from “The Faraway Nearby” by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit

“Sometimes the key arrives long before the lock. Sometimes a story falls in your lap. Once about a hundred pounds of apricots fell into mine. They came in three big boxes, and to keep them from crushing one another under their weight or from rotting in close quarters, I spread them out on a sheet on the plank floor of my bedroom. There they presided for some days, a story waiting to be told, a riddle to be solved, and a harvest to be processed. They were an impressive sight, a mountain of apricots in every stage from hard and green to soft and browning, though most of them were that range of shades we call apricot: pale orange with blushes of rose and yellow-golds zones, upholstered in a fine velvet, not as fuzzy as peaches, not as smooth as plums. The ripe ones had the faint sweet perfume particular to that fruit.

I had expected them to look like abundance itself and they looked instead like anxiety, because every time I came back there was another rotten one or two or three or dozen to cull, and so I fell to inspecting the pile every time I passed by instead of admiring it. The reasons why I came to have a heap of apricots on my bedroom floor are complicated. They came from my mother’s tree, from the home she no longer lived in, in the summer when a new round of trouble began.”


Rebecca Solnit writes an anti-memoir about her mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s. I love that it is called an anti-memoir. Who knew that was a genre? That’s the genre I would like to end up in. A dark corner of the bookshop where maudlin people hang. Maybe what makes it an anti-memoir is its refusal tell a story chronologically, or to tell a story at all. Sometimes it feels like reading a literary thesis as she rambles on about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Reading this book you fall into the maze of the writer’s mind.

My own parents had a similar tree in their yard. Like Rebecca’s mother apricot. Except a mandarin. From the kitchen window it could be seen. My father hung his little pots of honeyed poison from it to catch the fruit fly that threatened it. A visit to their house at ripening season meant leaving with a shopping bag of freshly picked mandarins. Wanted or not. They were small and not very juicy. Their skin was fiercely adherent and difficult to peel. They often had discoloured patches that quickly turned brown and soft. Most of them ended up in the bin. But how my mother loved the fecundity of the tree. She loved that she had something for free that she had previously paid good money for. She loved that she could give containers of fruit to the neighbours or anyone who came visiting. A visit to June meant leaving with a dozen or so mandarins, a few of which were already on the turn.

Graham gave me the Rebecca Solnit book after reading the opening scene about the apricots. He knew it would remind me of my mother. A pang. Apricots. Mandarins. The fruit tree you harvest as its crop becomes plentiful but there is always too many to eat. The tree bursts forth all at once. Too many to give away. Instead they become binned. Others just fall and sink into the ground around the tree and become dirt.


Susan Friedman on Behaviour

Susan Friedman

I am forced to get off the comfy king sized bed – the urge to write overrides the laziness I feel when faced with the chore of getting on my wheelchair to go to my bag and dig out the moleskin notebook. I momentarily chide myself for not being forward-thinking enough before I got onto the bed in the first place. Being in a wheelchair teaches one the economy of transfers. But laziness and the desire to write are strong competitors, and the urge to put pen to paper wins, almost every time. This is how I know I am a writer. I do it compulsively. I don’t just want to think this stuff – I want to capture it for later when I want to recall the weekend. I want to revisit the Lego-like image of plane after plane taking off and landing across the water of Botany Bay – as I view them from my balcony window in the Novotel Sydney Brighton.


The planes are thunderously loud. They boom across the sky. At night it seems they are louder than during the day, as if the day-air somehow absorbs and blankets the sound. Chunky Sydney air – thick with moisture always – so different from Perth’s air – gauze thin. On a still Sydney night the jets crack the sky. Some dogs must hate this; living beneath the flight path. Others must habituate to the noise and become the seriously bomb-proof hounds.


Susan Friedman is an Applied Behaviourist and specialises in teaching people how to assess behaviour across all species. She has a penchant for work with captive birds. She has talked for two days solid. A true New Yorker, despite living and teaching these days in Utah. Some heavy reinforcement must have been declared, since she has turned a normally 8-week long course into a two-day seminar. “Strap yourselves in,” she tells us; peppers us with “Good Job”.


She is not speaking to the uninitiated in behaviour. It is an audience of veterinarians who are interested in behaviour or have done further study, of animal trainers, of zoological keepers and behaviour practitioners. I guess we could be considered a weird bunch; heavily analytical and deciphering.  Even making her morning coffee with a new machine, Friedman, sees behaviour in everything she does.


And why wouldn’t you? It is one of those areas. The more you learn about how animals learn the more you see the world through a behaviourist’s eye. From a gnat to a blue whale – we all learn the same. Through motivation. Through being reinforced. Through wanting to move towards something or escape something else. The more we study behaviour across species the more we see the similarities, especially when it comes to learning and behaviour. There was a time, sadly not that long ago, when we concentrated on the difference between us and animals, even believing animals felt less pain than we do and hence operating on them without adequate pain relief following. That seems ludicrous now.


Susan Friedman has a simple message for all. Behaviour is what animals do – all of us – on Earth. To change behaviour is simpler than you think. What comes before the behaviour is called the antecedents – the environmental circumstances that the behaviour happens in. And what comes after the behaviour are the consequences of the behaviour itself. So, if a dog bites a hand, the bite is the behaviour, and the hand being near the dog is the antecedent and the consequence is that the hand goes away. To successfully change the behaviour we can work both with the antecedents and the consequences. We can change the way the dog thinks about an approaching hand by positively reinforcing the approach of the hand. Much behaviour can be managed by changing both the consequence and the antecedent before addressing the behaviour itself. Looking closely at the consequence of an animal’s behaviour can tell us what it was doing the behaviour for in the first place.


