The death of 11-year-old Luke Batty at the hands of a violent father sent shockwaves through the nation. The boy’s mother speaks out.By Martin McKenzie-Murray .
Rosie Batty’s public sorrow
Not long after Luke Batty was conceived, his parents were at home watching Manhattan’s twin towers collapse. As the trauma was chaotically relayed onscreen, Greg Anderson sat back in his chair. “Fucking Americans had this coming to them.”
Rosie Batty was appalled. “What do you mean? Someone’s son, sister, mother, father … somebody went to work today and they’re never coming home.”
“Get the fuck to bed.”
It was a revelation for Rosie – the first sign of Greg’s callousness. She doubted he should be the father of her child; she doubted he should be in her life at all. “He had no feeling that night,” Rosie recalls. “He didn’t understand.”
The relationship metastasised. Greg was manipulative and vengeful, his private sense of inadequacy expressed in verbal and physical violence. When Luke was a baby, Rosie woke to find Greg had sat him on a tower of books in the family room. “What are you doing! That’s dangerous, and he should be asleep!”
Greg darkened. “Man follows God, woman follows man, and if man follows woman it leads him to the devil.”
Rosie felt sick. “I’m the income earner, but I’m not equal or good enough to have a direct link with God?”
“Just go. Just leave me now.”
Rosie wasn’t a wallflower. She was assertive and intelligent, would recognise and oppose Greg’s manipulations and control. “You’re a little, ugly man,” she responded one night to his spray of hateful paranoia, but she was referring to his moral stature, not bulk. Greg was 188 centimetres tall. He would stand over Rosie and punch the wall on either side of her head. Rosie was caught in a web, and it permitted only certain movements. She could try to escape via the courts and the police, but she had to be certain that would work. If not, it could be catastrophic and it took her a while to gamble on official intervention. “That’s the greatest danger,” she says now. “When you do leave him.”
When they split, after intervention orders were issued and repeatedly broken, Greg moved between religious groups, preferring the company of the pious. He spent time with the Mormon Church but never converted and moved on after his volatility and arrogance scorched his relationships.
More recently he was vagrant, spending much of his time in St Kilda with the Hare Krishnas. He enjoyed the spiritual workshops, free food and routine, and genuflected at the temple in Albert Park. Despite pretensions to the divine, Greg never developed a coherent theology – he picked the bits that worked for him, the ones that confirmed his superiority.
The day of the murder
On February 12, Luke Batty’s mother waited at the front of his classroom for him. Luke was with a mate and he pretended he hadn’t seen her. Rosie bounded over to him, playfully restraining him. “Do you want me to hold your hand like a little boy and embarrass you?” she joked. Luke wriggled free.
Greg was parked on the edge of the oval when Rosie drove Luke to cricket practice later. The intervention order restricted Greg from going near Rosie, but some access to Luke in public places was permissible. What followed is recollected by Rosie like an abstract painting – points of intense clarity; other parts where movement and sound are smudged.
Luke finished practice. Greg wandered over and asked his son if he wanted to hit a few more in the nets. Luke did, and ran over to ask his mum. “If it’s what you want,” she said.
The nets were cleared now, but for father and son, and when Rosie saw Luke on the ground she assumed he had been accidentally felled by Greg’s bowling. She thinks that error of judgement saved her life.
“I heard a noise and realised something had happened. I started to go over and saw Luke injured, and assumed it was an accident and ran in the opposite direction to get help. Had I known he’d harmed Luke and was in the process of further harm, as a mother I would’ve fought with him and I would have been killed. He most definitely would not have let me stop him from what he was doing – and I couldn’t have let him do it.”
Greg had smashed his son’s head with a cricket bat, then pulled a knife from his trousers.
“By asking Luke to stay a few more minutes, he knew. He picked his time. Apparently he hit Luke in the back of the head, so he would’ve asked Luke to turn around and Luke wouldn’t have had any idea. Which is better for me to imagine. I believe Luke was having a good time to the end. And he would’ve been so badly concussed or killed on that first impact that what happened afterwards didn’t matter.”
