A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s
R e v i e w

Dogs in the Graveyard

Cassandra Pybus

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Browsing the Sunday newspapers in London recently my eye was caught by a profile on Gitta Sereny by the novelist Will Self, a writer I look upon as an intelligent barometer of turn-of-the-century morality. I was intrigued by the mixture of awe and revulsion which coloured his take on Sereny. Self was asking about her latest controversial book, Cries Unheard,concerning Mary Bell, a woman who murdered two small boys when she was herself a child, thirty years ago. The book has caused an uproar in England, partly because of the outraged response of the victim's families, who were alerted by advance media reports. In the resulting media frenzy, the whereabouts of Mary Bell and her young daughter – who had known nothing of her mother's past – were publicly revealed. Self writes that the debacle "could only destroy what rehabilitation Bell had achieved, wreck her daughter's life and wrench open the wounds inflicted on the families of the murdered boys". Sereny can rightly protest that this is hardly her fault; it is what happens once a book, however well-intentioned, falls into the clumsy maws of the mass media. "There has not been a day… when I have not asked myself whether writing this book was the right thing to do", Sereny wrote in her introduction, "for Mary Bell from whom, with great difficulty, agonisingly for her, I extracted her life; for the family of the children she killed and for her own family, above all her child who is now her life…"

What Self finds chilling is Sereny's tacit admission that her book did harm Mary Bell, not so much the media beatup as the actual process of Bell exposing her life to a writer. As Sereny says "she should have done this with someone qualified because it needed to go on much longer and… I had reached the [here she pauses, as if aware of the enormity of what she is saying]… my purpose was fulfilled", she lamely concludes.

To what extent does the writer have a responsibility here, Self wants to know. As I do. In that intense time she spent with Bell, what purpose was Sereny fulfilling? A different purpose for each participant, most certainly. Sereny was the detached investigative writer. Mary Bell, I suspect, thought the relationship was of another order. "After a few months I was finished", Sereny says, "apart from checking the facts". Will Self is right, this is a chilling admission. It is also a statement of writerly sensibility; writers are always moving on, using up and discarding the last object of fascination. Sereny protests that Mary Bell still has her interest, but a writer's detached interest is not what this damaged woman needs, nor was it ever what she needed.

There are all kinds of writerly moral dilemmas revealed here, just as there were when the first book of this genre, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood,came out to astound us some thirty years ago. Recently George Plimpton's book on Truman Capote reignited the debate around that book when it was alleged that Capote, said to have been in love with Perry Smith, one of the murderers, had gained intimacy with Perry and his pal in order to get the story, and then not lifted a finger to save them from the electric chair. At the time I remember Capote protesting that there was nothing he could do about the executions. It was equally true that he was saying that once he had the story his mission was fulfilled: the non-fiction novel was born and a couple of psychotic misfits got to ride old sparky. As they were always going to do.

In her book The Murderer and the JournalistJanet Malcolm, doyenne of investigative journalism, has a fairly brutal take on the moral position of this genre: "The story of subject and writer is the Scheherazarde story with a bad ending, in almost no case does the subject…manage to save himself". A writer in this genre Malcolm says, "unless he is too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on, knows what he does is morally indefensible." Well, yes.

For myself I do not believe in writing books about immediate traumatic events; too much raw pain, too much potential damage. As a writer of investigative contemporary history, however, I have learnt to be alert to the moral responsibility of writing a book which impinges on the lives of strangers who are inevitably touched and pained by the events in my narrative, even when the central characters are long since dead and gone.

Take the Orr case.

Why, knowing something of the pain attached to this particular story of sexual harassment and intellectual outrage did I write a book about it? As Professor Alan Gilbert observed at the launch of Gross Moral Turpitude,the Orr case is "a modern tragedy of unrelieved sadness". Yet we all know that tragedy is the most powerful narrative force of all, since it is in conflict and suffering, in human failure and unhappiness, we most perceive the frailty of the human condition. A powerful story of tragic conflict is irresistible. Add to that the spice of sex and intrigue and you have the ingredients of classic drama. This much was clearly apparent to the American and Australian film producers who took the bare bones of the popular myth about Orr – radical professor destroyed by vengeful, disturbed girl student – and fictionalized it as a sex and violence thriller, a piece of prurient trash which was a total failure at the box office, I am pleased to report. It was knowledge of this impending film, the offensive screenplay of which I had been shown, which impelled me to write Gross Moral Turpitude rather than "leave well enough alone" as I had been repeated advised.

While I claim integrity and genuine open-minded inquiry in my construction of the Orr narrative, I would have to say that the writer in me could not resist the dramatic lure inherent in a story about sex, intrigue and betrayal. Moreover, in previously unseen archival material I encountered an absolutely riveting tale about intellectual chicanery, while the detective work of uncovering the false trails laid over the intervening years was ready made for the storyteller. And that is how I saw myself: a storyteller.

