This House of Grief
by Helen Garner
Published August, 2014
Almost two decades have passed since Helen Garner published The First Stone (1995), her controversial account of a sexual harassment case at Melbourne University’s Ormond College. Revisiting the book, even from this relatively safe distance, one can still appreciate why it caused such an uproar. It is spiked with incendiary and judgemental language. Garner writes of a generation of younger feminists ‘consumed by rage and fear’. They have an ‘unmodulated vision of the human things we’ – that is, Garner’s generation of feminists – ‘have learned to respect.’ She condemns the ‘cold-faced, punitive girls’ who adopt a ‘certain kind of modern feminism: priggish, disingenuous, unforgiving’. They are ‘puritan feminists’, ‘saboteurs’, ‘ideologues’, ‘thought police’. They display a ‘disproportionate ferocity’. When someone tells a story about the Prime Minister condescendingly touching a woman’s forearm during conversation and someone else exclaims ‘How sexist!’, Garner feels ‘a bomb of fury and disgust go off inside my head’.
One of the things that makes The First Stone an edgy book is that these outbursts of intemperate rhetoric do not simply express Garner’s frustration at the stonewalling and hostility she encounters as she tries to investigate the incident; they also have a reflexive quality. They expose the rawness of her sentiments, the fact that the case has touched a nerve. Throughout the book, she is engaged in an argument with herself, prompted by her sense that she is ‘on the verge of finding out things that would cause an upheaval in my whole belief system’ and that ‘my feminism and my ethics were speeding towards a head-on smash’. The source of this personal crisis is something she is explicit about: the instinctiveness of her initial reaction. When she first reads about the story in the newspaper, before she has investigated anything, her immediate response is to feel that the legal proceedings are an overreaction, that surely there was no need to press charges against a middle-aged duffer who had gotten tipsy at a college function and made a fool of himself over two beautiful young women.
This instinctive rush to judgement leads to the tactical blunder Garner makes at the outset: she sends the accused man a sympathetic letter. When news of this filters through to the two women, they conclude that Garner’s account will take his side and refuse to co-operate with her. Their refusal to speak comes to define the book. Indeed, it is part of the book’s drama that it is so visibly hobbled. Garner slips into the role of gumshoe – someone who has intuited that something is ‘terribly wrong’, who is following leads, searching for answers, encountering resistance at every turn. The underlying generic affinity contributes to the book’s sense of urgency, only to make its failure overt. Denied the opportunity to speak to the younger women, Garner cannot arrive at any satisfactory conclusion. She is unable to answer the question she sets herself – ‘What sort of feminists are these?’ – which means she is also unable to answer the troubling question that shadows her investigations: What sort of feminist am I?
There were two distinct but related aspects of the controversy generated by The First Stone. The book inevitably, and to some extent explicitly, raised complicated issues of journalistic practice, which were given an additional charge by the emotions roused on all side, the highly personalised manner in which Garner framed and interpreted the case, and the fact that she was for legal reasons obliged to conceal the identities of the book’s main actors. But much of the controversy was political in a more or less straightforward sense, and in a way that was coloured by its historical context. Garner’s earlier work was a major contribution to the rise of a new Australian feminist literature in the 1970s and 1980s. The First Stone appeared at the tail end of the Hawke-Keating years, just as the backlash against the social agendas of those governments was gathering force. Conservative commentators were busy working themselves into a lather about ‘political correctness’. For Garner to be damning younger feminists as ideologues and thought police seemed to align her a little too neatly with forces of reaction that have never been sympathetic to the cause of women’s liberation. Because politics, at its most elemental and crude, is not only oppositional but tribal in nature – that is, it is not simply a matter of conviction but of identity – there are few things as guaranteed to generate a heated response than the perception that someone is switching sides.
Garner’s powers of observation and reflection are too finely attuned for her work to belong to a ‘side’ in any simplistic sense. But whatever shift in attitude The First Stone may or may not have represented, it is now clear that it was a turning point in her writing life, which now divides into distinct halves: the first dominated by fiction, the second by non-fiction. Since The First Stone, she has published two collections of journalism – True Stories (1996) and The Feel of Steel (2001) – and two book-length considerations of criminal cases – Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004) and This House of Grief – with only the slender novel The Spare Room (2008) to remind us of her extraordinary abilities as a fiction writer.
