Cast as a desert witch
An edited version of this article appeared in the Melbourne
Herald Sun on Tuesday 17 October 2006.
It's no coincidence that on the night Joanne Lees gently bared
her soul on Andrew Denton's ABC program Enough Rope the US crime
show Law and Order was unravelling the drama of a family man falsely
accused by a young girl of rape. Although the man was totally innocent
the girl and two of her mother's friends ruthlessly conspired, albeit
unsuccessfully, to have him convicted. Despite statistics confirming
that the overwhelming majority of women who claim to have been raped
are telling the truth, the myths about a woman's capacity for evil
and deceit are as powerful as ever.
|Outback in the 1970s. Eerie and at times unsettling, especially among the Roo shooters in an isolated pub.
Within days of Joanne Lees emerging from the hiding spot where
in July 2001 the vicious Bradley Murdoch, having already shot her
boyfriend Peter Falconio dead would have raped and murdered her,
the instinct among some police was that she wasn't telling the truth.
Her decision not to cry in public and her appearance in a 'cheeky-monkey'
t-shirt many saw as flippant and sexual only reinforced the public's
doubts. It didn't seem to matter that the 27-year-old backpacker's
appearance was due to her having no clothes and that she'd been
totally traumatised by her escape from the truly evil Murdoch in
the unforgiving Australian outback. Nor was her nightmare enough
to convince someone in authority that Lees needed counselling and
Like Lindy Chamberlain twenty years earlier Joanne Lees had become
the suspect in the death of someone known intimately to her. The
comparisons don't end there. Lees' Yorkshire stoicism gave her the
same deadpan countenance borne by Lindy Chamberlain when marched
through the throng of media at the committal in Alice Springs in
1980. Like Lees she didn't cry or offer glib morsels for the media.
Being a Seventh Day Adventist, whose church it was said was steeped
in mystery, didn't help either. If that wasn't enough, weren't Australians
convinced her daughter's name, Azaria, meant sacrifice in the wilderness?
To see Chamberlain and Lees as accidental victims of misunderstanding
and the mystery of the outback is to ignore the deeper forces at
work against women. If it weren't for the deeply embedded belief
that women are chronic schemers the Law and Order drama that went
to air last Monday night would be seen as laughable. In the absence
of such prejudices no one could have imagined the police charging
Lindy Chamberlain with murder or believed that a jury might convict
her. How else could anyone imagine that the girl who staggered onto
the Stuart Highway, hair matted and hands tied, to flag down a truck,
had killed her boyfriend?
Although women so rarely kill the man in their life and when they
do it follows years of violence or the genuine fear that he is about
to unleash terror on her or the family, the police genuinely believed
Lees might have had a role in the disappearance of Falconio. How
eerily reminiscent it was of the persecution of Chamberlain. If
it was membership of a maligned religion and an inability to present
like the archetypal grieving mother that compounded Lindy Chamberlain's
woes, Joanne Lees' beauty and sexuality surely conspired against
her. An affair with a man a month prior to her boyfriend's murder
only inflamed the suspicions. There's nothing like the whiff of
female infidelity to fire a chorus of woman bashing.
In its 2004 report the Victorian Law Reform Commission was unequivocal
about the role a woman's infidelity, real or alleged, played in
saving wife killers from murder. Our criminal justice system is
bursting with cases where lawyers have successfully blackened a
woman's character by way of alleged infidelity. All too often these
murdering husbands have walked from court with a manslaughter verdict
and a trivial sentence. So savage was the Commission's criticisms
of the law of provocation and the use of a woman's infidelity to
diminish the crime of wife-killing, the Bracks government was forced
to abolish the law.
If the abolition of provocation was one step forward for women
the treatment of Joanne Lees was two steps back. That an ordinary
and innocent young woman should in these circumstances be the victim
of such innuendo and police suspicion, including the bugging of
her phone calls, is truly astounding. That it happened twenty years
after the shameful treatment of Lindy Chamberlain is a national
disgrace. What was Channel 9 thinking when it ran a poll - despite
Murdoch being found guilty of killing Falconio - asking whether
people thought Lees was innocent?
Joanne Lees in her 'cheeky monkey' vest was the personification
of the rape victims who, not so long ago, were grilled in Australian
courtrooms about their sexual history or accused of leading a man
on by wearing a 'provocative' mini-skirt. From the simmering Australian
Outback to the US drama Law and Order there's no shortage of people
who genuinely think women are the mistresses of evil. How else can
we explain what happened to Chamberlain, Lees and the murdered women