Twelve months ago today, Jill Meagher spent a final evening with friends, and then vanished.
We remember what it was like, vividly, because the heartbreaking fullness of her fate is now known.
She was abducted, raped and murdered.
But back then, the facts came to light gradually – the horrifying story emerging in rough, grubby daubs.
Dinner and drinks. A rebuffed offer of escort from a friend.
The blue hoodie. The pixelated grey terror of the CCTV footage.
Our communal held breath and anguished exhalation as she totters off the screen forever.
Stepping down Sydney Road, headed to Lux Way but snatched off the footpath and dragged into Hope Street.
Text messages and phone calls. A husband. A handbag.
Homicide Crew Four – the suspicious missing persons unit. Adrian Ernest Bayley, grinning and flexing.
A sexual assault and a killing. A shallow grave under a wattle. An Irish funeral.
Wailing eulogies and 29 white doves for a gorgeous, goofy girl from Drogheda, County Louth.
And then …
“I think it has changed Melbourne,” said Brunswick writer Michaela McGuire, who has written a short book about that frenzied moment in our shared history.
“It was easy to get swept up in that and forget that it happened to a real woman who had a real family who were really suffering. But the strong reaction that most people had has also made us view other crimes against women in the same way.”
Raising awareness is an often nebulous and largely unmeasured goal. Not in this case.
A life ended and those around it were destroyed, but for many others the late September horror compelled them to reach out for help – to save themselves.
“In October, our referrals more than doubled,” said Pauline Gilbert, of the Centre Against Sexual Assault, a front-line organisation helping those who have been abused or raped.
Later, the case was kept in our consciousness by the committal, the trial and the sentence, then by a forensic analysis of our parole system and its shortcomings.
In a way, it meant the victim and her family and friends were sacrificed to a story that we continued to write and update, and read and re-read again in seemingly evergreen instalments, like some ghoulish serial narrative that belongs to Melbourne.
Joan Didion, commenting on the furore surrounding a brutal 1989 pack rape in New York, described a similar phenomenon there as a conflation of victim and city – “this confusion of personal woe with public distress”.
The difference here is context.
This was a flashbulb moment, yes.
We remember where we were. But it was also an unmistakable flashpoint in a much broader new millennium conversation about gender – the latest and loudest thunderclap from a rumbling cloud of protest against the objectification of women.
The words “Jill Meagher” have become shorthand for an idea and part of a wider discourse that envelops everything from rape culture to slut walks and the creeping sexualisation of youth.
From the St Kilda schoolgirl to the Delhi gang rape, from Robin Thicke smirking to Miley Cyrus twerking, from election gaffes about “sex appeal” to a pointed finger and “I will not be
lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man!”
Community attitudes to sexual violence have shifted, but there are also still strong pockets where blaming the victim and excusing the aggressor are commonplace.
Renee Imbesi runs the Preventing Violence Against Women program through VicHealth, and points to disturbing but illuminating new research that examines the response of bystanders not to sexual violence but to sexism itself.
They found one in three Victorians had witnessed sexism in the previous 12 months, but less than half did anything about it. We were afraid to use our voice.
“That’s what’s exciting about this groundswell,” Imbesi said, “because it tells people that if they speak up they won’t be acting alone.”
Sometimes, when the public latches on such grim cases as this, it is part of a greater ugliness – a kind of voyeuristic social and emotional pornography.
People read the words to relive the shock and chill.
The discussion of Jill Meagher has been better than that.
Crime dramatically decreased in Moreland in the months that followed. Our vigilance was galvanised.
The reach of the event and its aftermath was both local and global – part of something bigger and more instructive.
Anastasia Powell, author of Sex, Power and Consent, points to the Everyday Sexism Project, Project Unbreakable, We Will Not Go Quietly, Hollaback and other new feminist movements as evidence of a renewed anger.
“Young women refuse to accept a culture that fails to take sexual violence seriously, and a justice system that too often fails to hold perpetrators to account for their actions,” Powell says.
Look no further for proof that Jill Meagher will not go away than the 30,000 people who marched down Sydney Road, who would not let her slip into obscurity.
Philip Werner, the Brunswick man who organised that peace rally and is doing so again next weekend, said her fate – her very life and death – meant too much to too many to simply move on.
A peace march down Sydney Road, from Moreland Road to Brunswick Road, is being held on Sunday, September 29, starting at noon.