Ellie, Jane, Sam
Ellie’s husband has psychopathic tendencies.
“It’s not me that says it. He took a test and I’m pretty sure he was seventy-something per cent psycho.”
The results of this questionable internet test make her feel concern, but also validation, she says.
“Rob’s not big on empathy. I think that’s probably one of the core psychopathic things I’ve noticed.
“We’ll be watching a TV show or something and he’ll be like, ‘But why is she even upset?’
“I try to walk him through it. But no, he doesn’t get it.”
He’s also very committed to rational thought.
“If something’s not logical he gets really pissed off about it, even if it’s something that’s good in every other way—he can’t accept it,” she says.
Ellie, who is emotional, irrational and empathetic, is pretty much the opposite.
* * *
Ellie gives equal weight to something bad that might happen as she does to something good that might happen—even if the chances of the negative scenario are tiny, and vice-versa, she tells me.
Rob is the opposite. Despite his intellectual commitment to logic, in practice he will “disregard any possible bad thing and pretend nothing bad can happen”, she says.
What if probability is high? “He will approach it rationally and he will think it through rationally, but he won’t have an emotionally anxious attitude; he will lock that down.”
* * *
Ellie’s initial impressions of Rob were a combination of evil—to be fair, he was wearing fiery contact lenses and orthodontic fangs at the time—followed by weedy.
The first impression was from a photograph on the internet, the second was from seeing him in person.
“He was sitting on a chair at the State Cinema in the foyer, and he was wearing this leather jacket, and he was a bit hunched over, and I thought maybe he looked a little bit like a drug dealer.”
If someone told her then that she would marry him—“I would have laughed”.
“Not because he was unattractive or anything,” she hastens to add.
Ellie probably only thought he was small and weedy because she was expecting something more like an evil vampire, she explains.
“The way that I saw him was measured against my expectations. So maybe if I’d just met him with no expectations, he wouldn’t have looked weedy.”
I’m pretty sure Ellie just dug herself a hole, I’m not so sure if she managed to get out.
Jane is a social worker, but she started learning about forms of abuse long before her degree, first from her parents and then from her partner. I didn’t know her then. By the time we stumbled across each other, at a campground in the rain, she was a different person.
We met at Fortescue Bay a couple of years ago. Jane, her husband and their two young boys had moved here from Queensland fairly recently, and it was one of their first Tasmanian adventures. On the second day, they woke to such wild weather that by the afternoon they were thinking about cutting the trip short. The wind was constant, the rain kept turning to hail, and most of the other campers had already packed up. Then a couple with two kids showed up.
“I walked across the muddy camp ground and there you were,” she says, “just casually walking across, and I kind of looked twice because you had this baby on your back, and were carrying some gear, and I thought, ‘That can’t be right’.
“I approached you and… what did I say? Did I say, ‘What are you doing?!’ Because everyone was gone by then; the place was empty.
“You said something along the lines of, ‘Yeah, we’re just coming for two nights,’ I think that’s what you said. I said, ‘But you know there’s a severe weather warning?’ You said, ‘Yeah, but that should pass… the weather warning’s more out to sea’, and then you said, ‘If it gets too windy or dangerous and we’re heading to the car, we’ll come and let you know.’
“So that was enough for me. I thought, there’s this crazy young family setting up in this so it must be okay. But you were right, it did settle, I think it even settled that night.”
* * *
Jane is thirty-seven now. Her delicate features are sprinkled with freckles and her blonde hair is almost always pulled into a ponytail. She’s from the Gold Coast, but for some reason I think the bush suits her best.
Our families have spent a lot of time together since that camping trip, including a weekend at Mount Field, where we stayed in neighbouring cabins surrounded by stunning alpine views. There was a lot of time for the kids to get naked and wallow in mud, and a lot of time for us to talk. It was there that I started to realise Jane’s background is very different to the one that I’d imagined.
* * *
For starters, this devoted, conscientious, almost over-organised mother wasn’t brought up in a loving family. Her parents’ relationship was characterised by her mother’s manipulation and emotional blackmail and her father’s sudden outbursts of anger.
“My Dad couldn’t communicate emotion,” she says. Instead he’d just flip out and become extremely violent, and then pretend it never happened. “To this day I don’t know if he disassociated.”
Jane had a lot of friends, but nobody she was close to, for most of her school life. “I was very uncomfortable in myself, and self-conscious,” she says, which she hid behind outgoing behaviour.
She spent her first year of high school at one of the roughest schools on the Gold Coast. “You were either meek and mild and got beaten up, or you were big strong and tough and you didn’t,” she says.
“I learnt the habit of swearing and that became a survival mechanism.” The following year, Jane and her twin sister moved to a Catholic school, but the “survival mechanism” remained—“we were still foul-mouthed”, she says.
In grade eight, she started going out with a boy from school. Thanks to her dad, the relationship was over before it began.
