interview: alecia simmonds

I was lucky enough to interview Alecia Simmonds for the Readings blog recently – here’s what she had to say about her personal take on true crime, Wild Man.

The scene where you witness Electro-Convulsive Therapy in your efforts to tackle how mental illness is treated is very raw and confronting. Do you think much of the problem with mental illness is that the solutions as well as the problems are hidden from the public eye?

I was really lucky to have a psychiatrist friend who allowed me access to the psychiatric ward for a day, and if it was raw and confronting to read about then imagine my shock upon seeing it! I still remember leaving the hospital feeling winded, shaken, and ultimately confused. As you say, part of the problem here is that the kinds of care I witnessed are hidden from the public eye and so instead we draw upon a rich repertoire of filmic representations – from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Janet Frame’s An Angel at my Table – as a substitute for reality. This blinkers us from very compelling arguments in favour of ECT, including the fact that it has very high rates of success for people suffering depression for whom all other forms of treatment have failed. It also prevents us from questioning why we are horrified at certain forms of mental health treatment, but give our bodies over so complacently to other forms of invasive surgery (notably cosmetic surgery) with more dubious, or simply non-existent, medical foundations. For me the most troubling part of ECT remains the problem of consent, the lack of adequate oversight and our tendency to seek bio-medical rather than social solutions for these problems. The woman I saw being given ECT would eventually have been spat out of hospital, with no step-down accommodation to go to and no vocational support or training, and would probably have ended up back on the streets until she suffered another ice-induced psychotic episode. At the point in time when I witnessed her drug-bloated body twitching to the 60-volt electrical shocks of the ECT machine, she’d already spent years in this cycle. Which goes to the flip-side of your question: these problems are in fact not hidden from the public eye, we just fail to recognise homelessness, or even police shootings, as mental health issues. We see and read about mental health problems everyday, we just call them something else.

While you have a legal background, like many readers, you are an outsider, looking in on this entire experience somewhat unfamiliar with the emotionally heavy coronial inquiry process as opposed to the media-saturated courtrooms of “objection” and angry banging gavels. This brings an immersive clarity into the experience—how did your narrative voice unfold?

It’s true that I have spent a fair portion of my life teaching and researching in law, so I was genuinely stunned to sit in on an Inquest and to find almost all the rules of evidence that go with an adversarial system banished. Rather than the staccato disruptions of a trial, you have the court performing a kind of therapeutic function: the Coroner was an immensely sympathetic man, the witnesses gave long (and, being hippies, at times incoherent and magical) narratives and the father of the man killed by police gave an unfathomably sad eulogy at the end. Given that I was surrounded by narratives, I felt that my task was to recount them in the most humane and empathetic way possible, but also to question these stories, to read them critically, against the grain, and to show why people may tell themselves a particular version of events. My narrative voice unfolded partly from the material I was given and partly from my own preference for writers who put all their doubts on the page, people like Helen Garner who go to dark places and who question their own motivations. Narrative non-fiction is ultimately a conceptually promiscuous genre to write within: everything can be potentially relevant to the story – conversations with friends, dreams, newspaper reports, academic studies and empirical observations. It’s about crediting the reader with the intelligence to form their own conclusions from the panoply of arguments, images and narratives that you give them.

When Evan’s father talks about his love for his son at the inquest, I cried for everyone who had lost him. Was it difficult for you, who spoke to all these people who loved him, to disentangle your emotions from the story?

That’s lovely that you had that reaction and in fact everyone I have spoken to who has read the book also cried in that part. As I said in the book, it was a moment in the Inquest when I was absolutely sobbing. We all were. And yes, it was immensely difficult to disentangle my emotions from the story, which is part of the reason why I didn’t. I instead used my feelings as a source of knowledge. I tried to show how our gut instinct or tears may lead us to conclusions that go against our ideological or academic positions. It doesn’t mean that they’re more authentic or truthful, simply that emotions can be tested against, and used alongside, other forms of reasoning.

