I. The Back Paddock
The grassed back half of the school where we played when I was a child was called the Back Paddock, and sometimes we found things there. The Back Paddock bordered a quiet suburban street on one side, and on the other was the high barbed wire of one of the state’s largest juvenile-detention facilities. Teenagers broke into the Back Paddock at night. It must have been perfect in the privacy of the dark. In the mornings before class began we would find beer cans and broken bottles of rum, KitKat wrappers, syringes, and wet condoms filled with semen. These, and the strange things that sometimes happened, like the teenage boy who once bicycled naked past the window of my grade-two classroom, were frequently attributed to the juvenile-detention center next door. There was, in the end, no real way of knowing where the bicyclists and beer cans and condoms came from. Besides, it was never those things that rattled me. What rattled me was the clothing.
When I was six, I found a pair of pink underpants by a tree stump. The next year, I found a pair of adult men’s track pants. I was eight when the clothing began migrating from the Back Paddock proper to the concrete playground outside my classroom doors. One winter morning I arrived early to school and found an entire outfit outside the grade-four classrooms. There was a blouse, a jumper, jeans, a bra, socks, and underwear. I remember that the underwear was dirty and had been left crotch-up on top of the pile. The pile frightened me for reasons I couldn’t articulate, and I backed away from it to the wet-weather shed, where I waited for the other children to arrive.
I asked our teacher later that day about the woman those clothes must have belonged to, and whether she was naked now. I was worried because it had been so cold the night before. Why were the woman’s clothes there, I asked, and not on her body? And where was that body now?
II. Faces in the Rock
There is a scene in Picnic at Hanging Rock in which Mademoiselle de Poitiers, the French tutor at Appleyard College for Young Ladies, is overcome with horror. In Peter Weir’s 1975 film version, she looks around and shakes her head, but in Joan Lindsay’s original 1967 novel, the tutor’s thoughts are explicit. She stands by the edge of a creek, looking up at the rock overhead, and wonders “how anything so beautiful could be the instrument of evil.”
That nonspecific evil is at the center of both the novel and the film. Both follow a group of schoolgirls in rural Victoria who travel two hours outside of Melbourne to Hanging Rock, a volcanic outcrop that rises abruptly out of the plains. Four of the girls ascend the Rock shortly after lunchtime. Our last glimpse of them occurs as they disappear one by one, barefoot and corsetless, between two boulders at the top. One of girls is terrified and wants to turn back. She begs the others to stop. But they don’t listen, or else they cannot hear her. The girl stumbles, screaming, down the slope of the rock, passing their middle-aged mathematics instructor, Miss McGraw, as she descends. None of the three schoolgirls nor Miss McGraw ever return. They leave no trace. The mystery of what happened to the girls at Hanging Rock, never solved, reverberates in the town for years to come. It seems as though the landscape itself swallowed them up.
Not long before I found the women’s clothing outside my grade-four classroom, my father rented a VHS tape of Picnic at Hanging Rock and left me to watch it on a Saturday night while I was visiting him in Melbourne. That same week, he bought me a brittle, yellowed copy of Lindsay’s novel from a used-book store. I read and loved the book without fully understanding it.
Months later, on another custody visit, my father drove me out to Hanging Rock, which rises starkly from the plains north of Mount Macedon. The area, which lies in the traditional territory of the Wurundjeri, is now believed to have been a ceremonial site held sacred by the indigenous tribes who lived there, a place never climbed or camped on. In 1884 the surrounding land was turned over to the Crown and the site passed into public ownership. The tall pinnacles are walkable now, traced with paths bordered by dense vegetation, caves, boulders, and rocky debris.
My father parked the car by the visitors’ center, and we walked along the path leading up the side of the rock. I was a solemn child. I progressed along the trail with a great sense of foreboding. I had not discussed it with my father, but I intended to find the lost schoolgirls. I looked around for traces of torn white lace in the scrub, and on the top of the rock overlooking the plains I found myself peering around boulders and leaning into crevices. I whispered the girls’ names. Even then, I knew it was silly. But I did it.
I was eight, and I was unclear about the factual status of the story. Lindsay herself was famously slippery on the subject. “Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves,” the novel begins. The idea that the novel was based on real events was used to great effect by Weir, who includes a similar intertitle at the beginning of the film. Picnic at Hanging Rock is not in fact based on a true story, but the myth that it is has persisted since the novel’s publication, along with the sense that the titular site is somehow haunted. Stories of mysterious incidents during the film’s shooting were leaked to the press after the film’s release: equipment going missing, lights moving, watches stopping.
“I used to go there when I was a kid,” recalled Helen Morse, who played Mademoiselle de Poitiers in the film. “We’d go for picnics and climb all over the rock, but it was only going back to make Picnic at Hanging Rock that I actually became aware of those faces in the rock.” The film lingers on these faces—ancient, volcanic, otherworldly—and, visiting the site, I saw for myself how the pockmarks and holes in the rock can, in the right light, seem to be literally looking down at you. “We were asserting that the landscape took these girls,” Hal McElroy, the film’s coproducer, explained. “So the landscape had to be alive. And anyone who’s spent any time in the Australian bush knows it is. It’s a kind of living, throbbing, and in fact a very noisy place.”
In Lindsay’s novel, the landscape is full of that throb and noise, that gloom. The bush is full of cicadas that “shrill” and leaves that “hang lifeless.” The slabs of the Rock “repudiate” the landscape around it. The boulders “force” their way toward the sky. In some instances Bush is capitalized, as if it were a proper noun, just as possessed of power and agency as a person.
