Book Review: Here, there are Dragons, by Witness J
Reviewed by: E.G. Boulton, PhD
At the start of the 21st Century, sexual crimes came out of the shadows and started to be understood as widespread and complex social issues. Paedophile networks have been revealed in country after country, followed by a stream of documentaries and films. It is the era of #MeToo; Epstein; Weinstein; and increased human trafficking. In 2020, a UK report found that the online child pornography market was growing so fast, law enforcement could not keep up. Meanwhile, Australian Police found online child abuse material ‘exploded’ during the coronavirus lock-down.
Greater coverage has helped the public to gain insight into how sexual crimes traumatise victims, or their remaining family, as well as undermine the bonds of trust which hold communities together. Accordingly, serial rapists and paedophiles are often placed into the ‘monster’ category. We don’t want to know about them.
A ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ attitude predominates.
But what if you couldn’t take a shutters-down approach? What if you were forced to live with such perpetrators 24/7, for 15 months? This is the circumstance Witness J finds himself in, and it is the subject of his memoir: Here, there are Dragons.
By way of background, although Witness J’s conviction related to national security; the sensitivity of his case led him to being housed with prisoners who require special protections — mostly paedophiles and rapists. (He is not a sex-offender.)
Understandably, sexual abuse survivors, and their advocates are likely to be disturbed, and possibly retraumatised by a book which centres the perpetrators. A trigger warning is required.
For wider society, although Witness J explores a difficult angle, I think there are several reasons not to turn away.
Why look behind the locked door?
1. Sexual Criminals are not rare monsters
First, as the trends described above indicate, sexual criminals are not rare monsters. Rather, the problem is enormous, multi-faceted and expanding. By branding them as ‘monsters’ or rare anomalies, not deserving of our attention, society can more easily absolve itself of responsibility for the problem, and perhaps avoid the hard work to address root causes. Thus, it seems reasonable and necessary to engage with the perpetrators — in the hope it might help us understand the problem better, and perhaps reduce the crimes in the first place.
2. Carefully calibrating our own ethical compass
Second, Witness J explores the alternate pathway of not dehumanising the perpetrators. He seeks to understand the ethics of interacting with the worst of humanity. Should he talk to them? It’s partly an experiment: What happens when we engage with them socially, or as fully dimensional subjects, not just ‘monsters?’ Throughout the book, he treads a moral tight rope, remaining conscious of victim’s perspectives, but concurrently, perhaps with a sense of naive altruism, but also out of curiosity and necessity, he is open to ‘witness’ their multi-faceted dimensions. It is a question that relates to larger moral frameworks around values like compassion, forgiveness, and belief in human redemption. The hard bit is not whether these are good values, but the nitty gritty of how and when they are applied, and this is the question Witness J explores and lives with — over 455 days.
3. A fresh, unique lens?
While there is much academic work on this problem, Witness J brings a unique lens. A previous intelligence Officer, he cut his teeth analysing terrorist networks in the Middle East. He brings specialist skills in understanding threats, adversaries, their motives, modus operandi, capabilities, and likely actions. Also, intelligence officers typically have a honed ability to read people, to build trust and rapport with others. Accordingly, for an old topic, the reader is afforded a fresh set of eyes and a new angle.
4. We learn about the dimensions of the problem
Rather than reveling in the sordid details in some sort of semi-voyeuristic way, (which might provide infamy for some criminals), instead Witness J offers minimalist factual accounts of the perpetrator crimes. Likely to be a relief some readers, it also means his book has the space to explore other dimensions of the problem.
The reader is reminded that sex criminals come from across society. There is a University law professor, a senior United Nations officer, an ex-Priest, a school bus driver, an ex-scout leader and petty criminals, some of whom are illiterate. We also learn that 80% of abusers were abused themselves. There is a wide spectrum of offenders: some who feel remorse and shame and others who — no matter how hard Witness J pushes — see themselves as the victims. Some blame sexual experimentation in their early 20s, others are, as Witness J describes, pure predators without an ounce of empathy.
Echoing Hannah Arendt’s conclusions on the banality of evil, it is unnerving how pleasant and affable many of Witness J’s prison peers are. One of the experienced prison guards offers this explanation: 95% of their brain is normal, but 5% is not wired the right way. A disturbing moment is when the Australian National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse is aired on prison television, and most are oblivious or don’t care.
It is also disappointing to hear that the rehabilitation program at AMC is mostly ineffective. It is a regarded as a tedious ‘tick-the-box’ experience to achieve parole.
Victims everywhere may be dismayed by the lack of soul searching that occurs, or that is recorded. Rather than ‘burning in hell’ predators get involved in gardening or watch DVDs. Life goes on. However, there is a sense it weighs upon some people so heavily that it can’t be spoken. When the inmates gather to sing a Christmas song or share a cake for someone’s birthday, it is as though they cling to these rituals like life-rafts which connect them to wider society: reminding them of a time in which they belonged. The reader is conflicted: annoyed at the prisoners for seemingly enjoying and participating in life, while they have damaged so many other people’s lives; yet also realising,that at a practical level, perhaps they can’t be in a state of shame and guilt 24/7. They have already been given prison sentences, when does ‘society’ stop punishing them? What bounds are fair?
In envisioning life after prison, while Witness J excitedly describes the prospect of space tourism, in contrast, another prisoner quietly says his far-off dream is for a normal income and a normal life. Meanwhile, the ex-Priest, John Aitchison, is known for:
…screaming himself awake in nightmares and then sobbing himself back to sleep… (p.18)
The contradictory aspects of human nature are perhaps best encapsulated in the character Cameron. The natural leader of the group, charismatic Cameron is the one prison guards consult when planning room allocation. He arbitrates all sorts of disputes, displaying extreme patience and selflessness in his interactions with others. Previously a senior public servant, he explains that that his crime was minor and misconstrued, but the reader can only speculate: was it? Or is Cameron’s generosity his way of making amends? His pathway to redemption? Or is he both a predator and a ‘nice guy’ the other 95% of the time? It was not clear to Witness J at the time of writing, thus the reader doesn’t know either.
