Rachael Brown is an ABC investigative reporter and former Europe correspondent. She has received numerous awards as an Australian broadcast journalist, including a Walkley Award for Best Radio Current Affairs Report in 2008.
She is also the creator, investigator, and host of the Australian Broadcasting Company's first true-crime podcast, Trace. Trace won the 2017 Walkley Award for Innovation, as well as two 2017 Quill Awards for Innovation and for Best Podcast. In 2018, Trace became the first podcast-turned-book in Australian publishing history (published by Scribe).
Astrid: Rachael Brown, welcome to The Garret.
Rachael: Thanks for having me.
Astrid: You are no stranger to podcasting. You are the creator, investigator, and host of Trace, the ABC's first true crime podcast. Trace, the podcast, received the 2017 Walkley Award for innovation and two Quill Awards for Innovation and for Best Podcast. Well done.
Rachael: Thank you.
Astrid: And in 2018, Trace became a book. And if I've got my figures right, it is the first podcast to become a book in Australia.
Rachael: Wow, exciting.
Astrid: It is exciting, actually. You are, of course, a journalist by trade. And the unsolved murder of Maria James covered in Trace is not your first big story, by any means. It's also not your first award. In 2008, you received your first Walkley Award for best current affairs report for your investigation into the Victoria Medical Practitioners Board, whose negligence contributed to the assaults of dozens of women.
From your point of view, what makes a good story?
Rachael: It's one that taps into our primal emotions, I think. Whether it's fear, which is the Trace story of the Maria James story, or whether it's injustice, or whether it's love, power. You know, they always come back to those basic principals, I think.
Astrid: So, how do you know when you have a big story, and it's one that you are going to pursue?
Rachael: I always... It sounds funny, but it's like, as a journalist, my Spidey senses go up. So, the Medical Practitioners Board story, that was through stubbornness as well, actually.
I was really meticulous with the court lists, I would check the court lists every day. And I was going through the Magistrates Court List, and the sex crime squad was in the defendant's column instead of the prosecution, and I thought it was a typo. And I thought I would just check it out. And I went in and realised that they were in the defendant's column because they raided the Medical Practitioner's Board. And I thought, ‘Oh, this is interesting’. And the magistrate said, ‘Anyone from the press here?’ And I put my hand up, and then got kicked out, and thought, ‘This is really interesting’.
So, I sat outside and waited for the informant to come out, the police informant. And I asked her what it was all about. And she told me, but I couldn't do anything on that story at the time, because if I accused the Medical Board of negligence, because basically, two women had come forward and said they'd been raped by a dermatologist. And had I written that story, it would have prejudiced their case. And so, I sat on that story for a year, and I kept in touch with those two women and also, the informant. And I learned that there were 12 more women after these first two, that were assaulted by this dermatologist because the Board didn't act on that.
So, I needed to wait until the dermatologist pleaded or was sentenced. And he pleaded guilty in the end, and that is why I was able to do that story.
So, that was out of sheer stubbornness, as was Trace, which we'll get to later.
Astrid: You don't shy away from big stories or telling other people's stories. So, how do you balance telling a good story and telling the truth, with the ethical considerations of telling someone's story or bringing something to light.
Rachael: I try to put myself in their position and think, ‘Well, how would I feel if a stranger was asking me these questions?’ And generally, that's how I get through the hardest of the questions. And I think that being a good person makes you a good journalist. Not necessarily, the other way around. I think you can be a good journo without, yeah, I just... Sometimes there are good journalists that aren't good people, but I think being a very good person makes you a good journalist, because you understand compassion, you understand empathy.
I know that we're not supposed to get too attached to the people that we're dealing with. I broke all the rules in Trace. I did get way too attached to the family. I put myself in the story. But the podcast is a little bit different to daily news reporting. I didn't do that with the Medical Board story, but the beautiful genre of podcasting allows you to break the rules, I think. And I'm not a robot. You're not a robot. People listening aren't robots. So, I didn't want to present for Trace a clinical story. And I even get uncomfortable calling it a story, because it's this family's life and their trauma. But I didn't want to be clinical about that. And so, I don't really make any excuses for the things that I did with Trace. And I actually feel it was stronger for it that I did become way too emotionally invested in this story.
Astrid: Before we start talking about Trace, can you tell me about the power of words and the language that you choose to communicate? And I ask that question because of what you say here, on page 137 in Trace, if I can quote...
Astrid: ‘The fear remains the damage that we, as journalists can wreak if we're careless with our power, the power of words.’