As the schoolgirls ascend the rock, they are described as “unconscious of the strains and tensions of the molten mass that hold it anchored to the groaning earth.” But the animals know. The snakes and insects are attuned to the “creakings and shudderings” of the landscape, and they flee. The girls climb higher, as if bewitched, or seduced. The frightening thing about the seduction is what Lindsay suggests with all her anthropomorphisms—not merely that the landscape might possess its own agency, but that it might also have very bad intentions.
Picnic at Hanging Rock takes place in 1900, a year before six separate British colonies were federated into the Commonwealth of Australia. Federation was an era of Australian life when newly minted citizens set about casting their recent history into oblivion, trying to forget 112 years of institutional violence and bureaucratic bungling, indigenous displacement and massacre, and a vast prison experiment unmatched until the Soviet gulags. Australians in 1900, observed historian Robert Hughes, “embarked on this quest for oblivion with go-getting energy.”
As the school year ends and the girls fail to return, Appleyard College for Young Ladies falters. Parents withdraw their daughters. Another pupil is found dead in the greenhouse. Mrs. Appleyard, the formidable headmistress, who keeps her school’s grounds in immaculate order, planting English hedges and tidy lawns to fend off indigenous trees, is haunted by her last memory of the schoolgirls before they headed off for the picnic that day. “She saw the orderly rows of girls in hats and gloves, the two mistresses in perfect control.” And she remembers the way the surviving girls returned to the school on the night of the disappearance, “hatless, dishevelled, incoherent.” In the end, Mrs. Appleyard travels to the rock, climbs to its summit, and throws herself off.
Returning to the story as an adult, I find that Picnic at Hanging Rock is not about missing schoolgirls so much as it is about fear. It is a story about our need to control the tendency of narratives toward dishevelment and incoherence by means of hats and gloves and language. It captures something about the energy with which we might embark on a quest for oblivion, all the while fixating on the young women we’ve lost to the evil we see in a volcanic outcrop of rock on an empty plain.
III. Uniform Code
When I was a child I lived with my mother in a house on a corner in Ashfield, an unfashionable suburb of Sydney’s now-fashionable Inner West. There were no other children on our street, but behind our house was Pratten Park, which had swings and a seesaw, as well as an oval where old ladies practiced tai chi in the mornings and men gathered to watch New South Wales state cricket in the summer. I was not allowed to go to Pratten Park, because, my mother told me, teenagers dealt drugs there at night. From our front room I could look across the street to a small reserve with a slide. I frequently asked to go play on it, but I could go only if my mother agreed to take me. My mother did not believe I knew how to cross the road.
I don’t think teenagers dealt drugs in Pratten Park, and I have always known how to cross roads, but none of that was really the point. My mother, a single parent with an only child, was afraid of strangers who might take me. My mother was afraid of many things. She was afraid of me sitting too close to the heater or standing too close to the microwave. She was afraid of the house being broken into, she was afraid of men who might be hiding in the shadows of the gum trees, and she was afraid of the small noises—often cats—that woke her from her shallow sleep in the night.
When I was twelve I enrolled in a high school, formerly a College for Young Ladies, which, for all the energy it expended promoting the independent education of young women for the twenty-first century, had a highly antiquated uniform policy. In the summer we wore a loose dress, drop-waisted and made out of a light blue that advertised all sweat patches, designed to humiliate you should you grow breasts or hips at an unseemly age. In winter we wore a shirt and tie beneath a belted navy pinafore, an outfit that had not been updated since the 1920s. On all days of the year we wore black leather lace-up school shoes with black tights or navy knee socks. We were permitted no jewelry, no nail polish, no piercings. Hair past shoulder-length had to be tied up. Outside the school grounds, we wore hats. These were nothing like the Edwardian fantasy conjured in many people’s minds when I tell them about the hats. They were wide and made of navy straw coated in thin plastic to make them waterproof and bendable. They were ugly. Prefects were stationed at the school gates every afternoon to ensure we were leaving the grounds in a presentable fashion. Teachers would lurk in the streets along the walk to the train stations and bus stops. I had one detention during high school, and it was given to me because I had twice been caught outside school grounds without my hat, and once without my blazer.
The uniform code was maddening, not least because the justification we were given for its strictness was that we “represented” something to the community. We were the kind of girls who were well behaved, neat, clever, and good. We wore our hats. Our fingernails were clean. We frequently carried hockey sticks and violin cases. Our lives were set on a solid upper-middle-class trajectory, one that suggested all the comforts of university degrees, anti-anxiety medication, and property ownership. We were led to believe that the thing we “represented” while in uniform would keep us protected from the unspeakable things that befell other girls.
Of course, the uniform could not protect us. An assembly was held nearly every term to warn us not to walk through nearby Burwood Park late in the afternoon. Groups of girls were occasionally assaulted there, although more often they were subject to the brief flash of a penis. My friends were sometimes followed on their way to and from school, calling me later to relate what had happened, through tears or in quivering voices or with studied nonchalance. We all took it differently. When I was twelve, cutting through the parking lot of Ashfield Mall, a man stopped me. There was a woman standing by his side, which seemed reassuring. The man backed me into a corner between a brick wall and a dumpster and told me I was pretty. He asked if he could see my underwear. He asked me to lift up my dress and let him have a look. The woman beside him laughed. “Let him have a look,” she called out as I ran away. I was wearing my hat.
