The Age

Thursday 18 May 2000

The fatal attraction

By JACQUELYNNE WILLCOX BAILEY
The Age (Melbourne)

WHAT is it about women lawyers (and librarians, nurses and even Bible-study teachers) that makes them seek out criminals for romance or friendship? Women like Christine Drummond, a Melbourne lawyer who lived with her much younger former client in a "personal relationship" where he abused her emotionally and physically. She even hid him from police while he was on the run for murder, but eventually gave him up when she felt her own life at risk.

I have asked many women like Drummond "why?", and they mumble cliches like "low self-esteem", finding "real love" in the "depths of despair", and "wanting to be wanted". Which is just as well. For these once-wanted men want more than most.

Cliches aside, I say it has more to do with ego. His and hers. They are men who believe they have the right to wrong, were misunderstood when they did, or, as I have heard many times, were victims themselves of a corrupt legal system. They are women who, with breath-taking confidence, believe it is they alone who can turn monsters into worthy men. They are "saviors" who boast of their ability to rescue otherwise evil men; "martyrs" who subjugate their personal and professional lives to their man's cause; "sufferers for love" who believe real love necessitates great pain; and "power freaks" who relish their capacity to make their man's jail sentence either comfortable or difficult.

"We're non-judgmental," one prisoner-wedded wife explained.

But both she and her like-minded sister had made dangerous judgments. These two brides-to-be met their prisoner-paramours in the perverse equivalent of a grammar school formal: the prison Bible-study class. One groom was serving a life sentence for the murder of his wife. The other prisoner - a mostly mild-mannered fraudster - went on to murder his first wife, the Bible-study teaching sister, who'd left her "boring" law-abiding husband and grown children to marry the fraudster during his day leave. Nine months later - three days after the fraudster's release from prison, during a period one might call their honeymoon - the "harmless" parolee bashed his new wife to death with a hammer.

"I'm not saying Jim was right when he killed Avril," the sister told me. "But she probably provoked him a bit."

Law-abiding Avril's act of provocation (if one needs to search for one) may have been her attempt to telephone a parole officer to report her new husband's frequent breaches of his conditions.

"I know Avril would forgive me," fraudster-cum-murderer told me in the protection wing of a maximum-security prison. And if she could, I have no doubt she would. Her sister certainly had. "Poor Jim," she said, as she handed me a macabre memento of her brother-in-law's brief marriage to her sister: a blood-stained paperback book Avril lay on as she died from Jim's hammer blows. "It was the pressure." (The book, a wedding gift from a fellow Congregationalist, was entitled An Act of Marriage.)

Indeed The Pressure assumes the mantle of apologia for dream lovers during their strange, strained relationships. Still-living sister used it to excuse her own prisoner-husband's brutal attack on her. "Poor Martin. It was the pressure. He had a flashback to Vietnam."

That was why, she reasoned, about a year after his release on parole, Martin tortured her with guns and knives and then forced her to photograph her blood-stained hand prints, which dotted the kitchen and sitting-room floors. Martin had used similar dissociative excuses to explain killing his first wife, the mother of his four young children.

"I just found myself stabbing and stabbing her until I ran out of energy. My psychiatrist says it was a flashback," he told me.

Flashbacks, low self-esteem, bad childhoods: they're all on the long list of reasons women like Martin's wife and, I imagine, Drummond use to explain away the wickedness of men they say they love; men who have murdered or maimed women they have professed to love - or still love. As if love has anything to do with it. Mostly though, the women mean, "He didn't know me then. I would have saved him."

Denial, wilful blindness, thrill-seeking - call it what you will. Dream lovers rarely acknowledge their man's crime; it was before their time and therefore not part of their reality. The man transmogrified by love is the man who matters; the one now enrolled in anger-management classes, group therapy and Bible study. Reborn, thanks to the love of a good woman.

"He was a real animal until he met me," a 40-something lawyer told me of her 25-year-old real animal husband. That was before he got out of prison, beat her violently, stole her money and - fortunately, I say - left her for a much younger woman.

Curiously, they'd met when she said she "stumbled across him" while visiting another client in prison. This highly cultured woman with three degrees expected me to believe her when she said her young man (jailed for slashing the throat of a prostitute) was the most exciting man she'd ever met.

That was why she risked all on return to her chambers that day, telephoned the prison with a lie that he was her client, and made an appointment for a professional visit. Those were the days of a more lenient approach to lawyer-prisoner relationships. When they got together, she told me, they had "the most wonderful sex".

"Don't get me wrong," she said. "Even though we didn't really know each other, we did. It wasn't cheap."

Indeed not. Not for the prison authorities at least. Once they woke to the game, they installed glass windows into the formerly opaque interview-room walls. Such is her legacy.

If only it were as easy as opening windows to protect these women from themselves and evil men.

Jacquelynne Willcox Bailey is the author of Dream Lovers: women who marry men behind bars (Wakefield Press, 1997).

E-mail: jwillcoxbailey@vtown.com.au

Copyright The Age Company Ltd 2000.