When Shane Drumgold was growing up in Mount Druitt in the 1960s and 70s, his strongest childhood memories were of waiting for his dad.
“We were in waiting rooms to see him in one of three environments - a drug rehab, a mental institution or prison,” he says.
“And I thought that’s the way life existed. I thought this was life.”
Today, at the age of 53, Drumgold couldn’t be further away from his childhood if he tried. As the assistant director of the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions, he spends his days either in his office overlooking Canberra’s court precinct, or wearing a wig and gown in court, prosecuting some of the city’s most heinous, high-profile criminals.
He has his own happy, close-knit family, and his favourite pastime is having dinner with his brood of loving adult kids. And yet, his past, and his former life with his troubled, injured extended family, is a burden he still carries.
Growing up in a family of six kids, drugs, alcohol and domestic violence were both normal and tolerated. His father had himself been the victim of a horrific childhood trauma, one that wasn’t talked about, but that sent him on a downward trajectory of drugs and crime.
And yet there were times when Drumgold thought his father was the smartest, funniest person he’d ever met, at least in his times of clarity.
But these times were few and far between. More often than not, his father was deep in the doldrums of drugs, alcohol, rehab or jail.
“When he would descend into his dark ages, he was lost,” Drumgold says.
The dark times were never far off, and would eventually become permanent. When Drumgold was 11 or 12, and his twin brothers were babies, the family relocated to Taree, on the mid north coast. Not long after, one of the twins, three-year-old Casey, died after contracting encephalitis from the swimming pool where their dad was in rehab.
“Then life went really crazy for Dad,” says Drumgold.
“The guilt got him and there was a fairly rapid downward spiral for the next five years, and then he ended up taking his own life, probably as a result of that.”
As is often the case with family trauma, the pain spiralled outwards. Drumgold's remaining siblings are still in Taree, unemployed and doing it tough. Ron, the surviving twin, began his own downward march, and today, in his 40s, has advanced alcohol dementia, and has frequent seizures, losing parts of his brain every time.
And yet, says Drumgold, he can remember a time growing up when Ron would explain the meaning of certain words to him. Like their father, he had spark, and charm.
“He’s a long way from that now, and that kind of embeds in you,” Drumgold says.
“There’s no classes of people, there’s people on a journey, and some people are jolted off that axis. And that feeds into my next belief, which is that they can be jolted back onto an axis.”
It’s a perception that colours almost everything Drumgold does now, whether it’s prosecuting criminals or reflecting on his own life. He doesn’t for one moment attribute his own good fortune to anything other than what he describes as “90 per cent luck, and 10 per cent management”.
And Drumgold sure did get lucky, possibly even from birth. For starters, he never got into drugs, or alcohol. He never even got in trouble with the law.
But in the years between Casey’s death and his father’s suicide, Drumgold dropped out of school and left the family home. He was 15 and had only finished grade 9.
“I always felt that I was reasonably intelligent, that I was capable of things, and I always felt that I could do something if I turned my mind to it. I just needed to space to do it,” he says.
“That’s what was in my mind during those years...I was not about to live a life of the people I had seen growing up.”
He drifted for a few years, sleeping rough here and there, eventually marrying very young and having two children by the time he was 19. The marriage was short-lived, and he later moved back to the mid north coast, living close to Taree to keep an eye on his mother and brother, who were by then dealing with the full force of his father’s grief and despair.
“Looking back, it was never going to finish well - the question was how badly it was going to finish,” he says.
“I think it was always the fear that he would meet his end, the question was whether or not he would take other people with him.”
By then, he had been working for several years at Australia Post, another stroke of luck, as it would turn out. In the early 1990s, then prime minister Bob Hawke introduced tax incentives for large companies to invest in training their employees.
“The Australia Post introduced a Certificate in Management or something, and it was just four units, at a university,” Drumgold says.
“I tried to get into that and got rejected. The difficulty was that I didn’t have a year 10 certificate.”
But Drumgold did have something else, an unquenchable thirst for reading, having discovered Plato, of all people, by chance at 16.
“It was a paperback of the Phaedo, and it was making sense out of things that didn’t make sense,” he says.
“At 16, I was absolutely gobsmacked.”
To this day, he has a lasting obsession with logic and philosophy. But back then, he saw the Australia Post training certificate as a baby step into the world of reading and ideas, with no idea of what would lie at the end of it.
As it happened, he eventually wore down the recruitment staff, got into the certificate program at Charles Sturt University when someone else dropped out, and aced his way through, earning enough credits to study an economics degree by distance.
By the time he finished his degree, he had taken a management position with Australia Post at Parliament House in Canberra, and began studying law at the University of Canberra, marrying a second time and having two more kids along the way.
He says a career in the law appealed to him on several levels.
“It sounds very altruistic, but I knew I had potential, and I suspected that I had a perception of the world that many lawyers didn’t have,” he says.
“I don’t know many people from Lethbridge Park Public School who have become lawyers.
And I think on some level it was just to be a long way from where I was, I think that’s probably the most honest answer.”
He began his career at the Aboriginal Legal Service, but soon fetched up at the DPP, where he has since had the job he’d always dreamed of - working on big trial cases with a diverse range of people. In 2003, he spent time in Canada studying the traditional legal customs of some of the country’s indigenous communities. The visit both confirmed what he knew from his childhood, and informed the way he sees the Australian legal system today.
The Marcus Rappels of the world notwithstanding - like most of the people Drumgold prosecutes these days, Tara Costigan’s killer will spend the next decades in prison - he believes most people are capable of leading a good life.
“I think it’s possible for people to go into jail and come out and lead not just successful lives, but successful lives with a lived experience that other people might not have,” he says.
“I know that there’s a stigma attached to people who have been in prison, that they have obstacles, but I think we need to get over that. There’s this perception that people only go to prison if they’re inherently bad people, and I’m not bound to that premise.”
And although he deals with the most horrific cases and sees the full gamut of human sadness, he says he couldn’t be happier with where he’s ended up.
“I know that’s weird after 17 years, but I am stoked with the job that I’m doing,” he says.
“I imagine there will be a time when emotionally it will wear on me. Doing this sort of work, there’s a hidden cost and a hidden benefit that you don’t know until you get here.
I’m obviously exposed to horrendous facts, and you see things in this job that you can’t unsee.”
But for every bereaved, grief-paralysed parent or child he comes across, he feels a boost in his own sense of good fortune - the ancillary benefit in seeing first hand the strength and determination of people who would otherwise be broken victims. The Costigan family, for example, campaigning against family violence, or the quiet, steely humanity of the family of another murdered woman, Sabah Al-Mdwali
“They’re the parameters for your own perception of lucky. You can’t hang around with these people and not fundamentally feel lucky,” he says.
“You feel luckier than them. You certainly don’t feel superior to them. These people are inspiring…[and] far superior to me. I turn up and say stuff in court, but these people live these things and turn them into positives. They’re phenomenal people.”
In many ways, Drumgold’s past is always present, if only through the prism of experience through which he views the world.
And he does occasionally wonder where he’d be if he hadn’t found Plato.
“It could have easily happened - that’s the 90 per cent luck that leads us to wherever we are,” he says.
“Whatever it is, you stumble across some sort of tipping point that moves you in a direction. I don’t think there is a tipping point, I think there’s hundreds of tipping points, but then the encouragement there is that you think you yourself could be a tipping point for somebody else.”