Accidental heroes

When tragedies happen, it’s the heroes we cling to. But what makes a hero? Karen Kissane reports.

Everybody loves a hero – except, for a time, the hero himself. Two months ago, after Cranbourne resident John Leusenkamp helped rescue children from a burning car, he started getting calls.
“You have people ringing up and straight away going, `Hero hero hero!’ on the phone, and I’m thinking, `Who are you? F. . . off!’
“A bit later on, it sounds all right; people appreciate what you’ve done. But in the beginning you don’t even want to know about that side of it because you’re pretty depressed straight after it, with what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard. I was face to face with what went on in that car; what you see on Hollywood movies with cars exploding and people burning, that’s nothing.”

He is still struggling with flashbacks of the children’s suffering – one of the boys, nine-year-old Chad Clay, later died from his burns – and with trying to make sense of such random destruction. “Why does it have to happen to children? They haven’t even had a life yet.”

Leusenkamp, a carpet tiler, is a hero in the classic Australian mode: an ordinary bloke suddenly confronted with extraordinary circumstances who hurls himself into protecting others. The Bali blast saw many of them, including some who might never be named because they died as strangers trying to rescue other strangers. This week’s shooting at Monash University, in which lecturers and a student tackled a heavily armed gunman, added three more to the list of local heroes.

Why do some people leap into heroic action while others freeze or flee? What is it like for them afterwards? Does becoming a hero, like winning the lottery, have as much capacity to ruin a life as it does to enrich it? And why does the rest of the world, as personified by Leusenkamp’s unwanted callers, have such a need to fasten on to them?

Dr Bob Montgomery, a Queensland clinical psychologist who counsels trauma victims and who has co-authored a book on coping with crisis, says many heroes have something in common: training. In an emergency, most people have the normal human response of emotional freezing; their thinking narrows and they become focused only on escape.

“They will do things to survive that they are ashamed of later,” he says. “A man caught in a football crush in Britain panicked. He clambered on top of everyone else and walked over their heads. Later, he felt immensely guilty . . . but he escaped while others were killed.”

The few who do heroic, constructive things “often are people who have had special training: off-duty firemen or policemen, ambulance officers”, he says.

What about the human bucket brigade in Bali, the group of young men who lined up to help others clamber over a fence to escape the Sari Club fire? One would have taken the lead and the others would have followed, he suggests.

“You only need a small number of people to set the pace, and that will come from someone with training or from someone who’s just a remarkably robust individual.”

It’s not hard to find examples to prove his rule. Lee Gordon-Brown, the lecturer who tackled the Monash gunman despite having been shot himself, was a former airforce engineer, and the student who went to his aid, Alistair Boast, was a kung fu expert.

Senior Constable Stuart White recently received a bravery award for hauling a would-be suicide out of the path of an on-coming train with only seconds to spare. He says he had been trained in how to tackle people and had experience of racing down train tracks. “I knew the stones were more solidly packed in the middle and loose on the side, and that if you’re on the loose stuff you’ll roll an ankle and go off.”

But there are also many heroes such as Leusenkamp who have had no preparation for their moment of truth. Katie Steadman was a 17-year-old Queensland high school student when she helped save her two nephews from a fire and raced back into the burning house to try to rescue her two-year-old niece, Mikayla. She was beaten back by the heat and later nearly died from her injuries, which included full-thickness burns to 70 per cent of her body and the loss of her lower left leg.

She is now a chirpy 19-year-old, with a spare waterproof prosthetic leg so she can water-ski. Despite her scarring, Steadman has no regrets about her rescue attempt, other than the big one: that Mikayla still died.

She is as modest as all the others interviewed for this story. Her mantra, like theirs, is “I don’t see myself as a hero. I feel I did something that any person would do.” But she acknowledges she has “talked to people who say that they would never have been able to put their life on the line like that”.

Altruism is a mystery to Darwinians, says Dr Karen Jones, lecturer in philosophy at Melbourne University. “There’s a puzzle about how altruism evolved because it looks like it might not enhance your own fitness to do altruistic acts.”

