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I knew very little about Veronica Knight when I began to write her story. In her three years as our informal foster daughter, we just enjoyed life and she quickly became part of our family. Although she was sixteen and almost an adult, she was childlike in other ways. We sensed that her so-called intellectual handicap, as it was called in the seventies, was at least partly the result of being confined to care homes and lack of regular education and encouragement. In other ways, she was insightful and smart. More recently I have had contact with one of her teachers, who described her as his ‘brightest student’.

Veronica’s last letter

Why my husband and I did not ask her more about her background, I am not sure. Perhaps it felt insensitive to interrogate a teenager about the years she never mentioned. Veronica was a ‘now’ girl: “What will we do now?” she would ask several times a day. We knew that she had spent several years in Minda Home, and that in Adelaide, to mention Minda was a pejorative in any context. She never mentioned any family members and I did not probe.

Sadly, Veronica became famous in a tragic way when her body was discovered in the Truro bush on Anzac Day in April 1978. It would emerge that she was the first victim of two serial murderers who received a great deal of publicity as their evil deeds were exposed (one had died in a car crash before the eventual arrest of the other one, who was charged and convicted). Veronica’s name was in the media and her movements on that last fatal night were detailed for all to read. She had been shopping in the city, was separated from her friend and accepted the offer of a ride home while she was waiting for the bus. Her last decision was a poor one. I knew that what was not in the newspaper reports was that she wanted to buy clothes and gifts for her imminent trip to visit our family in Melbourne where we were then located. Despite the information on her train ticket and our details in her belongings, the police never contacted us.

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Read no history, nothing but biography, for that is life without theory. Benjamin Disraeli.

Where to start with the story of a life? This is the challenge for any biographer, especially when the subject is no longer with us and has finished living his whole life.

On what would have been Ross Langmead’s seventieth birthday in August 2019, I made an offer to his wife, Alison, to try writing his life story. The prospect was daunting and being Ross’s sister did not necessarily give me an advantage. I left home when he was eighteen and we spent little time close to one another after that, both literally and figuratively. Is it better to know someone intimately, or to write from a measured distance that might encourage objectivity? Although I genuinely believed there were better people for the project, there was only one way to find out.

Ross’s diaries, journals, music and memorabilia

Primary documents are the foundation of true story writing; Ross left a treasure chest. He wrote journals and kept diaries from his teenage years until his death at sixty-three. An awesome collection of reflections, thoughts and questions from a mind that never stopped working!

First, we had to find them. Alison hunted down box after box of diaries, journals and notebooks. Digital journals and travel diaries were added, and the ordering began. The first hand-written journal is from Ross’s rite-of-passage and epic trip as a seventeen-year-old to outback Queensland in a vintage car with his cousins, of whom only one was old enough to drive. His daily entries about their adventures in 1967 make amusing reading, with their larrikan episodes interspersed with Bible studies and prayer gathered around a picnic table.

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It was as near to “hearing a voice” as I can remember. I had finished writing my own lengthy story and was struck by the fact that Veronica had only needed two paragraphs to document her part in my life. Veronica Knight, as dear as a daughter, had been like a member of our family for about three years in the 1970s. We were newly married and living in Adelaide; Peter worked as a residential care worker with troubled young men and I was teaching at a Lutheran secondary college.

We met Veronica when her hostel contacted us and said she was looking for a church or youth group. That was the beginning, and before long, she had become part of our family through informal foster care and an enthusiastic participant in the life of our church. In 1974, Veronica was nearly sixteen. She had no family and was mildly intellectually disabled. Lovable and cheeky, she lived life with gusto that belied her abandonment as a child and consequent status as a ward of the state.

Soon after she turned eighteen, she disappeared forever. As the tragic events of the Truro serial, tandem murders of 1976-7 emerged in Adelaide some years later, we had to absorb the shocking fact that she had been the first victim.

Forty years later, a lifetime had passed and our own children had grown up and given us many grandchildren. Veronica was a memory tucked into her special corner of my heart. Until I wrote about her and was shocked by how little I knew. Soon after, I was in hospital, recuperating from a knee operation. I began chatting to one of the nurses who then showed me a book she had written about losing her mum to cancer (tinyurl.com/np69s). She was touched that I downloaded it and read it in one night, but it set me thinking.

What had I experienced in my life that was deeply human and might resonate with others, as had nurse Leigh’s simple story? That was when I heard a voice, at least in my head, that said, “Write about Veronica”.

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Children all say to their parents at some stage, ‘Tell me a story’. Sometimes they want wild, fanciful and even scary stories; other times it will be about an almost forgotten, distant childhood kept alive by the retelling by their parents.

My mother, Jean.

My mother, Jean, would have been ninety-nine today were she still alive. Sweet, outgoing and essentially humble, she always said that her life was ordinary. As a gift for her eightieth birthday, my brother met with her weekly and asked her about her life, recording the conversations. He transcribed these into a book with almost no editing and captured Mum’s extraordinary story: born and brought up in China and India, separated from her parents as a child and then when her parents were interned during the war, working with hundreds of orphans in Hong Kong – all before she turned 30! Her life was far from ordinary, and the captured story reads like a novel. Soon after that, she slid slowly into dementia.

Roy, my paternal grandfather, never told me his story. Like many who returned from World War 1, he kept its horrors to himself. After he died, I discovered from my father that Grandad played an important part in the war on the Western Front at Fromelles and was taken prisoner there. He did not come home to his wife of three weeks for three long, terrible years, but carried for the rest of his life the memories of what historians have sometimes called the worst twenty-four hours in Australian history.

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