There is an affinity between Garner’s fiction and her non-fiction in that, regardless of genre, she always brings to her task a novelistic intelligence – which is to say, she is seeking, quite explicitly, to understand events not simply in a narrowly rationalistic sense but in an empathetic way. She is interested in the intricacies of personality and psychology. Her work is drawn to the often fraught dynamics of interpersonal relationships and what she describes in This House of Grief as those ‘excruciating realms of human behaviour, where reason fights to gain a purchase, and everyone feels entitled to an opinion’. Where her writing touches on political or ethical issues, they are invariably interpreted in this light, and in an important sense subordinated to the more intimate concerns of her work.
This is one of the things that makes her writing so compelling, but it is also what gets her into trouble. For Garner does not simply write about complicated and sensitive legal cases in a subjective manner; she also interleaves her accounts with moments of radical self-exposure, in which she voices confusions and doubts and admits to her own regressive impulses, and treats these personal revelations as a measure of her comprehension (or lack thereof). Her personal investment in what she is witnessing is constantly forcing its way to the surface, compromising her notional role as a disinterested reporter. Early in The First Stone, Garner is twice ticked off by supporters of the two women, who inform her tartly that the case is not being pursued for the benefit of her ‘finer feelings’. But Garner’s ‘finer feelings’ are precisely what The First Stone ends up being about, despite her no doubt genuine insistence that she is striving to be open-minded. This inbent quality is, in part, a consequence of the women’s overmastering silence, which turns her outwardly directed enquiries back in on themselves, but it is also a consequence of the confessional method Garner uses throughout her non-fiction, which muddies the distinction between observing events and intervening in them, between grasping their import in an intellectual or imaginative sense and projecting her feelings and anxieties onto them.
It is a reflection of Garner’s preoccupations that the legal cases examined in her three major non-fiction works are all exemplary tabloid fodder. They all have something sensational or horrifying about them, something that provokes an immediate response. For Garner, this is the source of their fascination. The riveting transcript of Anu Singh’s emergency call that begins Joe Cinque’s Consolation is revealed several pages later to have been published in the Daily Telegraph, its appalling drama cited as the reason Garner was drawn to the case:
It was the shrill blast of this dialogue that broke through my indifference and galvanised me: the killer’s voice, pleading, dodging, feinting; the dispatcher’s desperate striving for command; and the jolting flashes of Joe Cinque’s death throes – the close presence, behind the screaming, of a young man’s body in extremis – his limbs, his mouth, his teeth, his heart.
This House of Grief also begins with a moment of galvanising horror. It opens with a bare bones version of the story, four short paragraphs long, recounted in the hazy tones of a sad fairy tale: ‘Once there was a hard-working bloke who lived in a small Victorian country town …’ Garner informs us that this man – this ‘discarded husband’ whose ex-wife, the mother of his three sons, now lived with another man – was driving with his children near Winchelsea on Father’s Day 2005 when his car swerved off the road and plunged into a dam. He survived, but the children drowned. The perspective then shifts to give us a breathless description of Garner seeing the report on the television news:
Night. Low foliage. Water, misty and black. Blurred lights, a chopper. Men in hi-vis and helmets. Something very bad here. Something frightful.
Oh Lord, let this be an accident.
The form of that short prayer betrays her immediate suspicion. Garner’s faint hope, which she clings to throughout This House of Grief, is that the incident is not what it seems; she hopes that the man, Robert Farquharson, who appears merely ‘ordinary’, did not murder his own children as a malicious act of retribution. Her terrible feeling is that he probably did.
Like The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation before it, This House of Grief proceeds from Garner’s first instinctive response. All three books are grounded in the idea that to feel something is a kind of fact. All wonder about the meaning and the status of that subjective fact. In this sense, they might be read as essays that question the concept of rationality. Again and again, Garner enacts her inability to arrive at a dispassionate and thus ‘logical’ understanding of the cases she is examining. Those ineradicable human reactions – emotions, instinct, sympathy – that are consigned to the realm of irrationality, and which are falsely but not coincidentally stereotyped as ‘feminine’ qualities, are not only acknowledged as complicating factors and phenomena of interest in their own right, but granted their priority, recognised as fundamental in a way that mere analytical thought is not.
