All too human

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Robert Fardon as the public knows him.

When Robert Fardon was released on 24-hour curfew to a ramshackle collection of wooden shacks on the fringes of Brisbane’s prison precinct in 2013, The Courier-Mail dubbed his new digs “Animal House”. He would, the newspaper added, be accommodated with other “dangerous sex monsters”. A decade earlier, Fardon had become the first man detained under Queensland’s new Dangerous Prisoners (Sexual Offenders) Act 2003. At the time, he had been serving a 14-year sentence for rape, against a backdrop of prior sex offence convictions. The laws had been bull-rushed through parliament for the express purpose of keeping Fardon, and his ilk, behind bars. Fardon fought tooth and nail for his freedom. Dozens of legal cases bear his name, to the extent that it “is almost synonymous with the history of the Act”.

I drove past Fardon’s former residence every day en route to my job as a psychologist in Wolston Correctional Centre. Fardon also spent a considerable period of time in this high security protection prison – “protection” referring to the fact that, due to the nature of their offences, such men must be separated from mainstream prisoners. I have never met, assessed, nor treated Fardon, and I’ve had no access to his file. But he is like a ghost here, an echo in the cells and walkways. His name still comes up in a shared calendar on the last Thursday of every month – a perpetual room booking between him and his external psychologist, which no-one has yet cancelled.

Fardon’s name was bandied about more frequently than usual in August 2018, when his continuing supervision order came up for review. An editorial in The Courier-Mail (again) urged the Queensland Premier to “keep this animal locked up”, even though he was not, at that time, locked up, but was “moving about the community relatively freely,” Supreme Court Justice Helen Bowskill said. Other headlines described him as a “sex beast”, “fiend”, “predator” and “monster”. After several more months of legal argument, and media hysterics, Fardon was in January relieved of requirements such as electronic monitoring, curfews and counselling, on the basis of psychiatrists’ reports which deemed him a low risk of re-offending.

A non-publication order kept the decision under wraps. But that didn’t stop the TV cameras following and filming Fardon in the interim. When the suppression order was lifted a week later, footage of a freed Fardon riding the train was rich in unwitting Beauty and the Beast style symbolism. His crude prison tattoos, etched long before body art became fashionable, were visible as he clutched the overhead strap, wrists touching, as though still cuffed. Lean and agile, with piercing eyes and his trademark bushy beard, the 70-year-old moved through commuter crowds with the grace of a man half his age. He was on his best behaviour, but Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington summed up the prevailing mood: “I’m appalled that this sadistic pig has been allowed to roam our streets for over a week without the Queensland public knowing about it”.

Now the public did know about it and a bizarre Where’s Wally? style pursuit of Fardon through South East Queensland ensued. There he is, over there! No, over there! Social media sites including the Robert John Fardon Sightings Keep Community Safe Facebook page lit up with glimpses of him sunning himself at Redcliffe Lagoon, waiting outside Ipswich Hospital, exiting an ultrasound clinic at Strathpine, at Beachmere, Belarra and Bribie Island caravan parks, in a house in Salisbury, on a Townsville street, and inside Caboolture Square, sometimes in a single afternoon. Mainstream media republished photographs of Fardon taken by a concerned mother outside North Lakes Shopping Centre who reported that he “stopped and stared at her and her children before walking off”. It was as though the adrenalin-fuelled social media mob were hunting a wild beast – a bunyip, perhaps, or a yowie.  Members of the public proclaimed their quarry to be “putrid scum”, a “filthy mongrel”, a “slug” and a “grub”.

Yes, Fardon has been convicted of terrible crimes. However, I was, and remain, deeply troubled by the tenor of such comments – not for what they say about Fardon, but for what they say about us. Sex beast, slug, grub, predator, sadistic pig, monster, filthy mongrel. The “criminal as animal” is hardly a new metaphor, but you might argue that it reached its apotheosis with Fardon. According to Greta Olsen, who traced the history of this metaphor all the way back to “rogue pamphlets” published in the sixteenth century, it is tempting to dismiss criminal-animal tropes as naïve and uninformed. “But their emotionally arousing nature nonetheless speaks for the deep-seated power of the image behind them,” she writes in Criminals as Animals from Shakespeare to Lombroso.

