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Peter Graham interview

Almost 60 years on, a former lawyer's book reignites the fascination with the Parker-Hulme murder.

On June 22, 1954, Juliet Hulme collected a half-brick from her Ilam home, put it in her shoulder bag and went to the home of close friend Pauline Parker. The pair put the brick in a stocking and had a pleasant lunch with Pauline’s family, before travelling by bus with Pauline’s mother, Honorah, up the Christchurch’s Port Hills to Victoria Park.

They had afternoon tea, then walked down a secluded path where the girls – Pauline aged 16 and Juliet 15 – bashed Honorah to death with the stockinged brick. The woman didn’t go easily – she was left with 45 external injuries, including 24 blows to the face and head. Many cut through to the bone. The policeman in charge of the murder investigation described it as a killing of “animal ferocity”.

Pauline had thought of killing her mother two months earlier, and over the week before the two girls engaged in detailed planning, such as Juliet’s decision to take a pink stone from a brooch at the Hulme family home and drop it on the path so Honorah would stoop down to look at it, whereupon the lethal blows would be inflicted on her.

Afterwards, they feigned shock and horror, running hysterically back to the Victoria Park tea kiosk and claiming Honorah had had an accident in which she had fallen and repeatedly banged her head.

Even after 57 years, the cool brutality and premeditation of Juliet and Pauline’s crime remain shocking and disturbing. For author and former lawyer Peter Graham – who was seven at the time of the murder – the case has held a fascination since 1972 when he went to work as a young barrister for Brian McClelland, who was junior counsel for Juliet Hulme. McClelland would often speak of the August 1954 Parker-Hulme trial, and Graham heard about it also from Peter Mahon, who was junior to crown prosecutor Alan Brown.

Graham resolved to write an account of it, but 30 years as a lawyer in Hong Kong intervened. Now that he’s back in Canterbury – where he and wife Annabel live in the rambling old Camla Farm homestead near Dunsandel, produce an eponymous brand of apple juice and own the popular Dunsandel Store – the book has finally been written. The title – So Brilliantly Clever – comes from Pauline’s description of herself and Juliet in an entry in her 1954 diary. The book is a comprehensive account of the murder, the backgrounds of the two families, the increasingly strange and delusional fantasy world the two girls came to inhabit, the trial itself, the aftermath for both families and the present-day identities of the two women: successful crime writer Anne Perry (Juliet) and the reclusive Hilary Nathan (Pauline).

Although many people feel they already know more than enough about the infamous Parker-Hulme case – thanks in large measure to Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s Heavenly Creatures – only one other non-fiction book has been written. Julie Glamuzina and Alison Laurie’s 1991 book, Parker & Hulme: A Lesbian View, suggested the lurid reporting of the case at the time and the intense focus on the girls’ apparently homosexual relationship had affected the lives of all lesbians. They offered a sympathetic perspective, arguing that family tensions in the two girls’ lives, including Honorah’s efforts to stop what she saw as an unhealthy relationship and the Hulmes’ marriage dissolving, had become explosive.

Graham – who dismisses the ­Glamuzina-Laurie retelling as ideologically straitjacketed – was convinced the field was still wide open for a book that told the full “fascinating story”. The book draws on the transcript of the murder trial, the police transcript of Pauline’s 1954 diary, the papers of close family friend Nancy Sutherland – including letters written by Juliet in Mt Eden Prison – interviews with contemporaries, and newspaper reports and publications. Graham says he was also greatly assisted by interview notes loaned by Michelanne Forster, who for her 1991 play Daughters of Heaven had spoken to McClelland, the Hulmes’ housekeeper and other associates of the family who had since died. Juliet’s diary, unfortunately, is long gone. On the night of the murder her mother, Hilda, ordered it be destroyed by the family’s gardener before the police found it, after seeing it contained “dreadfully incriminating” material.

