The wo­man, her chil­dren and the lake

The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE - He­len Garner

It hap­pened in broad day­light, one April af­ter­noon in 2015, while the ci­ti­zens of an outer-western Mel­bourne sub­urb called Wyn­d­ham Vale were peace­ably go­ing about their busi­ness. A chef, on her way to get a tat­too, was driv­ing past Lake Glad­man, a reedy, rock-edged sub­ur­ban wet­land, when the blue Toy­ota SUV in front of her sud­denly pulled off the bi­tu­men and stopped on the gravel. As the chef drove by, she caught a glimpse of an African wo­man sit­ting hud­dled over the steer­ing wheel with her face in her hands. Kids be­hind her were ri­ot­ing: a lit­tle one was thrash­ing in his booster, a big­ger one dan­gling off the back of the driver’s seat. Min­utes later a pass­ing teacher saw the Toy­ota “drive full bolt, straight into the wa­ter”. A man who lived op­po­site saw it hit the wa­ter; he heard splash­ing and wheels spin­ning as the ve­hi­cle moved fur­ther into the lake. A young boy raced home on his bike: “Mum! There’s peo­ple in the wa­ter!” Some­one was scream­ing – a long, word­less wail.

A sales man­ager ran out of his house and waded into the lake. The wa­ter wasn’t deep enough to en­gulf the car. Its roof was still above the sur­face, but it was fill­ing fast. The driver must have scram­bled out through her win­dow: she was stand­ing be­side it in the wa­ter. The fran­tic sales­man tried to break one of the rear pas­sen­ger windows with his fist and his el­bow. It wouldn’t shatter. He yelled for a rock. A courier on the bank tore off his steel-toed boot and chucked it to him. He smashed the win­dow and fought one child free

of his har­ness. The hys­ter­i­cal teacher on the bank, cry­ing out to triple-0, saw another kid on his back in the wa­ter, try­ing to keep his head above the sur­face, but sink­ing. Res­cuers were shout­ing to the mother: Were there more chil­dren? How many were there? She stood silent be­side the driver’s door, gaz­ing straight ahead.

Her name was Akon Guode. She was a 35-year-old South Su­danese refugee, a widow with seven chil­dren. Three of them drowned that af­ter­noon: four-year-old twins Hanger and Ma­dit, and their 16-month-old brother, Bol. Their fiveyear-old sis­ter, Alual, es­caped the car and sur­vived.

What Guode said, when the po­lice ques­tioned her, was so vague, so ran­dom that the word “lie” seemed hardly to ap­ply. She de­nied ev­ery­thing. No, she had not been to the lake. She didn’t even know where the lake was. She was go­ing to Coles to buy some milk. On the way to the su­per­mar­ket she took the chil­dren to a park, to play. She meant to drive home, but she be­came dizzy. She missed the turn and went straight ahead. She didn’t know how she ended up in the wa­ter.

“Dizzy”? Such a fee­ble word, so im­pre­cise, so un­con­vinc­ing. Her teenage daugh­ter said it. The fa­ther of the dead chil­dren said it. Peo­ple turned from their screens and looked at each other with round eyes. Hadn’t we heard this be­fore? Was it a copy­cat thing? I asked a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tor who worked on the long and gru­elling mur­der tri­als of Robert Far­quhar­son, the fa­ther of three boys drowned in a dam in 2005, whether he had been hav­ing flash­backs. “No flash­backs,” said the de­tec­tive calmly. “But a very strong sense of déjà vu at the scene.”

It would be hard to imag­ine any­thing that looked less like an ac­ci­dent. Not only were there eye­wit­nesses to the deed, but six houses along the shore of Lake Glad­man are fit­ted with CCTV cam­eras. The po­lice had been able to put to­gether, with a few small gaps, a video record­ing of the fact that the mother had driven along the lake five times that day be­fore she planted her foot and went into the wa­ter. But Guode pleaded not guilty to all four charges: one of at­tempted mur­der for the girl who sur­vived, and three of mur­der for the twins and for the boy who was not yet two years old.