Rachael: That comes if you read the book, because of the... Well, I know of the power anyway. And when I was a court reporter, I used to watch some journalists with not much time, maybe, that had to file for the 5:00pm news or 6:00pm news shove a microphone in people's face and say, ‘How do you feel that your son's dead?’ And that would make my stomach turn. And it was everything that I hate about our profession. And it doesn't happen a lot, but when it does happen, it's disgusting.
And I know the power that words can have. I know the damage that they can wreak. Some journalists are more sensitive to that than others. I was always sensitive to it. And then, I did a story...
So, relating to the Medical Practitioner's Board story, actually, so I did that story and I won a Walkley. And then I did a followup story about more negligence by the Victorian Medical Practitioners Board. There was a doctor accused of rape by an 18-year-old. And I corroborated it. I was very sure about my sources. And I called the doctor on a Friday night. And I put the allegations to him. And he was so cool and composed about it that I thought, ‘Shit, the boy is, they're making it up.’ He was unflappable. And he said, ‘Oh, look, this is just something that happens when you treat damaged people. This is how they get back at you, and I understand, and here's my statement’. And so, I used his statement. And so, we ran the story on AM on the Friday, and then the story ran in The Herald Sun on the weekend. And then, on Monday, the police informant called me and said, ‘Rach, he's killed himself’. And I...‘ it was just a blur. I just remember thinking, ‘But I was so careful. I didn't name any of the boys, I didn't, there's no way…’ Because I was so worried about the victims. There's no way they could be identified.
And the cop said, ‘No, no, no, it's the doctor. The doctor killed himself’. And then, I went and threw up in the staff toilets, because I thought it was my fault. And he, the informant, was this divine guy that took me for a coffee and tried to convince me that it wasn't my fault. That they'd told the doctor something over the weekend, and a key witness for the defence had turned and was going to be working for the prosecution. And that's what set him over the edge.
But we do deal in life and death. And I was really careful with that story, and there was still a terrible ending to the doctor's life. And so, going into this with so many damaged people, abused people, suicidal people, I was particularly careful. I would have been careful anyway, but I've got, I've been bruised by that episode, so I went above and beyond to ensure that everything in Trace is respectful. The wording, being compassionate. I broke another rule by sending sections to survivors to check, to see whether they were comfortable with everything that I had said, both for the podcast and for the book… at the cost of… as a first-time author, I'd never written a book before. Never done a podcast before. So especially for the book, I should have been spending more time finessing the craft. But my priority was making sure that they were okay with everything that went in there. And I make no apologies for that. And for the most part, most of them have been really grateful that I went to such lengths to do that.
Astrid: As listener and a reader, you can, I can hear the lengths that you went to. And I wanted to ask about the emotional toll. You, as you mentioned, are in Trace. Your emotions are in Trace. The impact of telling the story is there. And it's also there in the book. You say that you broke a rule of journalism. But how did you decide how much of yourself to include?
Rachael: The producers – the amazing producers, I should say – that I was paired with in Radio National in Sydney, we all collaborated on how the podcast would sound.
So, I describe it as a waltz, that I would have these immensely detailed scripts with lots of insights and observations and characters, and funny little things about quirks or things that they might have on their walls. And then it was… my scripts were ruthlessly stripped bare. And I would dread every Friday, because I would have a script edit with Tim Roxburgh who works for Background Briefing. And he would just strip it back to its bones.
And it would, it really hurt, because I just thought, ‘Well, that's what listeners want’" They've come out of S-Town, this detailed, rich world that S-Town created. And that's what I tried to do. And they said to me at the time, and I thought they were being pedantic. They said, ‘If you don't nail that, like, US podcasters are very good at that. We're very new in this space. So, unless you nail it, if you fall out of the side of that, people are going to hate you.’
And I thought they were just being very pedantic. But looking back, they're right. And the other blessing of having Tim was that he hadn't worked on the investigation. So up until then, I'd done about a year, just over a year, investigating on my own. And so, he came at it with completely fresh eyes, which was really important. And they do this a lot in America, repeatedly get fresh eyes on it. And he picked out what he saw was the clear, narrative flags, and basically, just stripped out everything around it. So, some of my favourite people in the story aren't in the podcast. And he needed it to be, he said, ‘I just want it to be plot-driven and career along’. And he said, ‘There's so much in it and so dense, and we need people to understand it and not get confused.’ And he was right, because we wanted, I wanted interactivity. And so, I think the clarity and really stripping it back to its essence was what helped with the emotional investment that attracted all the leads that I got. So, it was important to keep the podcast simple for that reason, and also for just sheer time. So, we tried to keep each episode under half an hour for the average commute distance.
Astrid: So, tell me about the actual scripts. You decided them collaboratively.
Astrid: And then, what did you do?
