Given a choice between a documentary and a chick flick, I will choose the documentary most everytime. Even as an earlier reader, I was drawn more to biographies and memoirs than to Harlequin. That was long before my reporting days, but my fascination with people’s stories has not waned. I have learned a great deal of history through the stories of those who lived it. Hardly surprising then that my first two books were memoirs.
So when I am not curled up with a novel, (I’m currently reading Southernmost by Silas House & highly recommend it), I am most likely engrossed in a documentary. Recently, I watched a B-grade documentary about a murder that took place in Christchurch, New Zealand. It is a poorly produced documentary and several times I almost turned it off, but something kept drawing me along.
The murder took place in 1954, when two schoolgirls, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, hatched a plan to murder Pauline’s mother. The girls, 15, had become fast friends mid-way through the school year. By every account, they became infatuated with each other. Obsessed. There was no indication that their relationship was of a sexual nature but it possessed an intensity far more common within the confines of a sexual relationship. Juliet came from a wealthy family. Her father was a physicist who helped develop the hydrogen bomb. He was in New Zealand teaching at university. Her mother was English, a beautiful woman who was having a fairly open affair, one that led to the couple’s ultimate divorce and his leaving New Zealand. Juliet would be sent off to live with an aunt in Africa, a move neither she nor Pauline felt they could endure.
It was Juliet’s mother who suggested that perhaps Pauline could go with Juliet, live with her, a notion that Pauline’s mother nixed straightaway. Upset that Pauline’s mother would not allow the girls to be together, they hatched a plan. Pauline put a brick in a stocking and stuck it in her school bag. Then the girls invited Pauline’s mother to go for a walk with them along a popular path in Christchurch. While out on the walk, Juliet dropped an unusual looking rock from her pocket while walking just ahead of Pauline and her mother. The girls pointed out the rock and when Pauline’s mother bent over to study it further, Pauline pulled out the brick and whacked her mother. Being young, the girls figured one whack would kill her, then Pauline, being orphaned would be allowed to live with Juliet wherever she was sent off too.
Only the one whack didn’t work. It took 45 hits with the brick and strangulation before the undoubtedly horrified mother died. Juliet took over the bludgeoning at one point. The murder was brutal, to say the least. The girls and the dead mother were a bloody mess, literally. When they were sure Pauline’s mother was dead, the girls ran to a nearby tea house and reported that Pauline’s mother had fallen and struck her head. (This was 1954, apparently the girls knew nothing about the forensics of a crime). It didn’t take police long to figure out what had happened and to arrest both girls.
Throughout the subsequent trial, the girls stood by one another, giggling in the courtroom, writing notes to each other, holding hands coming and going. It was clear to Juliet’s father that Juliet had no idea of the seriousness of the charges against the girls. Reports from the trial indicate that the girls showed little remorse or grief over what they had done.
They had several things going for them, however: They were white. They were girls. They were young. And at least one of them came from a wealthy and somewhat highly regarded family.
They each served five years in what amounts to juvenile detention. By age 21, they were released and under New Zealand law, they were allowed to change their names.
In essence and in every sense of the term, they were given a clean slate.
Juliet Hulme changed her name to Anne Perry.
If that name seems familiar to you, it’s likely because you have seen her name on your local library shelf. Or in WalMart. Or Target. Or your local bookstore.
Anne Perry is an international bestselling author of detective fiction. She is the creator behind the William Monk and Thomas Pitt series. She has written 40 books that have sold in the multi-millions. She writes extensively fictional crime tales.
The connection between Anne Perry, the crime novelist, and Juliet Hulme, the murderer, was a passing reference in the documentary I watched, but it shocked me nonetheless.
I immediately texted some of my writer friends to see if they knew of this connection. None did.
I admit to feeling conflicted by this revelation. The writing business is hard. Making a living at it is something that few of my writer friends are able to do. I’ve never been able to. And as a former cop reporter, I know that matricide is a pretty unusual murder. And even when it does happen, it is almost always committed by sons killing their mothers, not daughters. Granted this was Pauline’s mother, not Juliet’s, but that the girls were co-conspirators in this crime was without question. They were full participants.
For a week, I pondered what it mean that these girls spent only 5 years locked up and then were released to live a life as if nothing had ever happened. Was that a good thing? Or a bad thing? Had Anne Perry, the crime writer, literally gotten away with murder? Had Pauline? She earned a library degree and became a teacher.
Or was it a good thing that both girls had only spent 5 years in detention and then were given the opportunity to make something good of their lives? And what about that? Would that have happened if they had been US citizens and the murder took place say in Texas? What if they had been poor and black? What chance then would they have had?
While listening to a podcast with Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, I was struck by a comment Stevenson made: “In America we treat our rich and guilty better than our poor and innocent.”
Lord God Almighty, ain’t that the Gospel truth?
If you have any question about that, may I recommend the most excellent documentary, True Conviction.
This documentary follows along as three men in Texas seek to help men like they were – men wrongfully convicted for crimes they didn’t commit. Each spent their youth locked away for crimes they didn’t do.
Did you know that in 2016, 166 people were exonerated for crimes they didn’t commit here in the US? Most serve a minimum of 15 years.
Put in prison for crimes they didn’t do. Rapes they didn’t commit. Murders they didn’t do. One man spent 40 years locked up for a robbery of a $150 that he claimed to never have stolen. Even if he had stolen $150, 40 years is not a just sentence. It is cruel.
I still haven’t reconciled in my mind whether it is a right or good thing that Juliet Hulme aka Anne Perry was allowed to serve only 5 years for a brutal murder and then go on to make millions by bankrolling her sociopathic tendencies into a lucrative career. In some ways, I think it is right to give people a chance to lead a creative and redemptive life, even when they have done heinous acts. On the other hand, I know if Anne Perry had come from a black family, a poor family, she would never have been given that chance.
As my husband and I drove on the outskirts of Sisters, Oregon, I was struck once again by the beauty of life and overwhelmed by its injustices. “I feel like I’ve been living a lie my entire life,” I said. “I feel like I bought into a system of faith that was designed to exploit women and people of color. I feel like I bought into a government system that is not just. There are no real checks and balances in our governing system. And I wholeheartedly bought into the whole capitalism thing. All of this has cost me too much. It cost me my father. It cost me my childhood. It’s costing all of us too much.”
And there, as we rushed past the peak of Mt. Washington and Three-Finger Jack and towering Ponderosa Pines, I grieved in that deep silent way for all that the lies have cost me, for all the lies are costing migrant families and military families and, really, all of us right now.
Every single day.
What, Lord, pray do tell, does it mean to seek justice in the midst of all of these daily wrongdoings?
What, friend, are your thoughts? How are you doing lately?
Karen Spears Zacharias is author CHRISTIAN BEND (Mercer University Press).