The how matters

Language, loss and unanswered questions

This story contains descriptions of violence. 

ON SATURDAY 15 March 2014, my stepmother Genee was shot twice in her bed in Johannesburg. No. That’s misleading: ‘was shot’ suggests she might still be alive. Genee died on 15 March 2014.

No. That’s misleading too. Without the other detail, ‘died’ suggests she was old and had a heart attack or stroke. Natural causes, if such things still exist.

That’s not what happened. Genee was a youthful seventy, and healthy despite her penchant for moist, fatty biltong and Coca-Cola.

The verb ‘died’ feels dishonest too, as if I’m shying away from naming what happened. Worse, it feels like an injustice, allowing the perpetrator to escape responsibility, allowing myself and others to avoid the vile horror.

Genee. Genee. Genee. With her clip-on earrings and dangling pearl necklace. Wearing a business suit after a day spent training Estée Lauder consultants, or a dressing gown as she knelt in the early morning light to pull weeds.

Shot dead in 48A, the fortress-like house where my father had lived from when I was six? The house where Genee had continued to live after my father died in 1988, after she’d remarried a decade later?

When the news first rocketed into the quiet Sunday morning peace of my rural Australian life, a currawong wheeled past squawking. All at once, this garden’s familiar birdlife had turned menacing. All at once, I was twenty-one again, my preparation for my first law exam interrupted by my cousin’s knock on the front door.

‘It’s David, Hayls,’ my cousin said. ‘He’s had a heart attack.’

That was thirty years ago. My father was fifty-eight when he died.

I’m not supposed to say ‘his heart attacked him’.


WHAT HAPPENED? WHERE? When? Who? How? Why? We want to know what caused the death of our loved one – were they accompanied in their last moments, or did they die a lonely death; did they suffer? Could their life have been saved?

Genee didn’t die of a stroke, cancer or heart disease. She didn’t die in an accident. A ‘something’ didn’t cause her death.

Was it the place, I wondered, as I tried to absorb the news. South Africa’s crime rate rivalled that of Honduras and Venezuela; friends and family had been carjacked, burgled, had their homes invaded. Perhaps Genee was a victim of random crime.

But Genee was not shot on the street; she was shot in her bedroom. What’s more, 48A had a strange geology: the house’s living quarters, even the garden, were above street level. To enter Genee’s bedroom – with its alarm that summoned an armed response company – someone would have had to go down the long, panhandled driveway, through the two electric gates, through the giant, solid wood front door or the bolted metal door of the tradesmen’s entrance, and up the stairs. Or they would have had to enter through the neighbour’s gated and alarmed property and scale the six-metre-high wall.

Who would’ve gone to so much effort and taken such risk? Who was this ‘someone’ responsible for Genee’s death?

I called my mother in Sydney. ‘I’m sorry, darling,’ she said. ‘I know how much you cared for Genee.’ And then she said, ‘Sit quietly, Hayls, and then life goes on.’

What to do? Sit here in the green and clean of my home on a small Australian cattle farm, miles from Genee or the people who knew and loved her, and continue as normal, as though life was unchanged?

‘I don’t want you to go,’ my partner Jen said. ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this.’

Genee. Shot dead in her bed.

Tuesday morning, at Sydney Airport’s Gate 32, my mind scratched and tore at the news. I switched on the computer – I needed to tell friends and colleagues why I was suddenly flying to Johannesburg, the city of my birth.

I typed: On Saturday night my stepmom Genee was shot twice in her bed in Johannesburg.

Delete. Try again: My stepmom died on Saturday night.

No. ‘Died’ might reflect the inescapable reality, but it too was misleading.

The ‘how’ mattered.

I rubbed my tear-tired eyes and looked around at the other passengers staring at their phones, at the wall-mounted television screen, into space. The ordinariness made no sense. Nothing made sense. Even language. I couldn’t find the right words.

Finally I emailed: My stepmom Genee was shot and killed by an intruder on Saturday night.