Like sev­eral of my women friends, I flinched from the story yet fol­lowed the me­dia re­ports out of the cor­ner of my eye. We emailed each other, we texted, about women we had known (or had been) – sin­gle moth­ers who slammed the door and ran away, or threw a scream­ing baby across a room, or crouched howl­ing with one hand on the phone, too ashamed to call for help. The flash­point was the glimpse that the chef had caught as she drove past the clum­sily parked Toy­ota: the fran­tic mother hunched over the steer­ing wheel, go­ing off her head while in the back her chil­dren went berserk. “How many times have I been there?” whis­pered my neigh­bour, a grand­mother. “I have to know why she broke.”

I heard that at the com­mit­tal hear­ing, in June 2016, Guode col­lapsed wail­ing in the dock. Her coun­sel had to get down on the floor with her to com­fort her. The mag­is­trate found the ev­i­dence against her suf­fi­cient to com­mit her to a trial by jury.

Then, at the turn of the year, I heard that the Crown had agreed to change the third mur­der charge, of the tod­dler, to one of in­fan­ti­cide. Once she was ar­raigned on this new charge, Guode pleaded guilty to all four counts. This meant that there would be no jury trial, but just a two-day plea hear­ing in the Supreme Court be­fore Jus­tice Lex Lasry, who in 2010 had heard Robert Far­quhar­son’s ex­cru­ci­at­ing sec­ond trial and given him three life sen­tences, with 33 years on the bot­tom.

The court doc­u­ments tell Akon Guode’s story in broad strokes. She mar­ried in South Su­dan as a teenager. By the time her hus­band, a sol­dier in the rebel army of South Su­dan, was killed in the civil war she had two chil­dren. As a widow in a coun­try where Chris­tian and African tra­di­tional cus­toms of­ten blend, she could never re­marry. She would re­main a mem­ber – or per­haps one could say a pos­ses­sion – of her late hus­band’s fam­ily: she was given to one of his brothers. “This is cus­tom­ary once the hus­band dies,” ex­plained an “aun­tie” of Guode’s at the com­mit­tal, through an in­ter­preter. “You don’t go out. You don’t go any­where else. You stay with the same tribe be­cause you got mar­ried for cows. As a dowry.” Guode’s third child was fa­thered by a man we would think of as her brother-in-law.

With the three chil­dren in tow, she walked to Uganda in 18 days, for­ag­ing for food along the way. When they got there, another of her late hus­band’s brothers, al­ready liv­ing in Aus­tralia, of­fered to spon­sor her and the chil­dren: she was granted a global spe­cial hu­man­i­tar­ian visa. They ar­rived in Syd­ney in 2006 and stayed with the brother-in-law un­til 2008, then moved to Mel­bourne, where the cost of liv­ing was more man­age­able, and were given tem­po­rary shel­ter by her late hus­band’s cousin Joseph Manyang, his wife and their three chil­dren.

Manyang helped Guode set­tle into a rented house of her own. Soon she and Manyang, un­known to his wife, be­gan a re­la­tion­ship. In 2009 Guode gave birth to a girl, Alual – the only child who, six years later, would emerge alive from the car in the lake. The fam­ily name on the baby’s birth cer­tifi­cate was Cha­biet, that of Guode’s late hus­band.

“You had no idea you were the fa­ther,” Joseph Manyang was asked at the com­mit­tal, “un­til the child was one year old?”

“I asked her about the fa­ther of the child,” said Manyang. “She told me, ‘I can’t tell you.’”

It was con­firmed by a DNA test, af­ter the day of the lake, that the child was his.

The re­la­tion­ship con­tin­ued. In 2010 Guode had twins, a boy and a girl. By now Manyang’s wife was no longer in ig­no­rance. She felt it sorely; she raged. Later, in court, she would deny that she came to Guode’s house and beat on the door, shout­ing in­sults and threats while the fam­ily lay low in­side. There was an un­pleas­ant con­fronta­tion at a shop­ping cen­tre. Manyang moved out of the mar­i­tal home and set up on his own. He vis­ited each wo­man and her set of his chil­dren once or twice a week. The com­mu­nity hummed with ru­mours. Guode’s link with Manyang, though it had been so fruit­ful of off­spring, could never be of­fi­cially recog­nised: she was obliged to re­main for­ever a widow. Could she have gone on hop­ing that the re­la­tion­ship had mean­ing, and a fu­ture?

