The thing with reading a book like MY LIFE by Roberta Williams seems to be, to me at least, to remember that this isn't "yet another book about the Gangland Wars in Melbourne". It's a book about a specific person's life. In that I'm not reviewing her life, I'm reviewing a book she wrote.
So I came to this book with a number of requirements in mind - did it feel like an honest portrayal of her life? Was this an attempt to put a positive spin on her involvement with some of the most well-known criminals in recent Melbourne history? How much did she know about what was going on? How does somebody end up in the position that she did?
So, on question one - did this feel like an honest portrayal? Roberta obviously had a difficult childhood, it seems like she was a bit of a wild child. No matter how tough she was, (which trait I would suspect has had a lot to do with her surviving this long), Roberta's childhood wasn't what you'd call normal. Frequently locked out of the house as a young girl (8 years old), in the less than salubrious neighbourhood of Frankston in those days, the fact that she ultimately turned to drugs and drug trafficking could be seen as a bit of positive. A fractious and difficult relationship with her mother, a difficult and deprived physical environment, opportunities that lead you smoothly in the wrong direction, a set of siblings that have come and gone from each other's life since then, we're not talking about normal lives here. Whatever else you may think of Roberta Williams, you have to give her points for her survival instinct. The voice in which the book is written feels very authentic, and that's not just because of the swearing, or a couple of standout moments of settling some scores - there are points in the book where Roberta acknowledges mistakes made, where she says there is nothing glamorous or fabulous about the sort of life she and Carl, in particular were living. Sure there are some aspects that maybe somebody with a different moral compass might find a little odd, perhaps there are areas that were fudged or hedged a little, but all in all, this seemed to this reader at least, like a pretty honest portrayal of a life.
Was this an attempt to put a positive spin on her involvement - overall I'd have to say not overtly. Telling the story of your own life, obviously you're going to have a perspective on things that happen to you. Whether or not that perspective starts out as the truth, or as how you want to see things, is next to impossible to tell. To this reader at least there wasn't so much a reputation restoration going on, as an opportunity to say a few things from her own perspective. Certainly there are elements within the book - such as her reaction to the shooting of Jason Moran at an AusKick function, surrounded by kids, that if the author had been looking for an opportunity for a little reputation restoration, she perhaps would have approached in slightly more sympathetic terms.
In terms of how much she knew about what was going on - this is probably less clear. There are some things that the author openly admits to knowing about, to being involved in - such as early days as a drug trafficker, knowing where the money that was funding their lifestyle was coming from and so on. In terms of the killings, probably less clear, but there is also some indication of how little control she, and probably most of the wives and partners of some of these crims have in these circumstances. Sure they could pack up and leave - to go where? Perhaps this is the only point on which I could draw no obvious conclusions. Sure, once she and her kids were threatened, Roberta started to pull away from life with Carl - but exactly when that happened, what was going on around her at the time, I couldn't get straight in my own mind.
And that leads me straight into how she ended up married to Carl, seemingly in the middle of the biggest gangland war that Melbourne has seen in a long long time. As is so often the way when you start out life badly, life choices aren't your strongest point. Married to a man who beat her, her romance with Carl Williams actually seems to have been a haven. Despite his unfaithfulness, he was a kind man. He was good to her kids, he didn't beat her up, he provided. It must be hard to pack up and walk away from something that maybe the rest of us would be horrified about, but ultimately, to Roberta may have seemed like a safe place to be.
There are elements in Roberta's story that are going to appeal to some readers - her devotion to her children, her loyalty to her man despite all. As I started out saying, this isn't a book about the Gangland wars, but a book about a participant. It gave me some insights into Roberta's life which were sobering. I was relieved that she makes no pretence about the world being glamorous or clever or attractive. I admired the way she acknowledged that there were things in her life that left her feeling embarrassed.
I was constantly reminded, however, of Justice Betty King's answer when I heard her asked what she felt were the main contributors to crime in this society. Paraphrased - lack of education and poverty.