Thursday at the Tom Knight Funeral Home in Vrededorp, Hello! magazine peeked out from behind Funeral Director Monthly on the coffee table. We were early for our 3 pm appointment to see Genee. Grey men walked in and out of the reception area. Over and over, I trod the path to the water bubbler.

Up on a wall, a TV blared. The news was of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, which had disappeared with 239 people on board.

The fate of MH370 was a mystery. No one could tell the grieving relatives what had happened to their loved ones. When it had happened. Where they were. How. Why.

Friday, I stood in The Country Club Johannesburg’s rose garden facing a largely unknown crowd, most of whom were from Genee’s contemporary life. Proudly I brought the memory of my father and his relationship with Genee to this honouring of her. The eulogy I delivered was on behalf of all Genee’s ‘children’. She’d never given birth herself, but she’d been a significant adult to her orphaned nieces and nephew, to the granddaughter of her current husband and a mother to Sue and Bob, whose birth mother died when they were young and whose father, Genee’s first partner, died too. We, mostly adults in our forties and fifties, represented different eras of Genee’s life, her three significant relationships with men, her joyful times and her losses.

When her husband’s son took the podium, I looked across at his father, a tired, sad seventy-eight-year-old man. Widowed for a second time. I slipped across to the now-empty chair beside him and took his hand.

After the service, some of the mourners, people I didn’t know, approached me. They said: something’s fishy. It’s unusual for someone to be killed and nothing taken – especially with that staffy Roxy at the foot of the bed. Especially with that house. Make sure the police don’t lose the docket. Hire a private investigator. Sounds like an inside job.

I nodded and said, ‘The police are looking into it.’

All night, those words wove themselves into my tangled grief and the other suspicions I’d heard, but flatly refused to consider. What if the ‘someone’ who’d killed Genee wasn’t a stranger, but someone she knew and trusted? That would be murder of a different quality from the random kind that seemed an inescapable reality of South African life. It would be the vilest kind of murder – the ultimate form of betrayal. Personal, not political.

Suspicion, my legal training told me, was the stuff of murder mysteries and madness. Suspicion was tunnel vision; it was witch hunts and miscarriages of justice. We needed certainty, not suspicion. We needed the criminal justice system to do its job. But if, as many South Africans were telling me, the police were overwhelmed by the volume of crime, would the perpetrator walk free? I tossed and turned; I squeezed shut my eyes, longing for sleep’s escape, longing for this not to have happened, longing for my father. If he’d been alive, none of this would’ve happened. If he’d been alive, he’d have known what to do.


THE NEXT DAY, all Genee’s ‘children’ gathered at 48A. I told them what I’d heard after the memorial service. ‘I’ve lived away from South Africa for too long,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what to make of this.’

Knowledge and opinion, with a subtext of unspoken suspicions and conflicts, bounced around the group:

‘As a journalist who works in the news, I can tell you this is not uncommon.’

‘Burglaries are high, but not shootings.’

‘It could’ve been a burglary. Amateurs shoot and kill.’

‘Things were really bad financially. I used to bring her food. And we had so many conversations about her will and safety deposit box. I even said to her: are you planning something?’

‘When I got here that night my first thought was: did she do this to herself?’

Could this, I wondered, have been assisted suicide? This phenomenon had received recent press coverage in South Africa since Brett Kebble, a man with debts and difficult business dealings, had hired people to kill him and make it look like a carjacking gone wrong. That way, his family would benefit from his insurance policies.

‘But surely she’d have taken an overdose if she wanted to commit suicide?’

‘She was in her tracksuit.’

‘But she always slept in a nightdress.’

‘She was in a strange position when we saw her, her head facing the foot of the bed, her legs sort of hanging down the side.’

‘So was it a revenge killing? Did she really piss someone off recently?’

Could someone who knew Genee want her dead?

Could someone who’d once loved Genee want her dead?

Should the verb be ‘assassinated’? Or ‘executed’?