As a story with multiple elements—psychosis, drug abuse, police killings, hypermasculinity—the books tackles all issues while honing in one aspect: how the mental health system failed Evan Johnson and everyone around him. When someone died threatening to kill people with a crossbow, we say “he should have been locked up”, when, as you point out, that’s only with the benefit of hindsight—society as a whole detests seeing people stripped of their freedom. When it comes to the brain, the science is still imperfect. Can you see anything changing in the way people like Evan are handled?

I think that mental health is an immensely difficult area of public governance: how do you formulate policy for such a broad spectrum of illnesses or behaviours? Custodial care may be necessary in extreme cases like Evan’s, but obviously locking people up would be a terrible solution for most people suffering mental illness. As far as anything changing in the way that people like Evan are handled, I think that we’d need a government committed to increasing funding where it’s needed: preventative care facilities in the community, more psychiatric beds in hospitals, step-down accommodation, integrated drug and alcohol rehabilitation services and vocational support. We went from having 30,000 psychiatric beds in the 1960s to just under 2000 public psychiatric beds today. These figures are extraordinary, really! And what they mean in practice is that the families or partners of people with mental illnesses are left performing an impossible labour of care: unpaid, untrained and vulnerable to violence.

Your description of the eerily beautiful landscape at the farm where Evan died—far away from communication, down a remote and unpaved road, unsignposted—is a vivid and unnerving experience. Are there other places that have given you such a visceral reaction, or seemed so haunted?

I lived in Paris for quite a few years and one of the things that I missed most about Australia was the bush: ‘her beauty and her terror’. And yes, I have had similar feelings when driving by myself through the red dirt country in Western Australia with no phone reception and just the howling emptiness of the land stretching before me. Of course, as I say in the book, these visions are a product of our colonial past. The land is obviously not empty, nor was it ever so – that feeling is indebted to a mythic erasure of Aboriginal people from the country. And this erasure in turn makes it haunted; haunted perhaps by history, by the violence and massacres that we fail to talk about. These unspoken stories of violence returns to us with a quickening of our pulse when we step into wild country; they return to us, as Ross Gibson has said, through that strange feeling of agoraphobia (a fear of its terrifying vastness) and claustrophobia (the eerie feeling that it’s in fact teeming with unseen bodies).

After the inquest, you speak to the coroner, a surprisingly appealing man who seems more emotionally invested in the case than expected. He warns about the dangers of how these stories are presented: “He was not a character out of Deliverance or Wake in Fright or something like that, not some sort of monster who just shares a human form with the rest of us. He was a man who had lost his mind, and it is a genuine tragedy.” Do you think the media reporting of these incidents, without adequate follow-up into their root causes and the fallout, feeds into everyone’s fevered view of these situations as spectacle instead of reality, therefore not having to consider further solutions?

Yes! That is such a big part of the problem. Evan Johnson’s case was reported by the tabloid press in the genre of ‘psycho attacks hippies with a cross-bow’ which contributes to stereotypes of people with schizophrenia as violent (they are in fact far more likely to harm themselves than anyone else) and sacrifices the humanity of the deceased for a sleazy marketable story. But similarly, in only focusing on the police shooting itself we lose sight of much more interesting and compelling questions: why are police on the front-line of mental health? Are gaols our new asylums? Why would we expect police to be able to play psychiatrist? I think that to properly answer these questions we need to look at the criminal law and our mental health system in tandem. We need to interrogate reality not indulge in a pre-scripted horror show.

Are there any books about the history, present or future of Australia’s mental health care system you would recommend to readers?

One of the things that fascinated me as an academic was that Australia lacks any comprehensive history of our mental health system post-1950. So hopefully someone will write this soon and we can all get a better sense of what happened when we closed the asylums and adopted a policy of community care. Until then, Stephen Garton’s Medicine and madness is great and in fact the best book I read on the issue was Barbara Taylor’s The Last Asylum. The Government Report Not In Service is an excellent compilation of oral testimonies from people who suffer mental illness and for people into theory or philosophy, I don’t think you can go past Peter Sedgwick’s Psychopolitics or, for a counter-opinion, Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation.

alecia simmonds, wild man

On a strange dark night in April 2012, at a peaceful gathering at a remote property in New South Wales, Evan Johnson was shot by police while threatening people with a crossbow. While this is the story we hear in the news, Alecia Simmonds was willing to search further into the truth of the story: how Evan came to be there, what happened that night and—most importantly—what we can learn from the tale of a desperately ill man meeting a premature end at the hands of the state.

