Suburban secrets: why men should read Liane Moriarty too

big-lies-little-liesI suppose I consider myself something of a pioneer for reading two novels – Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret by the best-selling Australian writer Liane Moriarty.

Expecting chic-lit drivel, I found them surprisingly engrossing, entertaining and thought-provoking as they delved into dark secrets and lies in modern-day Australian suburbia.

The nearest book I could think by way of comparison was Chris Tsiolkas’s celebrated novel The Slap, with a central plot revolving around a suburban Sydney barbecue where someone slaps another person’s misbehaving child and the ramifications and ripples that flow out as a result.

Moriarty delves into similar territory, but is in my mind the better of the two writers. She’s a more expert crafter of believable characters and more revealing of the psychological landscape of  life in the suburbs.

Both of Liane Moriarty’s books were passed on to me by wife with recommendations from my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. All three raved about them and encouraged me to broaden my reading habits beyond the  serious-minded Booker Prize winning stuff I tend to get lost in.

Also spurring me on was Liane Moriarty’s inclusion in the Australian Financial Review‘s (the newspaper I write for) Cultural Power List alongside the more well-known provocateurs like broadcaster and journalist Waleed Aly and football great and aboriginal activist Adam Goodes.

The Power List judges noted that Moriarty has sold a staggering six million books and has become a Hollywood player with HBO turning Big Little Lies into a mini-series starring Reece Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.

Big Little Lies begins with a murder at a High School parents social night at Pirriwee Primary, a fictional coastal town near Sydney.

We don’t know who has died or who the killer is. We only know the suspects  – a motley crew of kindergarten parents – which Moriarty introduces us to as she traces the events over the proceeding months that led up to the fateful night.

Here we meet inspiring women like Jane in Big Little Lies, a battling  24-year-old single mother, who must defend her son Ziggy from accusations he is a kindergarten bully. There’s also the gorgeous trophy wife Celeste, sickenly abused by her ultra-wealthy husband and Madeline, the do-good mother on her second marriage, struggling to maintain a relationship with her strong-willed, idealistic daughter.

husbands-secretThe Husband’s Secret  is a modern-day take on the fable of Pandora and her box. A much darker book, it explores how the lives of three young woman are impacted by the murder a young girl that happened 30 years ago and a letter – found by accident – that reveals a terrible truth.

Here we find Cecilia, the Tupperware selling super-mom whose idyllic suburban life (a bevy of bright and healthy kids, nice house and loving husband) is about to crumble; Rachel Crowley, the still-grieving mother of the murder victim, her daughter Janie, who becomes convinced she has identified her daughter’s killer; and advertising exec Tess, whose husband has just confessed to being in love with her cousin and best friend.

Moriarty creates these intricate little suburban universes set against the familiar backdrop of school playgrounds, teacher-parent meetings and breakfasts in sunlit kitchens populated by characters straight out of our own everyday lives, who must, with great bravery, deal with unexpected events that threaten to destroy their domestic idyll.

As Nicola Wakefield Evans, one of the Power List judges put it: “[Liane Moriarty] talks about everyday life and marries it to a theme that we’re all grappling with – same-sex marriage, multiple-parented children, domestic violence. And she’s a beautiful writer.”

As a man, I think reading these books can only add to the often blinkered macho Australian male view of the world, which still casts women in the role of submissive or victim or emotional weakling. It’s also offers great insights into how women see men.

For women dealing with similar difficult situations as characters in the book, be they single parents, abused partners or just someone who does not understand their husband or their kids, I imagine these books provide a great deal of comfort and validation, perhaps even ways to cope and move forward.

In an interview she gave the Guardian in 2014, Moriarty (who recently turned 50 and has two kids) explained how she drew inspiration from real life stories told to her from other writers and friends. She also revealed herself as someone who has thought deeply about the issues in her books:

“Often I think bullying –especially in its adult, verbal forms – is the sort of thing you don’t realize till the end of the day, and it’s a horrible feeling to realize something wasn’t just a bland statement, but was actually cruel. But then we’re all capable of things that are breathtakingly cruel,” she told the website.

