The Port Arthur massacre: a day I will never forget

Twenty years ago today, I sat in front of the television as details emerged about a terrible massacre in Tasmania. Jamie, my oldest, was due in six weeks. It was my 30th birthday. Martin Byrant, the shooter, was only a year younger than me. He had just killed 35 people and injured 23 others, although we didn’t know details at that time.

I saw footage of Bryant’s interview about a month ago, like you probably did, in the lead up to the 20th anniversary. It had only just been released to the public by his defence lawyer.

I don’t know if you felt this way, but one of the many things that disturbed me was his appearance. He was shockingly beautiful. The pale curls that fell past his shoulders made him look like a surfer-angel, drifted ashore on a golden surfboard. The bone structure, the blue eyes, the full lips, perfect teeth. He looked like purity and goodness itself, a popular hero archetype.

If possible, this gave the footage even more of a sinister edge. But his behaviour was also alien and alienating.

Today, Martin Bryant would be diagnosed with intellectual impairments, a personality disorder, and autism. Antisocial traits led to conflict, ridicule and ostracism.

But back in 1996 when a clearer picture began to emerge, he was described as a loner, unaffectionate, and displaying 'disturbing' behaviours. Around the age of 16, his concerned parents decided to take him out of school and have him assessed by a clinical psychiatrist. Just what kind of future would their son have?

The psychiatrist believed he’d never fit into a work environment. He would ‘annoy’ and ‘upset’ people too much. So he put Bryant onto a disability pension.

This is where I start to see the human side of his story. When Bryant was growing up, less was understood of autism and parents bore the entire burden (and sometimes the brunt) of their children’s disabilities. There were few special programs, early interventions or funding mechanisms apart from a disability pension when they left school.

The psychiatrist’s case notes foreshadow future difficulties: ‘Only his parents’ efforts that prevent further deterioration’, ‘Could be schizophrenic’, ‘parents face a bleak future with him.’

The interview footage with Bryant immediately confirms that he is not smart in a school kind of way. He can’t read. He speaks in a childlike, singsongy voice. Contrary to what I expected, he doesn’t seem bitter. He doesn’t react like a young man whose hurt has built up from years of rejection, or like someone who has given up after losing their only friend (a middle-aged woman) in a car crash and father to suicide (another tragic part of this story), although no doubt these things contributed to Bryant’s psychological status.

What is clear is that he seems to lack empathy. He’s impulsive and consumed by the details: how many died, how many were wounded, how they died. When they bring in his weapons, he seems excited about showing them how each gun works. He smiles and giggles when he sees photographs of the murder scene, including some with children. He prolongs the process of gathering details: inching towards, then backing away from admitting he was the shooter. Is he nervous, manipulative? Maybe it's all a joke to him.

But then you remember his disability and the picture comes into sharper focus. They are being kind to him and they're listening. They're attentive to his needs. This is the opposite of his usual experience with people and could explain his playfulness and joking around. However, like so many other interactions with people throughout his life, he’s reading the cues wrong. These people are not there to be friends ...

I don’t tell you about Bryant because I’m wanting you to feel empathy for a mass murderer. I just think it's important to think about how and why these things happen. And despite some pretty big red flags beforehand, such as a growing penchant for guns and there being no one left who could manage his impulsive behaviour, THIS was not the foreseeable outcome.

Every year I think about Port Arthur on my birthday. But this year is a significant date. It's my 50th and the 20th anniversary of the tragedy.

It makes me want to reflect on those who died, the families torn apart, the children who never grew up, the survivors who carry wounds deeper than the silver scars from 20 year old bullet wounds.

On ABC TV last night a nurse talked about how she had given first aid to dying men, women and children in the Broad Arrow Cafe. Bryant had been through the building and torn them to shreds with his bullets before moving on to hunt for more victims. In her dreams each night, the nurse revisits the scene, pictures each victim lying where they fell: by the door, near a table, under a window ... She's a survivor but her life swerved off course that day.

There are so many stories that deserve our attention.

But the one thing (very big thing) I am proud of is that April 28, 1996, was a day that we Australians rose up in righteous revolt against Bryant’s actions. We threw a floodlight on the massacre and those that had come before ... We pushed back at the malevolent shadow that people like him had cast over our history and our hearts for too many years. We used his actions as impetus for gun control and it changed our path.

Now when we Australians think of Martin Bryant, we sigh with collective relief about the day we decided enough was enough. We also sigh every time we hear stories of another massacre in another country where they have not yet reached the same conclusion as us.

I own this, even if it’s only because I was a few weeks off giving birth to a child who would grow up in a safer country. Even if it’s because my 30th birthday was a day I was especially grateful for life. When I look back, I can see that in the ugliness and the horror of that blood soaked ground, we planted life. I hope we never forget Martin Bryant.

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