Every Parent’s Nightmare (Part 2)

Every Parent's NightmareIn Part 1 of Every Parent’s Nightmare, I reviewed Belinda HawkinsEvery Parent’s Nightmare, a book that traces how Australian Jock Palfreeman went from good samaritan intervening in an attack on a Roma man in Bulgaria to an accused and convicted murderer.

In Part 2 of Every Parent’s Nightmare, author Belinda Hawkins explains how she came to write the book and how the case has (and continues) to affect her.

What was it about Jock’s and Simon’s stories that specifically that haunted you? Australian Story reduces me to tears weekly so although this story is striking, I can think of any number that might warrant books.

This could well have been just another story. It got under my skin though once Jock’s father agreed to see me after several months of saying no way and when he then nervously showed me some of the evidence in the case. Once I unscrambled what he was trying to say, I could see that this was not just a father determined to prove his son’s innocence.

I was fascinated by the struggle he had with the fact that Jock had pocketed a knife that evening and then had brought it out when under attack.  I did not know whether there was more to the story than he was telling me. Jock might well be guilty as charged. But I could see that there was evidence to support Jock’s version of events. I wanted to know what really happened.

I empathized with both the Palfreemans and the parents of the young man who died. I have children who were just finishing high school at that stage so soon would be off travelling the world. Both sets of parents were living some of my nightmares. I wanted to understand what it was to be in their position and to go through a court case.

Bulgaria itself is fascinating and the more I investigated this case the more I learnt about the layers of corruption that exist there as part of the difficult transition from 45 years of communism to a capitalist economy.

I have to say that my interest in the case is far from over and the more I learn about the some of the Bulgarian participants in the drama that has unfolded the more bizarre the story has become.

How did writing the book differ from producing the Australian Story documentary?

Although I used an Australian Story technique throughout the book of stepping into the shoes of characters and seeing the world through their eyes, Every Parent’s Nightmare involved a vast amount more research across a range of areas to do with every aspect of the case. I was not just following Simon Palfreeman on his repeated trips to Bulgaria as he tried to help his son, although I do that as well.

In the book I burrow into the experiences of witnesses, experts, human rights advocates, Jock’s aunt, the parents of the dead young man, some judges, and of course Jock and Simon. I scrutinise documents, locations, and media reports. I dig up CCTV material. A drama of a very different kind unfolds between the pages than does on screen for all the sense of human suffering and the decency of Simon Palfreeman remain as central to the story.

Can you tell me about some of the other Australian Story episodes that you have worked on and that have affected you?

They all leave a mark on me. It is a great honour to hear people’s stories. A story about a young woman who suffered undiagnosed clinical depression and who committed suicide on the first day of Year 12 really affected me. My son was coming up to that age. Depression is a terrible disease about which we need so much more understanding. This young woman felt ashamed of herself for feeling low and could not bring herself to talk about it but wrote her thoughts in a diary.

When I was following former foreign minister Alexander Downer in Indonesia I was with him when he found out the Garuda flight with DFAT staff and reporters I had got to know had crashed. The people we knew who died or were terribly injured were all wonderful people and this was a senseless tragedy.

I have also been profoundly affected by the stories of whistleblowers whose courage and determination to do what is right for all is humbling.

Your book is balanced—it’s a ‘tragedy of two families’. Has it been translated into Bulgarian and if so, do you know if the Monovs have read it?

A number of Bulgarians have read it and it has been reviewed in media there. I hope to get it translated. The Monovs do not speak or read English.

How many takes on a fight can you have? And how did you keep it all straight in your head?

I hired a wonderful young Bulgarian journalist called Boryana Dzhambazova halfway through my investigation to help research and to translate. Together we worked out where every person involved was standing at any given moment and allowing for clear fabrication, tried to see why they saw things the way they did. It was like watching some 10 or 15 different short films, though, that is for sure. We spent hours and hours and hours on it!

How ironic do you find it that the word ‘free’ is contained within his surname?

Bizarrely Australian and Bulgarian reporters until recently often called Jock ‘Paul Jock Freeman’! I had not thought about irony, though!

What do you think happened that night?

For many years I really did not know. I flirted with different scenarios based on the evidence I had at the time. I now have a very strong picture now in my mind of just what happened that has taken me five years of investigation to develop. I want readers to come to their own conclusion after going through all that I have uncovered!

Jock said his father was naive, but I get the same sense from Jock. Are they both really idealists? Do they believe wholly that justice will prevail?

I think Jock was skeptical very early on for all he held out hopes. His skepticism has turned out to be well founded. Once Simon decided the evidence supported Jock’s version of events he thought it would be clear also to the court.

Jock initially didn’t want you to write the book. Why?

I think he felt that as a young person, he wanted to be able to grow and evolve without always being known for how I found him over a five-year period at a particular stage in his life. Nevertheless he took part in some 40 or 50 hours of interview over the five years, and in going through a fact-checking process with me during my writing period. We continue to stay in touch.

Simon seems to understand that his son isn’t perfect, but the Monovs can’t entertain any notion that their son wasn’t. Does that strike you as odd?

Not really. To concede that their son might have borne some or much responsibility for what happened that night would bring shame on the family. It is also the instinct of many people to want to believe one’s child is close to perfect. The unquenchable desire for revenge on the part of the father, Hristo Monov, has been deeply disturbing to watch.

I’m still confused why everyone watched the CCTV footage in a crowded room, but the defence could not have copies? Then you seemed to see it?

I was able to get access to it after the court proceedings were finished and through other means.

Has anyone ever found the Roma? Is anyone looking?

No one has found the Roma. Police did not ever mount a search for them. They may one day appear, though.

‘No fascism’ seems an odd thing to yell out. Why not just ‘stop’?

In Australia we do not talk about anti-fascist and fascist in the way that is more common among young people especially in the UK and Europe. ‘No fascism’ means ‘stop that racist act’.

Based on what you now know, would you let your child go to Bulgaria?

Of course. I fell in love with the country, much as Jock did. There are many wonderful people, a long history, and wonderful traditions and food there.

You’ve worked in Nigeria and Cuba. Can you tell me a little more about the stories you covered there?

I worked for SBS TV’s Dateline story for almost 10 years. In Cuba, I did a documentary on the experiment with capitalism referred to as ‘el period special’ and another about the American base in Guantanamo Bay long before 9/11. In Nigeria, I did a documentary about the indigenous Ogoni people in the south who were oppressed for many years. I also interviewed the President. It was a dangerous and difficult country where my crew and I were held up at gunpoint.

What’s next, for you as well as for Jock and Simon?

This story is far from over. I will keep following it. Now the father of the dead young man has a position in the unstable new government. Jock and Simon are trying to have Jock transferred to an Australian prison. Bulgarians have taken to the streets to protest against government and institutional corruption. The country is even more chaos than it was when I first got there. But it is heartening to see the peaceful nature of protest and to know that Bulgarians are standing up for their rights.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.