In her fiction, Moriarty has tapped right into the psychology of suburban life: how men and women view each other, how we bury big and small secrets from each other, how we think about our children and other people’s children, how we cling to the past or try to shake it off and how we can sometimes find ways to make peace and move on.

A messy world: inside the zany comic mind of Tom Ballard (@TomCBallard)

tom-ballard-1-copy-e1403330225340The joke that sticks doggedly in my mind from stand-up comic Tom Ballard’s Saturday Night gig, ‘The World Keeps Happening’ is the one he made about 9/11.

Ballard, young, blonde, dressed in a t-shirt and black jeans asks: “Would 9/11 have been so bad… if they’d flown into the Trump Towers instead?”

(Queue: a low rumble of shock across the packed old theatre).

He qualifies this by saying the planes would be empty and so would be the Manhattan tower, except for Donald Trump, now president-elect Trump “alone, on the toilet, masturbating over a picture of his daughter.”

(Queue even more shock. But Ballard loves it). “Ooh a few Trump fans in tonight,” he muses.

Later, as his high-octane 90 minute set, which left no taboo unturned, drew to its close, he asked cheekily of his audience: ‘Have I managed to lose you all of you tonight?’

He hadn’t of course: almost everyone cheered loudly at the end including me. Perhaps they would have lynched him in Queensland or Ohio.

A night with Tom Ballard, as I found out, is not for the faint-hearted or easily offended. Certainly his stand-up material would set the right-wing old fogges in Western Sydney into a frenzy were he to perform it on the ABC, where he first cut his teeth as a Radio host on Triple J.

Ballard’s act swerves from embarrasing personal experiences mostly of a sexual nature (like the time an ex-lover texted him to say he had “gonorrhoea of the mouth and anus” and he replied to say he was all fine now after getting treatment, instead he replied to a youth worker with the same name, instead) to discussing how technology is ruining our lives (“I’m addicted to my iPhone, I even auto-correct myself when I speak”) to ticking off on racism, sexism and homophobia. (Ballard has hosted two episodes of popular ABC political talk show Q&A).

“No one assassinates politicians in Australia,” he says. “I’m not saying we should be doing that, but a bit of passion would be nice.”

He goes on to relate the disappearance of Harold Holt, the only Australian leader to die in office who disappeared while out for an ocean swim.

“We looked for him a bit and then said, uh, he’s gone. And that was that,” Ballard says with a playful shrug.

Back to the cringeworthy, Ballard related the story of a friend, who for some unknown, unfathomable reason thought it a good idea to eat two 24-slice packets of cheese in one sitting. The result: “He felt a bit unwell and had to go to the doctor”.

Here his friend was told that all the cheese had congealed into a solid mass – “He had a cheese baby” Ballard declares with unbridled joy at the audience’s revulsion,  “and he would have it removed by caesarian.”

I confess I knew very little about Tom Ballard before the show though I recognised the face and name. (We – my wife and I – were lucky to pick up two complimentary tickets).

I quick read of his Wikipedia profile reveals that he grew up in Warnambool in country Victoria, is extremely smart (named Dux of the South West Region) and is passionate about a number of issues: vegetarianism, homophobia and cyber-bulling. He also once dated another of the country’s top comics, Josh Thomas the star of sitcom Please Like Me.

As with all really good stand-up comics he both mines his own personal experiences for comic material and uses comedy to make a point about the issues he cares about. (Not just that, he organised for volunteers from Refugee Legal to stand outside after the show with buckets to collect donations to support the work the centre does for refugees).

On inequality, he tells the story about a visit to Grill’d, the burger joint which allows customers to donate money to local charities through tokens they receive after ordering meals.

In this instance, he was in Warringah, on Sydney’s upper crust Northern Beaches where onion eating ex-PM Tony Abbott is the local federal member.

One of the ridiculous charity choices was to donate to the local school’s rowing club so that they could buy new kit.

“Sorry starving people of Africa…” Ballard bursts out with indignation, “the rowing club needs a hand” followed by an impersonation of spoilt, rich parents and their “desperate” kids.

“People rowing boats, these are the boats we should be turning back!” Ballard retorts with maniacal glee, delivering a scathing rebuke of the government’s tough approach to asylum seekers who come by boat.

