The deadly pressure of affairs

Crown prosecutor Todd Fuller QC suggested Gerard Baden-Clay (centre) wanted to leave his wife Allison (left) for his ...

Crown prosecutor Todd Fuller QC suggested Gerard Baden-Clay (centre) wanted to leave his wife Allison (left) for his long-time mistress Toni McHugh(right). Photo: Supplied

COMMENT

There’s a murder trial that has been transfixing the city I live in. It is the trial of Gerard Baden-Clay, who was yesterday found guilty of murdering his wife, Allison. He strangled her one night in an act of unforgiveable cruelty and detachment. It’s a tragic story, particularly for the three young daughters who lost their mother, and really, also their father. Their lives, completely normal one day, disintegrated overnight when they woke to find their mother missing and their father sporting suspicious scratches on his face. Allison was never seen alive again and there was no chance to say goodbye. Her body was found in a creek in a serene area of acreages relatively close to their home.

The case speaks of the power that certain façades can hold over us. Murder trials are not all that uncommon, but our extreme interest in the details of this particular case relate to how perfect the family appeared to be. The couple was so good-looking and well to do and we were fascinated to learn that all was not as it seemed in the marriage.

Allison and Gerard Baden-Clay, with their three children.

Allison and Gerard Baden-Clay, with their three children. Photo: Supplied

In his sentencing remarks, Justice John Byrne noted that while the murder was not premeditated, it was violent, appearing to be the outcome of pressure getting all too much for Baden-Clay.

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It goes without saying that Baden-Clay's actions were cruel and inexcusable. It's also interesting to note that the 'pressure' that Justice Byrne spoke of seems to come from his insistence on keeping up a façade. At some point, the identity the husband had been inhabiting no longer fit him. He was not a happily married, successful business owner. In reality, he was pursuing a long, conflicted affair outside his marriage, and there had been others, while the business he owned was floundering in debt.

Had Gerard Baden-Clay confronted the gap between himself and his identity, might that terrible evening have been avoided? From the evidence presented at the trial, it sounds like he had been facing escalating tensions between his reality and his façade with what appears to be incredible moments of denial. For one, there was his self-imposed deadline to leave one woman for another with no clear intention of following through. Then there was the work conference where both his wife and girlfriend were to come face to face for the first time, something he’d inexplicably done nothing to prevent.

Allison Baden-Clay.

Allison Baden-Clay. Photo: Supplied

His identity, so incongruent with reality, must have felt heavier by the day and as the Judge said, ultimately built up a kind of explosive pressure in him. Why is it so difficult to confront yourself and your decisions, not to necessarily change them, but to even live authentically with them?

Maybe because identity becomes a kind of suffering and the suffering is hard to let go. You choose suffering because it is at least familiar, even though you are forgoing the possibility of relief. But to sit with this suffering requires an ever increasing level of cognitive dissonance.  

And from the very moment you lie to yourself, you know this moment of self-sabotage has an unavoidable conclusion. What’s worse is that you may not even be able to guarantee that you’ll “never do it again”. It takes so much more than awareness to change.

Gerard Baden-Clay at his wife Allison's funeral.

Gerard Baden-Clay at his wife Allison's funeral. Photo: Michelle Smith

Not so long ago I was in an interesting conversation with a man that turned into an invitation for drinks. I must have sensed something unusual in the invitation because I was prompted to ask him about his intentions. It was then he told me he was married and that he was interested in an affair.

He had his reasons, he explained. The marriage was now a crumbling façade. It provided sufficient structure to house his children and mark the efforts of his wife but that was the extent of its integrity. An affair, he assured me, would be the best of himself on offer.

But you see, I said, I’m on your wife’s side in this story. Life is messy, relationships are complicated, true connection is important and who knows what I’d do in your situation, I admitted. But generally speaking, I’m on the wife’s side in these sorts of situations.

Gerard and Allison Baden-Clay.

Gerard and Allison Baden-Clay. Photo: Supplied

It was then a surprisingly honest conversation for someone so intent on denial. Because he told me the story of his last affair. How it had survived a number of years wedged between family commitments and appointments with patients. How it had brought him great joy, like he hadn’t thought he could experience. But that he had ended it when his wife discovered its existence.

This sounds very painful for all involved, I told him. He agreed it had been and was momentarily filled with guilt and despair. Could there be other options, I wondered. Might he not try separation and whatever opportunities that may offer for joy or aloneness but without the additional pain of façade? He was adamant, he could never be divorced, it was beyond his identity. And yet that last affair had been heart-breaking, surely the next would be too.

We didn’t have that drink, we never spoke again. But I startled myself with the compassion I felt towards him. We are, so many of us, half-humans. Crouched down inside the false existence of neoliberalism; we are disengaged and self-loathing, urgently chasing near constant distraction from our own minds.

So disconnected from the full humanity of others that at its worst you can dehumanise someone enough to kill them, as Baden-Clay did. But even at a less pathological level, it means failing to connect with the fullness not only of others but of ourselves. And when we cannot be present we cannot possibly let go. The façade that haunts us remains in place.