Having worked with delinquent children she sees the need for working ethically and changing behaviour by trying the least intrusive method first. This means we should not be reaching for shock collars when we deal with a barking dog as a first port of call. (I would say there is always another way.) Ethics demands we explore the least punitive measures first and so therefore, with our barking dog, as an example again, we should ask at what and when does the dog bark? Can we first manage the environment to stop the dog barking?


It was one of those conferences that sees you delving into the behaviour of your child and spouse and unpicking their behaviour in the behavioural assessment kind of way. And holding the mirror up too. Perhaps it is as simple as reinforcing the behaviour you want. She told the delightful story of a group of psychology students who successfully manipulated their professor to only teach from one corner of the lecture room. Whenever he moved towards that corner they became more attentive, listening and nodding, smiling as he spoke. When he moved away from that corner they looked down and uninterested, fiddled and feigned disinterest. By the end of the term he was indeed corralled exactly as they had planned – all with the use of positive and negative reinforcement.


A mantra she taught us to ask when looking at behaviour is, “What is the Function?”  Use this when studying behaviour and you can see how useful it is. Perhaps when people believe they are unable to change a behaviour then it is because they are invested in the behaviour continuing unaltered.


She also talked to us to be wary of the investment in“story”. As behaviourists let us not get too caught up in how the behaviour developed in the first place. It is common for people to want to tell you stories of how a dog’s jealousy, anger or fear arose, but as behaviourists, we should concentrate more on teaching animals what to do and be less concerned on what NOT to BE. This too carries over to children who, for example, have been shown to do less well at school once a label; such as having a “learning disorder” is attached to them.


Most clients will want the tool to “stop” a behaviour that is causing them problems, when really they would be better served asking themselves what would they like the animal to do instead – and then teach it. It sounds simple and is – but this is not the same as easy – since people live in a “cultural fog” of misinformation regarding animal behaviour – from thinking animals should just do it because you have asked it of them, to believing that animals are incapable of learning anything at all.


At the end of the two days, as the organisers were getting ready to thank Susan for her talks, the fire alarm went off. Loud.Persistent. The conference could not continue over the siren. Intermittently a recorded voice came on and asked us to stay where we were and await further instructions. I thought of 9/11 and the people who died because they heeded that advice. I thought we should leave the building. Isn’t that what you do when a fire alarm goes off? After several minutes the alarms had been switched off and another announcement told us the source of the problem had been located. Susan was presented with a sculptured galah, which she sincerely claimed to love. A behaviourist till the end, she left us saying she hoped she wouldn’t be paired  forever more with the piercing sound of a fire alarm. The lectures were over.


I ascended the building in the lift and could smell the smoke as I entered the sixth floor. I could see no smoke. In the corridor two heavily clad firemen stood by the entrance to the laundry. They had tracked the smoke to the laundry room where someone had set a meal aflame in the microwave. The perpetrator had fled with the burning meal and the smoke had made the alarms go off. Now there was just unmistakable taint of smoke and burnt food lingering.


I spoke to the firemen because. Because they are in yellow, with bulky suits and because they are firemen. FIREMEN. Since our own house fire, years ago, I have the conditioned response to firemen (the conditioned stimulus) of going weak at the knees and running off at the mouth. I hovered about them as they measured the smoke with their machinery. I asked them about the rule of not using a lift in a fire. They said I could use it. The lift was for them and me. They said the person who had set the meal on fire could be charged with a criminal offence if caught. I thought of the learning we had been doing moments before downstairs. Of how punishment is entrenched in the way we humans do stuff. Despite there being no injury or damage caused, the punishment inflicted could be severe. Deterrent enough to being caught. If the world could become the tiniest bit like the world offered up by Susan Friedman we could see more harmony between our species too.







Barbara Arrowsmith Young

laminex table

It is a winter’s night, but not cold.

Barbara Arrowsmith Young tells us of her usual winter’s night in Canada where temperatures hover around minus forty. I wonder if she is speaking Fahrenheit or celsius. Either way it is nothing I can imagine.

But Perth people don’t really do winter or the rain.

The audience is mainly women between 40 and 50 in slacks. Like me. A queue has formed for a snappy white wine before the lecture begins. Not a skirt in sight. Trouser wearing women – practical types. Women who think they can change things – including their own and others’ brains. That’s the business they’re in. Mostly educators, psychologists. Probably mothers too.

My friend works in Mindfulness. She is well in-touch with her mind and its capabilities. She knows she needs a lot of sleep. She tells me how working with people to develop mindfulness “deepens their keel in the water.” What a steadying, comforting image. Indeed for most minds it is a rough sea out there, but what a difference a solid keel makes.

Barbara tells us her own story first. As a child she had such severe learning disabilities that she was a danger to herself. Despite so many issues she managed to learn through sheer determination and persistence. It helped that her mother was an educator and her father a creative inventor. But it was not till adulthood when she discovered the work of a physician, who had studied a patient who had had a bullet lodged in his brain, that she uncovered the source of her problems. Seeing the similarities between her own cognitive fog and that of the damaged man, she was able to locate her disability and pin-point it to the angular gyrus in the cerebral cortex. She then devised exercises to teach herself the things she could not do. She worked at the exercises, which were always slightly above her level of skill, till she mastered them and then she made them harder. She changed her brain, at a time when medicine really didn’t believe it was possible to do so.

It is accepted today that the brain is changeable. Neuroplasticity is studied and yet in schools we don’t give children the cognitive exercises that would help them to change their brains. Instead if a child is poor at hand writing we give them permission to type. She didn’t really go in-depth as to the specific exercises she has developed to help the various disorders of learning, but gave examples of how countless people have changed their brain’s functioning through the use of exercises in the areas that they have trouble with. She said people needed to lose the supports they had developed to cope with the learning disorder and approach it head on.

Again I thought of dogs.

