I am reading books about how to murder my family.
I blame Australian author SL Lim. They started it. About two, maybe three weeks ago, I was idly Googling books about murdering close family relations, when I came across Revenge: Murder in Three Parts. Lim’s novel tells the story of a truly vile brother and his wonderfully awful sister whose relationship fatally plays out in Malaysia and Australia.
I then read How to Kill Your Family, a novel by Irish author Bella Mackie. The book has an entertainingly cold-hearted, female narrator and some very satisfying murder set-ups, one of which involves a sauna.
Before anyone calls 000, let me be clear. I do not want to kill my family. I love my family. I love the fact of my family, that I belong to a compact unit of three: my husband, my daughter and me. I never thought I would have such a life.
And now here I am, clearing my Safari cache history every day. How did it come to this?
It feels a bit trite to complain about lockdown. Like a young Albus Dumbledore, I am completely on board with making sacrifices for the greater good. I have my daily mantra of gratitude: I am incredibly lucky to live with my family on the traditional lands of the Wodi Wodi people of the Dharawal nation, between the sea and the forest. This is absolutely, one thousand per cent true and also does nothing to stop me from feeling how I am feeling.
It was different last year. The 2020 lockdowns inspired a sense of dread in me, but also an urgency, a drive to actively do something. I took to blogging daily updates on what governments around the world were doing for to help their creative industries survive COVID’s impacts. It was my small, statistical contribution to the campaign to support artists through the lockdown. I started publishing articles on Arts Hub about artist wellbeing in isolation. Basically, I tried to research and write myself and my colleagues into an attitude of hope.
As someone who has lived with clinical depression all my adult life, I quickly recognised the grey fog that has accompanied this lockdown for me. It’s a qualitatively different despair, lacking 2020’s energising immediacy. I have collated no data, pitched no articles. I occasionally (read: at least once a week) take to my bed in the middle of the day and sleep, out cold, for an hour, sometimes two, leaving my husband to conduct all the ad hoc IT support for our daughter’s homeschooling. My brain and body need to role-play non-existence, a brief fantasy of escape.
So don’t worry. I am too depressed to actually kill my family. Besides, all I really want is an existential break. I have always loved walking out the door and heading in a spontaneous direction. I revel in the sensation that no one knows exactly where I am.
Before COVID I used to travel occasionally for work. I complained about the time away from home, but secretly loved eating breakfast cereal for dinner and strolling about a different city, a stranger, not identifiable to anyone around me. The deliciousness of being stalwartly present and completely unknown. No one glancing in my direction, no one calling my name.
Some of the earliest extant written works of literature—The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, the story of Demeter and Persephone—speak to this desire for exile and return. The hero leaves, but they come back.
Such stories finely balance the freedom of banishment and its potential for self-annihilation. I only ever loved those work trips because they were finite. What is the sound of one hand clapping? It’s me, back from a solitary walk, sitting on a hotel bed and tapping out an SMS good night, unaware that my husband and daughter are already asleep.
I don’t want to murder my family. I feel I should make that explicit. When I first googled ‘how to murder my family’ I was not looking for tips, but for reviews of Bella Mackie’s novel. The search results included a chilling reading list of research articles about domestic violence.
I had already read Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do, a compelling investigation of coercive control, and Amani Haydar’s The Mother Wound, a brilliant memoir about the murder of Haydar’s mother by Haydar’s father. Now I started to read my way across the Internet about the ‘shadow pandemic’ to COVID.
In Statistical Bulletin 28 by The Australian Institute of Criminology, I read that at least one in ten women in a relationship had experienced domestic violence during the COVID lockdowns in 2020. On the Counting Dead Women Australia Facebook page, maintained by researchers of Destroy the Joint, I read that 56 women died due to violence in 2020. That’s more than one woman per week. In The Guardian, I stared at the pictures of some of these women. Young women, old women. Beautiful, all of them. Ordinary, every single one. All I could think, once I got past the shock of the real, was that they all looked like they should still be alive.
