Friday, May 27, 2011

The Hulme-Parker murder revisited

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


  1. Wow! The documentary makers certainly missed out not interviewing you for the documentary. But I guess then you wouldn't have written this post, which would have been a shame.

  2. Replies
    1. Both Pauline and Juliet had already left Christchurch Girls' High School when the murder happened. I guess it had a profound negative effect on the school. Read somewhere that for a long time afterwards they were afraid of Pauline/Juliet friendships, forbidding any close friendships and girls not allowed to hold hands. Don't know how true this may be. In 1994 when Peter Jackson made the movie Heavenly Creatures he wanted to film at the school. The now retired Principal Dawn Lamb, denied permission to shoot at the present-day school, saying "why couldn't [the filmmakers] make a film about pupils of whom we are proud?


  3. I really appreciated reading this blog post by McAlpine and take part of her thoughts. It's obvious the case has affected many people in many different ways over the years. I've read Peter Graham's book "So Brilliantly Clever" and it's probably the best one on this case, so far. I also learned that an authorized biography on Anne Perry will be released in August, 2012 but I really doubt it will continue any new information which doesn't confirm Perry's previous statements on the case. I guess the biography may be some sort of response to Graham's book. No, I don't think the case is a complete mystery either. The statements made by Parker and Hulme in interviews and Pauline's diary entries show that the most important thing in the world for them was not to be separated. I also subscribe to the theory that they were lovers in some kind of way. What else may Pauline have been referring to when she wrote about enacting how the saints make love in bed or the more precise: "We have now learned the peace of the thing called bliss, the joy of the thing called sin"...the latter a fine example of the emphasement of a meaning the British way.


    1. I agree with you about Peter Graham's book. It's good to read your sensible comments — thanks. (I didn't see them until recently! Mea culpa.)

  4. http://www.nytimes.com1994/11/24/movies/making-a-film-out-of-the-horror-of-mother-murder.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

    An interview with Sir Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh re-the making of the movie 'Heavenly Creatures'

  5. Fascinating blog from a very unique perspective.

  6. A recent photo of Paul and her home in the Orkney Islands. The tabloid as sensational as back in the 1950s.

  7. Came across your article and was interested to see you were a classmate of the girls, as my Aunty also was in their class. Not sure if the name will ring a bell but her maiden name was Gwyneth Pratt

  8. Hi Amy. Thanks for getting in touch. Yes! Gwyneth and I were in the same class. Please say hello to her.