IV. Babes in the Woods
When I was six years old, I deliberately got lost. Every time my class was taken on a school excursion, we were subject to entreaties to stay together, to be very careful not to lose sight of the group. We were warned so many times against getting lost that it began to seem like an interesting prospect. I understood from books that children couldn’t have adventures unless they were unsupervised, and this seemed like an excellent way to engineer an adventure. I was, you will recall, a child who was not allowed to walk across the street to the park she could see from her own front window. So on the day we were taken to the zoo, I hung back, slouched along a railing, and slipped into the crowd. I cannot remember what I did while I was lost, only that I grew tired of wandering around without anywhere to go and became anxious about how I would get home. I approached a man by the chimpanzee enclosure and explained what had happened. An employee escorted me back to the school group, who by that time were petting lizards. I was gone only an hour. Afterward, a teacher took me aside. She said that if I ever got lost again, I should ask for help, but that I should always ask a woman. Even then, I did not need to be told why.
In 1864, three children disappeared in Victoria’s isolated Wimmera district. The loss of the Duff children was a media sensation, one of the first of its kind. Men on horseback combed the scrub in heavy rain for over a week. After nine days, the three children were at last located with the assistance of Aboriginal trackers. They were found about six miles from their parents’ hut, having walked more than sixty miles in circles. The newspapers went wild. Two years later a book entitled The Australian Babes in the Wood: A True Story Told in Rhyme for the Young was published in Britain, recasting the disappearance as a morality tale for children like me who might be interested in wandering away from the group.
From then on, the story of the Duffs came to focus on the middle child, Jane, seven at the time of her disappearance, who was said to have carried her younger brother on her back when he grew exhausted, and to have selflessly used her dress as a blanket to cover both her brothers during the chilly nights. When Jane died, in 1932, schoolchildren across the state of Victoria organized a coin-donation fund to establish a memorial stone near where the children had been found. It reads: “In memory of the bush heroine, Jane Duff, who succoured her brothers, Isaac and Frank, for nine days, when lost in the dense scrub near this spot in 1864.”
The colonial histories of America and Australia are markedly similar. As they did in America, European settlers came to the east coast of Australia first, then looked west. But there was no lasting discourse of “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” in Australia, because people kept going west and dying, or else returning years later to the cities, raving, sunburned, sometimes blind. The landscape resisted complete colonization, so Australians clung to the coast. We still do. Only 15 percent of Australians today live outside the cities and the essentially suburbanized corridor of the eastern seaboard. There might have been a limitless western horizon to walk toward, but there was no romance or freedom in it. The landscape was frightening.
Because of this, perhaps, our respective lost-child stories manifested in different ways. Just as they did in Australia, children got lost in America all the time. American folklore was full of Huck Finns ranging out into the frontier. Stories of the frontier were populated by children like Olive Oatman, a teenage Mormon girl captured by the Western Yavapai people in the Arizona Territory and, a year later, traded to the Mohave people; Cynthia Ann Parker, whose 1836 disappearance inspired John Ford’s 1956 movie The Searchers; and Herman Lehmann, an eleven-year-old captured during an Apache raid, whose kidnapping site is now a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark. But unlike these American legends, in Australia’s counterpart folklore there is a conspicuous absence of contact with indigenous people. Rarely were there stories about children coming into contact with Aboriginal Australians, nor about the “polluting” effect such contact may have had on their whiteness. Peter Pierce, in his book The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety, points out that such an attitude would have “required notions of Aborigines as more palpably and threateningly human than were often conceded.”
International law has a term to describe unoccupied territory: terra nullius. Nobody’s land. When the British arrived in Australia in 1788, they considered the continent to be terra nullius despite over sixty-five thousand years of indigenous habitation. The patent absurdity of this is the uncanny anxiety that whispers beneath so much of Australia’s folklore. Whereas stories of America’s western frontier so often cast Native Americans as villains, Australia’s lost-child stories were often told as though indigenous Australians were simply not there. The bush was afforded an agency and humanity that the native people of the continent were not.
Our focus was directed instead toward the lost child. And when a child, especially a female child, wandered out into the frightening landscape, we paid attention. We told those stories until they ascended from newspaper copy to myth.
In May 1885, an eleven-year-old girl named Clara Crosbie went missing from her home near Lilydale, an isolated township that has since been assimilated into Melbourne’s suburban sprawl. She had set out to walk almost two miles through the Yarra Valley to visit her mother. She never arrived. Men on horseback were called out, as were Aboriginal trackers, but heavy rain had destroyed her tracks. Crosbie was lost for twenty-three days. She walked in circles, fell into creeks, stripped off her clothes, and slept in a hollow tree. She ate eucalyptus leaves when she was hungry, but they made her sick. By the end she was sitting and calling out “Cooee” in case anybody was out there. Eventually two men on horseback found her. On June 4, 1885, The Argus reported that the men had “discovered the child in an emaciated condition and unable to stand. She was without clothing and her limbs were badly lacerated. She could not have lived another day.” Clara, like the Duff children, was a newspaper sensation. Her father was offered three pounds a week to have his daughter exhibited as a “live display” at the Melbourne Waxworks, where she was presented twice daily for several months to recount her ordeal to a band of strangers.
The painter Frederick McCubbin is thought to have visited the Waxworks during that time—although even if he didn’t, he might have read Crosbie’s story in any newspaper in the country. He couldn’t have missed it. A year after the disappearance, McCubbin finished one of the most notable works of the Australian Heidelberg school: Lost, a painting that depicts a girl seen from a distance through dense, dun-colored bush. Her hand shields her face. It is unclear whether she is crying, wiping away perspiration, or just pausing. She may not even know she is lost. But the image captures the uncanniness of a schoolgirl alone in the alien, melancholy Australian landscape, and in that melancholy we can locate the root of the horror. As observers, we can see in a way she cannot how she blends with the foliage, how she is about to be engulfed by the bush from which she might never emerge. How she is both in the landscape and of it.