His other suggestion, which I really liked was that we should ban all drugs, except for one day every four years – preferably on election day – when it should be a free-for-all.

“When I am on ecstacy, I just want to hug everyone,” he says.

His point being of course that we’re making some pretty bad choices sober, so why not try the other way.

Not a bad idea.

(A quick note: the show was recorded and will appear on streaming video service Stan at some point as part of its “One Stan Series”. So look out for it.)

 

 

Publicly shaming: how Jon Ronson changed my mind about Justine Sacco

jon-ronsonI remember when the whole universe seemingly exploded over Justine Sacco, the PR executive who Tweeted:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!!”

I was quick to jump on the worldwide bandwagon to publicly shame someone I did not know. “She got what she deserved” I remember telling myself as the young lady got off a flight in Cape Town to find her life in ruins: her job in New York gone, her reputation destroyed, her prospects in life shattered all because she’d made a silly joke.

At the time I joined the millions of people who shared in the pleasure of Justine Sacco’s public evisceration by everyone and their dog. I retweeted. I told my friends. I shamed her.

And yet, as British journalist Jon Ronson points out in his highly entertaining and thought-provoking book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed the only real victim in this fiasco was Justine Sacco herself.

Apart from being offended by her Tweet, which via some quirk of fate, became a world-wide infamous sensation, no one at all was hurt or damaged by it.

Instead,  Justine Sacco suffered humiliation, depression and anxiety that went on for months and months. And worse, her tiny “moment of madness” lives on online. Just type in her name into Google and see for yourself.

Ronson’s entertaining and engrossing book (which reminded me of Louis Theroux) delves into many instances of public shaming – not all of them related to social media – as he explores what has become a re surging global phenomenon not seen for centuries.

Not only does he interview the victims of public shameings including Justine Sacco, but he also delves into the psychology of this mob-like behaviour, explores how Google’s search tools have created reputations that refuse to go away and speaks to people who have made a fortune out of resuscitating the personal reputations of those who have become infamous online. (Yes, there are companies that can get your name off page 1 of Google searches).

Justine Sacco

Among Ronson’s  “case studies” is the story of the down fall of the writer Jonah Lehrer, who was caught out making up a Bob Dylan quote in a best-selling book  (in this case his public shaming felt quite deserving as Lehrer comes across as arrogant, privileged and above all…lazy) and that of Lindsey Stone who posted an irreverent (and frankly quite funny) photo on Facebook of herself flipping the bird at Arlington National Cemetery, which destroyed her life in much the same way that it ruined Justine Sacco’s.

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Then there’s the story of former Formula One racing boss Max Mosley, whose alleged S&M Nazi-style orgy was splashed all across the British tabloids in all its photographic detail.

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Mosley’s case is perhaps the most fascinating (not least because he was the son of notorious British fascists Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford) because he sued the Murdoch press for invasion of privacy and won in court.

The broader point Ronson makes is that Mosley – unlike other victims of publish shaming – was not embarrassed by his behaviour and instead became something of an anti-tabloid hero when took on the now defunct News of the World.

In the end I quite liked the feisty Max Mosley.

However, the greatest compliment I can pay Ronson is to say that reading his book changed my feelings about Justine Sacco tremendously.

Apart from revealing many mistruths about Sacco’s life (she was not the heiress to some rich businessmen or a spoilt white woman who didn’t care about others) it seemed awful that someone should be punished in vast disproportion to her crime, which at worse was that of making a silly, misinterpreted joke.

For as Ronson pointed out, within her Tweet, was the kernel of truth: AIDS is an epidemic in Africa that mainly affects black people not privileged white people. And that he says is the point Sacco was trying – albeit clumsily – to make.

As I read about Justine Sacco, the real Justine, I felt genuinely sorry for her and felt she deserved a lot of public sympathy and a chance at putting her lie back together. I also felt embarrassed at my glee at her public humiliation.

So I’d like to publicly apologise to Justine Sacco  for the part I played in ruining her life and thank Jon Ronson for writing his book.

And the next time I’m about to smugly retweet someone being torn to shreds on Twitter or mocked on Facebook for something silly or inadvertently in bad taste, I’ll think again before I click “Send” or “Post”.

Because the next time, it could be me on the receiving end.

