Or, Old White Lady Goes To Court For The Very First Time. Being a record of thoughts, quotes, headdesk moments and more as I read Helen Garner’s book.
Previously: Liz goes to the movies: Joe Cinque’s Consolation.
Content warnings: abuse, murder, eating disorders, ableism, sexism, racism.
It was the afternoon of Wednesday 17 August. I was a chapter away from finishing my reread of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when I got the email from the Eastern Regional Libraries to let me know my hold on the electronic edition of Joe Cinque’s Consolation had come in.
“Ugh,” I thought, “now I have to read it.”
On the other hand, I did promise, and it seemed quite appropriate to have a gap between the fourth and fifth Harry Potter books. I plunged in.
What follows are my notes and highlights as I read:
- The ambulance dispatcher is as awful and dismissive in the transcript of the call as he was portrayed in the film: “Just be quiet for a moment and listen to me. It’s no good you carrying on like that if I don’t know where to send the ambulance.”
- Page 13 marks Garner’s first use of “hysterical” to describe Anu Singh. By page 38, she will have used “hysterical” twice and “shrill” once.
- Page 14: the Helen Garner show begins, as the narrative shifts to make it All About The Author.
- Singh is described to Garner as “head-turningly beautiful, the daughter of a wealthy family, spoilt rotten.”
Four years earlier I had published a book of reportage called The First Stone, about two young women law students in Melbourne who had brought charges of assault against the head of their university college. By questioning the kind of feminism that had driven the story, and by writing it against the determined silence of the two women and their supporters, I had opened myself to long months of ferocious public attack. The parallels between that story and this one were like a bad joke.
- I have some notes:
- Does it count as reportage if you invent six conspirators where one single adviser existed?
- [STEPH SAYS: Excuse me, Garner did what?]
- [LIZ ANSWERS: Oh yeah, The First Stone was quite heavily fictionalised. Here’s a cached copy of an essay about it, including something I hadn’t read before, about the othering of a Jewish woman involved.
- What Garner fails to mention here is that, when the matter first blew up, she wrote a letter of support to the man accused, which he shared publicly. This is why the accusers and their supporters did not speak to her: she had chosen a side long before she started researching the book.
- It’s never made clear precisely how the murder of Joe Cinque is meant to parallel a matter of sexual harassment, except that both the accusers then and the accused now were studying law while female.
- Garner’s propensity for using gendered labels extends beyond Singh. A university acquaintance of Singh and Rao is, she assumes, “a blue-stocking”. Which is a marvellous label, if it’s 1900.
- Garner, re a letter written by Singh in prison:
The letter got under my skin, with its panicky tone, its angry, shallow cliches. I had it all. Luxury, the works, the perfect life. It was a very adolescent voice. She seemed to lack a language deep enough for the trouble she was in, a language fit for despair. With dread I recognised her. She was the figure of what a woman most fears in herself – the damaged infant, vain, frantic, destructive, out of control.
- Singh was diagnosed as having, among other things, Borderline Personality Disorder. The whole concept of BPD is now controversial, partially because it turns out that PTSD, in women, is very frequently misdiagnosed as a borderline personality.
- As it happens, I have some experience with BPD, through relatives, friends and people I loathe with the fire of a thousand suns. One of its traits is a shallow, self-centred worldview, which seems to be reflected in Singh’s letters — but can we really decide that, given that we only see excerpts, and those through Garner’s biased eyes?
- Having said that, it’s a bit rich for Garner, Professional Writer, to criticise a law student for not expressing herself with deathless prose. I mean, come on, not everyone writes well.
- Dunno about other women, but I sure as hell don’t fear being any of the things listed above. Being perceived as such by judgemental outsiders, on the other hand, that terrifies me.
- Garner describes Cinque and Singh as they appear in a photo:
He was holding proudly in his arms a slender young woman in a striped T-shirt and black jacket. Her dark hair was up, her eyebrows were skilfully plucked into wing shapes. The man’s bare arm was strong, but the masculinity he radiated looked very youthful: he reminded me of the Italian and Greek high school boys I used to teach. He held his chin up with a shy, almost defensive smile, while the girl in his embrace turned her head to beam into the camera with the ease of someone accustomed to being adored and to looking good in photos.
- A paragraph later: “Anu Singh raised my girl-hackles in a bristle.” Garner is a big fan of taking her own personal opinions and guesswork, and assuming that they objective facts and universal to all womankind.
- Get yer girl hackles ready, readers of all genders, here’s the photograph in question!
- Garner is extremely scrupulous about recording every single outfit worn by Anu Singh, and then judging her for them.
