The disappeared

The other day I found myself thinking about Karmein Chan, a thirteen year old girl who went missing from her home in Templestowe in 1991 and was never seen again.

‘Went missing’ is hardly the way to describe a situation where a man in a balaclava broke into Karmein’s house where she was looking after her younger sisters and took Karmein away after he left the younger two locked inside a cupboard. 

It happened in the evening while the parents were working at their restaurant, something they did regularly while Karmein stayed at home as the older sister the responsible one.

Around the same time, a young girl who had been staying in Australia from England and living in Canterbury, Nicola Lyons, disappeared from her home, again as I recall while her parents were out. She turned up a few days later, in the streets dazed, ‘molested’ but otherwise unharmed, apart from what such a traumatic event must do to any young person.

Another young girl disappeared around that time, too, but she also turned up alive as well. 

These events devastated the community and young children everywhere, especially young girls feared for their lives.

A similar thing happened in Perth though this time with older women, the so called Claremont killings of the mid 1990s. And years earlier the so-called Nedlands monster preyed on people, in a Perth suburb, mostly young women. 

Eric Cooke 1931, the Nedlands monster

A similar horror when the three Beaumont children disappeared off a Glenelg Beach in South Australia in 1966

Every state has its disappeared children and the myth of the child lost in the bush flourishes in Australia such that people panic whenever a child disappears. 

And yet we all know the worst of these disappearances happen at home.

 Another woman, 33 years of age, found yesterday dead in her garage, presumably murdered by her 49-year-old husband.

Every week another one.

I can hardly believe it except that it happens, and this online group called Destroy the Joint, a feminist organisation, keep a tally.

We’re up to 16 so far this year. A total of 69 last year.  

Every week, another woman murdered by her partner, in what was once described as domestic abuse.

Murder and violence almost sanctified by the state into this lesser word ‘domestic’.

Isn’t that the term we use to describe our pets, domesticated? 

Rather than getting into a rant about domestic violence, I shall follow the trail of my memories into  Karmein Chan’s disappearance and how much in 1991 I hoped the police would fine her alive and well. They never did.

The police still speak of a suspect called Mr Cruel. A creepy name for a person capable of horrors. 

If I had more of an imagination, I might dig into my internal images of such a man, big, scarred, shifty eyes, clichés abound. Or he might be small bespectacled and tight framed, like an administrative officer from some lowly public service department, hidden behind mountains of files.

At home he might have a wife and children but at various times he can’t stop his impulse to go out there and disappear another woman or child presumably through some sexual pleasure he gets out of such control. 

Something of the pleasure a flasher might derive when he exposes himself to some hapless woman or child passing by and gets a thrill out of the look of horror, of shock and fear in their eyes. 

Look how big I am, how strong and potent. I can knock you over with just one look at my erect genital and you need do nothing other than register a strong emotion that enables me to feel aroused to the point of climax. I don’t have to engage with you or talk to you or share any of my vulnerability with you. 

My vulnerability is hidden from everyone, including from me, because vulnerability is dangerous. If you let it be seen, others will hurt you.

No doubt as our flasher was once hurt as a child when he might have felt helpless to protect himself from some other person’s predations. 

It doesn’t always work like this.

Not everyone who grows into a abuser was abused but something must have gone wrong with the empathic wiring to turn them this way.

Not that I’m condoning any of it.

When Karmein Chan disappeared I felt much as I did when my father paraded the house naked, a mix of rage and fear. 

Rage that someone could behave like this and fear at what he might do next. 

They found Karmein’s decomposed body years after her disappearance, buried in some makeshift grave.

Her mother must be older now, maybe only as old as me. 

I doubt that she, her sisters and Karmein’s father, will ever get over it. 


In the year I turned ten, an older brother decided to create a photograph album in honour of our parents’ twentieth wedding anniversary. He opened it with pages that flashed back images of our parents’ wedding day in Haarlem, Holland in 1942, a windy grey day during the war, when everyone dressed in their finest in front of the Cathedral of St Bavo in the centre of Haarlem. 

Thereafter, this brother dedicated a single page to each of us children, beginning with my oldest brother. One or two photographs, each carefully placed on the page and around which my second oldest brother gave each of us a title. 

Under my oldest brother’s image he wrote the word ‘philanthropist’, a word whose meaning I could not fathom at ten, beside which in quotation marks in white ink on a black page, the words: ‘I hates everybody’. 

I do not remember the label ascribed to each one of us but there was one younger brother named ‘Nature Boy ‘and the sister below me my older brother named ‘Princess’.

Next to her image, my brother drew a window, in white ink on a black background. You knew you were looking from the inside to the outside as through this window you could see a shining star giving off light. 

My brother gave me the label, ‘poetess’, which suited me well. I wanted to be a poet. 

My older brother ascribed each of us some distinguishing feature right down to the then youngest, my baby brother, who featured in the album as a large baby over one year old in a round plastic bath tub. He looks up to the camera. 

A roly poly baby boy with a sweet face. And onto this image my older brother tacked a thin strip of paper to cover his baby brother’s genitals.

Onto this strip of paper he pencilled the word, ‘censored’.

 This decision made everyone laugh but I could never understand the need for such censorship even though I had already noticed the way the few men who featured naked in my father’s art books had fig leaves draped strategically over their men’s parts and the women, many more women who were fully naked, likewise had strips of material draped around their pubic areas. 

I went to see Hannah Gadsby perform the other night and she too remarked on the decision of the old masters to drape material around a woman’s lower half while her breasts tended to be fully exposed or one might pop out of a dress unbidden. 

Hannah Gadsby alerted me to the fact that this anomaly has stayed with us since those times. That we have elected to keep these images and to admire them for centuries and we tend not to consider the significance of such artistic decisions. 

Though I suspect serious historians, artists and anthologists might have wondered and drawn conclusions about these decisions and what they say about the culture of their times.

Hannah Gadsby’s take is exhilarating and exciting. Because she makes us look at things through fresh eyes, makes us wonder why for instance in one image she showed there is a woman eyes raised heavenwards, fully clothed behind her cello.

A beautiful instrument, and yet there as her music stand, a plump but short cherub with tiny wings and stubby penis, hands up, his palms flat to hold the score. 

Why that decision? Gadsby asks. Had they not yet invented music stands when clearly they’d managed to create the cello.

 Why all the cherubs? I ask.

 Must have something to do with the religion of the times and all the angels in heaven. But it strikes me whenever I see these images, I take them for granted.

I look at them as though their meaning is set in stone. 

In the past I have not questioned the way Hannah Gadsby questions today and when she questions she sets me wondering again about why for instance my brother decided to put that thin strip of paper over my baby brother’s penis. 

On the very last page of his album, my older brother also pasted a small square of paper on which he had printed a large black question mark. 

A question mark that allowed those in the know to recognise that our mother was, as we put it in those days, expecting.

She was expecting her tenth baby, her eleventh in fact if you consider her first daughter died at five months of age, three years after my parents had married during the Hunger Winter of war torn 1945. 

And the question mark suffered a similar fate, though my brother did not know this at the time he created his album.

The question mark signified another daughter who was still born on 19 November in 1962, soon after my tenth birthday.

And they named her Anna Maria. 

I can name her because she’s dead. 

I can’t name the others of my siblings to give them their privacy because in this brave new world where so much is open to view and so much can be written or arranged on the screen and page, we must still tread carefully so as not to offend. 

I first learned the word the word censored from the piece of paper over my brother’s baby penis. It stays with me still.