Rachael: So, after they would strip it bare, and I would sneak some details back in. And then, it would get stripped again, and I'd sneak a few more details back in. And Tim would leave some to humour me and take some out. So I called it this edit waltz. And in the end, it worked really beautifully. And they also said it's not about me. And it wasn't about me. I thought that... And it worked in the end by keeping me out of it. It was about the boys, Mark and Adam James, who were 13 and 11 when Maria James was murdered, it was about Maria, it was about bringing that to life. So, in a sense, it doesn't matter what I think. So, I was laying out all the facts and information for the listeners to make up their own mind.
And we also worked a lot on my voice. So, my voice sounds different on the podcast to how it probably does now. So, I come from a news background where you're screaming to get people's attention. And the cadence is different, and the intonation is different. And we played around a lot with it. And I thought I had to be conversational. And Jesse Cox, who was the series producer, said to me, ‘Just turn your script over and tell me who's Ron.’ And so, I'd say, ‘Ron Iddles is, he was a plucky, 25-year-old detective, and it was his first homicide case, and it grates like hell that he's never solved it. And he can't let it go. And it's just, he's convinced that there's someone out there in the community that is holding the missing puzzle piece’. And Jesse's like, ‘That. Do that. Now flip your script over and read like that.’ And I came in really close to the microphone, so we would have like, a spit-shield so I could be as close as possible, so I could talk as softly as possible. And they really flattened out my voice so much so, when I listen back, I just said to them, ‘I sound bored’. And they're like, ‘No, no, it's great. Because all the grabs around you are so...’ Fruity was the word they used. So unbelievable and tragic and compelling, that I needed to be the straighty-one-eighty, especially for the revelations that they knew we were coming up. So, I needed to play the straight man.
And so, every decision that they... They had done lots of podcasts before. I'd never done one. So, I did listen to them, and I did take their advice. And I'm glad I did, because it clarified... I think it streamlined the podcast, which was beautiful. And in the end, when excitement from me does start to shine through, when someone gives me an item that might have Father O'Keeffe's DNA on it, familiar DNA on it, that's when I can't help it. And bits of that start to sneak in. And Tim and Jesse both said to me, ‘Well, that's okay now, because listeners have come to know you now. And they're in…’
Astrid: They're invested with you.
Astrid: Tell me your thoughts on the medium of podcasting as a way of telling a story.
Rachael: I think it's the most beautiful genre. And I come from radio, so I'm biassed. Most of my work at the ABC has been in radio current affairs. That's short chop, you know, three and a half minute pieces, which couldn't do a story like this justice. Podcasting, though, I think for two reasons: it allowed me time, and we'll talk interviewing later, but I desperately needed that time to give, to devote, to very damaged people, and intimacy. So, people have already chosen that they're in, that they want to listen to this story. So, I don't have to yell at them. I don't have to preach. And I'm right there in their earbuds. And it's just, I wanted to make you feel like I was holding your hand, walking you through the investigation. So, when I was discovering things, you would too.
And the sound engineer, Martin Peralta, helped bring that to life. So, the dings of Melbourne trams or a dog collar jingling, or even wind, just wind sometimes. Birds chirping, he created the most beautiful soundscape. Or sometimes, silence is just as important really, for moments of real gravity. And yeah, I wanted you to feel like you were walking through the investigation with me, and discovering things when I did. And sharing my discoveries, but also sharing failures and dead-ends, and moments of ‘Oh, why did I do that? Why did I say that?’
Astrid: You do that well. It felt alive. And some of the happenings, I guess, were horrific. And as a listener, you wanted your hand held. Trace was a successful podcast, and then, of course, now it's a book. What prompted you to turn it into a book?
Rachael: I had been thinking about it. It took a long time to get commissioned, so while I was waiting for that, I had in the back of my mind, if it doesn't happen, should I do it as a book? I persisted with the podcast idea for the James brothers. I had many meltdowns lobbying for it to be a podcast, but I just thought that was their best chance of getting answers. Because I thought, ‘If this goes out as a podcast, as an interactive podcast on all the ABC's arms – radio, TV, online, socials – I had a really sophisticated roll-out plan that you might want to talk about later, that involved both internal cross-platform news stories, but also external promotion. And I just thought, ‘That's going to give them their best shot at why I'm doing this.’I didn't want to do a case that's been solved. I don't see the point. I genuinely wanted answers, and I thought that reaching out to the community and tapping into community grapevines would be the best way to do that.
