Courtney Herron, a 25-year-old woman who grew up in Melbourne, was murdered in a ‘horrendous’ attack in Melbourne’s Royal Park last weekend. The explicit details of her murder have yet to be revealed, including the exact cause of her death, but they appear too horrific for widespread media coverage.
Her body was left in the park, near where Parkville, North Melbourne and Flemington meet, behind the infamous grey–white logs, which look somewhat ominously like enormous bones—an apparent attempt by her killer to hide his awful act. Nevertheless, Herron’s body was found by some Saturday morning dog walkers, and a man is now in custody for the crime of killing her.
These are the facts of Courtney Herron’s very public death, which has dominated the local media cycle in Melbourne since her body was discovered. There are other facts: like the fact that Herron had ‘no fixed address’, meaning at the time of her death she was in a transient living situation; or the fact that she had met her alleged murderer at a party several hours before her death, which is what led to him being apprehended by police. There’s also the fact that when Herron wasn’t couch surfing, she often slept rough in the very park where her body was eventually found.
These facts paint a picture of distressing vulnerability. Herron, already existing with tenuous access to safety, was murdered in one of the few places she frequently returned to for some semblance of refuge. Truly, we are never safe anywhere while we exist as women in a world full of men who want to kill us.
Here’s another fact about Herron’s murder: it happened in the exact place my fiancé and I walk our dog most weekends, where we almost walked him, off-lead, that very Saturday morning she was found. But, that day, our weekend laziness stopped us, and another dog walker found Herron’s body and reported her death to the police.
When I heard about Herron’s murder, I told some people this fact about the location where her body was recovered. We all reflected soberly on how awful it is that Herron died in that park, and how awful it would be to find her body. Then I reflected again: on Herron’s death, and on the deaths of all the women we publicly eulogise when they are publicly murdered in the public spaces in our city. And I wondered what the fuck these deaths have to do with me—with us.
There’s something distinctly uncomfortable about the performance of public grief when a murder like Herron’s happens. Since the shocking rape and murder of Jill Meagher in 2012, our community has made a habit of performing a cyclical ritual of anguish, anger, prostrated candlelit mourning and then forgetting. Our hearts are in the right place but, whatever our intentions, the performative (and often very selective) ritual is beginning to rankle.
At the centre of this response is a worthy cause: a striving for women’s right to the same unquestioned safety and invulnerability most men enjoy in public and in private. And, whether they wanted to be or not, the Meaghers and their appalling trauma were the sparks for this local movement to recognise a very particular, almost mythological brand of male violence against women.
The victim, Jill, was a bright young white woman attacked and killed on her way home from a night out with her friends; her husband, Tom, is an eloquent and introspective young widower who has continued the fight long after Meagher’s killer was caught and jailed. Meagher’s murder was a horror story come to life, one our city reflects on again and again when another woman is murdered in a public space in what some call a ‘monster’ killing—the murder of a woman, walking alone, attacked by a strange man who appears to have selected her for death at random.
Against the backdrop of Meagher’s death, central Brunswick—the busy inner-North suburb where she was murdered—was struggling through an epidemic of violent and petty crime. Months before, just down the road from the site of Meagher’s murder, a young woman had her throat slashed at Brunswick train station while she waited for her early-morning commute. She dragged herself, bloodied and desperate, down Albert Street, knocking on doors until a resident answered and helped her call an ambulance.
These incidents invade not just our psyches but also our very physical beings. They affect the way we move through the world as women; the way we interact with strange men who walk too close behind us in the dark; the decision whether to cross the park for the shorter route home or walk around its edge for the longer but more exposed journey. They remind us that we do not have the freedom to stumble home alone down familiar streets after a drink with friends, or invite a friendly-seeming man back to our safe refuge, because we cannot control men’s insatiable desire to exert their foul dominance over us—dark superpowers that seem only to evolve cruelly as the discourse around men’s behaviour escalates.
All of this explains why we twist the deaths of these women, meaningless in their indefensible brutality, to stand for so much in our own lives and our increasingly fragile communities. It explains why we ‘keep vigil’, and why we only do so when the death looms so large in the collective consciousness. She looked like my daughter. I walk that route home every day. It could’ve been me. She’s just like us.
Which brings us back to Courtney, who in many ways is just like us, and yet the very particular facts of her case make her unlike the other women who have been so publicly murdered and mourned in Melbourne before. Herron was one of many Victorian women who experienced homelessness, substance use disorders, mental health issues and associated vulnerabilities. In the months before she was murdered, she was trying desperately to get on Victoria’s notorious public housing waiting list, which consists of over 100,000 would-be residents and grows by around 500 people per week.
Victorian women and children are asking for help from homelessness services in greater numbers than ever before—and, it’s the state which has the highest demand for homelessness services, with a 6 per cent increase in 2018, compared to the rest of the country which remained steady. Herron, who struggled with ice and heroin addiction, needed the assistance of the Department of Health and Human Services’ public housing to enter a methadone treatment program, for which patients are required to hold a stable address.
Herron was not simply a woman, just like any other Melbournian woman, who was the victim of a cruel and unfortunate monster killing—the kind for which we churn out op-eds wondering why we can’t be safe walking down the street on our regular routes home. She was also a young woman who was failed so comprehensively by the state that she was forced into a position of extreme vulnerability. Her murder is tragic no matter which way you view it, but her friends and family crying out that better social welfare might have saved her make a valid point: no-one should be made so vulnerable by their state government’s lack of care that they’re forced to make a public park their safe haven.
Herron’s horrific murder has put a spotlight on the particular vulnerabilities of Victoria’s homeless and rough-sleeping population—an issue which Premier Daniel Andrews does not have a stellar track record on in terms of investment or follow-through. But more can be done to agitate for change than 48 hours of media attention. Consider that just down the road from where Herron’s body was found, a substantial block of vacant public housing remains fenced-off and dormant after months of inactivity—a bone of contention between the State Government and social advocacy groups who worry about the land divestment to private interests.
All of this makes our self-centred mourning of these women all the more explicit. Those thousands of us who show up at these candlelight vigils, who leave flowers to rot on the spots where these women were murdered don’t mourn Courtney Herron because we miss her, or even because we wish to remember her life. We mourn because we are scared we might one day become her. We vigil for women like Herron to direct our terror at the unknown into some collective action that we hope counts for. . . something.
But Herron’s murder is not about us; it’s not even explicitly about the intolerable yet immovable patriarchal privilege that allows men to continue to publicly murder women and dump our bodies out of sight as if they are trash. It’s not for us to reflect on how these murders affect us—not when our energy is better spent reflecting on the circumstances Herron endured, which are lived all over Melbourne by other vulnerable women.
And perhaps that’s where we should be directing the considerable engagement, social energy and sheer force of will it takes to vigil for yet another dead woman so dutifully, as if it’s all we can do to mark their lives and the tragic circumstances of their deaths. Because these vigils are not for the dead; they’re for us. And a better use of our collective action might be to agitate for change, not to sit in fear and reflection in a dimlylit park, wondering if we’re next to die.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance journalist and cultural critic from Melbourne. She tweets from @mdixonsmith.