The girl wears thick black tights and a starched pinafore. A straw hat with a black ribbon shades her face. She looks much like the schoolgirls gathered around Hanging Rock. She also looks like me in my winter school uniform, but for her hat, which is white.
When I finished high school, I enrolled at the University of Sydney and lived at home, as many Australians do, for the four years of my degree. In the first year of university I learned to drive, but badly. Mostly I elected to walk.
Sydney is a walkable city, but only if you insist on making it so. It is laid out haphazardly, with narrow one-way streets that give way to a vast suburban sprawl spreading north and south and west. The trains do not run on time. Neither do the buses. If you don’t drive, you are faced with the choice of waiting another half hour for a bus that probably won’t arrive, or walking. In the middle of the night I walked home from Lewisham and Marrickville, and once from Camperdown. These walks were, to my mother, inconceivable. If she discovered that I had walked three miles alone at two in the morning, she was liable to become cross. “You’ll be killed,” she would shout. When she calmed down, she would simply ask me to let her know what time she should expect me. “I don’t care if you’re out fucking an entire football team,” she told me once. “Just let me know when you’re coming home.”
I understood my mother’s fears, but the thing she was afraid of never seemed reasonable to me. The only person I knew who had been killed was a girl from my high school who was stabbed by her older sister in their home after an argument over a hair straightener. I knew women who had been assaulted and raped, but always by somebody they knew, and always in ways that were too private and complex and personal to be captured in the newspapers. I took comfort in statistics. It was highly unlikely that any harm would come to me from a stranger on the street. I was more likely to be hurt in a house by a man I knew, a man I trusted. Besides, I was happiest walking alone late at night. Sometimes that was why I went out in the first place.
Not that I was never afraid. Occasionally I was followed, or thought I was being followed. A spike of alarm would rise up through the back of my skull, the adrenaline beginning to rush. But the fact of the fear made me furious. It was a delusion that my mother, my friends, and I had all agreed to live with. It kept us from thinking about other things.
V. White Vanishing
The scholar Elspeth Tilley has observed that all lost-child stories employ what she calls “the white-vanishing trope”: they begin with a white character—more often than not a girl—occupying a safe, familiar place, then crossing some kind of threshold. She enters an area of the unknown, where both spatial and temporal conditions are disrupted. Then she disappears. Whether or not she is found matters very little. The psychological effect on the community is always the real point, because the lost child is a kind of human sacrifice the culture gives up once in a while in order to vouchsafe its go-getting pursuit of oblivion. Because, Tilley argues, the white-vanishing trope is another way to keep Australians from fully confronting their history. “In endlessly retelling narratives of its members vanishing,” she writes, “white Australia… builds an ongoing myth of itself occupying a victim position.”
Pierce argues, in The Country of Lost Children, that these stories work to dramatize fears about the legitimacy of white occupation—the niggling feeling that not only were Europeans trespassing on the land of others’, but that their presence on the continent was uniquely unwelcome. By the nineteenth century, he says, Australians had begun to fear they might never feel legitimately “at home” in the country. “Children lost in places they might not belong focused anxieties,” Pierce writes, “not only over the legitimacy of land tenure, but of European Australians’ spiritual and psychological lodgement.”
Many of the lost-girl stories—the most long-lasting and potent ones in particular—are about teenagers and young women. In the second half of the twentieth century, this became overwhelmingly true. It was as though as the country aged, the focus of its anxiety shifted from girls to young women, and we began to say “lost” when what we meant was “probably killed.” There were Grace and Kathleen Holmes, the teenage girls found dead in a Central Coast swamp in 1950. There were Marianne Schmidt and Christine Sharrock, the fifteen-year-old girls whose bodies were discovered partially buried on Wanda Beach in 1965. There were Yvonne Waters and Raelene Eaton, last seen leaving a pub with three unidentified men in 1974. There was Juanita Nielsen, the beautiful anti-development activist, missing since 1975, whose body has long been rumored to be buried beneath the tarmac of Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport. There was Trudie Adams, who disappeared while hitchhiking home from Newport Surf Life Saving Club in 1978. There was Debbie Ashby, a sixteen-year-old who in 1987 said she was going to a friend’s house and never came home. There was Revelle Balmain, who vanished off the street in the Sydney suburb of Kingsford in 1994. There was Caroline Byrne, the model whose body was eventually recovered from the bottom of a Sydney seaside suicide spot in 1995. There were the Bega schoolgirl murders in 1997, and the Claremont killings the same year, across the country in Perth. More recently there was Eurydice Dixon, a twenty-two-year-old comedian who was raped, murdered, and found the next morning on the wet grass of a Melbourne football field. These women and girls were all white.
The stories began, in Australia, with the wilderness swallowing up its lost white girls, but over time the girls began to fall victim to men. If the landscape was thought to act on the country’s women by seducing or absorbing them, it acted on men in quite another way. Men often seemed to emerge out of the landscape, like some kind of malevolent byproduct of the country’s cult of “mateship.” They were cast in the mold of John Jarratt’s rifle-wielding Mick in the film Wolf Creek, the infernal flip side of Paul Hogan’s friendly, larrikin Mick in Crocodile Dundee. But it was rarely felt that the harsh, unforgiving landscape of the country manifested the savagery of the men who had occupied, settled, and killed upon it. Rather, the evil of the land that Mademoiselle de Poitiers can see at Hanging Rock was the thing that worked through the men.
