Words || Erin Christie
Where is Lyn Dawson? Where is Baby Teagan? And most importantly, how are we talking about it so much?
In my Year 12 English Extension class, we elected to study a crime writing module. This was one of my favourite subjects, because when you think about it, crime writing is pretty fucked up. Stories about murder are straight up gruesome – a life ends (although fictional) and it’s honoured with an investigation, and a weird sense of urgency as you flip through the pages of the novel, or slide to the edge of your seat in the crime thriller film. Why are we so interested in crime writing? And also why are we suddenly so interested in true crime, which seems to be sweeping the nation and gaining momentous popularity, especially this year? One of the most common conventions of good crime writing is a restored sense of order and logic in the end. By the end of a crime novel, or film, or play, we feel as though we can leave understanding what happened, why and that we can now experience a brief respite from the sense of confusion that often follows us around as we ask: why do bad things happen to good people?
In January of 1982, Lyn Dawson went missing from her Northern Beaches home. Her husband’s story was that he’d driven her to a bus stop early that morning, so she could ride to Chatswood and return some clothes she had bought. A few hours later, she called him to say she had left with friends to go to the Central Coast for time apart from their disintegrating marriage. However, two days after she had disappeared, her husband, Chris Dawson, moved his seventeen-year-old girlfriend into the family home, where she assumed Lyn’s role as mother to the two young Dawson girls. Lyn Dawson was never seen again – by anyone. The phenomenon inspired a podcast – released this year by Headley Thomas for The Australian – called The Teacher’s Pet. Not only did it grip Australia, but it also rocketed up charts overseas, particularly in the United States, leading everyone to ask the same question: where is Lyn? My dad thinks she’s buried at Paul Dawson’s original Northern Beaches residence, just down the street from where his twin brother lived with Lyn at Bayview, as recent diggings at Lyn’s 1982 residence didn’t reveal her to be buried there. But he’s not the only listener with an opinion: all of my friends have something to say about this podcast, this narrative.
In 1996, water-polo player Keli Lane gave birth to a daughter, Tegan, after hiding her pregnancy for its duration from everyone around her. Still, to this day, people around her claimed they did not know of her pregnancy, or that she denied it to them when they asked her. On the day she gave birth to Tegan, Lane played a water-polo final before arriving at the hospital to give birth. The next time she was seen was a day or so later, at a friend’s wedding, wearing a white suit. There was no sign of Tegan: by then, she was gone. Tegan’s whereabouts were never pinpointed, and she was only noticed to be missing in 1999 when Lane gave birth to another child that she adopted out. The DOCS worker on the case found that Keli Lane had given birth before, in spite of the fact that she had lied and said she hadn’t. Keli Lane was convicted for murdering Tegan in late 2010, even with the absence of a body or any truly solid evidence. This led to a recent investigation by journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna, culminating in a three-part documentary series that aired on the ABC, which worked to poke holes in the narratives and lines of reasoning used by the prosecution in Lane’s case. The case itself is completely bizarre, and had my mother and I yelling at each other across a dinner table; I was questioning if there was some way someone else had given birth to the child, while she was adamant that Lane had done something to Tegan, and wouldn’t budge. Why were we yelling? Why was this at the forefront of our dinner table discussions?
Is it ethical to lay out these people’s lives to the Australian public for them to discuss, consider and form opinions of? My moral side wants to say no. My curious side wants to say yes. No matter how horrifying the base level thought of a woman’s murder or a baby’s death might be, I still want to know what happened. I still hold all hopes that justice will be found for Lyn, and that what happened to Tegan would be discovered, because part of me thrives in knowing that there is some order to the world. However, another part of me thrives on wondering. And this, my friends, is why true crime is having one of the biggest moments it has ever had in Australia this year.
When looking into why we love true crime so much, I found a number of reasons. The first is the sense of restoration I mentioned before. Crime stories “tend to be formulaic to a certain extent,” says Scott Bonn, a criminology expert, when speaking to online blog Better. He also alludes to a sense of adrenaline that comes with experiencing true crime narratives; viewers or readers are given a sense of a thrill in a world saturated with the mundane. Here are everyday people who experienced something terrible, and isn’t that just the tiniest bit terrifying to know that people just like ourselves have gone through such an experience? “We are fascinated by testing and exploring these boundaries of human nature,” Bonn says.
I’m a little bit sick with my own fascination. Casefile is on high rotation in my podcast app, and I’m eyeing off Part II of Making a Murderer, which has just dropped on Netflix. But where is my sickness with human nature? Why doesn’t it bring me to tears to think of a poor mother, buried in someone’s backyard while her ex-husband tells the world she ran off to join a cult? Why doesn’t it twist up my insides to think of a baby whose life was taken away within days of it beginning? Why am I contemplating the innocence of Steven Avery, when Teresa Halbach had her life shortened by someone, as though she shouldn’t be the focus of everything that’s said about Making a Murderer? This phenomenon not only makes me consider those we’ve lost, or in some sense refuse to lose, but maybe also the empathy that constant exposure to these narratives is taking away from me, too.