Death & madness
August 16, 2004
Anu Singh is living at her parents' home while she is waiting to hear if she must return to jail for breaching parole.
Anu Singh says she was mentally ill when she killed her boyfriend Joe Cinque. She tells Susan Wyndham that it felt like doing a university assignment.
It is almost seven years since Anu Singh killed her boyfriend with a massive dose of heroin, five years since she was convicted of manslaughter, and a few days since her latest release from jail coincided with the launch of Joe Cinque's Consolation, a book by Helen Garner that puts her back in the dock of public opinion.
After reading Garner's portrayal of a mysterious, disturbed woman who methodically killed the man she loved, it is strange to sit opposite Singh in her parents' Strathfield living room in inner-western Sydney.
A carved wooden sofa wraps around the slight figure in jeans and heavy boots, the remnants of her vanity in the dark hair tinged with bronze, the eyebrows plucked into amazement.
She is bright and opinionated, giggly and tearful as she retells the terrible story and talks about her transformation in jail, where she met her new boyfriend and the "beautiful women society calls scum," whom she wants to help.
Garner almost abandoned her unwritten book several years ago because Singh and her friend Madhavi Rao, originally charged with murdering Cinque, would not agree to interviews. In the end Garner pressed on, using coverage of the trials, interviews with the victim's family and her own philosophical questioning of the law and human nature to create a book that is personal, passionate and openly biased towards the suffering of the dead man and his parents.
Singh, 31, served four years of her 10-year sentence in jail, backdated to her arrest in 1997, and was released in October 2001. She was returned to jail in April after breaching her parole by smoking marijuana. With her legal knowledge, she questioned the grounds of the decision and is at her parents' home waiting to hear whether she will remain free.The unfortunate thing about her book is that it seems to perpetuate this notion that people who commit crimes are bad, are evil.
Now she says that if she had known Garner was going ahead with her book she would have been keen to speak to her and answer the questions about remorse, repentance and atonement she raises in print.
"I still grapple with the whys," she says of Cinque's death. "It's really difficult seven years down the track, not being mentally ill, to go back to that state of mind and grapple with what I was going through.
"But with hindsight I can recognise what I was thinking and think, how could you even have thought that? For instance, paranoid thoughts: the delusion I was under that Joe was in some way to blame for everything that was going wrong in my life."
Singh had not finished reading Garner's book when we met but she largely accepts the factual account of her crime as given in court and reconstructed in the book. She differs, however, with Garner's insistence that, despite evidence of psychiatric problems, she was responsible for her crime and it should have been called murder.
"I have a huge amount of respect for Helen and I'm a fan of her work," says Singh. "I think it was an extremely noble effort to get the Cinques' side out because she's right: they're not represented in court; they don't get to have their say. But after meeting the Cinques I don't know if Helen really wanted to meet me, to be honest.
"The unfortunate thing about her book is that it seems to perpetuate this notion that people who commit crimes are bad, are evil. It furthers this 'us versus them' mentality. There was an amazing opportunity to be able to illuminate why things occur. To downplay the mental health stuff is a real shame considering so many girls are in jail for that very reason."
Singh was a law student at the Australian National University in 1997, living in Canberra with Cinque, an engineer. But she was unwell, suffering from welts on her skin, crawling sensations, agitation and other symptoms doctors and tests could not diagnose.
She was convinced she had a muscle-wasting disease and began to blame Cinque for telling her about a vomit-inducing drug she took to lose weight.
Desperately thin, Singh was angered by any suggestion that her problems had a psychological cause. She still resists a medical opinion given during her trial that she had borderline personality disorder. "I accept that there's a number of the criteria they listed that I could fit into. I don't know if there's any purpose in labelling; personality is a complex thing, as is mental illness."
She argues now that she was in a deep depression for about two years, had the eating disorder bulimia and was taking recreational drugs and tranquillisers that might have worsened her mental state.
The causes, she says, probably included a chemical imbalance and a distressing break-up with her previous boyfriend. As the Australian-born daughter of two Indian doctors, she had always rebelled against having less social freedom than her brothers but met the expectation to do well, aiming to be a wealthy corporate lawyer.
Despite academic success and all her advantages, she had sunk into feeling worthless. She started skipping classes, avoiding friends and limiting her social life to Joe and their families.