Guode was run­ning her house­hold on Cen­tre­link pay­ments and on Manyang’s spo­radic con­tri­bu­tions. In 2012 she worked for 12 months at a fam­ily day-care cen­tre. Like most refugees she was reg­u­larly send­ing back as much money as she could spare to her par­ents and her ex­tended fam­ily in Africa. Then, in 2013, she be­came preg­nant again. Shortly be­fore the child was born, Cen­tre­link, in a con­tretemps about an over­pay­ment, sus­pended her ben­e­fits. A re­pay­ment scheme was even­tu­ally put in place, but she was barely squeak­ing by from week to week.

Mean­while, some­how, her six chil­dren were well cared for. Their ed­u­ca­tion mat­tered to her: they went to school, they did their home­work. Akoi Cha­biet, her el­dest child by the hus­band who had been killed in the war, was an as­sid­u­ous helper in the house and a keen high school stu­dent. The girl had plans for a life. She wanted to go to univer­sity, and was pre­pared to work for it.

Guode went into labour on 21 De­cem­ber 2013. Be­cause she al­ready had more than five chil­dren, she was what is known in mid­wifery as a grand multi. The birth of a child that fol­lows cae­sarean twins, as hers had been, is al­ways high risk, and the hos­pi­tal was ready for it. But things did not go smoothly. Af­ter she had given birth she kept bleeding, and they could not stop it. A con­sent form for what­ever life­sav­ing treat­ment might be needed was brought to her. She signed it. By the time they got her to the hold­ing bay out­side theatre, where the doc­tors were wait­ing for her, her haem­or­rhage had reached emer­gency pro­por­tions. “I re­mem­ber the linen un­der­neath her,” said the mid­wife at the com­mit­tal, “be­ing quite soaked with blood, and I re­mem­ber her look­ing down and be­ing aware of the blood loss her­self.”

But in the hold­ing bay she said no. She flatly re­fused to go through the door. They couldn’t un­der­stand it. Three doc­tors tried to ex­plain to her what they might need to do. She would not give eye con­tact. She kept hold­ing up

Is it any won­der that she laid her bur­den down and turned her face to the wall?

her hand and turn­ing her head away, say­ing, “No. No.” She wouldn’t let them phone the man she re­ferred to as her “hus­band”. Staff rang ev­ery num­ber they could find. Many of them were in­cor­rect or dis­con­nected, or the calls were picked up by young chil­dren. They got through to a sis­terin-law, who backed Guode in her re­fusal. Then, for some rea­son, Guode ran out of fight. She sur­ren­dered. They wheeled her in. She had lost half the blood in her body. As part of the full re­sus­ci­ta­tion they had to give her, to pre­vent her from go­ing into shock, they in­serted an in­tra­venous can­nula into the in­ter­nal jugu­lar vein in her neck. They man­aged to save her with­out sur­gi­cal in­ter­ven­tion.

Around Christ­mas 2013, Guode made it home with her new baby, a boy called Bol. Post­na­tal checks of mother and baby raised no con­cerns, ei­ther phys­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal. None of her other chil­dren’s births had brought on post­na­tal de­pres­sion, but plainly Bol’s birth and its af­ter­math had knocked her around emo­tion­ally and psy­cho­log­i­cally. She thought her de­bil­ity was due to the can­nula that had been put into her neck. She com­plained oc­ca­sion­ally of headaches and dizzi­ness. Of­ten she could not get out of bed. She slept all day and was un­able to do the work of a mother and a house-keeper. She be­came dis­tant from her chil­dren. She stopped go­ing to so­cial events. Her com­mu­nity, she felt, was turn­ing its back on her. Rare vis­its from other Su­danese women she ex­pe­ri­enced as med­dling rather than as­sis­tance. Gos­sip in­ten­si­fied. When Bol was six months old Guode had to ask Manyang to un­dergo a pa­ter­nity test, to put paid to ru­mours that he was not Bol’s fa­ther. The test showed that he was.

