Silence is the greatest crime

Joan Didion argues that writing by its nature is ‘an aggressive, even a hostile act.’ It is, she argues ‘the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind…setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the readers most private space.’

In this way writing can be considered an enactment of the desire for revenge, as much as it can be a creative gesture, a gesture of defiance, the speaking out against oppression, that in itself might become another form of oppression.

In an essay ‘On hurting People’s Feelings’ Carolyn Wells Kraus writes about the nature of biography as an act of autobiography. She argues that ‘reducing a person’s story on a page, robs it of complexity’.

Is it really the desire for revenge that sets my blood racing or is it, as Kraus argues, guilt that I too am complicit? Non-fiction ‘sucks the life of a person onto the page’ and distorts that life to the author’s own ends, Kraus writes. Characters are slanted in the direction of the author’s obsessions.

‘The real problem,’ Kraus argues ‘is that you’re borrowing the peoples’ identities to tell your own story.’ Kraus quotes at length from her own writing and others to demonstrate the ways in which a writer’s bias influences the description of other characters. And so in telling the stories of others we inevitably tell our own stories.

‘There is no script,’ Kraus argues, ‘only improvisation. We fill in the outlines from the details. All we know of the world as writers is what we see – images, words, scenes. We supply the meaning, and we alter that meaning with every sleight of hand.’

Two days ago a jury found Robert Farquharson guilty of murder for the second time. He had been ordered a retrial on appeal. The jury found that Farquharson had murdered his three sons, ages ten, seven and two. He had driven his car and his boys into a dam, an accident, he said, the result of an out of control coughing fit. Farquharson survived. He had managed to extricate himself but his sons drowned. It happened on Father’s Day.

Farquharson is said to have killed his sons to avenge himself on his wife, to punish her for leaving him. To me if this is true, his action is an enactment of his desire for revenge, although Farquarson may well not be in touch with any such desire. It seems he cannot believe that he did it the way the courts have argued, deliberately intentionally, purposefully. It is his lack of awareness that makes the crime the more chilling.

If Farquarson knew openly about the hatred he held towards his wife after she had left him, then perhaps he need not have acted upon the impulse.

Feelings that are not recognised are far more likely to be acted upon. Rage denied is worse than rage acknowledged. When the anger is denied it seeps out when we least expect. It slips out like a hidden leak, one that drips between walls and causes untold damage. Think of it, a slow drip between the cavities of two walls, the mould, the stench, the rising damp hidden from view and slowly swamping, inching its way into the body of the house.

In 1997 a father murdered his four daughters in Tasmania. He stabbed them in the throat as they slept. Only the oldest had woken and tried to defend herself. There were scratches on her arms. The others must have been asleep when their lives were taken. The father then went off to the local township to post fifteen letters to relatives in bloodstained envelopes. He did not use stamps. He returned home, took an axe, chopped off his right hand, and then shot himself in the head.

Silence is the greatest crime and yet our lips remain sealed.

‘Sunday morning and I flick through the pages of the Best Australian Essays and find a newspaper cutting I left there months ago. I recognise it instantly. The reporter writes: ‘Doctors will have to wait until the end of the week to determine the success of surgery to reattach a toddler’s left leg, which was severed in an early morning axe attack’. In the next paragraph, the reporter tells us that, in the middle of the night, in a rented house in suburban Melbourne, the seventeen-month-old boy’s mother severed his left leg below the knee. She has a history of mental illness, the reporter adds, as if to make sense of it all.

I first heard the story on the radio, the day it happened, a few abrupt words over the static between the weather and fashions on the field. I was driving home after dropping my youngest daughter at school. By the time I read about it in the newspaper the next day some of its impact had worn off. A twenty-one year old mother, no name supplied. She had recently moved here from the country. There were details about the surgery and its similarity to surgery performed on a Perth boy who had lost both his arms and a foot while slam-dunking through a hoop on his garage wall. There the similarities end.

The reporter interviewed one of the surgeons who reattached the Perth boy’s limbs. The surgeon did not want to be named. He congratulated the team that had performed microsurgery on the toddler on the morning of the attack. The chances of success, he said, depended on the slow regrowth of nerves and the movement of muscles and tendons over a number of years. Young people heal more quickly, the surgeon added: ‘They have youth on their side.’ From my essay ‘Fierce Amputations’, Island Magazine 106, Spring 2006.

Silence is the greatest crime and yet our lips remain sealed.

Another person who tackles silence but in a different way is Lynn Behrendt. Could I please introduce you to her exceptional and haunting work. She is a stunning poet and artist.