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As an inquest searches for answers that may not exist, a grieving mother brings eloquence to an incoherent system. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Rosie Batty’s voice

Rosie Batty arriving at the Coroners Court of Victoria.
Credit: AAP Image

I’ve taken a seat in the back row of Court 1. The day’s session hasn’t begun yet, and outside the Coroners Court of Victoria there’s faint drizzle. It’s day six of the inquest into the death of Luke Batty, the boy murdered by his father, Greg Anderson, who was later shot dead by police at a local oval.

Rosie Batty, Luke’s mother and Anderson’s former partner, is talking with friends and legal counsel towards the front of the small room. For now, the state coroner’s seat is vacant. Behind it is fixed the court’s crest, and its motto: “Peace and Prosperity.” I try to catch Rosie’s eye. It’s been a while since I’ve seen her.

Since the death of her son in February, Rosie has been busy – meeting political and police leaders, appearing on television and radio and newspaper front pages. In her English Midlands accent, alternately piqued, pleading and articulate, she has spoken about domestic violence. “I was scared people would think me a freakish media seeker,” she once told me, “but then I felt the support come in. I thought this was something I could do, that it was important to do.”

Rosie Batty is a phenomenon, but she is not supernatural. We make wax figures of our public mentors, which damages our communion with them. Rosie is more fraught and more remarkable than we realise. “I’m not Mother Teresa,” she told me the first time we met.

Rosie can be pugilistic, capricious and bitter. She has every right to be. But I have always found remarkable her ability to self-regulate – how quickly she can, after a cathartic exchange, reclaim her equanimity. After an emotional confrontation with Joe Hildebrand on breakfast television in April, I sent her a text message with a few supporting remarks. She called me and I was surprised at how calm and modestly uncertain she was.

I’m no longer surprised. Since we began maintaining contact earlier in the year, Rosie has been consistently polite, self-deprecating and refreshingly unafraid of her emotions. I have given her books; she has given me updates on her health kick.

Not long before the state coroner took his seat, Rosie waved and came over. She radiated the same blend of warmth and melancholy. She seemed tired, and told me she was driving an hour on the freeway each way from Tyabb. She can’t stay in the city for the duration of the inquest because “I have the animals to look after” – the sheep, chickens and donkeys she purchased, in part, for Luke. “But then he just used his PlayStation,” she once joked.

It would be another long day for her. She would take occasional breaks from the police testimony, and be snapped by the press photographers camped outside. That evening, the premier would declare her the Victorian of the Year.

Rosie's strength

Rosie Batty surprises almost everyone. Most often the surprise is supportive, expressed as admiration for her strength, even if it is marred by flat and obliging descriptions such as “amazing” and “incredible”. Articulate people, having met her, draw from a bain-marie of clichés. “What’s she like?” I’m asked. “Remarkable,” I offer, unhelpfully. 

But the surprise isn’t always supportive; it can be suspicious. Batty’s impromptu speech to the press the day after the murder was a little too composed for some, a little too articulate. “What triggered this was a case of his dad having mental health issues. He was in a homelessness situation for many years, his life was failing, everything was becoming worse in his life and Luke was the only bright light in his life.”

It didn’t hit the expected notes. Its coherence appeared unseemly. It seemed weirdly fatalistic, conciliatory. But grief is protean, managed by some with ennobling public acts, or pacified by drink, or succumbed to entirely. It can manifest as a flux of animation and paralysis. “Sometimes there’s days when I can’t get out of bed, other days when I can do something that makes me feel more positive,” Rosie told me.

Sometimes the surprise is cynical. Surprise that Rosie has the temerity and bad manners to speak so insistently on a “broken system” and a cultural inclination to blame victims. It stems from a cynical belief that Rosie’s very public campaign conceals private guilt. Last week, during her testimony at the inquest, Batty slammed the table after a series of questions about her choices. “Why am I having to defend the decisions I made about our son?” she said, tearfully. “Isn’t it unfair that I’m the one having to answer for all this? Did I ever think Luke would get smacked over the head with a cricket bat and stabbed to death? Of course I didn’t.”

I’ve heard it a few times: Why didn’t she just leave him?

“She did,” I’ll say.

“But properly,” they’ll answer.

Rosie has long stressed – to me and others – that she did not believe Anderson was a threat to her son. Only to her. And despite the contradictions, I believe her.

