Melbourne grief

It may be Grand Final weekend, it may be that most of us are going about our daily lives as normal, and it is certainly true that the vast majority of us never knew Jillian Meagher, but it feels like Melbourne is in mourning today. There is also a lot of rubbish being said.

With so much being said, regurgitated and examined, I wonder what good it does to write about it myself. Therapy I suppose, so forgive me.

With the devastating news that this young woman was abducted, raped and murdered by a complete stranger last weekend we’re collectively shocked, angered and disturbed. Pick any of the circumstances at random to drive the fear this event has evoked home, that she was on a popular and relatively busy road in a trendy suburb frequented by many many people of a similar age to her, that her disappearance led to an outpouring of anecdotes on the facebook page set up to support her family of similar and in retrospect unsettling encounters by other women, that she disappeared 450m from her home where her husband was waiting, that she’d been out on a Friday night for a few drinks with her workmates, that an interaction she had with her alleged assailant was captured on CCTV footage and in it she looks nervous yet is still apparently trying to be polite. Does she look back thinking she should go back to the bar, to people she knows? Does she turn to keep walking because she’s thinking, I’m not going to be frightened by this jerk, I’m so close to home, I can walk where I want, where I normally walk okay? Is any meaning just speculation because we know minutes later things went so very badly.

Jill could have been any one of us. There are so many people who walk those streets, doing these perfectly normal things, who have thought, usually quite rightly, that they were safe.

Like a lot of people today I’ve been in tears thinking about her family, thinking about her. And frightened when I think how easily it could have been someone I knew. I think how many streets I’ve walked on alone at night, finding my way back to my car, or to public transport, walking to my house.

There was a time I carried the comfort of hubris on my shoulders with me when I walked, straight backed confidence, a brisk walk, but I know it was always with a lurking sense of fear. I know I’ve been determined to not let the dark or the shadows or the stories deter me from living my life, walking my streets.

I was once involved in an incident, when I was about 19 or 20 when with some friends after seeing a band, we took some time out to muck around on the kids play equipment by the beach at St Kilda as we headed back to our cars. It was after midnight, cool, mild. It was youthful, innocent, silly. None of us had been drinking, we were all on our P plates but we were giggling. We were having fun. That was until some guy on a bike rode up to us, and asked us ‘how much?’. At first it was such a joke. ‘You’ve got the wrong place, mate.’ I think I said. We were giggly, aghast to be mistaken for hookers. But it antagonized him, quickly it became very tense. My girlfriends, with far more sense than me dragged me away, as my attack-dog like indignation came to the fore. I remember us hurrying back to our separate cars, three separate cars, three separate girls. This guy following me, coming around to the driver’s side window and slapping it with his hand as I drove away. We gathered together again, a kilometre or so down the road, consoled each other, went home, innocent, silly and giggly no more.

I didn’t report this incident, it’s a small incident from a very long time ago. I’ve never had something like that happen to me again. Mind you, I’ve never repeated that behaviour either. Most women would never report the sorts of off-putting and unsettling incidents that happen so infrequently to us individually, but so frequently when they are added together. Instead, we all do our best to move on. Because these sorts of incidents, that lead to truly violent and heinous crimes, are rare.   We also fear reporting incidents because we think we wouldn’t be taken seriously, so we try to not take them seriously ourselves. Try to laugh off that sleazy guy we encountered, the comment made in the street, the prickles at the back of the neck in an alleyway we walk down regularly that looks so different at night. Just imagination.

Melbourne is a small place really, six degrees and all that, and with something that feels so close responses are almost inevitably reactionary. There have been some appalling things said this week: victim blaming, throwing suspicious on Jill’s husband, rumours and speculation. And in the wake of the arrest last night, equally horrifying mob vitriol. There have been anxious calls for women to be extra careful at night. And in response, resentment from many women who perceive such well-meaning comments as suggesting once again that they are seen as responsible for getting themselves into danger, women who angrily point the finger back at men.

Useful reads:
Can we please stop the victim blaming, Clementine Ford
How many metres can I walk on my own at night?
Reclaiming the night, Overland
If you thought like me your information was inconsequential, Catherine Deveny
Jon Faine as part of this news story
Flasher caught on camera by fast thinking victim
Fears of trial by social media
No journalist should have to report on their friend’s murder

We find it hard to recognise that there are predators amongst us. We can’t fathom what they do. Why. Instead we look for ‘reasons’ to explain the unreasonable. For some it is easier to blame women for the crimes perpetrated on them, as it pushes the inexpiable away from the personal. It is very dangerous to think, ‘I wouldn’t do that, no reasonable person would do that, there must be a ‘reason”. So often it was opportunistic, wrong place and wrong time. It’s so easy to tar large groups, genders, with the blame brush. It works just as insidiously the other way, calls for men to learn they shouldn’t rape, when most men find the concept horrifying. We don’t know where the predators are, so we see them everywhere. We don’t understand them.

When people say, men don’t have to worry about being accompanied home at night, I think, perhaps they should. Violence against men by other men is on the news so often. It seems far more prevalent, the king hit, the without warning glassing, bashing, knifing. Men are no more safe at night than women. We should be just as active about raising awareness for men as for women.

Such a discussion should not be at the expense of women demanding their rights. The campaign against misogynist attitudes, the degrading treatment of women and the double standards that are applied must be challenged.  Victims should not be blamed, should never be seen as responsible for the crimes perpetrated against them.

But, here’s where I feel troubled by the rhetoric. Sometimes we’re not safe. We don’t know the story behind the man arrested and everything must be done to ensure he has a trial that respects due process. This isn’t about him specifically. But women do need to be aware that sometimes, very occasionally, there are bad people out there. Hubris doesn’t make anyone bullet proof. Demanding that violence goes away will not make it go away. Refusing to bend to fear, will not save you if there is a very bad person in your way.

99% of the time, you are fine. But when people say, please take care, it means just that. Take care. Don’t see it as a weakness. Don’t see it as giving in. Respect it. If men are taught to be cautious too, then perhaps women won’t feel it is just about gender. It’s not.

Everyone wants to get home at the end of the night to the people who love them.


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