Learning to live with the legacy of violence
THE day after the body of Jill Meagher was found in a shallow grave on the outskirts of Melbourne, a piece of paper was stuck to the front door of Helen Addison-Smith's Brunswick home.
The call to arms deeply affected Addison-Smith, a 38-year-old academic, chef and single mother. "I launched into an all-day crying and rage fest," she says. "I had a massive fight with my boyfriend - and I found myself standing up for the life of an accused rapist."
The complex and confronting topics raised by the Meagher case are well documented. Alongside questions about appropriate penalties for sexual assault, a larger debate emerged around victim-blaming, the freedom of women and general public safety.
The extensive media coverage of Meagher's disappearance and its aftermath generated a cycle of media coverage about the media coverage. But, for the residents of Brunswick, the case is not only about the big issues, it's also about the shifting perceptions of the character of their neighbourhood.
"Wendy Hauw", a 40 year-old professional who prefers not to disclose her real name, was born and bred in New York and has lived in Brunswick since she moved to Melbourne 7 years ago.
"I was raised to be aware of my surroundings," she says, "and I felt Brunswick was safe. But, honestly, I always found that stretch of Sydney Road between Blyth and Hope [where Meagher was allegedly abducted] creepy."
Hauw knows the area intimately. After hearing details on Twitter about Meagher's disappearance, she soon realised the missing person was a "woman who lives, literally, 220 metres from my house".
Hauw had nightmares in the subsequent days and followed the media coverage very closely. She was angered by some of the reporting, even looking up Victoria Police records to accurately rebut the spurious claims about the frequency of assaults in Brunswick after crime statistics for the whole state of Victoria were misattributed to the suburb alone. "I actually sent that on to Media Watch because [the media] were scaremongering to sell papers."
Addison-Smith shares Hauw's frustration with the cliched accounts of the area. "The characterisation of Brunswick as 'the mean streets' really pissed me off," she says. "There seemed to be a rush towards thinking of this place as crime-riddled and crumbling."
For Katie Ridsdale, a 36-year-old publisher who lives in Brunswick with her husband and two young sons, the apparent randomness of the attack was what frightened her most. "You put yourself in that scene and think, 'That could've been me, and it could've been any of my friends'," she says.
Ridsdale, unlike some of the other women interviewed for this story, says she understands why Meagher declined her colleague's offer to walk her home. "I would have refused the offer to be walked home, and have done that before. I'd be that person."
Ridsdale describes a night in 2009 when she was "less sensible". She'd been out for dinner with friends in the city and refused their offer to drop her home in their taxi; she was mugged in a park close to home. "I remember trying to scream," she says, "and I could not get a scream out."
While shaken by the incident, her only physical injury was a sore arm from her bag being violently pulled away. The mugging, though minor compared with what happened to Meagher, was enough to enable Ridsdale to imagine Meagher's terror. "Nobody knows unless they've been in any kind of situation what it would be like, how they'd react. And what if she couldn't scream? It's horrifying."
Freya Scully is another Brunswick woman who imagines what she might have done in the circumstances of Jill Meagher's assault. Scully, a 24-year-old student, rents a converted shop in a quiet Brunswick street with three female friends. The case disrupted her confidence - what she describes as her way of "going into things with a gung-ho attitude".
Scully has travelled extensively in South America, Central America and Asia and says "there were situations where I felt in a bit of danger, but not specifically because I was female". But when Meagher went missing, Scully says, she felt vulnerable because of her gender.
"People say, 'You better watch out, you're a female, you're young', but I've been like, 'No, I can deal with it'. I thought I could defend myself, but then I started thinking about it and [Meagher] probably thought that too."
Hauw recognises that the Meagher case appears to be "a statistical anomaly". "In a huge, huge proportion [of assaults], it's people you know," she says. "I was definitely raised by my overprotective mother and grandmother with this idea that there are strangers waiting to jump out and get you, but that usually does not happen. But then the one time that it does ..."
Addison-Smith says that perhaps what upset the locals the most was realising that creating a "nice, left-wing, middle-class enclave" doesn't protect people from random violence.
