Garner Book Fuels Filicide Myths

22 / 11 / 2014

‘The House of Grief’, Helen Garner’s latest book, examines the trial of Robert Farquharson, who was convicted of killing his three sons after driving them into a dam on the evening of Father’s Day in 2005. Garner is, unquestionably, a talented writer, but, as the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria’s Mandy McKenzie writes, this book does little in the way of analysis of domestic homicides and filicides. Disappointingly, she adds, it just adds fuel to perpetuating common misconceptions and reporting on such tragic events.

With permission, we reproduce this article from DVRCV’s Advocate magazine, which we encourage readers to subscribe to, here

By Mandy McKenzie

‘Once there was a hard-working bloke who lived in a small Victorian country town with his wife and their three young sons.’

So begins Helen Garner’s new book, This House of Grief, her account of the two murder trials and subsequentappeals of Robert Farquharson, convicted of murdering his three sons by driving them into a dam where theydrowned in September 2005.

The book has been widely acclaimed by reviewers, who have praised Garner’s bravery in going ‘into the abyss’ (Peter Craven, The Australian), and bearing witness to ‘excruciating realms of human behaviour’.

There is no question that Garner is a skilled writer—on the surface of it, this is a gripping and emotive account of the courtroom as a gladiatorial contest between the ‘big hearted’ defence counsel and the ‘dry, intellectual’ prosecution.

However, Garner’s analysis is concerning. Her portrayal of those involved in the case reinforces problematic constructions of gender, and narratives that excuse male violence.

Garner says that, soon after the drowning was reported, people were quick to draw conclusions: the ‘general feeling’ was that either Farquharson had murdered his children because ‘he couldn’t stand to lose control of his family’ or he was ‘pure evil’.

She characterises those holding these kinds of views—such as the ‘feminist lawyer’ who apparently complains, ‘Why do men have to kill everyone?’, and the female journalist who bit Garner’s head off for saying Farquharsonlooked pitiable—as strident, simplistic and punitive.

In contrast, Garner is not prepared to make such a judgement about Robert Farquharson. She says she herself knows what it is like to ‘endure—but also to inflict—the pain and humiliation of divorce’.

This is the third true crime book by Helen Garner, after The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation. As in those other books, the man involved in the case is the focus of Garner’s sympathy.

In This House of Grief, Garner paints Farquharson as a figure of pity, even after she is forced to acknowledge the evidence that he deliberately drove his children into the dam. Her sympathy for Farquharson is in stark contrast to her approach to the female defendant in Joe Cinque’s Consolation.

In that book, she characterises the woman who was convicted of murdering her male partner as a vain, seductive and scheming killer, and says ‘I was hanging out for judgement to be pronounced on such a woman’.

In This House of Grief, Garner can hardly bear to watch judgement being pronounced on Farquharson, describing him as a ‘wretched man’, gradually sliding ‘down the face of a cliff’ of evidence.

Gender stereotypes feature heavily in Garner’s characterisations of those involved in the case. Women are nurturers, like the ‘strikingly pretty motherly-looking woman’ who is Farquharson’s support person in court, or bossy and demanding.

Men are admired for their power and bravery—the defence barrister is a ‘warrior’ going into battle in court with his footballer’s chest, while the judge watches over him ‘fondly, like a father’ and a police sergeant is praised by Garner as the kind of bloke who ‘would take a bullet for his daughter’.

She imagines Farquharson’s wife, Cindy Gambino, falling for her new partner, Stephen Moules, as he poured the concrete slab in her backyard, and relates that she herself was ‘spellbound’ when she once watched men pour concrete, which she says is a ‘dramatic’ process that ‘demands skill, speed, strength, and the confident handling of machinery; it is so intensely symbolically masculine that every woman and boy in the vicinity is drawn to it in an excited respect’.

In comparison, Farquharson is ‘small and stumpy’, not a powerful man, and Garner struggles with the idea that such a man could perpetrate lethal violence.

She says he grew up a ‘battler’, a man who never learnt to stand up for himself. He was the baby of the family, a fragile child who had problems with his eyesight and wasn’t good at school. She wonders whether being bossed around and ‘coddled’ by his older sisters contributed to his behaviour: ‘Was this the missing piece?’ Garner reflects on women’s ‘maternal’ tendency to ‘cosset, to infantilise’, and about her own brother who has also had to ‘deal’ with having bossy older sisters: ‘If he doesn’t fight back, a treasured boy can wind up as a man with women in his face’.

