Rosie Batty: the private toll of public grief
Rosie Batty would not usually open up her home to strangers who needed a place to stay. For five years, she had traversed the country, giving her time and candour. In publicly suppressing her grief, she had given her nervous system.
But home was home, and Batty is exceptional, not saintly. Then last December, an email arrived. It was from Olga Edwards. Batty recognised the name: six months before, Edwards’ two teenage children were shot dead by their father. The two women were strangers but connected in the most awful way. Olga wrote she would be down from Sydney shortly – and might she stay with Rosie?
“I don’t know why she wanted to reach out to see me,” says Batty. “I was a bit apprehensive; I didn’t know what to expect. She was an incredibly smart woman. But she had no hope for mankind. She had no trust. The father of her children may as well have put the shotgun to her head as well. We had a weekend together that was two broken women who understood each other’s pain.”
Edwards thanked Batty and returned to Sydney. A week later she took her life. “I understand it,” says Batty. “It’s so hard. It’s just so hard and it feels like there will be no end to it.”
The Australian of the Year honour is a crown usually worn lightly. More a recognition than a responsibility. Batty was a rare exception: for her, the honour was a platform she felt would be quickly withdrawn, and so to be spoken from with great urgency.
The problem was she was profoundly traumatised. It is extraordinary to consider that the honour was conferred on Batty less than a year after her son’s murder. She had been catapulted into a vexed and bruising celebrity – while suffering post-traumatic stress.
The honour was dual-edged. It energised Batty’s crusade, gave her a sense of purpose. Therapists will talk about meaning-making and benefit-finding as crucial to an emergence from trauma – and Batty was finding meaning in her educational role. But her high-profile status also meant her grief was subject to public autopsy. It has been a long and unhygienic one. And such was the responsibility she felt – along with a fear her influence could be exercised only within a shrinking window – that she pushed herself to breaking point. Purpose is one thing; becoming a walking, talking cipher for the country’s anxieties is another.
And there was something else. Batty came to feel disgusted by the gulf between perception and reality – the public saint and the private griever. In 2014, Batty wryly told the writer Helen Garner that she had to be careful her halo didn’t slip and strangle her.
“People put me on a pedestal,” says Batty. “But I was still broken and fragile. It was a strange celebrity status I found myself in, and I didn’t have a manual for it. When you have the likes of Mark Latham saying that I was benefiting from my son’s death – I mean, how do you deal with that?
“There were occasions where I’d have an incredibly strong reaction to something. Something trivial. I couldn’t control those reactions. I had explosions. It was suppressed emotion that had to at some point come out. Close family members might say something, and the rage and grief has come bursting out. They don’t know what to do with that. Some people were really great and understood it wasn’t about them – it was just release. And I’d feel terribly ashamed by how I might have driven someone away, because I couldn’t control my outbursts at that time.
“They were happening so often that I felt so unworthy of the Australian of the Year. I was different to who I was on TV. There I seemed calm, controlled, but that wasn’t me seven days a week.”
Much has been said of the circus mirror of celebrity. The individual may come to feel their very self-conception is distorted and their fame fraudulently maintained. Batty felt this. Felt fraudulent, unworthy. Felt she had been given an honour simply because her son had been murdered – as opposed to a recognition of her reaction to the nightmare. “I was always feeling like I was going to disappoint people when they met me,” she says. “I was judging and second-guessing.”
But still she crisscrossed the country. She was terrified she would run out of time, that momentum would slow. The pressure she felt was self-applied. “There’s no pressure on you as recipient of Australian of the Year,” she says. “There’s plenty of examples of people who’ve taken the award and you never heard from them again. That’s your choice. But that first year, I spoke at over 250 events. I had major opportunities and my intention was to create a ripple effect. I flew one side of Australia to the other. I was always at the airport. I had two or three people around me. I didn’t have an entourage. No personal assistant or office. But no one made me do it. I chose that.”
Samuel Johnson once wrote that sorrow requires “what it cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead should return, or the past should be recalled”. One day, Batty wondered if she was working so hard as some kind of subconscious quest to resurrect Luke. Was she trying to magically repeal the laws of the universe? It was a terrible thought, and she banished it. She kept working with no manual.
In the early days after Luke’s murder, Batty established a foundation bearing his name. It was a way of honouring her son, but she also felt compelled to establish it after locals began donating money. This, too, would become a sorrowful undertaking. “I didn’t have the professional skills to do that,” says Batty. “I hadn’t worked at a senior executive level. I didn’t understand the function of a board. I didn’t have the support I needed because everything grew so quickly. There was no time to plan things carefully.
“It became its own entity. I had emotional ties to it. I felt challenged, I admit; a part of my grieving was that the organisation I’d set up with Luke’s name and immersed in was something that was no longer mine. It had to be like that for legal reasons and other reasons to have the right structure. It was very hard for me to understand. I felt like I’d lost Luke again.”
The foundation closed last year.
No one teaches you how to grieve, yet our culture is soaked with expectations. When Batty approached the media scrum at the top of her driveway, just a day after Luke’s murder, she defied some of them. She wasn’t insensible, or raging. She was raw and shocked, but also philosophical. “I want to tell people that family violence happens to [anybody], no matter how nice your house is, no matter how intelligent you are… What I want people to take from this is that it isn’t simple. People judge you, people tell you what you should do. You do the best you can.”
Her demeanour was publicly interpreted. In her eloquence, some detected a guilty soul – a mother who had inadequately protected her child. Five years later, Batty still likens herself to Lindy Chamberlain: “She was a woman we didn’t believe and we put her in prison.”
Batty never quite inured herself to the accusations of strangers. “At the time I didn’t go looking for comments about me, so initially I never imagined that some people had blamed me [for Luke] having access to his father. I had no idea that people could think like that. For some, not seeing me grieving in an expected way, they saw something to suspect.”
