AUTHOR Shirley Eldridge was better placed than many to deal with revisiting past trauma, but still found reliving the events of a 1967 murder “horrific”.
Eldridge’s background is in counselling psychology. She’s worked at Lifeline, trained counsellors, and run suicide prevention courses overseas before settling in Perth and turning to writing.
But even decades later, telling the story of her friend and colleague Mima Joan McKim-Hill, who was abducted, raped and murdered in Queensland in 1967, was painful given how close she was to the events.
“More than once I got up from the computer and got a glass of wine and thought, I can’t do this,” says Eldridge.
She found ways to persevere. Breaks, wine, friends, a Jungian analyst. And “very deep breaths… it had to be done.
“It was ‘put the big girl pants on’, and be a counsellor to some of these people,” even when the conversations were hard, talking with McKim-Hill’s family members who hadn’t found closure, or having to interview difficult figures from her past she would have preferred to never speak to again.
McKim-Hill’s murder is still officially listed by police an unsolved case.
But Eldridge’s efforts decades later helped renew police interest in the case.
Eldridge says through extensive investigations, quiet conversations with police investigators, correspondence with her home region’s local newspaper, and a proxy-confession from a suspect’s daughter, she is satisfied the killer was identified in 2009. She says he died the weeks before police planned to arrest him in South Australia.
A few years passed but Eldridge couldn’t move on. It was hard “to hold information that no one else holds,” she says. She would go on to pen the story of her friend and the failed police investigation in her 2016 book Mima: A Case of Abduction, Rape and Murder.
It was written out of a sense of duty to set the record straight with the new information uncovered, but it wasn’t cathartic.
“I hate that word,” she says. “I had relived an horrific event.
“I wallowed in the horror for a couple of years but thought, knowing now new information, that I had an obligation to share.”
Writing a nonfiction book about a shocking event can look like the opposite of the type of therapy typically given to people who’ve gone through trauma.
Trauma therapy usually isn’t about remembering exact details: the facts of an event don’t matter compared to the person’s feelings and thoughts about their experience.
But when writing a book to set the record straight, “the facts were critical,” Eldridge says.
For many difficult experiences like finding her friend’s empty car and some of her discarded clothes, Eldridge feels she’s lived them out three times: First in 1967, again when the detectives and profilers interviewed her, and again in preparing the book.
“Seeing all of that was horrific” then, Eldridge says, and “it’s confronting reliving it. And it was reliving it”.
As the Society of Women Writers WA recommences its writing classes for 2023, Eldridge will again revisit her experience researching and writing the book, and share ways writers can tell authentic stories about traumatic events, remain objective, and be mindful of their own self-care.
Eldridge says when writing fiction, authors should also keep an eye to their mental health, as fictional stories often draw authenticity from real experiences.
“The motivation for writing is often a traumatic event,” she says. “Miscarriage, loss of child, victim of domestic violence, witness to or victim of an accident.
“Caring for self, as well as the characters in the memoir… is essential.”
Eldridge didn’t find catharsis, but she found some sense of closure after the book was released.
“I came home from all the launches,” she recalls, and gathered the years of notes, correspondence, everything she’d used in her research. “I packed everything in a box.
“I had a little ceremony. I put Mima to bed myself. That’s peace for me. She’s packed away forever. I’ll never unseal that box… there she is in the bottom of the cupboard… and she’s okay.”
The SWWWA’s next classes start February 1 at Citiplace Community Centre at the Perth Railway Station, and Eldridge appears at the February 8 class Basic Psychology for Writing Characters, $20 for members and book via swwwabookingofficer@gmail. com
by DAVID BELL