Ted Bundy and I: Reviewing Ann Rule’s true crime classic, “The Stranger Beside me”

stranger beside meAmong the best books ever written about true crime and serial murder must surely be Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, about the serial killer Ted Bundy.

A former Seattle police officer and then regular contributor to true crime magazines as she struggled to raise four kids, Rule was commissioned to write the book that became The Stranger Beside Me  as the spate of murders of young, attractive girls grew longer and more baffling.

Paid a small advance, Rule was told her book would only be published if the murderer was caught.

No one at first believed that Ted Bundy, the charming, intelligent, good-looking young law student was capable of such horrendous crimes.

This included Ann Rule herself, who by the most incredible of coincidences had worked night shifts with Ted Bundy at a crisis centre in Seattle in the early 1970s.

But by the time Ted Bundy was founded guilty and sentenced to death in a Florida court, she had come to the awful realisation that the man who sat in the cubicle beside her night after night in Seattle,  saving the lives of those contemplating suicide, was also a monster.

If, as many people believe today, Ted Bundy took lives, he also saved lives. I know he did, because I was there when he did it.

Apart from telling the story of Ted Bundy  and his awful crimes, The Stranger Beside Me, also narrates Ann Rules own personal journey into the ‘Heart of Darkness’.

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Ted Bundy mugshot

The truth, as Rule found out, was that Ted Bundy, driven by a uncontrolable and never quite explained rage had used his facade of good looks and charm to bludgeon, rape and mutilate dozens perhaps over a hundred young women across America in the 1970s.

Many victims were attacked as they slept in their beds on college campuses, others were lured into Ted Bundy’s infamous beige VW Beetle as he masqueraded as someone with his arm or leg in a cast, struggling to carry his possessions.

Just before his execution in Florida in 1989, Bundy confessed to 30 murders committed  between 1974 and 1980 But many believe, and Bundy hinted himself, that the true total was much higher, perhaps over 100.

Before that, despite a mountain of evidence linking him to many murders (though much of it circumstanstial) he claimed he was innocent of any of the crimes. Often defending himself at his televised  Florida trial, he was seen by many as charismatic, brilliant and charming, which only added to the myth of his innocence.

In the end Rule, who maintained a sporadic correspondence with Ted Bundy through phone calls and letters from the time he was first arrested in Utah until his conviction and death sentencing in Florida, came to see through the facade, to see that she, like so many others, had been conned.

ann rule

Ann Rule

No one, except perhaps his long-standing girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall (called Meg Anders in the book) had a more personal insight into Ted Bundy and in the annals of crime writing there are few who has painted such a three-dimensional portrait of serial killer as Ann Rule.

For she knew both Teds: the kind, sensitive, caring charmer and the psycopathic manipulator.

She describes Ted as “brilliant, a student of distinction, witty, glib and persuasive” who loved “French cuisine, good white wine and gourmet cooking. He loved Mozart and obscure foreign films” and who “knew exactly when to send flowers and sentimental cards” and whose “poems of love were tender and romantic”.

And yet Ted “loved things more than he loved people” who could feel more compassion for inanimate objects than he could ever feel for another human being.

On the surface Ted Bundy was the very epitome of a successful man. Inside, it was all ashes. For Ted had gone through life terribly crippled, like a man who is deaf, or blind or paralyzed. Ted has no conscience.

There’s a video you can watch on YouTube of Ted Bundy’s final interview with Dr James Dobson,  given the evening before he was executed in January in 1980, when his appeals and luck finally ran out.

In it he tries to explain the reasons for his crimes as being due to the combined influences of pornography, alcohol and violence in true crime detective magazines.

This video and shorter versions of it has been watched millions of times of YouTube, which says something about the public’s fascination with Ted Bundy, who  remains in the news, 36 years after his death at the electric chair. (An article appeared as recently as June 30 about a new  book “I Survived Ted Bundy” published recently on Amazon.com).

Rule says of this final interview that Ted was lying and manipulating to the very end, remembering a letter that he wrote her where he dismissed True Crime magazines as trash:  “Who in the world reads these publications?” he asked her.

