Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Crime and punishment

Back in the mid 2000s I was working as a counsellor for an organisation that supported offenders and their families. I ran anger management programs for wife beaters and pub brawlers, tried to teach the inmates of a women's prison to understand their dreams, listened to the torturous denial of child rapists' wives. Looking back, what's surprising is not that I burnt out, but that I lasted as log as I did handling every day the currency of human misery. Recently, while trying to finish off my short story collection, I wrote a story based on one of my clients from those days, a young girl who'd fallen in unknowingly with a serial rapist. My editor rejected the story as just too preposterously horrific, too extreme, too unbelievable. Ironically it was the parts I'd added for fictional effect that she accepted without question. The truth is though that as a fiction editor she was right. Reality sometimes lacks plausibility - to make it digestible as fiction you have to dress it up in the trappings of the expected to get the reader to swallow it.

In the true story, the girl told her rapist partner/abuser about visiting a single mother friend of hers who lived alone in a nearby suburb and the partner, having noted the details, went around to her place, broke in and raped her. My client learned about the rape and was sure he was responsible (and therefore that she was responsible) but could never be sure. She was tormented by the guilt. She prayed to forget the trauma of her experiences, and managed to acquire a brain injury in a car accident that had the effect of destroying her memory - though not of the experiences she longed to obliterate.

We dealt with the walking wounded. Men and women so damaged by brutality it was scarcely comprehensible that they could have survived. Looking into their faces was a curious experience: something was profoundly wrong, like a terrible deformity, but it was not always easy to pin the sense of wrongness down to anything tangible - it was not just the missing teeth or the physical scars. It was as if they had been smashed into pieces and badly glued back together - everything in its right place but somehow fragmented, the unity lost.

Some of these people were deeply toxic and almost intolerable to be near. Once I picked up a call from Barwon Prison and the cold, arrogant voice of the man on the line sent instant shivers of revulsion down my spine. Sex offender, I thought. It turned out to be Robert Arthur Lowe, the man who raped and murdered Sheree Beazley and stuffed her body into a culvert under a bridge. Barely more tolerable to me was the woman who used to come in for travel assistance to visit the man she'd recently married in the same prison. He had raped and killed a sixteen year old girl and buried her in a shallow grave, but when we asked his new wife what she knew of his offences, she insisted that he was an armed robber - a respectable criminal in other words! Thinking that she had been misled, we confronted her with an entry in a book of notorious sex offenders that detailed his appalling crimes, she was horrified - not by the truth of what he'd done, but by the fact that the book was publicly available for anyone to read! For some reason, though I worked with murderers and criminals of all stripes every day, I could not suffer that woman's presence for more than a minute and always had to pass her on to a colleague when she came in. It wasn't evil in her case, but a sort claustrophobic atmosphere of pain, need, and oppression that clung to her, a horrible lack of any spiritual light in her being at all.

If you don't believe humans possess an aura, some sort of tangible psychic information field, that place would have to convince you of it. There was an old Italian guy who used to come in to talk to me while he was on bail awaiting trial for sex offences against a four-year-old boy who had lived next door. Not out of moral judgement of his crimes, appalling as they were, but out of a visceral repulsion at the man's physical presence, I used to dread the handshake with which he'd greet me when he stepped out of the lift. I'd want to wash my hand. Reviled by his community and his family, cast out on the street with nothing, he'd show up several times a week in his filthy, crumpled suit and his lank, matted hair and tell me the story of his life. As a child he'd been raped by his brother and his brother's friends on a regular basis back in his home village in rural Italy. He suffered a condition known as 'micropenis' ( yes, it's what you think) which he'd kept a shameful secret all his life. In Italy he'd been to visit a prostitute, who had laughed at him. In Australia he married a woman who was happy not to have sex, and to keep his secret for him. It doesn't take a psychologist to see how the story of his life led to the crime he eventually committed - indeed lent it a sort of awful inevitability.

My grandfather, who was a war correspondent on the Kokoda Track, once wrote about the nausea he felt upon seeing a man go to pieces with fear upon sighting an enemy plane for the first time in Port Moresby - he went to jelly as if literally spineless. I always found that a harsh reaction - until I thought of that old Italian paedophile. For as much as I could understand how he got to the point he did, I was still repelled by the cowardice of the man. 'Cowardice' may seem like an odd word, and yet it's the one that comes irresistibly to mind. He stank of the failure to shoulder the burdens of his life with courage. That was the aura of shame I wanted to wash from my hand whenever he shook it. Which isn't to say I didn't pity him. I pitied him greatly, but pity is not an emotion that the courageous inspire.

Mostly though, your average offender was a likeable fellow. I wouldn't want to encounter him strung out for heroin in my living room at two a.m., but my colleague's description of the average prisoner as a 'loveable rogue' always struck me as apt. These prisoners weren't the demons of tabloid imagination, but three-year-olds inflated into adult bodies. In them, the emotional self-regulation of toddlers was dangerously allied to the strength of full-grown men. Their psychological development stunted at a young age by trauma, they were disarmingly child-like in their responses, and often responded with great warmth and gratitude when offered the simple human gesture of respect. However much the outer vessel of their psyche had been warped, the light of a good heart still shone out of them, oftentimes with greater clarity for their emotional simplicity. It was this unaffected warmth that you lived for in that job - without it, the harshness of the environment would have been intolerable.

My blood still boils occasionally when the Herald-Sun recycles one of its lock-up-the-monsters, cheap outrage front-pagers that are always good to sell a few papers. The truth is so much more complex and morally ambiguous. So complex in fact that after five years in the system I left feeling far less certain of my notions of good, evil and justice than when I started. To know a man's crime is to know almost nothing of him, only a single act that, like an iceberg, projects above the surface but reveals nothing of the great mass of circumstances, choices and emotions that lies beneath, invisibly supporting it - and that, even when revealed, remains a mystery, impenetrable perhaps even to the person who experienced it.

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