How Rosie Batty has become a symbol of grace in the face of harrowing loss

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Fiona Harari

"I feel very uncomfortable that I have become this very well-known figure through the death of my son": Rosie Batty.

"I feel very uncomfortable that I have become this very well-known figure through the death of my son": Rosie Batty. Photo: Thom Rigney

She is driving down a familiar rural road, just beyond the primary school that stopped being a reassuring reference point nine months ago, when she spots the stray dog. A young kelpie-cross is wandering on the edge of traffic, and she scoops it into the back of her tired station-wagon, phones the pup's owner and promises to reunite them shortly.

If Luke hadn't died in such an extreme way, I'd just be one of those 'family violence' people no one listens to. 

On the drive there, past expansive lawns and endless front fences, she wonders aloud, only half-joking, if she will manage the handover incognito. She has not given her name over the phone, and with her unmade-up face shielded by sunglasses, she is an anonymous saviour as she pulls into the stranger's driveway and returns the dog to its family.

Part of the family: Rosie with her father, Geoff, stepmother, Josephine, and Luke, in 2012.

Part of the family: Rosie with her father, Geoff, stepmother, Josephine, and Luke, in 2012. Photo: courtesy of Rosie Batty

Warm and gregarious, she stands beside her car for several minutes and banters amicably about canine behaviour. Then, just before she prepares to leave, the dog owner leans towards her. Without any introduction, she gently squeezes the rescuer's arm, her eyes soften, and with a look infused with warmth and sadness, says to her: "And you are Rosie."

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This time last year, Rosie Batty lived a life of comparative obscurity. A single mother with a solid group of friends, she ran a home-based business helping kids make teddy bears at birthday parties, and built her hours around her only child. Then, as summer faded into the orderliness of the early school year, her son Luke, an 11-year-old who fancied himself as an astronaut, was murdered by his father at cricket practice.

Rosie Batty's loss became a nation's horror. A boy killed by his parent on a sports field on a late summer's day, surrounded by children, seemed to defy the lore of love. But Luke Batty's mother found a way to reassert humanity into her family's story. After the longest night, she emerged to the first day of life without her son and addressed the media waiting in her dead-end street on Melbourne's fringe. "My name is Rosie," she began. "I am the mother of Luke."

Indelible image: Artist Jacqui Clark sent this portrait of Luke to Rosie after seeing her story on television.

Indelible image: Artist Jacqui Clark sent this portrait of Luke to Rosie after seeing her story on television. Photo: courtesy of Rosie Batty

She spoke for 24 minutes. Her hair flat, her voice low, she looked spent. Her very presence seemed counter-intuitive. In a world of constant news, distraught families often appeal publicly for help to solve a crime. But rarely is such early, raw grief televised when there is nothing left to prevent.

Despite years of cajoling authorities and living in a state of hyper-vigilance caused by her ex-partner Greg Anderson's erratic behaviour, Batty's inner circle had become the latest victim of family violence. What made her words so powerful was absence of anger and abundance of compassion. "No one loved Luke more than Greg, his father. No one loved Luke more than me. We both loved him," she said. "I want to tell everybody that family violence happens to everybody, no matter how nice your house is, no matter how intelligent you are."

The public tragedy that robbed Rosie Batty of a mother-son future wedged her into a nation's consciousness. The prime minister phoned with his condolences. Journalists choked at interviews, even as she remained comparatively composed. Strangers deluged her with flowers and gifts. Police officers pooled funds to send her to a day spa.

As she grieved, she assumed an unexpected eminence. Offers to speak about family violence flowed, and she accepted many invitations as she sought to ease the void of childlessness. Teary teenage girls told her she was an inspiration. She became a quiz question. She was nominated for awards.

As she attempted to get on with the rest of her life, she began a dual existence of grief and glory. Fame found her at the most terrible time. Today, she is the woman everyone wants to know - but no one wants to be.

Her own life began on the other side of the world. The eldest of three children, she was raised on a farm in the English East Midlands county of Nottinghamshire, where she developed a love of animals. There was little time, however, to form lasting happy memories; when Batty was six, her mother died of peritonitis. No one explained her mother's absence until after the funeral. The only one of her siblings to understand that their mother would never return (her brother Robert was four, and James was one), she felt alone in her confusion and grief.