Dogs too can change their brains. And we can be their teachers. I have a sense that changing a dog’s brain may be simpler than changing your child’s, especially since asking your child to join you in some cognitive exercises might be harder than you think. At least with a dog there is always food rewards. Just like people, dogs have the ability to learn new things. Everybody needs the right environment to learn. Dogs and children need not to be anxious, not ill, not in pain, not sleep deprived and not chronically stressed. The old adage “you can’t teach a dog new tricks” may not be true after all.

Think of the dog-reactive dog that flies into a rage every time it sees another dog. To improve behaviour it must practice being calm in front of other dogs. It is best to work just below threshold with dogs like this. We don’t want it to tip over into non-thinking dog. Brain-switched-off dog. One that is just shouting – go away, go away. But it must see other dogs to learn the new way. Neurons need to make new connections, instead of flying down the well-worn path of reactivity. I think of the laminex table and its marbled pattern – why now it resembles dendrites. A filigree of filamentous nerve endings reaching out for connections. A finger can trace the path to get from one point to the other, but the route can change. So too the destination. Left isolated, apart from other dogs, our Cujo will never improve its dog reactivity. Leaving maths alone won’t make your arithmetic better. Buying a piano and leaving it idle will not turn you into a pianist.

She described the feeling of living with a learning disorder as walking through life with a heavy pack of rocks on your back. But when people changed their brains they were released of their heavy loads. Previously difficult tasks became easy and free of stress. A stressed brain cannot relearn. At any age change was possible. For all species.

Like a dance. The neurons that fire together, wire together, and the more they fire together the stronger the connections between those neurons become. I guess this is the basis of learning. We can all do it. Change our brains to become peaceful, calm and plastic.

Dealing with Disappointment


I decide to ring the Department of Education because it is mid way through August and we are supposed to hear about Jasper’s application in August. I don’t really expect to be given a result on the phone, and so when the person says, “I can check, what’s his name?” I am unprepared. I feel my heart wobble. It comes free from its attachments inside my chest. Name given – a pause – “It appears he won’t be being offered a place in the first round,” comes the reply.

I close my eyes. My head screams, NO. My heart slides downwards towards my stomach. The disappointment is visceral really. I have my own disappointment, but more than that, I have a son to tell. He has already become very attached to the idea of studying visual arts at the school. He will take it hard.

Graham is away, and so it falls to me to deliver the news. I could wait till Graham got home, in a week, but that seems deceitful – to know for all that time and not let on.

I wait till we are home, after school, in our kitchen. He has a very crunchy ANZAC biscuit in his hand and his back to me when I begin. “I rang the department today to ask about the visual arts and I am sorry to say they said you didn’t get in.” When I start the sentence he turns to look at me, a slight smile, and I can see from his expression he thinks the sentence is a good news one, but as I get through to its second half, it dawns on him that this is not a good news sentence at all and his face changes. It crumples into tears. I go to comfort him. To hug. He pulls away and rushes from the room.

I don’t follow him immediately. I wait in the lounge, by myself, wondering how long do I wait for. What words of comfort can I offer? I know you’re disappointed, I rehearse in my head.  He is not in his room. He is not in the study. He is not in my room – that I can see. He is in my wardrobe – behind the clothes – crouched in a huddle – beneath dresses and jackets and the confetti of shoes. I can see his sneakers and in his hand the ANZAC, untouched. It is a safe hiding place. Go away.

I close the wardrobe door and leave him in the dark. I’m so sorry…

I leave him.

To myself – Maybe don’t eat the ANZAC in there..

I leave him some more.

Still hiding.

He comes out.

He is outside in the courtyard, bouncing a ball, and I am in the kitchen making a cup of tea. I view him through the window, across the sink. Skinny, lanky, always moving. I see a big tear fall from his face without hitting his cheek, like a rain drop falling to the ground. I am crying too and he sees me. He comes inside. Let’s take the dog out. We walk the dog. My solution to all woes. The road by the port is closed and we must walk by the railway. Broken glass. The slap of skateboards. Still beautiful. It is a day like any other to the dog. There is winter grass to pee on. There are urine soaked telegraph poles to sniff at. There are homeless begging in the mall. Jasper asks what has happened to his career? He is eleven. “We’ll just have to show them what a great artist they missed out on teaching,” I say. We eat churros dipped in melted chocolate.



from “We The Animals” by Justin Torres

we the animals

“We The Animals” is a slim book – almost thin enough not to be a novel at all, but a novella.

But it is so very rich in its thinness.

It is taut. Every word has its place and only that place will do. Like a perfectly tuned musical instrument.

I loved this book from the moment I picked it up – its sentences spoke to me instantly. I was there, in the grubby house with the Puerto Rican father and the white mother, locked into some struggle that children can’t name. All the while you have a sense of dread, stretching the skin of the balloon – bursting is inevitable.

It opens:

“We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls: we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet: we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”

Then later in this excerpt the boys attempt escape from the chaos of their home life;

“We reached an empty field, tossed our backpacks onto the grass, and set up camp. Wind whipped the tips of our ears and stole a plastic bag right out of Manny’s hand. He thought it was a sign and fished though our supplies until he pulled out a tight, fat roll of twine and three black plastic bags. We made kites: trash bags on strings. We ran, slipped, the knees of our dungarees all grass stained, we got up, ran, choked ourselves half to death with laughter, but we found speed, and our trash kites soared. We flew for an hour or so, until daylight fully buried itself into night and the light sank back, except for the stars and a toenail clipping of moon, and the kites disappeared, black on blackness. That’s when we let go,and our trash kites really soared – up and away, heavenward, like prayers, our hearts chasing after.”

It’s the kind of literature that delivers you bellyside to the narrator. We never even learn his name. But there we are  – in someone else’s skin. At times you want out, it is just too grim. But then that’s good writing. If this is the kind of writing you like then “We The Animals” is for you.


On Attenborough…


He is eighty-seven years old.