- She’s not the only one — the “blue-stocking” (“a straight-backed young woman with well-brushed brown hair and an intelligent, watchful face”) tells Garner:
Anu’s tall. She’s thin. She came across as a very sexual person. She talked about sex a lot. She always had lots of men after her. She’s got the hair to the knees, the tailored suit…
- This is another recurring theme: people criticise Singh for being open about her sexuality, and Garner uncritically adds it to the list of reasons to dislike her. It’s not enough that Singh has killed a man, she needs to be shamed for her sexuality — and also being not white. That “hair to the knees” bit takes on a different tone when you remember that Singh is Indian-Australian.
- Garner is intrigued enough to take the plunge, to fly to Canberra at the last minute and attend Singh’s trial, already underway. After an abortive jury trial, Singh has elected to be heard by a judge alone. Garner befriends two young women, reporters, who detest Singh as much as she does:
The young journalists spoke of Anu Singh with a complete lack of sympathy, indeed with a rough contempt. ‘And you should have seen some of her friends who gave evidence,’said the dark one, with a short, scornful laugh. ‘Talk about flaky!’ She stretched her neck, lowered her eyelids, and moved her head about in a parody of swan-like hauteur.
‘What sort of clothes?’ I asked, dismayed at how much I had missed.
‘Oh — Country Road,’ she said, pulling a face. ‘Daddy will pay. Daddy will pay.’
In her cynicism I heard an echo of the primitive female hostility that had made the back of my neck prickle at the sight of Anu Singh’s photo in the Canberra Times. It occurred to me that if I had been Singh’s defence counsel, I too would have seized any opportunity to get rid of the jury, particularly if it had contained women.
- Ladies! Too irrational and bitchy to be on a jury, am I right, girls?
- Note to self: if ever charged with a crime, make sure Helen Garner isn’t on the jury.
- I sure do love the suggestion that these women, Singh’s friends, aren’t buying their own clothes. That’s some feminism right there!
- Garner approaches Singh with a self-centred, reductive sort of empathy. On listening to the psychiatric evidence, her response is, “Well, I’ve been depressed and selfish, and I’m fine.” Or, to quote: “Call that mental illness? She’s exactly like me.” It’s ableist and ugly, and betrays a shocking lack of imagination.
- The most late 90s sentence ever written: “On my way across Garema Place I noticed an internet shop.”
- Page 38 [oh God, I’m only up to page 38 out of 214?]: Garner is amazed to learn that people accused of a crime have a right to silence.
- Garner befriends Maria Cinque, the mother of the deceased. Needless to say, the Cinques are devastated, their family ripped apart — especially after Singh is found guilty only of manslaughter, and sentenced to four years.
- Mrs Cinque is angry as well as grieving, calling for Singh to be hanged, telling the media that she hopes the judge, Justice Crispin, loses a child of his own (tragically, he already has), and later telling Garner that she can no longer socialise with Indian-Australians, and wishes all Indians would die: “…if we see an earthquake or something bad happen in India, and a lot of people die, I say, ‘I wish the whole lotta them die.'”
- I’m not here to tone police Mrs Cinque’s grief, but it feels profoundly disrespectful of Garner to repeat all these words, to record Maria Cinque for posterity in this vulnerable period. It does her a disservice, and is a terrible tribute to Joe, who seems like a genuinely nice, kind man who wouldn’t have wanted to see his mother like this.
- Garner, too, is much given to revenge fantasies, of a smaller kind: she dreams of telling off a taxi driver who mansplains Canberra to her.
- She initially gets on well with Anu Singh’s father, despite what she describes as “his slurring accent”, but then he suggests that, if she writes a book about Anu, he will help pay for it to be published. Doesn’t he know who she is?
- Mr and Mrs Cinque discuss their discomfort (Not That They’re Racist) about Joe dating an Indian-Australian girl. Mr Cinque:
‘We used to say in Italy, “Wifes and cows you have to buy from your own town” — because you know the girls, the way she look, the way she dress — and the cows, you know how much milk she make daily. You can’t lie.’
- [Steph interjects: This is where I first gasped and startled the cat.]
- So good news, we’ve found an even worse saying than “He won’t buy the cow if he can get the milk for free.”
- One of Garner’s — and the Cinque’s — criticisms of Singh is that she and Joe were constantly checking in on each other by phone. Garner thinks of it as mutual obsession and distrust; I wonder if it wasn’t as much about support. One of the defining traits of BPD is separation anxiety and a fear that, if you’re not physically with a person, they’ve forgotten that they care about you. Hence frequent checking in.
