Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004) by Helen Garner is promoted on its front cover as “a true story of death, grief and the law”. It is not a journalistic or legal report. It is not a first-hand account of the life of Joe Cinque. Helen Garner wrote about how she became involved in a fascinating law case where a man was killed by his girlfriend with Rohypnol and heroin and all who knew it was going to happen did nothing to stop it. Garner was drawn to the story and then she was drawn to Mrs Cinque and her grief. She told it as she saw it in the context of her own life. Joe Cinque’s Consolation is one person’s perspective of truth. The book is a testimony (or testimonio) to Garner’s life at the time of the case and a testimony to the case itself. However, it is also Mrs Cinque’s testimony of her grief, as told through Garner.
The book quickly works to establish itself as a true story. After the declaration of it being so on the front cover, the opening paragraph of the tale provides an actual place and date (Garner 2004, p.4), thereby creating a truthful tone. The transcript of the phone call Anu Singh made to the 000 emergency number follows (pp.4-8), providing further authenticity that the tale to be told will be true and factual.
However, using the emotive word ‘hysterical’ (p.4) within the first paragraph signals that the book may have a significant slant. The word “hysterical” is then used a second time (p.10) and the words “frantic”, “shriek”, “rambling incoherently” and “distraught” (pp.9-10) are also added to make a heady mix of emotional confusion. It is immediately clear that this book will be a fine blend of fact and emotion. Sullivan describes the book as “a blend of reportage and personal testimony” (2005). But how is it testimony?
Beverley describes testimonio as “told in the first person by a narrator who is also the real protagonist or witness of the events he or she recounts, and whose unit of narration is usually a ‘life’ or a significant life experience” (1989, p.12-13). On the basis of this definition it is difficult to see Joe Cinque’s Consolation as a testimony. Helen Garner was merely a witness of the trials and since she was not a part of the life or death of Joe Cinque she cannot provide a testimony to his life nor the event of his death.
Yet this may have been Garner’s intention. She introduces the book with “This is the story of how I got to know him” (p.3) even though she had never met Joe Cinque. Through the murder trials Garner became friends with the mother who grieved his loss. Garner started as an outside observer at the trials but quickly became intricately entwined in the tale through her allegiance with the Cinque family. Garner may not have been able to provide a testimony to Joe Cinque’s life but she was able to give his mother’s testimony.
The book is told from Garner’s own perspective and thus prejudice. The second chapter explains why she is writing the book, associating her feelings of being “a woman at the end of my tether” (p.13) with the possible motivations for murder. However, her prejudice towards the women are given with a portrayal of how she imagined they appeared at the dinner party that preceded the killing: “glossy students in their twenties, flashing their brilliant teeth and lashing about their manes of hair” (p.12). The book therefore provides a testimony to Helen Garner’s issues with women who, in Garner’s view, behave inappropriately.
In The First Stone (1995) Garner is critical of two women who accused a professor of sexual harassment. They cried foul in a situation where Garner claims she would not. In Joe Cinque’s Consolation she is critical of a woman who, according to the court, killed in a state of mental incapacity. She is also critical of the people who failed to prevent it from happening. This time Garner is looking for what state of mind it takes for a woman to kill, relating it to the anguish she felt over her third marriage break-up (Garner 2004, p.13), “my marriage had left me humiliated and angry” (Garner 2004, p.25), and trying to find the point where the line is crossed, “I needed to find out if anything made them different to me: whether I could trust myself to keep the lid on the vengeful, punitive force that was within me” (p.25). The book is about the journey of Garner’s investigation into Joe’s death. “The shape of this story shows us the kinds of journey, physical, spiritual and psychological, that Garner had to undertake to get to the heart of the matter” (Sari 2004, p.292). It is a testimony to this journey.
The journey illustrates Garner’s anguished mental state at a time of crossroads. Instead of finding empathy for a woman who had killed a man, she found it in Mrs Cinque, the mother of the victim. In Mrs Cinque she found grief expressed overtly and passionately, another woman at the end of her tether. Hence, the book became the grieving mother’s perspective over all others, effectively excluding other perspectives that could have been present.
