Perfect Victim by Elizabeth Southall and Megan Norris
This book is a true story about the disappearance and murder of 15 year old Rachel Barber in March 1999 in Victoria, Australia. There are two “stories” running parallel – the story of Rachel’s family’s anguish and grief as told by her mother, Elizabeth Barber (using the pen name of Elizabeth Southall), and, an account of the investigation and court case by criminal court reporter, Megan Norris.
Because of the nature of the book, I do not feel it’s relevant to dissect the book as I usually do and talk about characters, plot, setting and voice. These things are what they are…true, disturbing, heartfelt and a complete waste of a young life. It would be wrong for me to “critique” a book which has been written out of love, need and pain, so I am going to talk about this book in relation to the loss of my son in 2006.
The loss of a child by murder and the loss of a child by suicide are two completely different things, yet they are so similar as well. The loved ones of each are left with unending questions that may never be answered. The deep feelings of guilt are overwhelming, although usually unwarranted. The grief is never ending. The lives of everyone close to the person who has gone forever are never the same.
Reading Elizabeth’s words made me cry…not only for her and her daughter, but for me and my son. As I read the Barber family struggles with accepting what had happened and their feelings of isolation, distress and frustration, I thought of my own family facing those same issues.
And then, when Elizabeth spoke directly to her daughter through the book, my heart broke. In her words I heard echoes of my own thoughts and feelings. It was like Rachel’s mother had crawled into my mind and plucked secret thoughts from my head.
Finally, Elizabeth mentioned that she wrote the book not only for herself or for Rachel…she wrote it to make the appropriate authorities – such as the police and the court system – aware of how the family of someone who has gone missing and murdered are feeling, how stressed they are. She needed them to know the anguish, frustration and total devastation felt by Rachel’s family and closest friends. It was important to her to inform and educate them of these things because she didn’t want another family having to deal with the lack of communication and isolation she experienced during the disappearance and then the murder investigation of her daughter. I could relate to the reasons, although in this regard my reasons are quite different. For me, I want to raise suicide awareness in others and I feel the need to educate people about grief.
In conclusion, Elizabeth said that at the time the book was published, it had been three years since her daughter’s death. It has been three years now since my son’s death. She said that her family were trying to move forward, although Rachel’s memory would never be forgotten. My family feels the same way. She mentioned the pain she still felt and the tears still shed on an everyday basis, but especially on “important” dates. I can attest to that as I’m the same. She also said how difficult it was to face everyday questions from strangers, such as “do you have children?” and then the inevitable questions that follow, like “how many?” and “what are their ages?”. For most people, these are easy questions and they eagerly reply. For a parent who has lost a child these questions are difficult and bring a lump to their throat because it’s hard to know how the questions should be answered as we are fully aware that whatever we say someone will feel uncomfortable.
Last weekend I was in the library and a book jumped off the shelf and slapped me in the face. The cover of For One More Day by Mitch Albom is as plain as they come. In fact, if the book had been named anything else I think I would have thrown the book back onto the shelf and kept walking. But the title of the book grabbed my attention immediately.
For One More Day
Being a bereaved mother, the title spoke to me in volumes. Without reading anything more than those four words, I knew I wanted to read the book. And I didn’t read the blurb or the inside cover, I just borrowed the book and brought it home with me. And my gut instinct was right.
During the week, I picked up the book again and this time I read the blurb on the back:
“If you had the chance, just one chance, to go back and fix what you did wrong in life, would you take it? And if you did, would you be big enough to stand it? Mitch Albom, in this new book once again demonstrates why he is one of my favourite writers: a fearless explorer of the wishful and magical, he is also a devout believer in the power of love. For One More Day will make you smile. It will make you wistful. It will make you blink back tears of nostalgia. But most of all, it will make you believe in the eternal power of a mother’s love.”
James McBride, author of The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother
As children, we often think our parents are wrong. We don’t understand why they refuse to let us do the things we want to do. We often are embarrassed by them, shy away from them and say things that hurt them. As children, we just don’t get what it’s like to be a parent.
As adults, we fight to become our own person. We still don’t understand why everything is such an effort. And why our parents insist on trying to run our lives by telling us what is best for us. As adults, we still don’t understand what it’s like to be a parent.
