Caroline Beale

I remember watching a very disturbing account of a woman named Caroline Beale some years ago now – in 1995. She was a 30 year old Englishwoman visiting New York. She tried to bring her dead 1 day old baby through customs on her flight home. I came across my notes about the incident recently in my diary from that year.

Caroline was remanded in custody on Rikers Island, along with 1499 other detainees. Her defence uncovered the fact that she was mentally disturbed and surmised that she had denied her pregnancy all along.

This turned out to be untrue – she thought the foetus had died at 6 months, to coincide with the death of her closest friend Alison of breast cancer. She also thought that the birth process – alone in a bath in a hotel – was an indication that she was dying.

Footage of her at her niece’s christening taken before she left the UK with her fiancé and his brothers for that fateful trip shows her in a tent like dress. But nobody thought otherwise. She had been depressed since her friend’s death. Fiancé Paul said that she became withdrawn.

“She would lie under a blanket all night and then go to bed early. I would stay up late and watch the TV and then get up early the next morning. She always left the house later than me.” This may explain why Paul did not spot Caroline’s pregnancy. They were never around each other for long in bed or in the bathroom and they had stopped having sex.

Paul admits he should have noticed signs of Caroline’s deepening depression. “If there’s one thing I wish for it’s that we’d talked more. If only I’d known she’d been pregnant, I would never have left her alone in that hotel room.”

Daniel Jeffreys, The Independent UK.

She took the dead body with her because she didn’t want it to be alone. This doesn’t sound like a murderer to me.

A Birmingham psychiatrist who volunteered his services out of interest in the case disagreed with her psychiatrist in NY who claimed it was ‘Post-Partum Psychosis’. He maintained that she had been mentally ill since her best friend’s cancer became terminal. And she didn’t want to compromise the grief surrounding this impending death with the news of her pregnancy.

Caroline wanted to call the baby Olivia Anne. To help her cope in prison she wrote a diary and poems and stayed in the shower for ½ hour periods.

If this incident had taken place the UK instead of the US, Caroline would have been hospitalised for mental treatment. In the US there is no distinction between taking an adult’s life and a child’s.

Caroline Beale returned home to the UK on 7th March 1996 after she spent eight months on remand in Rikers Island Penitentiary, and a further eight on bail living with a church family in the New York borough of Queens.

To secure her release she had to plead guilty to manslaughter despite the expert diagnoses of the world-renowned psychiatrists above who said she was very sick when her new-born baby died in the hotel room in NY.

Her estranged fiancé didn’t visit her during her incarceration.

The tragic incident is the subject of a book by Duncan Campbell – A Stranger and Afraid: The story of Caroline Beale (Macmillan, 1997)

Caroline and Paul had been together for 12 years. I am saddened by the deterioration of their relationship and their inability to talk to each other. The retelling of this incident reminds me to take time to stop and listen and ask questions of those close to us. Before it is too late. And to never take the people you love for granted.

Red back on the toilet seat

The title of this post made itself famous by a song of the same name in 1973. Ernest ‘Slim’ Newton won the Golden Guitar Award for the song at the very first Country Music Awards in Australia that year.


Unfortunately this subject is a little close for comfort for me.

When travelling around Australia in 1993 in a kombi van I did indeed get bitten by a Red Back Spider.

Fortunately for pint sized me (I was told I was ‘pixie’ sized recently) it was a juvenile male, no bigger than my pinkie fingernail. And yes it was in a toilet, albeit a public toilet. And not on the seat. Apparently there were a nest of them swarming on the floor in both the female and male amenity blocks in a quiet park in Geraldton WA.

It was dark in the toilets and I was preoccupied with the abundance of Birthday mail I had just picked up from the local post office. Of particular note was a card from my then 11 year old nephew (who is now 31!) in London.

I must have picked up the protagonist on my clothing as he didn’t bite me until a little later when we were dining on prawns and beer for my Birthday lunch in the kombi (not a desired Birthday present), trying to ignore my homesickness and the incessant drizzle. also states that ‘since (Red Back Spider) poison attacks the nervous system it only takes a small amount of venom to cause serious illness.’

