Shadow of Doubt: An Australian True Crime Podcast About Familial Abuse

There are some emotions, some cognative processess which different cultures don’t do well with. It’s nobodies fault. Something happened, probably at a formative point in the culture which meant that whatever feeling or opinion was under examination, would not again be the choice of that group of people. Many cultures which have western christianity as an early influence will find that one thing that is not tolerated well is doubt.

It started in Jerusalem, with Thomas, a disciple of Jesus who after his death was told by other disciples that they had seen Jesus risen. Thomas, with a foreshadowing of the enlightenment says he can not believe this, in short unless he see’s it. They disciples stay in Jerusalem for another week, doing what? We don’t know. Given that they had lost their leader in a fairly traumatic way it is likely that perhapse they were grieving, maybe arguing about what to do next. They were possibly scared that should they leave their own homes they might too become targets and find themselves tried and condemed to death. The Gospel of John, records that Jesus then appeared to them all, and suggested to Thomas that he could put his hand in his wounds from the cruxafiction and believe that Jesus had indeed risen.

The story is a testimony to having faith without believing. Jesus says that those who have seen and believed are blessed, but those who have not seen and still believe are even more blessed. Setting up a kind of competative protocol for faith. For centuries afterwards Thomas has been called Doubting Thomas, and particularily in the protestant branch of the faith has been seen as subordinate to those who believe without having to see proof. Someone who had the chance to be great, but missed it thought his own determination to only believe what he saw.

If we fast forward to today we can see in many of the cultures through which this story has been told as a real fact doubt is not an attractive or desired state to be in. They prize confidence, certainty, believe that whatever is being focused on you have to be unflinchingly sure about. In a society where people are currently dividing themselves along ideological lines it is considered a good thing to be unequivocal and certain that your point is right. In sticking to the fundamental rightness of your view you are seen as standing up for others and any negative reaction you receive for it is considered more proof that you are indeed right.

We want people to be confident, it gives us certainty to move through life and tackle it’s obsticals. However just a tiny step over the line from confidence is a place of a blind confidence which means someone never doubts their own positions or the broadness of their own experience, and leads to a brittle and fragile kind of arrogance, perhapse even hubris. The more public the hubris, the more spectacular their fall from grace will be.

Doubt in general is not fashionable, but the one area where doubt is a significant part of society and indeed is thought to be important enough to be written into law is that you are innocent until you have been proved guilty, and that in criminal court the evidence has to be beyond reasonable doubt. This last tenant can often cause problems. Words like “reasonable,” are ephemeral, hard to catch hold of. What may be reasonable to one person, is not necessarily reasonable to another. However there are times where the law is purposefully vague, believing that professionals and people involved in a case will have the intelligence and the where with all to be able to work things out themselves, after all society is always shifting and changing and to have a set of completely rigid rules that are not flexible for difference circumstances could end with tyranny,

In Shadow of Doubt that tennat is put to a rigorous test. The podcast follows the case of the Johnson family (very few people’s real names are used), who to many appeared a happy and healthy family unit until allegations of horrific sexual abuse surfaced. Martin, the father of the family, was an exacting, strict and over zealous sports coach who coached all his children in the hopes they would be able to become professionals, and represent Australia one day. Many families at the school Martin taught at would agree that he was a disciplinarian, but many could also atest to his kindness and caring. So they were shocked when the accusations against him by his daughter came to light.

However if you’ve been near the true crime genre at all in the last decade you will have been here before. This belief that if someone does good, they cannot do wrong. We all believe what we see, which is unfortunate for victims of abuse because abusers will very often go to pains to not let their abuse be seen and therefore continue on without much getting in their way. We know that even the most heanous crimes can be committed by people who can also occassionally do a nice thing, or even worse use their nice things as a way to deflect any criticisim or blame.

As the podcast goes on we find out more about Martin, and that includes he was twice moved on from schools he was teaching at because of inappropriate relationships with female pupils. Including molestation and pressurising girls into sexual intimacies. Those who have been following the Teachers Pet podcast and trial will find some of the themes here familure. It feels like the case is cut and dried. That is until a spotlight in shone on the daughter, Emily, who is making the accusations.

It is easy to see Emily is troubled, and that isn’t an unsusprising state for someone who has been badly abused to be in. However there are parts of the investigation that uncover troubling evidence of pshycology professionals involved in Emily’s treatment behaving in ways that were not only un-professional but also damaging to Emily. We also hear of previous untruths from Emily and mimicing of friends when she was younger who had gone through inapropriate actions from older men.

Not my children.

It is at this point in the podcast, as a listener, you become a see-saw. Sliding from one side to another, not sure who to believe. There are points that are made by host Richard Guillate which feel a little forced. They go along the lines of “but no one saw anything wrong,” or “but she always seamed happy.” Which bring back memories of Weinstein’s PR team showing pictures of him standing beside women who were smiling as some kind of proof that he wasn’t a rapist. While all the photo really proves is that he once stood next to a particular woman long enough for a photo to be taken, rather than being the kind of undenable proof that a whole case can pivot on. It also expects women to only ever be one thing, either victim or supporter, and does not take into account the many complexities which women have to navigate in their lives. Meaning that sometimes, often, we can find ourselves doing things we are uncomfortable with, and smiling all the way through it. This set of evidence and questions around Emiliy’s memories of abuse are going to be difficult for people who have been sexually assaulted and dismissed to hear.

