The last stone – what the judge said this week

LIKE DRACULA, the Ormond affair has resisted a natural death. One lawyer who has followed the case couldn’t believe it was back in court again this week: “I thought `Oh God, the hand out of the grave! Kill it! Kill it!”‘

This is probably the one point on which all the parties concerned could reach heartfelt agreement. But this week’s Supreme Court defamation case has not only reignited the story; it has resulted in the legal “outing” of the two young women.

This defamation case resulted from an attempt by the academic who had advised and supported the young women, Dr Jenna Mead, to respond to author Helen Garner’s 1995 book, the first stone. Mead’s 1997 book of essays, ‘bodyjamming’, included a chapter entitled “Sticks and Stones”. It was written anonymously by one of the young women, now known to be Olivia Mayer, and is the only public comment either has ever made.

In it Mayer described what it was like to be at the centre of such a maelstrom: “I could be driving my car, switch on the radio and tune into an argument between several strangers on the topic of my breasts.”
She did not write about the alleged incident with Gregory but did attack the way the complaint had been handled by the then vice-chancellor of Melbourne University, David Penington, and Suzy Nixon, the university psychologist he called in to conciliate between Gregory and the young women.

Nixon sued Jenna Mead and bodyjamming’s publisher, Random House, for defamation. In her statement of claim to the court, she argued that the chapter wrongly suggested she had breached professional confidentiality and used her position as conciliator to try to shut down the complaints.

Nixon’s statement says the chapter suggested that her recommendation that Gregory remain in his position was wrong and dishonest because “she was merely following the instructions of the Vice-Chancellor, to whom she directly reported”.

This week Nixon won a resounding capitulation: an out-of-court settlement that included a retraction, an apology, costs and an undisclosed amount of damages. “Random House and Jenna Mead now accept that this chapter contains serious errors of fact concerning the role of and behavior of Ms Nixon as conciliator and that the chapter was damaging to her,” the publisher’s lawyers told the court.

“Random House and Dr Mead unreservedly withdraw the false allegations contained in the chapter and apologise for the hurt and distress caused to Ms Nixon.”

The settlement came soon after the judge, Justice John Hedigan, had ruled that the two young women would have to give evidence under their own names, which had been suppressed for nearly a decade.

He said they could not expect to remain anonymous forever and it would be “curious and unjust” if they could write about the past anonymously while those they wrote about were denied such a “luxury”. By writing “Sticks and Stones”, Mayer had ignited “the fires of the past” and could not now expect to stay shielded. By the next day Mayer and the other original complainant, Kirsten Campbell, had been named in the press.

Mayer and Campbell are maintaining what is left of the barrier around their privacy. They still refuse media requests for interviews and their supporters will not reveal anything of the women’s circumstances.

Nor will anyone else associated with case talk about it, including Alan Gregory, who still lives in Melbourne.

Jenna Mead and her husband, poet and academic Philip Mead, have left Melbourne to lecture in English at the University of Tasmania. Author Helen Garner has returned to Melbourne after more than five years in Sydney. Suzy Nixon left Melbourne University in 1996 to set up her own practice as a therapist and organisational consultant.

All of them want to put this saga behind them. Only with hindsight will we know whether this week’s events give them their wish; whether this case is the final stake through the heart of “the Ormond affair”.

First published in The Age.