VI. Weird Melancholy
In 1876 the novelist Marcus Clarke described a particular theme in Australian letters as “weird melancholy.” This is what we now call Australian Gothic. The Gothic sensibility was imported from Europe in the nineteenth century, but in the antipodes it developed its own local characteristics: instead of attaching to haunted houses or ruined castles, the Australian brand located itself precisely in the country’s lack of visible ruins. It is the landscape that is backward in Australia—trees shed their bark instead of their leaves; swans are black; Christmas comes in the summertime. “The Australian mountain forests are funereal, secret, stern. Their solitude is desolation. They seem to stifle, in their black gorges, a story of sullen despair,” writes Clarke.
The heyday of the Australian Gothic was the late nineteenth century, when lost-child stories began to capture the national imagination. It is an aesthetic of violence and brutality. “For the colonial Australian Gothic, the bush is invariably a place of settler disorientation and death, as if the promise of settlement can never be fully realised,” explain Ken Gelder and Rachel Weaver, editors of an anthology of the colonial Gothic. Twenty years before Freud wrote about the uncanny, Australian authors were busy publishing tales of desecrated burial grounds, bodies dug up from their graves, murder victims returning from the dead to haunt their killers. These stories nearly always occur in the bush, and are seen through the eyes of unsettled settlers in an occulted landscape.
But for all that Australian writers, musicians, and filmmakers have continued to elaborate the melancholy of the landscape, it is also a national commonplace that the bush is home to all that is distinct and laudable about the Australian character. The contradiction is captured neatly in Henry Lawson’s 1892 story “The Bush Undertaker,” which is narrated by a man who spends Christmas Day drinking his dead friend’s rum, digging up the body of a murdered Aboriginal man and playing with his bones, and then being followed for the rest of the afternoon by a “greasy black goanna”—the reptilian manifestation of the dead man’s ghost, so eerie and unknowable it frightens even the dog. But Lawson also writes that the bush contains something fundamentally Australian, calling it “nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird, and of much that is different from things in other lands.”
To this day, electioneering politicians go out into the bush every three years to try and connect with the electorate. They praise the egalitarian, hardworking spirit of the bush, and thank the farmers who live there for extracting sugar and wheat and gold from the soil. They describe their policies as being “fair dinkum” and, wearing Akubra hats and standing in the middle of farms, surrounded by eucalyptus and drought-stricken plains, affirm their belief in Australia as “the land of the fair go.” While they’re at it, they praise the spirit of mateship, which is everywhere in the bush. The men turn and give each other those big Australian handshakes, roaring, “Good to see you, mate” in a way that never feels not aggressive.
The politicians know this is where the country conceives of its heart, even if most of us don’t live there. The work of the bush was done by men and their mates—mates built the farms, drove the sheep, felled the trees. Such work built character, made Australians eccentric, but pleasantly so—different, but not so different as to look anything less than British with a suntan. But there was no room for women in the mythology of the bush. Women weren’t mates.
In 1806, the Reverend Samuel Marsden, concerned about the morality of convicts in Sydney, drew up something he called the Female Register and delivered it to the British government. The Female Register counted all the British women in the fledgling colony and assigned them to what Marsden considered appropriate categories: but for a couple of widows, he found, there were 395 wives in Sydney and 1,035 “concubines.”
Women in early Australia were defined by their functionality: you were a wife, who kept the men in line and assured the nation’s moral integrity, or you were a whore. “In male hands the women of the bush are left without much to say or do for themselves,” observes journalist Don Watson in his book The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia. “They cope, endure, suffer, care for the children, turn bronze and gaunt in the sun; represent something more often than they do something.”
But representation alone—like my school uniform, which was meant to “represent” something to the community—has never kept the female body safe. In the diaries and letters collected in Lucy Frost’s 1984 anthology of colonial-era women’s writings, No Place for a Nervous Lady: Voices from the Australian Bush, Australian women give voice to the kinds of lives they led. These lives were often lonely, isolated, and threatened by violence. Annie Baxter discovered her husband behind a shed “making a lubra”—an offensive epithet for an Aboriginal woman—“his mistress.” Sarah Davenport, traveling with her husband from Sydney to the Ovens River, armed herself with a carving knife for protection against the groups of men who used “a great deal of bad language” and threatened to pull her to the ground “for their own brutal purpose.” “Men, gentle and simple—are rather fond of beating their wives,” wrote Penelope Selby to her mother. “A gentleman residing in Belfast killed his the other day. He had not been married six months.”
In the fiction published by Australian women during this time, though, the rape and murder that white women were both witnesses to and subjects of remain largely absent. Instead, the landscape holds menace. In Rosa Praed’s 1891 story “The Bunyip,” a group of white settlers sitting around a campfire begin to hear “wild thrilling sounds” all around them, like the cry of “some dying animal or of a child in dire distress and agony.” They surmise that it may be the Bunyip, a kind of Australian hybrid of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. Upon investigating the sounds, the party finds neither the Bunyip nor an animal but the corpse of a girl, little Nancy. “She was always a child for roaming,” explains one of the men, “—she wasn’t afraid of snakes, nor blacks, nor nothing,—she said she liked to hear the bell-bird call, and that it seemed to be always calling her. I’ve heard her say that—poor little Nancy!—always smiling when she carried a chap out a nobbler. And now the bell-bird has rung her home.”
