Today I watched Reflections of the Past, a documentary about the notorious Hulme-Parker murder case in Christchurch in 1954. As a documentary, it left much to be desired, but it stirred up new thoughts about the personal agenda of the many interviewees—and of myself. Many of us have a stake in how the murder is perceived by others—which is tightly entangled in how we perceive ourselves.
I was a classmate of Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker.
The school photo was taken after they had both left school; I don't know the date, but I suspect it's 1954, when they were in prison.
The shock and scandal left its mark on the school, the country—and me. Small things, and temporary, but big for me. My fantasy life went from vivid to obsessively, terrifyingly weird and violent. I shoved the blame for my own confusion on to my blameless mother and was mean to her for several years. Girl friendships were viewed with paranoia. My best friend moved away, for unrelated reasons.
Strangest of all, I felt guilty for abandoning Juliet, especially after learning how her parents had repeatedly abandoned her or sent her away when she was ill. I made a few attempts to write to her in prison and gladly, guiltily gave up when she didn't answer. Many years later, Alison Laurie and Julie Glamuzina told me my letters would certainly not have been delivered. I sobbed with the release of guilt and grief.
I was not a friend of Juliet's. My mother and Mrs Hulme had brought us together before Juliet enrolled at Christchurch Girls' High School, hoping we might become friends. The idea was that we were both geniuses, with IQs of [insert arbitrary number]—a ludicrous belief of the 1950s—both loved reading and writing and were highly imaginative. And so it appeared we would have a lot in common.
We didn't click. She was two years older than me; I'd been promoted and she'd been ill. In her company I felt like a rebellious child to her superior adult. While others were in awe of her, I just wanted to keep my distance.
The documentary interviewed far too many people.
Some (for example Peter Graham and Michelanne Forster) had interesting, true and new things to say.
Some had zero credibility, the worst example being a young male 'teacher' who hypothesized about girls getting the cane for not getting their homework right, in the 1950s. (In case you wondered, that's rubbish.) Alexander Roman, the film maker, said he had trouble finding people to interview; rather, he had trouble leaving people out.
On the upside, most of these witnesses and pretenders revealed their attitude to Juliet and Pauline. Many had something to prove, and that's not a bad thing. It's just human.
So I asked myself why I was in the cinema. What do I have to prove?
I do have a stake in the story.
I used to read Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, but this real life murder was no mystery. We know who held Honora Parker down by her neck and bashed her to death with a brick, and we know why.
I suppose deep down I still needed assurance that I was worthwhile even though I couldn't see what was going on under my nose at the time, and even though I walked away from a girl in need. Although Juliet and Pauline had left school when they committed murder, I still felt that I should have seen this tragedy brewing and prevented it somehow. I was not a good Samaritan: I passed by on the other side. In fact I ran a mile.
Now that's irrational, but guilt is often irrational.
Big things happen, bad things happen. And people on the periphery are affected in all sorts of ways. Denial. Fear. Anger. Sympathy. Empathy. Arousal. Bewilderment. Guilt by association. Guilt for surviving. Guilt for doing nothing to stop it.
Here's a reason to go to the documentary: the old buildings of Christchurch before the earthquake feature prominently in all their glory. Christchurch Girls High School was recently demolished after serious damage.
Two sides of the Parker-Hulme murder
Reflections of the past: Alexander Roman documentary