For readers at the story, and so many at the scene of the tragedy and afterwards, they meet Evan only at his worst. And so the book begins with the story of his death and, in the coronial inquiry, details the witness statements from those at the scene; these have such a raw intensity that you fear, ridiculously, that he might kill everyone as he threatened and escape, even after knowing the facts outlined at the start. We follow her train of thought as she has it: who is to blame and why? Is it his environment, upbringing, drugs, mental health, the police? All of the above? It’s a search deep into the heart of cases that frustrate us and then leave us for the next news item, but are something telling and relevant in these times of unmitigated police violence here and overseas, deaths in custody, and the lack of proper care for those suffering from mental illnesses.

The inquiry and Alecia’s research take us into a world we ignore: how a case comes together, how information is accessed, how to create a real person out of their ghost, and how necessary all that is. And, of course, how much your average person hearing news stories does not have the opportunity—or the knowledge—to discover it. Wild Man is a smart, emotionally devastating and compelling piece of journalism that holds your hand as it leads you into the story of Evan’s death and lets it go just as you need to think hard about how Australia, as a country, is so desperate to love and romanticise a larrikin that when one steps beyond the bounds, we are helpless in the face of it.

international review: walter kirn, blood will out

In 1998, Walter Kirn is waiting to become a father and up for a noble distraction: driving a paralysed Gordon setter named Shelby from his home state of Montana to New York City. There, Shelby would meet the man who had so desperately wanted to adopt her online: Clark Rockefeller, a name with more pedigree than even the pooch. Kirn, a journalist and writer—later he would publish the novel Up in the Air, which would then be made into a George Clooney movie—handed over the dog and, without quite noticing it, handed himself over alongside her. He had a nose for interesting people and Clark, who had such a relaxed attitude to wealth that he let his dogs lick his original Rothko paintings, was enthralling. He was connected, enigmatic, and any wild speculations he had about the doomed direction the world was heading in seemed alarmingly like they could come true. Because if anyone knew, wouldn’t he?

A decade later, Clark Rockefeller abducted his young daughter during a supervised visit. By the time he was found, so too were his secrets: Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was no Rockefeller, no pure-blood. And he was also the prime suspect of the 1985 murder of his neighbour, John Sohus, dug up from the ground of the property they both shared.

Having spent the intervening years listening to Clark with mute appreciation, Kirn was well-placed—and humiliated—to tell the story of a fraud who was never short of a lie to tell, and who was so convincing that even his errors would never be brought up by his friends, or his unrealistic tales of classified businesses second-guessed. One memorable moment has Clark hand a frustrated Kirn George Bush’s phone number to help him with a problem; Kirn, of course, never makes the call, despite Clark insisting he “Call George”. It’s this ability that saw Clark sustain his ruse for years, with those he married and those he befriended—but silenced in front of a jury of his peers, he is not the same force.

I genuinely enjoy true crime books where the author places themselves firmly within the events. Yes, it can show bias, but as I’ve always enjoyed fiction more than non-fiction I am much more interested in true crime when there is a personal perspective, and at least you are aware of any skewed opinions as long as the author fulfills the inherent promise of the idea by being honest. I can’t give many examples because I am no expert in the genre, but I have at least read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which this is likened to, and that did the job just beautifully. I did enjoy Kirn’s taut writing and personal honesty about his motives – heck, he likes fame – but this isn’t really the same, though it is probably not Kirn’s fault that people want to connect the two together. I did feel that Kirn talked a lot about his and Clark’s relationship in a kind of abstract way rather than making it feel real and personal, but then, their years-long friendship often did not seem real and personal, just the way not every friend we have is our pinkie-swearing blood-brother best friend forever. Sometimes there was distance in this book where I wanted up-close. But he did not cheapen any of the crimes with overzealous description, which was nice at least for me. I don’t wish to sound overly critical; I just wish I hadn’t listened to those screaming about the new Truman Capote, or relished the Amy Tan quote on the cover I had (I think One Hundred Secret Senses is just glorious), and taken it as it was: a good book, exactly the type of true crime that I liked, and one hell of a story.

megan norris, love you to death

Today’s guest post is by stealer of hearts Liz Barr.

