Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings said that a woman has got to love a bad man once or twice in her life to be thankful for a good one.
What attracts some women to dangerous men?
This is the question Rochelle Jackson explored in her third book, Partners & Crime (Allen & Unwin, 2012), which comprises the stories of eight women from Australia and New Zealand who are or have been in a committed relationship with a criminal.
Jackson, a freelance investigative journalist, grew up in Melbourne in a police family. Her father, William, was a policeman in Victoria Police and retired as a Chief Superintendent. She began her career in country Victoria and Sydney working in television and radio.
She started writing Partners & Crime in March 2009.
‘I approached Sylvia Bruno (the wife of Nikolai “The Bulgarian” Radev), to tell her story, and I decided to write a book about these women: the women behind the men behind the crimes.’
Jackson says she is not asking readers to feel sorry for these women, only to try to understand them, to try to empathise with them.
‘These eight women spoke to me courageously, fearlessly. It was quite confronting for them to read their stories. This process allowed the women to talk about an experience they haven’t talked about for a long time. For some, whose partners were dead, it was almost joyous to remember them. This is their truth.’
Of Jackson’s three books, this one was the hardest to write.
‘Many times I came close to giving up on this book. It was so difficult to find these women, and then you have to gain their confidence and work out if they’d like their story to be published in a national book.
‘In one case I had to get “permission” from someone in jail before the interviewee would speak to me. Some are in witness protection; you’ll never find them. Others just don’t want to be found.’
She says it was a ‘huge ask’ to get them to confide in her, for free. But each woman received a finished copy of her chapter to look over and read before Jackson submitted it to her publisher.
‘I approached about seventy other women who said they didn’t want to speak about the biggest mistake of their lives. For some it was too long ago. For others, they were astonished I’d found them. They still felt they may be in danger.’
Jackson’s commitment to the project paid off. To her surprise, Partners & Crime has received an enormous amount of publicity in various media and has been reprinted twice.
‘Every book is a different journey—some more difficult than others. But every one of my three books has been enjoyable, challenging, agonising and deeply satisfying.’
In writing Partners & Crime, Jackson learned through her interview subjects just how wrong she was in her assumptions about these ‘types’ of women.
‘The stereotypes are often very inaccurate and misleading,’ she says. ‘Their lives are filmed and photographed, often without their permission, and are usually defined by their partners.’
Some enjoyed the attention that came with being associated with the infamous. Others had no idea about why they became involved.
‘You can’t profile or sum up the female partners of male criminals. We don’t want to be them, but to generalise about them would be wrong, unfair and inaccurate.’
One of the subjects of Partners & Crime is Tania Herman, who fell in love with Joe Korp. These two were at the centre of the ‘body-in-the-boot’ case. Joe convinced Tania to kill Maria, Joe’s wife. Tania was sentenced to nine years in prison for attempted murder.
‘The first time I met her was quite an intimidating experience. She had already done six years in prison. The other prisoners were stereotypical: hard-faced, scraggly, looked like druggies. Tania was composed, almost serene. Resignation hung off her like a loose coat.’
Tania wanted a voice because she had never told her story and has never been able to give her evidence in court.
‘The media got two things right,’ Tania told Jackson, ‘my name and my age. Everything else was fictitious.’ She confided, ‘Although I’ve been convicted of a violent crime, I’m not a violent person.’
After meeting Tania Herman, Jackson struggled with two conflicting realities: the quiet woman and the woman who tried to kill Maria Korp.
‘I learned that you can’t define what makes someone a criminal. Most people are just in too deep and can’t turn back. They turn to crime for reasons like greed and revenge. No-one is born bad, but the way in which we’re brought up greatly influences the way we behave when we grow up. There is normally childhood trauma.’
You have to be able to suspend your judgement if you want to be able to understand what motivates people and write their stories, Jackson says. That’s what she had to do to write Inside their Minds: Australian Criminals (Allen & Unwin, 2008). For that project, she worked with Ian Joblin, a forensic psychologist, to examine various criminals.
Writing Partners & Crime, she says, she felt an obligation to make sure her subjects’ stories were told in the way they wanted them to be told.
‘You have to learn that you’re not the story. Their story is what you’re writing. You have to be upfront and respectful regarding the book-writing process. I was in contact with all of these women for two years. Some you relate to more than others.
‘As a journalist you keep your hard-hat on, you keep your emotions to one side. You mustn’t get bogged down by the emotional quagmire. It’s not a counselling session and you’re not a psychologist.’
As an investigative journalist now working on her fourth book, Jackson knows the importance of protecting herself. ‘Understand the laws of defamation. Gets the facts right, and learn to meet deadlines.’
She also sticks to ‘Rule 101 in journalism: never give your interviewees editorial control. You’ve got to take responsibility. The buck stops with you.’
Does she think true crime is currently ‘in vogue’?
‘True crime is in vogue, the genre is very accessible and people love reading, watching and viewing crime books, TV shows and films. Crime is “big business” and not just for crooks.
‘As Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” If we can spend more time and money on working out how these people are “created” then maybe we turn back or even slow down the rate of crime in our society.’
This article is based on a presentation given by Rochelle Jackson on 14 November 2012 at the Glen Eira Town Hall, Caulfield, Victoria. Partners & Crime: The True Stories of Eight Women and their Lives with Notorious Men is published by Allen & Unwin (2012) RRP $29.99, available now. For more about Rochelle Jackson, visit www.rochellejackson.com.au.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Rochelle Jackson’ in The Australian Writer issue 381 (September–November 2013).