Narratives born in antiquity are rebirthed in news coverage almost daily
At the time of writing this piece, I was shocked to hear of the mass-murder and suicide in Margaret River. It lit a fire in my belly. Peter Miles, a man who was ‘supposed’ to love all of his victims shot his wife, his adult daughter, and four grand-children, their ages ranging 8 – 13. Then he shot himself. As details came to hand, my rage has flared many times at the media narratives surrounding this man’s deliberate action to kill his whole family while they slept. I even read an ABC article which said Miles’ “heartache” caused him to snap and kill his family.
Does heartache cause murder? Does being under stress excuse it? Of course not. It makes me wonder, with the recent push-back on the gendered media narrative surrounding violent crime where the perpetrator is known to the victims, why this narrative survives. It always makes me think of Hercules.
It makes me wonder, with the recent push-back on the gendered media narrative surrounding violent crime where the perpetrator is known to the victims, why this narrative survives.
It makes me think of Hercules, and other classical myth stories.
These days not everyone is familiar with classical myth, and maybe those who heard the stories as a child only heard one ‘level’ of the narrative. The adventure, the magic, the far-away lands. They are great stories. That is why they’ve survived the ravages of time, and still inform our culture. If you think about them with an adult’s mind, mythologies speak undeniable, confronting truths of the values and attitudes of the society which creates, upholds and identifies with them. If you doubt it, read some Classic mythologies, and compare them to the news and media narratives we see across social media, television news, and the paper daily. They aren’t new stories. Let’s talk about some old ones first.
Ancient Rome’s Foundation Myths are Stories of Fratricide and Rape
Rome’s ‘first’ founding myth is the story of Romulus and Remus. Brothers, half-god, fathered by Mars the god of war, they were the twin sons of a Vestal ‘virgin’, birthed and found near the river Tiber, left to die and suckled by a wolf. They had many adventures and founded the city of Rome: Romulus and Remus built a town where they were rescued by Faustulus. Romulus built walls around the city and slayed his brother Remus when he jumped over them. When you look at Rome’s history, ‘brother’ killing ‘brother’ became an all too common theme in the thirst for power. The famous story of Julius Caesar and Pompey comes to mind, particularly if you’re a fan of HBO’s Rome, or Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Et tu, Brute?”
What is perhaps more alarming is the prevalence of rape narratives used as foundation myths in Ancient Roman culture. From the story of Romulus comes the rape of the Sabine women. A man without a son is a man without a future, so Romulus and his followers kidnapped and raped the Sabine women to increase their numbers. In some stories this is written as rape, in others the women were willing participants. In others still it was rape to begin with, but the Sabine women grew to love their rapists, and shamed both the Romans and the Sabines into an uneasy truce (which did not last).
The Romans were known for their ferox, or ferocity in warfare, and rape and pillage was warfare used in expanding borders of the city-state as it came to its power. Rape has always been about power, and Rome wasn’t the first or the last nation to use rape as a weapon of war. It is still being used today.
The Rape of Lucretia
Do you know the story of the rape of Lucretia? Rome didn’t begin to write its history until it was an established power. Although the story of Lucretia is a myth, Livy’s version was written and accepted as a history. It shows a pivotal turning point in Rome’s ‘history’ because it marked the end of Rome being part of a monarchy and the beginning of the Republic of Rome. It’s where the Roman’s hatred of Tyrants began (we know them as Monarchs), where senate was developed and enshrined in Roman society – as it is still enshrined in ours. Looking closer at the narrative of the story, it is also highly instructive to women, those silent sub-citizens of Rome. (Literally, they weren’t allowed to be citizens.)
Lucretia, noble, moral and beautiful is raped by a Tarquin prince who wishes to dishonour her for sport. Although the men who love her try to convince her that she, a woman of “inflexible chastity” is not to blame, she demands that her husband and father wreak revenge on the Tarquins, then kills herself to prevent any future woman being “unchaste” and citing her name as precedence.
‘It is for you,’ she said, ‘to see that he gets his deserts: although I acquit myself of the sin, I do not free myself from the penalty; no unchaste woman shall henceforth live and plead Lucretia’s example.’
–Livy’s History: The Rape of Lucretia, Chapter 58 [Italics my emphasis]
Death before dishonour: it was a common theme in Rome, exacted particularly for the women.The foundation story of Verginia shows a beautiful plebeian girl raped by a Roman official, then killed by her own father. It was the only way he could separate her from the sin conferred upon her by her rapist.
Death Before Dishonour: The Ideal Prevails
While we’ve all heard of the horror of ‘honour killings’, in our culture we don’t insist the woman die to save her family from dishonour. However our media and societal narratives still don’t like us to let women ‘free themselves from penalty’. When a woman is raped, the questions that are still bandied about by individuals and media outlets generally consist of: What was she wearing? Why was she out by herself? And horribly, What did she expect?