Despite the salacious fascination with the girls’ sexual relationship, Graham thinks the question of whether they were lesbians is largely irrelevant to their decision to commit murder. Nor does he think they were insane. Just as the 1954 jury rejected the defence of insanity, so, too, he argues, would any modern-day jury. Although Pauline’s diary offers a startling insight into what went on in their “weird little minds”, for the legal defence of insanity to have stood up, it needed to be proved they were “suffering from a disease of the mind, and that as a result of that disease they didn’t know either the nature or the quality of the act, or that the act was wrong”.

Says Graham: “It didn’t help [their case] that they said, ‘Yes, of course we knew it was wrong.’ And Juliet said, ‘You’d have to be a moron not to know that.’ I think they were suffering from fairly serious personality disorders, but I don’t think they were insane legally or medically.” As a psychiatrist giving evidence for the prosecution in the trial said, the girls had wanted to be found insane if that would get them an earlier release from prison – but people who were insane were always anxious to be considered sane.

According to Graham’s account, the seeds of the girls’ social and moral detachment – in Juliet’s case in particular – were laid early in life. Her father, Henry Hulme, was a gifted mathematician who went on to lead a team responsible for developing technology to degauss British ships to protect them from German mines during the war. He married Hilda, a “steaming” and sexually promiscuous woman, and Juliet was born in London in 1938.

As an infant, Juliet suffered from “bomb shock” during the Blitz and she had ­periods of separation from her mother because of Hilda’s ill-health. Towards the end of the war, Juliet contracted pneumonia and was packed off with a nurse to Barbados. She was apart from her parents for well over a year, before being reunited with them after they moved to Christchurch in 1948 when Henry took up the position of rector of Canterbury University College.

Deprived of attachment to her parents, Juliet became more difficult and retreated into an imaginary world. Later, she was sent to school in Hawke’s Bay, and at the age of 14 she contracted tuberculosis and spent almost four months at a sanatorium in the Port Hills while her parents went to London. This last separation, writes Graham, was “another heartless abandonment” of the girl by her parents. The separation threw her even closer to Pauline, with whom she had become increasingly friendly as a third former at Christchurch Girls’ High. Both girls were loners and outsiders – Pauline had suffered from osteomyelitis as a five-year-old and spent eight or nine “lonely months” in hospital and another three years recovering. She was left with a permanent limp and, like Juliet, was excluded from physical education at school because of her health.

The pair fed their intense and exclusive relationship on a diet of poetry, fantasy writing, violent movies and grandiose delusions that set them apart from others. By the end of 1953 they were inseparable, with Pauline infatuated with the sophistication of the Hulme household and spending ever more time at their Ilam homestead. In her diary, she wrote of how sad it was for everyone else that “they cannot appreciate our genius”.

Pauline began constructing a cast of violent fictional characters in her writing, and the pair were enthralled with actor James Mason and movies such as The Prisoner of Zenda and 5 Fingers. Juliet developed a fascination with the ruthless characters played by Mason – such as Erwin Rommel in The Desert Fox.

During Juliet’s time at the sanatorium the pair maintained prolific correspondence, writing to each other as “Charles” and “Lance”, around whom they wove a bloodthirsty narrative about the fantasy empires of Borovnia and Volumnia, where “vengeful murder, suicide, rape, seduction and betrayal were daily occurrences”, writes Graham. They talked of becoming prostitutes, cooked up plans to go to Hollywood, took to shoplifting and plotted to blackmail Hilda Hulme and her lover, Bill Perry, who were conducting an affair under Henry’s nose. They believed they had found the key to another world, which they were able to access because, as Pauline wrote in her diary, “We have an extra part of our brain that can appreciate the 4th World. Only about ten people have it.” They were in awe of their own talents as writers and as singers – “we were both astoundingly good”, wrote Pauline after a day spent practising.