Just beneath his skin, by his collar-bone, sits a pace maker  – good for another twenty-five years.

He would, if he could.

Pale blue chambray shirt, camel trousers. His uniform. His left leg is especially bowed, like that of an old cowboy. I suspect arthritis chews away at his hips. Exiting off the raised central stage at intermission he wobbles and almost falls. From the audience a collective intaking of breath. Ray takes his elbow, he steadies. Please don’t fall you precious man.

He tells us stories from the start of television. He was there in the very beginning. He was in the small studio when television was live and a nature program meant standing an armadillo, brought in a box from the London zoo, on a doormat placed upon a table and filming it, or else having the local rat-catcher tell a story to camera. From these very basics to seeing flight as if we were birds ourselves, as if we were insects caught on a spider’s web or killer whales hoisting a seal pup through the air. He has been witness to so much that is beautiful and frightening and awe-inspiring in nature. He loves it all. Almost too much for one man. How incredibly fortunate. And he knows it too. He does not take it for granted.

We listen to his stories like children camped at the feet of their exploring grandfather. We, the armchair travellers, who have watched him through the small screen since our own childhoods when we first watched Life on Earth. Then, it inspired my sister to follow a career in nature. His voice so familiar that to think of blue whales and elephant seals is to play the soundtrack of his commentary in our mind.

When asked about the planet he is not optimistic for its future. He worries about global warming. But he is not a political heavy weight. He does not stir up protest and dissent. He asks that people do what they can to reduce carbon pollution. He eats meat – his dentition, his stomach structure, his evolution – they all suggest to him that it is okay to do so.

The drive home is quick. Passing Kings Park bushland on our left – an infinity of blackness. I tell Jasper the thought of the parkland at night scares me – so black. Of course, he answers, like it is the only sensible emotion to feel. It is late and the roads are empty. It has been raining and the bitumen is slick ink. Street lights making shiny pools of silver.

We are the only car on the road in either direction. We have a string of green lights. Green pools on black road.

We are on the highway above the railway and the ocean is to our right. The tracks are empty. Standing on the road ahead is a fox. I can tell from the shape of its bushy tail, held horizontally to the road, as long and wide as the fox itself. It turns its head towards us and we see its orange eyes and its sharply pointed ears. I know there are foxes in the cities, even the very biggest and busiest, but still. In my head I thank David Attenborough. As if he has brought this creature out of the dark and shown it to us tonight as we race home.

I slow the car and the fox darts across the road ahead of us and is gone. Into the gardens of the big houses. Looking for chickens.


Dirty Laundry – Epilogue

coroner's report

Again feeling like a pariah.

We all know who she is, but she does not know who we are. It is an unequal relationship. One where perhaps we hold more power. But then again there is always the truth and really only she knows that, or as much of it as can be known. No one knows more about what when on at 17 Harwood Street, Hilton, but her. Perhaps also she knows more than she can say to anyone, even to herself. If some how she were responsible for the boy’s entrapment – then who can she tell. Not a single soul. Not ever.

I suspect she guesses the ones with the notebooks are the reporters – with work to do. They can justify their prying, nursing an A5 spirax on their laps. I have no justification.

When she arrives she is surrounded by her family, once again. Grandma in pale green slacks and top. What an outing. Who I think of as her father has more white than grey hair. A comb’s made furrows through it. A big nose. He appears to have stepped from the set of East Enders. There are other blondes that could be sisters, cousins. She has run the gauntlet of the camera men. Now they simply wait outside the entrance for all this to be over with.

She greets her family with pecks on cheeks. There are smiles.

Even out here, in the foyer, I write down everything. A supporter watched Fast and Furious Six and loved it. Left work early to watch it.

As soon as the doors to the court are open, we all file in. Most of the lawyers are different to the ones that were in the court before. The washing machine that sat ominously in the court room during the proceedings has gone. Ten minutes till the coroner is expected to appear. The reporters next to me talk about the night before. Too many red wines have left her feeling tired. It’s just another day in the office for them. Kerry Murphy sits between her two major supporters – a woman and the white-haired man, who could be her adopted parents.

We stand on Mr Hope’s arrival into the court and bow.

He lets us know that he will read from his findings and that they will be available in hard copy at the end. Exhibits will be returned to the police, including the washing machine.

He is straight into it. Occasionally he looks up and seems to connect his gaze directly at the mother. He is brusque and unemotional. He is straightforward and logical. There is no other way to view the material he has dissected through. He makes his points clearly and forcefully. He declares the mother to be untruthful, but despite some of the ways the child and cat may have come to find themselves inside the washing machine being unlikely, they were not impossible. Unlikely things do happen, he said. He said that he needed to be absolutely sure that the mother was involved in the child’s death to make such a finding. He needed to have cogent and reliable evidence to make such a conclusion and, in the absence of such evidence, he could not do so.

He said of the mother; “she is a person who is prepared to lie whenever she considers the truth is unfavourable to her.”

But being a liar did not necessarily make her anymore than that.

In the end, as he delivered his open finding, and it settled on her that she was not going to be found responsible for the death of her son, her bottom jaw began to quiver and she fell onto the woman beside and wept silently.

Was she crying from relief? No doubt. Did she cry too for the loss of her son? Maybe.

Other family wiped tears from their eyes.

Mr Hope rose from his desk, as did the entire court room to acknowledge him, and then he turned and left. It was over. There was no lingering around. No one would be asking him any questions. I want to ask: Ok I get that you made an open finding, but what do you really think? Do you feel she was responsible? In your gut. But he does not make a personal judgement. He just looks at evidence and finds accordingly. There is no room here for sentiment, for feelings, for intuition. His sitting up high really does reflect some higher thinking. He does not cloud logic, like the rest of us might. Because you get the feeling that everyone, besides her supporters, thinks she was, in some way, responsible.