So, I thought the podcast was the way to best first explore this tragic case. And I met with, just before it launched, a friend of mine who works for the ABC, Barry Cassidy, said, ‘This story has so many layers to it, I think you should do it as a book’. So, he introduced me to Scribe Publisher Henry Rosenbloom. And I met with him. And I think I was so manic trying to get the podcast launched, that I sat down and I said, ‘Look, this is the story. These are two beautiful brothers, and their Mum was killed a couple of months before I was born, and I can't imagine my entire life going that long without answers. It has serious implications, potentially, for the Catholic Church and the Victoria Police Force. If Ron's suspicions are right...’ So, Ron Iddles thinks that everything is pointing to Father Bongiorno being the killer. I said, ‘If that's true, this will be the first time in Australia's modern history that a priest has been found to be involved in a murder.’
So, I said, ‘I think it's something that it's just, it's a monster in all, in every sense of the word of a story. But, listen to podcast. That will be my pitch, and then we'll talk after.’
And I remember him saying, ‘Nope, don't need to. I'm in. I want to make you an offer. I want you to write for us.’
And I said, ‘What? Sorry, I've never written a book before. And you haven't even heard the podcast.’
And he said, ‘I don't need to.’
And I remember walking outside. And I called my Mum, and I said, ‘I think I'm going to be an author.’ [Laughter]
It was just so, I still feel so surreal to me now, even to see it in print and to see people highlighting it or putting Post-It notes on it, it's a really proud, proud moment for me, given... You know, it just started, it started as an idea that someone, their feeling was it wouldn't work. And then I persisted with it, and now it's, you know, a story that so many people have found so compelling.
This has been the proudest thing I've ever done in my career, to have got this story up as a podcast, and to trial something so pioneering with the interactivity – which we can talk about later – and then, to turn it into a book, which does justice to... It does more justice, I feel, to a lot of the survivors story, so it tells a bigger picture. It tells the wider picture.
And because I tried to keep myself out of the podcast, it was also very cathartic for me, too, because I could put a lot of that back in. And Tim Roxburgh, who did a lot of the stripping of the podcast, has read it, and said to me, ‘Ah, I read some things in there that I didn't know. You know, like Ron used to drive a truck. That's amazing.’ And I'm like, ‘I know’. He drove a truck in his spare time to kind of clear his mind after homicide jobs. And I said, ‘But, you would have taken it out.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I would have. But it's really interesting.’
So, it was a cathartic process doing that for me. And yeah, to see it alive as a book.
And it's really quite fascinating. The different mediums, so, to do a podcast, which is very innovative, I used a lot of old-school journalism 101 methods, which was wearing down boot leather, showing up on people's doorsteps with a cake and a smile, hoping they'll talk to me. Because I didn't have phone numbers for people. This generation is not on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn. So, it was hard work. It was walking around neighbourhoods, and it was going to the AEC, Australian Electoral Commission, to find addresses. And then, go to addresses. You wouldn't have time to do that in a daily news day.
Searching through microfiche here at the State Library, to find old articles. And that's when I found the article about Father O'Keeffe and the allegations of the satanic cults rituals, and possibly four murders within those cult rituals.
Astrid: I just want to interrupt you there. I'm sorry. How much of the research was done in the State Library of Victoria?
Rachael: A fair bit, with all the old, all the microfiche searches were done here, yeah.
Astrid: And you found that information just in the Library?
Astrid: That's extraordinary.
Rachael: Because it wasn't online. So, I looked online and there was a link to an article, but it wouldn't come up. It said, ‘It can't be found’. And that happened with a couple of articles. So I thought, ‘Well, I'm going to have to look for the originals.’
So, I came here. And this is how... I don't know, I just felt really childish, because I had to get one of the librarians to explain how to use a microfiche machine to me, because I had never used one. I don't have time, I didn't have time to use one in daily news reporting. So, he was divine. He just said, ‘Look, think about, like, a sewing machine. And you just thread the film through here and out through here’. And he showed me how to do it. And the machine happily started wearing away.
So, all these old techniques were used to do an innovative podcast. And then, I now find it fascinating that the podcast has been translated back into a more older, if you like, medium of a book. And I find that confluence fascinating. And I'm so happy that books aren't dying. Because as a broadcast journalist who does stuff that's old by the next day, to have done a book, there's something magical about having brought a book into the world that's going to be around, hopefully, forever. And after I did this, Henry told me that... Henry Rosenbloom told me that they've signed, and Anna Sale from Death, Sex, and Money, over for... That's a podcast done over in New York, to write a book. So, I find all these confluence of mediums really, quite fascinating.
Astrid: I do too, and I am fascinated by how you wrote the book for Trace. You, essentially, had the opportunity to reflect on your own experience in the podcast. And as you reflect on that experience in your writing, it's almost like you're inventing a new genre, because they're both feeding off each other. The podcast and the book live together.