Manyang’s vis­its, ac­cord­ing to Guode’s daugh­ter Akoi, had ta­pered off dur­ing the preg­nancy. By now, Akoi said, he was of­fer­ing lit­tle help with house­hold mat­ters or child care. He was busy with his own con­cerns: he had two jobs, and would oc­ca­sion­ally call Guode from work. He seems to have lost in­ter­est in the sad, over­bur­dened wo­man. The one who picked up the slack was Akoi.

Akoi’s teach­ers, sym­pa­thetic women, be­gan to no­tice that the girl was dis­tracted, even dis­en­gaged. Her school­work was fall­ing away. She be­gan to turn up late. When they in­ves­ti­gated they found that as well as study­ing for her Year 12 ex­ams she was run­ning the en­tire house­hold, shop­ping, cook­ing, clean­ing and wash­ing, as well as man­ag­ing the diabetes of her lit­tle sis­ter Alual.

Akoi de­scribed her mother as “ill”. Her teacher sug­gested “de­pressed” as a more ac­cu­rate term; she tried and failed to find a sup­port group in the area for Guode. She thought there might be a stigma against men­tal ill­ness among Guode’s peo­ple. In­deed, a leader of the South Su­danese com­mu­nity, a re­spected lawyer who is held in equally high es­teem in the world out­side it, told the com­mit­tal hear­ing that Su­danese peo­ple “are highly un­likely to suf­fer … men­tal ill­nesses, due to a chain and a web of sup­port that sur­rounds us in­di­vid­u­ally and as a com­mu­nity. So when some­one … is in trou­ble, whether they have seek or not seek, and peo­ple no­tice, peo­ple will go out and sup­port that per­son, and they will go above and be­yond.”

Joseph Manyang told the com­mit­tal that he had had no idea Guode was in fi­nan­cial trou­ble. He said that if she had asked he would have given her money. But by March 2015 the debt collectors were af­ter Guode for un­paid phone bills to the tune of hun­dreds of dol­lars, and for gas and power bills that topped $3000. To Cen­tre­link she owed $12,000. Be­tween 2008 and the day of the lake she had man­aged to send tens of thou­sands of dol­lars back to her fam­ily in South Su­dan, and her obli­ga­tion to pro­vide money was on­go­ing. At the com­mit­tal, the com­mu­nity leader, loyal to his peo­ple, dis­puted this point: “It is not an obli­ga­tion. I would call it a moral duty.” Un­der the cir­cum­stances, this seems a very fine dis­tinc­tion.

Call it what you will, this wo­man had been re­duced to lit­tle more than a con­duit for ba­bies and for money. Is it any won­der that she laid her bur­den down and turned her face to the wall?

Down in Gipp­s­land, where many Su­danese fam­i­lies have set­tled, Guode had a friend who was fond of her, an “aun­tie” from her mother’s side called Abook Kon. She worked as a school cross­ing su­per­vi­sor for the La­trobe City Coun­cil. A wo­man of res­o­lute ad­dress, Kon spoke briskly to the com­mit­tal about Guode’s pain at Joseph Manyang’s ne­glect. “She had no right to be up­set, be­cause here she’s not mar­ried to him. He’s mar­ried to another lady. She had no right to be up­set … He can fa­ther her kids, but she can’t be up­set be­cause he’s not spend­ing time with her … The other lady has the right to be up­set – Joseph’s wife.”

But Kon had seen how un­happy and lonely Guode was in Mel­bourne, and sug­gested she move with the chil­dren to Mor­well, in Gipp­s­land’s La­trobe Val­ley, where there was plenty of gov­ern­ment hous­ing. Guode had said she would wait till Akoi fin­ished Year 12, and then make the move. Over many months she put it to Manyang. He would not have a bar of it. He would have to make a two-hour drive to see his chil­dren: it was too far. But Aun­tie Abook worked on him, and in the end he agreed that they could go.

