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The Suitcase

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Trigger warning: this post deals with domestic and family violence and may be disturbing for some readers.

The annual ritual often ends with a text shared between sisters, “Did you have a piece of cake today?” In about two weeks’ time, our family will once again commemorate that terrible day, 15 years ago, when our Mum’s husband brutally took her life in the home they shared in Campbell.  She had just told him she was planning to leave him.  She was 67 years old.

Eating cake on the tenth day of October is what we three sisters do.  It’s our way of celebrating and remembering our mother. Besides being a fantastic cook, Mum (Pam to everyone else) had a passion for many things: the garden, reading, kids, grandkids, travel, her beloved Canberra Raiders and classical music.

Our Mum was part of the first wave of young people to move to Canberra in the mid-1950s to take up work in a fledgling public service.  Unlike most of her contemporaries, she worked full-time for most of her adult life.  In her late 50s, Mum started her well-earned retirement and she took on the role of President of the Majura Probus Club.

Our memories of Mum are of a loving, happy, warm, relaxed mother and grandmother.

Those who knew Mum remember her genteel disposition, a calm and competent presence with a fantastic reserve of self-determination.  In her later years she also lived in fear.

Having raised five children (for the most part, on her own), her second marriage that showed such promise, ended horrifically. She married a seemingly good man.  An Army officer, who outwardly was a respected member of the community with an impeccable record.  He didn’t smoke, drink or take drugs.  The reality though was something quite different.  He was a secretive, manipulative, predatory character who caused our Mum to live in fear. For him, it was all about control.  The happy, sharp-witted woman with so much to live for, was now living a life with a dark secret.

For years she continued to navigate what must have been a difficult existence.  Mum kept up her relationships whilst coping with an ever-diminishing freedom. As a private person she carried this burden, mostly alone, although over time family members became increasingly worried for her safety.  However, Mum being Mum, she would not have wished to burden others with her problems.

Her secret life was encapsulated in the discovery, soon after her death, of a small overnight suitcase hidden at the back of a wardrobe.

Inside was neatly packed what could only be described as an emergency kit.  She had the bare essentials – a nightie, change of clothes, basic toiletries and personal papers. No doubt ready for a quick escape, but in the end, there was no escape.  Finding the suitcase could not have been a more poignant sign of what our mother’s life had been reduced to.

Our mother’s story illustrates that no one ever really knows what goes on behind closed doors.  No one is immune, domestic violence can and does touch the well-educated and the well-off too. Without a doubt, there will be people close to all of us living this nightmare, maybe work colleagues, maybe friends.

There’s a thousand things we could say here about how this devastating event forever changed so much and touched our lives in so many ways. It’s an ongoing source of sadness to us that she didn’t live to see any of her grandchildren reach adulthood, she was absent from our family celebrations, weddings, and the birth of more grandchildren and now their children.  She would have been enormously proud of her youngest daughter last year as she stood before the Governor General to receive an Australia Day medal for outstanding service to the Australian Public Service.

The criminal case against our mother’s husband ran for years in the ACT Supreme Court.

This took an enormous toll on the family.  We wanted to be there for our mother and we were.  We wanted justice, but at the same time we became resigned to the reality that the long running court case was exclusively about her killer.  The identity of his victim seemed irrelevant.  Once the early committal hearing was finished, our mother was rarely mentioned again. Sitting through six years of legal arguments about the state of the perpetrator’s mental health was tough going.  We felt we’d lost our mother twice, through the assault and then, in the legal system, she simply disappeared.

As might be expected, we became well versed in criminal law, soon realising that the ACT jurisdiction was out of step with other parts of Australia in the way it dealt with serious crime.  The Bail Act and the Criminal Act were both in need of urgent revision, and we successfully argued the case with the incumbent (Stanhope) Government to make the necessary changes.

Six years after taking mum’s life, her killer took his own.

We were frankly relieved to be freed from the constant worry that we might read or hear about him or, worse still, that he would again be out on the streets and seek out one of us or our children.

Now, 15 years on, there is still much to do. The issue of domestic violence has drifted with little momentum.  One in three women experience domestic violence, and men and children can also be victims. This is a national conversation that is well and truly overdue.

Domestic violence is rampant in our community and has no boundaries.  What happened to our mother serves as a harsh and personal reminder that domestic violence is all around us. It is up to our generation now to raise awareness so that we as a society can start to make the change that’s needed.  Just as we witnessed slow change in people’s attitudes towards smoking, skin cancer and mental health through high profile public campaigns, we know attitudes towards domestic violence can be changed by raising awareness and applying the right resources.

The Tara Costigan Foundation and the Domestic Violence Crisis Service ACT are doing a fantastic job at ensuring our representatives across government understand the importance of continuing to support the fight against domestic violence. This is an across the board, non-partisan issue, that is damaging the very fabric of our society.

RIP Mum (Pamela Ann King)


If you have experienced or are at risk of domestic and/or family violence, please use the following contact details to access the support you need:

Police: 000

Domestic Violence Crisis Service: 6280 0900

Canberra Rape Crisis Centre: 6247 2525

Women’s Legal Service: 6257 4499

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732): the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service

Beryl Women Inc (website includes a ‘quick exit’ function) or call 6230 6900 (8.30am-5.30pm Mon-Fri).

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