By early 1954, Henry Hulme’s career as rector was on the rocks and he was forced to resign. At the same time, the Hulmes’ marriage was disintegrating – despite Hilda’s high-profile role with the Marriage Guidance Council. It was decided Henry would return to England and Juliet would be sent to an aunt in South Africa until her health improved. Graham depicts the girls’ behaviour as increasingly manic and their relationship more sexually intense as the time approached for Juliet and Henry Hulme’s departure from Christchurch.

The plan to “moider mother” was hatched in the context of duplicity and deceit. Graham writes that Hilda had actively encouraged Pauline to think she could accompany Juliet to South Africa and then on to England. Henry told Pauline he would write to her mother asking permission for her to go overseas with them.

“It is highly unlikely Henry did write to [Honorah]. His game was to mollify Juliet by appearing to do everything possible to keep the two together while knowing it was not going to happen. Playing both ends against the middle, stringing people along with false hopes and promises – that was Hulme’s style, as his colleagues at Canterbury University College would attest. He knew Honorah would never agree to her daughter leaving the country.”

Consequently, Honorah was put in the position of appearing to be the “chief, if not the sole, obstacle to the girls being together”. Pauline knew her mother would never consent to her leaving the country, and believed that if Honorah could be eliminated, she would have a better chance of getting her way with her father. By June 19 – three days before the murder – thoughts of killing Honorah had firmed into a “definite plan”, writes Graham. On the night of June 21 – the eve of the murder – Pauline wrote: “Mother has fallen in with everything beautifully and the happy event is to take place tomorrow afternoon. So next time I write in this diary mother will be dead. How odd yet how pleasing.” The next morning she wrote of feeling “very excited and ‘the night before Christmas-ish’ last night. I did not have pleasant dreams though.”

That afternoon, as planned, the girls lured Honorah to Victoria Park and bashed her to death. Within hours, Pauline was arrested, and by the following night Juliet had joined her in the cells. Even as their naive plan to make the death look like an accident lay in tatters, remorse seems to have been far from their minds. Instead, Graham writes, they saw the murder as a “brilliant success”. Juliet is reported to have said that Honorah “knew beforehand what was going to happen and didn’t seem to bear any grudge … we have both been terribly happy since it happened, so it is a blessing in disguise”.

The defence case that the girls were suffering from paranoia and a condition known as folie à deux – communicated insanity – failed. It took the jury two hours and 12 minutes to return with a guilty verdict. The girls were sentenced to prison for an indefinite term “at Her Majesty’s pleasure”. Five-and-a-half years later – much of which Juliet spent in primitive conditions at Mt Eden, while Pauline served most of her term at Arohata – they were released, with Juliet given a new passport and identity by the New Zealand Government.

Four decades later, it was discovered that Juliet was highly successful Scottish crime writer Anne Perry, who had became a Mormon at age 26 while living in California. Pauline changed her name by deed poll to Hilary Nathan. After her release she tried unsuccessfully to become a nun, went to Library School in Wellington and worked for a time at the University of Auckland library. Years later she was found living a reclusive and devout life in Kent, in a house decorated with dream-like murals depicting Pauline- and Juliet-like characters, which she is thought to have painted. She now lives in Orkney, Scotland.

Graham debunks the long-held belief that a condition of their release was that they did not communicate with each other. Published comments from the Minister of Justice at the time of release show no such conditions were imposed, although it seems they never did meet again.

In interviews following Perry’s outing as Juliet Hulme, she has described having wept for the first three months in Mt Eden Prison and repenting for her crime. But Graham’s account depicts the imprisoned Juliet to be as conceited and egotistical as before. He quotes revealing letters written to her mother’s friend Nancy Sutherland, in which she boasted about how many pages of poetry she had read, her love of Italian language and culture, and even how many jerseys she had knitted. Later, she wrote to Sutherland of what marvellous opera singers she and Pauline were.

“That’s just what she’s like – completely irrepressible … You get this sense of tremendous excitement and boastfulness all the time,” says Graham, whose book speculates on the likely psychological profile of both girls. Juliet, separated from her parents for long periods at a young age, is likely to have developed an “avoidant attachment” character – a trait known to be at the heart of narcissistic personality disorder, in which the person has a grandiose sense of self-importance, is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, brilliance and beauty, but suffers from a fragile self-esteem.

