A 55 year-old woman cracks and lets fly her dark side one afternoon on a crowded train from Sydney to Newcastle. After two children refused her rude and agressive demands for a seat, she began to lash out at people around her. Having sworn horribly at the terrified children, she picked on an Anglo man and an Asian woman who both happened to be sitting nearby and launched a gob-smacking racist tirade at them both.
At the time, the offender had given out her name as Sue Wilkins, but when the police later arrested her for offensive behaviour, she identified as a Karen Bailey. She had worked as a legal secretary for top legal firms in Sydney and was qualified and experienced enough to land a job as a senior legal secretary. But the market for legal secretaries is oversupplied, leaving Karen chasing only temporary assignments.
Karen issued a rambling apology to the media, full of excuses for her behaviour.
The excuses were that she had been unsuccessfully looking for a permanent job for a long time, an Internet love interest on a lonely hearts website had scammed her of ‘everything’, she was separated from her husband and had been visiting him in a nursing home and was living with her father. She had sore, arthritic knees… She’d had a particularly rotten day, was exhausted and full of pent-up frustration and the fact that there was no seat on the train for the long journey home for her was the trigger that brought her to breaking point.
She described her outburst, which was widely broadcast and condemned over online media, as a ‘brain snap’. Inexplicably, she said she had unleashed all this dammed up torrent of anger against anyone who happened to be nearby.
But it was a melt-down that likely has heavy consequences for her. The police have charged her with offensive behaviour and she is due to appear in court later on in the month. On top of it, videos of her rant have hit the Internet and gone viral, with commentary appearing as far away as The Huffington Post and broadsheets in China. Her reputation is in tatters and it is quite possible that she is going to find it even harder to get a job than before.
For some reason, I followed this story with intense interest. I am of a similar age and also understand very well the stresses and frustrations of being at a certain age. My husband is out of work and I am at present the breadwinner with two part-time jobs and we have a daughter who is doing her HSC. My mother has Parkinson’s Disease and so has my dear friend, who is now in a nursing home.
There are days when I walk through work and think everybody who is younger is smarter and knows and does things so much better than I do. My plans for a new career have hit the doldrums. I spent all this time getting university degrees and working hard only to miss out on interview after interview. Sometimes I feel a bit like Karen obviously does – old and out of it and destined for the scrap heap.
Another reason for my fascination with the affair seems to be that Karen comes from the same area I grew up in – an Anglo-Australian rural backwater between two cities, bounded by the sea, great lakes, farm paddocks and dense, eucalypt and lush, sub-tropical rainforest. And I do not remember it with much affection, because of all the bullying I got right through most of my years at school because I was different.
I am Anglo-Australian, but unlike the others from their working class homes and coal-miner fathers, I liked literature and history and classical music. My knowledge of pop music and culture was sketchy. My father was an English/History teacher and he and Mum took myself and my two younger sisters off on camping trips to national parks around Australia during the school holidays. We had a house by the highway and a garden full of riotous native plants. I was a dreamy, solitary, otherworldly individual and if I wasn’t different enough, being acutely sensitive made things a whole lot worse.
You see I cried every time fellow students picked on me and soon I was easy game for every up and coming bully in the school. They mimicked my walk, they mocked my appearance, my clothes and my speech. Groups of bitchy girls would surround me, filling the air with their taunts. I couldn’t walk past any group of boys without getting insulting comments.
To this day, I still feel the same sense of dread when I approach a group of school-students. At work I don’t like to leave a group of people in case they start talking about me and when I do, walk away as fast as I can to avoid hearing the negative discussion about me that I feel will inevitably follow. At times when faced with a demanding customer, I open my mouth and word salad comes out. It’s mortifying.
Throughout my adult life, a chronic sense of inadequacy and sense of failure has gnawed at me and have walked through life as if in a grey fog. Before I started counselling and taking anti-depressants, I would burst into tears at work for no reason other than thinking that I was utterly alone and nobody liked me. On bad days, I walk through a Hell of darkness visible where people at work are all talking about me and saying what a terrible job I am doing.
But I walk and keep on walking and talking myself through it and after a while, as gentle as the day’s long duration, imperceptibly, the fog lifts.
These days I live in a very multi-cultural, metropolitan environment and love being surrounded by all the sights and sounds of cultural diversity. My daughter has grown up with bi-lingual friends from homes of different cultures – Greek, Chinese, Lebanese. For some reason, I adore going shopping in nearby suburbs and feeling like I am in another country like China.
I work with Chinese – as immigrants and travellers, every day and often over a steep language barrier. I largely find them a very polite, hard-working, honest, sunny kind of people and am fascinated by their language, their shops, their stories and their love of bargains, urban luxury, bright colours and cute, kitschy things.
I visit suburbs dominated by an Anglo-Australian demographic and shudder at the sameness and insularity of it all. I love my own culture – visiting England was a high point in my life – but the idea of living in the same culture I grew up in feels stifling and stagnant. Too many bad memories.
Often, I find myself thinking the same old things those bullies would make me think – that I am destined for failure, that I’m not any good at social interaction or working in a team.
But really, it’s time to discard all this kind of thinking that keeps me living in a loop and going nowhere. I have learned of new cognitive behaviour therapy techniques where I recognise such negative, self-critical thinking as just the ghosts of the bullies talking. So I reason with myself in a more calm and realistic way, to say that that was then and it’s over. That no-one worthwhile behaves like that. That there are a lot of good, kind people in the world.
Anyway, to live means to change and change involves not too much thinking either way about uncertainties. To observe, to plan and to work a way out of any problems is the important thing.
I don’t care about becoming unemployed. I have another dimension to my life and a home life lush with things to do that don’t involve having a lot of money.
I don’t know anything about Karen Bailey. She might have gone to the same school as me, she might even have been one of the bullies. I don’t remember and don’t really want to either. She is a stranger.
But just for a moment then, this stranger’s head cracked open and all that same intolerance for differences, that malicious, mocking glee, that bloody-minded insistence on uniformity and that same sense of territorial tyranny gushed out to all of the early days of July, 2014. And for that moment there, she was the outsider.