This is the source of Garner’s somewhat ambiguous and occasionally problematic relationship with the tabloidish quality of her subjects. She co-opts the emotional pull, the primal fascination, but attempts to redirect our attention. Tabloids appeal to and reinforce their readers’ prejudices in order to impose a spurious certainty; Garner, who is the antithesis of a hack, is interested in the prejudicial reaction itself, rather than the conclusion it seeks to impose. She starts with the basic fact of her response, with its implicit moral judgement, and then tries to reverse-engineer a more measured and complex understanding – one that nevertheless retains its connection to the instinctive human response that drew her to the subject in the first place.
After Farquharson has been put on trial for murder, Garner observes of Cindy Gambino, the mother of the drowned boys, who has become a public figure for the most wretched of reasons:
She drifted through Woman’s Day and New Idea, dull-eyed and overweight, helplessly acting out her grief. Her interviews were reported in the tabloid language that can reduce the purest human anguish to pulp.
It is part of Garner’s intention in This House of Grief, as she closely follows the progress of Farquharson’s trial and retrial, to respect that pure human anguish, to write about it in a language that acknowledges its profound and ineffable core. Early in the book, there is a scene in which a weeping Cindy Gambino is cross-examined by Farquharson’s defence lawyer, Peter Morrissey SC. In her grief, she is still willing to believe Farquharson’s improbable story that the car crashed because he had a coughing fit and lost consciousness. As Gambino leaves the stand, Garner catches a glimpse of Farquharson:
I caught the full blast of his distress. His face was ravaged, beseeching: his teeth bared, his cheeks streaming.
Outside the court, an unnamed ‘veteran journalist’ who is covering the case – one of a number of pertinent voices in This House of Grief to intrude into the author’s subjective musings – notices that Garner has been crying and snaps: ‘I was at the funeral’. The jolt – and Garner is always alert to shifts in tone, whether jarring or subtle – prompts this typically Garner-esque passage, which blends reflection and admission in a way that articulates the friction between the pathos of the experience and the cooler understanding afforded by hindsight:
Years later, when we befriended each other, I would see that she had been forcing me back to the point, but now she made me feel like a sentimental amateur. I was afraid of her, and it shocked me that she should not hold her fire, even for a moment, in the face of what we had just witnessed: two broken people grieving together for their lost children, in an abyss of suffering where notions of guilt and innocence have no purchase.
That lack of purchase is the reason Garner is far better at asking questions than she is at answering them. Her non-fiction sets itself up to fail, in the sense that what interests her is by definition ungraspable on an intellectual level and unresolvable on a dramatic level. Like her earlier non-fiction books, This House of Grief treads an endless circle, acting out the dumb and intractable truth that the emotions are not skilled workers. This generates the peculiar tension in her work, that characteristic contemplative space in which Garner subjects her instincts and feelings to the scrutinising, concretising, rationalising powers of her phenomenally lucid prose, only to find that they provide no real traction and the more her wheels spin, the deeper she sinks. This inability to move beyond her initial reactions is one of the defining features of her non-fiction, and the reason why her personal reactions sometimes seem to flirt with reaction, in the political sense of the word. Her initial position in The First Stone ends up being more or less her final position. When she first sees pictures of the three people at the centre of the case in Joe Cinque’s Consolation, she observes:
Anu Singh raised my girl hackles in a bristle. Joe Cinque provoked a blur of warmth. Madhavi Rao filled me with a wary, puzzled curiosity. These were my instinctive responses, and over the ensuing years, as I picked my path through this terrible story, they remained remarkably stable.
Near the beginning of This House of Grief, Garner asks: ‘Since when has loving someone meant you would never want to kill them?’ The question is genuine, but note the form: it is also rhetorical.