A wealthy housewife, engaged in a passionate affair with a no-hoper, pressures him to murder her husband. So intense and death-obsessed is their relationship, she buys them adjoining plots in a cemetery, kissing her lover passionately as the sale is finalised.

In 2010, Australia was riveted by the revelations about Vickie Soteriou’s attempted murder of her husband, Chris. During the lover’s trial, his defence tried to paint the scenario as something out of film noir: the average joe who is putty in the hands of a femme fatale. Justice Coghlan (by far my favourite judge in the criminal jurisdiction, shut up, it is totally normal to have favourite judges) remarked that Mills and Boon might be more likely.

The best true crime seeks to cast light into society’s dark corners. At the very least, it should tell a good story. Love You To Death: A Story of Sex, Betrayal and Murder Gone Wrong, with its suburban intrigue and glimpses into the contemporary Greek-Australian community, tells a good yarn, but we never get to see past the surface.

This is partially an issue of access — while Chris Soteriou and his family were extremely cooperative with the author, his former wife and in-laws have nothing to say at all. Indeed, the victim remains estranged from his teenage daughter. The Soteriou family are understandably bitter about Vickie’s betrayal, which has cast a sinister light over her entire marriage. But Norris seems to accept their accounts without question, reproducing uncritically the misogynistic slurs the family attached to Vickie. Norris claims to have a particular interest in writing about women and children affected by crime, but phrasing like “the evil housewife” owes more to Victorian (the era, not the state) fears about treacherous women and the breakdown of the traditional family.

The sad thing is, this isn’t even necessary. The facts alone demonstrate that Vickie Soteriou was a manipulative narcissist. That she wears knock-off designer products is less interesting than the fact that she threatened her supplier when her sister-in-law started buying from the same woman. Or so the sister-in-law says.

Love You To Death is, in the end, intriguing but shallow. Very late in the piece, Norris casually mentions that the Greek language press in Australia was comparing the business with the great tragedies of ancient Greece. It’s an interesting insight that goes unexplored, another missed opportunity in a book that could have been so much better.

Arrested and charged with the trafficking of books. Charges dismissed after bribing the judge with some new releases. Small. Ginger. Enjoys history, cephalopods and tween media.

matthew condon, three crooked kings & jacks and jokers

Today’s guest post is from the criminally lovely Liz Barr.

Growing up in Brisbane in the ’90s, I was acutely aware of the Bjelke-Petersen era. Maybe because I had a political family — my conservative parents have only recently conceded that Joh’s government was not, in fact, the victim of a left wing plot — or because I read a lot of biographies of local musicians, and they all had memories of Cloudland and being hassled by the cops.

Now I live in Melbourne, but I still follow Queensland politics. Campbell Newman’s ongoing attempt to relive Joh’s glory days sparked an interest in Brisbane’s history of corruption, so I headed to the library and found Matthew Condon’s Three Crooked Kings and Jacks and Jokers.

And what a history it is. Condon follows the career of Terry Lewis, from his first days as a cop in the ’50s to his unexpected and dubious promotion to police commissioner in 1976. Along the way, we learn that there are all kinds of police corruption, from blackmailing young women known to have visited abortionists to taking payments and turning a blind eye towards illegal casinos and sex shops. Condon has spoken to Lewis himself at length, but keeps him at a distance, directing the reader’s attention to new twists on old lies.

The framing device — the murder of Shirley Brifman, a prostitute turned whistleblower and the rape of her daughter, both crimes committed by police officers — borders on the exploitative. But this is not a world that treats women well. Condon only foreshadows the terrible experiences of Lorelle Saunders, Queensland’s first female police detective, who was framed for attempted murder and spent ten months in jail, eventually placing herself in solitary confinement to escape the abuse of guards and prisoners. She was ultimately exonerated and reinstated — but the bulk of her story is reserved for the third book in Condon’s trilogy, due in 2015.

