Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Book review: The Waterlow Killings, Pamela Burton (2012)

Although the book is subtitled 'A Portrait of a Family Tragedy', it might also be called something along the lines of "case study of decades of policy failure". As is mentioned in the book, people whose mental illness goes untreated are no more likely than anyone else living in the community to hurt another person, but in the case of Anthony Waterlow, who stabbed his father Nick and sister Chloe to death in November 2009, two decades of living with schizophrenia did indeed lead to a family tragedy. Behind her highly competent and in fact gripping roll-out of the facts leading up to the murders and the ensuing court case, author Burton whispers her own conclusion. While in cases belonging to the fairly distant past, such as that of New Zealander Janet Frame (1924 - 2004), the state took away too much of the individual's power and discretion, leading to unwarranted imprisonment in utterly dysfunctional mental institutions, in the case of Anthony Waterlow, who clearly gamed the system and effectively played the mental health professionals who talked to him, leading them to hold back from forcing him to go into care where he could be reliably medicated, the pendulum appears to have swung too far the other way.

Burton brings the system into relief with a ton of detailed research and scads of interviews with survivors and professionals living in both Australia - where art curator Nick Waterlow died - and England - where he was born into a family of some substance. But this story could be that of any family. It reminds me in some ways of my own family; a cousin of mine has done a lot of research into the Caldicotts, my father's mother's lineage, and there I also find the three sibling horrors of destitution, death, and mental illness. While 1-in-100 people will personally tangle with schizophrenia at some time in their lives, 1-in-5 people will have to personally deal with a mental illness of some sort. Despite the numbers there is still a heavy burden of shame associated with mental illness, and this fact serves to keep stories of personal struggle out of the public eye, which militates to withhold pressure from the governments that must properly fund its treatment and management, leaving so many to end up in prisons instead of in care.

Stepping back, then, you can justifiably say that society failed the family, and especially Chloe's husband and three children. We are all complicit in the drama because if we knew more about how mental illness is handled in contemporary Australia we would be vocally outraged, and the state machinery would be compelled to makes the changes that are needed to stop people like Nick and Chloe from dying. Reading the book you are frustrated by Anthony's unawareness of his illness and by his serial refusal to accept the antipsychotic medication that would have given him the clarity to better deal with his illness. But schizophrenia is a devil of a disease, and the person living with it may have no basis in objective reality to rely on, and so may not be able to make such decisions themselves.

For those who know the Sydney streets and suburbs where the book plays out this is an especially gripping story. Burton has worked hard to fill in the gaps that lie between words in the news headlines, and has created a dramatic and compelling narrative that will keep you turning the pages. She brings to life in words many people involved in the story, especially Nick, whose successful career in the art world contrasts so strongly with Anthony's impotent destitution. But there's also Chloe and her other brother Luke, Nick's wife Romy with the story of her death from cancer, and Nick's London-based mother Barbara. These people are at the centre of the circle of those who were affected deeply by Anthony's dysfunctional behaviour and by the failure of the authorities to properly manage his illness.

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