Rachael: I did that. I hadn't set out to do that initially. I am a Post-It fiend, and so I knew that the structure needed to be narrowed down before I started. I actually was watching The Master Class, like, the James Patterson Master Class in the morning, and then I'd write in the afternoon and the morning. And I remember him talking about structure and how it's so important. And I thought, ‘Well, yeah, because I've got masses of information. How am I going to do this? Will I do it chronologically?’ And then I thought, ‘I would rather leapfrog between Ron Iddles' investigation in 1980 and mine in 2016 and 2017’. So, I had Ron's Post-Its in blue, and mine in pink. And then, I realised when I put them all out, I hit this section in the middle. And then I looked at it and I thought, ‘People are going to close it halfway and won't read anymore, because there was all the rape stories.’
So, the first third worked because it was Ron moving into the house, investigating, meeting Mark, and I would plant seeds in Ron's chapters that I would then flush out in mine. So, I meet Mark as a 50-year-old, and he talks about going into his Mum's bedroom and seeing blood on the carpet, and that always staying with him. And then, you move back into a past chapter. So, that was working really well for me. And then, I hit just this swamp of despair in the middle of it, just even looking at the Post-It notes. And I thought, ‘I'm going to have to spread them out, because people aren't going to want to keep reading.’
So, I'd initially had all the green for the podcast episodes at the end, so I thought, ‘Well, maybe I could weave them through the middle sections and the pink sections’. So in a sense, I would drop a green Post-It about the trailer, for example, or Episode One. And then, I would go back into more of the pink. So, whether I went to Father Bongiorno's sister's house or when I interviewed this survivor, and how that would then feed into Episode Two. So, for people interested in the process and the structure of the book, that's how I did it. By literally looking at colours to see how it would all come together, and how it would come together as something that people wouldn't find too overwhelming. And people still have. They've said that I hit a bit, I just, you know, ‘I really had to push through it because it was so depressing’. Unfortunately, I couldn't stray away from that, because that's life. That's what it was.
Astrid: I feel like you've uncovered so many stories, so many unsolved parts of Victoria's history, I guess. The Church, the satanic cults.
Astrid: There are so many... It reverberates. It's a story that doesn't leave you, once you've experienced either the podcast or the book. I can only imagine what it was like for you, Rachael. Can you tell me, how different was it, how different is it telling a story for audio, or your podcast, than for a reader?
Rachael: Mm-hmm. Reader. It was much more streamlined for the podcast. And I had the benefit of sound. Sound does a lot of heavy lifting. So, I'd written a lot, and then I was also working with a woman called Sophie Townsend who said, ‘You don't need to write as much as you think you do. And you might have think that Sarah Koernig said a lot in Serial, but when you actually looked at the transcript, she doesn't say as much as you think she did.’ And, Sophie was right.
Sound does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of atmosphere, even descriptions about people sometimes. So, that helped me tell the story through the podcast, whereas in the book, I didn't have the luxury of that. So, I could sneak some of those descriptions back in.
Also, I felt like people wanted to know the process, because that's what the book is about. And given I had put so much in about the process of the podcast… So, that was an opportunity for me to talk about how I felt about what I was doing, and how that sat with my conscience. And when you read it, it didn't always sit well.
Like, I've made big mistakes. And some of them, I mean, some of them we laugh about now in terms of we chased the wrong Peter for six months. So, Peter was a real, is, was, a real estate agent who had been having a relationship with Maria James. And she found out he was married, and she called it off. And this was a couple of months before she was murdered. So, he was a person of interest. And I was sure that we had the right Peter. I called him a couple of times. He said, ‘No, no, I've heard the story, but it's not, you've got the wrong guy. It's not me’. And I just thought, ‘Well, you would say that, wouldn't you? Because you don't want your wife to find out.’ So then, a colleague of mine, Andy Burn, had a go. And she went and met him at his office. And she said, ‘He just, he keeps saying, “Check your sources, it's not me”.’
And then, it got to a point around the Federal Election in 2016, and I'd had so much darkness in my life. And this is all I'd been doing around my actual job, which is reporting for A&P and The World Today, and reading up on satanic cult violence and horrific accounts of child rape in my spare time. And that I'd started having nightmares. And so, around federal election, I remember being in Lygon Street, and I was having a drink with Kerri Ritchie, who's one of my dearest friends and a colleague. And she worked on Trace. And she said, ‘Maybe it's time to have a break. Like, just give it a rest for a couple of months and come back to work, because you're starting to unravel’. And I was. And that was the first time that I thought maybe... I was never going to give it up, but I thought maybe I just need to leave it for a couple of weeks or a month and come back to it, and then hopefully by then, it might be commissioned and I can do it on work time.