The murderer's state of mind

The dread I felt the morning I first met Rosie was soon crowned by gloomy portents. I had caught the train south-east to Frankston, an hour from Melbourne’s CBD to the far side of Port Phillip Bay. Rosie’s son had been murdered less than a fortnight before. When I alighted at Frankston station, a teen was busily engraving his tag into the train’s window with a rock. It was 10am. “Oi!” a security guard yelled, and the kid looked up. I walked purposefully to the toilet but as soon as I’d entered, I turned back out. Some dizzy misfit – perhaps our young vandal – had taken a match to the bathroom’s bin, which had been stuffed with used hand towels. The toilets, already squalid, filled with the black smoke of melting plastic. Aggrieved – and unrelieved – I strode to the cab rank. Everywhere, it seemed, were pungent, wasteful expressions of male identity.

Luke’s killer also had an open  contempt for authority. His truculence was caught perfectly on a police interview tape made just months before the murder. It was played during the first week of the inquest. Anderson had been arrested for threatening to kill his housemate and, as the tape begins, he is reclined in his seat, his arms crossed defiantly over his plump belly.

“I intend to keep you here in relation to making threats to kill and making threats to inflict serious injury,” Senior Constable Paul Topham told him. “Before continuing, I must inform you that you do not have to do or say anything, but anything you do or say may be given in evidence. Do you understand?”

“I do… The matter’s finished. I wish to leave,” Anderson says.  

Topham ploughs ahead with the formalities. There’s a righteousness to Anderson’s tone in response that the officers patiently absorb or deflect.

“What right do you have to keep me here? The interview’s finished,” he asserts. “I’ve said I don’t want to say anything, so how can there be any questions and answers? Now you’re insulting my right to intelligence.”

After just three minutes, Anderson stands and sits in a corner of the small interview room. He’s facing the wall, his back to his interlocutors. “We’re going to suspend the interview at this time because of no participation from the accused.” The tape ends.

During the inquest, other officers have testified to Anderson’s intimidation on separate occasions. “I didn’t want to be left alone in a room with him,” Acting Sergeant Scott Walters said. Senior Constable Diana Davidson said that Anderson once loomed over her outside court. “He was swearing, he was very hostile. He stood over me and he was a big man. But he was very controlled.”

Last week, reflecting upon Anderson, Topham attributed his crimes to mere wickedness. “Without a question in my mind, he was 100 per cent bad, not mad. He knew what he was doing was wrong, and he knew how to play the system,” he said. Topham believed Anderson’s contempt for authority was cynical and selfish, rather than paranoiac. It is easy to see why the constable might say this: Anderson bristled with hostility, but he possessed an obvious intelligence and cognisance. More than one officer spoke of his “control”. It is difficult to accept filicide solely as an act of iniquity, untouched by mental illness, although there is precedent for it. Topham’s opinion that Anderson’s actions were not fogged by an unstable mind was professional, but it reflects a very old anxiety about the erosion of personal responsibility via modernity – psychology, medication, micro labels. Biological determinism.

Detective Deborah Charteris, though, of Frankston’s sexual crimes and child abuse team, wrote a report noting Anderson’s depression, and concluding he suffered from mental illness. As it was, Anderson was never diagnosed with anything – he refused to see psychologists.

The importance of connection

When I knocked on Rosie’s door for the first time, it was arrestingly quiet. Bouquets had been left on the mat, cards slid under the threshold. Then I heard someone rustle inside. A dog barked. Rosie’s brother, who had flown from England, answered. We shook hands, and he led me to a small table beside the kitchen. We sat. It was a large and pleasant house, brightened by floor-to-ceiling windows that opened onto the large property out the back. The place smelt strongly of flowers. Rosie was still preparing herself, her brother told me. He was quiet and distracted, but unerringly polite. We talked about English football.

Rosie came in. I was taken by her hospitality – the gentle inquiry into my train trip; the polite suggestion of the back porch as the site of our interview. There was a stiff breeze, which for now was warding off the forecast high temperatures. Rosie’s hair flittered about her swollen face. My notebook flapped. She put on her sunglasses.

Her ability to express herself was immediately impressive. Not aesthetically, or as a marker of her class, but as something powerfully practical. She was self-aware; she had a sophisticated language for suffering. I remarked as much. “I have done a lot of therapy in the past. There was one man who I enjoyed seeing. He knew my journey. And he could articulate why I had made certain decisions. I always learnt something from him.”