"[Dad] is a really good man, but he is of that generation where they are not physically demonstrative," Batty says now, nearly 50 years later. "There was no, 'I love you, you will be okay.' I was in this big, rambling farmhouse where you are afraid to go to bed at night. There was no one to share fear with." It is a warm spring morning as she sits beside a bay window at her home in Tyabb, a comfortable community of acreages on the less exclusive side of the Mornington Peninsula. In the paddock behind her still swimming pool, two donkeys chomp at the vast expanse of green.

After her mother's death, Batty was helped through childhood by nannies and especially by her maternal grandmother Gertrude, a supportive, resilient woman who would live to 100. When Batty was in her early teens, her father remarried. Still, her mother's absence was difficult to overcome. "I have not really formed permanent relations with anybody; I have never been married and neither have my two other brothers. I think it really traumatises you from having key relationships because of that fear that they are going to leave you."

When school ended, she had no particular plan and completed a secretarial course almost by default. She worked as a bank clerk, and as a nanny in Austria. Then, at 24, keen to see more of life, she bought an around-the-world plane ticket. In 1986, she landed in Australia.

"She was lots of fun," says Janet Miller, then a television set-decorator who met Batty holidaying at Cape Tribulation in December that year and became her first Australian friend. "I have always thought of her as a high achiever ... there are so many times when you think, 'Oh, how would Rosie do this?' She is someone who always gets it right."

Through Miller, Batty found her way to Melbourne. An intended week-long stay became four months as she settled into a happy round of parties, somehow finding herself at the 40th birthday celebration of Young Talent Time host Johnny Young.

After travelling further before returning to the UK in 1987, she was back in Australia in 1988 on a de facto visa, living in Melbourne's inner city and suburbia before eventually buying a home in the verdant Dandenong Ranges. From temporary secretarial work, she moved into sales and marketing in the IT and telco industries, working for five years in Sydney before deciding that she missed the Dandenongs and her friends.

But when she moved back to Victoria in 2000, she felt isolated: she was now single, and many of her mates had become parents. "I was told by a friend of mine ... 'Maybe you should be a bit less strong to be more attractive to men.' I was like, 'How can you be something different to what you are?' " Feeling displaced and discontented, she bumped into an old colleague, Greg Anderson. They had once worked at the same recruitment company and had been in a relationship for two years. But they had split up eight years previously and had not seen each other since.

"I felt lonely, isolated, and probably rekindled the relationship that I never should have rekindled - and got pregnant accidentally." Now in her early 40s and busy working, she had never planned to have a child, given her lifelong fear of loss. "But my friends said, 'You know what, Rosie, this is the best thing that could have happened to you, because you'd never have got pregnant otherwise.' "

Luke was born in mid-2002. He was a much-loved baby, an unexpected delight to his newly single mother. Batty's relationship with Anderson did not endure; his behaviour had begun to change and he became increasingly aggressive and, at times, violent. By the time Luke was two, Anderson had threatened to kill Batty and her menagerie of donkeys, goats, sheep and dogs, and she took out the first of many intervention orders against him.

Now living in Tyabb, wanting Luke to know his father but at the same time fearful of him, Batty became depressed and found her way to a course run by a family violence network. "It was the first time I had met other women who had experienced violence," she says, "and it was like a common bond that went beyond words." Inspired, she became a full-time student. "It was the only thing I felt emotionally able to cope with, because of what I was going through with Greg." She graduated with a diploma in community welfare, but she could not apply for the usual entry-level jobs, as they often entailed shift work. Other jobs followed, but nothing too inspiring; she was in her 40s and well-qualified, but she was also a single mother, lived a long way out of Melbourne, and was straight-talking, strong-willed and feisty. To land a job, it seemed, "you learnt to dumb yourself down".

As she wrestled with the reality of starting yet another sales job, cold-calling people just as she had done 20 years earlier, she remained hyper-vigilant in her private life. Anderson was strong and aggressive and prone to jumping to terrible conclusions, yet Batty remained adamant that Luke should have a relationship with both his parents. "For me, it's really important a child should know his father," she would later say at her son's inquest. "I said to myself, 'This is a journey. I'll keep doing things that feel right until they [don't] feel right any more.' "

But what felt right kept changing as surely as Anderson's erratic behaviour, which was often cruel and directed at his former partner. "Greg never did anything to hurt Luke," she says now. "Yes, he hurt Luke emotionally because of how he treated me, but he never hit him, he never used derogatory language to him." If anything, he had very high standards for his son. "I remember him saying to Luke, 'You don't use your fists, you use your words.' "

Anderson was tall and solid, and two years older than Batty. She remembers a time when he was well-dressed and someone she could have fun with, but a video of a police interview with him in January 2013 shows an intimidating, verbally aggressive man who refuses to co-operate with authorities. Within a few months, Luke would return home reporting that his father had shown him a knife and told him, "This could be the one to end it all."

