Murder, Rape and Why Myths Still Matter

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 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.

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 critical 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?” There are other stories.

Ancient Rome’s founding myths contain an alarming prevalence of rape narratives. 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). More realistically, the Ancient Roman armies were known for their ferox, or ferocity in warfare. Rape and pillage was a standard part of the physical and psychological warfare used as borders of the of the city-state expanded, and the Republic of Rome 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.

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 of Lucretia 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 like a responsible noblewoman, 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

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’, Western culture no longer insists 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?

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 that’s pretty sobering. Everyone could agree about Meagher’s innocence and Adrian Bayley’s guilt because he was a stranger 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, walking alone?

This didn’t happen to Jill Meagher, because she was murdered. The circumstances of Meagher’s horrible death allowed another old narrative trope to be trotted out: the monster. Undoubtedly, the man is a monster, and should not have been out on bail to begin with.

The harm in the monster-as-narrative-trope is that it allows people (mostly men)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 of the pre-meditated murder of his wife. 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 Bayden-Clay 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 meninist trolls would have come to his defence: she tried to take his kids, what did she expect, the courts in this country favour the woman, etc.

The calculation involved in Alison Bayden-Clay’s 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.

But the Jill Meagher and Alison Bayden-Clay cases are atypical.

The media are normally ready to try to see the best in men who kill their families.

Hercules murdered his 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 Journeysbut 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 Amazons. (The Amazon was the antithesis of the good ancient Greek woman who was expected to live a cloistered life indoors, carding wool, serving food, and procreating. The initial demonization of them in Greek myth is no coincidence: it was a warning.)

Hercules was 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 ancient 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.

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 a school friend had relatives in Lockhart. Even before it was published, she made me aware of the community’s perception of Hunt as “salt of the earth”, while his wife, Kim Hunt was framed as a Dickensian cripple — crooked in body, crooked in mind. She was the one most of the community 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 had murdered his children one by one in their beds, then his disabled wife, and then shot 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., 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 wrote, mentally ill people are much more likely to be the victim of violent crime than the perpetrators.

“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.

Murderous Mothers: The Medea Trope

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, and social-climbing Jason was 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 womanhood and humanity for monstrosity, headed for Asia. (It’s also a neat charter for the old capital of Persia, 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 demonized by the media. And rightly so.

There was no talk of Crabtree 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 SofinaNikat’s 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. We didn’t hear anything which removed her from the context of her crime.

The nation was shocked, the discourse and media coverage perfunctory. Unlike Geoff Hunt and Damien Little, the anti-mother’s active role in her child’s murder was not questioned.

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 who is raped and assaulted and lives to tell the tale should not be a seen as being ‘less-than-innocent-victim’ of a violent sexual assault; a victim of her own ill circumstances. Yet this is what the media tells us.

Media narratives override the facts of a case. Facts are boring. Statistics are easily forgotten. I am pointing out the narratives used by today’s media are very little changed from the days of ancient empires gone by. Humans are narrative creatures. 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 palpable as the Roman senate has pervaded so strongly (the Westminster System is based on it) and is so intact within our living culture, you can bet moral stories like the rape of Lucretia, of Verginia, of the Sabine women have informed the way we think about rape.

News media narrative tropes from myth try to excuse, distance, and in some cases remove a man from the scene of his own crime in killing his family, but happily vilify women who commit similar crimes.

Apart from a cultural heritage of thousands of years of patriarchy and ingrained misogyny, I don’t even 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.

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.