The imperative for a writer like me is narrative. In constructing the narrative what is of uppermost concern is not the moral responsibility for the tale, rather it is the integrity of the sentences; the way the words are placed on the page. One of the first things that you discover as a writer is that the process of forming and shaping inevitably renders what you write different from what you expected, or even intended. I think it was E M Forster who said "how do I know what I think until I have seen what I have written". It is not that the process of writing reduces the authenticity of the tale, rather it refines and focuses it. Nevertheless, as we struggle to make sentences with the right cadence, in a solipsistic engagement with the computer, writers are prone to a certain myopia about the pain we may be about to inflict.

Maybe what is necessary for the investigative non-fiction writer is kind of internal monitor – something like a spell check – which can prompt you to ask yourself : What will be the impact of this when it is in the public domain?In the case of Gross Moral Turpitudemy monitor was somewhat underdeveloped. I had not appreciated the full impact of my having plunged into the heart of this long simmering trauma. It all happened forty years ago, I told myself, failing to see that it was still very much alive in the hearts and minds of some people.

I now have to face up to the unpalatable fact there are those who believe I have profoundly wronged their dead loved ones. In this matter the children of Sydney Orr present me with a particularly intense moral burden, since I have told the world that the father who died when they were very young, was a morally corrupt liar and a fraud. Equally, Suzanne Kemp, the young woman in the case, had to endure a public exposure of the somewhat sordid details of her sexual encounters. In order to refute the accepted wisdom that she had framed Orr, I felt it necessary to bring into the light a malicious subterranean story, put about by the Orrites, of an incestuous relationship with her father. If that were not damage enough, she has had to re-run the terrible media intrusions of her youth, with every media outlet in the country wanting to interview her when my book came out. I feel badly about it and I can understand that she has no thanks for me.

Whether I liked it or not, my book, which I saw as a terrific story, wrapped up between covers and sold to the public, became part of a forty year process of grief or shame or anger, and I was expected to become part of that process too. I was not going to be permitted to slip away, even though my head was already in the steamy, spicy atmosphere of 19th century Sarawak by the time the manuscript was in the post. When Gross Moral Turpitudewas published lots of people came out of the woodwork to tell me their part of the story, as if I would be incomplete without these memories. Even these six years later I still get phone calls and letters about the Orr case. How do I tell these bitter, angry, people that this was just a story to me. I am long since finished with it.

Dynastic intrigue within the White Rajahs of Sarawak looked a pretty safe bet as an antidote to the emotional upheavals of the previous book. Now I hear from Brooke descendants that the surviving members of the family are horrified by revelation that the swashbuckling Rajah James Brooke was a pedophile. Of course, everyone in the know was well aware of that at the time, nevertheless generations of compliant historians have drawn a veil over James Brook's sexual transgressions, preferring to see his life long bachelorhood as the result of a supposed war wound to his private parts, and his fondness for village boys and midshipmen a sign of his boyish exuberance. They conveniently ignore the love letters to boys, the blackmail letters from boys, and the lunatic decision to declare one of his live-in boy lovers, Reuben Walker, as his illegitimate son.

I included a brief exploration of James Brooke's relationships with boys in White Rajah: A Dynastic Intrigue,to illustrate the poignancy of this broken old man whose boys always grew up and left him, who tried to legitimise his relationship with the stable boy Reuben by declaring him to be his long lost son. In so doing he set in train a family tragedy which saw the anti-hero of my book, Charles Brooke, become the second Rajah in a will which also bequeathed him all his uncle's ruinous debts and forced him to provide for several of his uncle's boys. To discharge his obligations and still hold onto his beloved Sarawak, Charles Brooke was driven to the expedience of taking an English heiress as his wife, discarding his Malay wife and so, inevitably and tragically, casting-off his first born son, Esca. It's all of one piece: a poignant tale of disappointment, conflict and betrayal spanning three generations.

When I stumbled upon the story of Esca, the skeleton in the closet, the usurped first son, I presumed that his descendants would be delighted to have legitimacy and status conferred upon them. When my book was published in the US and Canada in 1997 I was disconcerted to be sent emails and letters from elderly grandchildren of Esca Brooke who were angry and hurt at my revelation that he had lived as the dependant of a rich businessman, unable to make a life for himself. For at least some of his grandchildren, this revelation was a matter of personal humiliation which mitigated any pride I may have been able to foster by declaring their grandfather to have been a legitimate Malay Rajah. So retreating to the first half of the 19th century in faraway places did not alleviate the problem of inflicting pain on strangers. There is no safe place, it would appear, from which harm will be done.

These issues of writerly responsibility are critical ones right now when the literary culture seems to be turning away from its long love affair with the novel and rushing into an eager embrace with non-fiction of the no-holds-barred variety: investigative reportage of the kind I have been discussing, biography, and pre-eminently, autobiography. A good example of the last genre is Katherine Harrison's taut and explosive bestseller, The Kiss, an account of her seduction and sexual subjugation at the age of nineteen by the father she had not known as a child, who was, incidentally, married with a second family and a minister of religion. There are other autobiographies like this, though perhaps not as well done. It is quite clear that writing such books is an important act of catharsis for the authors, part of a healing process I can have no doubt. What purpose does it serve the reading public whose appetite for such stories is voracious? Anything more than titillation? I think not.

