Truth, lies and in­tru­sion

Wendy James thought she’d found the per­fect sub­ject for her next novel — un­til her mother told her ‘it’s just not right’

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

MY new novel, The Mis­take, is not the story of Keli Lane, the Syd­ney woman serv­ing an 18-year jail sen­tence for the 1996 mur­der of her new­born baby Te­gan. It could have been. Her story strikes some fa­mil­iar chords. We’d grown up in the same part of the world, Syd­ney’s north­ern beaches; and, although I’m 10 years older than Lane, she seems vaguely fa­mil­iar. Surely I’d known sim­i­lar girls at my high school: those prodi­giously sporty Beaches girls, pretty, smart and pop­u­lar with teach­ers and stu­dents alike? I know the ge­o­graph­i­cal ter­rain and fig­ure that (with re­search) I could make a rea­son­able stab at the so­cial scene.

Lane’s case has strik­ing par­al­lels with the story told in my first novel, Out of the Si­lence (2005), a fic­tional retelling of a his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant turn-of-the-cen­tury in­fan­ti­cide. The fo­cus is the tragic story of 19-year-old do­mes­tic ser­vant Mag­gie Heffernan: her doomed ro­mance and hid­den preg­nancy, the drown­ing of her in­fant son and her sub­se­quent in­car­cer­a­tion.

Out of the Si­lence is also an ex­am­i­na­tion of the po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural po­si­tion of women in fin-de-siecle Australia, and I thought fic­tion­al­is­ing Lane’s loosely anal­o­gous sit­u­a­tion would give me an op­por­tu­nity to scru­ti­nise some of the same el­e­ments 100 years on.

Western women’s lives have changed vastly: along with the vote, we have easy ac­cess to con­tra­cep­tion, abor­tion is le­gal, the stigma at­tached to un­mar­ried moth­ers is prac­ti­cally nonex­is­tent. It’s dis­turb­ing to think an ap­par­ently healthy, well-ed­u­cated, well­re­sourced young woman could still feel such des­per­a­tion, would go to such lengths to dis­guise not one but three preg­nan­cies, would give birth three times in sad and lonely cir­cum­stances, would feel her­self un­able to mother these chil­dren. Dis­turb­ing and ter­ri­ble that she would tell no one; have no one to tell.

Far more com­pelling than the sur­face fa­mil­iar­ity or the his­tor­i­cal par­al­lels is the fact my cu­rios­ity is piqued by Lane her­self. Who is she? It would be a great chal­lenge, I imag­ine, to con­struct an au­then­tic and cred­i­ble fic­tional ver­sion of this woman whose ac­tions, so at odds with her up­bring­ing, most of us find al­most im­pos­si­ble to com­pre­hend.

I dis­cuss the Lane story with a writer friend, tell her I’m think­ing of a novel. ‘‘ Bril­liant,’’ she says, ‘‘ but be quick. Write it be­fore some­one else does!’’ We talk about the case: dis­cuss what’s known, what’s not, the cast of char­ac­ters, the plot. We throw up var­i­ous sce­nar­ios, coolly dis­sect this sor­did pos­si­bil­ity and that, toss our own sto­ries into the mix: an aunt who be­haved like this, a fa­ther who did that, a wife who let this or that hap­pen, a mother who turned a blind eye . . .

It’s so easy, dis­cussing the Lanes

of the world, caught in the public spot­light, so brightly il­lu­mi­nated that they are some­how no more real than sto­ry­book char­ac­ters or fig­ures on a screen. Lane’s story, dis­em­bod­ied from its lived re­al­ity, has some­how al­ready taken on the dis­tanc­ing man­tle of his­tory. Quick, write it be­fore some­one else does! I’ve blithely ap­pro­pri­ated the tale, claimed it as my own.

I tell my mother about the plans for the new book, just in con­ver­sa­tion, over the phone. There’s a pro­longed si­lence. Then: ‘‘ You want to write that ter­ri­ble story?’’ I think at first the odd note in her voice is just sur­prise. ‘‘ But that’s aw­ful. You can’t do that. It’s so sen­sa­tional. What a dread­ful thing to do.’’ She sounds ap­palled and I’m sur­prised: my mother is rarely crit­i­cal of my writ­ing projects. But I wouldn’t write it sen­sa­tion­ally, I as­sure her, ‘‘ I’ll be sen­si­tive, I’m not that sort of writer. I’d change the names.’’

‘‘ Wendy. You can’t write that story. They’re real peo­ple.’’

‘‘ Oh, but Mum . . .’’ She cuts me off, says with cer­tainty and some sever­ity, ‘‘ It’s just not right.’’

I don’t ar­gue, in­stead turn the con­ver­sa­tion to other, safer sub­jects: house ren­o­va­tions, do­ings of chil­dren, fam­ily mat­ters.

