This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial by Helen Garner

“There it was again, the sentimental fantasy of love as a condition of simple benevolence, a tranquil, sunlit region in which we are safe from our own destructive urges. Surely, I thought, Freud was closer to the mark when he said, ‘We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love.’ “

On the evening of the 4th of September, 2005, Robert Farquharson, who’d separated from his wife, Cindy, the year before was driving his three sons back to their mother after a visitation. It was Father’s Day. On the drive home, Farquharson’s car veered across Prince’s Highway between Winchelsea and Geelong, crashed through a fence and plunged into a farm dam. Farquharson survived. His children did not.

In spite of the fact that initially Cindy didn’t blame Farquharson for the deaths of her children (this later changed), Farquharson quickly became a suspect for the murder of his sons. Was it his behaviour at the dam when he insisted that two young men who arrived at the scene take him to see Cindy rather than try any rescue attempts? Was it his insistence that the children were dead? Was it his behaviour in the hospital when he was interviewed by police? Or… was it all of the above?

This house of griefAustralian author Helen Garner attended the grueling trial and also attended Farquharson’s subsequent 2010 retrial–a decision she admits that “often, in the seven years to come I would regret” and the book This House of Grief is an elegant, elegiac account of the case as it unfolded at these two trials.

This House of Grief should not be confused with any sort of reportage-style sordid true crime book. Rather the book is a very individualistic approach to this horrific tale which is primarily a study of human nature with anecdotal observations about the court system as a secondary focus. Helen Garner doesn’t hesitate to throw herself into the narrative, and this is a woman whose sensitive emotional antennae are permanently scarred by this grueling trial. Her descriptions of the often shell-shocked witnesses brought the trial to life in all its immense pathos, and she makes it clear that no one walked away from this trial unscathed. At the same time, Garner’s emotionality sometimes drove me around the bend (more of that later)–so much so that I have many ‘WTF’ notes made for certain passages. But let me be clear here–even though I have fundamentally different emotional responses from Garner This House of Grief is an extraordinary, haunting book .

Helen Garner begins attending the trial with an open mind; she wants to “think like a juror,” which is certainly one approach, but it’s also one fundamental difference between me and Garner–darker pathways I suppose–I read the book’s basic synopsis and thought Farquharson was guilty. Admittedly, though, it’s a far more interesting book because of Garner’s ‘open mind,’ so there’s always that argument. Near the beginning of the book, Garner presents a cacophony of voices which represent many of the prevailing attitudes towards the case, and this one quote jumped out.

I don’t get these guys, said a feminist lawyer. Okay, so the wife dumps them. Men don’t have biological clocks. Why can’t they just find a new girlfriend and have more kids? Why do they have to kill everyone?

Well that’s the fundamental question isn’t it?

Garner’s emotional involvement in the case mostly pays off, but there were a few sections that were annoying. At one point early in the trial Cindy’s then boyfriend, Stephen Moules testifies. Garner admits that she “was not the only woman in the court who shot Farquharson a furtive glance of comparison.” A nice touch as this can only be relayed by someone who was actually there, but then IMO Garner goes too far when she dives into her imagination regarding Stephen Moules, who later married Cindy, and the pouring of a concrete slab:

But, having recently watched a bunch of blokes pour a concrete slab in my own backyard, I was equipped to imagine the effect of this sight on a young woman in Cindy Farquharson’s stifling situation. A concrete pour is a dramatic process. It demands skill, speed, strength, and the confident handling of machinery; and it is so intensely, symbolically masculine that every woman and boy in the vicinity is drawn to it in excited respect.

That section drew one of my WTF notes.

Similarly after a particularly grueling day at court, Garner finds herself cuddling her grandson and then later chasing down the hall about to whack another when she pulls herself up short. Garner doesn’t expand this section while explaining that she “got a grip” on herself, but this anecdote seems to be there in order to make some sort of statement about inappropriate parental response and rage. Is Garner saying she frightened herself at that moment? Is she saying we can all lose control with children in stressful moments? Again, time for another one of my WTF notes as there’s simply no way that this incident can be compared to the actions of Farquharson, and while this is Garner’s experience, it’s placement here seems unfortunate.

