A man drives his car off a Port Lincoln wharf and into the deep waters below. In his vehicle he is transporting three things. The first is a rifle with a telescopic sight. The second and third are his children, with barely five years of life between them and no more to come. The father hurtles his car, rifle and baby boys off that wharf at a speed so great, it immediately plunges more than 30 metres down. It takes six hours for police divers to retrieve the three bodies (and "bodies" is what they are now) and the rifle, which is carefully bagged as evidence for an inquest that will happen at a later date.
Police confirm they are treating the incident as a murder-suicide.
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Tributes are lining the wharf of a South Australian country town where two young boys were killed when their father sent the family station wagon plunging to the bottom of the ocean.
Over the next 24 hours, and likely for days beyond, media stories about this investigation will reference it as a "tragedy", and with the loss of two baby boys it cannot be anything but. But what they will also do is write glowing reports about how wonderful this man was. They will interview the people who knew him, the neighbours, the football club members with whom he played and laughed, and they will construct a public image of him as the quintessential "top bloke". People will express their astonishment that something like this could happen.
This criminal act that the police are investigating as a murder-suicide will be carefully repackaged as a tragic accident that came like a hurricane out of nowhere and whose purpose must consequently be surrendered to as an act of God.
Here's another take. At 5:45am on Monday, Damien Little was seen driving his car along the wharf at speeds of up to 80km/h. He had just uploaded a suicide note (since removed) to the Facebook page he shared with his wife, Melissa. There is the matter of the rifle and the police investigation. And so while we cannot know without a doubt yet if Little meant to drive his two boys and himself into the waters off Brennan Wharf, it seems almost certain that he did and that death was the intended outcome.
How quickly comes the narrative of shock around these "community" men who murder their wives and/or children, particularly when those men come from solid middle-class backgrounds in the largely white country towns that popular fiction likes to imagine as the fertile ground of Australia's grassroots. When these men murder their families, testimonies are published identifying such gruesome, horrifying behaviour as "out of character", as if there could be a circumstance in which one murders their family to establish such behaviour as a trait.
We are assured of their goodness, how they were the most loving husbands and fathers you could ever meet and how they wouldn't hurt a fly. That these accolades of gentleness sit in direct contrast with their choice to violently end the lives of the same people they are praised for having loved so deeply is never quite addressed. They are not seen as men who've murdered their families, but victims of circumstance.
Consider the tweet from ABC Adelaide earlier this week, which declared, "Respected, well-liked: Locals describe father who died with his kids after car went off #PortLincoln wharf", as if Little had died while trying to protect his children, rather than being the engineer responsible for their demise.
Community discourse in this country still suffers from an inability to balance what we think we know about family violence with what is actually presented to us. Violence is more often hidden in shadows, primarily because the choice to perpetrate violence is exactly that – a choice. The issue of mental health is always raised. But while men's mental health is an important issue, it's also a distraction. Most mentally ill men don't murder their family members. And all this focus does is continue to position harm to women and children as the sad by-product of the greater tragedy of men's low self-esteem.
Family violence doesn't follow the rules of fairytales, where people are either good or bad. Damien Little was considered to be a good man who was well-liked by his community. Damien Little allegedly drove a car carrying his two little boys off a wharf and killed them. Men who are kind to their friends and colleagues can also be cruel to their families. These are complexities that have to be recognised if we want to change the state of family violence in this country. To prevent these tragedies, we have to understand these crimes.
Naming them is the first step.
Clementine Ford is an Age columnist.
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