Anna Krien has written one of those books that are startling, endlessly compelling and evocative. This is up there with recent works by David Marr (Dark Victory with Marian Wilkinson) and Chloe Hooper (The Tall Man). Like those, this is an insightful penetration into the Australian psyche. This is a most important study of Australia in the 21st century.
The reader learns the verdict of the criminal trial at the heart of this book in the first pages. Knowing ‘the end’ does not put a strain on Krien’s narrative. For those involved, the incidents around the case will never end. Despite being a book of in depth research, personal reflection and astute reporting there is a narrative force.
There are a few elements of Australian society that are above critique, the Digger fable, Bradman and until recently, the bronzed sporing legend. Unsurprisingly, all are dominated by white males. All have been revered. While the Digger image and Bradman remain (relatively above examination) symbols of unbridled nationalism, the myriad of sporting scandals of the sporting world since the 1990s have allowed the place of the mythical demi-gods of the football codes to be assessed anew. While salary cap, race and drunken childlike escapades have made for many media headlines, it is the scandals involving the treatment of women, often involving sexual abuse, that have seen the demi-gods of the football codes fall from grace.
There is no larger sporting beast in Australian than the AFL. Prominent in every state and territory, states show that the female support for the code is greater than any other. As elegantly portrayed by Krien, actual participation of females from grass roots to increasingly to the playing fields and the board room suggest AFL could not exist in its glory without the active support of women. This code, more than any other, has a debt to women. For all this, Krien’s research into how women are treated by the AFL pack is alarming.
As much as this is a sporting book, it is a book of justice or at least the illusion to justice. Krien’s first person reflective voice is a powerful tool. She is open, honest to a fault. As she points out the book is not anti-sport. For it wasn’t even anti-male.
The trial of a young country footballer for the alleged rape of a young women is handled with care and unfaltering compassion. Krien tries to balance the legal expectations of the presumption of innocence against what one contributor describes as the presumption of a lie. Krien’s insight into the working of the ‘code of silence’ and the boys club that inherently sexual is balanced against the pedestal the footballers are placed upon. The question remains: what makes the young men act like this?
The moral dilemma for Krien is how close she comes to the family of the accused. They feel like the victims. With the compliant absent, giving evidence in a closed court via video link and despite Krien’s attempts to contact the compliant, there is never a moment you don’t feel for her. The question arises, if a person believes they are raped, how does this change with a not guilty verdict? As Krien points out, there is no innocent verdict. Further, how can a claim of sexual abuse be balanced against the media attention and subsequent feeling that the mud sticks in this type of accusation more than any other?
The depth of study by Krien into the media reaction to sexual abuse claims, often hyperbolic when involving young white men who happen to be sport stars is conflicted by how the legal system, beginning with the initial police investigation, is as flawed as the media representations.
The statistics are horrific: 12% of sexual abuse cases conclude with a verdict of guilty. Krien’s wrestles with the desire for an objective justice for the complainant and the accused. Her depiction of the accused is heartfelt and shows him with remorse. For me this was a compelling element: the accused is unable to show remorse as it would be assessed as an admission of guilt. Is it a normal reaction to feel empathy and even sorry for another person and how they were treated?
This is a book of class and intelligence. This is more than a criminal trial book or a study of sex and footy, it is a microscopic examination of a moral and legal dilemma. A truly profound piece of work.