Remembering Jill: days of grief, shame and fear

Afterwards, when we all knew how Jill Meagher's story ended, conversation shifted from where we were when, to how we feel now. Grief, in itself, had become news. Whole pages of newspapers were given over to everyday people talking about how they felt, and the sentiments of strangers became fodder for more conversations between friends.

Afterwards, when we all knew how Jill Meagher's story ended, conversation shifted from where we were when, to how we feel now. Grief, in itself, had become news. Whole pages of newspapers were given over to everyday people talking about how they felt, and the sentiments of strangers became fodder for more conversations between friends.

I was glad not to be the first to say that I felt guilty for being so overwhelmingly sad. My only real experience of grief is that of public grief. I've never lost a family member I was old enough to know well, and I felt ashamed that my point of reference for the sadness I was now experiencing was when my primary school principal had a heart attack and died at his desk, right across the hall from where I was having a music lesson. There was an uncomfortable resemblance, though, between my 10-year-old classmates who pretended to grieve as though they had lost their best friend and the city full of strangers who cried, marched and laid down bouquets for a woman they'd never met. "It felt performative," a friend later told me. "Like she wasn't ours to cry for, when somewhere, only a few suburbs away, were her family and friends who would be feeling a real person's absence. Rather than just the distress of 'it could have so easily been me'."

Later on, I recognised that "performative" was the word I was searching for that first Friday night after I heard how the story ended. I had flown to Newcastle for a writers' festival that afternoon, the booziest and loosest of all the writers festivals, where, in years past, I stayed out each night until a hangover and the dawn were creeping towards me in concert. This year, I already knew, would be different.

I met two friends from Melbourne for an early dinner. At home, they live just around the corner from me and for once there wasn't all that much to say. We had one glass of wine each, and afterwards they asked if I'd like to join them on their hotel room balcony to light a candle for Jill.

I made my excuses, pleading tiredness, not knowing how to politely articulate how awkward I felt at the idea of holding a candle aloft over Newcastle's skyline for a woman I had never met, but who I had nonetheless spent much of the day crying over in private. I went to bed early, wishing that I was back home in Melbourne, but also glad to be away. I hadn't yet got the measure of my own sadness. Cynicism has always been my default setting, and now I was being cynical about my grief and everyone else's along with it.

Many people in the city wondered whether the story of Jill Meagher was one that we cared about so much, or were even told in the first place, because she was "the right kind of girl" - a pretty, white, middle-class woman who worked in the arts and lived in a gentrified suburb. As a character, smiling back from the Missing Person posters, she embodied all that was good, and all that was normal.

Even early on, before those posters had been covered up or taken down, there was an uncomfortable edge to the city's grief, the worry that all this sadness was somehow self-centred. Living in Brunswick provided something of a free pass in this regard, or so I told myself. Of course I was justified in feeling so affected; it happened at the end of my street.

When I walked into my office the morning that Jill Meagher's body had been found, all of my colleagues took the time to stop by my desk and ask if I was OK. I hadn't known Jill and neither had they, but it was understood that my special status as a Brunswick resident had left me more susceptible to the grief that was already rippling throughout the city. At the time I was grateful for the excuse, as it spared me from having to examine my feelings too carefully.

During the weeks and months to come, as reports of other missing and murdered women were routinely brought up in the media - women who hadn't been as pretty, white or middle-class - I had to think about it. Was I sad for Jill Meagher or sad for myself, because it could have happened to me? How self-centred and selfish was my sadness, and did it even matter at all? Every opinion piece about the dead women whose names nobody took the trouble to learn only reminded me of the early battle of "appropriateness" around Jill Meagher's death. It was the story of one city, united in its grief, and that unity brought about a misconception that there was only one appropriate way to feel.

The difference between the two characters was more complex than that of victim and attacker, and this allowed for their individual stories to be further abstracted into a competing narrative about class. Why we despised and feared Adrian Ernest Bayley was far more clear-cut than why we despaired and cried for Jill Meagher. Bayley lived one suburb further away from the city, the difference between the two suburbs being just enough to suggest that he was not as gentrified or middle-class as Meagher. He worked as a pipe layer and wore rings on each finger. A jagged, black tattoo circled his left arm and he had a history of paying, and raping, prostitutes. Before his violent past was known, when he was still the "mystery man" in the blue hoodie, women watched the CCTV footage from the Duchess Bridal Boutique with a familiar shiver.

The footage that was widely displayed in the media shows Meagher and Bayley standing together in the doorway of the salon. The camera angle obscures their faces but she with her high heels and he with his blue hoodie are unmistakable. Bayley stands slightly in front of Meagher and leans his head towards her. Follow me, he seems to be saying. Meagher wavers slightly on her feet, and in that reluctance to follow Bayley, that hesitation to anger a strange man on a dark street, almost every woman I know saw herself.

This is an edited extract from A Story of Grief by Michaela McGuire, published next week, Penguin Specials rrp $9.99 (print) $3.99 (eBook)

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