Gristwood, Australian Women's Weekly

Haunted by my Horrible Past
by Sarah Gristwood

The Australian Women's Weekly, March 1995. pp. 18-21.

"Jailed at 15 for her part in a brutal murder, author Anne Perry thought her secret was safe..."

Anne Perry had waited 35 years for the blow to fall. She should have been going about her usual business--writing best- selling crime novels, gardening and walking the dogs around the tiny Scottish fishing village where she lives. Instead, she was trying to cope with the devastating effects of one phone call.

A journalist had been on the line, her agent told her, with a crazy story about a film, "Heavenly Creatures", being made about an old murder case, and how one of the teenagers involved had grown up to become Anne Perry. But, of course, there couldn't possibly be any truth in it. Yes, there was, Anne said.

The bare facts are that on June 22, 1954, as a 15-year-old in New Zealand, she colluded with a friend to murder the friend's mother. She served a prison sentence, was released with a new name at the age of 21--and went on to build a fresh life and career.

Only in the past few years have Anne Perry's historical mysteries reached the US best-seller lists. But that fame makes an explosive combination when you mix with it a notorious murder story--all the more fascinating because, even today, no-one, probably including Anne Perry herself, can really explain it. "I've done my best to put it out of my mind," Anne says. "Once you have admitted that you are at fault, have said, 'I'm sorry, I'm utterly, totally sorry, without excuse,' and paid your price, then you have to put it behind you. You have to let it go."

[snip "Creatures" description]...and it's hard to match the person Anne is today with what she once did. How two bright girls, from families no more troubled than any others, came to kill was the great question of the time.

Headlines around the world shrieked "Gym Tunic Murderesses" and "Teen Passion Flares." At the trial, the argument was about whether they were bad, as the prosecution claimed, or mad. The verdict and sentence, in the end, reflected what was seen as "folie a deux"--two girls who were dangerous together; apart, the girls may well have grown to a trouble-free adulthood.

Anne Perry was born Juliet Hulme in the London suburb of Greenwich, on October 28, 1938. Her astronomer father worked at the Royal Observatory and later, during the war, held a senior position at the Admiralty. Juliet was only eight when, on medical advice after contracting pneumonia, she was sent to New Zealand to stay with another family. It was two years before her parents joined her.

"The effect on me was disorienting, but my mother sent me away with great anguish. She'd already heard one doctor say, when I was six, that he would come back to sign my death certificate in the morning. One of the things that hurt me most was the way they painted her at the time of the trial," Anne says.

She was 10 when her father was appointed rector (sic) of Canterbury University College in Christchurch. The Hulmes lived in the university-owned house, Ilam, with its famous gardens, and mixed with the top strata of local society. They were a glamorous, liberal family--or they seemed so to Pauline Parker, whose father owned a fish shop and whose mother took in boarders. The two girls met at Christchurch Girls' High School, and a close friendship was formed.

Before long, Pauline was spending much of her time with the Hulmes, even writing in her diary of Dr. Hulme as "Father". With Juliet, she created a vivid imaginary world, peopled by "saints", such as singer Mario Lanza and actor James Mason, with "temples" in the garden of Ilam, in which to bury "dead ideas." The friendship grew if anything more exclusive when Juliet was taken out of school with tuberculosis. It was "a strange and lonely time," Anne says now.

Kate Winslet, the actress who spent months trying to get inside Juliet's mind for the film, says: "Because of being sent so far away, Juliet never had a home base, a family she could invest everything of herself in. To me, she was like a child stiffening its lip, determined not to cry. I think she was constantly afraid of being on her own."

Separation and loneliness were just what the girls were threatened with. In the summer of 1954, the Hulmes' marriage was breaking up and Juliet was to leave New Zealand. Pauline, of course, was to stay. But the girls convinced themselves they could go abroad and make a life together--if only Pauline's mother were not in the way.

Pauline was ill with what to modern ears sounds like bulimia. "She was literally wasting away," Anne says. "I was afraid that she was seriously ill to the point where she might not survive. I felt that I was deserting her. I believed at the time that her survival depended on her coming with us.