She says research suggests that altruism is a complex interaction between the person and the situation. Social psychologists once set up an experiment in which seminarians (trainees for the priesthood) were invited to Princeton University to lecture on the tale of the Good Samaritan. The need for good deeds should have been at the forefront of their minds.

On the way, they passed a staged situation in which a distressed person looked to be in need of help. But whether they stopped of help. But whether they stopped depended simply on whether or not they had been told they were running late for their lecture.

Australia is ambivalent about its heroes. People feel moved and proud to hear of them. Heroes are also comforting social tranquillisers; reassurance of good in the midst of evil and of the possibility of triumph, or at least integrity, in the face of catastrophe.

But according to Graeme Davison, professor of Australian history at Monash University, Australia also has a strongly democratic, anti-heroic streak. “Forty years ago, we used to rejoice in the fact that we had few heroes and the ones we did have were people like Ned Kelly or `types’, such as the Anzac . . . It’s a big sin in Australia to take yourself too seriously or place yourself on a pedestal.”

Heroes will wryly agree. Ask them how their friends and colleagues responded and it is always a tale of chiacking. When Inspector Peter Dinan and another officer rescued 11 people from a fire in 1980, their colleagues said: “The lengths some people will go to get noticed.” Stuart White was told: “There’s a thin line between bravery and stupidity.”
Perhaps it is that cutting down to size that leads to many heroes downplaying their achievement and the fulfilment it must bring them. But 20 years after his rescue effort, Dinan still cherishes the memory. “It’s an absolute privilege to have saved someone. There’s definitely three people still alive simply because we stopped to investigate (smoke). I’ll always remember it. I could imagine a brain surgeon would feel the same thing taking a tumour out of someone’s head. It’s terrific.”

Below the public teasing runs an undercurrent of admiration and, in the face of a tragedy as large as the Bali bombings, it becomes open and generous. Montgomery says: “Society wants heroes partly because we want someone we can admire and identify with, who sets a good example and gives us hope that if anything really dreadful happened there might be someone to help me, or I might be able to help someone myself”.

Heroes are particularly important as a reassurance of goodness when the emergency has involved deliberate harm, says Dr Beverley Raphael. She is the director of the NSW Centre for Mental Health and, as a pyschiatrist, has been called in to help after many disasters, including the Granville train wreck, Cyclone Tracey, the Ash Wednesday bushfires and the Newcastle earthquake. “Bali was different to a natural disaster; all of us are having trouble coming to terms with the horror of people’s malevolence, and that’s a whole stressor in itself,” she says.

There are cultures in which the great heroes of the nation are warriors, honoured for their triumphs on the battlefield. Australia is not one of them. After World War I, Albert Jacka received a Victoria Cross for the way he had taken on and killed the enemy in combat. Today few people know of him. Our household names are not fighters but saviours: Simpson and his donkey at Gallipoli, army surgeon Weary Dunlop on the Burma Railway.

Davison says the adulation of such men is sometimes an attempt to redress some kind of social imbalance. With the death of Weary Dunlop in 1993, Davison says many older people expressed concern that he was the last great Australian hero, and that young people would feel the lack. “They were looking towards heroes as providing of kind of moral centre for a society which seemed to be badly in need of it.”

He says this decade, heroes might be providing balance for the economic rationalist emphasis on individualism and personal success: “The hero is, above all, someone who does things for others rather than for himself. (The public’s response) might be partly born out of a sense of a need for community solidarity.”
The hero of myth, according to writer Joseph Campbell, was someone who was removed from ordinary life, had fabulous adventures and returned to ordinary life transformed, aware of the eternal truths and able to offer boons to others. Research suggests that the same can be true of real-life heroes, but that their odyssey might need to include a stop at a therapist’s.

Heroes are probably just as likely as anyone else to suffer post-traumatic stress, Raphael says. “People who have been able to be active often feel stronger afterwards, but they’re also often torn by feelings of `Why did I survive when others didn’t?’ ”
And, just like any victim of horror, they can develop post-trauma symptoms: reliving the event through nightmares and flashbacks; emotional numbing; and hyper-arousal, which leads to irritability, poor concentration and sleep problems.

