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’
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