“My dad found out and he said he’d shoot him if I didn’t break up with him. I was pretty scared of my dad… I was like, ‘Okay, bye’.” That was her first, and last, high school romance.
* * *
In her work, Jane examines an individual’s history and the patterns of behaviour they’ve been socialised with.
“They might have been raised with domestic violence and now they’re with a partner who perpetrates domestic violence,” she says.
If a child discloses parental abuse, one factor used to assess the likelihood of a recurrence is whether that parent was abused as a child.
But these patterns are much easier to identify from outside, and much harder to see from within.
Sam is unlike any other human being I know—assuming he’s human.
I question his origins not because I have a sudden desire to switch genres, but because of something he says to me during our interview.
“I love going to a party where I don’t really know anyone.”
Sam actually said this. What’s more, he meant it. For once, he wasn’t joking.
Sam doesn’t mind not knowing people at parties. Why? Because he has an extraordinary ability to get to know people and, better still, to make them laugh. The most beautiful part is that for him, it’s effortless. More than that, it’s fun.
When he was in his early twenties, Sam spent some time overseas with his friend Jack.
“We didn’t have any friends in Cambridge,” he says. “How do you make friends in a new town where you don’t know anyone? I saw two guys who looked like nice guys sitting on a table at a pub called, I think, The Eagle, and I just sat down and said, ‘Hey guys, we’re new in town, can we be friends?’ They went ‘yep’ and we had a great night, and last time I went to England—I hadn’t been for ten years—I met up with those guys again in Cambridge.”
See, everybody? It’s as simple as that.
* * *
Sam is a tall, gangly thirty-four year old with large-framed glasses and a scrubby beard. I interview him on our deck on a Thursday morning. We drink coffee and eat walnut shortbread while my boys run around the garden, hide “treasure” under the house, and consume way too much popcorn.
I can’t remember meeting Sam—I was probably distracted by his friend Jack, who I ended up dating for a while—but I can remember how eagerly he was welcomed into our circle of friends, and how dull our parties suddenly seemed without him.
His outgoing personality goes back as far as he can remember.
“I guess I was a confident kid,” he says. “I guess I was pretty funny, and I tried to be nice to everyone, and I tried to be inclusive and make friends with the kids who didn’t have all that many friends.”
Even in early primary school, he had genuine empathy for the loners, and acted on it. Or, in his words, invited “some weirdos” to his house.
Liam was one of them.
“I invited him to my house a couple of times and played with him at school a few times. He invited me to his birthday and I was the only one there. I think I was the only one invited, actually.”
* * *
Sam is a study in what happens when a person is smart and talented, but isn’t ambitious or studious.
School for him wasn’t about learning, or at least not the things he was supposed to be learning.
“I wasn’t studious and I’m still not… school was just a social thing, and I never did much work.”
It wasn’t that he wanted to stuff around, it was that he wanted to talk to people. But for some weird reason, our education system doesn’t particularly value that.
Sam did take one subject seriously: drama.
“I’d actually work hard at that… Yeah, I took that really seriously, actually. I think it was something I thought I was going to pursue at one point. I don’t know how. It’s easy, when you’re a kid, to talk about that.”
* * *
Sam never pursued acting—he’s not the pursuing type—but has been on a few ads, and a computer game parody that, depending on your definition of “YouTube sensation”, became a YouTube sensation.
Oh, and while he was procrastinating at uni, he and two friends had a weekly radio show.
The highlight of their show, for me at least, was a pre-recorded radio play based on a mega-drive game called “Streets of Rage”. They played Blaze Fielding, Axel Stone and Adam Hunter, and set the action on the mean streets of Hobart.
Each episode included a disconcertingly catchy rap song. One was a Live Aid appeal about turf warfare between two local takeaway shops. I can’t remember the details, but I remember it was hysterical. If only I could get a hold of the series I’d sell it and make millions.
I ask Ellie when she “you know, knew” with Rob.
It was soon after they first met. They were playing Risk and it was “very, very, fraught with tension”.
From Rob’s account of who made the first move, I know that Ellie’s ability to strategise wasn’t limited to boardgames.
“We were kind of flirting during that game,” she admits.
I ask who won.
“I won the game and I’ve never played Risk since and I refuse to, since I want to go out on a high,” she says defiantly.
For someone who loves boardgames, there are a lot of boardgames that Ellie refuses to play.
If she wins a game and thinks it was because of luck, she won’t play it again so that she can end on a high. Example: Risk.
If she loses a game and it frustrates her, she’ll vow never to play it again. Example: Go.
If, however, she wins because of skill, she will play it again. Example: Scrabble.
Now, where were we?
* * *
Despite the flirting, Ellie had reservations about Rob. But they met up a few more times, “and it just kind of hit fairly quickly in one of those meetings that yeah, this guy’s not bad”.
