Fruitful Anxiety and Grey Areas: Helen Garner and Anna Krien

Due to a technical failure, there will be no video of last night’s session with Anna Krien and Helen Garner. Luckily, we were there with a notebook and pen … please enjoy our account of last night’s stellar event.

A packed crowd gathered at the Wheeler Centre last night to listen to a charged meeting of minds – Helen Garner, Australia’s foremost writer of social reportage and Anna Krien, who seems to be her heir apparent. They were discussing Anna Krien’s new book, Night Games, on football culture and murky attitudes to women in this world of men, framed by a rape trial that posed its own questions about sex, power and the potential ‘grey area’ between rape and consent.

Garner was generous in her attention to and engagement with the book; the evening was a window onto a fascinating conversation between writers who clearly admire each other’s work.

‘One of the things I love about this book is its anxiety – it’s a wonderfully fruitful anxiety,’ opened Garner. ‘I don’t think anybody, especially a woman, could write a book on this subject without severe anxiety. You give it full measure. I approve of that and I admire it.’

‘It’s a wonderful book. It’s studded with little bursts of dialogue and eye-popping anecdotes that are threaded right through it. There are constantly shifting waves of empathy and revulsion and bewilderment and pity and rage. All sorts of powerful feelings go surging through this book.’

Garner said that she and Krien had spoken about the book before it was published.

A woman in a world of men

‘There’s a lot of analytical beams going onto the material from your eye, but a lot of it is turned on yourself, which I also greatly admire,’ she said.

‘You ask: What was I doing here? What was any woman doing in that world of men?

‘What were you doing there?’

The book begins with Melbourne waking up to the news that two Collingwood players had been questioned by the sexual assault crimes squad, the morning after the AFL Grand Final. From there, it follows the trial of a junior footballer – a trial linked to the same event, on the same evening.

‘I get curiously close to the defendant,’ said Krien. ‘We actually, bizarrely enough, had a mutual friend. And I don’t really know if that turned out to be that great.’

‘For you?’ asked Garner.

‘For him.’

‘I guess I had an in,’ Krien said. ‘But at the same time, it was a difficult in, because I felt like the more I had access to him, the less I had access to her.’

Garner, of course, has been in this situation before. ‘The hardest thing with this kind of work, in my experience, is that you get access to one side and the other side slams the door,’ she reflected. ‘If it’s known – that you had access.’

‘It’s a huge stretch of imagination required – you’ve got to enlarge your imagination enormously – in a trial like this, to try to encompass both sides. I think you did pretty well, with this, but it’s hard to do.’

The gap is the complainant

‘There’s a gap in this book, and the gap is the complainant,’ said Krien. ‘I never actually managed to speak to her. I tried, quite desperately, to contact her on numerous occasions. And I really struggled with that. Because I had access to the defendant’s suffering, I had access to his family, and they were under enormous pressure. And I kept looking at the empty seats behind the prosecution, where there was no family, there were no friends, and I never saw her. She gave evidence in closed court.’

‘So I had nothing to compare Justin Dyer*’s suffering with. I didn’t want to put myself in her place. I didn’t want to use a younger version of me and my feelings when I was her age, trying to bounce off that instead.’

‘Why?’ asked Garner.

‘It would be disrespectful to her.’

‘I provided versions of what could have happened to her, but at the same time, it was only speculation. It was only imagination.’

’The grey zone between rape and consent’

‘A large part of the book is talking about that place which a lot of people would say doesn’t exist, but I think it does exist – and that’s the grey zone between rape and consent,’ said Krien.

‘The more I explored my experience, the more I spoke to other people, the more I felt affirmed that there is a grey zone between those two things. And I wondered if Sarah Wesley*, as I called her, found herself in that grey zone on that evening.’

‘I think you handled that problem with delicacy, and great sympathy,’ said Garner.

‘Everything people said about her kind of moved me in a strange way. People said things like she was smiling. And I thought: Yeah, when you’re in a horrible situation and you want to get out, you’re trying to keep your dignity and get out that door. And you might have a smile on your face. It might say, Well, I’m falling apart inside but I’m not going to show you that I’m falling apart inside. I’m just going to quietly walk out this door.

‘I thought you gave full value to the pride of somebody who’s just been appallingly treated – or, as you crudely and rightly put it – treated like shit.’

A woman in the world of men

‘What was she doing in the world of men?’ asked Garner. ‘Using the word of men in quote marks, because your book does tackle the question of whether football is a world of men.’

Krien recounted the story of a 21-year-old girl who had ‘hooked up with a guy at a bar and gotten on well with him, probably pashed him’ and then swapped numbers. He was a VFL player.

‘I don’t even know if she knew that,’ said Krien. ‘From what I could gather, she was not interested in footballers. She was interested in this guy, though.’