This plan gives off a strange static of un­re­al­ity. No­body men­tioned it in the af­ter­math of the drown­ings. Even Homi­cide didn’t learn of it un­til many weeks into their in­ves­ti­ga­tion. They found that Guode had given no­tice to her land­lord, but had not told the school that her chil­dren would be leav­ing. Per­haps it was only a fantasy of res­cue, a dream? She was in no state to han­dle the lo­gis­tics of a whole­sale do­mes­tic up­root­ing. She had seven chil­dren, the youngest only a tod­dler. She had no hus­band be­side her, and no right

ever to seek one. She was ex­hausted, iso­lated, men­tally ill – poleaxed by post­na­tal de­pres­sion. She was los­ing her grip.

Afaint clink of cuffs at the door from the cells, and in she came. In the shots taken at her chil­dren’s memo­rial – her head bound in black cloth, her skin gleam­ing in can­dle­light, her eyes dis­tant and dull, her mouth half open as if to gasp or groan – she had been a fig­ure from an­cient myth, mas­sive and block-like. Now, ush­ered past us to the dock for her plea hear­ing, she was a prisoner in a mod­ern story: bare-headed, her hair cropped, in char­coal top and jeans too short for her long legs. Her skin had lost its lus­tre: it was matte, re­flect­ing no light. Be­tween the in­ter­preter and the glar­ing-blond, gum-chew­ing se­cu­rity guard, Guode took her seat and was swal­lowed up in the court’s dark tim­ber.

The pros­e­cu­tor, Kerri Judd QC, laid out the Crown case. On a smartscreen she drew with one finger a wob­bly blue worm that traced the wan­der­ing path of Guode’s blue Toy­ota on the af­ter­noon of 8 April 2015. At 1 pm Guode loaded the four youngest chil­dren into the car and set out, telling Akoi they were go­ing “to visit Grandma” and to take Alual to a med­i­cal ap­point­ment for her diabetes. But they went in­stead to Manor Lakes Boule­vard in Wyn­d­ham Vale. She drove in sev­eral slow, ran­dom passes along the lake and back and along again. At 2.18 she called Joseph Manyang. He did not an­swer. At 2.45 her mother called her from Su­dan and they spoke for sev­eral min­utes. She paused at a park and briefly let the stir-crazy chil­dren out to play, then drove on. Just af­ter three, Akoi called her twice. Guode said she would be home soon. At 3.40 the pass­ing strangers saw the car air­borne and heard it hit the wa­ter.

Judd, a straight-backed wo­man with an el­e­gantly boy­ish hair­cut, ran through these facts with a crisp clar­ity. Af­ter each demon­stra­tion of the gap be­tween the ev­i­dence and the ac­count Guode had given the po­lice, she would raise her head from her notes and look di­rectly at the judge. When she reached the ac­count of the man who smashed the win­dow and hauled out Bol, al­ready froth­ing at the mouth, a soft, low sound flowed through the court. It was Guode, keen­ing: she leaned for­ward on her el­bows and wrapped her arms around her head. Peo­ple did not know where to look. They cov­ered their eyes and turned away. The thrust of the Crown’s open­ing was that Guode’s crime against four vul­ner­a­ble and help­less chil­dren – this “gross breach of trust” – was “not a quick, spon­ta­neous act”. She had driven back and forth along the lake sev­eral times and cho­sen the only pos­si­ble en­try point. Once in the wa­ter she ac­cel­er­ated. She did noth­ing to save her chil­dren or to help strangers who rushed to the scene, but got out through the win­dow, leav­ing the chil­dren in­side. She lied to res­cuers about the num­ber of chil­dren in the car, and she lied to the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tors. She had shown lit­tle or no re­morse.

Guode’s coun­sel was Mar­cus Dempsey, a light-voiced, tensely com­posed man with a face as pale as a teacup. His task was to set her ac­tions, or fail­ures to act, into the deep­est pos­si­ble con­text.