Guillate, who unmasked cancer fraudster Bell Gibson, does start laying out a case which has more strength to it. As Emily’s hospital treatment progresses her memories become more and more violent and disturbing. There are behaviours from the pshycological staff which appear strange and indicate way too much emotional attachment or investment in Emily. There is the fact that no medical records at any point of Emily’s life show any signs of abuse, and as a sporty kid she was regularily having medical examinations. Most curious of all is the fact that Emily started a relationship with one of the police men who had originally been brought in for advice by her family when Emily as a teenager and her and friends were subject to unwanted sexual contract from a sport massuse while competing abroad. It feels like all the relationships here that are meant to be professional are crossing lines they should not cross. But then again, if someone has not had proper boundaries from their parents, isn’t their radar of what is and is not acceptable going to be a little off, and other people will take advantage? There is enough strange happenings to let a little sliver of doubt in, but no real or conclusive proof as everything can always have other explinations.

I found myself weighing up my feminisit values, which leads me to know that sexual crimes against women and girls are not easy to prove quagmired as society is with sexist tropes and myths. With my knowledge that memories of abuse can and have been planted in people through the now discredited memory recovery process. A pshycological fad during the satanic panic that has ruined many lives and has now been thoroughly discredited. Then again, on the other hand we know that fathers can do terrible things to their daughters, just ask Josef Fritzle.

Listening to all the evidence it is not unreasonable to conclude that Martin Johnson would have been a very difficult father to have, and it appears as though there was at the very least emotional and phsyical abuse happening in the home, which he struggles to acknowledge the impact of. Had his inappropriate reltionships with pupils been uncovered today, they would have no doubt lead to an arrest rather than a simple moving the problem on. However that does not necessarily meant that he sexually abused his daughter.

The inferance that mental health has played a large part in Emily’s accusations also left me more than a little uncomfortable. How often in history have women’s complaints, accusations and experiences been denied or minimised because they also have mental health problems. There are instances where women not playing by the rules of the patriarchal society around them have landed then in mental asylums. Indeed the list of reasons why women have been committed in history will inevitably be passed round a friend group to guffaw and laugh at, but underneath the jollity there are a series of sad stories, ruined lives, and a barbaric attitude towards women and mental health. The shadows and stigma of which we still live with today.

Emily’s poor mental health on it’s own cannot be taken as evidence that she is not telling a whole truth, people with mental health problems are not inherantly untrustworthy. However the behaviour of the professionals around her does show that she may have not been getting the kind of treatment which we would expect someone to have, which may in turn compound her experiences.

Shadow of Doubt shows us a family that is ripped apart. Some of Emily’s siblings support her, while other do not. Leaving their Grandmother in a damed if she does, damned if she doesn’t situation. Risking alienating half her grandchildren if she talks to the other. Martin’s second wife Susan has also stood by her man, and is also in jail for allowing the abuse of her daughter, and like Martin proclaims her innocence.

In many ways we look to the law to give us boundaries. To let us know what is and is not acceptable behaviour, but also to let us know what the consequences of that behaviour is wether it is a fine, community service or jail time, and therefore how serious it is. If we are expected to learn lessons and move on, or pay a price for the rest of our lives. However in this case it feels as though the true crime listening community may have to throw it’s hands up and proclaim this case above their pay grade.

Most justice systems give a binary choice of guilty or innocent. You are either completely vindicated or not. The only system I am aware of where there is a third option is Scotland with our notorious not proven verdict. Which while creating juicy dilemma’s and get out options for dramas, check out BBC thriller The Escape Artist, in real life it can cause havoc for those who have to live in it’s limbo of not being guilty but not being innocent either.

It is the most unfashionable of conclusions to come to, but having listened to the whole podcast twice through I have to say I cannot come down on one side or the other. I cannot be unequivocal, or certain. I don’t know enough, there were parts of the story the podcast could not go into due to legal reasons, and I’m not sure many other listeners will know enough either. At the moment when you don’t know who is wrong and who is right instead of feeling like one side has to be picked, I’d prefer to sit with the discomfort of doubt, and to allow time to work it’s way to uncovering more of this story. Is this fair on the people involved, probably not. It does feel like the most rational response though.

My reasons for enjoying true crime, like many, is sometimes the warm certainty that all will be well, the baddies will go to jail and the goodies will be exonerated. It is not the only reason to listen to true crime and the plethora of unsolved cases podcast attest to that, but it is a prominent one. It is the most radical of things right now in both society, and true crime to say I cannot take a side, I chose to embrace doubt, and wouldn’t the world be a calmer place if we occasionally let ourselves be fallible, human, flawed and admit that sometimes we just do not know, and we’re need ok with that, until we can put our hands in the wounds.

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