The more things change…
This story was published the Accent section of The Age, on Friday 3 August 1990. Sadly, it still resonates today.
For an update, and the full transcribed text of the Age story, scroll down.
JANE CAFARELLA writes about the children of domestic murder victims.
Prologue – then and now
According to 2019 Australian Government figures, one woman is killed every nine days and one man is killed every 29 days by a partner.
Of course, by the time you read this post, that figure may have changed, perhaps for the better. But I doubt it.
Reports show that domestic violence incidents have increased during the current Covid-19 pandemic.
Here is the current data, which doesn’t include the effects of the pandemic.
Last month, the Morrison Government announced a $3 million package to provide more counselling and support services to help women experiencing family violence.
Just like in 2015 when the Turnbull Government announced a $100 million safety net for women and children at risk of violence, including measures to help change community attitudes.
In the same year, Rosie Batty, whose son Luke was killed the previous year at the hands of his father, was made Australian of the Year.
How different from when I wrote When daddy kills mummy and its companion piece Leaving not the way out published in Accent, the women’s pages of The Age, in 1990.
Or is it?
Today we have refuges, child care, the sole parent pension, and moral outrage. And, thankfully, the rate of intimate partner homicide has declined in the past 25 years. A total of 79 women were killed by violence in 2015 compared to 84 in 2014.
But women are still dying. And we must tell their stories in 300 words, not 3000.
Here is a transcript of the story, When Daddy Kills Mummy, published in The Age in 1990. Spot the difference.
ROBYN can’t remember where she was the night her mother died, although there is little doubt that she, then nine years old, and her younger brother and sister were in the house at the time.
She remembers that soon after, perhaps the next night, she and her brother and sister were sent to a neighbour’s house to stay – after her father, a taxi driver, had driven around all day with her mother’s beaten-up body in the boot, and at 6pm, had contacted the police.
Much later she learned that her father had beaten her mother to death. There were 89 wounds to the body. Robyn (not her real name) was shocked, but not surprised. Her father got 10 years for manslaughter, but appealed and served seven.
“It was just one of many (beatings). She was just a bit too frail and he went too far. He denied he did it, although his hands were swollen and bruised from all the punching.”
The night stood out in her young mind, not because of the beating, but because she and her brother and sister never usually visited the neighbours. She had learnt at the age of seven that to call on them for help only meant more trouble for her mother, whom they would berate for not keeping her husband happy and her children and her home up to scratch.
After the night at the neighbours, the children were sent back to the orphanage where they had spent most of that year. Her father had sent them there previously to punish her mother who, having no one else to turn to, had turned to alcohol.
This time, as before, they were told by the nuns that their mother was in hospital. They did not need to be told why. He had done it. That’s the way it usually was.
Then one day, perhaps days or even a week later, a nun told them that sometimes people did not get better.
“She’s dead, isn’t she?” said Robyn.
“Yes,” the nun replied.
The children wept and were comforted briefly and then told to go out to play.
Little else was said about their mother’s death. The children did not go to the funeral. Like an episode in a television serious, it was over, and they were encouraged to switch off.
But Robyn could not switch off. She had failed to protect her mother and the world had failed to protect her.
“I can talk to you now because I’ve got a feminist perspective,” she said from her Melbourne suburban home recently. “Three years ago, (before counselling) I couldn’t have talked about it.”
Then, remembering, she wept.
She showed me a picture of her family – it was like a scene from Father Knows Best’, that microcosm of perfect family life in the 1950s.
The pretty, fresh-faced young woman with the curly hair and the slender, lightly freckled arms and the lovely smile, the smiling father and the three bonny children with their hair carefully combed and parted.
But in this case, father did not know best. Each episode of family life ended in violence, until the final episode, when father killed mother.
Life with father was unpredictable, Robyn said. There were rules, but there was no use trying to abide by them because they were subject to change without notice.
One minute the family would be sitting at the table eating, the next minute the table would be upended and the meal spattered all over the floor.
“Once he threw her out of a speeding car. He was always erupting.”
He would give her mother money, saying, “Go and buy yourself a new dress, we’re going out tonight.” When she did, he would ask her to put it on. “Then he’d just rip it off.”
“I knew what rape was before I was nine years old and I don’t think any child should know that.”