THAT AFTERNOON, THE investigating officer, wearing blue plastic gloves and a T-shirt advertising Orlando Pirates and Vodacom, arrived to collect a gun – a gas starter pistol – that had been found inside the walk-in wardrobe by Genee’s husband’s granddaughter. He told me they were still establishing what happened. ‘We check everything,’ he assured me. ‘You cannot just close the case.’

I asked him about his workload and discovered he was working on two other cases at the same time, and in one of them he’d arrested the suspected perpetrators. He had to go to Zimbabwe and to Vereeniging as part of these investigations. I wondered what resources would be dedicated to finding Genee’s murderer.

‘Whew,’ I said. ‘You’re a very busy man. You have a big case load to manage.’ He shook his head. Then he said, ‘You must make sure everything is there for the magistrate or they walk free.’

‘Will we ever know what happened to Genee?’ I asked.

He assured me 80 per cent of cases were solved.

I wrote the figure in my notebook.

‘Are you from the media?’ he asked.

I explained I was a writer, but didn’t work for newspapers.

‘Make that 50 per cent of cases,’ he said. ‘In 50 per cent we get the perpetrator.’


THE TWO PRIVATE investigators I met with advised asking everyone who lived, worked or regularly visited the house to take a polygraph test as a way to deal with the suspicions held by some family members and friends. The Polygraph Institute of South Africa explained that polygraphs are used to confirm or reject critical pieces of information, and are sometimes viewed by police as interference, sometimes as an aid to investigation. ‘To know is not to prove,’ the man said. ‘Even if we identify a culprit it may not necessarily lead to conviction. In essence it’s the opinion of the polygraph examiner based on the test.’ The investigating officer’s superior, the lieutenant, told me the South African Police Service does not use polygraph tests, but they could be useful. It was up to us, the family, if we wanted to arrange one. The lieutenant assured me everything would be done to find the perpetrator.

A lawyer cousin advised against the polygraph; the two men who worked for Genee – Frank in the house and Lewis in the garden – spoke English as their second or third language. This, my cousin said, would place them at an unfair disadvantage in a polygraph test. A trusted old friend explained that in South Africa, people think that if a murder is personal rather than random, they’re safer from becoming victims themselves. A polygraph was used in a case in which this friend was attacked, but the advice he stressed was: keep the pressure on the police so they don’t overlook the case.

But how could I advocate from Australia, where our night was South Africa’s day? I passed the information on to Sue, Genee’s daughter, who still lived in South Africa.

In the departure lounge of OR Tambo International Airport, I flicked through the newspaper. On the front page was a story about the missing Malaysian plane, and about two murder trials where husbands were accused of murdering their wives. The South African media used a word to describe these crimes that I’d not heard in common Australian parlance before: femicide. The very worst form of domestic violence. On the second page was a small article about a fifty-nine-year-old man shot dead, his wife assaulted with a knife and robbed of 260,000 rand, a laptop, firearm and a car. The rest of the articles reported on dangerous roads, botched medical procedures, corruption, calls for President Zuma’s impeachment. There was an article too about a successful police operation: suspects were arrested in Soweto in connection with drunk driving, motor-vehicle theft, hijacking, kidnapping, fraud and possession of stolen property.

I folded up the paper. In a country suffocating with crime, what were the chances the person who’d killed Genee would ever be found? What were the chances we’d ever know the what, how and why of Genee’s death? The truth?

The words of the man I’d spoken with at the Polygraph Institute rang in my ears: ‘Let’s be straightforward about the police. If it’s not a high-profile case, there won’t be a high-profile result, and the longer it takes the less likely it is that they’ll find the culprit.’ SOON AFTER RETURNING to Australia, I stood on the banks of the Clarence River in my Rural Fire Service yellows, staring at the wheels of a fixed-wing plane – wheels that faced the sky. The four-seater aircraft had crashed into the power lines in the neighbouring tree plantation where our cattle were agisted. The pilot had gone for help. A twelve-year-old girl was dead, trapped in the back seat. Her father paced the bank, pulling and scratching at his skin and hair. Another plane of loss.

