In late April this year I read Chloe Hooper's extraordinary non-fiction book, The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island, and found it deeply disturbing in a way I could not quite put my finger on. Over the weeks to follow I tried to review it but kept hitting a wall; I could just not formulate my thoughts in any coherent way.
Since then, I've thought about it on and off, wondering why I was having so much trouble writing about the book. It was only when Simon, from Savidge Reads, asked me whether I'd read it yet (he'd seen the thumbnail picture in my "Reviews coming soon" menu bar) that I had to confess I couldn't bring myself to review it because it made me feel horribly ashamed to be Australian. And that, my friends, is the stumbling block I hadn't realised when I first struggled to review this book some three months ago.
In telling the real life story of the death of an Aboriginal man in police custody, Hooper reveals the dark underbelly -- where black man is pitted against white man, and vice versa -- of my homeland. It is not a pleasant read, nor even a satisfying one (particularly as the conclusion of the subsequent court case left much to be desired), but it's certainly a thought-provoking book that sheds light on some painful paradoxes in modern day Australia.
If nothing else, The Tall Man reveals how Australia is not one nation united but a series of regions diametrically opposed to one another. I'm not necessarily referring to white versus black, but to the cultural gap between those that live in the North (the tropics and sub-tropics) and those that live in the South (mainly NSW and Victoria). (I have lived on both sides of the North/South divide, and can testify that the two opposing "cultures" do very much exist. Early in this book, Hooper meets a Northern cabbie who says he can detect a Southerner easily, because "they're fuckwits". Charming.)
Of course there are other divisions too, between the cities and the outback, between the West coast and the eastern seaboard, between Tasmania and the mainland. But the division which Hooper's book really hones in on is the one between the haves and the have nots, and never is this more apparent than in Aboriginal communities which often become "impoverished ghettos of alcoholism, petrol sniffing, brutality, arrests and early deaths".
Palm Island -- don't let the idyllic-sounding name fool you -- is one of those places. Situated off the Far North Queensland coast, it was set up by the State Government in 1916 as a place to house Aboriginals. This was all thanks to the 1897 Aboriginal Protection Act, which made all Aboriginals in Queensland, whether full blood or "half-castes", as wards of the state. The Palm Island Mission became the dumping ground for these people, somewhere they could be looked after and controlled. But, as Hooper points out, it's isolation meant that it became "increasingly authoritarian -- a kind of tropical gulag".
When Aboriginals were granted equal rights in 1967, it remained a segregated community, and today it is not much different. Home to 2,500 people, Palm Island is one of the largest Aboriginal communities in Australia. The only white faces in the street belong to the teachers, nurses and police who work there. (When Hooper arrives for the first time she feels "incandescently white".) But it's a long way from anywhere: two hours by ferry from Townsville, on the mainland, or a 15-minute flight on a small, chartered plane.
For those who don't know the case on which the book is based, let me provide a short thumbnail portrait. On Friday November 19, 2004, Cameron Doomadgee, a 36-year-old aboriginal man living on Palm Island is arrested for swearing at a white police officer. He is thrown into the back of a divisional van and transported to the police station. There's a scuffle and a punch thrown when he is escorted from the van to his cell. Later, just 45-minutes after his arrest, Doomadgee is found dead, a black eye the only tell-tale sign of violence.
The police claim Doomadgee tripped on a step and that he must have died of an unseen head injury arising from that accident. But the autopsy revealed that he had four broken ribs, a ruptured portal vein and a liver almost cleaved in two, injuries consistent with a serious car accident. As Hooper states, "his internal injuries were so severe that even with instant medical attention he would not have survived".
A second pathology report discovered further bruising on Doomadgee's right eye and eyelid, his forehead, the back of his head, the upper part of his back, along the right side of his jaw and on his right and left hands, suggesting he had been kicked while lying down.
Of course, police deny any wrongdoing, and so an inquest is held. The man responsible for policing the island is the "tall man" of the title: Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, who has won much respect for being a firm and fair cop. But did Hurley snap that day and lose his temper?
Hooper sketches an interesting portrait of a man, just 36 years old and in charge of six white policeman and an Aboriginal liaison officer, who had risen fast up the ranks because he'd been happy to be stationed in remote areas, or as Hooper puts it:
He had become a creature of the Deep North, a specialist in places on the edges of so-called civilisation, Aboriginal communities and frontier towns in Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria, places were the streets, the days shimmered as if you were in a kind of fever -- all of it, with its edge of menace, like some brilliant hallucination.
It seems completely at odds with Hurley's character as a fine, upstanding and highly respected policeman for him to be blamed for Doomadgee's death. The island had more than its fair share of problems (according to this wikipedia entry there is "an extreme level of theft, domestic violence, sexual assaults against children and abject drunkenness" brought about by "boredom, aimlessness, lack of education, absence of role models and a complete loss of self-worth"), but by all accounts Hurley had won the respect of the locals.
But following Doomadgee's "unexplained" death, the police were obviously worried about the outfall in the local community -- fifteen extra cops were brought in. When news broke about the first autopsy a riot ensued; the police station was burned to the ground. Hooper describes it in such a way you feel for the officers, trapped behind a barricade, fearing for their lives. One cop called Command, begging the Army to be flown in to rescue them.
The early chapters explain the circumstances of Doomadgee's death and give us an insight into Hurley's reputation; Hooper then turns to tracing the convoluted justice system -- the investigation, the inquest, the submissions, the findings, the trial, the verdict -- which Doomadgee's family find themselves caught up in. The court room scenes are particularly tense and emotional. The games played by lawyers, by police, by those seeking to protect Hurley's reputation at all costs do not go unnoticed by Hooper's perceptive eye. This is court-room drama writ large. It's deeply affecting without being sentimental.
If there is anything positive to come out of this terrible story it is Hooper's own tale about her developing friendship with Doomadgee's family. Effectively she is "adopted" by his sisters, accepted as one of their own. When you realise that Hooper, "like most middle-class suburbanites, grew up without ever seeing an Aborigine, except on the news", this seems the perfect example of how it is possible for two races to get along with each other in the most extreme and distressing of circumstances.
The Tall Man is not your average "true crime" book. It's a sociological, psychological, legal and political drama. In telling the story of the first police officer to be tried for an Aboriginal death in custody, Hooper also tells a peculiar Australian story of a nation divided. We may never know what really happened in that police station, but we know that the destructive forces of white settlement will continue to impact on its native inhabitants and that Palm Island will remain a paradox in the sun. My feelings about the book are summed up nicely by Hooper's last line:
I had wanted to know more about my country and now I did – now I knew more than I wanted to.