I ask Ellie if marriage terrified her, given the stakes and her tendency to focus on worst-case scenarios.
“I was really, really scared. A friend of mine was my bridesmaid—she was my only bridesmaid—and I said to her about a week beforehand, ‘Is it normal to just feel really petrified?’ and ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ And she said, ‘Yeah yeah, everyone feels that way.’
“I don’t know if everyone feels that way,” Ellie says, “but she was really good to say that because I think she knew me well enough to know that was just me freaking out—but I was scared.”
* * *
I ask her if they invited any random strangers to their wedding.
“There were some people we met a few weeks prior,” she says, laughing.
We hit it it off at an engagement party, met again for a board games night, and became last-minute guests at their wedding.
“We’ve never regretted it. We were like, ‘We’ve found our people… we need to have these people in our lives’.”
* * *
Ellie’s parents split up when she was just five years old. Her mum left; she and her elder brother stayed with their dad. Ellie visited her mum every second weekend, and saw her once a week for dinner, but it wasn’t enough.
“I wanted to live with her, but you can’t say that. Even as a five-year-old I knew you couldn’t say, to your parent who’s taking care of you full-time, ‘I don’t want to be with you’.”
Her dad could be warm and cuddly, but he was moody, and prone to giving “the silent treatment”. She loved him, but she hated coming home from her mum’s.
“I would come home and burst into tears because I didn’t want to leave her. That was every week, that separation; it was really hard.”
* * *
In high school, Ellie was kind of like the character in teen movies whose beauty is initially obscured by glass and metal, a lack of self worth and the absence of a hair straightener.
“I was really unattractive. I had the glasses, the braces, the frizzy hair, all of that.
“I was very anxious, very insecure, very socially awkward… I got glasses in primary school so it probably started then—about grade five—and it went through high school, so there were about, gosh, six really bad years there.
“I was bullied at school, and then at home I had mostly just Dad and Ned.”
She did have friends—a small group in primary school, a different one in high school, and another in college—but they were always changing.
“Every phase of my life I would move on from my friendship group; I wouldn’t keep it. Every time I went into a new institution was a chance to be a different person.”
Things started to improve in college. “It was a lot freer there. It’s much bigger, so you can find your own niche. I got contact lenses, I had more confidence; it was a better environment for me.”
The Ellie I interview has immaculate long hair, straightened and dyed dark, a small stature and big blue eyes.
I doubt she was ever unattractive, but it’s her word against mine, and I didn’t know her then, so I keep quiet.
Jane was “absolutely determined” from quite a young age that she would never get into a relationship with an abusive partner and would never get a divorce, she says.
Unfortunately, the relationship she committed to with absolute determination turned out to be the kind she was determined to avoid. The problem is, it took her a very long time to realise it.
“I was eighteen and I was preparing to go to art college… it was my absolute passion to be an artist, and a guy fell for me.
“I got to know him a bit more and I fell for him and he proposed to me.”
Jane and Brian were standing at the edge of a cliff face, which might have been romantic, but before he proposed he said, “I’m about to ask you a question and you can’t say no, otherwise I’ll jump over this cliff”.
She was terrified. All she could think was, “Don’t say no, say yes, say yes,” so when he asked if she would marry him, she said, “yes”.
And even when the cliff was gone, she didn’t change her mind. To eighteen-year-old Jane, breaking off a marriage proposal was akin to divorce.
“He wasn’t physically violent, because if he had been physically violent I would have identified it and walked away,” she says. “It was emotional control, it was psychological control, it was manipulation.”
There were demeaning comments and there was obsessive compulsive behaviour. Cups had to be perfectly aligned, pegs had to match, and Jane couldn’t laugh it off as a quirk, she had to take it very seriously.
He’d also say things like, “Brown is so boring, I’d really like you to be blonde, and that would excite me, I’d love you more if you were blonde”. But even if she complied, which she rarely had the money to do, he was never satisfied.
“Four weeks later… ‘You need to be red and if you can’t look after yourself and make yourself look pretty for me…’—it was just constant.”
Jane’s plans to attend art college were soon replaced by a job in his parents’ four wheel drive business, where she did the same work as him, but for less pay. It didn’t matter though, because he controlled all the money anyway.
We’ve talked about this before but I still don’t understand how Jane—beautiful, young, intelligent—didn’t walk away.
“I think I was just so confused and in so much emotional pain by then, that I didn’t think there was a way out… Although it was a de-facto relationship, we were engaged and I’d committed… that was as good as marriage and I didn’t want to break that.
“I think I was just hurting so much I couldn’t identify where the pain was coming from anymore,” she adds. “And I kept thinking there was something wrong with me. I think that stems back to childhood in the way I was never raised to have self-confidence or self identity or be confident in who I was or how I looked.
