Award-winning author Rebecca Poulson talks to Finder.com.au about her newly released novel Killing Love, which finds humanity and hope in one of Australia’s worst family massacres.
On her 33rd birthday, almost 10 years to the day after her brother committed suicide and first plunged her family into despair, the police arrived at Rebecca Poulson’s front door with more bad news. The kind of news that drops an anchor in your stomach. It’s September 30, 2003, and her brother-in-law Neung Kongsom - who had a history of domestic violence and an AVO (Apprehended Violence Order) out on him at the time - has turned up at her father Peter’s property in Wilberforce, 60km north-west of Sydney, where he is minding the couple’s two kids. He is armed.
Meanwhile her sister, Ingrid, is in the back of a police car racing towards the scene to have him arrested. When they arrive, Kongsom is on the driveway, a 30cm knife in his hand. He raises it for another blow on Sebastian (just 23 months old), but is shot by a police office – however, it is too late. Sebastian is dead. So is Marilyn (4 years old) and Peter (60). A few hours later, in hospital, the murderous father would die, too: the bullet trauma compounded by multiple self-inflicted stab wounds. In the house his final words on paper, detailing his plan to destroy the family of his estranged wife through the murders of their children.
It’s impossible to comprehend. It’s sickening. And one can only imagine how the surviving family members have managed to carry on. But for Rebecca, at least, her decade-long battle to overcome her grief has culminated in Killing Love. And while the novel may be set against the suicide of her brother and the tragedy that beset her sister’s family, it finds its power elsewhere. It’s not a book about a gruesome newspaper headline, but a story about people who were loved, offering insights into dealing with and defeating grief, while challenging the Australian government and Australian culture to find a better solution to deal with domestic violence.
Now enacting change as a speaker, writer and mother, we caught up with Rebecca Poulson to explore her journey creating the book, and her opinion on how dealing with issues of domestic violence can be improved in Australia.
Few stories are as personal as Killing Love; how difficult was it to put your journey into words?
The book had been inside me for a long time, but due to having three kids all under four years of age, I couldn’t get to my computer or my desk to write it, so it took a long time. Truth be told, I originally wrote it for myself. If I had written it with the thought of it going out to the wider world, where readers and critics could get at it, it would have been crippling and my fingers would have frozen on the keyboard. But after it was complete, it was edited so it was suitable for readers.
Your story is now one that people from all across Australia and the world will know; how does that feel?
My story was already played out in front of the media and in a packed court room when my loved ones were murdered. We were an intensely private family and all our rights to privacy were stripped away at that point. Every text message was read to a court room; every quote replayed amongst police and printed in international papers. We had no rights. I feel more in control now, telling the story from my perspective, honouring my dead family and telling their stories rather than just their deaths. Even though some of the more sensationalist papers have focussed, once again, on the brutal killings, most have not. So it feels surprisingly OK.
How has the way you have spoken about the tragedy of first your brother, and then your dad, niece and nephew, with friends and colleagues changed during the course of writing the book?
My book opens with my brother’s suicide at age 24. I was 22 when he shot himself and my way of coping was to shun help, and instead work and study hard, then travel or continually go out clubbing. Late nights kept me from the painful grief of my lonely bed. When the next deaths happened I was forced to confront the buried grief of my brother at the same time. My book overviewed them all and now with the media I’ve had to step back a little from my emotions and speak with some objectivity about the deaths. I still cry after some interviews, but after each one it gets easier.
You have strong and understandable convictions about the way domestic violence is handled in Australia; what was it like then, how has it changed over time and what needs to happen next?
I was lucky enough to meet with the NSW premier and directly change some domestic violence laws, but it’s still not enough. What happened to my family can still happen today and that breaks my heart. There are laws and police domestic violence procedures, as well as mandatory reporting of at risk children, which is all great. However, that’s only half the battle. Now we need to educate police properly, so they actually know the domestic violence procedures and how to follow them.
Also, DOCS (Department of Community Services) needs more caseworkers to be allocated to the reported children. Media need to report the 1800 RESPECT number and give editorial space to the women murdered every week by their partner or ex-partner. The emergency shelters that the Abbott government closed need to be reopened as women and children fleeing violence now have nowhere to go – they are the single biggest group of homeless out there. Did you know 52% of women in violent relationships have children in their care? Domestic violence education needs to be rolled out to all States and Territories in schools so children can seek help. I could go on! Have a look at my Poulson Family Foundation charity - it tackles all of these issues.
I can only imagine that writing this book would have played a vital role in the healing process – what have you learnt about the nature of grief and how to battle it?
I was already “healing” and the nature of grief was by then horribly familiar to me before I wrote my book. I lost Adrian at 22, my next four family members on the day of my 33rd birthday. Grief, as I see it, is a network of black veins in my body and it’s always there. It will be there forever.
However, why is my life genuinely pretty happy despite that? Because I layered on top of the black immutable grief all the things that make my soul sing. I sought knowledge on tarot and philosophy and Buddhism, and while I did that I didn’t think of my grief. I have a long-term and authentic circle of friends I surround myself with. I write. I walk in nature. I have my kids. All these things layer on top of my grief so I actually expand outwards. But grief can be tapped into at uncontrolled, painful moments – that’s its nature.
There will be an obvious interest in this book for women, but why is it important for men to also read Killing Love and what do you feel they can learn about the need to lend their voice to enact change?
Interestingly, Big W just put my book in its Father’s Day gift section, pitching it to men. I tell men to channel my Dad - a strong man who saved three women that I know of from violent relationships, and then paid the ultimate price trying to save his grandchildren. Men don’t need to pay with their lives, of course. But they need to listen. To validate women and to challenge the mateship rules as my dad did. How did he work out these women needed help? He didn’t close his eyes to the signs; he validated them. He helped them leave.
Men can donate. They can challenge another man when he starts talking about his “psycho” ex or speaks disrespectfully about his wife. Be alert. Start a conversation. Remember the women in these situations would have heard over and over again that they are stupid and they may believe it. These men are often charming - is one of them your friend? Challenge how things stand. Think it sounds small? Dad saved three lives and five children by doing this. It’s not small.
You’re a hard-working mother with three beautiful, young, energetic children, a fact that suggests that ultimately this is a book about hope; when your children grow up how do you want Killing Love to inspire them?
This book is about hope. I am genuinely contented - no small feat. I hope to raise resilient children as my mum and dad rose me. I know people who don’t take responsibility for their own life and see all that has happened to them – from running out of petrol to non-promotion to the bigger things – as someone else’s fault. The hint I have is that you are in control of your own life and how you react to situations. I couldn’t control that Adrian, Dad, Malee and Bas died. However, I can and do control my reaction to it. That’s what I want for my kids - resilience, courage, confidence, control.
Finally, do you want to get stuck straight into another book, or do you hope that Killing Love will open new career opportunities for you to enact cultural change in Australia and its attitude to domestic violence?
Well, my publisher is asking for my second book – yikes! I am a writer, so yes a second book will be coming out. I am also doing lots of media interviews and public speaking, so I will do that for now as I want to keep fighting on the right side of the domestic violence war.
Visit Rebecca Poulson’s website for more information.