It wasn’t until the police turned their guns on Greg that Rosie realised something was terribly wrong. Greg turned on them with his knife, shrugging off the capsicum spray. A single bullet from a .40 calibre semi-automatic hit his chest.
“If it helps the officer who fired the shot, I’ll meet him,” Rosie says. “He was just doing his job. He put Greg out of his misery. I’m certain he intended to die that way, that he couldn’t kill himself directly because of some religious belief.”
Rosie didn’t go into convulsive shock that night – she chain-smoked. As police quarantined the scene and separated witnesses, Rosie stood beside the patrol car with a police minder and her friends. She wouldn’t sit inside the car, as suggested. It was a warm night and she wanted to stand. It was midnight before she was taken to the Mornington station to give a statement.
Bruce Springsteen’s Twist and Shout closed Luke Batty’s funeral. Springsteen sometimes ends his shows with an extended cover of it, and it’s a raucously joyous closure, its famous riff fleshed out with horns and keys. The version is one of Rosie’s favourite songs, and she thinks Luke would’ve liked it. But we’ll never know because you don’t ask 11-year-olds about their funerals.
No doubt mourners grasped the sorrowful contrast between Springsteen’s energy and the stillness of death. As the Boss’s backup singers repeated “twist so fine”, Luke’s small yellow coffin was slowly carried from the chapel to a waiting car outside. From there it was taken to a private cremation, but not before it crept past a long guard of honour, comprising hundreds, on the school oval.
The coffin was yellow because it was Luke’s favourite colour. Mourners wore yellow items; his mother wore a yellow jacket and scarf. Days before, Rosie had Googled descriptions of the colour. She found some positive ones – “It’s the colour of happiness and optimism, of enlightenment and creativity, sunshine and spring” – and had them printed on the commemoration cards. Rosie found negative definitions of yellow, too, and excluded them. She tells me they were eerily applicable to Luke’s killer.
There was plenty of media. TV crews, radio journalists, print. The 6pm news bulletins carried footage of eulogies and weeping schoolmates. As if the horror of filicide wasn’t self-evident, reporters solemnly intoned clichés, obligingly filling lounge rooms with the words “love” and “tragedy”. It was mawkish and inadequate, but it was all they could do. Elsewhere, people were attempting to frame the issue – to wrest coherency from hysterical barbarism.
It’s a family violence story, some said. Others argued it was all about mental health. Some pointed to the stressed justice system, the one with antiquated police software, overcrowded police cells and women’s shelters that can’t open on weekends.
The grieving mother
If there was a counterpoint to the horror, it was the interview Rosie gave to TV crews within 24 hours of Luke’s murder. It was unusual that a grieving mother would even grant an interview to film crews so soon, and it was extraordinary that it would be conducted with poise and compassion. There was ineffable grief and shock, that much was obvious, but there was also composure and capacity for reflection. Privately, journalists were stunned. Publicly, the video was shared almost virally. Asked that night about the access Greg had to her son, she responded: “I think it was fair access. I don’t think anyone understands what someone’s able to do. You trust that the very person who killed him, loved him. And they did love him.”
Perceived flaws in the justice system are often seized upon –understandably – by victims to make sense of their grief. When Rosie said, “I think it was fair access”, journalists were surprised. She was opting out of a common form of catharsis, and confusing our expectations of bereavement. As we should have learnt from Lindy Chamberlain, there are myriad ways to grieve and it is not our job to judge the ones which confound us.
“I don’t exactly understand my strength,” Rosie says. “Some say I’m powerful and eloquent, which is really strange, because I’m not doing anything special. I’m just being myself. I think compassion, forgiveness, nurturing are things which might be overdeveloped in me because I lost my mum so early.”
Rosie looks out over her large property, where donkeys, goats and chicken roam. There’s a cubbyhouse and trampoline that she bought for Luke.
“Look at the response to September 11. It was emotional and violent and where did it get us? I want to be calm in my responses. Considered. But I’m not stupid, I’m not going to become ill because I haven’t expressed grief. Luke was my purpose before, but I will have to find something else. And maybe that thing is helping others.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 28, 2014 as "Yellow was a happy colour". Subscribe here.