The emotions that might have led to such events were lost on Robyn. To her, life was a series of terrorist attacks.
After school, she never stayed and played with friends but hurried home. fearful for her mother’s safety. But as he drew closer, she would hang back and dawdle, fearful also of what she might find.
“I came home from school one day and she was sitting on the bed with a towel wrapped around her head, saturated with blood. She said she had hit her head, but I found out later that he’d tried to drown her in the bath.
While Mary, her mother, had friends to whom she could escape briefly, none could afford to house a woman and three children indefinitely. There was no pension, no child care, not refuges and no family to help. Mary’s mother had died when she was a baby and her grandmother soon after, so she had grown up in orphanages.
“She left him many times,” Robyn said. “Shed go and stay with friends. She had lots of friends but in the end he would alienate them from the house. “
Gradually, the upward mobility of Mary’s friends left her even more isolated as they moved from inner-city flats to the outer suburbs.
By that time, Mary was an alcoholic. To punish her and prevent her buying alcohol, her husband denied her money. She had no phone and no money to travel to the suburbs to seek refuge with friends.
The police were called many times to the inner-city flat, but frequently they laughed it off. They even drank with her father in the pub.
Every Sunday, the family, strict Catholics, went to Mass, and every Sunday Robyn puzzled over the God that could allow such dreadful things to happen to innocent people.
Once, at the age of seven, when Robyn stepped in to defend her mother, her father threw a clock at her. So she would lead her brother and sister down to the room under the stairs where they would wait until the storm passed. But there were never any rainbows.
To survive, Robyn became very responsible and fiercely protective of her mother and younger sister.
After her mother’s death, the children were raised by the nuns. Robyn’s father was released from jail when she was 16 and given access. “Nobody asked if we wanted to see him. It was assumed we did.
“I was terrified that I would have to live with him. But he did not get his job back and it wasn’t an issue.”
Full of shame and self-blame, Robyn was a studious teenager who had learned that the world was an unsafe place. However, she was determined to survive in it and took advantage of the education that the nuns provided. She did well musically and academically and emerged at 17 with middle-class values and a desire to go to university.
But she found herself hurtled back to the working-class values of her aunt, with whom she lived, and who although well meaning, was amazed that anyone could still be at school at 17.
Robyn compromised and did teacher training. She married at 20 and began teaching the next month. After the marriage broke up, she returned to study and has since obtained a sociology degree and works in social research.
She was 25 when her father died of a heart attack. “I felt very relieved.”
As far as Robyn is concerned, the full story has never been told, despite a court case and extensive media coverage. “Also, because my mother was dead. Corpses don’t tell.”
She is planning to get copies of the court transcripts.
“I still hate my father, and he’s been dead 15 years. I’m loath to think he’s insane, because then we can say he’s only one of a few guys. He was a fairly normal male, but he just used that power more and went further.”
He also drank, but she is loath to blame drink. “Even if he’d never touched a drop, he would still have beaten her up.
“His reason for beating her up was that she was an alcoholic. In the end, she was. But all the beatings would have driven any one to alcohol.”
As far as Robyn is concerned, there is no excuse. “I think there are other ways of solving problems, and I don’t think he went about it the right way.”
She told her children her story a few years ago. Previously, she had not wanted to destroy their images of happy family life.
“It’s like a shame you have. The shame in our family is amazing. I find it incredible. I carried that shame with me until I was 35.”
Today Robyn says her mother’s options would have been greater. She could have gone to a refuge and got a pension.
“At least now there is much more awareness of family violence and it is labelled criminal.”
But women are still being killed.
“They’re mostly killed after they leave, and I think that is the interesting thing. Leaving is the ultimate lack of control for the male.”
She strongly believes that no man who has a history of violence should have access to his children. “Look at Christine Boyce, she was picking up her children after access and she was killed.”
She regrets not being able to grieve for her mother at the time of death.
“It’s very hard to do your grieving 30 years later. I don’t think you ever stop. My life has been really terrific since I did my grieving work and counselling. I’ve been able to get really close to people.”
However, even today, for Robyn, home is not a safe place.
She points out that even in her own home, there are few homely touches. Perhaps there is more security in being able to leave, rather than stay?
Only the chooks, 19 different varieties, scratching in the back yard, four cats and two dogs, give a sense that they, at least, belong.