- A psychiatrist gives evidence that she thinks she has won Singh’s trust:
…and a little flicker of spite ran through me: so you have gained the trust of this ‘witch’. You have gamed a wild, glamorous creature whom others fear and see as evil.
- I’m trying to decide what shocks me more, this framing of Singh, or this dismissal of the psychiatrist’s professionalism.
- Garner’s preoccupation with false claims of domestic violence come to life again as she mentions meeting a woman who is in court to support her son, who is accused of bashing his girlfriend. “But he wasn’t anywhere near the place!”
- Garner seeks out the transcript of the first trial, the one with the jury. She is amazed and appalled to learn that court transcripts are not “texts of wonderful clarity and simplicity, a coherent document in dialogue that would lay out the story from go to whoa.” But I can’t laugh at her here — I used to think the same thing.
- Singh had an eating disorder, and asked Joe to get her a bottle of ipecac syrup. Or, as Garner puts it, “the ailing princess commands her lover to bring the potion to her, all the way from the provincial city.”
- Her dad seems like a good sort, worried that talking to Garner will open a can of worms that will cause more pain to the Cinques.
- Garner visits the Singhs at their home. This involves a trip to an unfamiliar part of Sydney, and I’m reproducing her descriptions in full just to hear Stephanie’s gasp of outrage:
On the appointed spring afternoon I took a train out to their suburb. I was early, and loitered for a while in the station shopping centre, which had a marked Asian flavour. In one shop I bought a white china bowl patterned with blue twining leaves in a vaguely oriental style. Later when I turned it over and examined the base I saw a couple of squiggles that looked Chinese; but to this day I persist in thinking of it as Indian, and as an accidental memento of my first real contact with the Singhs.
I had never been to this party of Sydney before. Three things about it surprised me: first, its old, established, bourgeois solidity; next, its splendid trees; and third, the fact that its wide streets were full of Indian and Asian people on foot — not strolling or taking exercise for the sake of it, as one would see morning and evening in the suburbs where I lived, but carrying shopping, walking fast and purposefully towards a destination.
- [Steph says: good news! I STARTLED THE CAT.]
- Has Garner … never seen pedestrian traffic before? How is that even possible?
- She is further amazed to learn that Singh’s prison is merely a five-minute drive from her parents’ home, and that she is allowed to call them. Why, I’m not sure, but she seems quite sheltered, so maybe these really are all new facts.
- Madhavi Rao’s trial commences. More importantly, I’m over halfway through this book.
- Madhavi’s case is interesting — without a mental illness, and of her own free will, she assisted Singh in acquiring drugs and learning to use them. She was an active participant in everything except actually giving Cinque the heroin that killed him. I understand why Singh was found to have diminished responsibility, but Madhavi’s case is more complicated, and turns largely on extremely technical legal questions around the duty of care. She is found not guilty of all charges, and like Garner, I find that disquieting.
- Most of the witnesses in Rao’s case agree that she was a very nice, intelligent doormat. One of life’s great enablers. They don’t have a bad word to say about Madhavi, save that she has no spine whatsoever.
- My favourite witness in Rao’s case is a neighbour who declares that she knew precisely what time something happened one night, because daylight savings was beginning, and “I’ve got thirteen clocks in my lounge room and I adjusted every single one.”
- The male witnesses in Rao’s case sound every bit as “flaky” as Anu Singh’s friends: “Dressed in T-shirts, necklaces, baggy pants and coloured runners, the young male witnesses slouched in and out of the court with their hands thrust deep in their pockets … they were like sulky children. It was as if no formal demeanour were available to them. One would hardly have been surprised to hear them address the judge by his first name.” Needless to say, these manchildren don’t suffer the excoriation of Garner and her journalist friends.
In my experience, few men have the emotional stamina to sustain a friendship — as distinct from an affair — with a high-maintenance histrionic like Anu Singh.
- I guess the good news is that Garner’s rigid gender roles are in many ways as dismissive to men as women?
- Garner makes much of Rao’s unthreatening and unsexual presence:
Even without having met them, I was just like everybody else who had come into contact with these two women: one made my hackles go up, while the other aroused a puzzled, muted compassion, a curiously protective urge.
- (It’s probably just that I’m a contrarian, but I don’t feel any particular sympathy or protectiveness for Rao at all.)
- (But maybe that’s just me doing essentially the same thing as Garner? “I know people with borderline personalities, and I didn’t help them kill anyone!”)