Keenan, a Queensland judge’s associate, and others in the legal profession are concerned with the manner in which Garner narrated the law cases:
I find Garner’s decision to once again write a bestseller about a good man, a bad woman, and the law that let her get away with it, irresponsible and infuriating. But Garner may, of course, write what she pleases. What is of concern from a socio-legal perspective is society’s eagerness to share her view. (Keenan 2006)
This is pointing out some of the issues with considering Joe Cinque’s Consolation as a testimony in whole, particularly in the legal sense. The testimony must be viewed in the context of Garner’s perspective, which Garner is consistently at pains to present. The prejudices and assumptions at the start of the book may rile the reader but Garner carefully and skilfully recognises their existence. Towards the end of the book Garner writes after her discussion with Justice Crispin that “I felt the self-righteous anger seeping out of me” (Garner 2004, p.317) which in some way dissipates the prejudices held in the beginning. The concern Keenan holds is that since it is Garner’s view that is being read that all are persuaded to agree with her opinion by being seduced with the old ‘good versus evil’ story.
Maher, McCulloch and Pickering (2004), writing in a law journal, are similarly critical. They raise alarm at the polarised opposites Garner portrays in a “victim/offender dichotomy [that] bears little resemblance to real world complexities” (p.234). Garner did recognise some of these complexities after her conversation with Justice Crispin but in the main the narration did have a fairy tale feel to it. Maher, McCulloch and Pickering compare it to a “morality play script” (p.234). On one hand Joe Cinque was painted as a drug-free, sweet and innocent boy and on the other hand Anu Singh appeared to be a spoilt princess. The dichotomy is evident in Garner’s reaction to the first photograph she examines of the pair, “Anu Singh raised my girl-hackles in a bristle. Joe Cinque provoked a blur of warmth” (Garner 2004, p.18).
Maher, McCulloch and Pickering (2004) also show how Garner could be perceived as “sexualizing the female offender” (pp.235-236) and claim that “Garner works hard to avoid a direct or informed engagement with mental state in her account of the trial of Singh” (p.237). They conclude the article by stating that “Garner’s own drama…blinds her to the legitimate interests in justice for others besides the victim” (p.238). These may all be legitimate concerns but throughout the book Garner underscores the narration with her personal context, making it clear that it is her perspective and that she didn’t have the whole story. For instance, she agonised about whether Anu Singh had any sense of atonement, “For all we know, she might have spent the years of her prison sentence in moral agony” (Garner 2004, p.290). Whatever the arguments about Garner’s methods of simplifying the narration to good versus evil, it is still her perspective. Does this mean it is also testimony? Yes it does. It is testimony that has been enveloped into an overly simplified fairytale narrative.
For decades there have been arguments about what constitutes an authentic testimony. During a process of interviewing Holocaust survivors historians and psychoanalysts argued over the legitimacy of the witness accounts. One “woman reported four chimneys going up in flames and exploding” (Oliver 2000, p.31) when in fact only one exploded. An historian wanted the witness to be deemed unreliable whereas the psychoanalysts believed that empirical facts are just a small component of the witnessing process. The law needs to judge on the basis of objective material as much as possible whereas victims and victims’ families would like their stories to be subjective, to give the victim depth and personality. Garner, having sided with the Cinques, knew this could only be achieved through narration.
Commentaries about Joe Cinque’s Consolation have a mixed reaction to the narrative style. As mentioned earlier Sullivan says it was “a blend of reportage and personal testimony” (2005); Meagher calls it “a novel…using the word in the same sense that Truman Capote use it in describing In Cold Blood: a non-fiction novel” (2005, p.53) and Sari says it “reads like a gripping novel” (2005, p.292). All three of these statements demonstrate Garner’s skills as a narrator, but does she tell her own testimony?
