There are some books you take a deep breath before opening, and Kate Wild’s Waiting for Elijah is one such book. That’s not because you don’t want to read it, but because you know it contains information that will upend your understanding of the complexity of life. Specifically: mental health and what we ask of families, our health system, and our police in trying to grapple with it.
Before proceeding I should say that Waiting for Elijah undoubtedly warrants reading. The book examines the circumstances surrounding, and the aftermath of, Elijah Holcombe—a smart, well-loved, gentle university student and husband suffering from mental illness—being shot dead by a police officer in 2009.
Elijah’s death was one in a series of fatalities where police had shot people struggling with mental illness. Whether Elijah moved—forward, backward, aggressively or otherwise—remains critical to understanding the shooting. Worried he was being pursued by police officers intent on killing him, Elijah had grabbed a knife—a bread knife, but a knife no less—and run when the police had tried to approach him.
Tragically, Elijah’s parents had earlier gone to the police station and explained that Elijah was harmless but was having an episode and was, as a result of his hallucinations, very afraid of the police.
By Elijah’s parents’ reckoning, the police officer who shot Elijah should have known this information and handled the situation differently. But through a series of administrative sliding doors moments, he didn’t. And as an officer faced with someone holding a knife and who wouldn’t drop it when asked, was the officer at fault?
There are arguably few authors more qualified to examine the issue sensitively and well. Wild is an ABC investigative journalist whose work has attracted three Walkley Awards and a Logie. Perhaps most recently and notably, her reports were instrumental in leading to a Four Corners story on juvenile detention in the Northern Territory that kicked off a royal commission.
In Waiting for Elijah, she turns her attention to the timeline of Elijah’s death, setting out to specifically understand what happened in the crucial moments that led to his death and to generally understand the difficulties around tackling mental health—particularly relating to police officers’ roles as first responders.
Elijah’s death was undeniably tragic for everyone involved, but Wild also paints an empathetic tale of a grieving family’s compassion and refusal to label the police officer as a monster—they maintain all along he is simply a man in an impossible situation who made a mistake.
As Wild determines, police are trained to exert authority and gain control of a situation, which is very often the antithesis of what a person with mental illness will respond favourably to. But the solutions require understanding and nuance and training—and even then the issue is still incredibly complex.
As she notes: ‘If a police officer acted in accordance with their training, their perception could not be flawed. Reality resided in a training manual somewhere, not the human frailty that collided in Cinders Lane.’