Three windows on trouble, Merle Nowland

An Irish Legacy: The Real Danny Butler Story
Ian Wishart
Howling at the Moon Productions, $24.95
ISBN 0 9583 71725

Last Words
Christopher John Lewis
Howling at the Moon Productions,$29.95
ISBN 0 9583 56866

Scarecrows: Why Women Kill
Ronda Bungay
Random House, $29.95
ISBN 1 89641333 4

This trio of books explores the underbelly of society. Their writers delve, either first-hand or as close observers, into lives that have been dominated by troubles of violence, failure and despair. All three deal with people who baulked against commonly held standards and mores out of sheer cussedness or because they believed others drove them. The subjects are controversial, the stories told generally disturbing, and the tones of the books sombre. Each provides fascinating insights into criminal behaviour and the life-routes taken by those who land up branded as offenders. However, there is more than a hint of self-justification in Last Words and An Irish Legacy, which is glaringly absent from Scarecrows. For that reason I found Ronda Bungay’s book far more convincing.

2

Self-justification fairly shrieks out of Christopher Lewis’ Last Words. It is the autobiography of the man charged with the high-profile murder of Auckland mother Tania Furlan and the kidnapping of her baby. But Lewis committed suicide while in prison on remand, so never came to trial. He died in a prison cell electric chair of his own making three days after offering the manuscript of Last Words to the publisher. I don’t mean to sound callous, but, after reading Last Words, I’m not surprised that Lewis chose to end his strange and self-pitying life in such a bizarre manner.

Lewis claims his main purposes in writing the book were to show he was wrongly charged with the Furlan killing and to honour the love of his life, Gaynor Wilkie, the woman who has given me hope when all else seemed lost”. But most of his long, and sometimes tedious, book deals with the ins and outs of how he, a self-proclaimed genius and sensitive soul, was dealt bad cards in life by others, especially women. These start with his mother who bore him as an unmarried teenager and who, according to her son’s frequent references, made it clear she never wanted him.

This extremely detailed self-exploration by one of our most notorious criminals is full of confessions, contradictions, moralising and philosophising. It roves through an enormous range of subjects including his devotion to the discipline of martial arts, his views on Christianity, the ease with which he slipped back into crime when temptations presented themselves, allegations of torture by the police, and his ideas on reforming the justice system. As regards the Furlan murder, Lewis appears superficially to make a good case that he was wrongly charged, but I found myself increasingly suspicious about his supposed alibi, and about many other scenarios painted in the book. What about the other side of the story?” I kept asking myself. Can I really believe what this guy is saying?”

3

Ian Wishart’s An Irish Legacy is a much easier read, mainly because it is so much better written. It claims to tell the true story of why Danny Butler and his family fled here from Ireland, and struggled so hard but unsuccessfully to stay. It paints too a strong picture of Butler continuing to see himself as a walking dead man awaiting an executioner’s bullet he believes must arrive eventually.

Surprisingly, Wishart starts with a rather flowery description of Butler’s birth. I guess this is to cement in the idea of Irish family loyalty, one of the principal themes of the book. There is also a lot of interesting and colourful material about the beginnings of the Irish Troubles and how this dictated the way Danny Butler and many of Catholics lived. Similarly, in minute, and at times confusing detail, we are told how and why Butler fell out with the fringe paramilitary group which passed a death sentence on him, and how this resulted in him fleeing for his life to New Zealand.

But then comes the crux of the book – the time Butler and family spent in New Zealand fighting to get the green light to stay – and it is here I believe Wishart loses perspective. Okay, the book is Butler’s story with events recounted from his point of view, but in the telling of these difficult times, examining the treatment meted out by immigration officials, the courts, politicians and the police, Wishart simply bangs the drum for Danny too hard.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a fascinating story, but as a journalist who reported on aspects of the Butler case, as well as on many other immigration cases over the years, I cannot accept Wishart’s evaluation of what and why things happened as they did. I’m not defending officialdom nor excusing the glaring problems, which indeed arose in this instance. But read An Irish Legacy, and judge for yourself if the writer’s assessment of New Zealand’s handling of the family rings true.

4

Ronda Bungay’s Scarecrows: Why Women Kill is the pick of the trio. Like the others she writes of crime and the personal disasters which cause it. Like the others she also critically examines the justice system and society’s attitudes to crime, and criminals. But unlike the others, Ronda Bungay’s book is not a book of complaints or justification. It explores the life stories of women convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. But it deals with women who have accepted the reality of what they have done and with Ronda Bungay’s compassion and support courageously sought the reasons why.

The writer spent a year and a half repeatedly visiting and interviewing the women in prison. They became her friends, and trusted her to probe the most painful of memories. For her part Ronda Bungay was uniquely equipped. After years of working alongside her late husband, famed criminal lawyer Mike Bungay, she knows the territory well and has developed a passion for restorative justice. She also knows how to write and exhibits an extraordinary empathy with her subjects.

But this is in no way a soft or flabby book. It is written at three levels: it is grounded in the telling of the very human stories of the five women; it includes touching personal observations by the author; and it flows into consideration of several broader issues, such as the relevance of the mandatory sentence for murder, the difference between men and women killing, and the reformative role of the prison system.

The women tell it straight. While fully accepting they have done wrong and are being punished, they detail the physical, mental and sexual abuse that dominated and corrupted their lives before they killed. We hear of cries for help to family and social service agencies, which fell on deaf ears. There are heart-breaking accounts of efforts to struggle out of relationships and of falling back, worn down by the punishment meted out, or the need to protect children or some remnants of personal dignity in a living horror of existence.

Along with these accounts, the writer explores the trial system and how it often doesn’t allow the full story to be told, and certainly not in the full context required to understand the why of what happened. She also stresses how women who kill are tried according to laws and allowable defences designed to deal with male killers. This fascinating topic is taken up by criminologist Jan Jordan in one of a number of expert contributions to Scarecrows. From this comes the strong, controversial suggestion that perhaps the law needs to be changed to accommodate the unique situation of women who kill.

Other articles come from lawyers, psychologists and academics, as well as the manager of Arohata Women’s Prison in Wellington, Fleur Grenfell, and her counterpart at Christchurch Women’s Prison, Cecelia Lashlie. They know the women whose stories are told, and their asides touch on subjects such as ‘battered woman’ syndrome, the possibility of introducing different degrees of murder and how prisons can assist women offenders. These are all highly topical issues and continue to be hotly debated. The exploratory and balanced material in this book offers a major contribution to that debate.

Scarecrows tells of several deeply moving human tragedies. It also explores the solid context in which they happened, and probes the demanding wider issues that the stories throw up. Unlike Last Words and An Irish Legacy, Scarecrows, a genuinely disturbing and serious book, did not leave me exhausted, depressed, exasperated or angry. It left me hopeful.

Merle Nowland is a Radio New Zealand Wellington Court Reporter.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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