First he named the ele­phant in the room – “the in­evitable com­par­i­son with Far­quhar­son”. He dealt with it by quot­ing a blunt gen­eral state­ment made to a 2004 Vic­to­rian Law Re­form Com­mis­sion re­view of de­fences to homi­cide: “While men kill to con­trol or pun­ish their chil­dren or part­ner, women kill chil­dren be­cause they can­not cope with the ex­treme dif­fi­cul­ties that they en­counter in try­ing to care for their chil­dren.”

In 2004, he said, the law had been changed to recog­nise that the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects of post­na­tal de­pres­sion on some women’s men­tal health can per­sist much longer af­ter child­birth than was pre­vi­ously un­der­stood. The pe­riod of time dur­ing which a mother’s killing of a child could be re­garded as in­fan­ti­cide had been ex­tended from one year to two. In­fan­ti­cide car­ries a max­i­mum penalty of five years’ im­pris­on­ment. But no Vic­to­rian mother has ever been sent to prison for in­fan­ti­cide. The usual penalty is a com­mu­nity-based cor­rec­tions or­der with psy­chi­atric su­per­vi­sion and treat­ment.

Any­one who has read the sen­tenc­ing re­marks of judges in these rare and dread­ful cases would un­der­stand their urge to have mercy. But only one of Guode’s chil­dren fell into the age bracket for in­fan­ti­cide – poor lit­tle Bol, in his booster seat, only the top of his curly head vis­i­ble to the man smash­ing the car win­dow with a steel-capped boot. The twins who drowned were four. The girl who sur­vived was five.

So Dempsey out­lined a fur­ther rec­om­men­da­tion by the com­mis­sion that had not been taken up: that a mother who

“While men kill to con­trol or pun­ish their chil­dren or part­ner, women kill chil­dren be­cause they can­not cope.”

kills a child un­der two, but who, at the same time and while suf­fer­ing from the same men­tal dis­or­der, kills another of her chil­dren who is older than two, should not face both in­fan­ti­cide and mur­der charges. The line drawn be­tween the two charges in a case like Guode’s, said Dempsey, was ar­bi­trary and ar­ti­fi­cial. It did not make sense. There was no le­gal or moral rea­son to draw it.

“We’re ask­ing Your Hon­our,” he said, “to view Akon Guode’s con­duct through the prism of in­fan­ti­cide, rather than as a mur­der first with an in­fan­ti­cide tacked on the end.” In­fan­ti­cide was “at the heart of all her con­duct”. Oth­er­wise, he said, what she had done was “in­ex­pli­ca­ble and un­fath­omable”.

Dempsey’s ac­count of his client’s life had a stride to it, and more nu­ance than the com­mit­tal tran­script of­fered. Her fa­ther had six chil­dren with one wo­man and five with another; the fam­i­lies lived in sep­a­rate com­pounds. Guode’s was a love mar­riage. Dempsey sketched the dis­rup­tion of their lives by the civil war, her move to Eritrea with the chil­dren while her hus­band fought, his death. He de­scribed the con­di­tions of the walk to Uganda with her chil­dren, in the end­less col­umn of refugees: the vi­o­lence of the sol­diers, the ubiq­uity of rape, these his­tor­i­cally doc­u­mented facts.

The per­ma­nent visa Guode has is granted only on grounds of “sub­stan­tial dis­crim­i­na­tion amount­ing to a gross vi­o­la­tion of your hu­man rights in your home coun­try” – the kinds of things that qual­ify as crimes of war. But now, charged with four crimes of her own, Guode had de­clined to draw on her ex­pe­ri­ences in the war zone to al­low a di­ag­no­sis of post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der to be made. She sim­ply would not go there. “Typ­i­cally,” said Dempsey, “she with­holds that in­for­ma­tion when cyn­i­cally she could vol­un­teer it to ex­tract sym­pa­thy or pity.” In short, her lawyers had come up against a road­block: her char­ac­ter.