The journalists rushed to the assistant’s desk to get their hands on a copy of the report. The assistant rose and walked slowly around her desk, taking a copy of the report to give to the mother, still seated with her family crowded about her. Then she came back to her desk to hand out the remainder. Some people would not receive one, but at least the mother had been given a copy. The assistant had done her job.

Outside the building the reporters were in position. Two camera men could see through the glass and give a heads up to the others when the family were on their way towards the exit. Most of the reporters were at the bottom of the steps enjoying a moment in the sun. In a cold city street in winter any warmth is welcomed. Two camera men wait at the base of the ramp in case she chooses that rather than the stairs. She does. Despite being flanked by family, she is immediately surrounded. I feel sorry for her. They do not. She is like meat thrown to a pack of piranhas. I guess they can claim to be doing their jobs. I can’t hear their questions, but later, on the TV news, I hear them. Are you relieved? How do you feel? She says nothing. She keeps walking, close to the wall of the building. They are in her face, incredibly close. But they don’t pursue her for long. They give up by the end of the block. I am on the other side of the street. Just watching. Still feeling ashamed.

If she came across me and asked, “What are you doing here?” what would I say? I want to say, I am sorry for your loss. Can you tell me what happened to Sean?

I wonder how it is that the reporters think she is ever going to tell them anything with the camera and microphone rammed in her face.

The truth has shrivelled to a kernel locked inside her. It disappeared the moment Sean took his last breath.

They keep filming till she turns the corner and then they stop, as if a single city block is their limit. Perhaps they only need 30 seconds of footage. Outside Miss Maud’s the family stand in a huddle smoking cigarettes. I am fifty feet from them and all the reporters have gone. They can have their lives back now. Can they? How do you go on after this?

At home I read my copy of the report. Nothing tells me why the cat did not scratch the boy to pieces. Nothing explains how the toddler hung on to a struggling animal. The cat appeared to have died in the same way as Sean – entrapment and suffocation – but may have died slightly sooner. The only really clear thing to be decided was that the boy was dead or dying within the confines of the washing machine during one of the phone calls made that day. As Ms Murphy spoke to her then defacto at 1.36pm, supposedly about placing $5 down on a layby purchase, Sean would have been in the machine. They spoke for 326 seconds. Ten minutes later she rang triple zero to say, “My three-year-old climbed into the washing machine and he – I think he’s dead.”


Dirty Laundry

front loader Image

I don’t know what I am doing here.


Call me a no good, sticky beak, nosey parker.


Do you feel better if you have a note pad to look down at and scribble in? Curiosity overwhelms shame. Something in me wants to dig deeper.


I should be at home doing my psychopharmacology assignment. Instead I’ve caught the train with the morning city workers. I’ve pushed through the city, contemplated a takeaway coffee, but been put off by the long queues at the supposed best places, and finally arrived at the Central Law Courts in the east part of town. There is airport type security to pass through, before the lifts, which lead to the courtrooms. I instinctively expect a pat down when my wheelchair makes the metal detectors go off, but they aren’t as officious as airport guards and, after asking if I have anything concealed, let me proceed.


It is a peaceful building. It is the opposite of the chaos and disorder that is the central discussion of most of the cases and events whose narratives are told before a judge.


It is supremely clean. Cleaner, I suspect, than most public buildings. Like it should be. Like it is saying to the public who enter it – see – this is how ordered and polite society behave. Look what you can do if you just clean yourselves up a bit. Peering out of the high windows, the road and alleyway beyond appear shabby, the concrete car park an eyesore. Cars even appear disheveled. Inside the carpet is striped and bold, the chairs are seventies chic. The bathrooms are white tiled with bleached porcelain sinks. Paper towels are provided. Soap dispensers have soap in them. There are sharps dispensers in the cubicles, an open acknowledgement that illicit drugs might be consumed here, but it is convenient to do the proper thing with your used needles.


I am looking for Court 51 to attend the Coroner’s Court to listen to the final day of the case of the toddler found dead inside the front load washer/dryer. Daily the story has captured my attention in the local paper. Washing Machine Inquest. And now I will hear the mother describe, in detail, the moment and the lead up to her discovery of her child – locked inside the closed machine, found dead with the stiff cadaver of a pet cat called Snowy. Call me ghoulish.


On the morning of the 20th September 2010 three people were alive in the Hilton home. The man rose early, did not have breakfast, and went to work. The mother, Ms. Murphy, twenty-seven, claimed to have overslept and when she woke to find her son, Sean, was not answering to her calls, she searched frantically, turning the house upset down. Then something awry caught her eye, as she stood in the hallway and looked into the laundry. What was that in the machine? She opened the front loader door – pulled out the stiff cat and then her hot, limp son, his head and hair wet. She carried him out to the hallway, lay him down and began CPR. She rang triple 0. When the paramedics arrived they took over the resuscitation of the already deceased boy whilst the mother phoned her partner to tell him Sean was critical and would be going to the hospital. When Ms. Murphy said she needed to lock the house before being able to accompany the paramedics, and began searching for her keys, the ambulance officers had the gut feeling that something was not right about the scene. It felt weird to them. She felt weird to them. They left the house without her. Later they informed the police.


So much of the story does not make sense. What active normal toddler allows his mother to sleep till 1.30pm without being fed, when it his habit to wake her early by jumping on her stomach? She talks of Sean’s Thomas the Tank Engine clock. It has a face that changes from asleep to awake. He knew not to get out of bed till the face changed at six o’clock. After that he was free to shake the house. I am reminded of my own son’s early mornings as a toddler. We took it in turns for the predawn shift, feeling as if a whole day had elapsed before the other parent got up to take over after seven.


There were photographs on the camera that showed Sean had been alive earlier in the day, in the same room where his mother slept, taking flash pictures, and yet she claims to not have woken till 1.30pm when her partner rang her on her mobile rang. She gives no reason for her sleeping-in that day.


