Melbourne is grappling to understand. Is it time to rethink our approach to male violence?

Targeted: from left, Natalina Angok, Courtney Herron, Eurydice Dixon, Aiia Maasarwe. Pictures: News, Getty Images
Targeted: from left, Natalina Angok, Courtney Herron, Eurydice Dixon, Aiia Maasarwe. Pictures: News, Getty Images

Before he became a brutal murderer, before he was reviled as a symbol of all that is wrong with Australian men, Jaymes Todd was that odd kid in the classroom whose outbursts prompt snickering among fellow students and countless meetings with guidance counsellors. Those who knew Todd in his high school days, not so long before he committed the crime that made him notorious, offer wildly contradictory impressions. To some he was a vulnerable figure — a bulky, perpetually unkempt teenager who could switch suddenly from off-kilter wisecracks to explosive anger. Others regarded him as a creep whose twisted remarks about women alienated even the tough crew of guys he orbited like a faulty satellite.

Most were aware of the disorder that scrambled Todd’s social skills, despite his attempts to disguise it. Asperger Syndrome was the label he got in early childhood, when his parents consulted a psychiatrist about his obsessive traits — demanding an identical breakfast every morning, exploding with agitation if he couldn’t catch the usual train to school. By his mid-teens the new term was “high-functioning autism spectrum disorder” and Todd had learned to compensate for some of its symptoms while hiding others. He had a girlfriend and joined mainstream classes at Hume Central Secondary College in Melbourne’s north. But his fixation on routines and his struggles to read the emotional cues of others regularly boiled over into rage.

“When I think of Jaymes, the word that comes to mind is ‘fragile’,” says a young woman who knew him as a 14-year-old, the year he was expelled and sent to a special-education school. “I lost count of how many times he had to go to the counsellor. There’d be these violent outbursts and he would storm out of class and the teacher would have to calm him down.” In the classroom Todd got laughs for his habit of blurting out the unspeakable, indifferent to offence. But the internet pornography he’d been furtively watching since he was 11 eventually turned that into a darker habit, making girls uneasy and his mates angry. “He would always have really terrible impulse control” says a former friend who hung with Todd and his mates at Broadmeadows Central, the local shopping centre. “A few girls I know actually found him creepy; he would make comments about them behind their backs. I remember an incident where he was being too handy with people, touching girls that didn’t want it, and I had to tell him the things he was doing weren’t right.”

Broadmeadows is no longer the outlier of poverty and crime it was in the 1970s, but its Housing Commission estates still contain their pockets of dysfunction. One of them was the single-storey brick house that Jaymes Todd shared with his parents, two brothers and multiple pets. Its rubbish- strewn front yard offered only a hint of the chaos within: his mother was a hoarder who suffered depression, and over time the house had filled with refuse piled high enough to make habitation difficult. Leftover food and its packaging were trampled underfoot, vermin scurried amid the garbage and the kitchen floor had collapsed from rot. The family’s one cooking apparatus was a hotplate next to the toilet. To escape, Todd slept in parks and at his girlfriend’s house, or retreated to his room and his iPad, a window to ever more aggressive porn which he mimicked for a time with his girlfriend, choking her during sex until she asked him to stop.

By the time he was 16, Todd had dropped out of school and was in the hands of different psychologists while attending vocational courses run by Melbourne City Mission. He was smoking a lot of pot, drinking too much, taking antidepressants fitfully and mixing with tough guys like Corey, who asked that his last name not be used. “He was the biggest sex pest we’ve ever met,” recalls Corey. “We were 16 and just as horny as him but even we got annoyed.” Todd’s mates took bets on his oddball behaviour and meted out summary punishment when he crossed certain lines, such as cracking jokes about rape in front of girls. “He’ll sit there and take a beating,” says Corey with grudging respect. “I didn’t find out until a few months after I met him that he had autism. I stopped giving him shit when I realised he was trying to hide it. He would cover his ears or play with his shirt.”

In April last year, Jaymes Todd turned 19. His hospitality course was nearing its end and adult life was beckoning, watershed events that may have increased the mental static in his head. Secretly over the past year, he had been delving into “snuff porn” — online videos of simulated sexual murders, a dark fantasy that had wormed its way into his mind. Over time, he would later admit, the fakery of the videos became unsatisfying. His parents and girlfriend noticed his agitation ratcheting up. One June afternoon after college, he sat with three mates in a park near Flinders Street Station, drinking vodka and cider for several hours. Night rolled in and they scored some pot, bought a Jim Beam mixer and drunkenly boarded the train to head back north. But only three stops up the line, Todd got off and caught a train back to Flinders Street.

