Book News

The quiet Australian – a new book is to be published about the Claremont Serial Killer

Wendy Davis’ memoir, published by Fremantle Press

The Claremont Serial Killer, now known to be Perth man Bradley Edwards, was jailed in late 2020 for forty years without parole. News reports referred to ‘a dark line being drawn under history,’ and it is hopefully some relief to the families and his surviving victims to know that at 53, he will almost certainly die behind bars. He was sentenced for the murders of Ciara Glennon and Jane Rimmer, with the judge ruling that he was also the likely killer of Sarah Spiers, and for the rape of a teenage girl in Karrakatta Cemetery and an assault on an 18-year-old woman as she lay sleeping in her bed.

Seeing his face for the first time when he was arrested was eerie. He didn’t look like the monster that had loomed large in our imaginations as young women going out in Perth. He was an ordinary white Perth bloke. Someone you’d pass at the supermarket or petrol station and barely register.

The fact that dangerous men are deeply ordinary, that they are skilled at hiding in plain sight, is a point emphasised by journalist Jess Hill in See What You Made Me Do, her myth-shattering book about domestic abuse in Australia. Such men are often unexceptional, seemingly friendly people with jobs, wives and families. Some restrict their violence to their intimate partners. Others, like Edwards, are a danger to both those they live with and the strangers who cross their paths.

In 1990, six years before Sarah Spiers went missing, Edwards was working at Hollywood Hospital in Nedlands as a Telstra technician. He wandered into the room of Wendy Davis, a senior palliative social worker, and assaulted her.

Like many, I was shocked and angry when I listened to Davis describe her experience on a podcast. She mentioned that she was writing a book about the experience, and today I learned that her memoir, Don’t Make a Fuss – it’s only the Claremont Serial Killer, is to be published by Fremantle Press.

I hope that in telling her story Davis will feel that she is finally allowed to speak, to have her experience acknowledged and treated with the gravity it deserves. I believe it’s vital that we hear from those with lived experience of trauma and inequality and abuse – these stories often emerge less readily than those of observers, or not at all, so I’m glad she has not only found the strength to write her story, but has been given a space for it to be heard.

Because at the time, Davis was made to feel that she was ‘making a bit of a fuss’ by a Telstra representative who met with her. Edwards had simply ‘snapped under pressure,’ she was told. How many headlines refer to a man ‘snapping’ when he kills his wife? He’s stressed, because he’s under pressure. She drove him to it, is the murky implication that accompanies these stories.

As Jessica Hill writes: ‘The unifying ingredient among abusers is a radioactive sense of entitlement…. Confronted with feelings of discomfort or shame, abusive men will do whatever it takes to avoid them and move to a feeling of power. When this combines with a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, and the patriarchal belief that women should put aside their own needs – for comfort, safety and independence – in order to meet the needs of men, the outcome can be catastrophic.’

The outcome was indeed catastrophic for Davis. But what of Edwards? He was charged with common assault, a charge usually reserved for incidents of pushing, shoving or hitting. He didn’t go to jail. He didn’t even lose his job. He would later use his work vehicle – with its trusted and familiar logo on the side – to abduct his victims.

‘Young Bradley’ groomed his employers at Telstra as surely as he groomed the sports clubs where he would later volunteer. He presented himself as a good bloke. A quiet Australian. Even as he was sentenced he maintained the façade that had served him so well, his demeanour as bland and boring as ever. In the words of a friend sitting in the public gallery, he could have been waiting for a bus.

It’s less disturbing to believe that only a certain type of man – a loner, a recognisable oddball – is capable of committing murder. But to the contrary, says Hill, ‘they are the same kind of men we work with, are friends we trust; men who seem normal. We almost never see the violence coming.’ Or, in Edwards’ case, his violence was seen, but readily excused and overlooked.

For almost twenty years, the Claremont Serial Killer went quiet. Had he left Perth, we wondered, whenever he came up in conversation. Or had he grown too old and frail to abduct women, or was he dead? In fact, Edwards never left Perth. He continued working for Telstra until his arrest in 2016. He entered another long-term relationship in 1997, with a woman he met just two weeks after he killed Ciara Glennon. For two decades he successfully masked as a respected and trustworthy member of the community, even acting as president at his local Little Athletics sports club.

In the many news stories produced about this case, his ordinariness feels like an aside. When women are raped and murdered, especially by a serial killer, news outlets will report in forensic detail what happened to them. I hate this so much. It is yet another desecration for those women. It serves little purpose from a public interest point of view and overshadows other elements of the story that could actually save lives. It also perpetuates a dated norm: that women are victims, and their bodies and what is done to them are matters of public discussion. And it’s a distraction from the more important question – how do we prevent women’s deaths at the hands of men?

What I want to know is how Edwards was able to convince the police and his employers that he was ordinary. Of course, it’s easy to see the real person in hindsight. But what if that initial attack at Hollywood Hospital, for which he was caught and charged, was treated as a red flag and not dismissed as the forgivable reaction of a man going through relationship problems? We will never know. Nor can we pretend his violence was an anomaly in a country where a woman is killed by her intimate partner every week.

Referring to serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, also known as the Yorkshire Ripper, Joan Smith writes in Misogynies, ‘The murders seemed to me a pure manifestation of misogyny, the consequence in one disturbed individual of the suspicion and dislike for women that I saw all around me. Peter Sutcliffe’s hatred of women was extreme, but it wasn’t unique, which is why the police had such trouble catching him. They thought he would stand out and I thought exactly the opposite: that he could hide quite easily in a culture which often displayed casual contempt for women.”

The idea that abusive men are somehow different, that they have a personality disorder, is so harmful, says Hill, because it places all the attention on the brain of the killer and none on the culture, and the relationships between people. Patriarchy tells us that men’s violence is unavoidable, she writes. ‘Under patriarchy, this is all unfortunate, but “normal.” Natural. Invisible.’ But, she goes on, we cannot avoid the uncomfortable truth that violent and sadistic behaviour can come from otherwise ‘normal’ minds.’

On the day that Edwards was found guilty, people laid flowers at the now-closed Continental Hotel, where the women were last seen. Living in a city with a serial killer at large meant often feeling unsafe. That constant hum of danger was something we learned to live with. With Edwards found guilty, two decades of fear abated, leaving room for a collective sadness to surface.

At the sentencing, a friend of mine watched from the public gallery as prosecutor Carmel Barbagallo entered to court flanked by her team of female lawyers. She said there was some small comfort in seeing his lengthy sentence delivered in a courtroom where women stood in positions of power alongside the men. Yes, a dark line has been drawn under history. But no one with first-hand experience of that time will forget his victims. They were part of our community. And so was he.