His destruction lasted over a week until I was administered the anti venine (containing horse serum) some seven days later by a bossy Silver Chain Nurse in Kalbarri WA – further up the coast.

We, i.e. me and my co-pilot – or was it the other way round? – had this particular destination on our radar as we wanted to explore the nearby national park:

Apparently it is a big deal if one requires the same drug a second time in one’s life span. The side effects can be disastrous. A comforting thought! Hence the delay in giving me the injection. A big one it was too.

It is thanks to two delightful unassuming trained nurses working at the Kalbarri Pharmacy that I got the treatment I required (I had already been to see a GP in Geraldton to get the green light to keep travelling). We were in the pharmacy purchasing more painkillers. They both wanted to know what they were for. When I showed them the bite on my upper arm they both exclaimed in unison: that’s a Red Back Spider bite!

They rang the local GP and sent me off to see him. He confirmed the origin of the bite and left me under the care of aforementioned bossy nurse as he was about to drive to Perth 600km away to pick up a new car he had just won in a competition.

Said bossy nurse made daily visits to check up on me at the local camp ground where we had made our temporary home. All our neighbours – mostly travelling retirees – were gossiping about the commotion and thought that maybe I was pregnant.

I went through a lot of pain killers that week and was listless and tired. Not the best travelling companion. My father sent me a generous sum of money as a Birthday present (the equivalent in $A to the fancy coffee machine he gave my twin sister. Barista style coffee machines in the home were a fairly new concept in Australia then). Co-pilot and I dined out handsomely at the local seafood restaurant. We even stretched the cash to liqueurs at the end of the meal.

20 years on and the experience is still etched freshly in my memory. I am eternally grateful to the little community of Kalbarri WA, particularly those nurses, bossy and otherwise.

Robots in today’s world

I read something in the newspaper last weekend (in two actually) that really disturbed me. A West Australian man had left his 11 month child in the back seat of his car while he was at work all day. He then went to his regular child care centre to pick him up at the end of his shift only to be told that the child had not been delivered there in the morning.

It was then that the man discovered the corpse in his child’s seat in the rear of the car. The staff tried to resuscitate the toddler to no avail.

According to one of the newspapers the father is in an inconsolable state. Understandably.

One of the articles quotes Craig Speelman professor of psychology at Edith Cowan University in Joondalup WA as saying that reliance on technological aids such as smartphones could weaken the normal function of memory.

Ullrich Ecker, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Western Australia warned that people thought they remembered completing tasks that they hadn’t actually carried out, the mind confused by the memory of recent experiences.

He also advised that the stressful environments of modern day life – attempts at multitasking, sleep deprivation, stimulant use – increase the risk of memory loss.

Psychologist and author Michael Carr Gregg said that we tend to operate day to day in a state of flow, ie carrying out routine tasks on autopilot while focussing on other things.

(this is why I choose to drive a manual car. It gives me more to think about in the Sydney traffic rather than drifting off into creative thoughts or being swooned by the music on my radio station)

The autopilot part of the brain is the ‘basal ganglia’. This is the part that gets you home from work without you having to consciously think about the process. Also known as the more primitive part of the brain it can take over in times of stress.

I guess this had such an impact on me as I am a parent. I can’t imagine the depth of this poor man’s grief. But I can imagine a mistake like this happening, regardless of what type of person the parent is.

My youngest brother enlightened me with a valuable message he took away from a conference he attended recently. He has a busy role in transactional business at one of Australia’s ‘top four’ banks. The speaker was a sports psychologist. He asked the 300 or so staff gathered to put up their hand if they checked emails within 10 minutes of going to bed at night. Reluctantly hands went up, at least ½ the room.

I have created a rule for myself at my house: not to use my laptop or smart phone in bed at night. I am conscious of not ‘contaminating’ the space. Beds are for unwinding not winding up. It is sometimes very difficult to stick to this rule but I persevere.

After reading these two articles over the weekend I sometimes wonder just how smart our smart phones are, or us with our ever changing technology and the need to be always contactable and on top of what is going in and trying to fit so much in to our day.

Maybe we should programme a reminder into our 24 hour clock to pause, take breath, look at the great expanse of sky, smell a few roses, do nothing in particular…