According to Beverley, it is important to distinguish narrative testimony from testimony for data:
The word testimonio translates literally as testimony, as in the act of testifying or bearing witness in a legal or religious sense. That connotation is important because it distinguishes testimonio from simply recorded participant narrative, as in the case of “oral history." In oral history it is the intentionality of the recorder—usually a social scientist—that is dominant, and the resulting text is in some sense "data." In testimonio, by contrast, it is the intentionality of the narrator that is paramount. The situation of narration in testimonio has to involve an urgency to communicate, a problem of repression, poverty, subalternity, imprisonment, struggle for survival, and so on, implicated in the act of narration itself. The position of the reader of testimonio is akin to that of a jury member in a courtroom. (Beverley 1989, p.14)
Garner is the lens through whom Mrs Cinque’s testimony or ‘oral history’ is filtered. Since the trials Garner attended were only in front of a judge (p.31) Garner is acting like the jury member (see Beverley quote above) on behalf of the reader. The reader is barely permitted to form his or her own opinion due to this extra layer in the tale. In court Mrs Cinque was vocally demonstrative at times, shouting at the video of Anu Singh’s charging (p.36), weeping loudly at the sentencing (p.69) and loudly condemning Singh to hell as she descended the stairs from the court (p.70). Ms Cinque found in Garner, using Beverley’s term, “an interlocutor” (p.15). Beverley claims the interlocutor of a testimonio “is an intellectual, often a journalist or a writer” (p.15). Beverley also believes that “the narrator in testimonio is one that must be representative of a social class or group” (p15). Garner is making representations on behalf of the victim’s family, a much marginalised and forgotten group, except perhaps briefly under the media spotlight. Even though Garner narrates the story it is Mrs Cinque’s voice that gives it emotion and meaning. It is a testimony to the plight of victims’ families through Mrs Cinque’s trauma.
Laub states that, “Bearing witness to trauma is, in fact, a process that includes the listener. For the testimonial process to take place there needs to be a bonding, the intimate and total presence of an other – in the position of one who hears. Testimonies are not monologues; they cannot take place in solitude” (1992, pp.70-71). Helen Garner is the listener. She bonded with Mrs Cinque and thus was able to represent her trauma.
Tougaw says that testimony “…provides trauma with its missing narrative (beginnings, endings, befores, durings, and afters), with conventions all its own to organize and explain what defies social conventions” (2002, p. 171 in Perry 2009, p.3). The circumstances surrounding Joe Cinque’s death definitely “defies social conventions”. Singh was convicted of manslaughter, rather than murder, on the grounds of diminished responsibility due to mental illness. Garner attempted to give the drama context, the “beginnings, endings, befores, durings, and afters”, by providing as much background as possible, yet it was rather one sided due to the refusal of Anu Singh and Madhavi Rao to be interviewed and with scant detail obtained from their families or elsewhere. Garner was an outsider looking in. She did not experience the trauma herself. Despite the references to her broken marriage Garner was not a participant in the trauma.
Joe Cinque’s Consolation is not what Beverley refers to as a “testimonial novel” (1989, p.25) since Garner “is a real person who continues living and acting in a real social history that also continues” (ibid). The book is explicitly written in the context of Garner’s personal life but also with a consciousness about the public outcry, “long months of ferocious attacks” (Garner 2004, p.13) to The First Stone. There may be some conversations written as dialogue that were not recorded verbatim, such as the one with the journalist who suggested the story in the first place (pp.12-13), but overall the book is written to be a truthful account, as stated on the front cover.
At the same time that Garner was writing of Joe Cinque’s Consolation Rachel Hennessy, who attended school with Anu Singh (Ellis 2008 p.10), wrote a fictionalised account (not a testimonial novel) of Anu Singh’s school and university days that “uses elements of a true story for a fictional one” (Hennessy, 2008, p.169). It has been depicted as being “little beyond superficial observations” and “a surprisingly flat novel” (Stubbings 2008). I found, however, that it did provide some insight into the possible mindsets of the two girls accused of murdering Joe Cinque, particularly Madhavi Rao, whose view the fictitious Lucy narrated. There have also been a play performed, Criminology, (Usher 2007) and a feature film produced, The Dinner Party (Curry, 2008), based on the killing of Joe Cinque. The play only calls the character who becomes the victim, The Boyfriend, and throughout the play he does not utter a word (Usher 2007). This is what Helen Garner was fighting. She wanted to give the Cinques a voice and prevent the perpetrator from being the centre of the story instead of the victim. A fictionalised account would not provide a testimony.
Joe Cinque’s Consolation attempts to be a testimony of Joe Cinque’s life but is actually a testimony on three main fronts. Firstly, it is a testimony of Mrs Cinque’s grief as filtered by Garner. Secondly, Garner provides a testimony as a personal witness of the trials and thirdly, the binding of her life to the narration of this tale is a testimony to her own life and mental state at the time. It is not the whole story and it holds a lot of prejudices and assumptions, but don’t all testimonies?
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Usher R 2007 ‘Joe Cinque's alteration: remaking a tragic story’ in The Age, 8 August 2007, retrieved 29 August 2009 < http://www.theage.com.au/news/entertainment/joe-cinques-alteration-remaking-a-tragic-story/2007/08/07/1186252702671.html>