…..since I lost my beautiful friend. Exploring the personal human cost of systemic inaction and indifference over men’s violence against women.
by Aoife Lyons
I have started writing this a hundred times. I have filled pages, typed and deleted, because nothing seems adequate. In some ways this has become a fixation, but at the same time, it is hard, and feels like it could be dangerous to delve too deep, as the cork might pop off, releasing in a chaotic flurry what I’ve been so busy bottling for two years.
I met Jill in Dublin in 2007. Something seemed to click: I loved the fact that she appeared to have no filter, would speak her mind, and reach her own conclusions. She came across as so self-assured, although the truth is always more complex. I was in silent awe of her confidence, of how she would do almost anything for a laugh, dredge up anything, from teenage ridiculousness, to adult stupidity, and mould it into a funny story, at once exposing and inoculating herself to embarrassment. We shared the same irreverent sense of humour, and would spend nights engaged in the most profound and ridiculous conversations, laughing at our own pretentiousness.
She and Tom eventually moved to Melbourne, but it took me two years of intense procrastination to follow them out. It was as though we hadn’t seen each other for a week or two, aside from the abundance of stories, which, told in the flesh, are always funnier than by email. That first night in Australia – me, my boyfriend, John, Jill and Tom, sitting on the balcony of their apartment in Brunswick, drinking beer, several varieties of duty free whiskey, and enjoying a selection of cheeses, like real grown-ups – was pregnant with possibility. We just picked up where we left off, and the conversation ebbed and flowed, wheeling wildly between philosophy, politics and comedy, or three all at once. We drew up a shortlist for future trips, places to eat and drink, museums, parks, the unlimited possibilities for grown-up, and not-so-grown-up larks. There seemed to be so much time.
Then, one Saturday morning, Tom texted to ask if Jill was with me. We had found an apartment within shouting distance of theirs in Brunswick, a short detour off the pub-to-home route. The next days were an indescribable mix of adrenalin and unspoken panic: the strangeness of police interviews, and the mounting media circus entrenched outside the apartment building. You can’t expect the unexpected, so I knew it was going to work out – it had to. These things may happen in every cop show on TV, in innumerable books, games and films, where the disappearance of young women serve as the central plot device, but they didn’t happen in real life.
When the reality began to take shape my internal monologue changed from one kind of denial to another, until there was no more denying. Her picture was everywhere. The story played out on TV like any other story of that sort, but profoundly different, at once distant and intensely personal. It was a waking nightmare; I would drink myself to sleep every night, descend into an eight hour blackness, to emerge tired, confused, and almost manic in search of distractions.
The anger came later. When someone you love has been designated a ‘victim’ in such horrific circumstances, it is just one aspect of the surreal smorgasbord that is to follow. There’s an intense numbness, interspersed with boundless panic and disbelief. Then the anger. I thought I knew what it was to be angry, but I had never even touched its surface. It was immense, metastasising uncontrollably. It was a Revelation, in the Old Testament sense. It was a deluge which drowned everything, to subside revealing a mutilated, alien wasteland. It was damnation, brimstone, pestilence, and Retribution. Especially Retribution. The events that followed were a vortex of unknown and unknowable feelings, of the procedural necessities, the pantomime of justice, that was, at least, over comparatively quickly.
It’s much easier, though destructive, to be angry than sad. It is easier, in turn, to direct that anger at a faceless bureaucracy – a system based on box ticking and finances, not the utopian ideals of Justice. That a human being raped and murdered my friend spawned in my consciousness later. That this human, who had spent a quarter of his life in prison for the rape and attempted rape of eight women (consider that only one in six rapes are reported), was paroled after completing a sex offenders program, is a source of great anguish, and impotent rage. That the parole board have apologised for not revoking parole after an assault on a man, rather than for granting parole in the first place, shows a catastrophic failure, and inexplicable naivety of a system that is supposed to exist to protect the community. (Or, their failure to apologise for granting parole is merely a cynical exercise in judicial blame avoidance.) His ‘good behaviour’ in prison was taken into account by the parole board, though he was incarcerated away from his female targets; his ‘remorse’ was recognised during sentencing, though weeks later he appealed on the basis that 35 years was unduly harsh. It would be comic were it not so tragic. All that stands between women and violent, recidivist sexual offenders is a paper tiger, a check-the-box ‘rehabilitation’, and a judicial system and parole structure that is as effective as using a croissant as a toothbrush: it doesn’t get the job done, and it makes a fucking mess.
