BORN OR BRED? - Robert Wainwright and Paola Totaro

Review Written By
Karen Chisholm

Writing a book about true events must be a complex undertaking.  If those events are within recent history, then it must make the task even harder.  If the events are as horrific as what occurred at Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996, then the reader may find themselves in very difficult territory.  The history of the writing of this book appears to have been somewhat complicated into the bargain, with Martin Bryant's mother Carleen starting to write her own account, a possible collaboration with the authors of this book, and her subsequent withdrawal from the project.  I understand since then she has objected strongly to the publication.  Australian readers of this review will be acutely aware of the facts and figures of the number of dead and injured at the end of the Port Arthur / Seascape events - and this review isn't going to get into discussing the events of the day, but it's worth noting that the book provides a fairly detailed summation of the day - quarantined and clearly labeled at the back of the book for those that find the details too confrontational.

BORN OR BRED? being the title of the book, the reader will instantly assume that the book will attempt explain the reasons why a behaviorally challenged young man became a mass murderer.  The book takes the reader back through Bryant's own life; a difficult childhood where he experienced considerable problems fitting in, along with associated learning difficulties.  It takes you through his father's efforts to try to in some ways control Bryant, and in others compensate for what was an increasingly lonely and ostracised life.  It outlines a difficult relationship with his mother, who struggled with her son in her own right.  It then goes through the time when he meets and befriends an older woman, heir to a component of the vast Tattersalls estate, and their increasing bond.  The book also steps back in time to analyse Bryant's ancestry discussing the family tree as they arrived in Tasmania and how, eventually, Bryant's parents came together.  It then outlines a series of personal losses - the death of his mentor and friend in a car accident (possibly caused by Bryant himself), the suicide of his father, a childhood grudge.  Right at the end of the book there is some space devoted to the responses of investigating detectives, Bryant's lawyer, and to the forensic psychologist who diagnosed Bryant as capable of standing trial.

At the start of the book there is a brief mention of the Tasmanian Government's legislative efforts to shut down discussion and/or revelation of the Port Arthur killings.  Bryant eventually, under the guidance of his lawyer, opted to plead guilty to all charges as a result of the shooting spree and the case was never bought to trial.  Obviously that lack of a trial and the subsequent dearth of discussion and/or information has resulted in a silence that has left some people feeling that the events of the day have never been explained.  Because Bryant has never been seen to speak publicly it's impossible for people to know if he understood what he was doing on that day, or why he did what he did.  Assuming, of course, that Bryant knows himself.  

BORN OR BRED? is therefore dancing on a tightrope.  Whilst the authors are ostensibly trying to analyse the perpetrator and his background, it's a difficult task.  Without access to Bryant, without access to Bryant's father (who it could be said understood him best), there is never likely to be a clear cut answer to the question - why.  Maybe with access to them both there could still not be an answer.  There are best guesses as to why Bryant did what he did, and it has to be said that the book discusses what, in some ways, could be gleaned from the outside by anyone considering the case.  The problem with a book like this is that without answering the question of why the crime occurred, does the book itself deserve a chance to stir up emotions all over again for Bryant's mother, for his sister, for the families of the victims, for the survivors of the day?   Books about true crimes - recent and past are common in Australia, yet there's been little written about Port Arthur.  There are some suppositions outlined in Born or Bred? and some of them are going to be more palatable than others.  There were also aspects of the book that I found less than satisfactory, but it certainly never felt like the reader was being pulled into voyeuristic territory.  But, if we're to understand why it is that somebody can turn to the incomprehensible, then, as hard and as uncomfortable and as confronting as books like this are, as lacking in a definitive concrete answer, the book was informative, if only for the reason that it spelt out how inexplicable human actions can be. 

Year of Publication

Martin John Bryant slipped into the world in the autumn of 1967, blond, blue-eyed, angelic.  On a sunny Sunday 29 years later, Carleen and Maurice Bryant's beloved first-born loaded the boot of his yellow Volvo with guns and ammunition and returned to Tasmania's historic Port Arthur settlement, scene of many idyllic childhood summers. 

Review BORN OR BRED? - Robert Wainwright and Paola Totaro
Sunnie Gill
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Review BORN OR BRED? - Robert Wainwright and Paola Totaro
Karen Chisholm
Thursday, June 11, 2009

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