As noted earlier, I found myself at odds with Garner on many occasions within the book particularly regarding her emotional reactions towards Farquharson. For example, at one point she “flinches” at thinking about Farquharson “stumping home sore-footed” from his cleaning job. At another moment she’s “too embarrassed” to look at Morrissey (defense) after he makes a remark, and later, she expresses a thought regarding Farquharson during the second trial when she says she “pitied him simply for the fact that he had to sit there and endure it all again.” Well if he hadn’t done it, he wouldn’t have had to sit through the trials would he now? But these are examples of me arguing with Garner, and honestly these differences paled in significance to the book’s overall approach and Garner’s attention to meticulous detail that can only be rendered by someone with Garner’s deep sensitivity and desire to understand. I found myself applauding Garner’s intelligent, insightful observations even though we have different, basic emotional responses. Garner’s remarkable coverage of the trial is extensive but goes far beyond the evidence and the facts and figures. And I have to mention the writing which is well paced and exquisite as exemplified in a quote regarding the judge speaking of Farquharson during the sentencing:

He forms a dark contemplation…

I watched the thought, to see what it would do. It firmed up, like a jelly setting. And there it sat, quivering, filling all the available space.

But in spite of my differences with Garner, this is a beautifully constructed, extraordinary book–one that will continue to haunt me. Just as grueling days in court and gut-wrenching evidence leaves Garner “beyond speech,” the book, which isn’t the story of a crime but, importantly, the story of  two trials, shows how everyone involved is impacted by this horrendous experience.  Garner notes how excessive evidence regarding marks left by Farquharson’s car exhausts the jury, the evident pain felt by some witnesses who are emotionally battered by the trial and their testimony,  and also noted are the various personalities involved in the trial: Jeremy Rapke Acting Crown Prosecutor and his “casual coups,” and Peter Morrissey SC for the defense. Finally there’s Cindy herself who emerges from this crucible of pain and grief a warrior woman. I was surprised that the theory of premeditation didn’t appear as much as I would have expected–although of course it’s implied through the tortured testimony of Greg Rice whose wired conversation with Farquharson appeared to reveal a different side of the accused’s personality. I liked Garner’s intuitive theories about memory as it related to the conversation between Rice and Farquharson that took place at the Fish and Chip shop.

As a secondary focus, Garner explores the dynamics of the courtroom and especially zeroes in on witness statements.

The repeated order ‘Just answer the question’ came to sound like a gag or a bridle. How crude, how primitive were the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in the face of questions on which so much hung!

Similarly on the subject of cross-examination.

So you get a grip on her basic observations, and you chop away and chop away, and squeeze and shout and pull her here and push her there, you cast aspersions on her memory and her good faith and her intelligence till you make her hesitate or stumble. She starts to feel self-conscious, then she gets an urge to add things and buttress  and emphasise and maybe embroider, because she knows what she saw and she wants to be believed; but she’s not allowed to tell it her way. You’re in charge. All she can do is answer your questions. And then you slide away from the central thing she’s come forward with, and you try to catch her out on the peripheral stuff–“Did you see his chin?”–then she starts to get rattled, and you provoke her with smart crack””Are you sure it wasn’t a football?” She tries to put her foot down–“Oh don’t be ridiculous”– and then judge gives her a dirty look and she sees she’s gone too far, so she tries recoup, she tries to get back to the place she started from, where she really does remember seeing something and knows what she saw–but that place of certainty no longer exists because you’ve destroyed it.

And finally here’s Garner’s partial synopsis of a taped conversation between Cindy and Farquharson two weeks after the death of the children. Cindy is medicated and Farquharson calls to “say g’day.”

Anything she says, in her thick drawling voice, he tops, or appropriates. She’s had a bad week. So has he. She has to make a statement to the police? Imagine what he’s had to do. She has calm days and then really shitty days? That’s like him. Her mum’s been having panic attacks, can’t face going back to work? That makes it hard on him. All those things affect him, ’cause he’s affected everyone’s lives and it’s on his shoulders too. How much more torture are they going to put him through?