I backed away to our truck, speeding away to the road so I could lead the police and paramedics, with their sirens and lights, in and out of the rows of gumtrees, across paddocks of knee-high grass and down to the site of the accident. From a safe distance I watched the paramedics with the father, watched the police officers survey the scene, talk to Jen and other members of our fire brigade. I ached for that little girl’s mother and father. I ached for that pilot.

It was an accident, a horrible, tragic accident. Random. Incomprehensible.

I imagined the police investigator’s questions: how had this occurred? Why had an experienced pilot not seen those power lines? Why had no one been able to save that little girl’s life? There’d be an inquest, possibly a criminal trial. Either the ‘something’ (the plane) or the ‘someone’ (the pilot) would be held responsible.

I glanced again at the submerged aircraft, flipped upside down. Around it the river’s murky water rippled gently, searching its way downstream towards the ocean.


IN JOHANNESBURG, A trauma counsellor had advised me to accept that, as with the many other unsolved crimes in South Africa, I might never know what happened to Genee. There was nothing I could do to set this right for her.

Back on the farm, bewildered, I burrowed down into the past, picking over photographs and memories. My funeral celebrant friend told me death is always a mystery, however the person dies. You can’t solve or reason death; knowing doesn’t take away the grief. My old friend from university in Cape Town whose uncle had been murdered years earlier by workers on his farm asked, ‘What does it matter how she died?’

I railed against their words. ‘You don’t understand. This is different. We don’t know what happened. We don’t know who did this. It’s one thing if it’s random, but what if it’s someone she knew or loved?’

My mind tore around the maze of unanswered questions, every pathway strewn with doubt and betrayal and injustice. I had to know: was the perpetrator someone known to Genee, or was this ‘random South African crime’? Mystery breeds suspicion, and suspicion felt shameful. How could I think such a thing of anyone? I wanted – needed – proof.


SIX MONTHS AFTER Genee was killed, her husband was charged with her murder. The ballistics matched a gun registered in his name that Genee’s niece found in his wardrobe when she was packing up the house. Gun number two.

I felt no joy, but some relief from the confusion. At last, the criminal justice system would provide an authoritative finding: ‘justice’ for Genee. Resolution. I would no longer have to battle suspicion. At last, we would all be free to mourn Genee, free of the shroud of ugliness cast over her by the circumstances of her death. Our emails travelled around from South Africa to Australia to London and New York with stories and photographs of Genee in a tutu, in a cowgirl costume, in an elegant ballgown. Oh, how beautiful and refined she’d been. How much crueller the circumstances seemed as I stared at her wide smile and the flawless skin she’d protected from the harsh South African sun.

Until new and confounding evidence suddenly materialised: a third gun was found in the garden, and Genee’s husband obtained his own ballistics report refuting the match to the second gun – the one registered in his name. The charges were dropped. In Johannesburg, Sue badgered the investigating officer for information. From our different time zones, the rest of us awaited her emails. Everything seemed suspended: the investigation, my very self. I didn’t know what to think. It all seemed too complex for logic.

We were back where we’d been on 15 March 2014 – without an ‘accused’, wondering if the perpetrator was someone Genee had known, or if this was another faceless and nameless crime. And if there was no accused, how were we to know whether, legally, this was murder and not manslaughter? That the person who pulled that trigger intended to cause Genee’s death? That they had the mens rea, the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime?

Without an agent, all I could know was that Genee had been shot, Genee had been killed. Language that didn’t answer the ‘how’ or the ‘why’.

On the first anniversary of Genee’s death, I lit a memorial candle and recited the Kaddish, beseeching myself to ‘move on’, to ‘let it go’, to remember that even if there might never be ‘justice’ for Genee, even if we might never know the truth, Genee’s memory would live on with those of us who’d loved her.

In September 2015 – eighteen months after Genee’s death – the prosecutor provisionally withdrew the matter pending the outcome of an inquest.