Leusenkamp has found that becoming a hero “messes with your head, especially because there’s children involved. You have trouble sleeping. I still go into my own little world with thoughts and that. It’s hard to get motivated, concentrate on anything. I’ve shied off my mates. I just can’t seem to get back into my routine.”

And even heroes sometimes reproach themselves for not having done enough. Raphael says that, in a crisis, a person’s perception of time is distorted and reality unfolds in slow motion, leaving the person wondering if there had been time to do more.Katie Steadman agrees: “Although I was in the house for only about five seconds, my mind slowed down that whole process like I was there for 10 minutes.”

What was left undone might haunt some of the Bali victims, who told of walking past injured people begging for help because they were searching for their mates or loved ones. “They dissociated from those victims while they looked for people they felt a closer bond for. In a way, that’s what health professionals do every day when they deal with suffering,” Montgomery says.

As for the eternal truths, heroes, like other people who have faced sudden death and disaster, often emerge determined to spend more time with their family. Raphael’s research has found that many examine whether they are happy with their work, and some search for ways to make the world a better place.

Sometimes their hero status can be a heavy burden: “They have got to live up to this image, and their ordinary feelings of weakness and grief and horror and fear are hard for them to deal with. It’s stamped on them forever; it’s expected that they will keep on doing it when at other times they might actually be feeling fearful or depressed.”

It has helped Leusenkamp that he has made friends with the family he helped to save: “I get to see the kids a bit. I never knew them before that (car fire), so I only had one vision of what they were like, and seeing them sort of takes that memory away.”

Steadman has had to give up her dream of joining the police force – she is now a hero and a dental assistant – and the experience has changed her life in other ways, too. “I live for the day; I don’t look too far ahead.” She has also taken up again with her old boyfriend, who supported her strongly during her months of recovery. “Before, like any young teenage girl, I used to think, `I can get this guy, that guy’. Now I look inside people and not at personal appearances,” she says. She did have nightmares, but they stopped when she went home after three months in hospital. At home, she says, she doesn’t have to be a hero.

Karen Kissane is an Age senior writer.

Brave words

It feels good that I was responsible from stopping this guy from doing what he intended to do.

– Sandro de Maria (above), on helping to disarm convicted killer Peter Knight, who shot dead a security guard at an East Melbourne abortion clinic.

I know we’re all going to die.

Three of us are going to do something about it. Love you, honey.

– Thomas Burnett (above), on the phone to his wife, Deena, before he and others forced flight 93 to crash in rural Pennsylvania rather than the White House on September 11, 2001.

First published in The Age.

City’s grief shows in bouquets of sorrow: Massacre in Bali

On the steps of Parliament House it feels like the inside of a church. Trams clang past as always but knots of people stand still and silent, caught up in their own thoughts or prayers. Some read messages on the 2000-odd bouquets laid in memory of those lost in Bali.

“I didn’t even know you but I’m sorry,” wrote Carlie Nally of Frankston, who is six. The children of Heathmont Baptist Preschool made a big card “For those who feel sad” and signed it with their fingerprints in bright, splashy paints. A banner of white paper carries photos of the dead and missing and the line, “I am, you are, we are Australian.”
On Wednesday one woman stood on the steps and wept for hours beside an Australian flag she had posted herself. No one intruded on her to ask why. And no one approached the two women dressed all in black who laid their flowers yesterday, walking heavily with the burden of their grief. Melbourne mourns respectfully.

The Diana-like outpouring of flowers began after a caller to radio talkback host Neil Mitchell suggested flowers at the Shrine. A second caller, Mike Collins, suggested Parliament House was more central. “And if you look up Bourke Street, it’s a natural terrace,” he said yesterday. “I think people wanted to do something, and they didn’t know what to do.”

People do what they can. For media magnate Kerry Stokes, owner of Channel Seven, that meant offering his Falcon 900 jet to help fly the injured from Denpasar.