She met up with him on Grand Final night – met him at a nighclub in South Melbourne. Drank, danced, went home with him. So far, so normal.

‘She went home with this guy and it turned out his housemate was home, and his housemate was a Collingwood player. And another Collingwood player was there – Dayne Beams – and a few other guys. And I guess this is when the night becomes more sinister.’

‘From here, it’s a little bit hearsay, but she met them, then she went to the bedroom of the guy she intended to go home with. And the other guys entered the bedroom whilst they were having sex. And then from here on in, this is where all the events become he said, they said; he said, she said.’

‘They say that she was up for it; she says she wasn’t. The policewoman at the trial says that she said she felt “compelled” to have sex with Dayne Beams – so she felt duty-bound, not forced but duty-bound. And then she says that she said no to the others.’

‘These were the complaints she made to police, but these weren’t where the charges were laid. The charges were laid where Justin Dyer, after seeing her come out of the bedroom, offered to go get a cab with her, and then he had sex with her – and he says that she had sex with him – in an alleyway.’

‘So, she was intending to hook up with a guy she’d met three weeks prior. And then suddenly – three, five guys later – she’s going home with someone else altogether. And by midday the next day, she was in the police station.’

A hierarchy of men

‘ One thing you said about Justin and the woman in the case is that they were two outsiders,’ observed Garner. ‘What did you mean by that?’

‘It was a really strange evening,’ said Krien. ‘And if you took a step back from the fact that there were some really serious complaints and charges being laid, it was a kind of ridiculous drunk evening.’

‘A ridiculous drunken night that all kept returning to that townhouse in South Melbourne. Justin Dyer knew Dayne Beams, but he didn’t really know the others. A lot of the witnesses didn’t know Justin and they didn’t know Sarah.’

‘There’s an incredible hierarchy of men in this book,’ said Garner. ‘There’s the football stars and their lawyer.’

‘That’s one of the reasons my ears perked up at this particular case,’ said Krien. ‘Because when there was someone to finally take the charges, it wasn’t who we in the media expected to see taking the charges for that evening.’

‘There was a police leak and there was this idea that something had happened in the bedroom, and there was this idea that John McCarthy and Dayne Beams were being interviewed and questioned. And then it came out that Justin was being charged, and that it wasn’t the bedroom episode that was going to be going to court – it was what happened in that alleyway.’

‘And then my ears pricked up because David Galbally QC, who’s Collingwood’s legal counsel, was defending Justin Dyer. And I had no idea how Justin Dyer could afford this QC. And Justin Dyer had nothing to do with Collingwood. He played for a VFL team, which was Coburg.’

’Dick whipped’

‘Why did you feel so much for Justin Dyer?’ asked Garner.

‘I was concerned that he was the scapegoat. At the same time, he had charges to answer.’

Krien said that she was hoping to coin a new term, ‘dick whipped’, for when men are persuaded into doing something to please their mates.

‘We’re talking about men behaving brutishly in packs here,’ said Garner, adding that Sarah Wesley’s experience was about male bonding – and even competition – not about her. ‘It’s not about the woman.’

‘Imagine having a good time, thinking this guy likes you,’ reflected Krien, ‘and then the slow, sobering realisation that this has nothing to do with you.’

‘This book is about men treating women like shit and women letting themselves be treated like shit. And that strange glacial space in between those two things.’

‘No one seemed to come out of that trial any smarter, any more enlightened about how these things happen.’

A strange gap in events

Krien talked about her frustration with the court system and how rape cases are handled. ‘The truth is, there are very few convictions in these cases, because all you need is a tiny element of doubt and you can’t convict.’

She said she was gobsmacked watching the pre-trial talk between the lawyers and judge about what could and couldn’t be discussed during the trial. It seemed bewildering that the incident in the bedroom that night, with Sarah and the men she had sex with, had to be omitted, leaving a strange gap in the events of the evening.

‘Obviously what happened in that house precipitated what happened in that alley,’ she said. ‘I wonder if the jury members, if they read my book, would feel cheated.’

Krien wondered whether Justin’s case went to trial because it fit the stereotype of what rape looks like – it happened in an alleyway. The numerous legal reforms designed to make rape all-encompassing haven’t translated to the courtroom, she said. Juries still think of rape as something that happens beside the train tracks, or similar.

‘That’s why I’ve wondered whether courts are the best places to try these kinds of rape cases.’

Putting it behind him

The evening ended with an audience question about how the two main protagonists of the book are going now – Justin Dyer, the boy accused of (but not charged with) rape and Sarah Wesley, the complainant.

Krien reported that Justin is now doing well, with a long-term girlfriend and a job.

‘I also know that he doesn’t want this book to come out,’ she said.

‘Why?’ asked Garner.

‘It’s behind him now.’

‘He thinks,’ snorted Garner. Then she paused. ‘Actually, that gives me a shot of rage.’

* Names have been changed.

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