He was standing outside the station just after 11pm when he noticed a dark-haired young woman walking past, dressed in a black leather jacket over an ankle-length black dress. This was Eurydice Dixon, a 22-year-old comedian who had just performed at the Highlander Bar and was planning to walk home to her father’s house, 4km north in Parkville. Her quirky style caught his eye and he began following her up Swanston Street.

Three hours later, Dixon’s body was found by a passer-by on the grass of a darkened soccer oval in Princes Park, only a few minutes from home. Her clothing had been torn open and a medical examination confirmed she had been ­sexually assaulted and strangled. Within hours police found CCTV footage of Todd furtively following Dixon on foot for an hour, out of the city and up to the edge of the park. Not long after the footage went to air on the evening news, he handed himself in to Broadmeadows police, insisting ­during a one-hour interview that he was not the killer, until they proposed taking a DNA sample.

“Don’t worry about the DNA,” Todd replied. “I did it. I will tell you everything.”

Jaymes Todd in police custody after the death of 22-year-old Melbourne comedian Eurydice Dixon. Picture: AAP Image/David Crosling
Jaymes Todd in police custody after the death of 22-year-old Melbourne comedian Eurydice Dixon. Picture: AAP Image/David Crosling

The killing of Eurydice Dixon became a totemic crime in Melbourne, a city alert to the ­horrors of violence against women since 29-year-old Jill Meagher was raped and murdered as she walked home through Brunswick in 2012. A silent vigil in honour of Dixon’s memory drew more than 10,000 people to Princes Park, among them the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, who blamed the crime on men’s appalling disrespect toward women. “This tragedy presents us with an important opportunity and an obligation to call out very bad behaviour which comes from, almost inevitably, bad attitudes,” Andrews said. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull echoed those sentiments, as did many domestic violence agencies and Greens MP Adam Bandt, who said Dixon’s death was the end result of “sexism and gender inequality”.

That belief — that gender inequality is the root cause of violence against women — has been at the core of government policies in Australia for more than a decade. It underpins the Federal Government’s 12-year National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, and it is espoused by nearly every major domestic violence organisation in the country. “Promoting gender equality is pivotal to reducing violence against women,” states the website of Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), a peak body launched six years ago by the Commonwealth, state and territory governments. Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence reaffirmed that in 2016 when it recommended that prevention measures “must focus on the ways in which gender inequality and community attitudes underpin family violence”.

Eurydice Dixon. Picture: supplied
Eurydice Dixon. Picture: supplied

It’s an argument that has been repeated many times in the 16 months since Dixon was murdered, as Melbourne has been rocked by a series of equally horrific crimes in public places. In January, young Palestinian student Aiia Maasarwe was raped and murdered while walking home in the city’s northern suburbs; three months later the body of 32-year-old Natalina Angok was found in a Chinatown laneway. Then in May, 25-year-old Courtney Herron was brutally bashed to death in a Melbourne park. Responding to community outcry, Victoria’s Minister for Prevention of Family ­Violence, Gabrielle Williams, joined women’s organisations, feminist writers and criminologists in declaring that overturning sexism and gender-­inequality was the key to stopping such crimes.

Troy McEwan has been hearing that argument for the entire decade she has worked as a clinical and forensic psychologist, but today she’s among a growing number of experts questioning its usefulness. An associate professor at Swinburne University of Technology, McEwan says her work with male offenders in community mental health settings has shown her that their violence often springs from complex roots: sexism and misogyny may well be foundational attitudes, but mental illness, drugs, alcohol and dysfunctional family backgrounds can be equally combustible elements. McEwan says government policy largely downplays these other issues in favour of an ambitious strategy — ending centuries of gender inequality — that does not seem to be significantly reducing violence. “There is a genuine problem with a gender-­unequal society,” she says. “But sociological constructs aren’t always helpful at explaining individual cases. In some recent high-profile cases, it seems clear that issues like mental illness and other factors were relevant.”

Codey Herrmann. Picture: David Caird
Codey Herrmann. Picture: David Caird

McEwan declines to be more specific, but the four murders that have galvanised Melbourne highlight the issues she raises. It’s now known that Natalina Angok’s alleged killer, her former boyfriend Christopher Bell, is a schizophrenic who was released from a psychiatric facility a week before she died. Courtney Herron’s alleged murderer, 27-year-old Henry Hammond, may have a “delusional disorder”, according to his lawyer. And earlier this month in the Supreme Court, Aiia Maasarwe’s killer, 21-year-old Codey Herrmann, was revealed to be a former foster child with a ­history of terrible neglect as an infant and, more recently, chronic cannabis and methamphetamine use. Herrmann had been suffering psychosis and hallucinations since the age of 17, when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, although a court-appointed psychiatrist preferred a diagnosis of “recurrent substance-induced ­psychoses with a number of other mental health problems in the background”.