She has strawberry blonde hair pulled back into ponytail. Her pale eyes are rimmed with pale lashes and even paler eyebrows. She wears no makeup. She could be dusted with flour. She looks drawn and annoyed to be here. She could be 17 or 37 – an ageless, unwrinkled face. She is sometimes curt and agitated with the questioning from the counsel assisting the coroner. And sometimes it is accusatory. But she is rarely visibly upset. She never sobs or breaks down on her descriptions of her son. She describes his love of Diego and Elmo and her voice is breaking, but she gets through it. It makes her seem hard.


I am reminded of the nation’s judgement of Lindy Chamberlain and how the portrayal of her inadequate emotional responses was labelled hard and callous. So incredulous was the nation to her story of a Dingo taking a baby that she was swiftly branded a child-killer? What was she really guilty of? Not seeming to be a good mother? It made her appear guilty – her inability to cry.


This mother is also unlikable. The pale blue high-necked sweater makes her look conservative. But the outfit feels like a lie, an attempt at manipulation. Has she been asked by her lawyer to wear this colour? Baby blue. Is it supposed to be a reminder of the lost child? She wears a black velvet jacket too. She has tight-fitting trousers and long grey boots with flat heels. I watch her feet as they jiggle constantly beneath her chair during questioning. Like someone sitting an exam. Some of her answers feel rehearsed.


At times the coroner, Mr. Alastair Hope, takes over the questioning, as if he can get to the bottom of this. There is a general feeling of disbelief at the possibility that the child could climb into the washing machine, with the cat, and then close the door, from the inside, and trap himself and the cat inside – and there – suffocate and later be found dead, virtually unmarked, with no scratches on him.


There remains the possibility of the dog of the house – Simba – being the one to have closed the machine door. As an active exuberant dog perhaps he was chasing the cat and the boy and they hid in the machine and the door closed behind them by the action of the dog jumping or knocking against the washer’s door? Possible perhaps?


How do you prove this? How do you prove you are innocent, if you are? You are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty, but there is a distinct feeling that there is a need to show innocence here. What can this mother do to demonstrate she didn’t do it? Would crying now help?


The coroner sits alone at an expansive desk. He is higher than everyone else. He enters from the innards of the building, almost as if he is joining us through a secret entrance. Does he come up from beneath the ground? His associate announces his arrival and asks us all to stand. Wheelchair bound I am unable to. When we re-enter after a short recess, he is not yet present. It is a bit like being in a school classroom before the teacher arrives. There is banal chatter amongst the legal teams. The coroner’s associate tells the lawyers that Mr. Hope is ready to resume. “Are you psychic?” a lawyer jokes. “I can hear the click of his door,” she answers. Then smiling adds – “one Powerball.” One lawyer asks the team behind, “Where’s your client?” We can’t begin without her. I imagine Mr. Hope standing in the back, like a thespian waiting to make his entrance from behind the curtain. “She’ll be having a cigarette, or two,” her counsel says. Another moment passes, “or an entire ashtray.”


The press has not returned and I feel privy to a strange camaraderie between the lawyers. They are just playing their roles. It is their room. They know what lies behind the wood paneling.  As the families and journalists file in there is a straightening of jackets, pulling down of sleeves and the questioning picks up where it left off.


When Ms. Murphy is directly asked if she was the one to put Sean inside the machine, she denies it. She admits to having difficulty with the boy and his three-year-old ways. Don’t all mothers? Ms. Murphy is not unusual in describing her struggles to put a toddler to bed and for him to stay there. But she says she was more frustrated with her inability to cope as adequately as she saw other people than she was frustrated with Sean’s behaviour. She sometimes disciplined him with time outs and the occasional smack on the bottom and, for a time, some months before he died, she had tried to get his sleep more ordered by tying his bedroom door shut. She claimed this was the suggestion of her partner’s, but they had initially failed to tell the police because they felt it made them “look bad.”


It wasn’t the only thing that made them look bad. The lies began to pile up.  There was the state supplied housing that they both lived in, but told the authorities only she lived in. There was a phone call from her partner (the one that woke her) in which she told him she was next door, rather than admit she was asleep till 1.30 in the afternoon. There was a video found on the partner’s phone that showed Ms. Murphy holding a frantic cat in a towel and then dropping it in front of Simba whilst gleeful laughter rings out from the collected audience, which includes children, as the dog chases the distressed cat around and tries to “play” with it. The cat strikes out at the thin, rangy dog. Ms. Murphy was subsequently charged with animal cruelty, pleaded guilty and fined $3000. She claimed to be an animal lover and seemed a little bemused by her conviction. The courtroom watched the phone video, periodically closing their eyes and covering their gaping mouths with their hands. Ms. Murphy dropped her head.


Her assertion was that she had been getting the cat acquainted with the dog so that she could look after the cat while her friend was away. Simba loved cats and would never hurt another animal. She however had been scratched in the event. The cat was fine. It was uninjured she assured the courtroom. The owner of the cat had been present. She had not objected.  But the footage was damaging. Does it show a woman who just doesn’t know better? Or is she wantonly cruel? Do you make the leap from animal cruelty to human cruelty to killing your own child?


Then there were the pictures that showed the house – in a state of bedlam. Ms. Murphy claimed to have made the mess turning it upside down in her search for Sean. It made partial sense. But there was also other evidence that suggested it was always filthy and disordered. She said, “Stains do happen.” It suggested a life on a downwards spiral. She said the Homewest house was bent in the middle. It sloped towards the front and back. Maybe this was why the washing machine door would bang closed so easily.


