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As a screenwriter and director who worked on TV dramas, the author was used to teasing out clever plot lines in order to create suspense. That was until a real-life crime made him reassess the tricks of his trade. By Anthony Mullins.

Knowing Allison Baden-Clay

The woman had been missing for six days. Her husband said that the night before she disappeared he’d left her watching The Footy Show and gone to bed. When he woke the next morning she wasn’t home. He assumed she’d gone on one of her regular walks around their neighbourhood in the affluent Brisbane suburb of Brookfield. But she didn’t return. He called the police. A search was now under way but, almost a week later, there was still no sign of her.

These were the only details I knew at the time. They were gleaned from the fragments of conversations I had overheard around the Brisbane TV production company where I worked. I was a writer/director for the company and we were busy on various projects, one of which was a TV drama called Secrets & Lies. The story was still being worked out – or “broken”, as screenwriters like to say – and was about an everyday man accused of the murder of a child. We were deep in discussions about the plot, the characters and how the mystery was going to play out. 

But the story of the missing woman kept seeping in from the periphery. It was being discussed on the streets, at the ferry stop, in the supermarket. As each day went by, the unknown fate of the woman became the city’s obsession and took on a looming inevitability that filled everyone with dread. Despite its omnipresence, I had somehow missed a crucial detail about the story and the woman at the centre of it.

I knew her. 

Driving home one afternoon, I got a call from an old schoolfriend, Anne. I missed the call but pulled over to pick up the voicemail. Anne’s tone was unexpectedly melancholic. “I just wanted to see how you were,” she said. “I saw Allison’s picture and my heart sank. It’s devastating.” Despite all the cues, I sat there for a moment and thought, “Allison?” Then it hit me. The woman in the news, in every paper, that we’d been talking about for the past week in the office, was an old friend of mine. I got home and for the first time clicked on an article about the missing woman. 

Her name now, I learned, was Allison Baden-Clay, but the photograph that accompanied the article confirmed this was the person I knew as Allison Dickie. Allison and I dated a few times more than 20 years ago. We played hot and cold with each other for a few months and then she took a job on Heron Island and I never saw her again. But Allison was the type of person who, once known, stays with you – she was generous, playful, had an infectious, husky laugh and captivating green eyes. 

I had often thought of Allison since, hoping I might see her again and get the opportunity to apologise in case
I had ever, as I suspected, been a complete dick when we knew each other. And now here was her face. After not seeing her for more than two decades, Allison’s green eyes were looking out at me from what felt like every newsstand, TV screen and browser page in the country. And it was all just very, very sad.

The next day, still rattled by the experience, I found it hard to engage with the work we were doing on our TV show. It seemed suddenly grotesque as we plotted various ways for the backstory to plausibly lead to the murder of a child. And the longer it took to locate Allison, the more the public, accompanied by the national media, started speculating about what could have happened to her. 

It was as if they were brainstorming on a whiteboard in a writers’ room. All the possibilities were there – accident, abduction, abscondence, suicide and, of course, murder, the great staple of dramatic fiction. But for Allison’s friends and family, particularly her three young daughters, this story was brutally real – every day, every hour, every minute.

Crime scene       

Allison’s body was found under a bridge by a quiet creek on the outskirts of Brisbane. Ten days had passed since she had disappeared and the advanced decomposition of her body meant there was no obvious sign of how she died. Still, the police immediately treated the scene as a homicide. It was a scenario Allison’s family and friends must have contemplated for the past 10 days but prayed they would never have to face. The bleak actuality of the scene under that bridge made the cheap dramatics of TV crime look morbidly demented, a contorted reality completely dissociated from the bald anguish Allison’s family were surely now experiencing. I had felt a breath of its chill when I answered my phone a few days earlier, but it was nothing like the wasteland in which they were now lost. 

Over the next few weeks and months, details of the case unfolded and almost every convention of the classic murder plot worked its way into a story the media and public were tracking with unprecedented urgency – a beauty queen; an outwardly successful couple; a troubled marriage; secret mistresses; financial strife; psychological torment; personal diaries; and, most crucially in terms of the unfolding drama, mysterious scratches on the face of Allison’s husband, Gerard Baden-Clay. He said they were from a blunt razor but public and media opinion quickly interpreted them as the grazes of desperate fingernails.

I remember a colleague gleefully speculating that “the hubby done it”. At the time I said I hoped he didn’t have anything to do with it; Allison’s daughters would end up losing both their mother and father if it were true. I got the distinct feeling people thought I was being a bit of a killjoy, which was probably right. I was finding the whole media frenzy surrounding the case increasingly depressing. Every night, it seemed, there was a new shock revelation, a new cliffhanger or an unexpected twist that enthralled the nation. Just as my colleague predicted, Gerard was identified by police as the prime suspect and charged. This wasn’t fiction. It was something much more real and painful. It was a family’s truth. It was their reality.

Exploring motivations

As writers, we are constantly pushed, particularly in TV crime shows, to make character motivations clear and explicit. We are asked to not just reveal “whodunit”, but also “why”. Producers want this, broadcasters want it, audiences want it and, in most cases, writers are happy to provide it. 

It’s quite a difficult literary feat to introduce a character in a few brief minutes of screen time and breathe a life into them that is credible enough for the audience to find them “believable”. But when it comes to exploring the deeper motivations for acts such as murder, TV and film often fall back on cliché and formula – revenge, jealousy, financial gain, adultery and, maybe, the occasional accident. With these explanations we neatly tie up the story: the murderer is caught, their motivations are clearly and logically explained in a way that puts them in a box that forever separates them from our families, our front lawn and, most importantly, us. 