At a very young age, it seems, she had learnt from brute re­al­ity the point­less­ness of protest. She had been obliged to de­velop what the de­fence’s foren­sic psy­chi­atric wit­ness, Dr Danny Sul­li­van, called “a per­son­al­ity style of ex­tra­or­di­nary re­silience and sto­icism”. And in the face of her many dis­place­ments and dis­ap­point­ments she main­tained this sto­ical cara­pace, said Dempsey, all the way to 2015, by which time she was “ut­terly bro­ken”.

A guilty plea raises cer­tain cru­cial ques­tions. Does the per­son ac­knowl­edge re­spon­si­bil­ity for her ac­tions? Does she feel re­morse for what she did? Guode’s im­pen­e­tra­ble sto­icism made the ex­tent of her re­morse al­most im­pos­si­ble for the court to de­ter­mine. And there was a con­tra­dic­tion in her po­si­tion: al­though she had pleaded guilty, she con­tin­ued to in­sist, in her in­ter­views with Dr Sul­li­van, that she had never meant to kill her chil­dren. “She ac­knowl­edges her re­spon­si­bil­ity,” said Dempsey, “to the ex­tent that her per­son­al­ity per­mits her to, and still live.”

Jus­tice Lasry pressed Dr Sul­li­van to point to some spe­cific event that might have pushed Guode over the edge from her “ma­jor de­pres­sive dis­or­der” – a malaise that ev­ery­one agreed strikes much deeper than “nor­mal hu­man mis­ery”, and from which there was no doubt that she pro­foundly suf­fered – into a state in which she was ca­pa­ble of killing her own chil­dren.

“There must have been some­thing, mustn’t there?” said the judge. “Does it not fol­low from what she did that there must have been some­thing dra­matic which ac­cen­tu­ated her con­di­tion?”

“In many cases,” said the psy­chi­a­trist help­lessly, “it can just be the ebb and flow of hu­man suf­fer­ing, and the per­son reach­ing the thresh­old at which they can … no longer go on.”

No one in a court speaks the lan­guage of psy­cho­anal­y­sis, I know, but lis­ten­ing to this de­scrip­tion of an iron­clad en­durance forged in ex­treme ad­ver­sity, I re­mem­bered a re­mark by the British an­a­lyst Wil­fred Bion that had al­ways mys­ti­fied me but now made sense: “Peo­ple ex­ist … in whom pain … is so in­tol­er­a­ble that they feel the pain but will not suf­fer it and so can­not be said to dis­cover it.” A wo­man psy­chi­a­trist in Mel­bourne who has worked with many refugees from the Su­danese con­flict had de­scribed Guode’s ex­pe­ri­ences to me as “un­pro­cessed – re­pressed”. Guode was lost in her own numb­ness. How could she ask for help, or ad­mit – even to her­self – how far down she had slid? A wo­man with seven chil­dren to raise, but with no adult com­pan­ion to love her and help her and hold her to­gether, is not free to let her­self go into griev­ing for her losses.

And per­haps the trig­ger event that the judge was seek­ing was not prox­i­mate to the crime, but went back to the ex­is­ten­tial bat­ter­ing she had suf­fered a year and a half ear­lier, at the bloody birth of her sev­enth child. A mo­ment that still haunts me was Guode in the hold­ing bay, re­fus­ing to go into the op­er­at­ing theatre – face turned from the fast-talk­ing doc­tors, eyes closed, hand up: no, no.

At my first read­ing of the com­mit­tal tran­script, skim­ming for drama in­stead of sift­ing for fact, I had with­out hes­i­ta­tion in­ter­preted her re­fusal as a sui­ci­dal drop­ping of her bun­dle: I can’t take any more. Let me be, leave me alone and let me go. But the psy­chi­a­trist Dr Sul­li­van had not been able to es­tab­lish any “sui­ci­dal ideation”, past or present, in his in­ter­views with Guode. When court rose that day I went back to the tran­script. What I found there rocked me. How could I, as a wo­man, have failed to grasp the na­ture of the last-ditch “life-sav­ing treat­ment” for which they were in­sist­ing on her per­mis­sion? Ap­palled by the ter­ri­ble flow of blood, I had thought only of trans­fu­sion. But there it was, in pros­e­cu­tor Michele Wil­liams’ re-ex­am­i­na­tion of the mid­wife:

“And the … hys­terec­tomy that would be per­formed if other meth­ods failed … That’s what she was re­fus­ing?” “Yes.”

