The death of Lesley Elliott and the loss of a dream

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I first met Lesley at the trial of Clayton Weatherston for murder in the Christchurch High Court.  He had brutally killed Sophie, Lesley’s daughter, in January 2008.

The trial was of interest to me on several counts. I had recently completed my law degree so had an interest in how the law worked.

There was a man-attacks-woman domestic violence element which I have a long-term interest in.  And there was the question of Weatherston’s mental health.  Was he mentally ill?  Was he responsible for his actions?  Why would someone do that?

There was also the use of provocation as a defence.  The late Greg King (a wonderful man) was required to run the defence that Weatherston was provoked by Sophie into killing her.  This constituted the last gasp of the provocation defence – it was abolished because people were so shocked by its use in this trial.

So it was all happening on the couple of days I managed to attend the trial to observe.  There was the evidence of the ‘three wise men’, the three psychiatrists who together concluded that Weatherston may well have all sorts of personality disorders, especially narcissism, but he was mentally healthy enough to stand trial.

One day we were waiting in the break room for the trial to restart after lunch when Lesley started talking to me and others about how young women needed to be able to identify people like Weatherston, who were so dangerous.  She said Sophie did not have a clue that he could harm her, despite two (relatively minor but nasty) incidents.

Driven by jealousy, a love of self, a massive need to be seen as the best, a feeling that as a man he should outsmart women, hatred that she broke up with him and so many other emotions, Clayton Weatherston entered her home on the day she was to move to Wellington, was invited into her bedroom while she was packing, took a knife out of his briefcase and attacked her viciously.

He stabbed her 216 times in a frenzied way.  He found a pair of scissors and mutilated her breasts and genitals. He also targeted “aspects of her beauty”. She screamed and died.   Her mother was desperately trying to get into her room. It was one of the most terrible, dehumanising crimes ever committed in NZ, by this apparently mild-mannered Economics lecturer.

Weatherston was a perfectionist all his life.  If he was getting less than a top grade in a university course he would pull out and retake it.  He had plotted a perfect path.  That day, he brought the whole edifice of self falling down on his head, killing poor Sophie, ruining a whole family and destroying his carefully plotted life.

For Lesley, none of that mattered.  She had no interest in him and his motives. She wanted, however, to make sure that it never happened to another young woman.  With the Police, she developed a programme called Loves-Me-Not. I evaluated the trial of that programme.  It was great.  It taught about consent, it explained the difference between loving someone and controlling them, it taught good forms of communication to adolescents.  Boys, girls, teachers, everyone loved the programme.

One of the most important topics covered is possessiveness.  What is it when a bloke won’t let his girlfriend out of his sight, tells her he wants her all to himself, asks her not to go out with her friends, turns up on said outings without being invited, makes a fuss if another bloke talks to her and demands her full attention at all times?

“Ohh, her loves her so much”, you might say.

Or, “he is being creepily demanding and exhibiting all the signs of toxic jealousy – alarm bells should ring”.

The thing is, such behaviour is not even particularly uncommon.  In the course, everyone recognises it from among their own circles.  Such behaviour is not always violent or deadly but it can be both.

Fast forward 15 years and I have now completed three surveys of sexual harassment in Christchurch schools.  The results have filled me with dismay.  There is little understanding of what consent means, there is significant sexual assault and many, many examples of language and actions that denigrate young women and put them into a highly sexualised space.

Although my surveys take place in schools, we know from other work that sexual harassment and assault are used as tools to deny women equality in society and especially in the workplace.

I have seen the work we do reported in the media and it is a one-day wonder.  Why can’t the Loves Me Not programme be compulsory in all schools?  Why can’t keeping yourself safe from all kinds of bullying, harassment and assault be taught as a core curriculum in every school?

How many women would not get hurt or killed if they knew what to look for and what to do?

How many people, straight and gay, and in particular gay males, would not attempt or commit suicide if they gained a better understanding of their feelings and the bullying and harassment they experienced and had strategies to stop it?

Lesley Elliot was awarded, recognised and given medals for her work in trying to help young women recognise and deal with sexual harm.  What she did not manage to do was change society or change the education system.

The level of sexual harassment our young women endure is extreme – perhaps higher than ever. This affects how they think about themselves and their views of the future.

In school they might get one day of Loves Me Not, if they are lucky, but do not get a sustained education in how to achieve a harassment free society, nor how to avoid traps, nor how to fight back.

They are not taught how to recognise and evade the Clayton Weatherstons of the world, and people like him still kill every year.

They really, really need this education right now.

I cry for Lesley.  She touched my heart all those years ago.  Her death from a beastly dementia is a tragedy.  But it is not only her death I mourn.  It is the failure of the system to teach simple and effective programmes in schools to prevent sexual harassment and develop respectful relationships for all.  To keep all our children safe.  To develop a more civil society. Since she started her work, since Sophie died fifteen years ago, things have got worse, not better.

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About Insight Aotearoa

Most of the blogs published here will either respond to initiatives elsewhere or will be ‘newsmaking’. Some will also be reflective in more general terms. The blogs will be topical and interesting. I like to inject some humour into my blogs.

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