It made two trips, bringing back nine burns victims on Sunday and the remaining members of the Kingsley football club on Tuesday. “The surviving members of the team wanted to travel back together as a group,” a spokesman for Mr Stokes said yesterday.

At Parliament House the condolence books have been signed by more than 2000 people. There are wreaths from the Freemasons and the ACTU, from Indonesian language teachers and the plumbers and electricians union. The US consulate-general sent one with pink paper hearts; Garuda Airlines, a pot of fruit and flowers.

There are some from those closely hit: “To my beautiful cousin, Anthony Stewart. I love you so much and I am devastated that I may not see you ever again.” “To my Festa, may you rest in peace. I love you and miss you, but thank God for bringing you into my life.”

Many were laid by young people and some talk about holidays in Bali. But, while Australians feel for the Balinese, most are not willing to risk danger for them. According to travel agent Richard Ruskin, managing director of Bali Bound Holidays, cancellations are running at 80 to 90 per cent.

For him, the aftermath involves worry about the Balinese who will lose work and about trauma counselling for his staff. His reservation manager was in Bali the night of the blast and is badly shaken, he says, while his two local tour operators volunteered at the hospital. “Some of the things they have seen are atrocious; not being able to tell if a burns victim is Australian or Balinese, being there when they die from their wounds.”

Jeanette McCluskey is one of the 20 per cent who will fly regardless. The tragedy has made her even more determined to visit Bali with her 12-year-old daughter next month. Miss McCluskey, of Nunawading, has been four times in the past two years. “All the people are our friends there. We’re not deserting the Balinese, they need us now – and it’s not their fault.”

The most arresting tribute on the steps is a wooden statue. The man has Balinese features and Balinese markings on his clothes but he wears board shorts and carries a surfboard, a symbol of two cultures that might never again mesh in quite the same way.

As another card says in Indonesian, “Tidak bagus (not good).”

First published in The Age.

King of the kids: John Marsden

John Marsden likes to write about the gritty side of teenage life: sex, suicide and mental illness have all featured in his books.

John Marsden is struggling like a comedian at a grog-free gig. He tries to charge up his young audience, hitting them with one story after another like a doctor with cardiac paddles. He tells them about the boy who swallowed the goldfish and the child who called pins and needles “lemonade legs”. They sit still and silent.

He’s talking to the Islamic students of Ilim College in Broadmeadows about writing: voice, character, plot. He gives them Tom Clancy’s recipe: What if? What next?
Towards the end of the hour-long talk comes the part that makes them realise he’s on their side: the role of status in story-telling. “Low-status people apologise all the time. They get run over by a truck and apologise to the driver,” he says.

“I apologise for everything. I was buying a jacket at the January sales. I turned around and realised I hit someone behind me. Then I realised I’d hit a mirror and was apologising to my own image.” They giggle.

By the time he’s mimicking a pontificating principal – sending up the way high-status people speak slowly because they know they won’t be interrupted – they’re laughing out loud. John Marsden, king of the kids.

He’s an unpretentious monarch. He arrived this day in baggy pants and a windcheater, his face bearing a faint five o’clock shadow. He’d been digging up worms for an injured magpie just before he left home, he says later, glancing at his hands as if to check for lingering traces of excavation.

His fellow travellers on the train to Broadie would never have picked him for a millionaire. They would be unlikely even to know his name, unless they were teenagers or English teachers or plugged-in parents.

But Marsden, 52, is one of Australia’s most successful authors. His 31 books have sold three million copies worldwide and been translated into 15 languages, including French, German, Japanese and Korean. A poll by Angus and Robertson on Australia’s favourite books found Marsden’s best-loved novel for teenagers, Tomorrow, When the War Began, came in fourth, ahead of the Bible at number five.

Those who admire his work talk of his gift for taking on the adolescent voice and the way he believes in their ability to navigate a challenging world. His critics wish he would show the same faith in adults; they claim his teenage characters often inhabit bleak worlds bereft of adult strength or kindness, and that he exposes kids too early to adult themes such as sex and suicide.

