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Rosie Batty’s private grief

Jun 25, 2019 • 15m57s

Rosie Batty talks to Martin McKenzie-Murray about grief and healing.

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Rosie Batty’s private grief

21 • Jun 25, 2019

Rosie Batty’s private grief

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, this is 7am.

When Rosie Batty’s son was murdered, she became a public figure. She felt a great urgency about the contribution she could make - but it also took an extraordinary toll. Five years on, Martin McKenzie-Murray spoke to her about grief and healing.

[Theme ends]

A warning: This episode includes discussion of suicide.

Marty, When was the first time that you met Rosie Batty?

MARTIN:

So that was February 2014. I knew it was quite soon after Luke's murder, but I realised it was just a fortnight after his death, that I went and visited Rosie Batty.

ELIZABETH:

And what do you remember about that interview?

MARTIN:

I was apprehensive. I had met with traumatised people before, in fact parents who had had children murdered. But there's still a personal doubt. Are you being exploitative? There were some nerves there obviously.

ELIZABETH:

Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

MARTIN:

What I remember when I arrived was two things very distinctively. One more trivial which is this overwhelming perfume of all the flowers that had been left. And the second thing was that Rosie Batty's hospitality had survived her trauma. There was the offering of tea and coffee. She was polite. But I remember thinking her composure was remarkable and we spoke. We spoke for two or three hours.

ELIZABETH:

Rosie Batty's grief captured the Australian imagination. What do you think it was about that grief?

MARTIN:

Well before the grief there's the act itself which was singularly grotesque. How public how violent it was, that it was committed by Luke's father. Kind of secured its infamy.

But then of course there was Rosie Batty's speech the next day…

Archival tape — Rosie Batty:

“Luke came to me and said could I Have a few more minutes with my dad?, because he doesn’t see him very often. And I said, yeah sure, that’s okay. He… He was a little boy in a growing body and he always believed that he’d be safe with his dad.”

MARTIN:

And that kind of then secured her public status, I think. That… that was so unusual. If we have any expectations about grief being raging or enraged and insensible, she wasn't. She was obviously raw. But she spoke quite philosophically.

Archival tape — Rosie Batty:

“What triggered this I think is a case of his dad having mental health issues, was in a homelessness situation for many years. He was on a path of desperate... No one loved Luke more than Greg. His father. No one loved Luke more than me. We both loved him.”

MARTIN:

If we want grief to look hysterical and inarticulate, she didn't offer it. And I think why some people were suspicious of that, is that in her eloquence they detected a guilty soul. That is, a mother guilty about inadequately protecting her son. And this was, this was a recurring criticism of Rosie Batty. Why did she allow Luke access to her father? And it was strangers making this kind of retrospective appraisal of their family's situation.

ELIZABETH:

Can you tell me what that initial year after Luke's passing looked like for Rosie, or at least in her telling?

MARTIN:

When her sort of public status was established and she wasn't yet, she uses the word catapulted a lot, catapulted into this really fraught celebrity. She says to the writer Helen Garner in that first year, wryly, I need to be careful that my halo doesn't slip and strangle me. And there was a recognition that even in that first year she was developing something of a celebrity. She was being placed on a pedestal. She was unsure if she was worthy of that position. She was profoundly suffering. But at the same time what she does volunteer for is to try to find purpose in, in Luke's murder and begin her domestic violence campaign.

ELIZABETH:

And did she feel an urgency around that?

MARTIN:

That the urgency really comes with Australian of the year.

[Applause]

MARTIN:

January 2015.

Archival tape — Rosie Batty:

“I am truly on honoured. I would like to dedicate this award to my beautiful son Luke. He is the reason I have found my voice and I am able to be heard.”

MARTIN:

She's conferred this honour less than a year after Luke's murder. And that's… We've known this fact for a long time but I think we should pause on it. She becomes Australian of the year less than a year after her son's violent murder. She was terrified that this moment of her influence would dwindle. That she had a tiny window in which to exercise this influence. And she saw Australian of the year, that honor, very much as a responsibility.

Archival tape — Rosie Batty:

“I am on a path to expose family violence and to ensure that victims receive the respect, support and safety that they deserve.”

MARTIN:

And she was going to work overtime, in fact make herself sick, terrified that the window would close and she would cease to be influential. And at some point she wonders if this work, and we're talking more than 250 speaking engagements in 2015, living in hotels and airports and then at some point she wonders, “am I working so hard in some subconscious quest to resurrect Luke?”. And there's a lot of what Joan Didion called magical thinking with grief and she wondered if that was one example of it. That this extraordinary toll, the extraordinary amount of work, was in some weird way an attempt to bring Luke back to life.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

So this is 2015. It's a year after Luke was murdered, less than a year after Rosie Batty’s been made Australian of the year, which she understandably sees as having a responsibility attached to it. What does it mean for her and for her own capacity for private grief, that she's been catapulted into this role of responsibility?

MARTIN:

She suppresses it publicly, but this becomes an enormous point of tension for her. She starts feeling fraudulent. Because it's not that she's suppressing grief, full stop. It's that in public appearances she's suppressing her grief. But privately she's exploding. Now this is a severely traumatised woman and we could forgive her this. But she couldn't forgive herself. And so she started feeling what she called self-disgust. She experienced this chasm between Saint Rosie in the public, and then the private chain-smoker, who is medicating with wine.

