6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Phosphorescence’ to ‘The Media and the Massacre’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate)!

Because I’m in the throes of hosting Southern Cross Crime Month on this blog, I thought I’d try to stick to a theme… every book in my chain is true crime. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my full review.

This month, the starting book is…

Phosphorescence’ by Julia Baird (2020)
I haven’t yet read this book about finding internal happiness and appreciating the wonder of life, even though I bought it not long after it was released based on the fact that it just looked gorgeous and was a rare hardcover (most books in Australia only ever get published in paperback format).

Another book I bought, albeit many years ago, because I liked its hardcover treatment was…

‘Swamp: Who Murdered Margaret Clement?’ by Richard Shears (2008)
This large-format hardcover, which features beautiful endpapers and sepia photographs, is about the mysterious disappearance in 1954 of Margaret Clement, an eccentric recluse living in rural South Gippsland (the part of the world where I was raised), who was better known as the “lady of the swamp”. She was once a beautiful, rich socialite who was well-educated and well-travelled, but in old age was living in abject poverty in the decrepit mansion built by her father, a Scottish immigrant, who had become one of Australia’s richest men.

Another book about a Scottish immigrant in Australia fallen on hard times is…

‘The Suitcase Baby’ by Tanya Bretherton (2018)
This is the true story of Sarah Boyd, an impoverished Scottish immigrant, convicted of the murder of her three-week-old baby in Sydney in 1923. The book looks at why Boyd did what she did and asks whether her trial and subsequent punishment was fair.

Another book that looks at the fair (or otherwise) treatment of a historical crime case is…

Eugenia by Mark Tedeschi

‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’ by Mark Tedeschi QC (2012)
Regular readers of this blog will know this isn’t the first time I’ve included this book in a Six Degrees chain, but it’s one of those true life stories that has stayed with me and often pops into mind. Eugenia Falleni scandalised Australia in 1917 when she was charged with the murder of her wife. She had been living as a man for 22 years and during that time had married twice. No one knew her true identity, not even the women whom she married — indeed, her second wife thought she was pregnant to him!

Another book about a female murderer is…

My Mother, A Serial Killer

‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans (2018)
This book is about Dulcie Bodsworth, a community-minded wife and mother, who murdered her husband in the 1950s, then killed two other men she knew. She only came to justice after her eldest daughter, Hazel Baron, turned her into police. As well as looking at Dulcie’s complicated, shambolic and often impoverished life — from her first marriage to her third — and examining in great detail how she went about killing three men who simply got in her way, My Mother, A Serial Killer also charts how she was brought to justice. She was clearly a very troubled individual.

Another true crime book about a troubled individual is…

‘Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Serial Killer’ by Robert Wainwright and Paolo Totaro (2010)
In the story of the world’s worst massacre (at the time) by a lone gunman, the authors of this controversial book try to come up with a theory as to why Martin Bryant carried out the atrocity for which he was responsible: the murder of 35 people at the Port Arthur tourist site in Tasmania on April 28, 1996. This tragedy had huge repercussions on the Australian psyche, gun control and media reportage.

Another book about the Port Arthur massacre is …

The media and the massacre by Sonya Voumard

‘The Media and the Massacre’ by Sonya Voumard (2016)
This book explores the relationship between journalists and their subjects in the context of the Port Arthur massacre. Its main focus is on the best-selling Born or Bred? (referenced above) and the ethical and legal dilemmas it posed to its authors, two respected broadsheet journalists, who were later sued by the murder’s mother, Carleen Bryant, after she withdrew her support for the book.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about finding happiness within ourselves to the complex relationship between journalists and their subjects, via a string of true crime books from Australia.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fairfax Books, Non-fiction, Paola Totaro, Publisher, Robert Wainwright, Setting, true crime

‘Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer’ by Robert Wainwright & Paola Totaro

Born-or-Bred

Non-fiction – paperback; Fairfax Books; 336 pages; 2010.

What makes one person go on a killing spree? Are they genetically pre-conditioned to commit such an atrocious act? Or is it the way they have been brought up? Is it nature — or nurture?

In Born or Bred?, the story of the world’s worst massacre by a lone gunman, the authors tackle these difficult, although somewhat clichéd questions, and try to come up with a theory as to why Martin Bryant carried out the atrocity for which he was responsible: the slaughter of 35 innocent people at the Port Arthur tourist site in Tasmania on April 28, 1996.

