strikes me as being rather in crude strokes, and there was quite a lot of psychological evidence, psychiatric evidence, that was kept from the jury.

That’s another thing that’s very strange about watching a trial: you sit there and often the jury gets sent out while it’s decided whether a certain piece of evidence is admissible or not and whether they’re going to hear it. And it really shocked me sometimes and infuriated me that, for example, evidence about [Farquharson’s] depression was kept from the jury in the second trial, particularly, and the judge said it’s because everybody in society, the ordinary person in the street, knows a lot less about depression than they think they do, and the last thing we want is for the jury to be speculating that depression could be a motive for murder. And I thought, But surely people aren’t that dumb? But anyway, so they said, “OK, we’re not going to talk about his depression, we’re not going to talk about that,” and so then they said, “Bring in the jury,” and the jury comes in and you’d see them earnestly walking back to their seats, tired and longing for the truth, and it must drive them completely nuts that they know that things are being kept from them and there’s nothing they can do about it.

There is one point in the book, in the second trial, where the judge stopped the prosecutor from asking a certain question of a witness, and the jury were out of the room, and they sent in a note with a tipstaff. By this time there was this really kickarse forewoman of that jury, and she sent in this note saying, “We would like to ask the following questions of that witness before he’s dismissed …” and they were the exact two questions that the judge had just told the prosecutor he wasn’t allowed to ask. And so the whole court went up in this roar of delight.

(Audience laughs.)

Well, I mean, half the court went up in a roar of delight. But yeah, that sort of stuff is quite strange to me.

RK: Well, the book is a triumph, and Lisa Dempster from the [Melbourne] Writers Festival is just about to come and say a few words, but Helen, it’s a wonderful book. Thank you for writing it.

HG: Thanks very much, Ramona. Thank you.

(Audience applauds.)

One comment

  1. […] an interview with The Monthly, Helen Garner says she was drawn to the story by her familiarity with the area in which it […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: