Born or Bred?, by Fairfax journalists Robert Wainwright and Paolo Totaro is an investigative study into the life of Australia’s worst mass murderer, Martin Bryant, and what causes someone to do unspeakable acts of horror.  Does society create someone into a monster, or are they simply born that way?  And in actuality, is a human being, no matter how horrendous their actions (as deemed so by the public), ever able to truly be a ‘monster’ or is it simply the way we condition ourselves to think?

On the 28th of April, 1996, Martin Bryant went to the Port Arthur memorial site in Tasmania and embarked on a killing spree, killing 35 people and injuring 21 others.  Until that Norwegian fellow came along in 2011 and killed 77 people (I’m not going to bother writing down his name, because let’s be honest, he has already gotten too much attention), Martin Bryant had killed the most people in a single shooting spree.  Needless to say, the news went worldwide.

Born or Bred? delves into the childhood of Martin Bryant, as well as the upbringing that his parents and their extended family had, looking into what caused Bryant to do what he did.  While reading the book, it quickly became apparent that Bryant was very simple, and socially impaired, which led to him being ostracised throughout his youth and into his adulthood.  Although the book is far more complicated, and there are scientific and psychological explanations given by his criminal psychiatrist, in short, Bryant didn’t like that he was all alone in the world, and one day he decided to pay the world a lesson.

Generally, I’m not a big fan of non-fiction.  It could be because I get distracted easily, or that I’m an emotive person, or that I like to bury myself in the unreal, but whatever it is, I don’t usually pick up books like these.  In fact, the only reason I did was because Paul suggested so.  A bit worrying, considering Paul has read approximately 10 books in the past 5 years, and this one is about a mass murderer, but turns out it was a fantastic suggestion.

While there is a lot of negative aspects of the amount of attention that the media gives to serial killers, all of which I think are quite valid, I also think that this book is a necessary exception.  Because the truth is, when someone calmly organises to brutally kill as many people as possible, we begin to ask questions.  Why would anyone do this?  What caused them to do so?  Will this happen again?

Unfortunately, mass shootings, while not commonplace, appear to happen with enough frequently that they’re almost unsurprising.  Although they are continually met with shock, horror and fear, they also continue to happen.  And while we’d like to think that those who are responsible are completely different to us, a whole other species, a monster, the truth is that they’re still human beings.  They’ve still had an upbringing, a family and probably loving parents, yet for a complex number of reasons, they’ve decided to act in a way that most of us could never begin to fathom.

This was the aspect of the book that I liked most.  After the Port Arthur massacre occurred, and Bryant was locked away for life, people refused to discuss or talk about it, and the government tried to sweep it under the rug.  Not to pretend it didn’t happen, but to help those victims move on.  And while this is an honourable way of behaving, it also means that we still don’t particularly understand why it happened, or how we can stop it from happening again in the future.

One of the most influential parts of the book, for me at least, was when they were interviewing Bryant’s criminal psychiatrist, Dr Paul Mullen.  Mullen brought up the fact that few people, including the government, fail to donate money to causes to do with criminal psychiatry.  Whether that’s youths acting out, gang violence or serial killers.  That despite the fact that we continue to donate millions of dollars to cancer research, little to no funding is given to those who need it just as much.  And while we may not like to think about it too much, this is probably because we don’t think those people deserve it as much as those who are suffering from cancer.

For me, the book provided new information on aspects that I had not considered or wouldn’t have thought to consider.  Martin Bryant, after all, is a serial killer.  He destroyed so many people’s lives because his was an unhappy one.  Yet, after reading this book, while I may not have empathy or pity for him, I am also beginning to understand that those who are mentally unwell suffer as much as those who do physically, and that although we don’t realise it, they too often don’t have a choice.

The only negative that I had for this book overall was that the writing at times was slightly clunky, and there were numerous typos, both spelling and grammatical.  For me that’s always a big negative in books, but it’s even worse that it was occurring so frequently in a book written by two Fairfax journalists.

What do you think of non-fiction books?  Do you think books like these give us the ability to learn about aspects previously unknown, or are we just glorifying the notorious?  Let me know!

born or bred? martin bryant: the making of a mass murderer by robert wainwright and paola totaro

Born Or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making Of A Mass Murderer – (image taken from http://www.kimbofo.typepad.com)

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