“Why can’t we let kids be kids, and let them enjoy their innocence and freedom from these worries?” says Bill Muehlenberg, vice-president of the Australian Family Association and recipient of complaints from outraged parents. He concedes he’s had no reports of kids being upset.

That’s because they don’t see his work that way. Says Lauren Kenrick, 14, who attended one of Marsden’s writing workshops: “I love his books, especially the Tomorrow series, because they’re real and everything that they were feeling – I knew exactly how they felt. I would be, like, ‘Mum, get the next one, I need it!”‘

Marsden also knows what makes kids laugh. The Great Gatenby is a comic novel about the wisecracking Erle Gatenby. Erle’s mother erupts into anxious, inane reminders as she drops him off at boarding school (Krapp House) for the first time. He tells her in return, “Don’t go talking to strange men while I’m away. Keep off the hard liquor. Don’t answer the phone unless it’s ringing.”

But some of his work has been seriously controversial. In his guide to life for teenage boys, Secret Men’s Business, Marsden said boys looking for “trophy sex” should use a prostitute rather than exploit a trusting girl – and then told them how to find a brothel and what to expect upon arrival.

The book that caused the most outrage was Dear Miffy. Some booksellers refuse to stock it and schools often keep it off their shelves. The book is written as letters from a youth in prison to his old girlfriend, Miffy. The boy is violent, rage-filled and lacking in moral insight. A failed suicide attempt has left him savagely mutilated, as trapped in his body as he is in his mind. Utterly black, the book ends on a howl of hatred.

So what’s inside the head of this man who’s inside the heads of Australia’s kids?

MONEY might not buy happiness but Marsden’s home shows it can buy beauty. He lives in the country near Romsey, an hour north of Melbourne, on the 400-hectare Tye Estate: manicured gardens and Edwardian buildings surrounded by sweeping stands of eucalypts.

He bought it for just under a million five years ago and has since spent that much again buying the property next door. Together with the improvements, it’s an investment of $2.5 million.

He reels off the numbers politely when asked but it’s clear they don’t excite him. It’s different when he’s asked about the graceful figure in the fountain near his winding driveway: a 1930s statue of a woman with a cloche hat and a flirty swirling skirt. He found her in bits in a box and had her restored, he says, his face lighting up.

It lights again when he’s asked what one man does with 400 hectares: “Keep it as safe as I can for trees and birds and animals.” He is an ardent conservationist. At the last election he handed out how-to-vote cards for the Greens, and in the 1980s he served a week in jail for protesting against the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania. (Ever the recalcitrant, he nicked the list of rules off the wall of his cell and later used them in a novel).

Animals are not the only creatures allowed the run of his place. Marsden, a former English teacher, runs writing camps for kids using log cabins set up as bunkhouses and a classroom. He seems to follow Dolly Levi’s dictum that money, like manure, should be spread around helping young things to grow.

He did try to be an idle sybarite. “I’d made good money from writing and I thought, ‘OK, this is the life.’ I bought the nice house (in Kew) and the nice car and I thought I’d have a coffee in Lygon Street every morning and Brunswick Street every afternoon.

“And after four months I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I should be doing this when I’m 75, not 45.”‘
He shares his home with the arthritic Trevor, a refugee from the lost dogs’ home, and Coco, a shih tzu with a temperament that leans towards the Latin. As we lie talking on the grass she plants herself nose to nose with the interviewer, as if warning that there’s to be no messin’ with her man.

Marsden grew up in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales, the third of four children who moved around following the postings of their father, a banker. He is as cagey as the next person when asked about that crucible of tortured creativity, the family.

“I lived a very typical life for the 1950s, very protected, where you didn’t have any awareness of the wider world. Mum was at home ironing the sheets – at least I think she did, she certainly ironed everything else.

“When I was a child my father seemed to dominate every field he was in, which was powerful for me.

“The family was conservative; strong moral standards, we went to church every Sunday. Anglican. Sir Robert Menzies ruled and God was in his heaven and everything was Nice, with a capital N.”