This House of Grief, like Joe Cinque’s Consolation, is procedural in its focus, the slow grinding progress of Farquharson’s two court cases providing the book with its narrative spine. But the great edifice of the legal system is also depicted in these two books as a counterpoint to the fluidity and unresolvability of Garner’s intimate concerns: an imposing and often puzzling symbol of sober rationality and order. Its procedures strive to be everything her own methods are not: formal, methodical, technical, dispassionate. A trial aims to arrive at an actionable truth; it must deliver a final judgement. ‘Naked sympathy is just as inappropriate as naked prejudice,’ cautions Justice Cummings, the presiding judge at Farquharson’s first trial. ‘Speculation of any kind was anathema,’ we are reminded as the retrial is getting underway. When the guilty verdict in the first trial is announced, Garner cites a Latin motto: ‘Dura lex sed lex. The law is hard, but it is the law.’
But a trial is also a public spectacle. To observe a trial is to engage in a kind of socially acceptable voyeurism, and this is how Garner – ‘a freelance journalist and curious citizen’ – approaches her task. She positions herself as theatre critic to the courtroom’s drama, recording its clashing arguments alongside the conflicting responses it generates in her. And she is a brilliant critic: a shrewd observer of people, alert to subtext, always aware that she is witnessing a fragment of a larger human drama that is being attenuated by the formality of proceedings. She is particularly good at rolling up her impression of a person’s character in a physical description – Crown Prosecutor Jeremy Rapke QC is memorably sketched as ‘a lean, contained-looking man, with a clipped grey beard and a mouth that cut across his face at a severe slant, like that of someone who spent his days listening to bullshit’ – and she is attuned to nuances of language: the way Anu Singh’s defence lawyer uses passive sentences to avoid attributing responsibility, for example. No less importantly, Garner registers human aspects of the proceedings that would otherwise go unrecorded: body language, glances exchanged, faces pulled, the mood inside the courtroom.
‘Court watchers seek drama,’ Garner observes in Joe Cinque’s Consolation. ‘It is easier to understand than the law’s intricacies.’ And the passage that follows illustrates the point. Lex Lasry QC rises to argue that Madhavi Rao, despite her closeness to the events surrounding Joe Cinque’s death, should have her charges dismissed because she had no legal duty of care towards the victim. Garner describes this as a moment of high emotion. As Lasry seeks to absolve Rao, a ‘wave of incredulity and revulsion [washes] through the gallery’. The unfolding of his legal argument is described in tandem with Garner’s appalled reaction. She finds his line of reasoning ‘breathtaking in its gall’. It makes her head spin. She shivers and sweats. As she tries to argue in her head with what she is hearing, her prose breaks down into a series of indignant exclamations and rhetorical questions. When Lasry goes on to propose that Anu Singh should be considered Cinque’s ‘primary carer’, Garner writes: ‘My brain sizzled in my skull.’ She is left ‘nauseated from the shock of the arguments’.
There is great drama here, but it is worth taking note of where, exactly, it is occurring. Lasry is entirely unperturbed. He is a lawyer arguing a point of law in a court of law for the benefit of the person he represents – that is, he is doing his job, performing his designated function as a cog in the legal system’s vast machinery. And his argument is technical:
With the point of his blade Lasry peeled ethics away from the law. Whatever moral duty might have been on a person in her circumstances, no legal duty was created by those circumstances – unless some responsibility had been assumed by Madhavo Rao. Anyway, said Lasry, ‘Duty of care and duty to act are not the same thing.’
Aren’t they? I had no idea. I had never thought about these things before.
Now, there’s an admission. There can often seem to be an element of wilful naivety in Garner’s apparent reluctance to grasp the rationale behind the legal processes she is observing. ‘Could anyone really believe in such a mechanistic model of human behaviour?’ she asks of Lasry – a rhetorical question that makes a categorical error, since what he believes is beside the point. He is not required to be a behavioural psychologist or a moral philosopher. The naive question is generated by the fact that the drama we are witnessing is not the drama of the proceedings themselves, but the drama of Garner’s affronted response, in which her violent intellectual, emotional and physical reactions are conflated in such a way as to become all but indistinguishable.
