‘The Great Brush Off’ is the term Rebecca Poulson uses to describe the situation when a woman reports domestic violence and is brushed off by authorities. Sadly that great brush off sometimes has devastating consequences.
In her heartrending memoir, Killing Love, Poulson details the horrific story of how her sister’s husband stabbed to death Poulson’s 60-year-old father, her four-year-old niece and 23-month-old nephew.
“Every time I hear another story of a bruised woman approaching police and being told: ‘Every couple has their fights, let him cool down, give him space,’ I feel my head explode with frustration,” says Poulson in Killing Love. “Will she be the next one I read about in tomorrow’s paper?”
Poulson’s brutally honest memoir recounts the unbelievably tragic time in her life that started with her beloved brother Adrian’s suicide. Ten years after her brother’s death, on her 33rd birthday, Poulson learned that a major loss does not make you immune from further grief, when she received the devastating news that her father Peter, her beloved niece Marilyn (Malee) and nephew Sebastian (Bas) had been murdered by her sister Ingrid’s estranged husband Neung, on the property where the grandfather had been taking care of his grandchildren.
There are so many “what ifs” to this story and the timing of events is one of the most excruciatingly painful elements: What if Rebecca’s sister Ingrid (and the children’s mother), who was on her way to the property with the police while the murders took place, had arrived just moments earlier? What if police had taken action earlier when Neung continually broke the terms of the AVO Ingrid had taken out against him? What if Ingrid had been assigned a domestic violence case officer when she initially reported Neung’s threatening behaviour?
Poulson goes through each and every one of the what ifs, but her memoir also reveals the honest details about her own part in this awful story. The shock of losing her brother to suicide. How a relatively ordinary family, with no previous experience of domestic violence, had to navigate the complex issues involved when a family member becomes a victim. The intense media pressure that this horrific story generated for the whole family and community.
As Poulson herself puts it, she is not the central character in the story, although she is the central character of this book. It was a further source of pain for Poulson that, under intense media scrutiny, she was cast aside from the story. When reporters asked her how her sister Ingrid was coping with the loss of her father she wanted to scream “he was my father too!”, while at the same time feeling intensely guilty for even thinking that way. The murdered children were her nephew and niece who she loved deeply, and the book documents her close relationship with them in the lead-up to their deaths.
“The big themes of domestic violence and grief wasn’t just my sister’s story – obviously she was devastated, but so was the rest of the family and so was the community, so were the childcare workers, so were my father’s friends,” says Poulson. “So by telling my story, it showed how it affected me but also how it affected everyone else when something like this happens; it has such a big ripple effect.”
This dreadful event took place in 2003 but it wasn’t until years later that Poulson was able to write about it, and once she started the compulsion was overwhelming. “It was like I had this invisible finger poking me in the back saying, you have to write it, you have to write.”
Poulson had written diaries as a child, so even though she had three children under four when she started putting this story down, she found the words came easily. “I didn’t initially write the book for publication so I could distance myself and totally open up.”
After the frustrations of the inquest into the deaths, her compulsion drove her to address the ongoing issues of domestic violence. “At that time I worked in troubleshooting and that’s how my brain works – I would ask what’s really going on here? What’s really causing these problems?”
“It was really weird sitting in this court case and I could see the grey areas where the women and children were falling through and I think they’re still there unfortunately.”
Poulson was happy to see some small changes made by the then NSW Premier Morris Iemma and she recognises that there has been some “cultural change” in more recent times.
“You’ve got Rose Batty and these other really strong advocates out there and it’s getting into the media and awareness has been raised at least,” she says. But on the whole she is disappointed not to have seen more effective change since the murders. “I find it really heartbreaking and I sincerely hoped that something would change. As the days go on you get that teeth grinding disappointment that things aren’t moving as quickly as you hoped.”
Throughout the book she is honest and realistic about what happened, acknowledging that despite flaws in the system Neung may have murdered anyway. It’s something she still grapples with today: “Could anything have stopped Neung? Or would he have just picked another place and time?”
The issue is not a simple one and while women are often told they need to speak out, it’s not always that easy. “It’s really hard to speak out. If you’ve been through anything like that to then be able to write about it or talk about it, it’s really hard.
“Some of the chapters that I wrote, I wish I’d been in a boxing ring with Mohammed Ali rather than write that. It was really, really emotionally exhausting and hard.”
However, Poulson does report finding some measure of healing through nature, friends, writing, public speaking, advocacy on domestic violence and mystical pursuits. She is hopeful that Killing Love can offer some solace to anyone who has been through grief. “I tried to make it quite practical and I tried to be quite honest about it,” she says. “It doesn’t end up with me as this enlightened being, chanting with monks in a cave or something, but I hope it’s something that people can actually use.”
If you or someone you know is experience sexual assault or domestic and family violence call 1800 RESPECT / 1800 737 732 for assistance
To purchase a copy of Killing Love click here.