Nancy is the Australian lost girl incarnate: cheerful and symbolic of everything good and innocent about the nation, possessed of a semi-mystical connection to the landscape, and woefully fearless. Seduced by the bush and believing it trustworthy, she wanders out into the heart of it, and it takes her. Poor Nancy, we are meant to think. She should have been more afraid, less trusting. She should have stayed home, where she belonged.
When I was thirteen, my father took me back to Hanging Rock. It was spring, but we could barely feel it. By that age, I knew that the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock was fictional, and I considered my previous fascination with the novel sentimental and silly. I had become as doleful as a teenager as I had been somber as a child. We climbed the rock and it was OK. There was nothing mystical about it. In every respect it was just another bush walk in the dun-colored scrub. I looked for no lace. My hair hung over my eyes.
When we got back to the bottom of the rock, my father went to the visitors’ center and bought us sandwiches. There was nobody else about. We sat on benches attached to a wooden table and ate. We didn’t speak much. My father’s mood could turn on a dime and he would sometimes sink into quiet bouts of anger, which I could sense more than see. I quietly ate my lunch, and when we were done my father stood up and walked toward the rubbish bins to throw away the wrappers, his shoulders tight with tension.
At that moment a magpie dove at the back of his head. It came fast and screeching out of a tree. My father ran to the car and I ran after him. The magpie flew off. We sat in the car, breathing heavily. There was blood on the back of his head. He turned the key in the ignition and we drove away. Later we would attribute the attack to it being early spring, when the birds are most protective of their young. She must have had her nest up there, we said. But it also seemed natural, and obvious, that something so strange and unexpected and violent would emerge from the bush at Hanging Rock.
Joan Lindsay famously dreamed up the plot of Picnic at Hanging Rock during a bleak midwinter week in 1966 at her home on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. She was nearly seventy years old, and wrote the book extremely fast—“like a demon,” she later told her agent. Born five years before Australian Federation, Lindsay had grown up visiting Hanging Rock during the summers. The towns around Woodend and Macedon, in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range, were a favored destination for Melbourne’s wealthy residents because of the cool breezes that broke up the thick, muggy heat of January and February. Great colonial mansions and English gardens were constructed in the towns, all in view of Hanging Rock.
Because Lindsay had apprehended the book in her dreams—as if she’d had no agency in its creation—there has always been a sense of something primal and original about the story. From the very start people mistook it for historical fact. According to Janelle McCulloch in Beyond the Rock: The Life of Joan Lindsay and the Mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock, when Lindsay sold the novel, a junior editor at the publishing house wrote to her: “I really enjoyed reading this, it seems to have the right blend of ‘truth’ and fiction. Given that the actual disappearance of the girls is a fact, it is a fascinating problem.” When the book was published, it turned out readers wanted to believe in the truth of the girls’ disappearance. For years rumors ascribed the total lack of official records of the case to a fire at the Woodend police station. But there are no references to missing schoolgirls in The Age, The Argus, or The Woodend Star from February 1900, or from the five years before and after.
No schoolgirls ever disappeared from Hanging Rock, but Lindsay behaved as if they had, and that was what made the story all the stranger. Anne-Louise Lambert, the actor who plays the ethereal Miranda in Weir’s film, recalled meeting Lindsay on the set, the day they filmed the scenes of the girls’ ascent. As the girls climb the rock, a trancelike strangeness overcomes them. In one scene, Miranda turns and shields her face with her hand, much like McCubbin’s lost girl. The shot of Miranda is overlaid with an image of the rock in silhouette, as though the girl and the landscape have merged. The girls shed their tights, one dances barefoot upon a boulder, flies flit across bare skin, a lizard slithers by unnoticed. The film implies that the rock possesses a magnetic pull on the girls, strong enough to remove those thick black tights. “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and exactly the right place,” says Miranda. Then she gazes upward. “Look,” she says. But we have no idea what she sees.
The scene took many takes to complete, and when Lambert came down from the rock she walked away from the others and into the bush, still in her costume. “I was very emotional,” she told McCulloch. “It had all been too much, and I was ready to cry. At that moment, in the corner of my eye, I could see a lady making her way towards me. She was walking across these rough rocks, so I waited for her to navigate them. I realised that it was the author, Joan Lindsay. I went to hold out my hand, but she walked straight up to me, put her arms around me, and said in a very emotional way: ‘Oh Miranda, it’s been so long!’ She was shaking like a leaf. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I said very politely, ‘It’s me, Joan; it’s Anne. It’s so nice to meet you.’ But she dismissed this with a wave of her hand. She just said ‘Miranda’ again and clung to me, so I embraced her back… To her, I really was someone she had known, somewhere in time.”
VIII. Wrong Place, Wrong Time
In September 2012, a woman went missing from a busy street in Melbourne. Jill Meagher, a pretty young employee at ABC Radio, had been drinking with friends at a bar on Sydney Road in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. She left in the early hours of Saturday morning to walk home. The walk should have taken ten minutes, but she never arrived. Her husband fell asleep waiting for her. The next day the news was full of her disappearance. Her colleagues at the ABC begged on social media for clues to her whereabouts. She was the first item on the television news, the leading article on every news website, the front-page story in the papers.
I was in my final year of university, and I could focus on nothing but Jill Meagher’s disappearance. I spent that week almost entirely alone. I was meant to be finishing my honors thesis, but instead I spent the time obsessively thumbing my phone in search of fresh news of the woman who had gone missing. Something about her story felt personal. I had spent my childhood visiting my father in neighborhoods all around Brunswick. A few months before Meagher died, I had broken up with a man who lived in Melbourne. We had spent nights drinking on Sydney Road. I had been to the bar Meagher had left that Saturday morning. I could trace younger versions of myself walking up and down Sydney Road, now omnipresent on the country’s television screens.