"Joe was an amazing man. We had a good relationship. We fought like everyone does. Because I was so pathetic he would get angry with me in the sense of, 'Where have you gone? Why don't you get out of bed? Why are you walking round the house in that old tracksuit? When I met you, you used to wear this, we used to do this?' If he'd get angry I would then think, 'It's because of you I'm like this'. That sort of f---ed-up thinking."
Singh says Cinque hit or pushed her several times because she was driving him mad, but she did not consider herself abused. She never thought of simply leaving because she was dependent on him. Instead she talked to friends about her suicidal feelings and, to some, about a plan either to sedate Cinque so he couldn't stop her or to kill him, too.
"You'd be amazed at how many people I spoke to who had seriously contemplated suicide. Most people said, 'I sort of understand how you feel and if you want to do it you should.' Everyone I spoke to was well aware I was physically unwell, which is what I thought, so if someone has a degenerative illness would it be better dying than living like this?"
Her closest friend, the quiet and spiritual Madhavi Rao, helped Singh to buy Rohypnol and heroin and organise two "send-off" dinner parties. After the second, Singh drugged Cinque's coffee and injected him with heroin. As he died slowly in their bed, she was "in some different land, some sort of fantasy dream world, a dissociated state, not even considering the ramifications, not really thinking about death".
She can't remember how she spent that Saturday night and Sunday morning. Did she drive around, she wonders, remembering a conversation with a petrol station attendant. Finally she began to panic and rang a friend who urged her to call an ambulance. But it was too late.
"There was a lot of talk about my state of mind that night in the psychiatric reports and what one psychiatrist, Dr Diamond, said rang true for me. Seeing Joe having difficulties was like a reality check that snapped me out of some level of dissociation.
"I remember telling someone it was like doing a university assignment, which is a terrible thing to say. In my state of patheticness, this is something I can do; this is a purpose."
In the months before she killed Cinque, Singh's parents knew she was sick and possibly suicidal. The bluff, talkative Paddy Singh and his wife, Surinder, say they took her to doctors and a psychiatrist who recommended psychotic drugs but she refused because they would make her fat.
They tried to have her hospitalised but found it would take a tribunal decision to do so. They wish Rao, or someone, had told them about the suicide-murder plan before they got a call from the police. They feel deep sympathy for Cinque's parents, Maria and Nino, but urge their daughter to move on with her life. They pay for her psychiatric treatment and she remains on the antidepressant Zoloft.
Rao was exonerated of any crime and is now married and living overseas. In Garner's view, she too had responsibility for Cinque's death and a debt to pay. But Singh says: "It's my fault entirely. I was hysterical and she just loved me and wanted to help me. What would sending her to jail have really done? Would it have eased Maria and Nino's pain any more? It seems it's perpetuating sorrow on so many people. Her family would have suffered as my family suffered. I donít put any blame on Madhavi."
Garner wrote twice to Singh while she was in jail, asking whether she would be interviewed for a book. Singh replied that she did not want to do so now but would in the future.
Garner wrote again in March 2002, a few months after Singh's release on parole. Singh does not remember getting that letter, though her brother recalled some mention of it. Whatever the reason, she did not reply. Garner had been burnt by her failed efforts to interview two women law students for her previous book, The First Stone, and decided there was no point pursuing a reluctant Singh.
During her time in jail and since, Singh completed a masters in criminology at Sydney University with a thesis on the causes of female crime, including abuse, mental illness and drug use. She worked in the library, started a magazine, taught two Aboriginal girls to read and wrote legal letters that helped women on legal aid have their sentences reduced. She met her present boyfriend, a former heroin addict and thief, in the remand centre after her arrest, when he wrote her letters of support. Having given up her earlier goals and "fake" way of life, she plans to begin a PhD next year and is working with a filmmaker, James Ricketson, on a documentary about her story.
Ricketson believes that Garner's book is unfairly one-sided and that she should have made more effort to include Singh. Garner has refused his requests to appear in his film and has not engaged with Singh but says, "I've purposely left the question of her remorse wide open. There's no way I would have closed off that possibility without having spoken to her. That would be so impertinent and wrong. It would fly in the face of everything I believe in. Nothing would please me more than to know her version of the story. I'm very glad she's found a way to start telling it."
Singh hopes her teaching work with women in custody is a way of helping to repair the "rent in the social fabric" that Garner says she caused. She believes no amount of time she could spend in jail would make amends to the Cinques but she would like to join a restorative justice program so that she could meet them and try to explain what happened. But, she can see, "there's no legitimate explanation to be made".