On Wednesday, February 12 this year, Anderson appeared at Luke's afternoon cricket practice. There were so many reasons he should not have been there, among them four warrants for his arrest, plus an intervention order that restricted his contact with his son to weekend matches. Now here he was, at training and on a weekday.

When practice ended, Luke asked to spend time with his dad, whom he had hardly seen in months. As father and son played in the nets, an eight-year-old boy saw Anderson raise a cricket bat over his right shoulder. He did not see it come down repeatedly, or the ensuing knife attack that ended Luke's life. Anderson was shot by police and died in hospital from gunshot and self-inflicted knife wounds.

Somewhere in the confusion of the hours that followed, Rosie Batty had a terrible moment of clarity. "I thought, 'Oh my God, I am one of those people; I have joined that bloody club that some of the worst things in Australia have happened to.' "

In death, Luke, too, became a tragic statistic, one of the 27 Australian children, on average, killed each year by a parent, according to the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria. Over decades, hundreds of surviving parents have been forced to confront life without their children. But only one voice has resonated like Batty's.

"Everyone in their own community will name the [local] woman or child who has been the victim of abuse or who has been murdered," says anti-violence campaigner Paul Linossier, CEO of Our Watch. "But everyone across the country in conversation names Rosie."

In a comparatively short period, Luke's mother has driven significant social change. In the time it takes to gestate a life, the "Rosie Batty factor", as Victoria's police commissioner Ken Lay has described it, has led to widespread discussion of domestic violence in the lead-up to the Victorian election. Those nine months of comparatively rapid progress, however, have also been nine long months without a son. Time has assumed a strange elasticity. The longer Luke has been gone, the more his mother has been lauded for the attention she has brought to family violence. In September, she addressed a Senate inquiry. She has signed a book deal and someone wants to paint her for the Archibald Prize. She has lunched with the Packers, and has been introduced to countless celebrities she hasn't always heard of.

But it was on a recent weekday that the duality of Batty's new life came into sharpest focus. On Tuesday, October 28, she spent the day at the coroner's court, listening at her son's inquest as an arresting officer spoke of Anderson's intimidating manner ("I didn't want to be in the room with him alone, put it that way") and an experienced and decorated detective tearfully apologised for having closed Luke's file, believing Anderson would not hurt him: "I wake up every morning thinking about Luke and his mother, and every night I can feel her pain." As that harrowing day ended, she was surrounded by celebrities and politicians - and received a standing ovation and a minute-long applause as she was named Victoria's Australian of the Year.

After all these years, she may well have found her calling. A gifted communicator, she is outgoing and forthright. Yet all this acknowledgement, for which she is grateful, has also left her bewildered and somewhat uneasy. "If I had got this recognition from being a singer and finally hit the limelight, you would think, 'Wow, what great opportunities.' But I feel very uncomfortable that I have become this very well-known figure through the death of my son. How can you embrace it and enjoy it when you are in the most difficult time of your life?"

And how can you ignore it, when nothing else has so focused community discussion on a long-taboo subject? As Batty also says: "If Luke hadn't died in such an extreme way, I would just be another one of those 'family violence people' who no one listens to."

In some ways, Rosie Batty is the antithesis of the grieving mother, bright where you expect darkness, open and lively where she might have been downcast and restrained. She chats and laughs readily, wears vibrant colours and continues to seek good from a personal tragedy. "All we see is bad stuff on TV," she says, "but I have always felt that when somebody died, there is always that lovely sharing of sadness and grief and comforting each other. And you want to focus on the good things about humankind."

When her father and stepmother marked their 40th wedding anniversary only days after Luke's death, Batty insisted that the family, together in Australia for the first time, should still celebrate. "It had to be a really special day. It's never going to happen again and it would never have happened this way if not for Luke dying."

