SPENCER ZIFCAK. Vigil for Eurydice Dixon

Eurydice Dixon was raped and murdered no more than shouting distance from where I live. Had she screamed I might have heard her cry from across Melbourne Cemetery. But if she did, no one heard her.

There she was, lying in the middle of the soccer field in Princes Park at 3.00 am. I have been jogging and walking through that Park for almost forty years. Suddenly, it’s not the same. It never will be.

On Monday, I went to her vigil. I walked round the cemetery to get there. There were hundreds of others walking the same way, thoughtfully, purposefully, meditatively. By the time we came upon the scene there were thousands of others already there. So many that there was no chance of approaching the floral memorial that marked the spot. It didn’t matter.

The thousands were quiet. Exchanging hushed conversations, sharing, embracing. Women, men, children, pets. Solidarity was palpable. There were police cars, security vans, first aid vehicles, a tent or two and candles. Within a very short time things had been well organised.

In the distance, a female voice came through a microphone. This was not a time, she said, for speeches. It was not a time for arriving at solutions. It was a time for reflection, for hurt, for a communal sadness and, perhaps, despair.

It was a vigil. Helpless, comradely and strong.  I wondered whether anything would change. Three years ago, thirty thousand people marched down Sydney Road following the murder of the ABC journalist, Jill Meagher, only a kilometre away. Yet here we were again.

Then, the Park’s floodlights went out. The female speaker asked, gently, that the thousands should stand, in silence, for twenty minutes. In the darkness and the cold all sound was extinguished. A thousand candles were lit. I hadn’t brought one. I wished I had. Moments later, without my saying anything, a young man tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a candle. He lit it. Our eyes acknowledged the gesture, knowingly, appreciatively.

Next to him four young women stood, all around Eurydice’s age. It could have been any of them. It just happened to be her. I felt for her parents. I have a son not so much older than she was. There can be nothing worse than what they are experiencing. It’s far too horrible for even the deepest empathy to reach.

Everyone was faithful to the silence.

The soft song of a local choir drifted across the muddy, grassy terrain. One could just make it out. It was Leonard Cohen’s anthem ‘Hallelujah’. It was the right choice. From the centre to the periphery, people chimed in, sorrowfully, determinedly. Tears began to fill my companions’ eyes, mine too. Tragedy beyond description.

As the chorale slowly died down, suddenly something changed in me. I was overtaken by fury. I was in shock at the cruelty, the barbarity of Eurydice’s misfortune and fate.

But what can one do?

I have been a presiding member of Victoria’s Mental Health Tribunal for thirty years. In that time, I have heard thousands of tragic cases. I have met just a  few violent psychopaths. These are people with an extreme personality disorder characterised, among other things, by the absence of conscience, with no conception of right and wrong.

Except in the rarest of cases, mental illness does not go with violent sexual crime. But psychopathy can do. And we don’t understand it, we can’t cure it. Our only defence against it is early detection, law enforcement and criminal justice. Perhaps one day, neurology and genetics will also help us out. We know nothing yet about the alleged perpetrator. But it may be that Eurydice Dixon walked into the path of such a person. If so, she was shockingly unlucky.

For the rest, at every point in the spectrum from inappropriate touching to domestic violence it’s the relationship between genders that is critical. That’s not just sexual, it’s economic, social, cultural and political. Its inequality is deeply embedded. The problem, regrettably, lies almost exclusively with men.

Solving that problem may still take decades. My guess is that the best starting point for resolution will be primary school, and somehow or other, within the family. The vast bulk of violence against women is perpetrated at home. Eurydice’s case is terrible but atypical.

We need to reflect and act strongly and systematically to change our gender balance, to accomplish equality and respect between the sexes across all segments and sectors of society. That sounds like a truism or cliché but it’s not. It’s a challenge that is perplexing and complex. It requires insistence, determination and courage. It is of the profoundest importance.

If Eurydice Dixon’s death takes us even one incremental step towards that end, her history and her legacy will be secure – and, as we should, we will honour her memory.

Spencer Zifcak is Allan Myers Professor of Law at the Australian Catholic University

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