Garner often depicts the methodical workings of the law as a kind of standing rebuke to her intuitive understanding. In This House of Grief, as the first trial is about to reach its conclusion, she speaks to a barrister friend – another of the many voices in that book to chide her for her naivety, sentimentality or impracticality. He asks for her verdict. Garner knows that the evidence leans heavily towards guilt, but she is clinging to the possibility that there may still be a sliver of doubt. ‘What kind of answer’s that, woman?’ he retorts (again, it is worth noting the gendering of her indecisiveness). ‘This is real life. Hard decisions have to be made.’ Afterwards, she wonders:
Why did lawyers always make me feel so stupid? I wanted to ask him about gut feeling. I knew he would say it had no place in court. But what was it? Wasn’t it really a kind of semi-conscious reasoning, shaped by many weeks of evidence? A lightning-fast, instinctual matching up of the phenomenon in question against every similar one you had ever come across, in all your life’s dealings with other people?
On one level, Garner is being completely and obviously wrong-headed in all of this. And on one level, she knows it. As Lasry rolls out his legalistic argument in Joe Cinque’s Consolation, she begins to feel ‘a fool for having been so upset’. Near the end of This House of Grief, she records another barrister’s response when asked if his client is innocent: ‘It’s none of my concern.’
But on another level, there is a sense in which Garner’s wider interests demand that a certain lack of understanding be preserved in order to create her books’ characteristic open-ended contemplative space. Her foregrounding of the tumultuous inner-conflict between her ‘female’ intuition and the ‘male’ rationalism of the legal system is not so much a reinforcing of the gendered polarity (though it does do this, to some extent), but an attempt to demonstrate that the boundary between these notionally male and female attributes is highly unstable and porous. Garner is always conscious of the ways in which men and women come to inhabit or are coerced into stereotypical roles, the many ways in which social and institutional forces combine to create assumptions and reinforce the power imbalance, and thus the conflict, between the sexes. But the encompassing epistemological point she returns us to again and again is that the process of rational understanding, defined as a purging of the intellect of all the distorting and prejudicial influences of the emotions and desires, is tainted by elements of irrationality.
Towards the end of This House of Grief, Garner claims to have seen Sidney Lumet’s classic film Twelve Angry Men (1957) ‘about a hundred times’. The significance of this remark is perhaps less straightforward than it first appears. It signals Garner’s obvious enough fascination with the legal system, her sense of its moral and emotional drama. But it also indicates the ambiguity of her own stance and her interest in the way that the messily human elements the law seeks to exclude invariably creep back into the process. This idea is embodied in the jury – laypeople who have been asked to participate in a highly technical process governed by counterintuitive rules of evidence and to arrive at a firm decision. Throughout the two trials, Garner not only keeps a close eye on the reactions of the jurors, she comes to identify with them, viewing them as the representatives of her concern with the difficult question of how one judges: ‘I wanted to think like a juror, to wait for all the evidence, to hold myself in a state where I could still be persuaded by argument.’ The ideal, of course, is that the jurors will come to their decision in a rational way, based on evidence and logic; the reality is that they are human beings, whose judgements will be tainted by instinct and prejudice and emotion, no matter how much they strive to be rational. Garner cites Janet Malcolm: ‘Jurors sit there presumably weighing evidence but in actuality they are studying character.’
It is part of the peculiar dynamic of This House of Grief that the man at its centre, for whom Garner feels a shamefaced sympathy ‘as if this response were somehow illegitimate’, is a thoroughly unimpressive person, his dullness weirdly at odds with the monstrosity of his alleged crime. Garner’s boldest themes seem not to adhere to the podgy middle-aged figure pulling faces in the dock. One of the key ideas in This House of Grief is that we are vulnerable when and because we love. Garner thus suggests that love and violence are fatally conjoined, and rejects ‘the sentimental fantasy of love as a condition of simple benevolence, a sunlit region in which we are safe from our destructive urges’. It is, as she points out, a Freudian notion. But Farquharson never seems like a person capable of an adult love, or of embodying such psychological complexity. He comes across as a shallow, needy and emotionally immature man. He doesn’t need tabloids to turn his sentiments into pulp; he does it himself. Each time he tries to express his love for his children, his language devolves into the most dismally empty cliches. When the guilty verdict is read out at his first trial, his exaggerated, affected facial expressions are ‘so inadequate to the gravity of the situation that it hurt to look at him’. Garner observes his formidable sisters, who are unswerving in their support, and without entangling herself too deeply in psychoanalytical speculation develops the impression that he is a man who has been suspended in a state of perpetual childishness by the formative and smothering influence of the powerful women in his life.
