Helen Garner, Why she broke: The woman, her children and the lake (#Review)

Three years ago I reviewed Helen Garner’s This house of grief about Robert Farquharson who drove his car into a dam in Victoria, resulting in the deaths of his three sons. It’s a grim grim story, so you might wonder why I am now writing about her essay “Why she broke: The woman, her children and the lake” about Akon Guode who, in 2015, drove her car into a lake in Victoria resulting in the deaths of three of the four children inside.

There are two reasons, the main one being that this essay was, last week, awarded the Walkley Award (about which I’ve written before) for Feature Writing Long (over 4000 words). I hadn’t read the article when it was published in June this year, and probably wouldn’t have read it now, except for this award. What, I wondered, when I heard the news, made this essay, on a topic so seemingly similar to her recent book, worthy of the Walkley Award? The other reason is that although there are similarities – both parents drove their cars into water resulting in the deaths of children – there is a big difference. One parent was a father, and the other a mother. I wanted to know what, if anything, Garner would make of that in her analysis.

I’ll start two-thirds through the essay, where Garner quotes Guode’s defence counsel using a statement made to the Victorian Law Commission in 2004:

While men kill to control or punish their children or partner, women kill children because they cannot cope with the extreme difficulties that they encounter in trying to care for their children.

Given the current political climate – Harvey Weinstein, Don Bourke, et al – this statement must surely be read as part of that bigger picture concerning women’s powerlessness.

In the first part of the essay, Garner describes Guode’s life. She was a Sudanese refugee to Australia who had been married as a teenager but had then lost her husband in the civil war there. In that culture women cannot remarry, but remain a possession of their husband’s family. Guode’s third child was fathered by a brother-in-law. Eventually, after more trauma in Africa, she was sponsored to come to Australia by another of her late husband’s brothers, Manyang. Her life here became difficult in a different way, with her bearing four children to this already married man. At the time of the incident she had seven children.

Garner details the difficulties of Guode’s life, including the traumatic birth of her seventh child, and her struggle to care for her family while also sending money back to family in Africa. To her, this was an obligation, but at the committal hearing, Garner writes, a local community leader said that “It is not an obligation. I would call it a moral duty”! Not surprisingly Garner’s reaction to this is that “under the circumstances this seems like a very fine distinction”! This sort of word play – “obligation” versus “moral duty” – can make such a mockery of the law (or of its practitioners), can’t it?

There was of course discussion during the hearing of Guode’s mental state, with the judge suggesting that “something dramatic” must have triggered her action. The psychiatrist, however, argued that “it can just be the ebb and flow of human suffering, and the person reaching the threshold at which they can … no longer go on.”

But Garner also proposes a possible “trigger event” that went back 16 months to the last traumatic birth. Postnatal haemorrhaging was so bad she was close to needing a hysterectomy. Guode initially refused treatment. Garner writes that she was

prepared to risk bleeding to death on a hospital gurney rather than consent to the surgical removal of the sole symbol of her worth, the site of her only dignity and power: her womb?

Surely, a woman whose life had lost all meaning apart from her motherhood would kill her children only in a fit of madness.

Garner also discusses the technicalities of infanticide versus murder in Victorian law, and Guode’s counsel’s argument that all three deaths should be viewed through “the prism of infanticide”, which would result in a lesser sentence, even though only one of the children met the age criterion. Her eventual sentence makes clear that he didn’t win his argument.

What makes this essay so good, besides the analysis, is Garner’s writing. Here she is on a jury trial versus a plea hearing (which this was):

If a full-bore jury trial is a symphony, a plea hearing is a string quartet. Its purpose seems to be to clear a space in which the quality of mercy might at least be contemplated. There is something moving in its quiet thoughtfulness, the intensity of its focus, the murmuring voices of judge and counsel, the absence of melodrama or posturing. It’s the law in action, working to fit the dry, clean planes of reason to the jagged edges of human wildness and suffering.

That last sentence! Breathtaking. It reminds me once again what an excellent essayist Garner is, and it’s not just for her style. She has the ability to take us on a journey, leading us logically, and empathically, to consider values and ethics, without ever being didactic.

In this essay, it’s her concluding comments and final question regarding mercy which gets to the nub of it. It concerns the idea of “mother”, which she calls “this great thundering archetype with the power to stop the intellect in its tracks”. Read Garner’s essay, and/or this report in The Age, and see what you think. I don’t envy Justice Lasry’s job, but I know, based on what I’ve read, where my intellect goes.

aww2017 badgeHelen Garner
“Why she broke: The woman, her children and the lake”
The Monthly, June 2017
Available online

29 thoughts on “Helen Garner, Why she broke: The woman, her children and the lake (#Review)

  1. Thank you, WG. This is an intense post. The first quote is enlightening. The essay’s theme reminds me of an incident happened in Chennai. And when it happened, I remember my aunts and parents saying that she would not have wanted her children to suffer. I am curious to learn the law’s perspective too. I will read the essay, WG. Thank you.

  2. I must go and read this essay, and more Garner. Thanks for the reminder, WG. And yes, what a sentence. What a paragraph. As Philip Adams says, Garner writes like an angel. And with such humanity and insight.

  3. “While men kill to control or punish their children or partner, women kill children because they cannot cope with the extreme difficulties that they encounter in trying to care for their children.

    Dunno. Bit of a sweeping statement there.
    This would probably piss me off to read it. And I can think of plenty of women who killed their children because they didn’t fit into their new lives or their imagined new lives.


    This one killed her kids and planned to pin it on the father:


    Life insurance scam:

    Munchausen by proxy

    Another insurance scam:
    I am not counting women who put their kids in microwaves, cooked them, cut off their limbs, or torture them to death and were then judged insane.


    • Thanks Guy for sharing these. My understanding is that this statement reflects Victorian research which showed this to be “the most common” situation. I don’t think it means that this is 100% the way things go. However, it’s probably a fair comment that the statement could sound a bit black-and-white.

  4. Forgive me, Sue, this is just a test comment to see if it goes to moderation. All of a sudden, blogs I’ve been commenting on for ages are not recognising me. And in context of our current fun-and-games with notifications, I want to see what happens if I comment here.

  5. I go the other way from Guy, I think the generalization is largely true (I think this particular woman’s situation was horrendous) and I wonder if we might return one day to the situation where custody defaults to the woman “all else being equal”.

    • Yes, I’m inclined to agree with you Bill – and I think the research supports that view. There are always exceptions – in fact, strangely enough there’s the odd kind, caring man out there I’ve noticed!! – but I don’t think this woman is one of them (one of the exceptions I mean!)

  6. Reblogged this on Tasmanian Bibliophile @Large and commented:
    I’m currently reading Helen Garner’s ‘True Stories’ (The Collected Short Non-Fiction), and ‘Why She Broke’ is the first piece in that collection. And, by the time I finished reading, I found myself thinking how could she NOT break?

    • Oh thanks Jennifer. I’m glad your reaction is similar to mine.

      I was tempted to buy that book, but as I already have Everywhere I look, I figure that I’ll try to buy The feel of steel separately rather than duplicate so much that I already have.

      • I’ve read both ‘Everywhere I look’ and ‘The Feel of Steel’. I’m enjoying this complete collection (courtesy of the ACT Library) as it gives me a better sense of the range of her writing. I find that I prefer her non-fiction to her fiction, but I love how she describes what she sees and experiences.

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