The Matriarch: The Kathy Pettingill Story by Adrian Tame Part I

The phenomenal Australian crime film Animal Kingdom 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


Filed under Non Fiction, Tame Adrian

44 responses to “The Matriarch: The Kathy Pettingill Story by Adrian Tame Part I

  1. pris robichaud

    I also liekd ‘Animal Kimgdom’ a great deal. In my review I compared the family to that of Scorses’s Boston Mob. Am looking forward to the second half. From the film, the kisses on the mouth from mom to sons seemed to linger a little too long and it left me wondering.

  2. pris robichaud

    Did we see the same film? Mom kissed all of her sons and lingered a little too long.

    • Sorry typo. I meant to say “the book.” The author makes the point, though, that Dennis thought that his grandmother, Gladys, was his mother for years and that Kathy was his sister. Kathy told him the truth in a letter when Dennis was in prison. Here’s a quote:

      “In the end , before he died, he didn’t know who the fuck I was, because he used to brandish guns at my head, too. Half the time I think he thought I was his girlfriend. There was only sixteen years age difference between us. There were a couple of girls that he went with that were like me to look at. I’ve got a photo of one of his girlfriends that later had her head shot off, and she looks like me in the picture.”

      I’ve thought about the way the film showed the extended kissing and I think that as just an easy way to portray a possessive, unhealthy love.

  3. pris robichaud

    Oh, OK!
    Did you know, Smurf, mom in the film, is up for an Oscar for supporting role?

  4. Fascinating. I’m waiting for the second part. I can’t believe it is a true story.
    And I’ll try to watch the film.

  5. Here’s my dubious claim to fame. Kath Pentingell lives very close to where I grew up in rural Victoria. My now brother-in-law once dated one of her grandchildren. He was only a teenager at the time and had no idea about the criminality of the family. We often joke about how it was such a lucky escape that he broke it off and then started going out with my sister instead. LOL.

    By the way, I read this book a long time ago. And if you liked the whole Animal Kingdom thing, you might want to investigate the first series of Underbelly, about Melbourne’s gangland war. This book is also worth reading if you can forgive the tendency towards tabloid sensationalism!

    • Thanks, I was hoping, to be honest, that someone from Australia would pitch in. I have looked at some of the Underbelly books (there’s more than one), and I didn’t know which one to start with as there are few descriptions.

      • Sorry Guy … you were probably hoping I would be one of those popping-by Aussies, but I was at the coast when this appeared and managed to keep up with my blog and little else.

        I’m impressed that you followed up the story. I knew of course that it was based on a real story but hadn’t tracked the details down. People from Melbourne like kimbofo and lisa would probably know more than I about the facts. Kimbofo’s right about Underbelly. The first series – if you can find it on TV – is rivetting viewing – in story and in style. Has great music too. And is also based on real crime – in Melbourne!

  6. I’d like to watch the movie. I was wondering if you have watched Mesrine and read his book? Particularly the book should appeal to you.

  7. I liked Mesrine the film. Didn’t know there was a book, but it sounds as though it’s something I’d like. I should have called this blog: My Sordid Preoccupations.

    • And what about Carlos?
      Your Sordid Preoccupations? Well, to say you blog isn’t overflowing with mawkishness is an understatement… and a compliment.

      • My copy of Carlos is on the way.

        Sordid…well see I have a bunch of trash books I intend to get to sooner or later and then ask the million franc/pound/dollar question. Is this really trash?

        Thanks for the compliment.

        • It’s not trash, it’s informative. When I thought of Australia, I thought more of surfers and kangaroos than of lethal gangs. (Sorry for the clichés, Australian readers)
          I heard they’re shooting a film about gangs in Lyon in the 1970s. I’m curious.
          Do you know we’ve been counting in Euros for a while now ? 🙂

          • The trash stuff is yet to come (don’t want to give too much away as I’m not sure when I’ll begin). I don’t think this is trash at all. Lurid, due to its subject matter yes, but informative.

            Yes, I know about the euros but it was a nod to my French readers. The funny thing is that I had to convert some Euros a few years back and the bank had no idea what I was talking about. The manager had to come out and ‘fix’ it. She was armed with this book about currency and collectively everyone was very confused about the Euro. A few phone calls later… it was done.

            • I knew you knew, I was kidding. You have no pity for these poor bank clerks. I’m sure they wondered why you couldn’t just stay where you were instead of wanting to travel to Europe. They’ve had something to tell at home that night. 🙂

              I’ve had an opposite experience when I spent my honeymoon in Bristish Columbia. The Euros were only on stock markets at the time, we didn’t have the coins and banknotes yet and the Euro was still an abtract thing. We were staying in a B&B in the middle of nowhere, a place where it is -30°C in winter and where there are probably more deers than humanbeings, and the landlady, seeing we were from France, asked us if she should keep on “betting” the Euro against the USD for her investments. It was surreal.

