Crikey – My Family Tragedy was turned into fodder for True Crime

I’m writing to address the statements made by Maryrose Cuskelly in an article published in Crikey last month. I’m writing to defend my objection to this author’s inclusion in the Bendigo Writers Festival (BWF). I’m writing to outline my objections to the content of Cuskelly’s true crime book, Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust, and how it was contrived. I’m writing to provide my first-hand insight into the pain, distress and utter devastation that this book’s very existence has inflicted on myself and my immediate family.
Firstly, the festival. When I discovered that Maryrose Cuskelly was to attend the BWF I was distraught. Why had no one flagged this author and her book as potentially controversial, as a locally sensitive issue? After all, the town of Wedderburn, after which the book is named, is just 75kms north of Bendigo. Two of the three victims whose murders the book claims to explore were born and bred in Bendigo. I thought all I would have to do was alert the organisers of the festival to this and they would rectify what I thought was surely an oversight. How wrong I was.
I made repeated attempts to contact the festival director through request for phone calls, which went unreturned, and emails, which were met with silence. I then turned to the local city council. After my initial appeal was denied, I then emailed and approached local politicians and festival sponsors, to gather support for my appeal to be at least acknowledged. Eventually, I and three other family members arranged to meet with Cr Rod Fyffe and Mayor Margaret O’Rourke who recognised our distress and acted upon it. This led to the author withdrawing from the festival.
How dare we, as the family of the victims — the victims were my brother, mother and step-father — request that this festival that my husband and I attend not support, promote and seek to profit from a book that has inflicted further trauma to myself and those I hold most dear?
We never made threats to disrupt the festival as Cuskelly states and, as we never directly contacted the author. If she felt intimidated then it was nothing we did. I object most strongly to Cuskelly’s statement that there was “pressure brought to bear in ways that were, I’m led to believe, intimidatory and aggressive”.
Ours was a simple appeal for respect for my mother and brother in their hometown.
As a former school librarian I am a lover of the written word, and indeed I can understand the value of the true crime genre, where it is written by professionals, sanctioned by the families, supported by judiciary and police, in an attempt to help solve cold cases or explore issues. But, in my opinion, Cuskelly’s book serves no such purpose.
Wedderburn was contrived through Cuskelly’s link to the perpetrator of this crime in her words “through an accident of knowing someone who knew someone…” and her “luck” in the courtroom, in approaching the two members of the family, that she did. My two older siblings, to whom I am estranged, contributed to the book. I was never approached by Cuskelly. Through my consultation with the 10 surviving children of the victims, only five were approached — of these, three declined. I believe that consensus within the victim’s families should have to be sought, before a book such as this can be written.
I must say, I wouldn’t have contributed even if I had been asked. Does that matter to anyone? Is my family now public property because we suffered a horrific event?
As the fifth anniversary of the event approaches I am still, and at times quite desperately, trying to work through my understanding of that night and the events leading up to it. I am trying to find a way forward, but I find I am still stuck. There has never been a day with any kind of peace of mind since this happened.
Publishers and their authors need to recognise and be accountable for the added distress and trauma that can potentially be caused by the insensitive publication of books such as this. I have repeatedly dissuaded several family members from reading this book because I greatly fear the impact it may have on their mental health. I know what it has done to mine.
Frequently I am stuck in my chair unable to find any enthusiasm to engage in day-to-day tasks and the lives and interests of those around me. Yes, I am still grieving and deeply affected by the events of October 22, 2014, but my failed appeals for the withdrawal of the book also left me feeling powerless and hopeless. Now my little win with having Cuskelly withdraw from BWF is being re-framed as an unwarranted attack.
Victims of crime and their families need protections. We are completely defenceless to becoming fodder and prey for journalists and would-be authors. Why must we be subjected to more trauma? Haven’t we been dealt enough?