Most violence against women does not end in murder, of course, and it is even rarer for a woman to be killed by a stranger, as Eurydice Dixon and Aiia Maasarwe were. If the cases are atypical, however, the forces that drove them are not so distant from the family violence that Troy McEwan sees in her clinical work. But as she acknowledges, to raise such issues is to invite the wrath of domestic violence activists, who have worked for decades to convince police and the courts that men must not be allowed to proffer easy excuses for their crimes. Nor do mental health activists respond well to any connection being drawn between mental illness and crime. One result of this, says McEwan, is that debate can quickly become “a shouting match”. Another is that researchers who study the links between male violence and mental illness, drugs, alcohol or unemployment can struggle to get their work accepted.

One researcher who has collided with this roadblock is Peter Miller, professor of Violence Prevention and Addiction Studies at Deakin University. Miller points to alcohol bans in indigenous communities as a clear example of how tackling substance abuse can significantly reduce violence. From 2013 to 2016 his team conducted an exhaustive study of nationwide police data on family violence; it found that repeat offenders were a particularly serious issue, that family violence was significantly more reported in lower socio-economic areas, and that a third of incidents involved alcohol. But Miller says his attempts to discuss this research with domestic violence services met “vicious” opposition, including accusations that his team was victim-blaming and supporting perpetrators.

“It’s really concerning that they didn’t want to see any research that even investigated the potential for a slightly different view,” says Miller. The findings were compiled into a 352-page report submitted to a Council of Australian Governments summit on family violence in 2016. But when the summit ended, the Turnbull government’s 44-page “action plan” barely mentioned mental health or substance abuse, instead listing its top priority as changing “culture, behaviours and attitudes”.

Pru Goward, the former NSW Liberal minister, wrote recently that she despaired at the ineffectiveness of such policies. And in her recent book on domestic violence, See What You Made Me Do, journalist Jess Hill likewise criticises the approach as laudable but “horribly inadequate”, asking rhetorically: “Why do successive governments insist that reducing domestic abuse is a matter of changing attitudes?” She points to the extraordinary ­success of anti-­violence programs in western NSW that target repeat offenders and focus on substance abuse, mental health, unemployment and parenting advice. In just one year, family violence incidents in the town of Bourke dropped 39 per cent.

Robyn Miller. Picture: supplied
Robyn Miller. Picture: supplied

Dr Robyn Miller, who wrote some of the Victorian Government’s key policy documents on family violence as Chief Practitioner at the Department of Human Services from 2006 to 2015, defends the feminist focus on gender equality while acknowledging that its centrality as a solution is increasingly being questioned. “What happened in the bad old days in counselling and mental health was that family violence was seen as a ‘couples’ problem,” says Miller, who is now CEO of MacKillop Family Services. “The feminist critique of that has been very important, and part of why you see patriarchy so strongly identified in the family violence programs is so we don’t go back to those bad old days.”

Miller refutes the idea that current programs ignore men’s issues, saying that as a social worker she worked with perpetrators as far back as 1990. Issues such as mental health and substance abuse may be important, she argues, but they occur in an enveloping culture of patriarchy that cannot be ignored. “Every man I’ve worked with who has used violence has got an incredibly worked-out rationale,” she says. “They’ve got a voice in their head that says, ‘I’ve got a right to do this’.”

The CEO of ANROWS, Dr Heather Nancarrow, also refutes the criticism that current policies aren’t working, arguing that we are in the early stages of tackling a monolithic problem. “There is this debate that has emerged, that we’re waiting for gender equality and meanwhile women are dying,” she says. “No one is waiting for gender equality. There are people working their butts off every day of the week and every week of the year.” Gender equality might be the first priority but it’s not the only one, Nancarrow says, pointing to extensive work on prevention strategies and perpetrator treatment programs. Responding to the criticism in Jess Hill’s book, she replies: “With all due respect to Jess, she hasn’t been working in the field for ­decades… I can understand the frustration. We feel frustrated about it; I feel sick about every report of a woman killed. But I’ve got a very deep understanding of the range of responses, and that’s not all we’re doing.”