  8. I am not sure if the ook has been translated. It’s his autobiogrphy. My best friend gave it too me years ago but I haven’ read it. (I’m bad with books I get as presents). Anyway last year he went to Paris as a lot of Mesrine’s stuff was auctioned and he wanted buy his signet ring but it proved to be a tacky gold ring. I wanted to go just to see who would want to buy Mesrine’s correspondence and so on…

  9. leroyhunter

    Fascinating stuff. Melbourne a hotbed of vicious crime, who knew? (well, not me anyway). I’ve always thought it was quite a genteel place.

    I’m guessing from the names that at some point of origin this family is Irish Guy?

    It’s interesting what you say about the journalist’s approach. When you say he had “a relationship of sorts” with Kathy do you mean “got to know her, won her trust, got the material for the book” or is there something else there?

    Anyway thanks for shining a light on something I’d no idea about – look forward to part 2….

    • kimbofo

      Leroy, there was a very nasty gangland war in Melbourne for 10 years. There were more than 30 underworld killings between 1995-2004.

      It seems to have ground to a halt now, mainly because most of the major players have been murdered or thrown behind bars! Carl Williams, one of the central figures, was actually beaten to death while in jail.

      There’s a good chronology of events here

      And when I was in Melbourne last month some enterprising chap is now running underworld crime walking tours, taking you to all the sites where these people lived, worked, drank and murdered! *shudder*

    • Leroy: the film is really marvellous.

      You are correct– Irish origins.

      The relationship between Kathy and Adrian Tame was professional. I’d guess that she tagged him as a sympathetic reporter after he wrote a story about her “tale of police harassment.” Here’s a quote from the book:

      “Kathy rewarded me with muc more significant leads–like the exclusive telephone interview with another of her sons, Peter, at that time officially Victoria’s most dangerous criminal and on the run from a fourteen-year gaol sentence for rape, shooting at the police and the wounding of two men. There were other stories and other memories–an exclusive on the bombing of a Richmond massage parlour, a whirlwind trip around Victoria’s country gaols with introductions to the prisoners’ wives living in local caravan parks, inside information on the pecking order in Pentridge Prison, conducted tours of Fairlea Women’s Prison, and so on.”

      • leroyhunter

        Sounds like the chap hit the jackpot, scoop-wise. Do you think there’s a price for such a rapport?

        I’ll look up the movie as well, that’s a strong recommendation.

  10. pris robichaud

    Wanted to recommend another book with its origins in Australia.
    Truth: A Novel
    by Peter Temple

  11. pris robichaud

    ‘Noizse’ sounds very familiar to me. I put it on my netflex schedule. Looks good.

    • It was a bit of a sleeper. I loved it, but then I have a weakness for Aussie film.

      • I loved Noise too … and, as for Temple, I’ve only read two but I’d recommend the other, Broken Shore first. Then again you read more crime so your preferences might be different.

        It’s interesting how our (Australia’s) film renaissance in the 1970s was on the back of nostalgia (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Caddie, The getting of wisdom … and so on) but in recent times it’s been a case of the grittier the better. Says something about the respective eras perhaps?

        • Broken Shore is on my shelf so I’ll read that before I get to Truth.

          I watched a documentary about Aussie film and one of the most fascinating segments discussed how there was a period when films showed negative views of England. They showed some clips to demonstrate the point. In one clip, an Aussie was in London and the pavement was literally covered with dog excrement. It was impossible for the Aussie to move without stepping in it.

          Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of my top ten films of all time.

          To me, Aussie crime films are so very interesting because they don’t become entangled in techno-plot. Take Ocean’s 11, for example. Too much techno plot & grand-scale larceny. The Aussie crime film shows crime on a much smaller level & doesn’t hinge on glam. I watched one lately in which the crimes were relatively petty but they were still organised by some kingpin who got a cut from each transaction.

          • Now you have me guessing. Was it Two hands with Bryan Brown and a young Heath Ledger? That’s a fairly old movie now though.

            Do you remember than Picnic has Jacki Weaver in it – a voluptuous housemaid as I recollect.

            • Yes it was indeed Two Hands. I didn’t connect the housemaid with Jackie Weaver. Thanks for the tip.

              • Bryan Brown is one of those Aussie actors, like Jacki Weaver, who did not look to make their names overseas. He’s a great supporter of the industry here … though probably mostly plays himself, a laconic (more or less) Aussie male. One of my very favourite films with him in it is Breaker Morant (which is probably also one of those anti-British Aussie films you referred to!).

  12. Jarrod

    I’m really captivated by this story. There is a true story TV series based around the Lawyer who represented the Pettingil / Allan crew, it’s called ‘Killing Time’ and is by far the most entertaining and I have come to believe, accurately told story about this family. Check it out, it was shown on Foxtels TV1. Just to add to that, I drove past Dennis Allen’s house on Stephenson St, Cremorne the other day, what a strange feeling you get. Saw the Cherry Tree Hotel where most of there business took place, must head there for a beer one day, i hear it’s really cleaned up and there’s lots of history about the crime around there displayed on the walls. That’s it from me, get on Killing Time!

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