Then we become parents ourselves and suddenly everything falls into place. We finally see the sacrifices our parents made. We finally see the mistakes they made and have been trying to warn us against. Without realising what we are doing, we take on the role our parents had and start doing the same things they did. As parents, we finally understand the love our parents had for us and appreciate the need they had to protect us.
If you are a parent now, can you imagine what it would be like to be given the chance to go back and right a wrong with our mother…especially if that mother is dead?
For One More Day gives a son that opportunity. Charley’s life is in ruins and he wants to end his life, but he gets to spend one more day with his (dead) mother. He learns things about his family he never cared about when he was a child. He learns things about his mother that would have embarrassed him as a teenager. He learns things about himself from a mother who never stopped loving him and whose wisdom guides him to pick up the pieces of his tragic life.
This story is written is a way where the words seem to be written especially for you. It felt so private and so close to reality that it had me in tears. If I knew then (when I was growing up) what I know now, life would have been so much easier. I could have saved myself a lot of heartache if I had listened to my parents, but as life is not meant to be easy, we stumble through the years making mistakes. These mistakes make us the people we are today, but what if…
Every family has its secrets. Some children never learn the reason for important decisions made, such as divorce. If we had the chance to go back and spend a day with a lost relative, what would we learn from that time? What would we say?
This book affected me because it was written about a mother and son. The fact that the son wanted to kill himself added to my desire to read the book (although it isn’t in any way a main focus of the story). It gives clear reasons why someone with everything can lose focus to such an extent that it can ultimately lead to the lack of will to live. On the other hand, it shows why a family can become dysfunctional and how easily wrong ideas are formulated because people are not told the truth.
I highly recommend For One More Day to anyone with a heart. You will not regret the time spent within this world, reading the words and sharing the insights this story has to offer.
Leaving Early: Youth Suicide – the horror, the heartbreak, the hope by Bronwyn Donaghy is a book about … well, exactly what the title suggests.
It takes the reader and plants her (as in me in this case) in the middle of three families. The words are written by a published writer who hasn’t experienced suicide herself, but Ms Donaghy obviously felt the families pain and torment. The words are powerful, because the stories are powerful.
The heart rendering stories of Collin, Jason and Maz are contrasted by cold, hard facts. The two are literally placed side by side. The author draws the reader in with emotion in one chapter and then swaps over to hard hitting facts in the next. As the pages turn, almost by themselves, I was left feeling battered and bruised from the experience. I can’t count the times I had to put the book aside and walk away, my vision blurred with tears. This is not an easy book to read, but I felt compelled to return to it and read more about the families and learn more about suicide.
Published in 1997, Leaving Early is a little dated with the information supplied, especially the statistics. However, it was interesting to see that many of the suggestions made in the book for improving suicide awareness have been implemented. Unfortunately, the suicide rate continues to climb, so it hasn’t made much difference. I believe this is because most parents think “it won’t happen to us” and tune out.
I suspect only those affected by suicide would consider picking up the book. This is a shame, because if we can educate the parents and their children before tragedy strikes, more lives might be saved.
…For us surviving parents, this grief is ever after. The isolation, guilt, despair and frustration that most of us feel is the legacy our children have left us. Now, too late, we understand what they must have been going through in the days and hours leading up to their death.
It would be naïve to believe that we can make suicide go away, but with care, intelligence, knowledge, sensitivity and genuine concern for our fellow man, perhaps we could hope to reduce these frightening figures.
We have to start somewhere. No one should have to farewell their child at a morgue.
- the words of Ruth Anderson as published in the book Leaving Early by Bronwyn Donaghy –
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – if only I had been suicide aware, Barry might still be with us today.
This book is not only about suicide, it also gives the reader hope, which is something every family member loses in the face of death. Whilst Collin and Jason ended their lives – leaving their families wounded, grieving and angry – Maz’ life continued. Desperate, Maz attempted suicide, but she was found before it was too late and rushed to hospital. Afterwards, her brother took Maz under his wing and showed Maz that someone loved her, and always had. This one small act opened the doors of communication and that put Maz on the road to life again.
I started reading this book as research for the book I intend to write on the same subject. But, my wounds are still raw, and the words in this book are strong. I learned a lot about writing a non-fiction book, but I learned more about suicide and grief. This book should be read by everyone, not only the families who have lost a loved one to suicide.
