Carleen Bryant has lived with the pain of her son’s crime for 20 years. Photo: 60 Minutes/Channel9
Her son was responsible for Australia’s worst mass murder, her husband took his own life and she was despised and pitied by the world.
That was just the beginning of the torment for Carleen Bryant, mother to Port Arthur gunman Martin.
The distraught parent became a source of fascination for the entire country after the 1996 tragedy, and while some avoided her, the media began a campaign of harassment that would continue for years.
Mrs Bryant, described as “fragile and damaged” by her lawyers, attempted suicide at least twice herself.
After her son committed his heinous crime, her life became a living hell. Hordes of journalists camped outside her house, trying to make her explain how and why her child killed 35 people and injured 23 others in Tasmania.
“Her story became a prized commodity in the media marketplace,” Ms Voumard told news.com.au. “She was chased by the media, they set up camp behind her fence and someone climbed over. As a fairly naive person, on the occasions she did engage she was upset with the results.”As the 20th anniversary approaches, Sonya Voumard, author of The Media and the Massacre, is calling for Australia to recognise that Mrs Bryant is a victim too.
Martin Bryant has expressed no remorse for killing 35 people and injuring 23 in Australia’s worst gun massacre. Photo / Supplied
Journalists spread rumours about how Mrs Bryant’s husband left England for Australia because of a family argument, and dwelled on her convict past. She became too scared to leave the house.
Ten years after her son was responsible for perhaps the blackest day in Australian history, she decided to share her story with the authors of the book Born or Bred?, but it went painfully wrong, and she had a bitter falling-out with them.
When they used excerpts from her manuscript anyway, she sued and received an undisclosed legal settlement.
“She had been besieged,” said Ms Voumard. “Her life has been ransacked. She wanted to set the record straight.”
Mrs Bryant wrote her own book in 2010, in which she claimed her son was innocent and hadn’t been at Port Arthur, despite his pleading guilty in court.
A year later, she appeared on 60 Minutes, telling interviewer Charles Woolley she thought Bryant might have got off if his case had gone to trial because there was “no evidence” he was present at the time of the crime.
She said she was tortured at the memory she went along with his guilty plea, but painted a sad story of a son whose behaviour grew increasingly erratic.
“He couldn’t entertain himself so we’d often find toys that were broken,” she said. “I don’t know whether temper or frustration. Martin was different. I’ll put it that way.
“As he got older and [his sister] Lindy started bringing a few friends home, or they’d ring her up, he started turning nasty towards them.
“He’d just shout at them and tell them not to ring anymore and abuse them if they came there, to the house.”
Byrant was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in 1979 and psychiatrists told Mrs Bryant her son would never hold down a job. Then a close friend died in a car crash and his father, Maurice, took his own life.
Just weeks after the Dunblane massacre, Bryant enacted his own terrible act. For years after the crime, Mrs Bryant was afraid of leaving her own home. Writing her book was “therapeutic for her” said Ms Voumard. “She regained control.”
While Bryant languishes in prison, an overweight loner who has attacked other prisoners, his mother deals with her agony as best she can.
Friends told Ms Voumard that Mrs Bryant was “damaged” but “brave”, a nice woman who loved a chat.
When it comes to a remorseless killer, who ruined so many lives, society has little compassion. We want answers, and we want the guilty to be punished.
Yet Mrs Bryant’s suffering is already so great, that years of suspicion, blame and rumours seem merely cruel.
“The media culpably failed her,” said Ms Voumard. “Treating her story as a commercial commodity without concern for the human being at the centre of it.”
She conceded that journalists could not be held accountable for Mrs Byrant’s plight in its entirety, but said their actions during and after the tragedy deserve scrutiny.
“We owe a careful, ethical approach to our subject, whether they are upstanding professional citizens or in the unfortunate position of being the mother of someone who committed a horrendous crime.
“It had a hugely detrimental effect on her life.”
It wasn’t just Mrs Bryant who suffered for the media’s desperate pursuit of stories around the massacre. Even as pale witnesses were bussed out of Port Arthur, their eyes hollow from seeing “unforgettable, brutal death”, several journalists broke free of the pack to knock on the vehicle door and call out to them.
The media from outside of Tasmania became known as the “Trenchcoat Brigade” for their callous and even ghoulish thirst to get the story.
After 20 years, Ms Voumard says we need to let people like Mrs Bryant go and tell a story that isn’t just about horror. “It’s time to rehashing the individual trauma stories and put events into a broader social and historic context,” she said.
“Let people in Tasmania move on. Stop defining people who were at Port Arthur by those events.”