“The blunt fact is that Ted Bundy was a liar. He lied most of his life, and I think he lied at the end,” Rule wrote. But, she said, Ted’s final performance accomplished one thing that troubled her:

Sensitive, intelligent, kind young women wrote or called me to say that they were deeply depressed because Ted was dead. One college student had watched the Dobson tape on television and felt moved to send flowers to the funeral parlour where Ted’s body had been taken. “He wouldn’t have hurt me,” she said. “All he needed was some kindness. I know he wouldn’t have hurt me…”

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The ‘other Ted’: The famous enraged photo  of Ted Bundy at his Florida trial

There is nothing in ‘The Stranger Beside Me that glamourises Ted Bundy or turns him into the folk hero others made him out to be, especially after his daring escape from a Colorado jail in 1977, while facing kidnapping charges.

Rule stresses time and time again that whatever the tragedy of Ted Bundy’s life – who he might have been, what he become in the end – the real tragedy were all his innocent victims whose lives he ended. Indeed, she tells with great compassion the story of each of his many victims, of who they were and who they might have been.

And yet, she could never quite shake the memory of the Ted she knew before he became the serial killer ‘Ted Bundy’ something which became impossible following the publication and huge success of The Stranger Beside Me in 1980.

Ann Rule passed away on July 26 last year, aged 83 taking with her the title of America’s queen of true crime.

She publishing three dozen crime books after The Stranger Beside Me, but it remained her signature work with fans writing to her about it and asking questions about her and Ted Bundy decades later.

In an update to the book published in 2000 (I suggest downloading the Kindle version which has all the numerous updates since 1980), Rule writes:

It has been a quarter of a century since the day Ted Bundy called to ask for my help and to tell me that he was a suspect in the disappearance of more than a dozen young women…time and time again, I have naively believed the fascination with Ted would diminish and that I would never have to think about him again. I have long since accepted that I will be answering questions about him until the end of my days.

 

 

 

A response from Darren Bobroff: We will be laying charges against Discovery Health

I recently blogged about Johannesburg lawyers Ronald and Darren Bobroff, who have fled South Africa for Australia, and according to South African media reports are facing charges of overcharging clients and related fraudulent activity.

Darren Bobroff has contacted me through the blog and made a comment/statement, which in the interests of fairness and balance I have posted below. You can also find it as a comment here.

Please also read this statement put out in January from Discovery Health in relation to cover for motor vehicle accidents and claims for the Road Accident Fund.

From Darren Bobroff:

Your article relating to my father and I is inaccurate and false. We charged our clients exactly what the law society permitted and so did all other personal injury attorneys. We were targeted by  health insurer Discovery Health.

We have never charged forty percent and the matter referred to was a straight hourly rate based on work done. This is a malicious tactic to defame us. We have never had a single finding of unprofessional conduct in the firms 40 year history. See our website at http://www.ronaldbobroff.com

We will soon be laying criminal charges against Discovery, their attorney George Van Niekerk and proxy attorney Anthony Millar.

(This response has been edited)

Col Hahne and Nene King: two riches to rags stories

1991:FILE PICTURE OF NENE KING;EDTOR OF WOMAN'S DAY

Nene King in her heyday

When the sad decline of Australia’s former magazine publishing queen Nene King made headlines again in February, it brought back memories of a former life, when I edited a mortgage broking magazine in Sydney called Australian Broker.

It wasn’t Nene King who trigged memories of those days, but mention of the man she was suing in County Court, Colin Hahne, a friend and former housemate, whom she claimed defrauded her of $40,000 and took advantage of her generosity, and whom she had tried to sue for a far bigger amount in 2013. (In the end Hahne, 46, was cleared of all charges).

I remembered, in about 2006, the rather sensational story that broke across the mortgage  industry, and which we reported in our magazine, of the rise and fall of a ‘Col Hahne’ an award-winning mortgage broker, who founded GAL Home Loans, a service specifically tailored to servicing gay and lesbian people seeking mortgage finance.

Founded in Melbourne in 2000, and inspired by Hahne’s own experiences of homophobia growing up the country town of Wangaratta, GAL Home Loans became a massive success, spawning offices in Sydney, Geelong, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth.