The two trials have their twists and turns (and their longueurs), but there is little suspense about their outcomes. The case against Farquharson is compelling from the outset. He sticks doggedly to his story about a coughing fit, which is attributed to a very rare medical condition called ‘cough syncope’. His defence lawyer, Mr Morrissey, labours heroically to elevate this statistically improbable explanation to the status of genuine possibility and launches himself into interminable hairsplitting cross-examinations in the hope of casting doubt on the police evidence – a tactic that a lawyer friend advises Garner is a ‘time-honoured approach, when no feather to fly with’. But Farquharson proves to be his own worst enemy. He is shifty and unconvincing when he is interviewed, and when he takes the stand at his retrial his testimony is so terrible he more or less guarantees his own conviction. As a result of his patent inadequacy as a person, his smallness in every sense, there is hanging over the case the deflating yet puzzling possibility that the most horrible of crimes may have been committed for the pettiest of motives.
When I first read This House of Grief, I thought it was the weakest of Garner’s three landmark non-fiction books. I felt as though it was applying a similar formula to the earlier books, but that some of the vitality of those works was lacking, that Garner was not wrestling with her conscience with quite the same force or conviction, that she was not putting herself on the line in quite the same way, either personally or politically. There are no bombs of fury and disgust, no violent fits of nausea. Nor was I entirely convinced by the murky Freudian proposition that to love someone means that one might also want to kill them, which has an air of sententiousness about it. In the service of this idea, Garner includes a confessional anecdote about losing her temper with her grandson, who only hours before had sweetly crawled into her arms to be cuddled. But she doesn’t kill him. There is no doubt that people can and do lose their temper with those closest to them; there is no doubt that love makes us vulnerable, and that emotionally wounded people are prone to lashing out. Yet I would hazard a guess that there are many people who have never seriously contemplated murdering anyone, even at their most embittered. It may be a semantic point, but when a man is contemplating murder then he has surely invalidated any claim to the ennobling term ‘love’. In any case, no one proposes that Farquharson acted on impulse in a moment of blind rage: he either had an improbable accident or behaved in a calculated manner. (There is another possibility that lurks at the edges of the case, which is that he was also intending to kill himself but lost his nerve, though if this is true it would merely add another layer of cowardice to his reprehensible act.) Without the romantic image of a spurned and suffering lover to mitigate his actions, what we are left with is someone who is so infantile he was willing to kill his own children out of spite. That Farquharson is such a charismaless figure, and the fact that Garner is so smartly disabused of her fantasies of his innocence, contributed to my sense that her sympathies were misplaced and the facts of the case could not bear the burden of the book’s psychological themes.
Then I read it again. I now think This House of Grief is the best of the three. Its real interest does not necessarily rest with the dismal figure of Robert Farquharson, or even with Garner’s musings. She has pushed the story and its major protagonists – Farquharson and Gambino, the legal professionals acting out their assigned roles in the courtroom drama, and of course the members of the two citizen juries with whom she aligns herself – to the point where the interaction between the procedural and the human elements of the case begins to assume an archetypal gravitas. In doing so, she has perfected a kind of negative capability in which she acts a focal point for the book’s themes, which are channelled through her reactions but resonate far beyond them.
Perhaps the best example of Garner’s ability to draw together her themes in an understated but potent way through her sheer power of noticing is a scene late in the book, which is not exactly a climactic moment, but is certainly dramatic and a turning point in the case. During Farquharson’s second trial, Cindy Gambino, who carries with her the incalculable weight of a mother’s grief, is again called on to testify. But now she has changed her mind: she no longer believes Farquharson’s coughing story. Garner’s initial reaction to this turn of events is characteristic. When she first hears the news, she realises, ‘with a thrill of dread, how wild [Gambino] must have become, how terrifying – what havoc she might wreak upon the court’s delicate edifice of reason’. And indeed when Gambino gives her evidence, it is full of ‘the sort of emotional detail that causes judges to scowl and journalists to bend to their notebooks’. Faced with the delicate task of casting doubt upon Gambino’s testimony, Morrissey’s tactic when cross-examining is to create the impression that her change of heart is ‘a deeply “feminine” shift, inspired not by reason but by wifely grievance and the bitter desire to settle a score’.