It’s a complex pair of books, with characters appearing for a few pages before vanishing again, to import drugs into Far North Queensland, or to fabricate evidence against a possible mass murderer, or to leak information to the press that leads to two people being murdered. A corrupt cop’s work is never done, and if the reader doesn’t pay attention, she’ll be lost. Wait, when did the bank-that-was-a-front-for-drug-importers-and-also-the-CIA turn up? Who owns that nightclub? Did student protesters really march all the way from St Lucia to the CBD?

Queensland has tried to shrug this history off, but you can catch glimpses here and there, of heritage buildings torn down in the middle of the night, the dodgy brothels that still exist in the Valley, in the way the police keep stopping my mum’s pastor as he rides his Harley to church. Condon demonstrates that the era of the Moonlight State was seedier, stranger and more shocking than anyone realised.

Arrested and charged with the trafficking of books. Charges dismissed after bribing the judge with some new releases. Small. Ginger. Enjoys history, cephalopods and tween media.

international review: poe ballantine, love & terror on the howling plains of nowhere

A book that began on our true crime shelf at work before moving across many aisles to the biography section, Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere is a memoir written so beautifully that for a while I had to put it down out of creative jealousy*. Poe Ballantine is a man that was as surprised as anyone by his affection for the town of Chadron, Nebraska, when he stumbles into it in 1994, and even more so when—after more shuffling around both the American continents—he returned to it with his Mexican-born wife, Cristina. Chadron has a population of some 5,800 people, many of whom turn up next to him at The Olde Main Street Inn to crack a beer and talk. And, in 2006, talk turns to one thing: Steven Haataja, the university professor who paid his rent one morning, went to work, made an appointment for 8:30am the next day, and vanished.

This is not entirely a true crime book; it belongs with memoirs. Poe is not defined by the crime, though he is moved by it. The book is as much about a middle-aged habitual wanderer attempting to discard unhappiness and become a good husband and father as it is a book about the missing Haataja. Poe’s son is a boy who loves fire exits and socialising with adults, but who may be autistic; Haataja, a professor of mathematics (incidentally, I first wrote “math professor”, but it just feels too strange to say that instead of “maths”) who is intellectually far above everyone else but happy to try and explain himself, could also be on the spectrum. It’s a spectrum Poe is unsure of, and one others use to explain his disappearance as suicide. When his body is discovered on a nearby property three months later, the closure everyone is waiting for does not arrive.

It is a credit to Ballantine’s writing that the stories of himself, his family, his friends—hell, even his son getting a haircut—are just as dynamic as those where bodies are found and half-drunk gangs storm out of a pub to search behind mysterious locked basement doors. Ballantine interviews more people for the book than he can name, but that doesn’t necessarily mean forensically precise details; this is in the book’s favour, and draws you into the local experience of the crime (if it is one), even if you occasionally find yourself a little biased about which town member you’d like to have seen shipped off to prison for committing murder.

Told in seventy fairly brief chapters, I wonder whether some of these moments were originally destined to be essays (Ballantine is a renowned and rightly adored essayist and novelist), as there are moments of repetition that threw me out: the constant reference to the crescent-moon C on Chadron’s water tower (I started to think the key to the mystery would be found there), the early frequent referrals to his wife using her background and looks and immigrant status instead of just calling her Cristina, in case we had forgotten about what had brought her to Nebraska and what she was going through to naturalise, even though we had been following her story as closely as Poe’s own. Nevertheless, this is the kind of book that reminds me of what nonfiction can do in the big rough hands of someone who can write of heavy moments with weightless beauty.


* In its place I picked up Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s memoir An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, which reminded me that I need not be good at everything in the world—I would never have the discipline required to leave the planet, it turns out, though I do have the lack of height to fit in the Soyuz—and gave me the required break to get back into Love & Terror. Incidentally, Hadfield’s book is ridiculously interesting, and he is a compelling and straightforward writer and a determined, entertaining and often funny man. When he was still in orbit and posting on Twitter every day, I went outside one clear evening and watched the International Space Station trace a path over the night sky. Sometimes, humanity is incredible.