Non-fiction – paperback; Affirm Press; 260 pages; 2015.
Alecia Simmonds’ Wild Man is the true story of a mentally unstable man who was shot dead by police on a remote farm in northern New South Wales (NSW) in April 2012.
Evan Johnson (not his real name) was armed with a crossbow and hunting knife, and had been threatening to kill people, including his own fiancée, attending a hippie festival on the property. He was sleep deprived, high on a cocktail of drugs at the time and had a complicated history of mental illness. Two rural police officers called to the scene tried to subdue him but ended up shooting him dead.
The author, who is a journalist and lawyer, was so intrigued by the case and the Gothic nature of it — think a secluded and scary setting, a violent man on a rampage, and dozens of hippies seeking spiritual enlightenment caught up in the crossfire — that she sat in on the coronial inquest into Evan’s death held in November 2013. This book is the product of her reportage of that inquest, but it’s not simply a linear account of her time in court — it examines all kinds of issues relating to love, violence, masculinity, mental health and policing.
As she points out in her Author’s Note, this is not an academic study — like her compatriot Helen Garner, whose writing style she emulates, “I have put all my doubts on the page” and “my thoughts change over time”.
A bizarre case
Interestingly, Simmonds was initially drawn to the case because Evan was the third person to be shot dead by NSW police in four weeks. The civil libertarian in her was outraged (she was teaching a university “foundations of law” course at the time) and wanted to know “why police were never prosecuted for criminal negligence” and why they felt the need to shoot vulnerable people instead of protecting them?
But over the course of this book Simmonds begins to see things in far less black and white terms. She starts to comprehend the dilemma facing the two police officers called to this particular scene in a remote area in the dead of night. Faced with a violent man pointing a crossbow at them, their options were limited.
So, a book that sets out to discredit the police or at least hold them to account for their actions, morphs into something else entirely: the failure of Australia’s current mental health policy.
Mental health history
Simmonds charts Evan’s mental health problems to determine whether what happened could have been prevented had he received the proper treatment. His nickname “Wild Man” points to a troubling personality disorder, and interviews with girlfriends and family members suggest there was an uncontrollable, often violent and risk-taking, nature to his personality, but Evan was never formally diagnosed with a severe mental illness, although there were hints he may have been schizophrenic.
As a boy he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but that had been curbed by prescription medication. His mother thought he might have been bipolar because he was sometimes manic and went through phases of using alcohol and recreational drugs interspersed with long periods of abstinence.
Yet, when Simmonds goes through Evan’s medical records she discovers a track history of hospital admissions — for self harm, suicide attempts, drug overdoses and psychotic episodes — along with visits to private psychiatric units. And yet, despite a long and detailed medical history, he appears to have slipped through the net. His nomadic lifestyle — he didn’t have a fixed address and found it difficult to keep down a job — probably did not help, but Simmonds argues the need for “joined-up thinking”:
I wonder about the hospitals and institutions that Evan encountered. Do they talk to each other? Is there, or should there be, a national health body given sweeping powers of oversight that could assemble this information on one database so that when doctors encountered people like Evan they weren’t starting from scratch each time?
But Simmonds points to something else: the Australian fixation — and love — of larrikins, of louder-than-life, macho men, who enjoy being the centre of attention and whose sometimes troubling behaviour is dismissed as simply being that of a “wild boy”. Evan was clearly not the sort of man who found it easy to discuss his problems — he lost visitation rights to his son shortly before he died, for instance — or to seek help or to admit his own vulnerability. The question here is blindingly obvious: how many other men out there are “bombs” just waiting to go off…?
Simmonds’ compassionate examination of this case makes for a fascinating read. Wild Man doesn’t make excuses for Evan Johnson’s behaviour (he comes across as totally unlikable). Nor does it let the police who killed him get off lightly. But what it does do is explain what happened on that fateful night and fleshes out how the tragedy might have been avoided. It also shines a light on a whole array of issues, including what it is to be masculine, the horror of the bush on the Australian mindset and the need for a joined-up mental health policy.
It poses many questions, but doesn’t necessarily find any easy answers. It’s a compelling read.
Wild Man is available in the UK and US only in Kindle format.
You can listen to the author talk about the book on ABC radio.