In 2003, Col Hahne picked up a string of industry awards at the Australian Mortgage Awards, including Best Brokerage and Sales Person of the Year, after personally writing $90m worth of home loans. He was also named Operator of the Year in 2005 by the Mortgage Industry Association of Australia (later renamed the MFAA), the peak industry body.

Col Hahne and his mortgage broking business was flying, finding a niche in a crowded industry and striking sponsorship deals with gay and lesbian orientated Sydney Mardi Gras, Midsumma Festivals and Pride March Victoria.

In a 2003 interview with The Star Observer, Sydney’s newspaper for the gay and lesbian community, Hahne said he felt overwhelmed at winning so many mortgage awards – “I didn’t think we had a hope,” he said, as he talked about his passion for giving back to the community:

“I just feel that the more you throw back at a community, the more they’ll support you and the better it is for everyone concerned,” he said.

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Col Hahne wining his MIAA award in 2005, expelled in 2006.

Then just as suddenly as his career had surged, it came to a crashing halt. In July 2006, GAL Home Loans and Col Hahne were expelled from the MFAA after an independent tribunal found GAL Home Loans had breached its code of practice.

The MFAA did not disclose the reasons for his expulsion, but it soon emerged that Hahne was being sued by the organisers of the Sydney Mardi Gras over an alleged breach of a three-year sponsorship deal.

GAL Home Loans collapsed in 2007 and a court-order to wind-up the company and appoint a liquidator was made in 2011.

So what became of Col Hahne? Was he the same Colin Hahne, who became a close friend of Nene King, whom she referred to as her ‘nephew’ and whom she lavished cars, watches and other gifts.

The answer is an unequivocal yes. They are the same person.

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Col Hahne leaving court in February this year

It appears that soon after his business collapsed, Col Hahne met Nene King when he began dating massage therapist Larry Sutcliffe, who smoked marijuana with King.

In her court testimony, King said Hahne told her how he had had 13 companies (the once high-flying mortgage broking businesses) which went bust and that he had no money. She agreed to let him move in with her and Mr Sutcliffe.

The couple moved into King’s Caulfied home in Melbourne South Eastern suburbs, where, according to reports she had lived as a recluse since 2003 having suffered the tragic loss of her husband Patrick Bowring to a suspected shark attack in 1996 and then battled a drug problem and depression.

The trio became a “family unit” as she showered the gay couple with expensive gifts, noting at the trial that Hahne had told her he was a “financial wizard”.

“She continued to pay all the bills for both men before her money started running out and she had to take out a mortgage on her home,” The Age reported.

“We became great friends and I trusted them totally,” King said at the 2013 trial.

Hahne was found not guilty of all 49 theft and deception-related charges, with the court accepting his explanation that he had an arrangement with Ms King to use her credit cards and always did so with her authority.

As the trial near its end, King, who was once the richest woman in publishing having turned around Woman’s Day and made Kerry Packer a small fortune yelled out at Hahne calling him a “ghastly liar”. Later, in an interview, she claimed she was broke.

As for Col Hahne, he left the courtroom after the trial making no comment disappearing into another life, with the media interest squarely focused on his much more famous former friend, the once wealthy and powerful “paper giant” (Made into an excellent ABC movie).

In the end, it was Nene King very sad riches to rags stories that got all the headlines. But  Col Hahne’s own rise and fall as a high-flying mortgage broker, is also worthy of telling, and just as intriguing.

Who really was Ben Zygier? Reading Rafael Epstein’s ‘Prisoner X’

prisoner x‘Prisoner X’ by journalist and ABC radio presenter Rafael Epstein investigates the life and death of Melbourne man Ben Zygier, who committed suicide in a top secret cell in Israel’s Ayalon Prison in  December 2010 and whose sensational story made headlines in Australia and around the wold.

In 2013, Zygier, a lawyer and father of two from a well-connected Melbourne Jewish family, was sensationally revealed on the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent programme to be’Prisoner X’ the Mossad agent who betrayed Israel.

My interest in reading Epstein’s excellent book came out of a conversation with a fellow journalist, Patrick Durkin (@patrickdurkin),  a former lawyer, who had done articles with Ben at the law firm Norton Rose in 2001.