Rather than Brunswick being an "enclave", Hauw thinks that some of the reporting of the Meagher case instead emphasised the victim's vulnerability in a diverse and industrial place. She's seen a similar response to crimes in the United States.
"It happens all the time [there]. Thousands of black women, old women, fat women, whatever, go missing and no one cares. Only if you're pretty and young and white, like a sacrificial lamb ... It felt like that was what was happening here. In this area where there are immigrants and warehouses and if you're going to be a pretty, young, white professional and move here, this is what's going to happen to you!"
Sarah Buckley is a young mother who lives in a Brunswick terrace with her Irish husband and son. She is also a pretty, white, professional woman who thinks Brunswick is a great place to live with her family. She followed the Meagher case closely, saying that "her life had similarities to mine - location, age, Irish connection. It just struck a chord in a way that other terrible incidents haven't. It felt personal."
Buckley thinks Meagher's work in the media was partly the reason for the incredible attention her disappearance received. She also believes that the response was "nothing like [it was for] many other horrible things that happen to people" and that the added exposure meant that "this 'close-to-home' story did resonate particularly".
Freya Scully agrees, acknowledging that she was obsessed with the case. In the week that Meagher was missing, Scully says, she was "literally, every hour, refreshing Google. And hourly there were new articles, more or less saying the same thing.
"I wanted them to solve it."
She was uncomfortable leaving her house during that time and felt surprisingly little relief when a man was arrested for the crimes. It was getting away from her computer and back onto the Brunswick streets that changed Scully's attitude. She went with her housemate to the vigil at the Baptist Church on Sydney Road.
"Everything that had happened during the week had shattered my sense of community, my sense of comfort," she says. Seeing the generosity of spirit and consoling togetherness of the vigil helped her to realise that "most other people are normal and feel like this as well. It's just one-in-a-million psychos that actually do what happened. It reassured my sense of the world."
Hauw was also part of the community response to the attack on Meagher. She went to the first grass-roots march on Sydney Road with her boyfriend and some friends who had once worked with Meagher. The event was a spontaneous, peaceful gathering of almost 30,000.
"I could not believe how many people were there," Hauw says. "I thought it was an amazing outpouring. It made me proud. I guess I felt for the first time that I had a community in Brunswick."
Earlier in the week, Hauw had placed flowers and candles outside Meagher's home in Lux Way. "I've never gone in for that [kind of thing] but it was on my street and people I know knew her. It felt like a thing for the neighbourhood."
Katie Ridsdale also wanted to connect with other women in her neighbourhood in a way that "signalled a bit of control over the environment". She went to the Reclaim the Night rally on Sydney Road, held a few weeks after Meagher's disappearance. While listening to the rousing speeches from several feminist activists at the event, Ridsdale realised that her "own [life] experience is a far cry from domestic violence, from feeling the effects of misogyny".
But when one of the speakers urged the crowd to teach their sons to respect women, Ridsdale felt a connection. "I have two sons. That is my responsibility. That's how I will overtly contribute to this debate, to this world. I want to be a good role model to my sons and to educate them about the stuff that I think is important."
Sarah Buckley's Irish father-in-law told her "how completely amazed the Irish public were by the amount of people who turned out for the walks and vigil. They were really touched that people cared that much."
Buckley believes that while "there were negative things said about Melbourne and Brunswick at the time, I think our public response actually created a huge sense of goodwill".
Perhaps it also offered a kind of comfort to the people who are truly affected by what happened to Jill Meagher. As Hauw says, "there's still a guy who lost his wife in one of the most horrific ways imaginable".
In the street where both Scully and Buckley live, there is a poster for a missing cat on the power pole where Jill Meagher's photo was placed after her disappearance.
Life goes on in Brunswick, but the case has not been forgotten. With the committal hearing for the man accused of the crimes about to begin, Brunswick will again be placed in the spotlight and many of its residents will take an interest in what unfolds.
Like the vigilante notice plastered on the front door of Helen Addison-Smith's home, the Jill Meagher case did literally reach their doorsteps and, in one way or another, these women have to reconcile with it.
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