Therapy has gifted Rosie tools of comprehension and a vocabulary with which to exercise them. I thought of the Australian film Somersault. Set in Jindabyne, in New South Wales’ ski fields, it’s a meditatively slow drama in part about the ruinous consequences of male anxiety and inarticulacy. Modest lives play out in the snowfields, where the grey sky and snowfall is the perfect backdrop for its characters’ slow drift. It also serves as an appropriate analogue for their frozen interior lives. At the local pub, lust, loyalty and disappointment are expressed in grunts and shrugs. There’s a depth of feeling, but everyone is caged by an inability – or unwillingness – to voice it.

We don’t lament the characters’ lack of eloquence because it’s unappealing, we lament it because it’s dangerous. Each grunt is self-laceration, a deferred revelation, another step towards isolation. Tempests of regret or confusion go unrelieved. Vocabulary helps broaden our cage, but this is less about education than it is about a particular male self-consciousness around developing, and articulating, self-awareness. In Somersault’s world, longing and loathing are to be quelled or physically transposed. It seems that in this small town, everyone knows everyone but everyone’s alone.

Each of us is isolated. Rosie perhaps more so, because of the numbing rarity of her horror – there’s a lot of sympathy; not much empathy. But she hasn’t spun out of orbit; she’s meaningfully connected with the world. And that connection has much to do with words.

There are some connections that Rosie has severed. Since I first met her, she has removed her address and phone number from public listing. “I had guys calling me,” she told me. “Creeps, mostly. Some wanting to ask me out, or ask if I wanted help. Sometimes there’d be no sound on the other end.” Grunts and whispers.

Anderson wasn’t reticent. He was garrulous, prattling. Words were another tool of intimidation or self-aggrandisement. He enjoyed being argumentative – sophistic and provocative. It alienated him.

System failures

Every system – from the institutional to the personal – struggles with imperfect knowledge. No one knows everything all of the time. For sensitive information, this is necessarily the case. In policing and intelligence, a “need-to-know” formula governs access to privileged information. A balance is sought between the effective sharing of information between separate arms of the system – so the sum becomes more effective than the parts – and the protection of sensitive data. Potential catastrophe sleeps within this discrepancy.

Leading Senior Constable Ross Treverton, a police prosecutor, testified on day six of the inquest that many prosecutors did not have access to Victoria Police’s vexed database, the Law Enforcement Assistance Program, more often known as LEAP. As a result, he was not aware that Greg Anderson had been charged with possession of child pornography when Treverton was involved in intervention order applications. “I find this curious,” state coroner Ian Gray said. Treverton suspected the policy was a symptom of the “need to know” but he couldn’t say definitively. Gray didn’t seem satisfied.

Then there is LEAP itself. It has been recognised, for a decade, by police and parliamentary inquiries, as archaic. It is still used. A contract to replace the software a few years ago was unfulfilled. Logistics, it seems, knows no greater pain than the wholesale replacement of IT systems in complicated organisations. It was because of the system’s flaws that officers attending Anderson’s residence just a fortnight before Luke’s death didn’t realise arrest warrants were issued against him. They left after giving him a warning.

Then there are less formal inadequacies of knowledge – the gaps and contradictions that flow from self-doubt or inexperience or bum advice, or any other measure of our fallibility.

Detective Charteris spoke extensively with Luke Batty at his home after Luke revealed to Rosie that his father had shown him a knife in the car one day and said, “This could end it all.”

Detective Charteris is a 40-year veteran and recipient of the Australian Police Medal. But this week you wouldn’t have known it. She spoke softly, haltingly. She nervously adjusted her long red hair, sipped meekly from her glass of water. At one point, Gray politely asked her to speak up. She had closed the file on Luke. She had thought it safe for Luke. She was haunted. She was also a woman who had given most of her 40 years of service to investigating sexual assault and child abuse, and in Luke’s case had consulted repeatedly with her counterpart at the Department of Human Services.

Charteris’s testimony was made harrowing as counsel sought to extract the “mood and manner” of Luke from her memory. The mood and manner were of tender love for his father. At one point, Rosie left the courtroom for 15 minutes. When she returned, her legal counsel left his seat beneath the judge and sat on the floor beside her. He stayed there until the adjournment.

Charteris recalled that Luke’s interpretation of that moment in the car changed over time – but the shifts weren’t the product of dissembling or coercion from Anderson. She believed him. She found Luke to be “bright, reflective and open”. Credible.

