On a cool Friday night in downtown Brisbane, people gathered to hear a famous author speak. Predominantly middle-aged and middle class, the stylishly attired crowd talked amongst themselves about their favourite books and rushed forward when the doors opened, eager to sit near the front. They listened closely as the author spoke – laughing, sighing, gasping in shock. And when she finished, they queued and asked her to sign the inside cover of her latest work.
This was my first time at a Writers Festival and the whole thing made me deeply uncomfortable. Why? Because the author was Helen Garner and the book was This House of Grief, the true story of a man convicted of killing his three children by driving his car into a dam.
To be clear, I admire Garner. As a writer she has an amazing ability to capture the complexities and discomfort of life’s darkest moments. But there was something voyeuristic about the crowd that came to hear her speak. This was their Friday night entertainment. They had dinner reservations afterwards. They wanted an autographed copy of the book!
As I caught the train home, I wondered what it was about homicides, suicides, and other tragic events that brought out the voyeur in people. What makes people trawl newspapers and websites looking for the ‘exclusive interview’ with the grieving widow? What makes them watch the ‘dramatic reenactment’ on prime time television? How are they able to set aside the fact that these are real people and put a bookmark in when it’s time to pick the kids up?
But perhaps I judge too harshly. Perhaps it isn’t voyeurism, but simply a desire to understand the darker parts of human nature. Perhaps, because we are often shielded from the darkness, people struggle to know how to express their interest or concern appropriately. Perhaps a Writers Festival is a safe space to discuss the issues with like-minded people. And yet, the autographs…
For my part, I was interested in Garner’s experience as a researcher and writer, and was hoping to find a connection with someone who’d been where I was. I had recently finished analysing data for a study of homicidal ideation, a follow-up to earlier research on suicide risk in family carers. When I’d listened to the recordings of the research interviews, I’d had to wash dishes, knit, or draw. The repetitive, physical tasks kept my body occupied while my mind swam in the tragedy. Without them, the flight-or-fight response would have kicked in and I’d have turned off the tapes. Unlike the voyeurs at the Writers Festival, I would have given anything to look away from the car crash.
When I bought my copy of This House of Grief, the bookseller made a point of telling me how traumatising I would find it; as if being traumatised was a badge of honour. When I told her I did trauma for a living, she clicked her tongue and moved on to the next customer. It was as if she’d invited me to an S&M club and when I told her I was the warden of a detention centre, I was the one who’d crossed the line. I wondered if what the voyeurs want is just enough tragedy to be titillated. Just enough to get a whiff of the humanity, but not so much that they have to get their hands dirty. They want grief and trauma, but only if it doesn’t pull them too far out of their comfort zone. And perhaps this is why Garner’s books sell – because she’s already done the hard work.
But here’s the thing – I didn’t find This House of Grief traumatic. I just found it depressingly familiar. For those of us who work in this space – researchers, doctors, lawyers, journalists, social workers – the darkest moments are all too common. We see them daily. They aren’t titillating anecdotes to tell at the next dinner party, they are big issues that we will spend our careers trying to address. And when the voyeurs have moved on to the next book, the next Writers Festival, the next ‘award-winning two part series’, we will still be here. Not watching from a safe distance, with cocktail in hand, or reading on the couch with a cup of tea and a Kit Kat, but working in the trenches to support people and shine a light on the darkness.