Patrick mentioned that when news broke that Ben Zygier was ‘Prisoner X’ in early 2013, he had hastily written a story for the Australian Financial Review, the newspaper we both write for, titled “Prisoner X, My Melbourne lawyer friend”

It may have been written in haste, but it was deeply moving and renewed my interest in a story I had, for some reason, not followed in great detail when it made front page headlines.  Patrick wrote that the revelations of who Ben was sent a “shock wave” through his group of lawyer friends.

Ben had joined our group of 20-odd articled clerks halfway through the year. Most of us remember him as a serious young man who was largely aloof from the rest of our tight-knit group… News broken by ABC’s Foreign Correspondent of Ben’s jailing and death is as shocking as it is surreal. (Patrick Durkin)

Rafael Epstein also knew Ben Zygier, at a much earlier time in his life, and like Patrick struggled to digest how he ended up in such a predicament in solitary confinement in a maximum security Israeli jail.

Epstein was Ben’s mentor in a Zionist Youth Movement called Netzer in the late 1980s when he remembered Ben  as a “cheeky, warm, quietly spoken boy”.

I have a photo of Ben from this time…it is the same smile and blue eyes that stare out from the photo of Ben flashed around the world’s media two year’s after his death. (Prisoner X, Rafael Epstein)

Epstein’s motivation to write the book was to correct the impression created in the mainstream media that Ben was either a “zealot or a traiter” by shedding some light on who Ben really was and, also, to try and solve the mystery of what really happened.

According to Epstein’s carefully drawn picture – based on numerous interviews with people who knew him  – Ben Zygier was by all accounts  a well-liked, quick-witted, intelligent man who would have made a very good lawyer.

But unfortunately, he also had none of the traits necessary to become a master spy for Mossad, Israel’s revered and feared spy agency: he was emotionally unstable, his behaviour was sometimes unpredictable, he could be grandiose and boastful and crucially, he could not keep a secret.

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Ben Zygier on the front page of The Age newspaper

One of the key revelations in the book is Epstein’s fervent belief that Ben’s downfall was not – as reported in the mainstream media – due to a rogue mission to the Middle East where his attempts to turn a Hezbollah agent into an Israeli double-agent, backfired sensationally.

Instead, Epstein claims, it was things Ben said to a mysterious Iranian man among Ben’s circle of friends at Monash University where he had returned to study in 2009 that led him to a solitary cell in Ayalon Prison.

According to Epstein, Ben’s fragile state of mind caused him to betray his secret life to the wrong person.

Ben’s mistake was a simple one and lacked the determination and intent that has been suggested in the media…put simply, Ben said too much to the wrong person at the wrong time. (Prisoner X, Rafael Epstein)

The other key insight from the book is that it provides a convincing case that Ben’s death was suicide, despite the initial suspicions when he was found hanged in a supposed suicide-proof cell. The truth appears to be that Ben died because responsibility for his care was mishandled by the security services and the prison officials, because no one did their jobs properly in ensuring his well being and because, by the end, Ben had lost all hope.

Indeed, a sense of profound and unnecessary tragedy is what rings most loudly in reading Epstein’s book; that Ben Zygier, who came from a well-connected and loving Jewish family, who had a loving wife and two kids, who was well educated, smart and likable, could have lived a successful and happy life.

Tragically, he chose the wrong path and was then encouraged further along it, by people who misjudged his character.

Of course there still remain all those unanswered questions: who exactly did Ben tell his secrets to? What were they and why did he become Israel’s most dangerous prisoner? These questions Epstein cannot answer, though not for lack of trying.

Predictably, after I finished reading Prisoner X, I watched the two riveting Foreign Correspondent documentaries (you can find them here) and read numerous articles published at the time about ‘Prisoner X’ and Ben Zygier searching for clues. But as one former spy put it on Foreign Correspondent, we are likely to ever know the full story.

I also had another chat with my colleague Patrick.

He told me that his old law friends had recently met for reunion drinks.Ben, he said, had inevitably come up in conversation as they reminisced about their days at Norton Rose.

According to Patrick,  the group remembered how Ben would be quiet and not really participating in the conversation, and then suddenly say something that grabbed everyone’s attention: like the time he told the group he had killed someone while serving in the Israeli army.

“That was Ben.”

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