Marsden is more forthcoming about the way his school helped make him the man he is today: an anti-authoritarian who carries a deep anger about the abuse of power and an equally deep empathy for outsiders and underdogs, especially teenagers. He spent his adolescence at The King’s School in Sydney. (“Don’t forget the ‘The’ or the world will stop spinning,” he warns.)

He had a rough time there. “I didn’t like the cruelty that was part of the school’s structure. I got punished in every way. I was ostracised, more by the teachers than the kids. But the prefects were the ones who really hurt.

“Prefects were allowed to beat you with a sandshoe on the bum. They’d do things like get in the biggest room possible, and they’d bend you over at one end and they’d stand on a window-sill at the other end and launch themselves at you. And these guys were big ¤ 14 stone, 120 kilos. They were powerful, and they’d do it for anything.”

Marsden felt duty bound to give them cause. “We challenged Australia’s commitment to the Vietnam war, and the compulsory militarism at King’s, by skipping corps parades, by dumb insolence.

“In year 8 my mother was told by the housemaster that the teachers were afraid of me because I was so ruthless with them. If a teacher made a mistake, I would ridicule him. But if I was bored and angry, it was probably a by-product of that.”

The most intense experience he had at the school was actually a positive one, at the hands of a new headmaster who arrived towards the end of Marsden’s time. Marsden had charge of a table of small boys whose dinner he had to supervise, “All very English 1890s.” One day none of them ate their meal because they didn’t like the white sauce on their corned beef.

Like Oliver Twist, Marsden braved the housekeeper, a notoriously fearsome woman, and asked if she could put the white sauce in jugs so the children could choose whether to have it. Enraged, she marched him up to the headmaster. “He listened, and he said to her, ‘It sounds like a very sensible suggestion.’”

Marsden was floored: “It was like I had just been struck by lightning.”

It might be one of the reasons he ended up becoming a teacher himself rather than fleeing schools forever. “The main motivation to teach was to prove that you could teach in a different way.”

For all its flaws, the school had provided a structure to Marsden’s life, and without it he crumbled. Half-way through his first year in arts-law at Sydney University he became suicidally depressed and spent two months in a psychiatric hospital. “It was comforting in many ways because I learned a lot. I really started to understand how the mind works, I suppose.

“To me it was a new world. When people are in psych hospitals feelings are laid bare because there’s no point pretending any more; you’ve hit rock bottom. You’re basically there because your life is not working. To admit that was quite a relief, and then you can go on somewhere.”

The experience has informed a lot of his writing. The main character in his award-winning first novel, So much to tell you, is based partly on memories of a silent girl he met in the psych unit. It is the tender, perceptive story of a girl with severe depression who has not spoken for months, her face and her feelings scarred by an acid attack her father had intended for her mother. Her counsellor tells her that she does not speak because she is afraid to face her emotions about her parents and about herself; they will be a mix of love and hate.

She has lost her identity – her face, her voice, her family, her friends – but by the end of the book has built tentative new connections. Only when she begins to talk do we learn her name, Marina. That was like a baptism of the new person, Marsden wrote later: “For many people adolescence is like that; a search for a new identity built on the realisation that one’s identity as a child has started to dissolve.”

Tony, the nihilistic boy in Miffy, also comes from real-life experiences. Miffy followed a time when Marsden had helped look after a state ward “who was leading a life that I thought was unremittingly bleak and horrifying, and I used to wonder why she was like that, and what was going on in her mind”.

He is irritated by complaints of the book’s grimness. He points out that most teen fiction is lighthearted. “Also, the bigger argument is that I don’t think reality is the problem. I think protecting people from reality is the problem. And to keep young people in ignorance is unforgivable. So you have to help them to come to terms with the world, and that includes the awful aspects of the world.”

What critics failed to understand about the book, he says, “is that Tony’s tragedy is that he lacks honesty and insight and because of that he’s trapped.”

Troubled boys led to Marsden writing his guide to manhood. He says about 20 boys he has taught in schools have died, either from suicide or risk-taking. After one funeral he decided to do something about it.