The author, a rabbi by the name of Harold S Kushner, wrote this book because he had been hurt by life. His only son was born with progeria, “rapid aging”. His son died two days after his fourteenth birthday and When Bad Things Happen To Good People was the result of the pain and hurt the author felt. But, more importantly, it was the sharing of how his faith was tested to the extreme and the conclusions he made in the end that helped him carry on with life.
Not being much of a religious person, I was a little taken aback when I realised the direction the book was taking from the start. However, the author writes in a manner that is absorbing and touching and I found I couldn’t put the book down. More than once I felt that all familiar lump choke my throat and tears well in my eyes as I felt he was talking directly to me.
As I turned the pages I felt something stir within me. The fundamental message of this book is that God is not all powerful, He is not perfect and He is not to blame for bringing the bad things into our lives. He is not punishing us for things we have done wrong, He is not piling grief and sadness onto our shoulders because He thinks we can handle it and He is not sitting back looking down on the world enjoying what He is seeing.
Bad things happen to good people, bad people and indifferent people. No one is favoured, no one is spared. But it is not God’s doing. It’s just life and nature. God is there to help us through those bad times. He will give us the strength, perseverance and the courage we need. He will walk beside us and offer us comfort.
In order to let us be free, in order to let us be human, God has to leave us free to choose to do right or to do wrong. If we are not free to choose evil, then we are not free to choose good either. Like the animal, we can only be convenient or inconvenient, obedient or disobedient. We can no longer be moral, which means we can no longer be human.
~ Harold S Kushner ~
If God is not to blame, who is? I never blamed a God I wasn’t even sure existed for what happened. Barry took his own life, how could I blame God for that. I blamed myself for the loss of my son. To me, something I had done had bought this about, but When Bad Things Happen to Good People has helped me see that I’m not to blame either. I am not to blame! However, I can see how a mother of a child who dies from cancer might blame God. Or why the parents of a child who is handicapped feel as if they have been abandoned by God. These things are not fair and in the midst of pain and grief, we automatically want to blame someone for what has happened. This book helps the reader see that no one is to blame. Life is cruel and so is nature, but no one is to blame.
Harold Kushner wrote of an old Chinese tale about a woman whose only son died. Desperate to have her son back, she goes to a holy man and asks if there is a magical incarnation which will bring her son back to life. The holy man tells the woman to fetch him a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow. The woman set off on her quest to find the magical seed. Of course, she could not find such a house. She learned that everyone – the rich and the poor, the educated and the not so educated, the young and the old – everyone had their sorrow, but on her journey she learned to help other people and eventually forgot about the mustard seed.
In grief, it can feel lonesome. People don’t know what to say, because they don’t want to hurt you more than you are already hurting. Yet to say nothing also hurts you. We don’t want to hear that our loved one has gone to a better place (if it’s so great there, why are we all still here?). We don’t want to hear that there was a reason for that person to suffer and die (that statement certainly did not help me). We don’t want to hear that their time was up, or that God needed them more than we did, or that they have learned the lesson they were send here to learn. We don’t need to hear “don’t cry” or “don’t feel bad”. None of these things help and the book explains why these statements are damaging. All these things result in guilt and blame and punishment. The people left grieving do not need this added pressure at the darkest hour of their lives. They need comfort and understanding. They need the comforter to say, “this is unfair” and “you have a right to cry”. They need the comforter to just be there and listen.
When Bad Things Happen to Good People helped me see that I shouldn’t be asking why this has happened to me. The simple fact is that it did happen and nothing I can do will change the fact the Barry is gone. I have to stop asking why this happened and concentrate on how I will respond to what’s happened.
When bad things happen to people, some of those people turn bitter and nasty, others live a life feeling disappointed and unforgiving, and others can’t push the hurt aside. But this book has reminded me that although the world and its people are not perfect, and although it doesn’t always seem like it, there is great beauty and goodness to be found around us. All we have to do is forgive and love.
I think of Aaron and all that his life taught me, and I realize how much I have lost and how much I have gained. Yesterday seems less painful, and I am not afraid of tomorrow.
~ Harold S Kushner ~
Thank you, Sherry, for being impulsive and being a friend. Your gift helped me immensely.