- She also muses on the “symbiotic power arrangements that are called friendships”, the pairing of a confident, sexual, brave girl and a more conservative, youthful friend. I’ve seen that dynamic a lot, and have experienced it in my own life. It’s not as intrinsically toxic as Garner posits, although there’s certainly room for toxicity, as there is in any relationship. But, hey, spoilers, I don’t think sexual women are intrinsically evil, so I have that over Garner.
- (I also don’t think that dynamic is exclusive to cis-women. I’ve seen it in all kinds of gender combinations.)
- We get some more racism in, with Garner’s cheerful report that one of her journalist friends “could not bear Anu Singh at any price, and expressed violent irritation against ‘Mad Harvey’, as she called her.” Making fun of a non Anglo name! What wit! What insight! So edgy!
- Page 164: Garner truly outdoes herself by judging Singh’s coffee-making skills against his mother’s in the context of the drugged coffee she gave him ahead of the heroin.
- I’m not even joking!
I had been assuming all along that the cause of Joe Cinque’s death was pretty well agreed upon: that on the Saturday night he had drunk a cup of coffee (instant coffee, in a mug! after the tiny cups of perfect espresso that Mrs Cinque served at their house) which Anu Singh had laced with a violent dose of Rohypnol…
- YES, SHE KILLED HIM, BUT SHE WAS ALSO A TERRIBLE GIRLFRIEND WHO DID NOT MAKE HIM PROPER COFFEE LIKE HIS MUM DID!
- I JUST FEEL LIKE, MAYBE, GARNER MIGHT BE MISSING THE POINT HERE
- BY A MILE
- BY MANY MILES
- I can’t cope, here is Penny Wong’s unimpressed face.
- Madhavi Rao is found not guilty on all counts.
- It’s now 2000, and Dr Singh, Anu’s father, continues to be a decent sort, telling Garner that he’s reluctant to speak to her because it will only hurt the Cinque family.
- Rao sends a very polite letter to Garner, telling her that she would rather not be interviewed for this book. Once again, Garner is completely mystified as to why young women in a difficult situation might not trust her.
- No, really.
The women won’t talk to me. Suddenly I felt very tired. Here I was, back at the same old roadblock. My fantasy of journalistic even-handedness, long buckling under the strain, gave way completely.
- That’s totes profesh, HGarn.
- Garner tries to turn away from the matter. She moves back to Melbourne, gets a day job (OH NOES!), sorts out her divorce, cares for her ailing mother.
- But the case! keeps! following her!
- Like when she meets a judge with a tangiental connection to a witness whose identity was suppressed … so she goes to name said witness. In a crowd full of legal professionals.
- [STEPH GASPS LOUDLY AND LAUGHS IN HORROR]
- She reads trashy true crime, she cuts out newspaper articles, she attends rallies for victims rights. Essentially, Garner spends a couple of years grappling with the same questions of ethics that led me to attend her talk at the Melbourne Writers Festival a couple of years back, only her answers are unsatisfying and, to some extent, self-serving. She is interested in Joe Cinque’s story, therefore she will write this book as a memorial to him — his consolation, as the title says — but, in the end, it’s all about her.
- 2001. Singh is released on parole. Garner takes a job in Newcastle, near the Cinque family. She meets several of Joe’s friends, who make a bunch of problematic statements involving Italian-Australian sterotypes, and generally concede that he was a good bloke. The mood is briefly broken by one of the wives of these friends, who tells the group that, when she last spoke to Joe, he asked her advice on choosing engagement rings.
- Garner herself contributes some real corkers of, ummmm, bigoted stereotypes of Italian-Australians. Regarding Robert, the Cinque’s godson:
He was the sort of man I might have dismissed, had I glimpsed him through the tinted windows of his car, as some sort of spiv…
- I seriously can’t believe that made it through editorial.
- Robert offers more gendered critique of Singh:
“She’d hijack the conversation. She’d dominate, and Joe would sit passively, or offer an occasional opinion. I thought it was quite ball-breaking — she’d go on and on.”
- Again, Garner doesn’t question this classically sexist take.
- Robert goes on to say that Singh “infiltrated [Joe] on such a deep level that his logic went out the window.” His evidence is that Cinque supported her in her quest to get a diagnosis and treatment for a chronic illness she believed she had, which later turned out to be psychosomatic. “But she didn’t look sick” is the recurring refrain whenever this illness comes up, which just increases the general ableism around this whole narrative.
