End result: Robert Farquharson, centre, was finally locked away for murdering his sons. Photo: Craig Abraham
Like many other Australians, Helen Garner first saw the image of a car submerged in a dam on the television news 24 hours after three little boys died there on Father’s Day in 2005. ‘‘I suppose it struck me in the way it struck everyone who saw it, with a terrible gong of horror,’’ she says. ‘‘I imagine it was a two-beat response in most people – at first a complete numb horror at the thought of children drowning and then, was it an accident?’’
While most of us let this unthinkable crime sink under the torrent of newsworthy tragedies, Garner stuck with it for eight years, through two trials and three appeals, until Robert Farquharson was finally locked away for murdering his sons. Only then could she wrestle its amorphous darkness into the shape of a book.
She asks me not to use the word obsession in this story, and I won’t. It’s not a word that comes up in our interview at her cottage in a northern suburb of Melbourne where the side fence has vanished since my previous visit, and her garden has merged with her daughter’s next door and filled with vegetable plots, chooks, sheds and children’s toys, like a 1970s commune.
Lives lost: Jai, left, Bailey and Tyler Farquharson. Photo: The Age
Garner is a small knot of intensity amid the laid-back domesticity, but the word that comes to mind is stamina rather than obsession. She seems exhausted, as if she has only just been able to drag herself through the ordeal of so many lives lost and ruined. Dozer, the family’s red heeler, settles at our feet while Garner serves homemade soup.
She can’t explain, or even remember, why the Farquharson drama enveloped her. All she can say is, ‘‘I think that there must be a point of self-immersion in a story that is a point of no return. You get far enough in that the story has really touched you to the core and deeply troubled you and made you unhappy and fearful, and then how do you get out of that? I’m a writer so my way of getting out of that is to write.’’
Farquharson moved out of his family house in the small Victorian town of Winchelsea, near Geelong, in 2004 after his wife, Cindy Gambino, said she no longer loved him. He was angry that she kept their ‘‘good car’’ and took up with another man while he lived with his father and struggled by as a cleaner after his lawn-mowing business failed. But she encouraged Farquharson to see his children and, like everyone who knew him, had no doubt he loved Jai, aged 10, Tyler, seven, and Bailey, two.
From left, Tyler, Bailey and Jai. Photo: Supplied
On September 4, 2005, he took them out for Father’s Day and when he was driving them home to their mother just after dark, the old Commodore swerved off the highway, down a slope into a field and into the dam, where it quickly sank to the bottom. Farquharson swam to safety while his children drowned. The only question – the only one that mattered legally – was whether he meant to kill them.
Garner, 71, grew up in Geelong, so it was a familiar journey back there in 2006 to watch a magistrate commit Farquharson to stand trial on three charges of murder, and to drive out past the dam with a friend whose husband had recently left her. Garner writes, ‘‘We were women in our 60s. Each of us had found it in herself to endure – but also to inflict – the pain and humiliation of divorce.’’
Divorced three times, with a married daughter and three grandchildren – the youngest born as she embarked on the book – Garner had a kaleidoscopic personal view of the case. Her interest in the darker side of male-female relationships has run through her work from her first novel, Monkey Grip, in 1977, and intensified when she turned to real crimes and trials in The First Stone (1995), about an indecent assault case at Melbourne University, and Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004), about a young woman who killed her boyfriend with a drug overdose.
Helen Garner: "You get far enough in that the story has really touched you to the core." Photo: Simon Schluter
After her first public talk about The First Stone, at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Garner was assailed by ‘‘ferocious young feminists’’ who were angry at the sympathy she expressed for the college master accused of groping two students. She remembers one woman asking aggressively, ‘‘What is your speaking position?’’
Nonplussed, Garner realised later that this was a literary theory term. She says about the new book, ‘‘After I put in that bit about divorces I thought, ‘Oh, I know what I was doing there: that’s my speaking position’ ... Reading between the lines, you can see I felt sympathy for both the dumper and the dumpee at the end of the marriage, which I continue to feel about this particular broken marriage.’’
Both the thrill and the danger in Garner’s storytelling come from her willingness to remain ambivalent, to empathise with the morally questionable, to wade into psychic swamps and write in swoops of emotion and instinctive wisdom, regardless of conventional thinking.
When she sat through Farquharson’s trial at the Victorian Supreme Court in 2007, she was shocked by how quickly many people jumped to a conclusion that he was either guilty or innocent. ‘‘It’s because it’s intolerable to think about it,’’ she says. ‘‘You just can’t bear to let your mind rest on the phenomenon of a man who would kill his own children to get revenge on his wife.’’
Her own opinion ‘‘lurched back and forth’’ for the same reason. Farquharson did not take the witness stand but had claimed he lost control of the car because of a coughing fit. A former friend belatedly came forward recalling he had spoken of planning to kill the boys. Garner wanted to shout out when crucial psychological evidence was withheld from the jury, and she saw how jurors might be swayed by human details such as the defendant’s loving sisters, a witness’s tone of voice or a barrister’s fatigue.
The jury found Farquharson guilty and Garner, thinking that was the end of the story, wrote 60,000 words of the book she could by then envisage. But when Farquharson appealed and was granted a new trial on technical grounds, the book went on hold. Anyway, Garner says, ‘‘I actually showed it to some people and they all said it made them go to sleep and it was really boring. That was rather painful, so I stashed it.’’