That week I called my mother, who was away on holiday, and told her about Meagher’s disappearance. I described how troubled I was by the story, how I was spending my time refreshing the news and searching for new clues in a case I had become consumed by. “This is to your generation what Anita Cobby was to mine,” my mother said.
In 1986, a twenty-six-year-old Sydney nurse didn’t come home from work one evening. In the morning her parents filed a missing-person report. Two days later, a farmer in semirural Prospect noticed his cows circling something in the paddock. Upon investigating, the farmer found the badly mutilated body of Anita Cobby, the former Miss Western Suburbs Charity Queen.
She had been beaten and raped. The flesh of her fingers had been opened to the bone. Her throat had been cut. She had bled to death in the grass. For the next week Cobby’s face was in every magazine and newspaper in Sydney. The city talked about nothing else. A week later, a group of five men were arrested and charged with her murder. The two ringleaders, John Travers and Michael Murdoch, were thugs and rapists, the newspapers reported, men who believed that having sex with the same woman at once strengthened their relationship as “blood brothers”—mates, in anyone else’s words. The men had kidnapped Cobby on an impulse as she walked home; they hadn’t even planned it. She just happened to pass by the wrong place at the wrong time.
Cobby’s death terrified the country. Delia Falconer, in her book Sydney, recalls her fear of walking alone at night after the murder. “The end point of Cobby’s walk from the brightly lit shopping centre into dark suburban streets could, but for luck, have been our own,” she observed. My mother, the same age as Cobby, was haunted by the idea of the young woman bleeding to death out there in a paddock, in all that darkness and silence and space. Until Jill Meagher was killed, it was Cobby my mother would remind me of whenever she was afraid for my safety. “What happened to her could happen to you,” she told me more than once.
They found Jill Meagher in the bush. The man who killed her was named Adrian Bayley, a brawny redheaded man on parole for the rape of several prostitutes. He had snatched Meagher off Sydney Road and taken her into a neighboring lane. He raped her three times. When she threatened to call the police, he killed her. Then he put her body in the trunk of his car and drove her out of Melbourne and into the bush, where he dug a hole by the side of the road and buried her. I remember photographs of the police digging her up in the early morning. The light on the grass, the way the flowers moved in the breeze, the blue-suited forensics team crouching as they exhumed her body from between two trees. Of course she was found in the bush, I thought. She couldn’t have been found anywhere else.
A memorial was placed at the site in the bush where Meagher’s body had been found. There were huge displays of public grief. People marched down Sydney Road. Flowers were left outside the bridal shop where CCTV footage had captured the moment Bayley first spoke to her. People wept in the streets. And women were frightened. A friend of mine recalls that after Meagher died she began making her boyfriend walk her home. She was afraid to be alone at night.
I had the opposite reaction. When Jill Meagher died, I began taking longer walks at night. I went farther, later, for longer. I was reckless. I drank to the point of blackout and wandered through the streets. I let my phone die. I told no one where I was going. I did not let my mother know when to expect me home.
IX. “Did she go walkabout?”
In September 1990, Colleen Walker, a sixteen-year-old indigenous girl, walked away from a party in the Aboriginal mission outside the town of Bowraville. Her mother reported her missing when she didn’t come home, and presented the local police with a photograph of her daughter. “Oh, did she go walkabout?” asked a policeman. Years later, speaking to a Parliamentary committee investigating the case, Walker’s mother said, “I thought they would actually take… a statement from me or something but he didn’t even do any of that.”
Walker’s body has never been found, but her clothes were discovered by a local fisherman, weighed down in the Nambucca River. The case got minimal media attention and faded into the ether until 2016, when a podcast called Bowraville reported on her and two other Aboriginal children who had disappeared along the same stretch of road between 1990 and 1991. Only one man has ever been accused of the crimes; at the time of this writing he has still not been brought to trial. Walker’s disappearance was not a case that gripped the nation.
In Ernest Favenc’s 1899 story “Doomed,” six men go out into the bush and stake a claim on some land. By the river one day they notice a camp of Aboriginal women and children, and for the hell of it one of the men decides to shoot at them. While most of the targets scatter, one of the women is nursing a baby and cannot run. The bullets strike both her and her child. Before she dies, the Aboriginal woman curses the men, and over the next few years every last one of them is struck down—by fever, by shipwreck, by out-of-control horses. Just before he dies, each one is visited by the ghost of the woman, holding her baby in her arms.
This story has always struck me as one of the least repressed or allegorical examples of the Australian Gothic. It spells out the consequences of our actions quite plainly. It makes visible our ghosts. The unspoken flip side to the stories we tell about particular lost white girls and women is the totalizing violence that has been wrought upon indigenous people, particularly indigenous women, since the English arrived in Australia more than two hundred years ago. These were the women left out of the folklore, the women with no names, the lubras like the one Annie Baxter caught her husband making into his mistress behind a shed.
These are also the women who today are the most common victims of homicide in Australia. In 2016, Aboriginal women were thirty-seven times more likely to be hospitalized due to family-related and domestic assault. In the Northern Territory, where the highest proportion of indigenous people resides, the rate of hospitalization was eighty-six times higher than in the rest of the nation. This means there are few who are not affected—as victims, witnesses, relatives, or perpetrators. The violence is both literal and structural, and it has not gone unvoiced. As the journalist Amy McQuire explains, “Aboriginal women have been talking about violence for decades—the ‘silence’ is not the issue. It is that no one listens unless it is spoken in a way that bypasses the role of white Australia.”