‘NOTHING IS MORE difficult than knowing what you really think,’ says Ben Okri in the introduction to his essay collection A Way of Being Free (Head of Zeus, 1997). Over the last seven years, I’ve turned to the essay form to soothe my questioning mind and make sense of experiences and choices. The word ‘essay’ has its roots in essai, which means ‘to try’, and through writing in this form, I’ve tried to free myself from the constraining rationality and logic of my legal training and find what I really think and want to say. Much like the anecdote in EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel where the old lady accused of being illogical contemptuously says, ‘Logic! Good gracious! What rubbish! How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?’

Essaying too was where I turned in my grief after Genee’s death, hoping it might help give ‘shape to the shapeless’, as Amy Jo Burns suggests in her essay ‘How to Grieve for Your Friend and Mentor’. Grief, she writes, is ‘the working out of things that can’t be undone’, and essaying, like mourning, may have ‘no final destination’.

Without any solid conviction about whodunnit, I have written different essays about my experience of Genee’s murder, entering each one via a different route, repeating and reliving the sequence of events, focusing on a different thread and then often abandoning my work, frustrated when suspicions and suppositions creep in, frustrated by my failure to find an arc with at least some internal resolution, if not a ‘final destination’. Where’s that Aristotelian beginning, middle and end where orderly arranged incidents (the what) build causally? Where’s the convincing evidence that events did not happen by mere chance (the why)? What verb should I even use? What’s the climax – the external resolution, the answer?


IN AUGUST 2017, Genee’s case was listed for inquest. Three-and-a-half years since her death. Genee’s husband was required to get representation.

On 7 January 2018, Jen and I sat in Hof 35 of the Johannesburg Central Magistrates Court, where the inquest would run for two weeks, and then a further two weeks in February. I sat on the edge of the hard wooden bench, Genee’s husband an arm’s length away at the bar table in front of me. I opened my notebook, expectant, but all too aware that as the polygraph expert had said, ‘to know is not to prove’. I’d set my personal expectations low. Whether or not anyone was charged, I wanted the authorities to do everything possible to find out what had happened. I wanted to see them show respect for Genee, to show that her death at the hands of someone else mattered – that the how mattered.

But 2018 did not bring resolution. Repeatedly, the inquest was adjourned. As I write this essay in 2019, still we await the magistrate’s decision.


IN JUNE 2018, three days before my mother’s eighty-fourth birthday, she was diagnosed with cancer. She wanted no treatment. She was ‘ready’ – impatient, really, telling rabbis and palliative care professionals that she was an atheist and prepared to die. She didn’t want to suffer the indignity and infirmity of age, or the narrowing of an independent life that had always had purpose: she’d taught English for sixty-three years. We spent her final weeks together, chatting, crying and laughing. She insisted on quoting poetry about death and correcting my grammar. Together we dismantled old photograph albums and cupboards crammed with teaching materials. With her family around her, my mother said she’d had her ‘paradise’. She died four weeks after diagnosis.

The day after my mother died, a book she’d ordered arrived in the mail – Letting Go: How to Plan for a Good Death (Scribe, 2018). The author, Dr Charlie Corke, writes: ‘Protection, love and duty are strong instincts for family members, and these easily translate into advocacy to save the life of a beloved relative.’ These emotional instincts, he says, are often stronger than any appeals to reason.

My mother hadn’t needed to read that book. Her clarity – and her good death – were her final lasting gift to her family. It gave us the peace of finality to grieve, and to ‘accept the mystery of life and death’. The how matters – it always does when we lose our loves. But with my mother, there’s been no need for me to harass myself – or the authorities – with questions about what happened, how, when, where and why. I don’t need to know. I’ve not been haunted by that labyrinth of questions, not resorted to the essay to fathom the mystery of her death.

But with Genee’s murder, the how matters. Still. For Genee, and for those who mourn her. As much as the years might have dulled the shock and searing rage, without some answers, there is only the sense of an ending, only one’s own grappling with harrowing, niggling questions. We can never completely ‘let it go’ and ‘move on’. We remain untethered, turned upside down like that four-seater plane submerged in the river, its wheels pointing skyward. But still it burns quietly inside, this need for justice and for truth, for knowing what, when, where, how, who and why.

Call it protection, call it duty, call it love.

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