Rape culture and victim blaming are ingrained attitudes which are recently being brought to light.Predictably, they are being met with much opposition from certain groups, because they disrupt the comfortable flow of the stories we have become so familiar with. You know, the one where a man can rape a woman and by and largely be excused for it, his sporting prowess and otherwise good character held up in his defence, as if he’s some kind of Ancient Greek Hero. You know, the one where a woman is torn to pieces and raped by proxy in the court rooms by a lawyer, discredited, told she was a liar, or enjoyed it then changed her mind the next day, or did something to make the man do it. Sheesh. Silly woman. Why doesn’t she just ‘do a Lucretia’ and remove the stain of sin with a noble suicide?
The Prevalence and Problems of Monster Stories
There are cases where we can all agree that the man was at fault. I learnt this in 2017 from the tragic case of Jill Meagher, where the shock of a (statistically less common) ‘random’ rape and murder opened Australia’s eyes: for some reason we have a different conversation when the perpetrator isn’t known to the victim.
Here’s something to think about, and it’s pretty sobering. Everyone could agree about Meagher’s innocence and Adrian Bayley’s guilt because he was a stranger – an unknown monster. A monster who raped AND murdered her.
Like Lucretia and Verginia, Jill Meagher was separated from her ‘sin’ by her own death. Ask yourself what the coverage would have been if it was ‘just’ a rape? Would she have been accused of being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Of dressing provocatively, as CCTV showed her wearing a short skirt and high heels?
This didn’t happen to Jill Meagher, because she was murdered. The circumstances of her horrible death summoned forth another old and beguiling narrative trope: the monster. Undoubtedly, the man is a monster, but the harm in the monster-as-narrative-trope is that it allows people to say, I’m not like that. Yeah, I might have ‘come on a little strong’ once and coerced a no into a yes, but I’m not like that. I might have joked about putting one up her, but I’m not like that.
Another case ‘we’ as a general public seemed to agree on was in 2012 when we heard of another monster, Gerard Bayden-Clay. Similarly, there was no question of Bayden-Clay’s guilt, because he had so brazenly murdered his wife, Alison. I grew up with a sister – we fought often and she used her nails. I watched with horror as he grew a beard over the obvious fingernail scratches on his face, calling them shaving cuts. I felt sick thinking of how a once loving husband could turn into a cold-hearted murderer. We were all ready to give him the justice he deserved because like Jill Meaghre, Alison Bayden-Clay had been wiped clean of blame by her death.
If they had separated first, perhaps the meninist trolls would have come to his defence: she tried to take his kids, what did she expect, etc. But the calculation involved in her murder left us all cold: it wasn’t a ‘crime of passion’, which in our tradition of epic sagas we treat differently.
The pre-meditation involved couldn’t be explained away. These cases are atypical.
The media are normally ready to try to see the best in men who kill their spouse and/or children.
Timeless Hero Murders Wife and Children
Here’s a story about a guy named Heracles. Of all the heroes of antiquity, he is still front of mind as a Hero. This is in part due to the popularity of the 1990’s series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, but I think even if this pop-culture reference is totally lost on you, you’d still know Hercules. Who wouldn’t? Strong, handsome alpha-male who travels the ancient world doing his 12 emotional labours, giving justice to those in need, like the Amazon in the picture above. (He’s the black figure, wearing a leopard skin.) Definitely a good guy; a demigod. Definitely not someone who would murder his wife and children. Except he did.
Of course, it wasn’t his fault. It just wasn’t. He was possessed by Hera, goddess and jealous head-wife of Zeus. She knew he was Zeus’ favourite, wanted Zeus to favour her own children, or was jealous of another half-god product of Zeus’ many infidelities. Or maybe it was all of those things. Point is, in the story, it’s Hera who gets the blame for Hercules’ murderous rage. He was controlled by an outside force, moved by a higher power, and had no agency in his crime. And the stories of Hercules’ brave deeds and heroism trump the murder – which wasn’t his fault – and continued through time. You know him as a Hero, not a child-killer, not a murderer. In fact, in subsequent versions (including the opening credits to the kitsch series mentioned above) this dirty little matter was removed altogether, and the wife and children killed by the remote hand of Hera, struck by lightning in a storm.
