You lived on Pitcairn Island while reporting on the 2004 child abuse trials. What was it like to be so close to the subject you were writing about?
KM: It was incredibly intense. I spent six weeks living in this little community of just fifty– odd people, surrounded by the men who were on trial and who I was writing about. It was very unusual and quite confronting. In fact, we did have confrontations, I and other journalists who were there – as we walked around the island, going to the shop and so on – would bump into these guys. They would often make accusations and sometimes make threats.
You open the piece with what appears as a tranquil, idyllic island destination. Suddenly, the true horror of that place unfolds.
KM: Pitcairn has always had this incredible mythology surrounding it because of its interesting history – the [mutinied eighteenth century British Royal Navy ship] Bounty mutineers settled there, and it's a very isolated location in the South Pacific. A lot of people still cling to that myth, when there is a very black reality that sits alongside those perceptions of the place.
Your piece discusses the concept of evil on the island and in the world. Was it something you were reflecting on while you were there?
KM: The first day I arrived, I had a quite oppressive sense of something very dark and that never really left me while I was there. I did think about evil and I even wondered whether the place itself was evil, which I think is a bit fanciful. I thought about evil not just in relation to the men who were on trial, but also the people who were involved in the abuse that went on for so many years. I'm referring to the parents of the girls and boys who were abused who, in all cases really, I believe knew what was going on and did nothing to stop it.
Also, the outsiders living on the island for most of the twentieth century and pastors of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, a lot of whom did find out what was going on. I've interviewed them myself, and they knew that girls were being abused. They went back to their homes in Australia or New Zealand and said nothing. There is that issue of bystanders who see evil and don't speak out. Exploring that idea of the bystander and that old phrase of, 'all it takes for evil to flourish is for men to do nothing', was what I started to think about.
You describe one of the men charged during the trials, Terry, as someone who also devoted himself to caring for his ailing mother. How can we reconcile 'evil' people with those who also show such empathy and compassion?
KM: People who commit actions that we might regard as evil are not one-dimensional; they have lots of dimensions to them. So there can be someone who behaves in an utterly cruel and violent way towards a very young girl, and at the same time was totally solicitous towards his mother. That's the reality of evil; we are all complex and we are all capable of both, and sometimes it [appears] at the same time.
That was another aspect of the story that fascinated me – the ordinariness of these people who committed such awful acts. One can relate that to other situations whether it be abuse, violence, genocide, or whatever.
After leaving the island, you wrote Pitcairn: Paradise Lost (HarperCollins, 2008), an in-depth book about the history of the island and its culture of sexual assault. Had you always wanted to write something more personal as well?
KM: I didn't go to the island to write an investigative piece. I went there as a journalist to report for The Independent. It was only when I got back that I thought about and was persuaded to write a book – it was such a fascinating subject, and there was so much more to be uncovered about the background to this case.
My book was published three years ago, and since then I've thought quite a lot about certain aspects of the case. In particular, I've tried to understand the motivations of some of the people involved – the men who abused the children, the parents who knew what was going on and did nothing, and the outsiders who knew what was going on and did nothing.
I started writing the piece as a memoir, but it turned into more of an essay, or perhaps a combination of both. I just wanted to try to explore the concept of evil through the prism of Pitcairn and the story of what happened there. It was a bit of a quest to try and understand better the motivations of the people involved, and at the same time to think about evil and try to work out what place evil has in a moral universe.
You've used some interesting experiments and quotes from academics who have studied the concept of evil. How did you find that research and then decide what to include?
KM: I basically just started reading a whole lot of books about evil. Because it's such a big subject, such a fascinating subject, I went off on quite a big tangent and got quite wrapped up in it. I had to really distil [the information] and work out in my own head how some of these ideas and philosophies related to the story that I had observed at such close hand. The writing of the piece was quite challenging, because I wanted to try to wrap the philosophical argument about evil and the role of bystanders around my own experience on Pitcairn.
The piece flows between events on the island when you'd been there, your interactions with the trials, academic findings and personal insights and reflections. How does one even begin to create a narrative from so many elements?
KM: To be perfectly honest, it's probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to write. It really was quite difficult to piece together. Although I knew what I wanted to say, I found it quite difficult to say it and express it in an elegant and concise way, and to carry the argument.
You have a starting point – mine was a personal quest, but also wanting to explore some of these bigger issues [of evil] – and you just get taken to places that you don't expect to go. I remember when I got back from Pitcairn, I found myself reading books about Rwanda and the Holocaust and thinking, 'Gosh this is quite extreme'. I then spoke to a Holocaust academic about these various subjects, and he talked about this other category of people – in genocide, there are victims, perpetrators and bystanders – about rescuers, the people who went out of their way to shelter Jews during Nazi Germany and what their motivations were. I just found that whole idea really illuminating and inspiring.
This aspect of what the bystanders didn't do on Pitcairn, I found really troubling. That was one of my main reasons for wanting to write this piece.