In Garner’s depiction, Robert Farquharson wound up with an ex-wife in his face, calling the shots. Although he was a ‘hard-working husband’ who did ‘slogging physical work’ as a cleaner and lawn mower, this was not enough to meet his wife’s aspirations.

His wife, Cindy Gambino, wanted to build a new house. Garner says, ‘All this moving, these houses. It seemed that Gambino’s will was the driving force in the relationship … she had ambitions and restless hopes that his energy could not match.’ Farquharson was ‘like so many emotionally numbed, inarticulate and stoical husbands’ who ‘failed to see it coming’ when his wife told him to leave. Garner seems to see this as an ‘unbearable blow’ to his already fragile masculine ego—he becomes the ‘discarded’ husband, forced to move back to his father’s house and being left with the ‘shit car’ (‘mortifying to many a man’ Garner says). She pities him being ‘exiled’ from his sons’ daily lives. She also imagines how his children may become not only the ‘locus of his pain, but also the source and cause of it’, fuelling a desire to ‘put an end to it’, to ‘obliterate this wounded part of him’.

Though Garner immerses herself in imagining Farquharson’s psychological struggles, she seems wary of Cindy Gambino and keeps her at a distance. Initially Gambino supported Farquharson, but by his second trial she believed he was guilty. Garner acknowledges Gambino as a grieving mother and describes her courtroom testimonies, but offers little reflection on them.

Cindy Gambino tells the court that during their marriage her husband was like a ‘fourth child’—he believed it was her role to do all the housework and caring for the children. She says Farquharson was always unhappy, always complaining, and was ‘very protective, very possessive’.

He would often ’grab her by her private parts’ while she was trying to do the housework, and he regularly tormented their sons by getting into play fights with them and would ‘stir them up till they got angry and lashed out at him’.

Gambino also recalls that once, after their separation, he had pushed her hard up against a wall. She locked herself in the bedroom and called the police. He later apologised.

Gambino’s testimony describes a pattern of passive-aggressive behaviour by Farquharson. She tells the court that his refusal to let her visit him in prison to discuss what happened to their children was what led her to finally believe he had meant to kill their children.

However, Garner doesn’t see Gambino’s change of mind as being driven by logic, but portrays it as a typically emotional feminine response, describing it as a ‘deeply feminine shift … inspired not by reason but by wifely grievance and the bitter desire to settle a score’.

Reviewers of this book have praised Garner’s ‘unflinching’ writing (David Marr, The Monthly) and her ability to record harrowing scenes ‘without restraint or censorship’ (Catherine Mah, The Guardian). However, parts of this account would have benefited from Garner’s restraint. For example, her speculation about what the children did in their last moments is unnecessary and distressing to read. It’s also disturbing that Garner seems entirely undeterred by the fact that her account of this story will cause pain to Gambino and her family.1

In the book’s final paragraph, Garner recalls her visit to the children’s gravesite. She imagines the ‘possessive rage’ of the children’s family at her appropriation of their story: ‘You never knew them. You never even saw them. How dare you talk about your ‘grief’?’ But, as her final conclusion, she defends her right to tell this tale: ‘Every stranger grieves for them. Every stranger’s heart is broken. The children’s fate is our legitimate concern. They are ours to mourn. They belong to all of us now.’

It is legitimate to try to comprehend why these killings occurred, but this account does little to further our understanding.

Yes, Farquharson may have been depressed and devastated by the divorce—but why would this lead him to feel justified in murdering his children as ‘pay back’ towards his ex-wife? Why are domestic homicides most often perpetrated by men—and why do these typically occur in relation to separation?

What insights could be gained from the perspective of Farquharson’s ex-wife, who was the target of his actions? And, what can be done to prevent the deaths of children in the context of parental separation?

This House of Grief provides no answers to these questions. At the end of her book, Garner returns us to imagining Farquharson’s mental state on that fateful Father’s Day in Geelong.

Despite all the evidence Garner has heard over eight years of sitting through the trials and appeals, she still cannot characterise Farquharson as a bitter ex-husband who had recently told a friend he intended to pay his ex-wife back ‘big time’. Instead, she pictures him as the ‘sad father’ sitting with his boys in the ‘shit car’, ‘the only home he has to offer them’.

Men who murder their partners or their children often see themselves as victims who have been unfairly treated by ex-wives or the family court. Underlying this is a sense of masculine entitlement, and a self-righteous beliefthat their ex-partner deserves to be punished for causing their suffering.

This House of Grief only perpetuates the idea that these men are victims, enabling them to excuse the violence they perpetrate.

1 Though Garner had several brief conversations with Gambino’s parents when writing this book, she did not speak directly to Cindy Gambino

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