Luke told his mother about the incident months after it happened. It hadn’t been so at the time, but suddenly it frightened him. He began wondering if his father could kill him. But come the time of the meeting with Charteris and a child protection officer, his interpretation had shifted again. “He told me that he had put a slant on the incident because of a scary movie,” Charteris said. Luke now attributed his fear of his father to watching A Nightmare on Elm Street. There was no way his father would ever hurt him, he thought. He had got worked up over nothing.

When Luke told the detective that he was unafraid and that his safety hadn’t been implicated in the phrase “this could end it all”, Rosie interjected. She believed her son had been threatened, and told Charteris as much. Luke passionately defended his father. “Luke talked about the good and bad of Mr Anderson,” Charteris said. “He spoke of loving his father to death, but being embarrassed by him also.”

It was the recollection of her son’s warm and articulate faith in his father that prompted Rosie to leave the courtroom, and her legal counsel to crouch beside her when she returned. Retrospectively, it’s rancid. You can spend a long time there.

In this system of one – an 11-year-old’s mind – there were revisions and renunciations. Of course there were. And then police and protection officers were required to interpret the interpretations, adding their findings to the fraught mosaic. Charteris closed the file, believing Luke’s assurances and in the protective powers of the intervention order.

A large job of this inquest is to determine which examples of imperfect knowledge are forgivable, and which aren’t. That’s the official inquest, of course. There will be many private ones, too. Charteris eventually broke. “I wake up every morning and think of Luke and his mother. And every night. I’m very sorry, Rosie.”

Bearing witness

A friend of mine collapsed last year. A rare virus had insinuated itself into her brain – a mind I’d seen work so beautifully, so productively. She was 30. We camped in the ICU for days, praying with her family, squeezing each other’s hands. We took strategic cigarette breaks out the front where scab-flecked addicts and other trauma zombies unhesitatingly broke the “no smoking” rule.

The machine was turned off after three days. I was allowed to say goodbye before it was. She looked peaceful, untouched, the damage hidden. She wore a bright yellow cardigan. I stroked her hand, kissed her forehead. I whispered my love and a farewell into her unhearing ear. I wept, trembled, left. When I emerged back into the waiting area, my friends shared the same self-consciousness I had when sitting out there watching someone return from their goodbye: whether to make eye contact in solidarity, or to leave my ashen face unglimpsed, so preserving my dignity? I kept walking to the bathroom. No one followed. We intuitively knew when to leave someone alone.

We grieved in different ways. We still do. At the time, those who could would riff amusingly for those grateful for distraction. Those who required silence received it. I discovered selfishness in my unspoken plans to commemorate my friend. I quickly realised she would have hated them; that I had conceived them to correct my helplessness. They were for me, not her. I shelved them.

I worried about a good friend, the deceased’s partner. He had already lost family. His nausea was incomprehensible, irreversible. I noticed how its gravity tugged at us. “I’m not afraid of your grief, mate,” I told him. “I’m not intimidated by it, and so I’m not going to encourage you to pretend it’s not there for us. It’s natural. I’ll bear witness to it.”

Rosie Batty is asking us to bear witness. She doesn’t want us to be intimidated by her pain, but nor will she edit it. “People won’t allow you to be angry,” she told me, “because it makes them feel uncomfortable. We have to act ‘normal’.”

Some of us have responded by blaming her, or questioning her motives, or wrapping our responses in incredulity because she upset our expectations of grief. These responses are mean and narrow. They’re unchastened by the lesson of Lindy Chamberlain, when we informally indicted a grieving mother because we didn’t like the form of the grief. “I thought about her a lot,” Rosie told me the first time we met. “They put her through hell. If people had treated me like that you’d probably get the same fucking anger from me. They weren’t treating her with compassion and belief. It was hideous.”

Rosie is asking us to think about much more than her – or even Luke. She’s asking us to think of molested women and children everywhere; of chronically underfunded shelters; of a court system choked with intervention orders. She’s asking us to unwrap messy knots of imperfect systems and cultural expectations. This inquest is following her some way up that path. She is asking us to view her not as an exotic creature, but one who has much more in common with us than we think. The first night she appeared on our television screens, she voiced what will become an iconic statement: “I want to tell everybody that family violence happens to everybody, no matter how nice your house is, how intelligent you are. It happens to anyone and everyone.”

Amid her spasms of grief, Rosie Batty is powerfully expressing herself. She hasn’t “found” her voice. It was always there. But she has a microphone now. A terrible microphone, but she uses it well.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 1, 2014 as "Rosie Batty’s voice". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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