Of course no one will ever truly know why 29 year-old Bryant did what he did. I’m sure Bryant, who will spend the rest of his life behind bars, does not have a full explanation for what he did either. But this book, written by two highly experienced journalists, attempts to look behind the crime and to examine Bryant’s life in the search for clues. In their introduction they write:

This book is an attempt to delve beyond what we think we know about the crime, to place events in context and to provide an answer not only to why this horror might have unfolded but what possibilities we now have, thanks to neuroscience and greater understanding of the human psyche, that might give us a chance to prevent a recurrence — or at least lessen the chances of it happening again.

This might sound like a pretty straightforward approach to adopt, but Wainwright and Totaro had an uphill battle to get this book written, not least because the Tasmanian Government has had a “media blackout” in place about the incident. In 2001, it went a step further by placing an exclusive embargo on Bryant, preventing any information about the man being disseminated via the media.

The authors figured they could get around this by writing the book from Bryant’s mother’s point of view, but she eventually fell out with them, and they had to start from scratch.

There will be many people who will see Born or Bred? as a ruse to make money out of a horrendous crime. But the story is very sensitively handled (remember, it was written more than 10 years after the event), to the point where the actual killings are recounted at the rear of the book in a specially marked off section “to give readers the choice of avoiding graphic violence”. ( I initially thought this was somewhat odd, but with hindsight I can see that it has been done like this for a reason, even if that reason might have been to convince the publisher that this wasn’t a book shamelessly exploiting the crime for the sake of it.)

As a piece of narrative non-fiction, the book is well written, fast-paced and rich in detail. It provides a gripping account of one man’s life and unearths the stories of his ancestors to show how his story cannot be taken in isolation. It particularly focuses on Bryant’s oddness as a child and the ways in which his parents attempted to address his mental and social problems in different ways — his mother was remote, his father hands-on. Neither approach seems to have worked.

Interestingly, a prison doctor later diagnosed Bryant with a form of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome, but the authors are quick to point out that while it might explain his abnormal behaviour as a child it “does not explain his actions as an adult: people with Asperger’s are not potential mass killers”. But Professor Paul Mullen, a British-born, Melbourne-based psychiatrist, who assessed Bryant’s state of mind to see if he was fit to stand trial, disputes this diagnosis. He claims that Bryant was “profoundly socially disabled” not autistic.

So, if his mental problems alone are not enough to cause him to go on a killing spree, what else contributed to this callous act of violence?

The authors are able to demonstrate how a series of events, in combination with Bryant’s mental and social problems, lead to that fateful day. Their case is a convincing one. And while I won’t recount it in detail — you need to read the book if you want to know more — it’s clear that the suicide of Bryant’s father and Bryant’s access to money played a strong role.

The $64 question in my mind was exactly that: how on earth did Bryant afford the $10,000-plus he spent on guns and ammunition referred to in early chapters of the book? Little did I know he had inherited a fortune (literally) from a kooky heiress he had befriended. Helen Harvey was related to the founder of the Tattersall’s lottery in Australia and when she died in a car accident (in which Bryant was also involved) her riches passed to him. Without that money it is impossible to see how Bryant would have amassed such an arsenal — there were firearms and ammunition hidden in various places throughout his house, including shot-guns, semi-automatic weapons, a telescopic sight, an ammunition belt and dozens of cartridges in boxes and bags.

The prime message from this book is not that Martin Bryant was “evil” and hell bent on killing as many people as he could on one day, it is that it might have been prevented had he received appropriate psychiatric care from a young age. (It might also have been prevented if someone stopped to chat to him enroute to Port Arthur that day: he made three stops at petrol stations, for seemingly pointless reasons, as if he was willing someone to end his journey.) He gave out all the signals that he was abnormal as a child and yet his parents, his educators and his doctors failed to deal with the issue properly, perhaps because information about mental health was lacking or the resources were not there to assist. The issue, of course, is not black and white. His life experiences and current circumstances contributed.

The final word goes to the pyschiatrist who assessed Bryant’s state of mind in the aftermath of the killings:

“Once you break it down you begin to see a terrible tragedy. What you get with Bryant is someone who did something evil. But, as a person, I’m afraid he’s rather dim, rather silly, rather resentful and feels he was mistreated and despairs on life. You combine that with a fascination for guns and you’ve got a tragedy. Take the [father’s] suicide out, and it wouldn’t have happened. Without the money, it wouldn’t have happened. Take the guns out, and it wouldn’t have happened. Provide a little more effective care, and it probably wouldn’t have happened.”