Jim Ogloff. Picture: supplied
Jim Ogloff. Picture: supplied

Jim Ogloff is the executive director of psychological services at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health, which is a longwinded way of saying he has met many of the country’s most sexually pathological men. A softly spoken Canadian, Ogloff leads a staff that assesses and treats violent offenders with mental health issues, of whom 30-50 per cent have a history of family violence. In May 2013 he interviewed Adrian Bayley in the Melbourne Assessment Prison, eight months after Bayley raped and murdered Jill Meagher while on parole for previous rapes. This year Ogloff returned to the same prison to interview Eurydice Dixon’s killer, Jaymes Todd. Those two murders loom large in the current debate about toxic masculinity, but to Ogloff they symbolise how shocking crimes can derail constructive debate. These men killed women, he notes, the ultimate act of disrespect; but what drove them to that point is complicated.

“With Adrian Bayley, for instance, many people want to believe it’s all about his attitudes to women,” he says. “But he had a girlfriend who didn’t report any violence. This isn’t someone who is raging against women because of patriarchal values. He is a rapist who has a severe personality disorder driven by sexual deviance.”

The distinction may seem semantic to the many women in Melbourne who are now fearful of walking alone at night, but Ogloff’s point is that predators such as Bayley are unlikely to respond to government-funded “behavioural change” programs for men. He is concerned that a relentless focus on gender equality — a cause he supports — distracts policymakers from the lessons that could be learned from such cases. By way of example he cites the tragedy that became the catalyst for Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence: the murder of 11-year-old Luke Batty by his father Greg Anderson at a cricket oval in Melbourne in 2014.

Anderson, who was shot by police and died in hospital, had subjected Luke’s mother, Rosie Batty, to years of threats and violence. He had also been plagued by auditory hallucinations, ­paranoia and obsessive religious fixations for many years, rendering him homeless and unemployed. In an extraordinary display of grace, Rosie Batty expressed compassion for Anderson after his terrible crime, saying: “What triggered this was a case of [Luke’s] dad having mental health issues.”

Ogloff advised the coroner on the case as part of a 12-person panel that included police and experts in domestic violence and mental health. He agreed with the forensic psychiatrist Dr Paul Mullen, who concluded that Anderson had been suffering an undiagnosed delusional disorder and his violence might have been prevented had it been properly treated. But some domestic violence experts on the panel vehemently opposed that assessment, Mullen and Ogloff recall. The coroner’s final report accepted that Anderson was mentally impaired and highlighted the system failures that allowed his dangerous behaviour to escalate. But by then Rosie Batty was working closely with domestic violence agencies as she launched a foundation in her son’s name, and her public statements focused on gender inequality. Issues such as drugs and mental illness, she told one journalist, “are not an excuse and they are not the reason”.

Rosie Batty. Picture: Alison Wynd
Rosie Batty. Picture: Alison Wynd

Mullen, who recalls that Rosie Batty supported his finding during the inquest, surmised that she had been conscripted into pushing a simpler message. “It’s this terrible problem: you want people to focus on the central problem of domestic violence and if you focus too much on mental illness, it takes away from that,” he says. “It becomes complicated, and you don’t want a complicated message.” Unfortunately, he says, family violence is complicated, and although men’s attitudes are shifting, real progress requires us to deal with the many issues faced by those “at the bottom of the heap”.

For her part, Batty does not dispute that she has focused more on gender inequality in recent years, because she came to see that as the foundational issue. “People always want to blame it on something they can understand — ‘He can’t have been in his right mind’, ‘It was alcohol-fuelled or drug-induced’, or whatever — to try and make sense of someone being capable of the utmost extremes of violence,” she says. “But ultimately that’s an easier and less confronting argument.” She does not ­dispute that these other factors can exacerbate ­violence, and she agrees that her son’s death might have been avoided if Greg Anderson had been properly treated. But fundamentally, she believes, he was an abusive and controlling man.

A month after the coroner delivered his report on Luke Batty’s death, the Royal Commission into Family Violence wrapped up its hearings in Melbourne. In their lengthy submissions to the inquiry, organisations such as Domestic Violence Victoria, the Domestic Violence Resource Centre and ANROWS resolutely focused on gender equality and mentioned substance abuse, mental illness or poverty only in passing. One dissenter to this view was Jim Ogloff, who urged the inquiry to consider other issues and strongly criticised current policies as simplistic, pointing out that at least 30 per cent of family violence is not perpetrated by men against women. But the Royal Commission’s multi-volume report endorsed existing policies, and the “new approaches” it suggested largely ignored mental health and substance abuse, other than saying that perpetrator programs needed to be strengthened.

Since then the Victorian Government has announced $1.9 billion in funding to implement the inquiry’s recommendations, nearly all of it directed at victims’ support in the shape of “safety hubs”, specialist family violence courts, increased child protection and emergency housing. A ­relatively small amount aimed at prevention was directed in large part at public awareness ­campaigns, school curricula, men’s behavioural change programs and the appointment of 17 “family violence advisers” to provide their expertise to substance abuse and mental health workers.

