In October 1997, a young man named Joe Cinque died of an apparent heroin overdose in his house outside Canberra. His girlfriend, a law student named Anu Singh, was arrested for giving him the heroin, as well as a large dose of Rohypnol, as part of what appeared to be a murder/suicide. Two days later, Anu’s friend Madhavi Rao was also charged with murder for her involvement in the plot.
Helen Garner learned of the case in 1999, after the trial had begun. A friend put her onto it, thinking that she was interested in stories like this, stories of women at “the end of their tether.” At the time, Garner herself was at the end of her tether, having just divorced and lacking a job. So she decided to look into the story:
I understand now that I went to Canberra because the breakup of my marriage had left me humiliated and angry. I wanted to look at women who were accused of murder. I wanted to gaze at them and hear their voices, to see the shape of their bodies and how they moved and gestured, to watch the expressions on their faces. I needed to find out if anything made them different from me: whether I could trust myself to keep the lid on the vengeful, punitive force that was in me, as it is in everyone—the wildness that one keeps in a cage, releasing it only in dreams and fantasy.
The story Garner tells morphs over the course of her telling. She begins with an account of the case as presented in court, where we learn of Joe and Anu and their circle of friends and acquaintances—this circle that stood by and didn’t do anything despite hearing the whispers of Anu’s plans to commit suicide, possibly taking Joe with her. Some even attended a dinner party rumored to be Anu’s farewell, yet they remained silent until after the fact, talking only with one another, if they talked at all.
Anu’s case was built on the notion that she was mentally ill and thus had diminished responsibility for her actions. Her history showed signs of eating disorders, drug abuse, mental instability, and some sort of personality disorder. Her parents, both doctors who had immigrated to Australia from India, had tried to get her some help. But there was no help to be had; in fact, it seemed that most people around Anu just gave her what she wanted, even when it was obviously a bad idea. Her father actually paid a deposit for her to get liposuction, even though she was extremely thin.
Garner’s account of these events is as much an account of her investigation as it is the story of Joe, Anu, and Madhavi. By structuring her book this way, she seems to be trying to follow in the footsteps of Janet Malcolm in The Silent Woman—my hunch about that was pretty much confirmed when she eventually mention Malcolm’s book. Malcolm’s book is brilliant, and I can see why Garner would want to follow her approach, but it doesn’t work so well here. In writing about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Malcolm was taking on a story that had been told and retold to the point that all those tellings were now part of the story. While the Cinque case was well-known in Australia at the time, it hadn’t been talked about for decades, nor did Garner spend much time discussing public opinion. Her descriptions of who she ate lunch with at the trial seem less compelling than Malcolm’s accounts of tea with a known Plath supporter. I appreciated some of Garner’s introspection about the story and the direction it was taking, especially toward the end, but her approach left a lot of holes that I really wanted to see filled.
Garner’s way of crafting her story works best toward the end, when she turns the story toward Joe himself. Whatever Anu’s reasons were for doing what she did, Joe was gone, and friends and family was grieving. And focusing on Anu’s perspective meant Joe was lost yet again. Seeing Garner’s process of making this decision to look into Joe’s life and leave Anu alone was helpful, yet tacking on a couple of chapters at the end seems small, almost like she needed an ending and this was what she was left with.
The thing is, Anu’s case raises some huge questions that Garner barely touches on. Anu’s crime seems largely to stem from her mental illness, the nature of which is never entirely clear. Her sentence is based on the idea that her mental illness gave her diminished responsibility, which makes sense while also seeming dreadfully wrong. There are so many layers to this question, and I really wanted to hear from more experts on mental illness and personality disorders, perhaps even to hear about similar cases and how they panned out. Joe’s parents are horrified at the injustice, and Garner spends a lot of time on their grief. It would have been interesting, though, to have heard from other grieving survivors, perhaps even some who saw the killer of their loved one facing more serious punishment.
Another big question has to do with bystanders and conspirators. Madhavi’s case gets into this question, but not very deeply. I wanted more about the group psychology that would cause people to come to a supposed farewell/suicide party like it was no big deal. At a couple of points, after the long process of killing Joe began, Anu talked to people who told her she needed to call an ambulance and get help. Why did they leave it to Anu? Even if Garner couldn’t get answers for this specific case—and there probably aren’t good answers—it would have been fascinating to put these people’s actions in a larger context of how group dynamics can cause terrible things like this to happen.
I wasn’t at all familiar with this case, and that made the story on its own interesting, but the limited commentary connecting it to other cases or to larger issues made it feel slight, even self-indulgent. It felt like Garner was just writing it as she went along, without taking any steps outside the narrative that presented itself. A missed opportunity for some good, hard-hitting journalism.