In Secret Men’s Business – Manhood: The Big Gig, he tells boys that to be a man who is mature, independent and wise takes more than birthdays. He lists 12 steps to a boy achieving manhood, including leaving home, earning his own money, recognising his feelings and experiencing success. Top of the list: defeating his father in a field in which the father used to be superior.

“The part they find the most powerful is the part about defeating your father,” Marsden says. “If I’m talking to a really wild audience ¤ about how, when the moment comes, you’ve got to have the courage and strength to defeat him, suddenly they’re absolutely intent.”
Most of Marsden’s advice on sex would pass muster with any grateful parent: your penis doesn’t rule the world, no one ever died from blue balls, betrayal and casual sex are always bad karma. So what’s with the brothel advice? How can a man who thinks male criminals are damaged children fail to recognise that female prostitutes often have similar histories of child abuse and drug addiction?

“I hadn’t thought that part of it through,” he concedes. “What I was trying to say was at least if you go to a brothel it’s an honest transaction. If you lie to someone to get sex, it’s a dishonest transaction ¤ I’m not saying it’s good to go to a prostitute.”

His book also gives kind, shrewd advice about depression and avoiding drugs and suggests that boys with no father figure find themselves one. But he sees dire problems with the western template for fatherhood.

“You’ve got to read the Bible to understand the fabric of our society,” he says. “There’s a lot of very dark and horrifying episodes in that book. Abraham and his son is just a foul story. And I think there is this pattern; Abraham takes his son off to sacrifice him on the altar, God sends his son to sacrifice him ¤
“Men in Western society have grown up with that as the dominant image of the culture, that fathers send their sons to be killed. That’s with us consciously and unconsciously every day of our lives. It’s a very straightforward message that your father’s gonna nail you to a cross and leave you there to die.

“Why fathers don’t just sacrifice themselves and be done with it is never explained. But I suppose it’s some sort of primeval understanding of the death wish that fathers have for their sons.”
It doesn’t seem quite the moment to ask why he has never had children of his own.

MARSDEN’S classroom on the Tye Estate is an airy log cabin bounded by gum trees and rosellas. On the shelf sits a Pooh poster with the verse, “Pooh’s whole world is the 100-acre wood/ He loves it as much as any bear could.”

Another frame holds a school permission form sent home to parents about one of Marsden’s talks. On it the father of Debbie from 8C scrawled, “I do not give my permission for my daughter to go to listen to an author of a novel. Novel writers are persons with a lawless mind.” An amused Marsden agrees: “All the best novels are subversive.”

The hostility between Marsden and parents is not all one way. When he talks about parents, it’s often with a spurt of irritation at their overprotective or controlling behaviour. He tells the kids about parents who phone about this camp and ask if the staff are trustworthy: “What’s the point of that conversation? Am I going to say ‘Oh no, they’re all paedophiles’ or ‘We specially recruit serial murderers?’ I feel like asking them, “What about your children – are they bullies or drug addicts or thieves?’”

He tells of asking one hairdresser about how parents respond when their kid gets a radical haircut: “The next day the parents are there waving their mobile phones and threatening to get the lawyers.”
For all his talk of revolution, his classes take a conventional form. He sits up the front behind a desk and does most of the talking.

But the content of his teaching is different. He offers the kids freedom. Says Lauren Kenrick, “When I’m at school, my English teacher says you have to have a beginning, a middle and an end, it has to be 1500 words, or you lose marks. John said, ‘Forget all that.’ And that’s how I like to write, from the heart.”

But he also structures their work with practical exercises. He asks them for stories, each student having to say a sentence starting with “I remember”, and then one with “I used to believe”. He comments on each short tale gravely, like a parent admiring the whorls and colours of a child’s treasured seashells. Sometimes he critiques; the penguin story needs more detail to come alive, he tells one girl.

