First published on booktopia.com.au
There are no winners in court. These were words I received from a seasoned reporter, early on in my career. At the time I had no idea how true they were, or that they would go on to shape my reporting – and writing.
It was in 2014, when I was fairly new to the court reporting scene, that I was assigned to cover the murder of hospitality student Renea Lau (formally known as Yuk Ling Lau). Ms Lau had been on her way to work, when she was chased across St Kilda Road and attacked in parkland, her body left in Melbourne’s Kings Domain.
It was an extraordinarily brutal attack; random, with no apparent motive.
I was working in radio at the time, and as is the way in radio news, I had only minutes to file a report, ducking out of the courtroom to voice my 50 second package, before slipping back in.
We’d just sat through hours of horrific testimony, evidence gathered by forensic analysis that was truly harrowing – and all delivered to the background of gentle sobs from her family, while her killer sat expressionless. To condense this to under a minute seemed near-impossible, and I focused on what I felt was important: the brutality of the offending.
In the days that followed, this started to bother me. So little was told of Renea’s life before the attack; even less was told of the man who killed her.
What you end up with then, in most reporting of these horrific crimes, is an innocent victim, and an evil perpetrator.
Rarely explored is the domino effect that violence and trauma have on people’s lives – how the actions of one person can affect dozens into the future, sometimes over the span of decades.
When you sit in courtrooms, you see this time and time again: the abused child who goes on to terrorise his girlfriends, the abandoned teenager who begins experimenting with drugs, the failed youth who drops out of school and lives on the streets… it’s a cycle that’s repeated often, with little disruption.
And it’s not just seen in the worst crimes, as was the case with Renea Lau.
Only recently I was in court covering a case in which two men had stolen a Porsche and had used it to ram police cars. In sentencing, the judge covered the childhood of each man. For the first, he described how he’d been abandoned by his father as a baby, and then continually abused by his step-father. The other man’s background was even more disturbed, described by the judge as: “profoundly disadvantaged, characterised by poverty, emotional and physical brutality, and sustained parental neglect.” At six years old he’d been punched to the head and thighs, because his father hadn’t liked the way he’d brushed his hair. A couple of years later he was left in a cemetery to sleep the night, and at age 12 he was injected with amphetamines before a junior football game.
When you consider this upbringing, it’s not hard to understand how these men have ended up lost: angry at the world, and without the skills necessary to make any meaningful change.
None of this it to condone the behaviour, of course, but it does highlight the importance of a safe upbringing, social support, and education.
In fact, if I could point to one lesson I’ve learned while covering criminal trials it would be this: none of us act in isolation. The choices made by those caring for us as a child will shape our mindset into the future; the choices we make going forward will affect those around us.
When I wrote Sticks and Stones, I wanted to show these links between upbringing and behaviour, between self-esteem and self-harm.
Though much of the story itself is quite light, and fun, and (hopefully) entertaining, the reality of its inspiration is grim.
When you sit through enough court cases you realise that trauma comes in many forms, and its effects can radiate well beyond the initial hurt.
There are no winners in court – there is only damage that will stretch into the future, as a result of damage created in the past.