The Kissis a sexy read; saturated with longing, guilt and transgressive passion. I refused to even look at the book for some time, but eventually I read it, standing rooted to the spot in the closed reserve of a university library in a curious state of compelled horror and admiration. I am glad I read it, however distasteful I found it's naked solipsism, because it has caused me to ponder the moral issues involved of baring one's soul and the inner secrets of one's intimate life to the world at large. Is this a legitimate literary genre, I ask, or is it on the same level as the American performance artist who invites her audience to watch her masturbate on stage? I would do well not to be too intellectually squeamish about this. At the turn of the century we now inhabit a culture which is relentless in its examination of the sexual impulses in the human engine. It is no longer something we can turn away from, if indeed it ever was.

While my own venture into autobiography, Till Apples Grow on an Orange Tree,is series of candid reflections about my life – at times very intimate and confessional – my intention was to use my experience as emblematic of a particular moment; the sort of thing that Joan Didion does absolutely brilliantly in her essay "The White Album". The book takes its title from an account of my loss of innocence, when my first lover ran off with my best friend, who subsequently killed herself. It was a cathartic piece for me and it took me nearly thirty years to find the words to write it. I did have another purpose. I was interested in the loss of innocence outside my own body, represented by the assault on the body of the child of a neighbour who went missing the same day my lover did. These two matters were linked in my mind because for a brief period my departed lover was a suspect in that terrible murder. As I write:

Monday morning the police came around to see me. Just routine, they were talking to everyone in the street.
Had I seen anything? Could I shed any light?
I was in no good shape to be talking to them, red-eyed and dishevelled. I had nothing to tell them.
What about your… um, boyfriend?
I said Duncan had left on Saturday. Two days later they were back again, more insistent this time and with a great deal more knowledge about myself and my …um boyfriend. They were very interested in Duncan. I couldn't for my life see why.
Their interest became clear to me when I saw the newspaper next morning and read in numb horror that the police suspect was a young man in his early twenties, described as being well groomed with blond hair.
They thought that Duncan had done this horrendous thing.
Next time the police called I understood what they were asking me.
These many years later I can recognise this experience as my brutal rite of passage from innocence into knowledge; a soul-searing moment that changed my understanding of the world forever.
My trusting, bliss-filled love affair was shattered and now I had to contemplate the possibility that the man with whom I had explored the dizzying reaches of sexual pleasure could be capable of raping a three year old child, systematically mutilating him with a razorblade and stuffing wads of newspaper down his throat to stifle his screams.
A week before I had not known such things were possible. Now the unspeakable had come right to me; had climbed into bed with me.
Did the monstrous lie in the deep recesses of sexuality in any one of us?
Was this our original sin?
For me that day was the day I learned, and in a way contemporary Australia learned, more than we ever wanted to know about pain and terror and depravity. A loss of innocence in more ways than one. Simon Brook was at the heart of that story and I couldn't leave him out. The use of the Brook murder deeply worried me. I wondered if I should write to the child's parents to say that I knew that I was plundering their own terrible story and that I wasn't doing so as mere literary device. I decided against it because it would be needlessly cruel to rekindle all their pain. There was no reason to presume they would read the book. They did read the book. About a year after it was published I received a remarkable letter from the boy's father which began "perhaps you don't welcome strangers claiming powerful bonds of recognition". I will not otherwise divulge his communication except to say that he told me he had found the piece personally important. Naturally I did welcome his letter and was deeply touched by his generosity.

Continue with part two of this essay.

Dr Cassandra Pybus is one of Austrlia's most distinguished non-fiction writers. She is the author of seven books and her latest book is acontrover sial studyof the poet and polemicist James McAuley, The Devil and James McAuley.Cassandra can be contacted atcass@mail.mpx.com.au

Also on Australian Humanities Review:
  • Read a transcript ofJohn Docker's addressat the Canberra launch ofThe Devil and James McAuley.
  • Aresponseto "Dogs and the Graveyard" has been received from Leith Morton.

Return to part one of this essay.

Works Cited

Raymond Foye (ed), The Unknown Poe: An anothology of Fugitive Writings,City Lights, 1980.

Ian Hamilton, "A Biographer's Misgivings", Walking Possession,Bloomsbury, 1994

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer,Random House, 1990and The Silent Woman,Picador, 1994

George Plimpton, Truman Capote,Picador, 1999

Gitta Sereny, Cries Unheard

Will Self, "A Life of Crime",The Independent on Sunday,9 May 1999

Gore Vidal, "Tennessee Williams" reprinted inUnited States: Essays 1952-1992, Andre Deutsch, 1993

Also on Australian Humanities Review:

  • Read a transcript ofJohn Docker's addressat the Canberra launch ofThe Devil and James McAuley.
  • Aresponseto "Dogs and the Graveyard" has been received from Leith Morton.

Return to part one of this essay.

Please feel free to contribute to this discourse.

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