Portrait

Twenty years ago they were young and carefree. Now one is dead and the country stunned by his actions. By Sarah Price.

Geoff Hunt and the quest for understanding

There we were: young and jaunty, tumbling through the door of a country pub, gathered around a bar in the days when no one cared how many drinks you’d had. A packet of cigarettes cost $6.50. We drank middies of tap beer, listened to cover bands singing about love and loss and the Australian way. Young men wore nicknames like badges of honour. His was Dingle. And there he was: tall and broad, good-looking, a blithe smile. 

Two decades pass. And here he is again, staring out from the television. Same look, same smile. Only he is dead now. So are his wife and children. He shot them, allegedly. And then shot himself.

It’s 20 years since I have seen Geoff Hunt. But I remember him well. Larkish and spirited, sexy and unassuming, a clownish sense of humour. There was an aberrant energy about him, a buoyancy. He was part of my university days, my early learning about men and love and sex. That crucial, unencumbered time when friendships are paramount, and lovers are fervent, green, changeable. 

But relationships and groups that are vital at certain times in our lives soon disintegrate – friends peel away: travelling, starting families, pursuing careers. From country towns they go to the city, or interstate, or overseas. Many choose to stay in rural areas, to go back to the farm, to make their life on the land.  

Roads around Lockhart, in the Riverina region of New South Wales, are flanked by flat, open terrain. In a good year, sprawling fields billow with golden canola and wheat. The sky is huge; speckled nights are brilliant. It’s a place where seasons are significant, vital for livelihood; where hope and optimism can be transmogrified by the weather. Neighbours might live kilometres away, but you know them well. There will be a history there, perhaps generations of it. They are extended family of a sort, offering support and practical assistance. Country people rely on that: there’s no bullshit. They are tough, pragmatic people. And they know what matters: family, community, resilience.  

Why didn’t Geoff ask his family or community for help? Was it as simple as pride? Or an inability to articulate the pain, the hopelessness? Why didn’t the man I once knew as smart and resourceful seek the assistance of others? Where did his inexplicable behaviour come from? Did it build slowly, silently, a gnawing pit of unexpressed emotion? Or did it come upon him suddenly, in a place where there is no buffer of time between the impulse and the readily available weapon, no other people around to shut down the destructive urge? 

It bears dark and incomprehensible thoughts: the order in which Geoff took the lives of his beautiful children and tenacious wife; their terror, the numb horror of their final moments; the sound of gunshots ringing through stillness in open land; the melancholy silence that follows. 

Perhaps it is love that leaves us so confused, so in need of answers. For how can we understand the motivation to destroy the people you love, those you live for? Yet love is no guarantee. We are all many things; complex, veiled, an enigma even to ourselves. We are vulnerable to stresses and disease, to mental anguish. Love is not a magical force field into which brutality and violence cannot penetrate. Love doesn’t keep people safe. 

In the 44 years prior to the tragedy, Geoff Hunt was just a normal bloke, one of us. He was a patient father and husband, a good mate. He was a farmer who had a strong connection with the land, with his land. He was a trusted community man. For many years he was a young boy, a country boy. A kid from Boree Creek. He was a university student; smart, flirty, funny. He was a mother’s beloved son. 

How could a man who was known as loving and devoted commit such an act? The mystery of why, we may never know. Did Geoff even know, as he waded into the dam, gun in hand? Perhaps there are no excuses, only attempts at understanding.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 11, 2014 as "A quest for understanding". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.

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