Batty’s composure at the time ensured her public status. It was an extraordinary thing. I visited her two weeks after Luke’s murder and about my arrival I recall two things – the strong smell of consolatory flowers, and the fact her hospitality had survived her trauma. She offered tea, coffee, water. Gave a quick, perfunctory tour of the property. She wasn’t effusive in any of this, just polite. Writing this, I suspect even this fact will appear suspicious for some – that grief must be inarticulate, unstable.
Hers was: we just didn’t see it. Internally, she was aflame.
This week, Batty asked me if she seemed different from when we first met more than five years earlier. I told her she seemed calmer, happier – but the truth is she didn’t seem significantly different to me. Not that she isn’t different – her suffering has eased; she now looks to the future – it’s just that even in those early days, Batty had an extraordinary capacity for composure. It was a dangerous thing though, inviting both scepticism and admiration. The scepticism was cruel, the admiration a step towards complacency.
If we expect grief to be hysterical, we also cling to the idea that sorrow is experienced in neat, progressive stages. Perhaps the most famous example is the Kübler-Ross model, which describes the passage of the terminally ill to acceptance via denial, anger, bargaining and depression.
In broader terms, we speak of the grieving moving towards closure – as people experiencing an arc of recovery. Again, it’s comforting and neat. It’s also unsupported by the literature. In reality, grief is dynamic, chaotic and idiosyncratic. Therapists are more likely to speak about oscillation between engaging and avoiding “grief work”.
“Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark, / And shares the nature of infinity,” Wordsworth wrote. Years after Luke’s death, this is how it felt for Batty. The pain didn’t feel like a part of a process; it was a state. One that shared the nature of infinity.
Batty says she wasn’t suicidal – it’s just she wouldn’t have minded if she died. In Sydney, two years ago, her taxi stopped beside a busy road. She opened her passenger door – only for a passing bus to tear it off. Uninjured, she sat there for a long while, unsure if she’d been lucky or unlucky.
“That was the third year,” says Batty. “I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore.’ I didn’t have suicidal ideation. My belief system wouldn’t allow me to do it. But I would have felt relieved if I had an accident, or something happened to me. It was too hard. To think I would live the rest of my life in this pain was overwhelming. I don’t want to keep doing this.”
If anyone thought Batty was enjoying some kind of good life that followed her celebrity, they were wrong. “It’s fucking hard,” she says. “It’s really fucking hard. My journey of pain and loss has no end. It’s not a period of time.”
Gill Hicks is an Australian survivor of the London Tube bombings in 2005, which claimed her legs. When the two women met, Hicks told Batty that it was seven years before she experienced what she thought was her breakdown. “And so, I kept thinking, ‘Is that me? Am I deferring grief?’ ” says Batty. “What does grief even look like? Do I have to be in hospital for it to be real? Is my breakdown years down the line? But I was already traumatised. I was living it.”
There was a very low moment last year, when the foundation named for Luke was closed. “No one checked in with me – or at least that’s how it felt,” says Batty. “Maybe people felt I was living this high life. But I was at home, alone much of that time, worrying about my financial position. I felt that I wasn’t the person that people had put on this pedestal. That I wasn’t good enough. The self-doubt that I’ve lived with much of [my] life took over. I really understood that when people are very depressed they don’t reach out.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, isn’t it? You ask: Where is everybody now? And you realise that people gave so much at the time when I needed it the most, it was amazing, but I have to find that place myself; I can’t expect other people to ease that pain for me. You have to ask for help. People don’t have a magic ball they can look into. It’s a hard lesson.”
If no one teaches us how to grieve, it’s also true that no one teaches us how to support the grieving. We become intimidated by someone’s grief, and tiptoe around it ineffectually. We can overstate the survivor’s vulnerability and patronise them with our protectiveness. We can anger a grieving person with intrusiveness just as easily as distance, and there is a fine line between sensitivity and condescension.
“In the early days, I remember being frustrated on occasion [by] friends being protective,” says Batty. “They were well meaning, and had made decisions that they thought were in my best interest, but they did it without consulting with me. I wasn’t aware of this initially, and when I found out I told them I need to make these decisions. If friends made all of my decisions, I would never have spoken to journalists. They didn’t think it was a good idea. They [thought journalists] would be exploitative and misquote me. But it’s not all paparazzi.
“In those early days, there was this look in their eye – they were so frightened of hurting me. And I remember feeling: Is this the burden I have to carry now? This pity? Sure, I wanted sensitivity and compassion, but I didn’t want pity. That’s why I avoided going back to the UK for three years. The growing [I’ve experienced] here, people came with me on that journey. But extended family and lifetime friends back in the UK, I feared that I would see that look of sadness or pity in their eyes. And the conversations they would feel they need to have.”
Batty says she’s in a “better space” today. When we speak, it is the eve of what would have been Luke’s birthday. Batty believes she will be fine. “I think, of course, what he would have been like as a 17-year-old. But I’m arriving at a place in time where memories are not surrounded by acute pain,” she says. “I haven’t been [on] anti-anxiety medication for about three years now. I’m no longer chain-smoking, which I did for a while after Luke’s death. I feel more at peace with Luke’s passing. I’m not sure if they’re the right words. But instead of being caught in the reaction to what’s happened, I now feel I’m looking at what my future [is] more. It doesn’t overwhelm me with pain. That’s the best I can say, really. I’m so pleased that I have been able to push through.”
Rosie Batty has been made both a saint and a villain; but the truth is we do not really know her – and I suspect we’ve never really tried.
National domestic and family violence counselling service hotline 1800 737 732
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 22, 2019 as "Rosie Batty: the private toll of public grief".
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