Situational awareness

Julie Cutler, in an image supplied to media by WA Police

It’s a hot summer’s day and a man decides to go to the beach for a swim. He gets right to the water’s edge and he’s about to go in when a lifeguard comes up. “Don’t go in,” says the lifeguard. “There’s a shark out there. It’s too dangerous.”

The man looks at the lifeguard and says: “I’m a lawyer and I know my rights. You can’t stop me.” And he goes in.

He swims around happily for about ten minutes, but then a shark comes along and bites his leg off. The lifeguard sees what’s happened, and at great risk to himself he runs into the water, grabs the man and pulls him to safety. But the man’s leg has been taken off above the knee, an artery has been severed, and he can’t live.

As he’s breathing his last, the man says, “I don’t understand it. I have the perfect legal right to swim in these waters safely. What went wrong?”

And the lifeguard says: “What does a shark care about your rights?”


On Tuesday night last week, a 22 year old comedian named Eurydice Dixon was murdered in Melbourne. She had done a set at the Highlander Bar and was on her way home, walking through a park at about midnight, when she was attacked. Her body was found about 2:40am.

At first police wondered if it might be connected to an assault that took place less than a kilometre away, back in March. The police said they would patrol the park 24 hours a day and superintendent David Clayton advised people to “take responsibility for your safety.” He also said people should “make sure that you have situational awareness” and “make sure that people know where you are, and that if you’ve got a mobile phone, carry it.”

These remarks received wide publicity. Many people said police were engaging in victim-blaming – effectively blaming Ms Dixon for her own murder, when she had done nothing wrong. They pointed out that she had the right to walk the streets or through a park, in the dark, without fear of violence.

Two days after the murder a 19 year old man handed himself in at Broadmeadows police station. He presumably gave enough detail to convince police he was the guilty party because he was charged with Ms Dixon’s rape and murder.

Since then, there have been rallies in memory of Eurydice Dixon and both the state premier and the prime minister have commented on the case.

In an unconnected event, on Tuesday this week the Western Australia Police announced that the reward for information leading to a breakthrough in the Julie Cutler disappearance had increased to $250,000.

Literally the only connection between the Dixon case and the Julie Cutler disappearance is that both involve the murder of a 22 year old woman. I say “murder” because it’s universally assumed that Ms Cutler met with foul play.

The man in custody for Eurydice Dixon’s murder was not yet born when Julie Cutler vanished. Nor do the crimes share any geographical proximity, since Melbourne and Perth are 2700km apart.

Apart from the $250,000 reward, Ms Cutler’s disappearance was in the news again because it was exactly 30 years since she vanished. She disappeared after a night out at a staff function in Perth’s CBD. Her car was found in surf off Cottesloe Beach two days later but no trace of Ms Cutler herself has ever been found.

I do not know what happened to Eurydice Dixon in her final moments and nor do I want to. In Ms Cutler’s case, knowledge of her final moments would be beneficial because we simply don’t know what happened. But nobody has illusions that it was anything other than horrific.

The backlash to the police comments in the Dixon case led many people to make the observation that not all men behave like that towards women. Indeed, most men wouldn’t dream of it. But some men do and of course the problem with situational awareness is that it shouldn’t be the obligation of women to avoid violence. It should be the obligation of men not to inflict it. The biggest danger to women remains men.

It pains me that the comedian Louis C.K. makes this point better than almost anyone. I say it pains me; that’s because we now know that he’s a giant creep. Nonetheless here’s the video where he makes the point brilliantly well:

For the record, I don’t think the police were engaging in victim-blaming when they urged people to be careful after Ms Dixon’s murder. At the time the killer’s identity was unknown. I think their reasoning was: “There’s a bad guy on the loose. Stay safe till we catch him.”

This is good advice and I would’ve advised something similar. But I’m also aware that Eurydice Dixon was demonstrating situational awareness, and it didn’t save her.

We know next to nothing about the circumstances of Julie Cutler’s disappearance. But she was a 22 year old woman so it’s reasonable to assume that she too was demonstrating situational awareness. And it didn’t save her.

More broadly, situational awareness can reduce the odds of something bad happening but it can’t eliminate the possibility altogether. Every woman I know is aware of this.

I’d like to end here on a positive note, but I can’t. I was a child when Julie Cutler disappeared but if I think about it, never in my lifetime has it been entirely safe for a woman to walk alone after dark. To enjoy her rights.

Even more depressingly, it seems fairly clear that there is always a small subset of men who will defy any attempts to educate them and persuade them of women’s rights. Which is the point I originally wanted to make.

There are human sharks out there.

The Melancholy Roman

Free lunches

In an old job, years ago, I was supposed to be sent on a two day training course. I was reluctant to go because I thought it would be one of those courses where you don’t learn anything. I would rather be doing my normal work.

“At least you get a free lunch,” one of my colleagues observed. What he meant was that each day food would be provided. They would even change the menu each day. Sure, the sandwiches would be a bit soggy by the time I got to them but at least they would be free.

But of course, the free lunch wasn’t free at all. The company would be paying. I assume they paid an external catering company to provide the food.

Which is not atypical but it does accurately reflect the truth of the saying “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” It is typically prepared by someone and the ingredients have to be paid for. Indeed, while I have not read most of the Harry Potter books I remember reading that the Harry Potter universe always involves work. Summon up a cooked meal using a wand? That cooked meal must actually be cooked by someone, somewhere.

More recently, I read that the saying about no free lunches dates back to the Wild West. The story goes that saloon bars would lure visitors in with the literal offer of a free lunch – but then the visitor would be forced to pay for beer, which was expensive.

I once fell victim to a similar scam. The location was the Ramblas in Barcelona. Like every other tourist I’d heard the advice about avoiding the Ramblas and like most tourists I ignored it. Feeling hungry, I stopped for a meal at the cheapest restaurant on the strip and ordered a drink with my food. My mistake was to not look at the prices on the drinks menu. I won’t do that again. It was only a soft drink but it cost more than the food did.

Despite these experiences, it occurred to me to wonder if I could come up with an example of a lunch that was genuinely free.

There’s a scene in the book Autobiography of a Yogi where the author describes eating mangos. One of their party throws rocks and knocks the mangoes to the ground, and they eat. Now that’s what I call a free lunch.

I also remember gorging on mulberries in a giant mulberry bush as a child, and I can think of some of the hunter-gatherer tribes in Papua New Guinea or the Brazilian rainforest. If there’s any food that doesn’t need any special preparation, that can be plucked straight from the tree without effort, then I suppose that is a free lunch.

But nothing else is. Someone always pays.

The Melancholy Roman