We have made great strides in supporting and empowering marginalised groups – Aboriginal Australians, women, refugees, homeless people, individuals with mental illness, people with disabilities. There’s still a long way to go, but no-one would dare describe such individuals as anything less than human, at least not publicly. Yet criminal offenders in general, and prisoners specifically, remain the shit on everyone’s shoes. I still get asked: How can you work with them? Prejudices persist to the extent that no-one blinks, let alone protests, when offenders are described in animalistic terms. They are, it seems, the last remaining group of humans to be perceived as something less than human.

Italian doctor and criminologist Cesare Lombroso died in 1909 but his theory of criminal atavism lives on in today’s headlines. Influenced by the work of one of his contemporaries, Charles Darwin, Lombroso proposed that criminals were biological “throwbacks” – regressions to an earlier stage of evolutionary development. Hypothesising that “born criminals” bore stigmata, or anatomical defects, he furiously set about examining prisoners’ skulls, measuring their facial dimensions, and cataloguing their tattoos. He identified multiple marks of the “born criminal”, including a certain slope to the forehead, large ears, left-handedness, oversized jaws, asymmetrical craniums, hawk-like noses and more acute eyesight. If Lombroso were still alive, he surely would have selected Fardon’s widely circulated mug shot – showing a fierce, fleshy-faced man, with unkempt facial hair – for the cover of the next edition of L’uomo delinquente (Criminal Man).

Lombroso’s legacy also persists in a deep-seated cultural belief that criminals should look different, sound different, “be” different. If we could only spot these miscreants on sight, we could avoid them, and then we would be safe. In a gut-wrenching piece published in Salon, widower Tom Meagher, whose wife Jill had been raped and murdered by Adrian Bayley 18 months earlier, described the moment when he first heard her assailant speak in court. “There was a clarity of communication, sentence structure and proper articulation,” he writes. “It was chilling. I had formed an image that this man was not human, that he existed as a singular force of pure evil”.

Meagher went on to challenge the myth of the “archetypal monster” – that all man who rape are “violent strangers who stalk their victims and strike at the opportune moment”. Indeed, when our floating fears and imaginings coalesce in the form of “beasts” like Bayley and Fardon, it diverts attention from typical patterns of violence against women and children. According to Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia the vast majority of sex offence victims know their attackers. In 70 per cent of cases, the offender is a family member, friend, work or school colleague; of the remainder, the offender is usually a social acquaintance. Sexual assault by a stranger accounts for less than 1 per cent of sexual violence, the organisation notes.

The dehumanisation of criminals is also problematic because it provides ideological justification for their harsh punishment. If criminals’ defects are innate, and their actions the product of instinctual savagery, it therefore follows that the only solution is to lock them up forever. This sort of thinking hunkers deep within the heart of preventive detention regimes such as that hastily ushered in to prevent Fardon’s release. I currently work with several men ordered under DPSOA legislation to “be detained in custody for an indefinite term for control, care or treatment”. While there’s plenty of “control” to be had behind bars, funding constraints mean that any “care” and “treatment” is cursory at best. As such, prisons look less like rehabilitation facilities and more like vast Amazon warehouses, stuffed to the brim with stock which lives for the moment it’s finally shipped out.

British philosopher Mary Midgley further noted that ascribing violent acts to “beasts” allows us to minimise our own propensity for violence and savagery (of which we are all capable, I have no doubt). Amid reports that two Fardon lookalikes had been verbally attacked during the suburban scavenger hunt, the vigilant public, predictably, posted a range of helpful suggestions on how to manage the threat in their midst: “CHOP his dick off CHOKE him with it”, “knock the cunt on the head” and “let wild animals eat him alive”. Such remarks suggest not so much that Fardon is an animal, but that he is all too human.