What the Lindy Chamberlain, Patsy Ramsey, Kate McCann & now Keli Lane Case Says About Us

Last week journalist Michael Duffy wrote that there was “a great disconnect” between “what we know [Keli Lane] did – even putting aside the murder allegation – and the fact that by literally all public accounts she was a normal, happy and sociable northern beaches girl with a supportive and loving family, a passion for sport, and a healthy social life”.

I disagree that the “great disconnect” is between Lane’s public persona and her sexual activity, repetitive pregnancies and the use of abortion and adoption as solutions.

The disconnect is between the contradictory and punitive judgments Australians pass on women’s sexual and reproductive lives, and our denial of the corrosive impact these verdicts – and the restrictive laws that result – have on women’s self-esteem and their capacity to control their lives.

The moral panic over Lane is familiar. We saw it in the Azaria Chamberlain, JonBenet Ramsey and Madeleine McCann cases. In each, the children’s mothers – Lindy, Patsy and Kate – were pilloried for crying too little or too much, for being manipulative or inscrutable. In each, media coverage painted the woman as deviant – a bad mother – and so culpable for her own tragedy. Such a strategy, says Booker prize-winning novelist Anne Enright, is a “potent form of magic” that calms anxieties that our own children are at risk.

The coverage of Keli Lane also stereotypes her as a bad and unnatural woman – sexually rapacious, frivolously social, hyper-ambitious. This allows us to cast her out, beyond our collective compassion and any need to hear in her story something painfully revelatory about us, in particular about the conflicting messages Australian society is sending to its daughters – that they must be hot but not sluttish, sexually liberated but reproductively in control, maternally self-abnegating but highly accomplished.

Lane appeared buffeted by such contradictions. She was terrified of losing the esteem of friends and family as a “golden girl” but worried – as she told a friend – that “the only thing [she might really be] good at [was] being a mum”.

When pregnant, Lane seemed acutely aware of what Dr Susie Allanson, a psychologist who counsels women with problem pregnancies, calls the “huge stigma around women becoming pregnant when they haven’t planned to, embarking on single parenthood, having an abortion or choosing adoption”. Certainly, the judge had to remind the jury during the trial that there was no place for moral judgments about Lane’s choice to adopt or have terminations (she aborted two pregnancies and tried to end a third but was denied the service because of her gestation). In correspondence to the worker handling the adoption of her third child, Lane said: “Society says that this is wrong … that people who do this must be mad, slutty or cruel.”

I want to be clear here. I am not saying that what appears to be Lane’s acute vulnerability to the contradictory demands on Australian women excuses murder.

Instead, my point is to caution against stereotyping and dismissing Lane to avoid the unflattering truth, not just about the way Tegan’s death reflects on her but also on us.

Publication history

Lessons to be learnt from the tragic tale of baby Tegan  Sunday Sun Herald