That’s myth though. It’s not something the modern media would help perpetuate, is it? Unfortunately, yes. This very narrative, dying as a result of something as random as a storm is still being used in the media today. In 2016 the opening lines of an article telling its public about a crime read: “Four children are without their parents after a young couple’s marriage ended in a horrible, bloody tragedy.” This horrible, bloody tragedy was a man murdering his wife. As Clementine Ford points out:
“Once again, a circumstance of alleged domestic homicide has been presented as something unavoidable; it is not the result of human choice and deliberate action, but the result of leaving home one day without an umbrella and being exposed to a sudden and unexpected downpour…
“….Language matters. It bloody matters.”
[Italics my emphasis].
Lightning struck one day and Arona Peniama murdered his wife in their driveway. The opening line makes it seem as if the whole family were victims of another individual’s crime, not the man choosing to kill his wife. After reading the article I know Peniama was fond of a game of cards. I know nothing about is wife. Nothing that identifies her and cements her in my mind as an actual person. She has been silenced, both literally and by the literature.
Salt of the Earth
When the violence is a murder-suicide, the water seems even more muddied for the reportage. In 2014, I sat in my Wagga Wagga home, stunned to silence as the little town of Lockhart, not an hour’s drive away came to national attention as the site of Geoff Hunt’s sickening murders and subsequent suicide.
I grew up in Wagga, and knew someone with relatives in Lockhart. Before the reportage started, she knew what had happened. My friend told me about the community’s perception of Hunt as “salt of the earth”, while his dead wife, Kim Hunt was framed as a Dickensian cripple – crooked in body, crooked in mind. In her community’s collective imagination, she was the only one thought capable of the atrocity.
It didn’t take long for the media to reveal that Geoff Hunt, pillar of the community and agreed ‘good bloke’ was the perpetrator. He killed his children one by one in their beds, his disabled wife, and then killed himself. As The Australian reported, even after Hunt was confirmed as the killer, the township “refused to say a bad word about him”. Hunt was described as the “most gentle, considerate bloke…a pillar of society”. The shock expressed at his actions is understandable from the town and individuals; it prompted me to wonder how well we really know our neighbours. The mainstream media’s treatment of the case is much less forgivable. Journalist Nina Funnel gave words to my rage, showing the language surrounding the murders changed as it became clear the cripple wife was NOT the killer:
[A]s the days have rolled on, journalists have begun to phase out the word “murder” and replace it with the word “killed” “died” or “perished”. So why does this matter? Well it matters because there is a world of difference between a person dying and a person being ‘murdered’. Women die every day (from cancer, in car accidents, through illness and so on). Murder is different. Murder implies that a heinous crime has taken place. Murder implies that someone is responsible. Someone made a decision.
Nina Funnel via Mamamia.com, 2014
Nina Funnel’s shrewd analysis and deconstruction of the reportage shows how the media’s progressive sanitation of Geoff Hunt’s murderous deeds reflect the same pattern of Hercules’ murder of Megara and his children. At first, it’s as if Hunt is moved by external forces: “strains”, that crush his will, remove his agency like the curse of a goddess. Just as Hera bears the brunt of the blame for Hercules’ mythological murders, the “strains” Hunt was under were responsible for the murder, not the man himself. Words matter, as Funnel pointed out:
“And notice how by grouping all five deaths together, the distinction between the perpetrator and his four victims is effectively erased? The family has been linguistically reunited by a subeditor in a clever manoeuver designed to make readers slightly more sympathetic towards the perpetrator.”
In early 2016 Funnel shone a light on a similar murder given the same sad, indulgent shake of the head by the media. Port Lincoln man Damien Little murdered his two sons and took his own life driving off a pier and into the water. Like Hunt, he was called a “good bloke”, a “family man”. We heard about how he played football in his formative years. No one could believe it.
Like Hunt, the ‘black dog’ of mental illness was seen to move Damien Little’s hand from the outside, limiting his agency, expunging him of his active choice to kill his sons. Hercules lived again, perpetuated by news media narratives. As Funnel points out, mentally ill people are much more likely to be the victim of violent crime than the perpetrators. She said, “Moreover, the difference between a man who suicides, and a man who murders his children before suiciding is not how mentally ill he is: it’s how proprietary he is in his attitude towards women and children.” I couldn’t agree more.
If you’re saying to yourself, but that’s just semantics, you are right. Except for the ‘just’. It is semantics, and the author’s choice to use semantics to elicit sympathy for the murderer is important. What should be asked is WHY these semantic tricks are being played in the first place. Do reporters use semantics to distant a murdering mother from her crimes? No. No they do not.