He tells them that people who are unaware of the truth about themselves are funny, like Basil Fawlty, or tragic, like King Lear. He teaches them about voice by making them write a scene in which students answer a teacher’s roll call in ways that illustrate their personalities, and then he responds to each of their characters as if they’re real. The character who blows a raspberry: “He’ll be expelled within a fortnight.” The character who mumbles: “He might be on drugs. I’d be watching his pupils.”

On his desk sits Dr Seuss and Joyce’s Ulysses, for lessons in how to play with words. He had them write a short passage about a storm without using the letter ‘A’, an exercise that frees up the unconscious. Twelve-year-old Michael Biczok wrote, “The storm willed revenge. Every time lightning struck it struck with solid power, with brute force. Clouds frowned down upon the beings below. Fury in solid form.”

At break time the younger ones clamour around him in front of the big photograph of Crosscut Saw, a long ridge of rock in the Australian Alps that he used for the setting of his Tomorrow series. The books are about teenagers who hide out in the bush and become guerilla fighters after Australia is invaded; Enid Blyton meets Alistair MacLean, on one level.

But they are also stories about kids wrestling with growing up – do they keep themselves safe, as their parents would have wished, or do they risk going into town to see if their families are alive? They decide they have to live their own lives now.

His friend and fellow children’s author, Paul Jennings, says of Marsden, “Something really lovely about him is that he doesn’t just write for teenagers but he genuinely has an affection for them and their problems.” He cites the way Marsden got him to run a joint writing workshop at a school in Port Arthur on the first anniversary of the massacre: “It was his idea; nobody paid.”

At day’s end Marsden is tired but cheerful, talking about how teaching kids always energises him: “Makes me feel like I’m doing something valuable.”

The kids have taken off to be fed by his female lieutenants, three young women who cook and care for the visitors. He lounges at his desk in the empty classroom, Coco luxuriating tummy-up on his lap as he runs his fingers through her coat, plucking out burrs.

He’s had a difficult year. There was a heart attack early on – he’s had to give up the chocolates he used to chomp as he wrote – and another health scare more recently; nothing with a nasty prognosis but enough to focus the mind on mortality.”I find it frightening,” he says.

Does he regret that he has no children? “Yeah, I really do. I haven’t given up completely but I think it’s unlikely to happen.” Families are special, he says a bit wistfully.

“This kid told me … he used to go and stay with his grandfather every holidays and he used to hate it, because his grandfather was grumpy and uncommunicative.” The grandfather attacked the boy for reading the first Tomorrow book, saying war was terrible. The boy dared him to read it.

“His grandfather became besotted with the stories and it’s transformed the whole relationship. My eyes were filling when he was telling me.”

What happened that Marsden didn’t settle down and have his own kids? He looks away and leans back. “Most recently I fell in love with someone who didn’t love me, so that’s pretty simple¤

“I’ve had two major relationships. One would have been six years, the other four years. They both sort of fizzled out.” Suddenly he’s impatient. “Oh, I don’t know. How do these things happen?”

But the little boy whose teacher wrote that he would do very well once he got over his daydreaming has achieved a lot. “He’s made a tremendous contribution,” says Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, manager of the Australian Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria.

She sees the Tomorrow series as modern classics: “All the responsibility and action is put back on to young people and he shows how intrepid and responsible and imaginative they can be. It’s a hallmark of his whole world view.”

She concedes, though, that “In some ways he doesn’t always give adults the opportunity to prove themselves; I think perhaps there are more good adults in the world than he makes it appear.”
Jennings takes a milder view. “People say his work’s subversive but I don’t think that’s the word. He has a dark sense of humour, but I don’t think he’s so much against adults as he is on the side of the kids. Someone’s gotta be.”

Maybe the benefits flow both ways. Marsden has a new book out, a fairy tale commissioned by Australia Post to provide pictures for a series of fantasy stamps. In his story, an old man needs healing water from deep in a forest, and it is kids who set out to find it for him.

Do they get it? “If anyone’s going to write a fairy story where they don’t find what they’re looking for and return empty-handed, it’s me,” he chuckles. “But no. They find it.”

Is he cured? “That’s left unresolved.”

First published in The Age.