It’s not just living by the sea and forest that makes me lucky during this pandemic. I am lucky because the absence of abuse from my life is the norm, rather than a brief respite from usual proceedings. I speak curtly about crumbs in the margarine; my daughter makes fun of how I chew; my husband reminds me it’s my job to clean out the vacuum because of his allergies. This irritation, this low-level passive aggressiveness: this is what I am most profoundly grateful for during lockdown. I know that if COVID had happened when I was a kid, I might have not been so lucky.
Author of How to Kill Your Family, Bella Mackie, describes her novel’s ruthless, cold-hearted female protagonist as a ‘fantasy.’ ‘No woman is allowed to be like this,’ Mackie told The Irish Times. ‘You might as well just enjoy the voice.’
Mackie explained that she had wanted to create a female character who was ‘not weak and sad in a corner being molested and hurt by a man.’ Mackie may have been making an offhand comment, but for the record, a woman ‘in a corner being molested and hurt by a man’ should never, ever be called weak. As I type these words, a woman somewhere within a fifty-kilometre radius of my house is withdrawing a little bit of cash each week in small amounts, so her partner won’t notice. A woman is applying concealer to a bruise: she doesn’t care about her partner’s reputation, but she wants to protect her kids. A woman is sitting still and taking it because she knows it is the only way to stay alive.
I took Mackie’s advice and enjoyed the voice of the protagonist in How to Kill Your Family. But ultimately I preferred Lim’s novel, Revenge: Murder in Three Parts. Lim embraces the deep magic of fiction as a space where justice can be done cosmically and existentially, unbound by time or place.
I realise that Revenge: Murder in Three Parts is not a true story, but after I finished it, I felt that the world was just a little more right than it had been before. Perhaps a mythic reckoning had been made. Philosopher John Dewey wrote that an artistic experience should not simply cease, but be consummated. After finishing a book, the reader should feel branded, the story seared indelibly into their own.
For me, How to Kill Your Family, for all its wit and intelligence, petered out into the everyday ordinariness of an unjust world. But Revenge: Murder in Three Parts placed me in a position of muscular readiness. Lim had primed me to act, to do something. The only question was, what?
I love a checklist. I like to work my way down, line by line, gaining a sense of achievement simply by defrosting the chicken (tick!). I am particularly enamoured of the to-do list provided by Australian criminologists Marie Segrave and Kate Fitz-Gibbon in an article for The Guardian. Segrave and Fitz-Gibbon set out five steps which, if implemented, would change everything. They call for: funding for immediate safety; perpetrator programs that work; specialist police; legal consistency; and national accountability for every bruise, every threat, every woman made physically and emotionally homeless by violence.
I am not a psychopathic genius like Mackie’s protagonist, nor a righteous avenger like Lim’s. Nevertheless, I will do what I can with my available weapons: a computer keyboard and a somewhat intermittent Internet connection. I have started sending emails to parliamentarians. I provide them with helpful to-do lists and recommendations for further reading. Even if I only manage to send one or two emails per week, I am keeping pace and faith with the women who cannot.
Jackie Bailey is a professional writer and researcher in social impact and cultural equity. Her debut autofiction novel, The Eulogy, will be published by Hardie Grant Books in June 2022.
Free National Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Helplines
1800RESPECT: 24-hour national sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line: 1800 737 732.
InTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence Helpline: 1800 755 988
Men’s Referral Service (operated by No To Violence): 1300 766 491.
Boxall, H., A. Morgan & R. Brown. (2020) The prevalence of domestic violence among women during the COVID-19 pandemic, Statistical Bulletin no.28, Canberra: Australian Institude of Criminology.
Fitz-Gibbon, K. & M. Segrave. (2021) ‘A woman is still being killed each week in Australia. We need federal leadership,’ The Guardian 01/03/2021.
Haydar, A. (2021) The Mother Wound, Sydney: Pan Macmillan.
Hill, J. (2019) See What You Made Me Do, Melbourne: Black Inc.
Ingle, R. (2021) ‘Bella Mackie “It’s a fantasy, no woman is allowed to be like this anyway”,’ The Irish Times, 24/07/2021.
Lim, S.L. (2020) Revenge: Murder in Three Parts, Melbourne: Transit Lounge.
Mackie, B. (2021) How to Kill Your Family, London: The Borough Press.