“I wasn’t even allowed to look in the mirror too long—if mum saw me she’d start calling me names, things like that, so I was never one of those girls who could plait new braids in my hair or practise doing makeup or anything like that.
“I suppose, in the end, he actually had me believing I wasn’t worth the air that I breathed without him,” she says.
* * *
Everything changed the night her father needed her to babysit her younger sister at his place.
Brian made her feel awful about it, it was almost as if she was leaving him.
“Anyway, through the night I actually woke up in absolute physical pain with this image in front of me of him in bed with another woman. And I couldn’t breathe or anything and I was really quite panicked.
“I took a while to get back to sleep and in the morning I woke up and I felt so guilty that I’d even had that image or even thought that of him.
“I decided to get my younger sister and say, ‘Hey, let’s go pick up Brian and we’ll go body boarding at the beach!’ just to try and rid myself of the guilt and make him feel like he’d not been abandoned. And then I got there and there was actually a woman with him, in the shower.
“I suppose I left him at that stage,” Jane says, but it didn’t last long. Brian kept denying anything happened, apologising, making excuses and begging her to come back.
“Then I just had this thought, what if I get to eighty and I regret I never gave him a second chance?”—and she went back.
In his thirty-four years, Sam has acquired numerous “best friends”. I ask him to list a few and it’s like hearing a collector talk about his most treasured pieces.
Henry is his earliest friend. They went to childcare together, saw each other almost every weekend through primary school, and walked to school together every day in high school. He no longer lives in Hobart but has “a lot of sentimental value… I hang on to him”, Sam says.
Then there’s Frankie, a quiet musical guy who is, in the very best sense of the word, “easy”. “Easy-going and just easy to hang around with—and really talented—I just really like him, he’s just.. easy.
“Michael Fletcher’s another best friend, because he’s hilarious, and I think we sort of bounce off each other pretty well.
“Benny Morrison is another best friend, because he’s just so enthusiastic… the thing I like about Benny Morrison is, we don’t really talk about that sort of thing, but I’m sure there are a lot of things where we would completely disagree politically, but it doesn’t matter.”
Despite regularly adding to his friend collection, Sam’s pretty good at catching up with the old ones, though his version of “catching up” isn’t necessarily the same as, say, Anita’s.
“Anita often says, ‘Did you catch up with whoever? What did you talk about?’
‘Oh, nothing, you know, but we had a great time, we had lots of laughs.’
‘What have they been doing?’
‘I don’t know actually.’
‘How’s the girlfriend?’
‘I don’t know, didn’t ask’.”
* * *
I know Sam is finishing his teaching degree part-time because Anita told me a while back. He came so close and is so capable, it would be crazy not to finish, she said. I wonder if he’s only doing it for Anita, and ask. The answer’s yes.
“I actually don’t really want to use it,” he says. He concedes it will be “a good thing to have” and says it will feel awesome if—when—he finishes, but it’s a painful means to an unnecessary end.
Sam tells me he’s only doing two subjects this semester, and is barely scraping by. This style of learning just isn’t him.
“Sometimes I go, ‘Oh that’s quite interesting’, but most of the time, I don’t.”
“I quite like studying in my own time, as in something that actually interests me, for its own sake—not to get a degree out of it.
“I like reading good books and I like researching things and learning about things, but I don’t necessarily like educational pedagogy because, who gives a shit?”
* * *
Sam has been working casually at a couple of childcare centres for a while now.
“I like it because you get paid to play with kids, pretty much. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but of all the ways to make money…”
“Isn’t it exhausting?” I ask.
It can be, he says.
“The way kids don’t get sick of things.
“You know, like you can do one little funny thing.
“You do it again. Like, they’ll give you a milkshake or a sandwich or something made out of sand and put it in your hands and then hit it out of your hands and you’ll go, ‘Oh no! My Sandwich!’
‘Okay! Put the sandwich in my hand… Oh no! You knocked it out of my hand! Oh no! My sandwich!’
‘Okay, give me that milkshake. Ooh, this looks like a nice milkshake. Oh no! My milkshake!’
“Yep. For an hour.”
Sam also works the occasional shift at a local bottle shop, and has worked in hospitality for years. He’s waited at some great restaurants, and says the thing he misses most is talking to the chefs.
“I’d say, ‘Oh, I got this pork neck’—or something—‘what should I do with it?’ And they’d give you a hundred things,” he says.
“I’m doing a cassoulet later on today,” he adds casually, “I confited the duck yesterday”.
It’s for dinner on Saturday night, with a guy he met through the bottle shop. Typical Sam.
Sam says he liked restaurant work best when it was quiet. At first I assume this is because you can slack off, but it’s not that at all.
“When you’re busy it’s hard to do a really good job and look after twenty-five tables at once to make everyone feel like they’ve had good service. But when you’re only looking after five tables you can go and chat to people and do a good job,” he says.Next →