Every morning since February 12, she has gotten out of bed. At first, she drank heavily and started chain-smoking, but she has cut back on both. She dreamed intensely around Luke's 12th birthday - "trying to save him" - but mostly, she says, she has slept fine. "When people say, 'Well, how are you?', I think, 'Well, I am not taking any medication, and I haven't turned into an alcoholic, and I am sleeping okay, so that probably means I am coping well.' "

But that is today. The future brings no guarantee of resilience. "It does give me pain, because I don't know where I fit moving forward," she says. "It's very overwhelming, thinking I am going to be this tainted person all my life, and how do I feel happy for my friends and family when their kids go through all the things that I would have wanted to share with Luke?" Sometimes she avoids situations that remind her of her loss, but one recent Saturday night she was out with a group of friends and their children, and she could not.

"They were pleased to see me, I know that, but they are hanging together and they are talking about graduation," she says as Luke's cohort prepares to finish primary school without him. "And I dreaded it, because Luke would be so into it."

In losing Luke, Rosie Batty has also lost much of her contact with the world of children. The scouting and sporting activities that had filled her weekends were suddenly not relevant. Even her work stopped. "I can't work in the children's entertainment business when my son will never have another birthday party, so they let me out of the contract."

Around the same time, Luke's school deposited a sizeable insurance payout into her bank account. After all those years of taking mediocre jobs through motherhood, suddenly, she did not have to worry about earning an income for a while.

Since then, there have been many unexpected acts of kindness. She still receives gifts and flowers, and initially was given so much food that she did not have to cook for six months. One morning, a packet of lavender with a hand-written note arrived in the mail, in an envelope simply marked "Rosie Batty, Tyabb, Victoria". A 70-year-old woman has written to her admiringly: "Your words are gold." At lunch, a stranger walks over to her table, gently holds her upper arm and tells her, "I just want to say good luck with everything. I admire your courage."

But no admiration can completely soothe her sorrow. "When Luke died, I thought, 'I have had the worst thing that could happen to me, so I don't think I have got anything left to fear in this world.' " Although she is unexpectedly busy - speaking engagements in several states filled most of November - there is an element of fearlessness to her new life. "I kind of think to myself, 'Well, what can hurt me?' I almost think, why would I want to live to 100 like my grandmother, because that would mean that I don't see Luke for all that time. You could say I don't even fear death anymore, because whatever is in the next world, that's where I'll get to see him again."

She says this calmly, her eyes dry. She is sitting outside by the pool, late spring leaves fluttering down into the water as she nabs a quick smoke in the sun, her beloved dogs wandering nearby. She speaks calmly, with a surprising absence of self-pity.

"When he died, I thought, 'How the f... can I live here without seeing him play in the swimming pool or on the trampoline?' " But she remained, managing her hectare of land, with its menagerie of donkeys and goats, sheep and dogs, because it turned out to be the easier option. As she says: "Making a decision to move that doesn't include Luke is more painful than staying here."

It's not that home is silent now. There are still visitors and overnight guests, and the farrier drops in today to trim the donkeys' hooves, but this home has lost an irreplaceable dimension.

Already, there is so much that Luke would not recognise. The nets at the cricket oval have been dismantled and replaced with new ones on a different part of the field. There's a bright new portrait of Luke on the lounge-room wall at home - a gift from artist Jacqui Clark, who saw Batty on television. Upstairs, in the sunny living room, where pre-teen boys would so recently hang out together, many photos of Luke remain inside an old chest, waiting for a time when his mother can contemplate looking at them again.

Late one morning, she moves up here for a photo shoot, her bright shirt an unintended beacon in a scene that could so easily lapse into darkness. In just a few months, she has proved a deft learner for the many photographers who have visited her. Today she smiles obligingly, and when she is asked to look beyond the lens for a moment, her eyes fall on a solitary image of her boy.

For a long time, she had professional photographs taken annually. "I was too busy last year." The final shoot was in 2012, and the result is framed on the wall ahead of her, 10-year-old Luke smiling happily in a photo he so loved that he wanted to become a model.

As another day peaks without her son, she stares at his picture, brimming with sunshine and possibility. Until February, this room was so often filled with children and laughter and Luke. Now there are new people here, and his mother has become an unlikely centre of attention as a photographer, a journalist and a make-up artist turn their focus to her. The camera whirrs. "Luke," she says, "would love all this." 

For support, contact the National Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT or at 1800respect.org.au.

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