Garner’s insightful, detailed recreation of the trial, told in her unique way made me feel as though I was there along with the jury and the witnesses. Due to the subject matter, it was sometimes hard to carry on reading. There’s so much raw pain here.  

I have to thank Gummie at Whispering Gums for bringing Helen Garner to my attention in the first place. In spite of the fact I had my differences with Garner, I know I want to read all of her non-fiction books hoping that they’ll be as extraordinary, intelligent and as thought-provoking as this one. Considering the quibbles I had with some of Garner’s points, but still predict this will be one of my best-of-2015, I think that shows the immense, power of This House of Grief. The murder of children is a tough subject for any writer to handle, and yet Garner treats her material delicately, with great respect and grace. Ultimately the result is a book that shows the best and the worst of human nature and the methods we, as a society, have devised to cope with our darkest behaviours.

review copy

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial by Helen Garner

  1. I got this to review, did some research on Helen Garner, and decided to buy and read Joe Cinque’s Consolation first, which is about a young Australian law student who decides to murder her boyfriend by giving him an OD of Rohypnol and heroin. I chose this one first as I was kind of like – wtf? Law students? Heroin? Plus she had a dinner before the murder,which everyone knew about, bar the victim. It didn’t quite go to plan – he took an agonising weekend to die. And not one of the partygoers called the police (one almost did, but was persuaded it had been called off, everything was sorted between the couple.) In that book, Garner doesn’t hide her sympathy for the victim’s family – she reminds me rather of the late Dominick Dunne, who never hid where his sympathies lay – always with the victim, as his daughter was murdered. It was an incredibly hard book to read, and that’s why I haven’t got to This House Of Grief since. I immediately thought Farquharson guilty – why put off the guys who wanted to dive in and see if the boys were alive? Why the insistence he get to Cindy and tell her what happened? I thought – evil, I know – that he was desperate to see her reaction to his “punishment”, for want of a better word. I feel Garner is so very honest with her writing, and acknowledges her personal reactions to things, which I commend. I think you’d enjoy Joe Cinque’s Consolation, and as it doesn’t involve the death of children, it’s maybe marginally less heart-rending. I need to read this, and its going to be a tough one. Great review Guy. I hope a lot more people hear about Helen Garner.

    • I bought Joe Cinque’s consolation and will get to it when I recover from this. I read a bit about the case and knew I had to read the book after about halfway through This House of Grief. There’s a third about a sexual harassment case too which sounds interesting.

      • Yes, The first stone – the first of her narrative or creative or literary non-fiction books (whatever you call them). That got me going too … it was very controversial when it came out. But again, it’s her honesty and writing that got me in.

  2. Your WTF reaction to some of Garner’s comments is interesting. While she’s highly-regarded here, there are others (me included) who do find her placing of herself within the narrative problematic. Her material, even when she was writing fiction, has always been highly autobiographical, and she seems to have carried this over to her reportage of these very dark cases.

    • I found it problematic when she imagined things ie: the concrete pouring and ascribed her reaction to Cindy and I also found the stuff about the grandson a bit out of context. Still it is Garner’s reaction and she doesn’t hide it and I know that if you spend all days listening to witness statements in a case like this, one of your reactions is to reinforce your love for your children, or grandchildren as in this case.

  3. I am stark raving mad. I just wrote a long reply to your great write up and poof, up in smoke it went because it didn’t know it was I … And when I logged in, it didn’t come back to my comment as it should.

    Now, what did I say? I said that I agreed with your wtf moments. I remember them too. I said that I am glad Garner took on this case because there are too many cases of fathers killing children and/or mothers. We need honest discussion from people who can write in the public domain. We need to see the emotion, find some truths in those emotions, to see if we can start understanding how to prevent things getting this far again. We need antidotes to single-minded media furore. I said that I don’t always agree with Garner but I love her honesty about her emotions, and the fact that she’s also able to analyse them.

    I also said I don’t agree with Gert regarding Garner placing herself in the narrative. In some ways I think it is a more honest approach to non-fiction than the pretence of (unachievable) objectivity. We know exactly what she thinks and feels based on the evidence as she sees it, and we can measure our responses against them. Garner has inspired writers like Anna Krien and Chloe Hooper who have also put themselves into their non-fiction, sharing their responses as events or their research has unfolded.