“It was a very positive outcome,” Ogloff comments, “but it hasn’t resolved these ongoing issues.”

On August 15, Jaymes Todd walked into Courtroom 3 of Victoria’s 135-year-old Supreme Court building, flanked by two police officers as he took his place in the cedar-panelled dock to hear lawyers discuss his fate. Dressed in grey workshirt and grey pants, the bulky 20-year-old seemed weighed down by the gravity of his crime, his eyes downcast or closed. To his right, sitting in two rows of wooden benches, were a dozen friends and relatives of the vibrant young woman he had murdered, among them Eurydice Dixon’s sister and former boyfriend. Todd’s own family were not there; he had told them not to come, his father having already endured the abuse of the online mob.

In court, Dr David Thomas, a psychiatrist with expertise in autism who had interviewed Todd and his parents for the defence, theorised that Todd’s autism may have fixated him on the pornography that led to his dangerous sexual fantasies and reduced his impulse control on the night of the murder. Todd had told the psychiatrist that he knew he was going to attack Dixon when he reached Princes Park, but not that he would carry it through to the “end game”. “I always thought I was in control of my fantasy,” he said. “But I was wrong.”

Afterwards Todd had walked to a nearby railway station and slept for two hours on a bench, then woken and wandered back to Princes Park to find police already cordoning off the scene. He bought a pie and a coffee, caught the train home to Broadmeadows, went to his room and searched on his iPad to confirm that Dixon was dead. “I broke down a little bit, cried a little bit, went to the bathroom,” he told police. Yet within 15 minutes he was back on Google, searching for “strangulation and rape porn”.

Was he the callous embodiment of misogynistic porn culture, or a product of deprivation and mental disorder? Or some dangerous hybrid of all these things? Thomas diagnosed Todd as suffering “sexual sadism disorder”, as did Jim Ogloff, who assessed Todd for the prosecution. Both men agreed that autism may have exacerbated the onset of his violent porn fixations, but Ogloff disagreed that it influenced his actions on the night. Nor did he agree that Todd was remorseful. Asked what he felt after the murder, Todd had told the psychologist: “I really didn’t have any feelings”; on the phone to his father, he had made the disturbing comment that he “hoped it would be better next time”. Yet in court, listening to Eurydice Dixon’s sister weep as she talked of her loss and trauma, Todd had appeared to break down, shuddering silently as he dabbed at his eyes with a tissue.

Last month, Justice Stephen Kaye handed down a sentence that accepted Todd’s autism had indirectly contributed to the development of his sexual sadism. But the judge ruled that the attack on Dixon was a premeditated, cruel and despicable act not influenced by his mental impairment. “You subjected Eurydice to a most horrifying ordeal,” the judge said. “Your motivation for that crime was a reflection of the darkest form of human thinking… your actions in doing so were those of pure and unmitigated evil.” He sentenced Todd to life imprisonment, with eligibility for parole in 35 years, a ­sentence Todd is appealing.

Outside court, Dixon’s father appeared before the media for the first time. “I am very glad there is a killer off the street,” he said, reading from a prepared statement. “What I wish for Jaymes Todd, and what I believe Eurydice would wish, is that he gets better… and realises what he has done. I extend my sympathy, my sincere sympathy, to those who love him. It’s a terrible tragedy all round.”

Earlier this month the charity White Ribbon Australia, which was dedicated to ending violence against women by promoting “gender equity, healthy relationships and a new vision of masculinity”, shut down after 12 years. In its last four years it had spent nearly $20 million promoting awareness campaigns and corporate accreditation programs aimed at changing men’s attitudes and behaviours, only to be criticised for its profligacy and poor management.

Its demise comes on the heels of sobering evidence that our efforts to curb violence are failing. In Victoria, according to the Crime Statistics Agency 82,652 “family incidents” were reported to police in the state in 2018-19, a per capita increase of 6.4 per cent since 2015. The NSW Government, meanwhile, has revealed that family violence killings doubled in the year to March, reaching 38. Fifteen of the victims were women, a rise of 36 per cent, but 14 men were killed, up nearly 300 per cent, and children’s deaths increased seven-fold.

In August, the Federal Government released its latest Action Plan on violence against women and children, more than eight years after the scheme was launched with the promise of “tangible results” by the year 2019. Under “Achievements To Date” the report lists school education, the establishment of various government funded agencies and better data sharing, but no actual decline in violence. An accompanying chart predicts that this will not begin to occur until approximately the year 2027.