Here’s a name you may not be as familiar with from antiquity. Medea was wife to Jason (of ‘and the Argonauts’ fame), who kills her own children to wreak revenge on Jason’s infidelity. Actually, the Corinthians were going to kill the children anyway, social-climbing Jason passive to resistance. Euripides shows Medea fleeing the scene with her son’s dead bodies in a golden chariot pulled by dragons, literally shedding her woman’s biology for monstrosity, headed for Asia. (It’s also a neat charter for the old capital of Persia (Media), the Greek’s traditional enemy. Mythology is never short on blades.) While Hercules is still our Hero and remembered as a brave warrior, good bloke and overall tall drink of water, Medea is the classic anti-mother, reviled through the ages.
Earlier this year, a Queensland mother Maree Crabtree was charged with murdering her children. I googled ‘Queensland mother killed’, and the google grab is damning in itself: “Queensland mother accused of murder, torture after allegedly poisoning two…“. On reading the story, so are her actions. They are despicable and horrendous. A police officer is quoted as saying “These (were not) compassionate acts of a stressed mother at her wits end.”
Allegedly motivated by money this deviant mother has been demonised by the media. And rightly so. There was no ‘crime of passion’, no talk of her being crushed through the years by the strain of taking care of two disabled children, how that stress combined with depression can make you have warped thoughts. No one is talking about the pathology behind her crime, as we hear so often when a man commits a similar crime.
On April 12 2016 Sofina Nikat confessed to murdering her child. A few days later it was reported she was known to the Department of Human Resources, and probably the victim of abuse: Nikat’s actions were pathologised, not demonised. They weren’t explained away. We didn’t hear of her sporting prowess. We didn’t hear anyone speak up for her, say what a lovely person she was. We didn’t hear about how she had finally cracked under the strain.
The nation was shocked, the discourse and media coverage perfunctory. Like Crabtree, Nikat’s guilt did not warrant any defence. According to Nicole Goc (Framing the News: ‘Bad’ Mothers and the ‘Medea’ News Frame, 2009), filicide is perpetrated in relatively equal numbers by men and women. What is different is society and the media’s treatment of deviant mothers compared to deviant fathers.
So the question must be asked: why is Heracles permitted an element of understanding by mainstream media and its consumers which Medea is not? Medea is reviled because she casts a pall of darkness on Simone De Beauvior’s “woman question” – if a woman is not a womb, then who is she and what is for? When the pressure is on, a woman is still both identified and othered by the reproductive potential of her biology, not viewed as a subject of herself.
One murderer should not be more ‘right’, or less ‘wrong’ than another who has committed the same crime. One woman, alive or dead, should not be a less ‘innocent victim’ of a violent sexual assault, just because one survived, and the other was killed. Yet this is what the media tells us.
Media narratives override the facts of a case. Facts are boring. Statistics area easily forgotten. I am pointing out that the narratives used by today’s media are very little changed from the days of ancient empires gone by. Humans are narrative creatures. The stories live larger, and longer in our minds, becoming a powerful influence on – and driver of – social hegemonies.
Among the deviant women who kill their own children, of women who asked for rape (and if they were honest probably liked it), and those victims of physical and sexual assault who become lily-white by virtue of their death, what I want to know is why so many great blokes are murdering their partners and children? Why do the gendered media narratives give these ‘blokes’ the luxury of sympathy, of explanation, why do they tell us unrelated anecdotes about their lives: they like cards, they played footy, they always shouted at the pub? Why do they try to remove the men from the crime they have committed?
Why Myths Matter
Paying attention to the messages within mythology is important, because when you see them used again and again in today’s media narratives, you recognise it. We can do a bit of an internal check about why we believe certain things, why language used to describe crimes changes depending on the perpetrator’s gender, whether they were known to their victims. We can ask ourselves where that bias might have come from.
And if you still think myth narratives are too far off, consider this. If something as visibly still present in our society as the Roman senate has pervaded so strongly, and is so intact within our living culture, you can bet moral stories like The Rape of Lucretia, of Verginia, of The Rape of the Sabine Women, then you can bet they’ve informed the way we think about the rape and murder of women now.
Apart from a cultural heritage of thousands of years of patriarchy and ingrained misogyny, I don’t have another answer as to why all these murderers are actually great guys: I hate it, it’s so wrong. But I do know this: the more we are awake to these terrible tropes, the less power they have. Voices of dissent are powerful.
As Clementine Ford wrote:
“We can change the narrative around violence. But to do that, we have to change the words we use when we talk about it. Accounts of domestic homicide should not need to be dramatised to make the audience care about the story. As a society, we should find the fact that it happens at all shocking enough.”
Clementine Ford, 2016
Great blokes don’t murder their partners and children. There are no crimes of passion. Forensic pathology and knowledge of mental illness is crucial to understanding a killer’s mind and trying to prevent the loss of another life, but it does not excuse the actions of the perpetrator. It’s about time the media stopped trying to make us believe the unbelievable, and forgive the unforgivable.
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