Could it be that this wo­man, wid­owed, passed from hand to hand and aban­doned, over­whelmed by her own fer­til­ity, es­tranged from her com­mu­nity and up to her neck in debt, was pre­pared to risk bleeding to death on a hos­pi­tal gur­ney rather than con­sent to the sur­gi­cal re­moval of the sole sym­bol of her worth, the site of her only dig­nity and power: her womb?

Surely, a wo­man whose life had lost all mean­ing apart from her moth­er­hood would kill her chil­dren only in a fit of mad­ness.

If a full-bore jury trial is a sym­phony, a plea hear­ing is a string quar­tet. Its pur­pose seems to be to clear a space in which the qual­ity of mercy might at least be con­tem­plated. There is some­thing mov­ing in its quiet thought­ful­ness, the in­ten­sity of its fo­cus, the mur­mur­ing voices of

She con­tin­ued to in­sist that she had never meant to kill her chil­dren.

judge and coun­sel, the ab­sence of melo­drama or pos­tur­ing. It’s the law in ac­tion, work­ing to fit the dry, clean planes of rea­son to the jagged edges of hu­man wild­ness and suf­fer­ing.

Jus­tice Lasry had made it clear, in his un­easy ques­tion­ing of the de­fence’s psy­chi­a­trist, that he was not con­sid­er­ing im­pos­ing a life sen­tence. Nor, said the pros­e­cu­tor, would the Crown be seek­ing one. Now the judge told the court that he had to leave town next morn­ing to hear a mur­der trial in Bendigo. It would take at least three weeks. He would not be able to turn his at­ten­tion to Guode’s sen­tence un­til well af­ter that mat­ter. He ad­journed the hear­ing early in the af­ter­noon of its sec­ond day, and ev­ery­one but the prisoner got up and went back to their or­di­nary lives, to wait for the call.

I have never much en­vied judges, but for Jus­tice Lasry in this case I felt no envy at all.

What would fol­low if he were per­suaded by Dempsey’s elo­quent plea to con­sider all Guode’s ac­tions un­der the mer­ci­ful shel­ter of in­fan­ti­cide? Imag­ine the scream­ing of the tabloids. Weak judges! Soft on crime! These refugees – they come here and think they can get away with any­thing!

If Akon Guode did go to prison, she would al­most cer­tainly have her visa can­celled once she had served her sen­tence, and would be de­ported. If the gov­ern­ment paid at­ten­tion to the coun­try re­ports is­sued by its own De­part­ment of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade, it could hardly send her back to Su­dan, a land racked by civil up­heaval and famine, where rape as a tac­tic in ar­eas of con­flict is com­mon and ac­cepted, and women have no pro­tec­tion. The only av­enue open to her here would be to ap­ply for a pro­tec­tion visa, and that would be a long shot. Where else could she be sent? Most likely to a de­ten­tion cen­tre, where she might lan­guish for years, a state­less pariah.

On the train one morn­ing I struck up a con­ver­sa­tion with a thought­ful-look­ing VCE stu­dent who was car­ry­ing a copy of Euripi­des’ Medea. I asked her what she made of the fa­mous play. She reeled off the things that stu­dents are taught to say about it. I wanted to know if she shared my anx­i­ety. I said, “She did a ter­ri­ble, ter­ri­ble thing. But she was very badly treated. She was be­trayed. She was —” The girl flushed and leaned for­ward. She put out both hands to me, palms up, and whis­pered, “But she was – a mother.”

I had no re­ply.

I was trou­bled, and I still am, by the fi­nal­ity of the word “mother”, this great thun­der­ing archetype with the power to stop the in­tel­lect in its tracks.

“The her­culean task of be­ing a mother,” said Mar­cus Dempsey in his fi­nal sub­mis­sion, “has now fallen to Akoi.” In the shadow of this an­cient duty, so im­pla­ca­ble and pro­found, can mercy hold up its head?

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.