On atonement

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Joe Cinque died on Sunday, 26 October 1997 after being administered a massive dose of Rohypnol and heroin by his girlfriend, Anu Singh, on Saturday. It took him all weekend to die. Others, including Singh’s friend Madhavi Rao, who was also initially charged with murder, knew of a murder-suicide plan. They provided Singh with money, heroin, injecting lessons and dosage advice and, quite possibly, the nerve to proceed with at least the murder part of the plan. Only one person confronted Singh prior to Joe Cinque’s death but was reassured that Singh no longer intended to harm him. In Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Helen Garner guides us through a Chronicle of a Death Foretold set in a Canberra depicted as a nihilistic wasteland.

Garner confronts any similarities between this case and The First Stone head on. She has again written about a man and two female law students caught up in the legal process. Garner documents the beginning of her emotional involvement in the story and her developing commitment to writing about it. In a disturbing opening, Garner has again used a transcript presented as evidence to the court, this time of an emergency call made by Anu Singh on the day of Joe Cinque’s death. Singh was eventually convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter and Rao acquitted. The court had heard evidence from various psychiatric experts to the effect that Singh had been suffering from a major depressive illness or borderline personality disorder with narcissistic features. Eerily, Joe Cinque’s voice was inadvertently recorded on an answering machine tape at about 10:30pm on the night before he died. The tape was tendered in evidence during proceedings. Only Joe Cinque’s blurred and disembodied voice remained, like Narcissus’s original Echo: ‘... Anu’s worried for nothing!’

It appears Garner has anticipated a backlash comparable to that which followed publication of The First Stone. She has captured a groundswell of public feeling against lenient sentencing and the rights of victims and their families. This is uncomfortable territory for many of us, shared as it is by ‘unseemly’ public displays of grief and anger, together with reactionary elements. Reading Joe Cinque’s Consolation itself is a discomfiting experience. The facts swirl elusively, derived from one aborted trial and two further trials, imperfect memory, witnesses keen to forget whatever role they played and others bludgeoned by the legal process.

Garner has further honed her technique since The First Stone. The characters and incidents described mediate the story and permit different, sometimes astonishing, perspectives. Joe Cinque’s mother dominates the book through sheer force of personality, her suffering and rage. Her moral authority is in no way lessened by her desire for greater retribution. Garner seems to shrink in Mrs Cinque’s presence, on one occasion literally not knowing where to put herself. Her relationship with the Cinques manages to leaven the grim story, although their level of suffering clearly shocked her. It is a simple, devastating story for the Cinques: their son was killed. It is a hideously complex story for the Singhs and the rest of us: their daughter killed Joe Cinque.

The book has that mystery at its heart. Garner grapples with both the mystery and her own clearly identified prejudices. She is unable to explain why Joe Cinque was killed and why nothing was done to stop it. She can provide no response as to what the legal outcome should have been, particularly when confronted with the compassion of the trial judge, Justice Ken Crispin. Garner has not simply raised issues of justice from the point of view of Joe Cinque’s destroyed family. Neither is the book just about restoring his reputation, threatened at one stage during court proceedings. Garner is interested in the concept of atonement. How can a guilty person live with a crime for which they have not properly atoned? There may be a moral duty where there is no legal duty of care, and the legal concept of diminished responsibility may even permit the perpetrator to claim a share of victimhood.

Many of us would still prefer to live in a country with a judiciary capable of exercising compassion as opposed to elected judges expected to apply the death penalty or mandatory sentencing. There is room for judicial discretion in sentencing which should include empathy for the victims, as well as for the mostly unspecified need of the criminal for atonement. As Anu Singh launches her own career based on the circumstances of Joe Cinque’s death, Mrs Cinque’s question seems unanswerable: ‘How am I supposed, Your Honour, to go on?’ Garner was unable to provide Mrs Cinque with any direct consolation and is scathing at her own inadequacy in this respect. She has, however, provided us with a glimpse of Joe Cinque’s face, given him substance and reaffirmed his human dignity. He is no longer a mere echo. 

Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Helen Garner. Picador, 2004. isbn 0 330 36497 9, rrp $30

Paul Bourke is a lawyer.



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Existing comments

I have only just read Garner's book, 10 years after publication.I was shocked and angered that this clearly evil young woman spent so little time in prison. How the judge could have found her guilty of manslaughter rather than murder beggars belief: She clearly planned the murder for some time, and had discussed insanity as an excuse for her actions. She waited 36 hours for Joe Cinque to die, and when she did eventually call an ambulance (when quite certain it would be too late), she lied about her name and refused to give the address.

From curiosity, I read the transcript of an interview she gave to Phillip Adams many years later... She is still a liar, at first denying that Garner had tried to contact her for "her side". What "side" can she possibly have?She planned and executed a murder. The interview is telling insofar as she talks of "what happened" rather than "what I did". She uses the personal pronoun, I, all through the interview. She seems completely unrepentant to me, and I finished reading the transcript with the strong feeling that Singh still thinks "it's all about ME".

I would like to think that neither she nor Rao would ever sleep well again, but I doubt it.

margaret caine | 24 February 2009  

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