Leaving not the way out
READING the press files on domestic murder adds new meaning to the phrase “Till death us do part”. It seems death for some women is the only escape from the men they marry or live with. In many cases, the risk to women’s lives is greater when they leave home. Forty-six per cent of domestic murders occur after the woman leaves the family home.
A 1988 discussion paper by the Law Reform Commission on spouse homicide says that 73 per cent of offenders are males, and in 48 per cent of cases there is at least one prior incident of physical abuse, almost ways involving the wife as the victim. In half of the cases where women kill their husbands, it is in response to an immediate threat or attack by the husband.
Just as horrifying is the lack of outrage and justice that follows the deaths.
The reports in the papers of domestic murders are strangely worded. Whereas other newspaper murder reports talk of horror and waste, these talk of “devoted” family men under financial pressure or who just reached the end of their tether. “Bills snap on family man,” says one headline.
They quote people who seem anxious to point out what a good bloke the killer was after all. A friend of a man who shot his wife and then himself in front of their three daughters described him as “the sort of person that if you asked him to come over and fix a flat tyre for you, he would drop everything”.
The sentences, too, seem comparatively mild. Most get off on the lighter sentence of manslaughter (woman slaughter) and with appeals, sentences can be greatly reduced.
A report of the case of Mayer Amin Kalda, 38, begins, “A devoted family man who shot his wife, their two young children and then himself, was a non-drinking hard worker whose only weakness was keeping up with the Joneses”, a coroner heard yesterday.
He might have added – and killing his family.
Mr Kalda was in financial trouble, but apart from that he was a perfect husband. The only thing to indicate s light tear in this picture of perfect family life is the evidence of a friend at the coroner’s hearing. “A friend of Mrs Kalda, Mrs Sandra Woodcock of Glen Waverley, said he couple were happy, although Mayer was overly possessive of his wife.”
A verdict of murder suicide was returned.
Perhaps believing that the financial well being of his family was his sole responsibility, despite the fact that his wife earned $600 a week independently, he thought they were better off dead? But perhaps he should have asked them first?
Also, incredibly, the men who kill their wives are sometimes still considered good fathers. In one case, where the father killed the mother because she refused sex, then had sex with the body, the father was given a suspended sentence because the judge felt the children, having lost one parent, shouldn’t lose another.
Often, however, a custody dispute ensues between the two grieving families or the child is taken into state care.
The Domestic Murders Research Project, set up by the Women’s Coalition Against Family Violence, aims to investigate case studies of women who have died in domestic murder and critically examine the way the courts, media and police dealt with them.
The project wants to hear from the victim’s families. Project worker Patrina Smith, commenting on the recent case of a Filipino woman killed by her ex-husband, said, “If, as Mr Justice Vincent said, ‘the sanctity of human life remains the central value of our society’, why aren’t there more resources go prevent women’s deaths?”
I found this article in a box of old cuttings when I was cleaning out my cupboards over Christmas.
Strangely, in 2013 I had written a poem about this very story, dredged from a memory of an interview that had stayed with me.
The poem, titled She Drinks, part imagined and part remembered from the story, was part of Rhymes with Silence, a show about mothers and domestic violence, performed in Sydney last year, comprising 13 plays by nine different playwrights, produced by Joy Roberts of Improvising Change. She Drinks, was directed by Chrissy De Silva and starred Liz Hovey and Bendeguz Daniel Devenyi-Botos. See my PLAYS section to preview or purchase She Drinks.
“The most remarkable victim”
ROSIE Batty’s tragic experience and her ability to transcend her own grief and campaign to end domestic violence have helped put the issue on the national agenda.
Victoria’s Police Commissioner Ken Lay described her as “the most remarkable victim” he had ever met.
But she is also remarkable because she is not dead. As Robyn says in this story from 1990, “Corpses don’t tell.”
The death of a child is always tragic and even more so when that death is caused by a parent, but I wonder whether there would have been such national sympathy if Rosie herself had been the victim?
The Australian of the Year website praises Rosie Batty for giving voice “to many thousands of domestic violence victims who until then had remained unheard.”
This was not for want of trying, as this story of 25 years ago shows.
Sadly, the victims of the past were often less articulate, less attractive and less confident, or, as this story shows, they were children.