Outside the book, however, media reports present Cameron Tully quite differently. In 2014, he was found guilty of abusing eight young girls, including raping a six-year-old.
Justice John Burns described the abuse as “brazen, revealing an arrogant belief that your victims would not report the crimes, and if they did would not be believed”.
Cameron Tully has always proclaimed he is innocent and disputed the findings; in 2016, this led to his 14 year sentence being reduced by two years.
5. A counter-narrative?
Most people have a peripheral awareness that, especially in the online world, there are narratives which create a permissive and even celebratory approach to sexual abuse. There are also complex psycho-social drivers related to gaining a sense of personal power and, as Jess Hill explains, in the closely connected area of domestic abuse, shame.
Accordingly, a frank description of the real outcome of being a sexual criminal may act as a deterrent and powerful counter-narrative.
The outcome is not empowerment, or grand notoriety as a ‘monster,’ rather it is tedious decades living in close confines with other paedophiles and rapists. Life involves enduring all sorts of aggravating disputes, like who puts their laundry where, or what time of the morning someone makes omelettes. There is the old man with a colostomy bag with horrendous personal hygiene who might cook your food one night. There are endless regulations on how phone calls are made, what you can eat and, if released, where you can live or how you can travel. The prospect of being sent to the violent and explosive ‘blocks’ (the normal prison) lurks continually in the background.
6. A visceral experience of what ‘predators’ are like
The reader, like Witness J, is taken through a visceral, morally and psychologically disorienting and jarring experience. This is the difficulty of counter-balancing polite, refined manners, and outward likability with vile, cruel, and callous behaviour. Experts refer to this as the deflection, denial and disbelief phenomena which has dogged capacity to effectively deal with these problems for decades.
Witness J’s book helps readers to experience the nature of this disabling paradox. Through getting to know the prisoners, their daily activities and their sometimes ‘likeable’ traits, the reader inevitably forms a type of relationship with them. For characters like Cameron, you don’t want him to be guilty, you don’t want to confront the reality of his behaviour.
The chilling but powerful lesson from this is a virtual experience of being hood-winked, in the same way that countless family members, officials and victims have been hood-winked before. It’s just too hard to believe. It is also distressing for the reader to keep witnessing characters in the book who wish to normalise and minimise atrocities. At the same time, one’s ‘higher angels’ caution the reader to resist the temptation to too quickly dehumanise another, or to give up on the possibility of human redemption.
Do you see what I mean? Engaging is a hard route. The benefit of a storytelling method is that it familiarises us with these many and, at times, contradictory aspects of the problem. In the words of the security and intelligence world, Witness J provides a ‘rich picture’ which is necessary for optimal decision making.
Survivors may smart at a newcomer to the field offering commentary and may wish for a more balanced approach which recounts the prisoner’s full history, and the impact of their actions upon others. While desirable, that would be a different writing project. Potentially more detail on at least one of the survivor’s perspectives may have been helpful.
Quibbles could be made about the writing or book structure. Of course, it could have done with a good edit, the sort a major publishing house would offer. However, as Robert Macklin notes in the introduction, commercial publishers feared to be involved. Also, one must account for the fact that the book is written by Witness J while in prison and undergoing mental health challenges. Not ideal writing conditions.
Who is Witness J?
While J rarely discusses himself and his own story, something of his character is revealed by default. There is no self-pity from J, he stoically undertakes his sentence and of his own volition undertakes a quasi-research activity into a diabolical social problem. He studies the subject of his query unflinchingly, for a long time and in a deep way, with a real concern about finding the right moral path. The careful deliberation he extends to this issue is even more poignant when one considers that, from media reports, such thoughtful careful weighing of justice and fairness was likely not undertaken in his case.
Witness J’s strength and smarts is show-cased through him outwitting one of the most unhinged yet cunning characters in the jail. The reader cannot help but feel a sense of joy that, finally, the psychotic Alwyn, used to manipulating children, and other often vulnerable prisoners, has met his match.
Witness J’s prison account contrasts starkly with that of Cardinal George Pell’s — who was released from prison the same month (June 2020). While Pell is focused upon himself — how he endured suffering and his own heroic self-discipline, by contrast, Witness J is more interested in the people and the world around him, and its harrowing ethical landscape.
I was left with a deep resounding sense of sadness at the end of this book. Absent, but like a loud echo, are the victim’s stories and anguish, and you can almost hear decades of painstaking police work to get these criminals behind bars. Finally, there is a feeling of overwhelm, that these men represent only those who were caught and whose convictions stuck — the ‘tip of an iceberg.’ I came away thinking we have a deep, difficult, and growing social problem, and few ideas how to turn things around.
Overall, Witness J has shown courage and skill in navigating this difficult societal issue, and he opens the door for all of us to reflect. This is a tremendous debut book, and I predict only better things to come from Witness J.
After drafting this review, I walked to my local lake. As I arrived, it was getting dark. I saw a man’s face looming out at me from where he was standing, near a tree. Startled, I sharply turned my head, but then saw another man striding up the hill, directly towards me.
Perhaps any other day I wouldn’t have noticed, but this time, the key message from the book drummed in my ears:
“they look normal; they act normal….”
I immediately made a U-turn and headed back to the well-lit main road.