And I went back to my apartment – and it's an enclosed apartment, so we don't get junk mail and there was a flyer sticking out of the box. And I took it out, and without word of a lie, it was a real estate flyer with Peter X's name on it, and phone number. And I just thought, Oh, all right. Like, someone's trying to tell me something’. So, I thought I should put stories like that in there. And that's... And I'm sorry, Peter, the wrong Peter, for chasing you and hounding you for six months. So, that's one that wasn't... It was a mistake, but not a costly one. But I do put a very costly mistake in there.
And that is that, Kerri Ritchie and I went to visit Father Bongiorno's sister, because we felt it was important to tell his story thoroughly. I'm not going to name her. And we didn't expect to be let in. And she let us in, and she was very gracious. And she offered us a glass of wine, and we sat and chatted. And I learned a lot about her and her family, and I felt for her, you know, carrying the weight of the stigma of her brother's transgressions, which had come to light by the time he passed away in 2002.
And time, I don't know what happened. But time got away from us. And I looked at my phone, and there was a message from, I'll call him Bill, saying, ‘Thanks for standing me up’. And I just thought, ‘Shit, like, how I'm... This is not me’. I'm polite, I'm punctual. I know how damaged these people are. I know he probably would have been preparing himself for a week for that interview, and here am I, and I can't even bother to show up on time. Or, that's what he thinks.
And so, I called him and he ripped through me and called me every name under the sun. And I just thought, ‘Is he going to hurt himself? Did he hold the key to Maria James's murder, and now I've stuffed it up?’ So, that was a really costly mistake. And I... Yeah, I had to talk to a counsellor about that. And she gave me some advice about what to do. And she said, you know, ‘You should just write him a card and tell him how sorry you are’. Which, I did.
And I am really sorry. Because his story does matter. And I wasn't there. And that's not good enough. So, that was a big stuff up on my behalf.
And I just felt that I wanted to be... All these people in the book are being honest, so I wanted to be honest about myself and the things that I feel like I did right and wrong.
Astrid: And you do apologise to him in the book as well.
Astrid: And you note all of the mistakes that you're aware of in the book. It's quite a feat, I have to say.
Rachael: Yeah, I just think, I mean, people might read it and think, ‘Oh, you're late, so what?’ You know, because so, so often, so many of us are late. But it's a massive sign of disrespect. And I just think these things are heightened. These signs of disrespect are heightened for people, like Bill, that have been abused and do feel like no one cares about them. So, that's what he would have thought. ‘Oh, she's just like all the others. She doesn't care’. And that was what made me so sad, because I did really care. And that's why I had spent a year of my own time investigating it.
So thankfully, I've spoken to him since, and he said, he says that, ‘You know, I'm in a better place now’. Which is great to hear, because I thought I'd carry that around with me forever. But, I think it's really important to be honest as a writer. And I'm not, and haven't, shied away from that.
Astrid: You were a skilled interviewer well before you created Trace, the podcast or the book. Interviewing is, obviously, a part of writing non-fiction. It's a part of being a journalist, and often memoir. The people who listen to The Garret are emerging writers. Can you tell them how you prepare for an interview? Particularly interviews with such emotional weight?
Rachael: I generally don't write questions unless there's fact-checking that needs to be done. I make sure I'm well briefed on their story, on any trigger points. I've spoke to counsellors before some interviews just to check that I wouldn't be using trigger words or issues for these people. A lot of them have, like, work with psychiatrists, so some, we would be in touch with them instead as a contact point. And some would get in touch the day of the interview and say, really sorry, ‘Rex is having a bad day. The interview can't happen today’. And that's fine. And that was fine for me, because we had time. And that's what podcasts allow you.
I tried to hand power back to them. Sounds... How do I explain this? So, if you've been... I've learned that if you've been a victim of sexual abuse, you feel robbed of power. So, I wanted to somehow give that power back to them by saying, ‘Well, you steer. This is your story, you tell me what you want to tell me and what you would like me to hear.’ So, I'd often start like that sometimes.
I would have either questions that I could steer them into if they were uncomfortable with leading the conversation. I would do what I said to you before, try to put myself in their shoes. I'm a complete stranger to them, and all they know, all I told them was that they might be able to help a family by sharing their story with me. And the things that they handed over, you know, these are kids, oh, these are men, who were shown such little compassion as children, showing such enormous compassion to a complete stranger, as in the James family.