One can take as a measure of Garner’s mastery in This House of Grief that the dark multivalent ironies of this line reverberate throughout the book. There is, in the first instance, the slightly sinister way in which Morrissey turns the tables, demoting Gambino’s profound grief to the status of mere ‘grievance’, and projecting the killer’s motivation back onto her. The cruelty of the inversion recalls the angry outburst of the ‘veteran reporter’ at the conclusion of first trial:
I was filled with wave after wave of rage. You see this is what these men do. This is the most appalling, savage, cruel revenge a man can take on a woman – to make out it was all her fault.
But no less significant is the fact that in showing how Morrissey entraps Gambino in the stereotype of the emotional and capricious woman, Garner is subtly drawing us back to the apposite and no less ironic point, which is that Gambino has merely come to accept what the evidence suggests. She has passed through that stage of grief in which she was unable to face the truth of something that she perhaps always understood on a deeper level to be the case. She has become more rational, not less.
In The First Stone, there is a passage in which Garner describes the way people react to a photograph of one of the young women in a strapless evening gown, looking ‘as joyful as a goddess, elated by her own careless authority and power’:
The gaze, whether one is male or female, drops like a stone from top to bottom of this photo, then travels slowly up … The sight of this photo administers a jolt to men and women alike. First they laugh, in shock. Then the women sigh as they gaze, and the men make lewd remarks – the kind of lewdness that makes women impatient with them, since its function is to conceal from themselves their deeper response, which is something like awe.
‘Awe’ is an important word for Garner. It appears repeatedly in This House of Grief. Early in the book, she writes of the Supreme Court of Victoria: ‘I could never approach its street entrance without a surge of adrenalin and a secret feeling of awe.’ Inside, she observes the prosecutor, the efficient and incisive Jeremy Rapke QC: ‘He looked like a general in possession of an arsenal packed with weapons so fearsome and so accurate that I contemplated him with awe.’ The juryless appeal hearing after Farquharson’s first trial consists of ‘a blast of argument and analysis, awe-inspiring in its thoroughness’. The feeling is also attributed to others. The 60 Minutes reporter who interviews Cindy Gambino ‘seems awe-struck in the presence of a woman so bereaved’. Only a few pages later, Louise, the teenaged ‘gap-year girl’ who sits beside Garner during the trials and acts throughout the book as another of Garner’s foils, sends an email in which she confesses to her own instinctive (and curiously Garner-esque) emotional reaction and sense of wonder at encountering two participants in the courtroom drama outside that setting:
I saw Justice Cummings having a coffee up in Bourke Street, and Carmen Ross in Degraves Street. I may or may not have violently blushed. I felt a strange rush of guilt for even existing. It was the same awe and fascination I had in court, like they’re very sacred and mysterious people.
This recurring feeling, touched as it is with sublimity, is in each case a response to power. It is a recognition of otherness, a kind of respectful acknowledgement of distance. But as Louise intuits, it also has its element of mystification. Garner courts this kind of irrationality and irresolution at her own risk, just as she often seems to be reiterating certain cultural stereotypes, because she is striving to cultivate a sympathetic, and indeed empathetic, understanding. Near the very end of This House of Grief, she attends a performance by a Gospel Choir. It is a moment of uplifting emotion in a book burdened with human suffering. ‘Atheists and believers swayed in unison, surprised by joy,’ she writes, pinching a phrase from the twentieth century’s most cunning Christian propagandist C. S. Lewis. But the scene is brief and soon enough she is back in court ‘where the Old Testament spirit of retribution still reigned’. The opposition and the religious overtones are explicit; the implication that the battle between the emotions and the intellect is unwinnable. But Garner also implies that it is only by respecting both sides of the argument that it might become possible to understand the deaths of those three small children, for that understanding cannot be found in the facts alone; it also resides somewhere in the book’s deep and abiding sadness.