I am a wuss. Sure I can take just about anything fictional murderers dish out but I am reluctant to read about their real world counterparts. In fiction the bad guys often get what’s coming to them. In reality they often don’t. And even if they do it is difficult to celebrate this when you know that real people have been hurt along the way. There is enough heartache and senseless violence in the news; I don’t feel the need to seek it out in my leisure reading. But I vowed that this year I would at least dip my toe into non-fictional crime as part of my role as wrangler of all-things-criminal for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. So I put on my big girl pants, placed several eligible books on hold at the library and as stoically as possible dove into LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO which came highly recommended and was the first of of my library holds to become available. I relay all of this as a kind of scene-setting I suppose. Letting you know that I did not approach this reading experience with the same hopeful anticipation I normally would and that true crime – or non-fiction about crime (and other things) which is what I feel this book is more accurately classed as – is not really my thing. Read this review in that light.
As book titles go I think LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO: FATHERS WHO KILL might be the best one I have ever encountered. It so utterly and completely encapsulates its subject matter. On a factual level the full title tells you what the book is about (not always a given) but the childish anger and inability to accept personal responsibility implicit in the sentiment of look what you made me do is the neatest summary you’ll find of a book’s central premise. Because this book is not about all types of fathers who kill their children (heaven help us that there are multiple categories but I refuse to be distracted by this right now). This is a book about men who kill their children as an act of revenge against their former wives and partners. The women who’ve dared to escape the abusive, controlling, often violence-filled lives these men impose.
As subject matters go it doesn’t get much grimmer than this. There’s a short, context-setting introduction which includes a survey of some studies on domestic and family violence and what limited research exists on the kinds of murder under the spotlight. This is followed by seven chapters which each focus on an Australian case ultimately proven to concern one or more children being killed by their father as an act of revenge against the mother of those children. Each of these chapters follows roughly the same format. We learn first of the circumstances of the death(s) then of the years of torment that led up to that point. Norris then details the steps taken to build a case against the men which, more often than not, involves truly heartbreaking discoveries of warning signs and lost opportunities for ‘something’ to have been done to prevent the escalation of violence in each case. Finally we learn a little of the lives of the women and remaining family members in the years since their respective tragedies irrevocably changed their lives. One case of this type is difficult enough to read about (as I learned last year reading Helen Garner’s THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF which covers the same case as chapter three of this book) but seven eerily and depressingly similar cases have an almost numbing effect in the end.
As journalist-authors go Norris is squarely on the side of the angels. Using observation of court proceedings and related events, extensive primary source research and interviews with people affected by or involved with each case the book reads first and foremost as truthful. Norris is clearly passionate and knowledgeable about this subject and the broader issue of domestic violence. The fact that she has gained the trust of so many women who are still traumatised by the events they have survived is a testament to her good intentions and genuine care. I can barely imagine how wary such women would be of the intrusion into their lives and potential for their circumstances to be misreported, misinterpreted and judged. And, although this book is harrowing from the first page to the last, it never feels exploitative or sensationalist.
As books go LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO left me feeling vaguely depressed and less vaguely impotent. There’s no doubt that the book’s subject matter is tough but Norris deals with it as sensitively as possible. However I can’t help wondering…what do I do now? Is there a bigger purpose of telling these stories than to shine a light on an almost unimaginable crime? If there is I missed it and if there isn’t, why not? I don’t mean to disrespect the women and extended family members whose personal horrors have been laid so bare but I want to know what someone like me could or should do with this information. Is it enough to be aware that such depravity can exist in the world? The book doesn’t make a compelling case for this as it showed repeatedly how various officials, experts and government agencies had prior awareness of the individuals concerned and/or the existence of a ‘thing’ known as “…spousal revenge in which children were collateral damage rather than the true targets of the offending parent’s rage.” Awareness appears to have been of precious little value in any of these cases.
LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO is well researched, solidly written and provides more evidence than any sane person could possibly need that there are indeed men who use their children as the ultimate weapon of revenge even though most of those men are so juvenile and self-absorbed they will present themselves as the injured party if they live to tell their pathetic tales. That I am uneasy because the book doesn’t do more…doesn’t tell me what to do now…says more about me than it does about the book itself. I hate the sense of injustice and powerlessness that discussion of non-fictional crime generates. That said, there are glimpses of hope here and there that things – things like community attitudes to domestic violence and official means of dealing with the complexities of domestic and family violence – are changing. Though if it feels agonisingly slow to me (the oldest murders discussed in this book occurred more than two decades ago after all) how glacial must it feel to those directly impacted by our communal and systemic failures? But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps awareness is as good place as any to start. And then there is the amazing strength and resilience demonstrated by the real targets of the cruelty and cowardice displayed by the fathers in this book. Such women will surely be an inspiration to many.
This is the first book I’ve read and reviewed for the sixth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.
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Publisher Echo 
Length 312 pages
Book Series n/a
Source of review copy borrowed from the library