    And I said that if you had wtf moments with this book, wait till you read Joe Cinque. That book still makes my blood boil, but I’m glad she wrote it. I don’t agree completely with her perspective, but I sure do remember what it made me feel and think.

    • I’ve got to agree, whisperinggums. It’s impossible to be objective, specifically in such an emotive case, and Garner doesn’t pretend that is so. I also like her incredible honesty, even when it doesn’t leave her in the best light – there’s a bit in Joe Cinque’s Consolation where she says Anu Singh made her “girl hackles rise.” Now, that isn’t sympathetic to Garner in the least, but that’s what I like about her – she’s always honest, occasionally to her own detriment. And I’m like you – that book made my blood boil. I guess that’s why I’ve waited so long before reading this one. I’m going to get to it soon, though, but I know it’s going to be a hard read.

    • Gummie: Well I can say that Garner at least engaged me and I had many a silent debate with myself in my head over certain passages. I did wonder if she really thought that Farquharson was innocent or if she said that for the purposes of the book, but then at several junctures she has such “pity” for him. I understand he’s trying to get buried next to the boys. Well anything to stay in play. Incredible that Cindy has to go to legal channels to fight that.

      • My feeling Guy is that it’s possibly not so much that she “really” believed he was innocent but more that she “wanted” to believe he was, because she didn’t want to believe a man could do that to his sons.

        • I can understand that but there are cases of this sort of thing. I know of one in which an ex shot and killed his four children a year after the divorce.

          • Oh sure, there are many cases of this sort of thing unfortunately, which is why I suspect that in her heart Garner suspected the likely truth all along, but didn’t want to believe it. (We had a case 16 months ago when a father beat his 11-12 year old son, Luke Batty, to death in the vicinity of his mother, at the end of a cricket training session.)

  4. I am intrigued by this and the Joe Cinque book and will have to read them to make up my own mind. It does sound like there are certain assumptions and false tones – I wonder if that is because in an age of blogging and opinion columns everywhere, it’s become all about our responses rather than just the facts. At the same time, it’s interesting to read about the emotional responses as well, as you say. And there doesn’t seem to be much ego involved (on the part of Garner) – it’s more about brutal, sometimes inappropriate honesty.

  5. Fascinating review, Guy…so many questions. This wouldn’t be my usual kind of read and to be honest I think I’d find the subject matter too distressing. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by Garner’s responses…

  6. I really want to read This House Of Grief and your comprehensive review has only increased my desire. I’m interested to see how I will react to the way Garner places herself inside the narrative, from some of the passages you’ve chosen I think I may well have a different response to you. Thank you for such an outstanding review!

  7. I’d never heard of Garner but she seems well known.

    Fascinating review and discussion. It’s not a book I’d read but I see why it is fascinating and haunting.

    These murders shatter the lives of so many people, including the jury. You can’t come out unscathed of a trial like this. Even you as a reader are affected by the story and it will stay with you.

    To be honest I had a WTF reaction to that quote too. (it reminded me briefly about that terrible book from a journalist leaving the city to live on a farm with what she considers a real man because he works with his hands. Grrr. Clichés…)

  8. adevotedreader

    i found This House of Grief disappointing compared to Joe Cinque. Perhaps this is because I immediately thought Farquharson was guilty and didn’t find Garner’s insights into his actions or the legal process revelatory. Garner is an interesting writer stylistically and intellectually but being openly subjective there are often WTF moments. While reading it, I also had the jarring experience of seeing Peer Morrissey frequently on the news (as he was representing Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran) and finding my impressions didn’t match with Garner’s.

    I’ll be interested to see what you think of Joe Cinque, Guy. I think it’s a stronger book.

  9. I only know her as a novelist and she tends to divide, which for me is often proof of great writing. In any case, it’s always interesting. I didn’t even know she wrote non-fiction but will look into this. The wtf quote is rather hilarious.

  10. Pingback: Stacking The Shelves (June 27) | Cleopatra Loves Books

  11. Pingback: This House of Grief – Helen Garner | Cleopatra Loves Books

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