The last two years have been a struggle. I have had to juggle the sadness of her loss and the anger of how she died. No one is equipped for this. Jill was three months younger than me: she came to my 30th in July, but didn’t live to see her own in October. Her life should have been lived parallel to mine, so the landmarks of my life seem tainted – any happiness is edged with sadness and guilt. Until quite recently I drank as though I were trying to drown myself, and I was. It is a private, isolating hell.
I quoted Martin Luther King at Jill’s funeral: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” I suspect those words should mean more, or resonate more, but they seem to be predicated on forgiveness – a stage I will never reach. More fitting words came from Christopher Hitchens: “We were living in two worlds. The old one, which never seemed more beautiful, had not yet vanished; and the new one, about which we knew little except to fear it, had not yet arrived.” And from Joan Didion: “There were no faint traces about dead, no pencil marks.” And from Oscar Wilde: “There are times when sorrow seems to me to be the only truth. Other things may be illusions of the eye or the appetite, made to blind the one and cloy the other, but out of sorrow have worlds been built, and at the birth of a child or star there is pain.”
The only shred of hope for me is that something positive can be wrenched out of this madness; that changes to the parole system may prevent this from happening again, even once (although, I’m cynical about the long term effectiveness of knee-jerk, politically motivated revisions); or that something worthy of Jill, something creative and joyous, can be eked out of this mess – the star born out of the pain.
Jill is not a cautionary tale. She is not a tragic fairy-tale character, a bleak warning to young women to be constantly afraid. She is now a public symbol of the shortcomings of a judicial system that seems to have motivations other than the protection of the community – grubby, pathetic excuses like lack of funding, and overcrowding, that we absolutely must not continue to tolerate. Jill demands that we must claim our due from the system, and not be afraid and passive, kowtowing to authority, meekly accepting that this is the way of the world.
While I try to cement my memories of Jill against fallibility and malleability of memory itself, her identity has been subsumed by the tragedy of her death. The person she was has been usurped by the circumstances: She is “ABC employee, Jill Meagher”, or “murder victim, Jill Meagher”, or “angelic”, or “unfortunate”. She was not this one dimensional caricature, defined by her job or by what happened to her, but my friend, the funny, gorgeous ball of energy. She was my self-deprecating, intelligent, ambitious, shameless, adventurous friend, who managed to be childlike and mature in the same breath. She was the brassy, curly-headed, devilish sense-of-humoured girl I met in Dublin in 2007. She was the reason I moved to Melbourne; the caring, thoughtful, gregarious, honest, hilarious friend, for whom I would save up stories of my everyday encounters in the hope of making her laugh. This was my Jill, though these words are laughably inadequate.
It has been almost 800 days, and I am still surrounded by things that can trigger a cascade: the movie we saw in the cinema in Melbourne, the sequel to which is out now; the books we talked about, Jill’s recommendations to me, and mine to her; the music (we both claimed to have discovered how singing Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights was the only way to get an annoying song out of your head); the myriad things that are linked, however tenuously, with Jill. I hope I will eventually be able to remember the remarkable influence her life had on me, without the poisonous recollections of anger and trauma – these are totally out of step with what Jill was for me, and I resent their imposition.
Eventually I will be able to consider myself lucky that she chose me as her friend, rather than unfortunate to have only a few years of memories, some hazy and beer-soaked; of staggering from Smyths in Ranelagh, or from the Brunswick Green in Melbourne, to her house or mine, still thirsty and too awake; of laughing at the absurd clicking of her high-heels, worn down to the nail; of her innumerable tales of ludicrous antics, her openness to a universe of experiences, and mischievous disregard for rules. This, and so much more, is my Jill.