“Psychopathic traits are closely related to narcissism, and doctors often refer to the ‘narcissist-psychopath type’,” says Graham. Psychopaths are often charming and convincing liars, and in some cases violent behaviour is likely to be ­premeditated rather than impulsive. Both girls seem to have been subject to mood swings, and Graham says they may both have had bipolar disorder – a condition recognised in the 1950s but little understood until the 1970s. But he thinks Pauline was a more complicated character than Juliet, possibly meeting the criteria for the disorder “borderline personality”.

“I have suggested that you do see this internal struggle going on within Pauline – she has a dark side and a good side. In her later life, she ended up headmistress of a special needs school for children, teaching kids how to ride. Even looking back on her diary, there were days when she was out with her pony, giving the kids rides and absolutely loving it … I would say she has lived a life of repentance. She has become very religious and goes to mass twice a day. Mind you, Juliet has become a Mormon.”

Whereas Hilary Nathan has never been interviewed, Anne Perry has done several interviews, and allowed a documentary team into her home in 2007 to film her daily life as a writer. In the film, she claimed she had felt trapped into helping Pauline kill her mother because she was afraid her friend would commit suicide otherwise. Perry’s proposition that she had been merely an accessory, motivated by loyalty to a friend whose own life was in danger, doesn’t wash with Graham. “It’s all fake,” he says.

Similarly, he debunks Perry’s claims that she had been under the influence of mind-altering TB drugs, and that the girls had been prevented from giving evidence at the trial – in truth, the defence could not risk putting them in the witness stand because their arrogance and condescension would have alienated the jury.

“It seems Anne Perry, consciously or unconsciously, has reworked the raw facts in her imagination to such an extent as to create a piece of fiction,” says Graham. Perry refused to speak to Graham when he wrote telling her he was researching a book about the murder and asking to see her. In what seems to be a telling insight into her perspective on her role in Honorah’s death, she wrote back to him saying: “I’m sorry you feel the need to drag up this tragedy.”

But perhaps the most revealing insight into her perspective on the “tragedy” is this comment, offered in a 2006 interview with a Daily Mail journalist. Did she ever think of her victim? “No,” she replied. “She was somebody I barely knew.”

SO BRILLIANTLY CLEVER, by Peter Graham (Awa Press, $42).

RNZ National's interview with Peter Graham on Saturday Morning with Kim Hill:

We have received the following letter in response to this story:

We were disappointed in the title and content of the November 19 article on the Parker-Hulme murder. The gratuitous title “Bipolar creatures” is in no way a reasonable reflection of the article’s content. Rebecca Macfie’s article includes only one vague sentence to support this: they “may both have had bipolar disorder”.

For the Listener to extrapolate what amounts to conjecture into the article’s title creates an unwarranted and unreasonable association between bipolar disorder and murder. If the book on which the article is based provides real evidence to support any link between bipolar disorder and murder, then the Listener should have provided references to it. In addition, the writer could have provided balance by seeking a clinical opinion. As it stands, the article misleads readers and raises the risk that people with bipolar disorder will also experience increased stigma and discrimination.

There are many organisations, workers and consumers in the mental health sector working to dispel myths about mental illness and to reduce stigma and discrimination. We invite the Listener to publish a more balanced article on bipolar disorder using the help of those who experience it and the NGO community mental health sector and clinicians who specialise in this area. Such an article could explore the many ways in which people with mental illness recover and continue to live full and productive lives.
Sue Ricketts
General manager, Mental Health Advocacy and Peer Support (MHAPS)
Ian Johnson
Service manager, anxiety support (MHAPS)
Frances Caldwell
Service manager, bipolar support (MHAPS)
Richard Wheeler
Registered clinical psychologist