During the hiatus she spent six months firing off her short novel The Spare Room, driven by her complex grief and fury after helping to care for a dying friend as well as her parents and a sister. Death had moved into her life. But writing fiction freed her for a while from the weight of facts and legal intricacy.
Farquharson’s second trial came with the shock that his ex-wife, Gambino, had swivelled from her original support for him to the belief that he had murdered the children in order to punish her. Her distress filled the courtroom and created a dramatic turning point in the narrative.
‘‘Cindy Gambino’s change of heart was the thing that made it possible to write the book. It’s like the hinge of the book,’’ Garner says.
But even after Farquharson was found guilty a second time, he appealed again to the Supreme Court and then attempted an appeal to the High Court. At one point Garner decided to abandon the case and the book.
‘‘I thought, ‘This is too much for me. I’m not big enough to do this story; I’m too old and weak and I’ll just stop’. I went home and lay on the bed and thought, ‘This is fantastic’, and I woke up the next morning and thought, ‘Phew, I’m not doing this any more’. And that lasted about three days, not even a week.’’
This House of Grief is dedicated to the Victorian Supreme Court, which is partly why Garner persisted. ‘‘I don’t know how people ever retire from working in courts,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s a world where mighty archetypes clash and work themselves out. I can see the terrible faults there are in trials but I had this strange feeling of love for the old building itself.’’
More than her previous books, This House of Grief is set within the court and at a nearby coffee cart where observers compared note. She had interviewed and befriended some protagonists in The First Stone and Joe Cinque, and couldn't get access to others. This time she approached Farquharson's sisters and Gambino’s parents but was gently rebuffed; later she learnt Gambino had committed to speak to journalist Megan Norris, whose book on the case was published last year.
In the end she felt liberated, even though she faced the challenge of compressing reams of repetitious testimony into a compelling narrative.
‘‘I realised I was going to have to do this a different way. I’ve had trouble with non-fiction books where I’ve had access to one side of the story not the other and I had to write my way around that problem. I thought, I’m not going there again; I’m not going to have a lopsided thing hobbling along and have to devise a series of crutches and props for it technically.
‘‘At some point I decided to keep it narrowly focused and I’m glad I did that – it seems to give the book a kind of unity. I love interviewing but I had to learn a different skill: I had to learn to stride across some territory which once I would have commando-crawled across, asking ‘What do you think?’ and ‘What do you think?’’’
There are glimpses into the author’s life as she comes home from a day in court to hug her grandchildren or feels a moment’s rage at them, proof to her that love and violence are not strangers. If this book sparks controversy – as her books often do – it might be for daring to sympathise with a murderer as well as with his victims.
Garner has kept a file of news clippings about the shocking number of men – and some women – who kill their children. When I ask if any ‘‘social good’’ might come from her book, she says, ‘‘Perhaps only that I sincerely believe it’s worth paying full attention to what lies behind men’s claim not to be feeling anything.’’ Men like Farquharson are often too proud, and lack the language, to admit to depression or suicidal thoughts, she says.
But when she has suggested in conversation that such men need help, ‘‘Again and again people would say angrily, ‘You’re making excuses’, and they’d point sharply at me with a forefinger right into my chest. I’d say, ‘No, I’m just trying to understand what happened’.’’
Later over a drink, Garner mentions a recent New Yorker profile of Eileen Fisher, an American fashion designer, by the writer Janet Malcolm, whose sharp, psychoanalytic approach she admires. During an interview Malcolm saw one of Fisher’s three cats pressed against a window of the house and went to let him in from the cold. But Fisher stopped her and said he was ‘‘the bad cat’’ who fought with the others and so lived permanently outside.
If that detail is so telling about the cool, ambitious designer, what does it mean that Garner leaps up and down through our interview to open the back door for Dozer the dog? ‘‘It’s in or out, you can’t have both ... Dozer, lie down, or you’ll be outside,’’ she says, laughing at her half-hearted fierceness. Perhaps it’s because, as she says, age and experience have made her more compassionate and patient. Or perhaps she always opened doors for dogs.
When The Spare Room came out, a stranger accused Garner of always pushing herself into the centre of other people’s trauma. Taken aback then, she says now, ‘‘What I’d like to think I do is to take their trauma into the middle of me and contemplate it and brood over it in some useful way that’s not just a lot of screaming and shouting about evil.’’
This House of Grief is published by Text Publishing on August 20. Helen Garner will be in conversation with Susan Wyndham at a Dymocks Literary Luncheon at the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth on August 25. Garner delivers the Melbourne Writers Festival opening night address on Thursday at the Melbourne Town Hall. mwf.com.au
CHRONOLOGY OF A TRAGEDY:
2004 Robert Farquharson and Cindy Gambino separate, four years after marrying and 10 years after meeting.
September 4, 2005 Farquharson drives his car into a dam, drowning his three sons.
April 2006 He is committed for trial on three counts of murder.
October 2007 After a six-week trial he is found guilty and sentenced to three terms of life imprisonment.
December 17, 2009 His conviction is overturned by three appeal judges and he is granted bail until his retrial.
July 22, 2010 A second jury finds him guilty.
May 2012 Farquharson appeals again to the Victorian Supreme Court and in December is rejected.
August 2013 He seeks special leave to appeal to the High Court and is turned down.