Later, I laugh it off. I’m an artist, af­ter all; surely I have the right, a re­spon­si­bil­ity, even, to take what­ever story I like — whomever’s story I like — and tease some sort of larger truth out of the chaos? Ob­vi­ously my mother doesn’t un­der­stand the artis­tic im­per­a­tive, the writer’s ex­emp­tion from worldly con­sid­er­a­tions, that splin­ter of ice in the heart that lets us write clearly, coolly, with­out fear or favour.

I find out all I can about the case. Print out end­less ar­ti­cles, read on­line com­men­tary, blogs. I read around the sub­ject: works on hid­den preg­nan­cies, in­fan­ti­cide, adop­tion. I think hard about the way I might turn this story into fic­tion. I make lists. Write out the bare bones of the nar­ra­tive. It’s sim­ple, surely, when the story and all its pro­tag­o­nists al­ready ex­ist. All I have to pro­vide is a cred­i­ble so­lu­tion to the mys­tery — where is the child, Te­gan? — and I al­ready have some ideas about this. But I need a way in. I search for a voice, an im­age, a scene, a place to start, but noth­ing comes.

In the mean­time, in a bid to build up an on­line writ­ing pres­ence, I run a blog, Lit­er­ary Gnat, where I of­fer up bits of news and odd sto­ries I find in the course of my work as a re­searcher. Most of them come from those now de­funct scan­dal rags of the the 1950s and 60s: Truth, the Daily Mir­ror.

One day I come across a bril­liant cau­tion­ary tale: the story of a re­spectable English­woman who stran­gled her sis­ter-in-law with her scarf af­ter she left a dirty cup on the sink. It’s a per­fect nar­ra­tive ex­em­plar of the straw that breaks the camel’s back: the sis­ter-in-law had come for a visit six years ear­lier and, as she never lifted a fin­ger in the house, her host­ess’s pa­tience had been sorely — fa­tally — tried.

The trial judge was most sym­pa­thetic, not to the vic­tim but to the much put-upon killer, and she was given a le­nient sen­tence. I type the ar­ti­cle in full, in­clud­ing names of vic­tim and per­pe­tra­tor, add a few smar­tarse com­ments and then leave it. There are a cou­ple of amused re­join­ders and then, in the evanes­cent way of the bl­o­go­sphere, the post is su­per­seded by the next and the next and all but for­got­ten.

Or so I think. A few months later, I re­ceive a rash of emails from the grand­son of the killer, chal­leng­ing me on my cal­lous­ness. How could I laugh at some­one who’d gone through such pain, he asks. What sort of per­son was I to make light of such a tragic sit­u­a­tion? His gran was a won­der­ful woman, a widow who’d strug­gled hard to bring up her chil­dren, one of whom was se­verely dis­abled, and the vis­it­ing aunt had ru­ined her life. In a fit of anger, she’d acted badly, but she’d paid for her crime.

His words are heart­felt — heart-wrench­ing — and bring me up short. I’d never have posted the ar­ti­cle had I imag­ined the woman could still be alive, but some­how I’d failed to con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity her fam­ily would still be around, would alight on my blog post. I apol­o­gise for my thought­less be­hav­iour. There is noth­ing I can say to ex­cuse my­self, though.

It sets me won­der­ing se­ri­ously about the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the Lane story. Although I had vaguely con­sid­ered the dan­gers to my­self — the ac­cu­sa­tions of sen­sa­tion­al­ism and op­por­tunism that might be lev­elled — I hadn’t re­ally con­sid­ered the rip­ples and waves such a nar­ra­tive might pro­duce, mov­ing out­wards, ini­tially, but then in­evitably find­ing their way back to the source. The ‘‘ real’’ Keli Lane.

Did I want that to hap­pen? It’s one thing to in­vent a nar­ra­tive around a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure, one whose life or work forms part of the his­tor­i­cal record, such as Mag­gie Heffernan. It’s quite a dif­fer­ent mat­ter when the pro­tag­o­nists are still around, when there’s a pos­si­bil­ity of hurt­ing them with a recog­nis­able ac­count of their do­ings: their lives, loves, mo­ti­va­tions. Can I re­ally jus­tify my use of the tragic story of Lane? I think per­haps my mother’s ob­jec­tion has some cre­dence. I can’t write that story. It wouldn’t be right.

There are im­por­tant things I want to ex­plore but there’s no rea­son it has to be about this woman, this case. So I write an­other story, a novel, The Mis­take, which cen­tres on Jodie Gar­row, a mid­dle-class woman liv­ing in the fic­tional New Eng­land town of Ard­ing whose life falls apart when it is re­vealed that as a teenager she gave up a baby in an il­le­gal adop­tion. A child that 25 years later can’t be found. The Mis­take is about me­dia witch hunts, the un­rav­el­ling of a fam­ily, class, friend­ship, ado­les­cence. There are echoes of that orig­i­nal story, but it’s not the story of Lane. Wendy James is a New­cas­tle-based writer. The Mis­take is pub­lished by Pen­guin.

Keli Lane af­ter her con­vic­tion in 2010

Peter Cor­ris brings Syd­ney vividly to life

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