There was the state of the kitchen, which included a chair in the middle of it, and on the chair sat a pair of hair clippers and the detritus of recent hair clipping on the floor. She apparently had stepped around this clutter whilst cleaning the dishes from the day before, yet failed to sort this other mess up. It was the source of an argument between Ms. Murphy and her defacto boyfriend. He went to bed and Ms. Murphy to her mattress in the lounge room. On the couch beside her lay clothes that needed to be put away and other dry items awaiting folding.


I think of my own washing machine – of the inside of its cool cylindrical metal drum and its sieve like holes. These dints left an imprint on the toddler’s skin as he pressed up inside it. Dimpled him. Later, I look at three-year olds in the street and measure them up in my mind. I imagine them climbing in and tucking themselves up to fit inside. With a cat.


I think of the clutter inside my own house and its own usual state of disarray. Too many books. A single son given too many toys. If tragedy were to befall my family or me what would the forensic photographs of my house reveal? Just because her house is filthy (she calls it “lived-in”) does not mean she killed her child. Just because she fails to put away the laundry does not mean she killed her son. Just because the usual storage for all the dirty washing is the laundry floor does not mean she killed her son. Just because she fights with her lazy defacto does not mean she killed her son.


What are we asking of the justice system here? We want to know the story. The truth. But that is not possible unless we can become a witness to what was unseen. We can only hope for an approximation. The counsel knows this already. Perhaps this is why the female counsel assisting the coroner has a slightly bored sound to her voice and is twining a vine of her lank hair around her index finger while she questions the mother. Making a tendril of her hair, her finger a twig. I imagine she has been a hair twirler since a young girl. I picture her doing it on the couch, a law student watching LA Law.


Does she know too well the futility of her questions? That there will be no satisfactory answers to this tragedy.


The mother’s counsel gets Ms. Murphy to reveal her diagnosis of Borderline personality disorder. She tells us sometimes she feels different from the rest of the population and when things are difficult she “shuts down.” Are we supposed to understand her now? Does this condition explain her unusual response to her son’s death and her lack of “normal” response just a symptom of her condition, as opposed as a sign of foul play. We hear of her adoption at age three from England by her Aunt and Uncle and her troubled behaviour as a child. Of her own accord she contacted child services, two years before Sean died, to ask for assistance with his difficult behaviours, only to be told by case workers that the toddler’s tantrums, which included kicking, biting and screaming, were age-appropriate. Were her pleas for someone to help her with her son ignored? Are these all bits of a jigsaw puzzle that add up to something or are they just more white noise, blurring an already impenetrable story?


I sit with a note pad, like the other reporters, although I am not one of them. They have deadlines and copy to complete. They will work late tonight. They report the facts. They keep themselves out of it. I am an imposter. I am an outsider to the courtroom experience. I still find the bowing to the judge odd. I bristle at the hand placed on the bible. I enter with a takeaway coffee, ignorant of the No food or drink rule. What am I hoping for? Answers?


I have my own questions and I can’t know if they have already been dealt with in the previous days, but simply not reported, because they are too mundane and not considered news worthy. I am no sleuth. I am just another mother, wondering how this might happen. A witness to a mother in pain, and yet removed from her pain. What she feels few can share. Even though she is not charged she sits as if accused. Mothers blame her. Fathers blame her. At the very least her neglectful over-sleeping while her child roamed the house resulted in her son’s death by misadventure.


I want to know when the cat died? Was the cat alive when it entered the washing machine? Surely it would have panicked as the air supply dwindled and it struggled to get a breath. How is it that there are no scratches on the body of the toddler? How would a toddler hold onto a cat and get it inside a washing machine in the first place? Normally Snowy didn’t even like to be held. Cats are not easy to grapple with for the best of wranglers. How do you close the door of a washing machine from the inside?


I want to know what course the mother was studying on-line at the time of her child’s death. I want to know if she has gone on to complete her study. What does her life consist of now? Where is the dog? If she believes the dog trapped the child inside the washing machine, how can she bear to have it around as a reminder?


I watch the families. A sister sits crying on and off for most of the day. It is the response you expect. She periodically wipes the tears from her cheeks. An elderly woman, perhaps a grandmother, makes it through the day too, dry-eyed, sitting staring forward, listening. The mother of the ex-partner shakes her head at the testimony being given that labels her son as “lazy” and as having “anger management” problems. I watch as her feet, pushed into black flat-heeled shoes, swell over the day.


And somewhere out in the world is the biological father of Sean. He isn’t mentioned on the day I attend. The paper says the boy was born out of a violent relationship and that the toddler had no association with his father. Perhaps he never even knew Sean existed.


When the questioning is over there is much looking at diaries to decide when Mr. Hope will deliver his findings. It appears that the eventual date, three weeks from now, isn’t much good for most of the lawyers and they make their excuses one after the other. Hair twirler has furniture removalists coming that day. Mr. Hope accepts all their apologies. He sincerely thanks them for their efforts thus far. They all have the look of needing a seriously stiff drink in a bar full of other wigs and pinstripes. But I will be back and find my spot again in his courtroom. I will finish my takeaway coffee outside. And I imagine the families will be there too. Searchers for truth will be interested to see how the experienced coroner finds a path through all that he’s been told. Will he step out into a vast open clearing and enlighten us, or, as I suspect, end up in a dank muddy swamp of indecision?


The court is shown a picture, discovered by detectives during the investigation into the boy’s death, taken about a year before. It shows the cheeky blonde boy with wonderful Shirley Temple curls smiling for the camera, his head poking out from a disused dryer without a door. It eerily predicts the event that results in his suffocating death. His mother says they did not warn him of the dangers of such a game at the time. She regrets this now.




Good Bug Bad Bug


In the SAKGP today at East Fremantle Primary school I spend time in the garden.