"I don't want in any way to implicate or blame her. I heard the other day that she's made a success of her life, but I have had no contact with her from that day to this. But she wished me to join her in this act and I believed that if I did not she would take her own life. I sincerely believed that her life was in the balance. Crazy as this sounds, I thought it was one life or the other. I just couldn't face the thought of being responsible for her dying. And I made a very foolish choice."

It is no use pressing Anne for details of the event, or of the mood which blew up between the girls in the space of a few frantic days.

"I've completely blocked it out. All I can say is that it was violent and quick." But contemporary reports told how--in the context of an apparently normal day filled with shopping and household chores--the two girls went with Pauline's mother to a Christchurch park. They had tea, went for a walk--and Pauline used the half brick provided by her friend to hit her mother repeatedly over the head.

"I never thought I would get anything out of it," Anne says. "I was 15, I was ill, and I had been out of circulation with people because of this chest ailment--for which I'd been treated with drugs that have since been withdrawn because they do tend to warp the judgement. I would like to think this was to some extent responsible, but obviously I was an accomplice. I was party to this act, and I never pretended otherwise."

The pair were arrested within 24 hours, after police found diaries in which Pauline wrote of their plan for "the moider." The spoof spelling, some theorists have since thought, may suggest that the killing was unreal to the two who did it--a game that went wrong, another fantasy. But read out in court--and misinterpreted, says Anne--the diaries were damning. The defence could only, unsuccessfully, plead insanity. "I don't think the reason for what we did ever came out," says Anne, who has probably never heard some of the other theories pundits have been forming since.

"After three months' solitary confinement I was sent 'at Her Majesty's pleasure' to the toughest place of incarceration in the country. I was the only child there. I've chosen not to remember a great deal of it, because you can't survive if you do. It was 40 years ago. I have done everything I can to live as good a life as I know how since then. To the best of my belief, I am doing nobody any harm, and as much good as I am able to."

Anne left New Zealand immediately after her release, in November 1959, to join her mother in Britain. For the next 15 years she worked in secretarial jobs and as an air hostess, spending time in the US. She never married, "though I came near to it once or twice," but stayed close to her family.

She had been trying to write for 12 years before her first book was published in 1978. Since then, she's become far better known abroad than in Britain. It's partly because of that fame, of course, that the trouble began. All the same, the question that has to be put is whether, after 40 years, Anne's identity need ever have been discovered but for "Heavenly Creatures." "Yes," says director Peter Jackson.

In New Zealand, interest in the story never went away. Almost every year there's a newspaper story. There's been a great resurgence in the past five or six years, as the 40th anniversary approached: a book, a play, and five or six other prospective films."

Jane Campion, director of "The Piano," and Dustin Hoffman's production company are just two of the film-makers who showed interest. "Deciding to do the film when we did may, at least, have stopped something more unsympathetic being made," says Peter--a bearded, friendly man whose film "Heavenly Creatures" has won great reviews in the US and a Venice Film Festival prize. "What was important was to make the film as fairly as possible, not taking sides in any way. There is no simple explanation. I think it was very much a fatal attraction."

Peter also points out that Anne Perry's former identity was rapidly becoming an open secret among New Zealand literati. "When a play about the case was put on in Wellington two years ago, the team went round to everyone who had known her, and there was one woman who said, 'I can't talk to you because I'm still writing to Juliet.' But she let something slip at the party after the premiere--and from then on, it was a ticking clock."

The story spread, but Peter prayed it wouldn't become public--at least, not in connection with his film: "But so many people knew."

The same journalist who had called London contacted him. He spent an hour trying to persuade her not to run the story. "I said, 'They're not Nazi war criminals. They don't deserve to be hunted down.' I was appalled. It makes me feel incredibly guilty."

How does Anne Perry feel, now that the initial shock has begun to die? Through the years, she has told the truth about her past at salient points: to the American immigration authorities, who granted her a full visa after hearing the trial transcripts, and to the Mormon church in the US, which she joined when she was in her 20s.

"I think all Christian faiths will say that if you have paid the price and you have truly repented, there is forgiveness," she says. "I've found the most incredible support. I haven't had one person turn away. Everybody has said, 'You were a child, that was 40 years ago, we are right with you.'

"It shows you the kind of people they are. That basic goodness can just move you to tears. I've been truly, emotionally overwhelmed. I didn't know there were so many compassionate, honourable and decent people around."