Because I cauterised the three lines of the investigation. So, there was the cold case file, Father Bongiorno and Father O'Keeffe. And I didn't want them to know, I didn't want people in each stream to know I was investigating the other, because I wanted untainted accounts. And I didn't want them telling me what they thought that I wanted to hear.
So, for them to hand over the types of secrets and pain that they did, just thinking that they were helping a family, is quite remarkable. Yeah, and I just went softly, softly, I think. And I can't speak highly enough… It floors me how brave these men are in handing over their stories and telling me what they did. And a lot of them are fearful of the Church and the reach of it's tentacles.
And I've heard a lot more than I've put in the book and in the podcast because they fear reprisals. There are some incredible stories that they told me in terms of things that went on or things that disappeared, that I haven't been able to report on, because it will identify them.
In terms of the questioning, especially for Adam, this is a really interesting area, I think. So, Adam is now in his 50s. No, sorry, he turns 50 this year. And he has cerebral palsy and Tourette's. So, he takes a long time to get sentences out. And I spent probably two and a half hours with him for maybe five minutes of usable audio. And because he stutters a lot and when it got too hard, he would turn things into third person. So, I became the girl in a green top. He was the boy, and Maria James was the mother of the boy. So, my question to him, ‘Who do you think killed your mother?’ Became, ‘Who does the boy think killed the mother of the boy?’ And had to be asked just so. So, he would go first, and I would parrot. So, who, who, does, does, that, that, boy, boy, think, think, like that. So, this would take... And at first I was so confused about what was going on and what he was asking me to do. And then, once we fell into that pattern, things got easier. But one of the really heartening things about this is that, Trace gave Adam a voice. Other people have spoken for Adam. Adam's never spoken for Adam. And it's so distressing hearing him talk still to me. And they played at the Melbourne Writer's Festival an excerpt from him, and I teared up. But it's so important, I feel like, that he got the chance to speak for himself.
Rachael: And I did an event last week in Cairns, actually, with Ron Iddles, and Ron teared up talking about how they never interviewed Adam at the time. And he still feels really guilty about that. And I don't think Ron's to be blamed for that. That, that was... And I know he carries that, but that was at a time that police didn't see the value in interviewing children, an intellectually disabled one, at that. And they probably worried that they might cause him further trauma, and that was at a time that priests weren't even being thought of as potential paedophiles, let alone potential murderers. So, it was a completely different era.
But, to give Adam that voice, and one of the beautiful things, Autism Australia wrote an article for VCOSS about… that that was one of Trace's strengths, that it gave Adam a voice and let him speak for himself. So that's, yeah, another thing that I'm really proud of.
Astrid: Yes, definitely. When you think of what you've learned in the years that you've been working on Trace about interviewing people, about finding what happened, and the evidence of what happened, do you have any learnings to share with people who might be out there trying to tell such a difficult tale?
Rachael: Yeah, I do actually. Be ready for what you're going to have to carry, because I wasn't. I didn't give myself enough time for myself, so because it was so dark, the material, you know, and I was watching people go off on the whole... Like, watching Facebook photos of friends going off on overseas holidays and I'd be transcribing brutal accounts of rape, you know. Or, I'd go for a run and, which was the rare thing that I did do for personal care. And I'd hear a smug couple talking about their dinner plans, and I'm like, ‘Oh, you know, lucky for some’. I didn't give myself enough of a break. I was pretty consumed by it, but I had to be, because I was trying to do it around my job.
So, that would be my first word of advice: make sure you have time away from it, because I started having really horrific nightmares. In one, I saw people shot dead in a car. In another, attackers were coming over the fence and I thought I was about to be raped. In another, I think I was on an operating table and going under for brain surgery, and I would wake with a racing heart every night. And that happened for about three weeks.
And so, a colleague said, ‘I think you should start talking to someone’. So I did, because I hadn't talked to anyone about it, because I didn't want to put that stuff in my friends' heads or my family's' head. So, I started talking to a lady psychiatrist, and she's been an incredible help with things like suggesting the letter to Bill that I had spoke about before.Yeah, so personal, give yourself personal space, is one.
And be ready for what you're going to carry. And you're probably going to have to keep carrying it. So, I've got a cop who's a dear friend of mine. And he said to me, ‘You can't fix them, and you're trying to carry too much. And you know, care of that abyss, because you'll get sucked in if you try to help everyone’.
And he was doing it to look after me. And he knows. He's been there. I'm sure they're taught to keep a distance between the people that they deal with. But, I kind of feel it's unfair to take people's stories and then say, ‘Oh, thanks for that. Good on, now’. You know, I feel responsible for these people now. Helen Driscoll tried to warn me off that as well. She's James Shanahan's psychiatrist, the man who made the allegations about the satanic cult rituals. She said, ‘You know, they make their decision to talk to you.’