Gerard Baden-Clay was convicted of Allison’s murder last month. The case was seen as largely circumstantial but the lacerations to his face were crucial. The prosecution characterised them as Allison’s dying “mark on him”. 

I respect the jury’s decision. I was not there during the case, I did not sit through the weeks of evidence and barely followed it in the paper, such was the frenzy of speculation at every court utterance provided by numerous live Twitter feeds. What I struggled to bear was how eagerly the private details of Allison and Gerard’s troubled marriage were fitted to some of the more prefabricated conventions of TV drama, all in an effort to turn their lives into a form of entertainment that could be teased out in an endless series of cliffhangers and shock revelations. Coupled with this was a disturbing enthusiasm on behalf of the media and the general public to do the job of the police and, ultimately, the jury – to “connect the dots” day after day in a self-righteous effort to “get their man”; to treat this like a piece of titillating television, rather than the appalling family tragedy it was. 

As a TV writer, perhaps I am as culpable for this sort of armchair detective work as anyone. Maybe more so. Real life is not always simple. It is not always clear. And it cannot always be contained in a box labelled “This is why”. The night before Allison disappeared, Gerard Baden-Clay was a very ordinary, everyday man. Even though no one guessed at the pain and anguish that lay beneath the public exterior of their marriage, the Baden-Clays were probably very similar to countless other couples who one day find themselves suffocating under the weight of a loveless marriage. How did he go from something so ordinary one minute to something so monstrous the next? Surely it can’t be captured in an explanation as trite as he did it “for her insurance” or “the other woman”. 

Try as we might, the landscape of another person’s mind may as well be another planet for all we can ever really know about it. What was going through Gerard Baden-Clay’s mind when he googled the term “taking the fifth” in the days leading up to Allison’s disappearance? Was he, too, being influenced by the conventions of TV crime? The fact is we may never know what he was thinking, nor exactly what happened between Allison and Gerard the night before he reported her missing. Or rather, at least, we should pray we never know anything like it.

Stories where events are left uncertain or unknowable are rarely depicted in mass media such as film or television. “Who wants to watch that?” would always be the first question from a potential broadcaster. The recent English drama, Southcliffe, is one exception. Its unflinching look at a small town suffering the aftermath of a mass shooting does not provide easy answers, but the torment captured by it feels a lot closer to what we writers might casually refer to as “the truth”. 

Helen Garner’s latest book, This House of Grief, is also a more complex portrait of guilt that refuses the usual descriptors. The story follows the trial of Robert Farquharson, a father accused of deliberately driving his car into a dam and drowning his three sons in 2005. 

Despite Farquharson’s media portrayal as a spiteful monster, Garner sees a man who is clearly traumatised and grieving the loss of his sons, regardless of the ongoing mystery surrounding what really happened. In a recent interview, Garner described her interest in trauma and grief. “What I’d like to think I do is to take their trauma into the middle of me and contemplate it and brood over it in some useful way that’s not just a lot of screaming and shouting about evil,” she said. Of course not all writers, especially TV writers, can afford the six years of contemplation Garner was able to devote to the Farquharson case. Nor can all stories be as grim as This House of Grief or Southcliffe. We wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. 

But maybe, maybe, for a change, some of our stories, such as these fine examples, could be just a little less sure of themselves.

Insisting on compact answers to acts of murder and violence is a defence mechanism. We all do it. When Allison’s husband, Gerard, became the prime suspect, the thought was just too horrible for me to contemplate. Imagining some random, crazed attacker seemed more bearable than believing Allison was killed by someone who was once her most trusted friend. This was the story I wanted. 

It is common for people to do this sort of thing; to try to separate the violence from everyday life, to see the perpetrators as forever different, not one of us. This is comforting. It’s reassuring. Unfortunately, it’s not true. Ordinary people do terrible, inexplicable things to each other all the time. The courts have decided that Gerard Baden-Clay is one example, although he is appealing against the decision. Open any paper, on any day, and you’ll find more. They’re everywhere and they’re not that different from us. They are our neighbours, friends, colleagues and often, statistically, our immediate family. As criminologist Terry Goldsworthy reported recently in relation to the Baden-Clay case, two-thirds of domestic homicides are committed by an intimate partner. 

True fictions

TV shows can trick us into thinking we can “solve” crimes – we have the evidence, we follow the leads, the strange coincidences and pocket litter of evidence, and we get our man. They can make us feel like we can transfer our proven skills of deduction to the real world, where we can reveal the murderer and expose their true motives. We can’t. 

TV crime shows invariably portray a confected illusion of detective work that, despite the efforts of intelligent, hardworking and well-meaning writers and directors, bears only a passing resemblance to reality. These shows can also make us feel as though there is always a neat, tie-it-up-in-a-bow reason for why people do terrible things that destroy the lives of everyone they ever cared for. It’s rarely neat and, sometimes, it makes no sense at all. 

What gets lost in everyone’s frenzy – either as the host of a current affairs show, or as the loudest voice in the coffee queue – to “solve” real world cases such as Allison’s is that these are not characters and this is not fiction. In this case, three young girls have lost their mother and, now, their father. 

That’s not entertainment. It’s wrenching tragedy. And the worst thing we can do in the face of that sort of pain is kid ourselves that we know the answers, or what someone’s secret motivation is, what the big “ah-ha!” moment will be. Because sometimes we need to admit that the truest thing we can say is that from where most of us stand, always on the outside, we can never really comprehend the truth of these tragedies.

Perhaps instead of saying anything, we should simply look on in solemn, sympathetic silence and hold those dear to us a little closer.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 30, 2014 as "Under the bridge". Subscribe here.

Anthony Mullins
is a BAFTA and AWGIE award-winning screenwriter.