- Part of the evidence in Singh’s trial was something that she had told a counsellor at university, that Joe had once been violent towards her. The general consensus is that this would have been out of character for Cinque, so either it was a malicious lie or a genuine delusion. Garner suggests that Singh might have “goaded him till he snapped”, and recounts a terribly sad story from her own life, about a man whom she treated “so cruelly and hurtfully” that he hit her and knocked her to the ground. It’s sad because she has clearly internalised the idea that it was absolutely and entirely her fault that this guy made the choice to hit her. Whereas, if it was two blokes getting into a biff in a pub, whatever the provocation, I think people still generally agree that there was a choice to turn to violence. This is how violence against women is normalised. It’s terrible.
- Garner meets the friends of Cinque’s who were present the night he first met Singh. She quotes them:
Newcastle is a small city and Singh was a girl with a reputation. But that night Joe, who had just got back from Europe and started his new job, left the bar with her. ‘We said to him afterwards, “Have fun! She’s an attractive girl. Have fun — but don’t get serious”.’
- Once again, the virgin/whore dicotomy, the cows you buy and the slutty, slutty cows who give the milk away for free. Later, Garner meets the other virgin of this story: Cinque’s girlfriend prior to Singh. Part of the reason that relationship ended was that she didn’t want to have sex before marriage. Garner’s amazement that there are women whose values sincerely differ from hers is … well, not very impressive, but the contrast between this woman and Singh is obvious and ugly.
- Returning to Canberra, Garner meets the judge, who surprises her by saying, “I’d never seen a case of diminished responsibility that was as easy to prove as that one.” Singh had a long history of mental illness and unstable behaviour, and her parents had twice tried to have her committed. It’s apparently unusual to have such a well-established history in these cases.
- Justice Crispin also thinks that Singh’s friends, being law students, were unusually accurate and observant witnesses. Knowing legal professionals as I do: reader, I laughed.
- He also says something which is very key to the whole affair, especially this book:
‘…if somebody has a personality disorder that makes them obnoxious, people tend to say, “She’s just an awful person, and we’ll discount the fact that it may be due to a mental illness”.’
- He also remarks that the case against Rao was “pretty bodgie all around” — that’s the technical legal term. It comes down to, if Rao is complicit, why aren’t all the other people who were knowingly involved also charged? Which I can see, but it’s still frustrating.
- He also deplores the technicalities that led to the conclusion that no one had a duty of care to Cinque. Crispin seems like a good sort, with a lot of empathy. He doesn’t even seem to hold a grudge against the Cinques calling for one of his children to be murdered.
- And so the book meanders to an end, frustrating, self-centred and ultimately unsatisfying. There are no big personalities here, just a pleasant man whose death came in circumstances with no easy answers.
Anu Singh’s court outfits, as recorded by Helen Garner
- “Her hair, dark and reddish-tinted and very long, was pulled back and firmly bound into a thick club that bulged on the nape of her neck. She was wearing street clothes: a long skirt and a dark-blue jacket laced criss-cross in the small of her back. Her bare feet were slipped into high wedge-heeled sandals.” [Which is to say, her feet were not bare, as she was wearing shoes.]
- “Anu Singh materialised in her ankle-length skirt and high sandals. She had a springy, tight-bottomed, almost bouncing walk.”
- “On Tuesday morning Anu Singh came in wearing a dark blue tailored jacket in a soft synthetic fabric, fitted to the curve of her waist … Her hair was still hanging down her back, and while we all waited for the judge, she put it up.Although her back was turned to us, it was an almost indecently intimate and hystrionic display, a series of age-old, deeply feminine gestures. First, the raising of both arms and the gathering of the hair in two hands. Then the twisting and rolling and flicking and doubling back of its dark mass, redder towards the tips, into a thick club; the binding of it with a broad black stretchy band; then the patting, the sensitive roaming of the flattened palms against the smooth round curve of her head; the feeling for loose strands at the temples and the anchoring them over and behind the ears.”
- “Anu Singh, with her hair well bound and wearing a long, fluttery skirt…”
- “Anu Singh’s own hair was shinier, less tightly clumped on the nape of her neck. She was dressed in a dark jacket and trousers, and high backless shoes.”
- “She was dressed in a charcoal trouser suit with a fitted jacket. Her toes, their nails glowing with dark red polish, peeped out of her high, strappy black sandals. Her hair in its thick club was banded in black. In one hand she held a dark blue handkerchief.”
- “Under her charcoal jacket she was wearing a striped cotton T-shirt, like the one she had on in the photo of her and Joe in the Cinques’ kitchen, that the papers ran and ran.”
- Flashback, via video, to Singh’s interview at the time of her arrest: “Her long hair is up and she is wearing an ankle-length white dress with thin straps, in a silky synthetic material printed with tiny flowers.”