Is it possible to defend writing about murder?

Helen Garner wrote that ‘no one would ever write anything if one had to give their writing a moral justification’. However, every non-fiction writer asks themselves if they are justified in writing about their subject, especially when they are writing a story that might be judged as not theirs to tell.

I asked myself several times over the months and years of working on my book WEDDERBURN, how, when the time came, I would morally defend writing it. Could it ever rise above reportage to be a work that offers insights on the broader questions of violence and masculinity and of resilience and recovery? Over the last few weeks, these questions have been something I’ve considered every day. They have become even more insistent as the book’s publication looms.

Violence and murder are shocking. They destabilise the families, the communities, and sometimes even the societies they disrupt. The fault lines beneath our ‘civilised’ existence are exposed. Threats we thought would never menace us are revealed. Fortunately, most of us will never have to wake to a phone call telling us that someone close to us has been murdered, but few of us will escape a brush with trauma altogether – it might be the suicide of someone we love, a terrifying diagnosis or a devastating accident. The list of horrors that can be visited upon us is limitless.

So, what value might there be in writing about life in extremis, about people at the worst moments of their lives? I believe narratives about violence and grief can build empathy and add to the conversations we are already engaging in as a society: What is the source of the rage we see every day on our roads, on social media and in our homes? Is there such a thing as ‘toxic’ masculinity? How can we assist people recover from trauma? If we fail to examine ruptures in the social fabric when they occur, we can gain no insights into their causes or their fallout.

One reason I admire the work of Helen Garner is her fearlessness in examining the darkness that lurks in all of us. The notion that a person must be a monster to commit murder is a fallacy. We all have a capacity for violence, and a greater understanding of what unleashes sudden, unforeseen acts of extreme aggression is worth seeking.

In WEDDERBURN, I have done my best to write with compassion and honesty about those who died and those who continue to suffer as a result. I’m under no illusion; there will be people angered and hurt by the book’s publication, but I hope that some readers may be reminded, as I was daily while researching and writing it, of the value of life, of love, of loyalty. Perhaps, too, they might observe, as I did, that it remains possible to respond to such horrific events with grace, courage and hope.