The phenomenal Australian crime film Animal Story was one of my favourites of 2010, and it’s a film I first heard about on Whispering Gums. When I found out that it was loosely based on a true story, well, I knew I had to read the raw material. I managed to track down a used copy of The Matriarch: The Kathy Pettingill Story by Adrian Tame. The book is OOP and looking at the cost of used copies, I’d hazard a guess that the book has achieved cult status.
If you’ve seen the film, then you know that it’s about a disaffected young man, Josh, who, after the death of his mother from a heroin overdose, goes to live with his grandmother. Ok, back to the safety of the family nest?…. No it’s not like that at all. Josh lands head first into a major Melbourne crime family, and he’s expected to take an active role. When he unwittingly plays a role in the killings of two young police officers (known as the Walsh Street Killings), Josh discovers that he’s in over his head.
Ok, that’s the film, and if you haven’t seen it, watch it.
Now the book, and I should start by saying that the film is loosely based on the Pettingill family, so there are some major differences. More of that later.
Author Adrian Tame has known Kathy Pettingill, “the matriarch” of the Melbourne-based family for some time, and they first met when he was a journalist on Melbourne’s Truth newspaper. Over the course of his career, Tame wrote stories about the Pettingills and gradually had a relationship of sorts with Kathy. Tame eventually left journalism but in 1995, after he was contacted by Kathy, he began the book The Matriach: The Kathy Pettingill Story –a story which grew from a series of interviews. The book is, as the title suggests, Kathy’s story–her version of events.
The book begins with some riveting information about Kathy’s background and stretches back to Kathy’s mother and grandmother. This isn’t the story of a family–this is the story of a tribe. If Zola were alive, he would be fascinated by Kathy Pettingill’s story and the issues of hereditary. He’d be on the first plane to Australia collecting material for his next series of novels. This series would be called the Pettingill-Allen Cycle or some such thing, and instead of a history of France’s Second Empire, Zola would write a stunning series of novels about Australia told through the various generations of this extended family.
The book begins with substantial material about Kathy’s background, and there’s a family tree included to help see the relationships between the various players. There’s Kathy’s mother Gladys and grandmother Kathleen. All three generations of women were married to men but had “ex-facto” relationships that produced other siblings, so the family tree is quite tangled. Some of the extended branches of the family were eminently respectable while others had long histories of crime and “anti-establishment” views. (Back to that Rougon-Marquart cycle again.) It’s all very complicated, but as the material unfolds, some trends develop. The men come and go (sometimes to jail or war in the case of Kathy’s father), but the women are, as the title infers, the matriarchs of this tribe. Tame relates how Kathy grew up thinking her dad had died during WWII in the Middle East. Years later, it was discovered that he’d committed suicide “because of hate letters he received almost certainly” from his wife, Gladys.
Kathy and her two sisters were raised by their grandmother, Kathleen while Gladys moved on to a series of bigamous relationships “generally with merchant seamen … largely for their pensions.” Kathy, at age 16, met Dennis James Ryan and bore the first of ten children–this was Dennis Allen, one of the most notorious criminals in Melbourne’s history. Then came a second son, Peter, but when Kathy was pregnant, Dennis Ryan signed up and was shipped out to the Korean War. Shortly after Peter’s birth, Kathy met Billy Peirce and the couple had six children–three of the six were put up for adoption. At this point, Kathy’s mother, Gladys, who’d mostly disappeared during Kathy’s childhood, reappeared and took over the care of Kathy’s first two children, Dennis and Peter. When Billy Peirce was in prison for burglary, Kathy met Jimmy Pettingill, and she later had two children with Pettingill. So that’s ten in all just in case you are having trouble following the final tally.
One of the things that’s so curious here, and this is where the idea of a tribe, rather than a family comes into play, is that there appears to be no traditional idea of a firm, immutable family unit. Pettingill was married with a family when he met Kathy. In fact Pettingill’s children by Kathy represented his third family. Kathy’s relationship with Billy Peirce was somewhat similar. He married another woman in between Kathy bearing his fifth and sixth child. And, according to the author, these “de facto” relationships also occurred for Kathy’s mother and grandmother.
With men coming and going, Kathy didn’t have an easy time of it. She worked as a prostitute for years, she also later ran a bordello, and she served time in prison. She touches on those “interesting days in the parlours.” One bordello was known as The Black Rose and another was called Vampirella’s. Tame states that “Kathy’s experiences in the seamy world of prostitution and massage parlours led her deeper into the underworld.” Kathy apparently had a “better reputation than most of the madams.” It should come as no surprise that Kathy’s children (excluding the ones that were adopted into other families) grew up with a range of problems. Kathy’s sons were involved in lives of crimes, but it’s Kathy’s eldest son, Dennis whose crimes stand out as the most heinous.
It is fairly easy to judge Kathy, but that’s something the book tackles head-on. Tame argues that Kathy’s reputation as “Granny Evil” is largely rooted in two things: the reputation and crimes of her eldest son, Dennis and the notorious Walsh Street Murders in which two young police officers were lured to their deaths when they responded to an abandoned car call. ( I should add here that the book was published in 1996. In 1989 Wendy Peirce, the “de-facto” partner of Victor Peirce went into witness protection and was prepared to testify against Victor in the Walsh Street Murders. She later refused to testify in court, but in 2005 gave an interview to Australian media in which she admitted Victor’s role in the murders). The majority of the book addresses Kathy’s relationship with her son Dennis (and hence her culpability) and also her version of the Walsh Street Murders. With the emphasis on those two subjects, Kathy’s relationships with her other children are not much of a point of discussion.
While Tame asks Kathy some pointed questions about her involvement, her honesty, at times, can be disarmingly direct. She readily admits that her sons were involved in certain crimes, but denies others, and she argues that her sons were not responsible for the Walsh Street Murders. At other times some of the versions of events seem foggy at best, and we can speculate all sorts of reasons for that. The controversy about the infamous Walsh Street Murders continues to this day.
The book presents an incredible picture of crime running amok in Melbourne, and as I read the book, I was astounded (no exaggeration here) at the tales of drug-use, rampant crime, and police corruption. The excesses of De Palma’s Scarface mesh with the deeply embedded police corruption of Scorsese’s The Departed. But the shocking thing here is that truth is not only stranger than fiction: it’s also much worse.
To be continued in Part II