Things happen at a slower pace in the garden. After all things don’t grow in front of your eyes. It takes patience to grow stuff. Soil needs to be nurtured and enriched. Weeds need to be pulled. Time needs to pass. Nor do they die and disappear in a puff. Although that’s what it seems like for the beetroots that have struggled against the onslaught of the bad bugs – snails and caterpillars and slugs. Their leaves have been stripped bare. Now just stalks remain.

Today war has been waged against the pests. The army of blue uniforms are out searching the leaves and the hidy holes of the grubs and collecting them in the bucket. Garden Specialist, Katy, has the disposal job, since the kids are not keen on destroying the molluscs. They come over all Buddhist when talk turns to the final elimination. Especially after naming them Curly and Whirly, Creepy and Sebastian.

Still. It’s kinda nice to see kids that don’t take pleasure from stomping on a snail. Doesn’t it say something?

Too much personification – the adults warn. Then comes discussion of whether snails go to heaven. How philosophical a morning in the garden has become. But it is too late. They have been slimed by them and had them wriggling across their palms. The snail trail zig zags its way across a blue wind cheater. The kids are really inspecting the snails – the way they move like mini tractors across the dirt. It makes me recall the book about the movement and munching of a snail written by a bed ridden Elizabeth Tova Bailey over a year where she lay listening to the sound of one eating. In her close observation of the creature she grew attached and, through her attachment, came meaning and solace and understanding. Some are mere babies, the children say, and I imagine a snail secreted home in a pocket, named and stroked, to a bedside table, to become a new pet.

But gardening requires the tendering of the plants and that means the beasts must be got rid of, so collect them, they diligently do. On the way to the bucket of death the kids marvel at the way the molluscs have eyes on stalks that swivel about. How cool would that be? Seeing round corners, under desks. The kids have their empathy and imaginations dialled up high today, suddenly brothers to the creepy crawlies. Many kids may never have taken the time to get so close to a snail. What kid these days spends time in dirt and poking about the garden? Some may not have had the courage before to feel the suck of a snail to the back of your hand. But when everyone else is doing it, it becomes okay, to feel, to prod, to explore. And besides, this is school work – we are supposed to be getting our hands dirty.

There are not enough good bugs in our garden. The lady bird is revered. She is carefully pointed out and then left alone, despite the desire to pick her up and feel her little bug legs march across your skin.

The worm castings are diluted in watering cans and each plant gets its three-second drink of the extra good stuff. The time in the garden has gone quickly, despite the relaxed pace. Less frenetic than the kitchen, its results are slower and take more time to notice. Snail pace. But we have hunted and gathered today from our very own garden and delivered up the reddening capsicum and now it joins the salad of spinach leaves and very soon will be belly-side. Before any pesky snails get to it.




Letting the day slip away…


There is guilt of course.

There is a lime green file. It is full of pages of neurology and psychopharmacology. It is mind bogglingly hard to fathom. When it starts to grind down to the DNA in the cell and the enzyme RNA polymerase I feel something slipping in my brain. I read and reread the same sentence. Neuronal stutter. Like the old Holden EH clutch that my mother’s foot fumbled with at the hill by the prison going to visit my Dad in hospital as a child. How she dreaded the hill. Even as children, in the back seat, we felt my mother’s dread of the hill. Sitting on our hands on the sticky blue vinyl. Her anxiety a wave of heat. Please turn green lights so she doesn’t need to ride the clutch and do a hand brake start and risk rolling backwards into the car behind, or else konking out.

The green file notes try to make analogies that are easier for the brain to grasp. For instance, it cutely describes neurotransmission as a “pony express.” But somehow I can’t quite make the jump from molecules to horse riders and it just makes the whole thing harder still. I am learning that the brain is not a collection of “wires” (I am not sure I ever thought it was) but rather is a chemical “soup”. The neurotransmitters are swilling around, turning on and off the genes in cells so that axons grow and stop growing. Make connections. Stop making connections. I don’t think it’s quite that simple, but that’s how I am imagining it. This is today’s take home message. Brain = chemical soup.

I learn that 90% of the neurons made by the foetal brain commit apoptotic suicide before birth. The discoverers of the process who named it apoptosis wanted the word to rhyme with the messy process of cell death called necrosis and used the Greek ptosis meaning “falling” and apo meaning “off”, just as autumnal leaves fall from a tree. Even in science humans search for words to be beautiful. Cell death = falling petals. In apoptosis the neurons just shut themselves off and disappear. No pus. It seems only the strongest and fittest neurons survive and thrive in our adult brains. In the adult brain there are still changes being made all the time but they are not as dramatic as those of the foetus or child. An adult brain is like a well-established garden where the neurons, like roses, need pruning and shaping, but, please, no major landscaping.

Even in science, or maybe especially so, we need to keep bringing it back to something more understandable. Something more concrete. Gardens and cooking. Houses and sheds. Nerves as having branches, brains as full of soup. For who can imagine the inside of a cell with its mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum. We need the mitochondria to be the energy power house, the nucleus the central headquarters. But despite its helpfulness there is still chemistry and molecules and who can really understand that everything living is made of atoms of carbon?

And maybe some where along the way I lost that neuron (or two) that was responsible for that little bit of understanding and that’s why it’s so hard. Perhaps when all the neurons were in a lemming-like mass walking off their apoptotic cliff there were a couple who really should not have leapt. They were the ones supposed to “get” the DNA and RNA and the enzymes and peptides. And as science is able to dig deeper and examine more and more finely we discover more and more detail. You think you have come to the end of something and then they explode it apart and describe it again at a more intricate level. Ad infinitum. When once seeing inside the cell seemed miraculous, now we can see inside the structures inside the cell. Just as space goes on for ever, can we continue to magnify and see deeper and deeper into molecular structure? We can explode apart genes so they become lists of proteins. We can see what receptors are made of. Like an artist who constructs a world on the top of a pin. Each cell is a world.

Doesn’t it blow your mind?

war games