ELIZABETH:

Is there any kind of a template for becoming a public figure like this?

MARTIN:

Not in Rosie's case. She said I had no manual to navigate this really vexed celebrity. So in the early days Mark Latham suggested publicly that Rosie Batty was benefiting from Luke's murder and it's become kind of a notorious public statement. Rosie raised that and she says “What do you do with that? You know I felt sick. I didn't realise I'd be buffeted.” You know, and she admitted to naivety. Her trauma compromises her judgment. These are her words. She's feeling this great weight and burden and sense of fraudulence. And so she sets up the Luke Batty Foundation.

ELIZABETH:

A charity in her son’s name.

MARTIN:

That's right. And it's a way of honouring Luke. And it's also a way of housing or investing all these donations that started coming through, from the very beginning. But as she tells me, her judgment’s compromised. She has no experience in setting something up like this. She tells me she has no executive experience, she doesn't know what the function of a board is and so it's not run terribly well. And this pains her. And then when it's sort of financially restructured and she has to move away from it, she respects that that needs to happen for good governance. But she feels like she's grieving Luke again, that this foundation that she set up in his name she now kind of functionally doesn't have anything to do with. And then last year it shut down.

ELIZABETH:

It struck me as you've written about this that there's such a severe limitation on our imagination for what grief might look like or how we might experience it. It's as though we don't have the ability to interpret or digest someone talking through their experience because for many people will be like white noise.

MARTIN:

Yeah. We are pretty ignorant about grief, no one really teaches us how to grieve. And I think the same is true in that no one teaches us how to support the grieving. And yet our culture is soaked in expectations of grief and most of them aren't right. We often describe someone's passage to recovery as some neat arc, this march towards closure. It's not it's not the case. And I think another expectation we have as well, and Freud posited this some time ago, before the death of his daughter asked him to change his own theories about suffering, and that is that the dead are a burden and that the grieving person is in a terrible bondage to the dead and they need to sever those ties.

Well today in current psychological literature we’d accept that are healthy bonds can be maintained with the dead. Grief is complex. It has different faces. Even for the individual sufferer, they're going to experience a multitude of faces and voices. I just don't think we understand that.

ELIZABETH:

Can you talk me through some of the lows of this period that she described to you this week?

MARTIN:

So we talk about sort of finite time I guess to grief but... I use a quote from Wordsworth, where he describes suffering as having or sharing the nature of infinity. And that's very much what this grief felt like for Rosie, that it wasn't a station that you would pass, knowing it would pass. It wasn't a station on a on a path or a process. What it was a state, that seemed never ending and all consuming.

But what she told me was: Two years ago, she was in Sydney between appointments, and she took a taxi. And the taxi parked on the side of a busy road. Before she got out she opens the passenger door, just as the bus goes past and takes that door off. But she's left uninjured sitting in the cab. And she's not sure if she's been lucky or unlucky. So what Rosie told me was that she couldn't have committed suicide. She thought it was repugnant and her belief system wouldn't allow it. She wouldn't have minded though, if she had died. And when we either beatify Rosie Batty, or we make a villain of her, I think those... just that basic raw, profound element of grief we ignore.

ELIZABETH:

You met again with Rosie Batty this past week, what was she like in your most recent conversation?

MARTIN:

She asked me if she seemed different to when we first met, five years before. And I said, she seemed calmer and happier but as honestly, she didn't seem all that different. That's not to say that she isn't different, she is. Five years have passed.

[Music]

When we spoke it was the eve of what would have been Luke Batty's 17th birthday. And so in the past, and this is true of most grieving parents, the anniversaries suck badly. And the weeks before the anticipation of the date can be as painful as the date itself. It's not good. But this week we spoke the day before what would have been Luke's birthday and she said it's gonna be okay. She said, the memories can be sweet now.

They're not touched by pain. She says a recent development with her is that she is looking to the future. She's not stuck in the moment, processing grief.

ELIZABETH:

Marty, thanks so much.

MARTIN:

Thank you.

ELIZABETH:

If this episode caused distress, support is available. You can reach Lifeline counsellors by calling 13 11 14.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

More than $750,000 will be refunded after the campaign website GoFundMe shut down an appeal for money to cover the legal bills of former rugby player Israel Folau. Folau launched a legal fight following Rugby Australia’s decision to fire him for posting homophobic material online. GoFundMe said it was dedicated to equality and that it removed the Folau page after an internal review.

And the ABC has lodged a court application against the Federal Police, seeking to set aside the search warrant that was used to raid the broadcaster’s Ultimo headquarters earlier this month. They will argue that the warrant is invalid on the grounds that it breaches implied freedom of political communication. The ABC is also seeking the return of documents seized in the raid. NewsCorp has announced that it will also make its own legal challenge.

This is 7am.

I’m Elizabeth Kulas.

See you Wednesday.

When Rosie Batty’s son was murdered, she became a public figure. She felt a great urgency about the contribution she could make – but it took an extraordinary toll. Martin McKenzie-Murray spoke to her about grief and healing.

Guest: Chief correspondent for The Saturday Paper Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Background reading:

The private toll of public grief in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Equate Studio.

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21: Rosie Batty’s private grief