But I do feel a great weight of responsibility for their welfare, and I'll continue to do so. So, if I see Tweets that concern me from people, you know, that I've spoken to, I'll contact their counsellor, for example, just to say, ‘Oh, I think so and so might need, you know, like, call this week, he needs a friend’. And Kerri Ritchie does that too, to her credit. And she checks in with people that we've spoken to. And it's a weight that you carry, but I think it's necessary. I don't think you can take stories from people and then cut them out of your life. And we're supposed to, as journalists, I think, technically. But I just don't think that's fair.
Astrid: You mentioned earlier some other true crime podcasts, Serial, S-Town. Have you been in touch with any of the creators of those other podcasts?
Rachael: No, but I am going to New York on a secondment in late September, early October, so hopefully I might get to meet them then. Who knows? And I'm going to Third Coast Audio Festival, so I would love to meet them. I've got so many questions.
Astrid: I can only imagine the conversations you would be able to have.
Astrid: In your professional opinion, both as a journalist, as a podcast creator, and now as a published author, what opportunities do you see for writers or story tellers in the medium of podcasting?
Rachael: I was lucky because I had the backing of the ABC. And we talked about this last night, actually, at the Melbourne Writer's Festival. Richie Baker feels the same. He did Phoebe's Fall, and he's doing Wrong Skin for The Age. And we're blessed, in a way, that we do have the backing of these organisations and these large, trusted organisations.
I'm not sure, we were talking whether an individual could do it on their own, you know, because they don't have an institution name behind them. They don't have a legal department behind them. It would be a massive thing to take on something like this or Wrong Skin, without a big backing like that. So, that's something that I'd urge people to think about for... I mean, I'm not dissuading them against it, but maybe they could find a way of, I don't know, collaboration with the State Library or The Wheeler Centre, or I wouldn't go into something like this alone. That would be my big tip.
But I do think podcasting is a beautiful way to tell investigative stories. And I hope that continues. And I worry, sometimes, that there will be true crime fatigue, because I do think it's a brilliant way to explore crime and injustice. And especially for families that haven't found justice through the police system or through the courts, I see this as a great forum to try to do that, especially using the interactivity of podcasting. So, I hope we don't get to a point where people think, ‘Oh, another true crime podcast’. Because I think it, and that's why podcasts, true crime podcasts need to be more than the crime. They need to illuminate other issues in society. And I think that's what will keep people listening and wanting to be involved, and wanting to help solve it.
So for mine, for example, it was obviously the influence and the tentacles of the Catholic Church, whether it covered things up, whether the Victoria Police was involved. Maybe not, but should we at least look at it? For Wrong Skin at the moment, it's issues of kinship and arranged marriages and land title, and all those things. And I think podcasts are beautiful in that they can bring other, illuminate other issues in society and flesh them out, as well.
Astrid: What's the future for Trace?
Rachael: Well, I can't feel I'm being real done to this any time soon. At the moment, I'm hoping in the next couple of months the Coroner will set a date to hear argument on why she should reopen the Maria James inquest. The inquest finding was in 1982, and it was ruled she was murdered by a person unknown. Now, in Victoria, if you can prove new facts and circumstances, which I... And I know I'm biassed, but I feel like Trace has, and I've given Mark James's lawyers about eight of what I think are new facts and circumstances. If you can prove that, then you can argue that the inquest should be reopened. Now, the James brothers asked for this to happen last July, July 2017, and there's been a stalemate, because that 1982 inquest fell under an old act of Parliament, at which time it was the Supreme Court's job to decide whether there should be new inquests or not. So, I won't bore you with the details, but there's been a lot of to'ing and fro'ing. And the Attorney General, thankfully, last month, introduced a new law into Parliament saying yes, the Coroner should have the power to investigate and reopen historical cases. So, hopefully once that goes through Parliament, then in the next couple of months, I'm hoping the coroner will set a date, hear argument, fingers crossed say, ‘Yes, there's definitely enough new information there that would warrant a new inquest’, which then, I'm guessing would be sometime next year.
So, that, I can't wait for, because hopefully, the questions can be put to certain people that won't talk to me, that will have to answer to a Coroner. So that's on this case.
And then, I'm also digging into, I've started to dig into another Melbourne case, same idea of a crime and injustice that'll illuminate other societal issues of the time.
Astrid: Is that with the ABC as well?
Astrid: And will that be a podcast?
Astrid: Rachael, I can't wait.
Rachael: Hopefully, yeah.
Astrid: Rachael, thank you so much for your time.
Rachael: Thanks for having me.