In 1898 an investigation was launched into station owner Walter Nairn and his three nieces. Nairn had been accused of committing acts of “immorality”—raping Aboriginal women who lived and worked on his property—and, in an exceptionally rare event, his nieces, all young white women, were accused of being accomplices. Ultimately, the investigation determined that the nieces were innocent because they had been ignorant of, or oblivious to, what was happening “down in the gully and just outside the garden walk.”
If it was supposed that the nieces could not have been aware of sexual violence against Aboriginal women in their homes, it was because the mythology the country had constructed would not allow for it. The colonial project in Australia first relied on Reverend Marsden’s distinction between wife and concubine, but over time the role of wife grew to encompass everything moral, innocent, and good about white Australian femininity. When we began to tell the story of the lost girl, we obscured much of the real harm. The reassuring assumption that it was white women who were helpless and vulnerable, who were the real victims of Australia’s weird melancholy, concealed the fact that white women were not only complicit in the systemic violence perpetrated against indigenous people, but often its beneficiaries as well. By this omission we ensured that no real reckoning with the past would have to take place.
Instead, we created a mythology of white innocence and endangerment—the same mythology that is central to white-supremacist ideologies the world over. We taught white women that being afraid would keep them safe: that the correct amount of fear would protect them from the stranger on the street, from the darkness of the bush, from being the kind of woman who would leave not a trace except for a scattering of clothes outside a primary school’s door. This fear was taught as a form of rational thinking, passed down from friend to friend, sister to sister, mother to daughter. Teaching fear, and learning its lessons, was cast as a form of responsibility, instead of the violence it was and continues to be.
X. Inner Reality
For years I have had a 1953 poem by Judith Wright taped above my desk. The poem, “The Precipice,” details the journey of a woman who dresses her children, hails a driver, and has him take them out into the dark, moonless bush. There, she uses the light of a torch to progress down a trail, and when she comes to the edge of a cliff she takes her children in her arms, “because she loved them,” and jumps.
I love this poem not because it romanticizes a murder-suicide, but because it holds within itself both feminine agency and feminine recklessness. Wright’s protagonist is not passive: there is no bell-bird that calls her home, no song of the volcanic rock that only she can hear. She makes a choice. It is a terrible one, but there may be nothing more human than the violence caused by terrible choices. For Wright, it isn’t the melancholy of the bush itself that’s the problem. It’s the melancholy, and the cruelty, of the people who live in it.
Wright wrote that the natural environment functions in Australia as “an outer equivalent of an inner reality.” She saw, in our conflicting symbolism of the bush as mate and as murderer, the trauma we attempted to repress: “the scar left by the struggle to conquer and waken, for our own purposes, a landscape that had survived on its own terms until the world’s late days. Its only human inhabitants had been the aboriginals whom we dispossessed—who were bound to the land we took from them, by the indissoluble link of religion and totemic kinship, so that our intrusion on the land itself became a kind of bloodless murder, even where no actual murder took place.”
It turns out that asking the bush how anything so beautiful could be the instrument of such evil was not the right question. It was not the landscape that was melancholy, or weird, or capable of perverting its men and swallowing its women. That was us.
A year after Jill Meagher’s death, I left Sydney and moved to New York. I was astonished at the freedom I felt there, a freedom to be out in the world such as I had never experienced at home. I could walk for hours, I could go to movies and plays and sit in restaurants alone, I could drink in bars—it was all fine. Nothing made me feel that doing these things was risky. Once my mother phoned me while I was reading in the front window of a bar by the Graham Avenue L stop. When I told her where I was, she panicked. “Be careful,” she said. “Women shouldn’t go to bars alone.”
It hardly mattered that what happened to Anita Cobby and Jill Meagher was statistically unlikely to happen to me, or my mother, or anyone I knew. The lost-girl stories we grew up on had led us to believe that women really were vulnerable to the casual malevolence of strangers, regardless of evidence that we are more likely to be killed by the cars we drive or the food we eat, or behind the closed doors of our homes by the men we love.
Although I spent much of my childhood railing against my mother’s fearfulness, deliberately getting lost at zoos, climbing malevolent volcanic outcroppings, walking long distances through the night, it didn’t mean I wasn’t afraid. I am not so different from my mother. We were both afraid of being the set of clothes left on a playground the morning after, our body vanishing into some vast Back Paddock where it was always dark and always cold, where people drank and fucked and nobody was safe.
Before I moved to New York, I spent a day putting unwanted things in garbage bags. I threw away old papers, magazines I would never read again, clothes that were too torn and decrepit to donate. I took the trash bags downstairs to the bins, rolled the bins down to the curb, and left them for the City of Sydney to collect while I slept.
The next morning, I walked out of the house and saw, on the footpath, a pair of women’s underwear, torn, faded, crotch-up in the middle of Elizabeth Street. I stood very still, just staring at them. It took me a moment to realize that the underwear was mine. It felt like a clue. Some part of me had always expected that one day I would simply disappear, and that there would be something left behind, like clothes in the Back Paddock, like a scrap of lace on Hanging Rock, which would prompt a stranger to try and find me. But this was neither clue nor augury. I just hadn’t tied the trash bags tightly enough. I kicked the underwear to the curb and kept walking. The wind whispered through the branches and the birds shrieked in the trees above, but they didn’t, not really. The weirdness and the melancholy were feelings, nothing more.