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If only Marcus Einfeld had chosen to tell the truth

24 September 2011 No Comment

FORMER Federal Court judge, civil libertarian, human rights advocate and Living National Treasure Marcus Einfeld OA (since rescinded) made a big mistake when he was caught speeding in Sydney.

He claimed his car was driven at the time by a US-based Australian friend, feminist philosopher and author Teresa Brennan.

In fact Brennan had died three years earlier, the victim of a mysterious and suspicious hit-and-run accident.

Instead of ‘fessing up, Einfeld compounded this lie by then claiming that another Teresa Brennan, also US-based, also deceased, was driving his car. The resulting, highly publicised, court case ended with Einfeld being convicted of perjury and intending to pervert the course of justice. He was sentenced to three years in prison but was released on parole after serving two, his reputation in tatters.

In this fascinating book, journalist Fiona Harari interweaves the life stories of Einfeld and Brennan, who have a number of characteristics in common, not least a deeply entrenched narcissism and a pronounced willingness to lie when telling the truth would have been the wiser course of action.

Like Einfeld, who was born in 1938 and who took silk at 39, Brennan was extremely formidable, imperious and wildly ambitious, with a continuing capacity to deeply undermine herself. Yet quite unlike Einfeld, Brennan was passionate about astrology, and tarot cards in particular, and regularly engaged in increasingly reckless drinking and drug taking.

Brennan died in Florida in early February 2003 after being in a coma for 50 days. Her life ended at 50, as she often had predicted. Harari reveals hospital toxicology results show that on the day of the accident in early December 2002 Brennan “had cannabis and benzodiazepine in her system”. Her case remains open and unsolved.

On Sunday, January 8, 2006, Einfeld had a long lunch with journalist Vivian Schenker, whom he dropped home. His car was caught by a speed camera travelling at 60km/h in a 50km/h zone.

As Harari explains, there were so many points at which Einfeld’s disaster might have been averted: “The first occurs 10 days after the lunch when he is sent a penalty notice. He chooses not to admit he was the driver, and instead of paying the $75 fine and losing three of his four remaining demerit points, he completes a statutory declaration saying that a person called Brennan was using his car that day.”

In the first of many unlikely twists, Einfeld’s statutory declaration went astray and he was served with a notice to appear at the Downing Centre Local Court in Sydney. As a seemingly routine matter, Einfeld’s case was wrapped up in minutes. A junior reporter, Viva Goldner, on Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph, was on the court round that day and filed a brief story.

However, Goldner’s brief piece caught the attention of assistant editor Michael Beach, who was overseeing what was to appear on page seven of the next day’s newspaper. The experienced journalist soon discovered that Brennan died three years before Einfeld claimed she had been driving his car.

On Beach’s instruction, Goldner then rang “Justice Marcus Richard Einfeld” to obtain his reaction to this seemingly remarkable fact. On the face of it, Einfeld’s response was bizarre. He told her that this was not the same Brennan, this was “a totally different person”.

Yet even at this point Einfeld might have avoided calamity if only he had chosen to tell the truth. As Harari puts it, while politics might have been in Einfeld’s blood (his father, Syd, was a well-respected NSW politician) the self-absorbed jurist seemed to forget the political truism that the cover-up is always worse than the original sin.

Although in his trial Einfeld did not try to defend himself on the grounds of diminished responsibility, A Tragedy in Two Acts gives rise to an important question: is narcissism a mental illness? Significantly the American Psychiatric Association committee that is preparing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, No 5 is proposing to include personality disorders, including narcissism, as mental illnesses.

This opens a debate about whether narcissists such as Einfeld and Brennan are suffering from a mental illness and are therefore not responsible for at least some of their destructive actions.

As I discussed this book with some friends and acquaintances, only one person, federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, said he felt sorry for Einfeld and his fall from grace. Significantly Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, are heavily into forgiveness.

Rather like former British politician John Profumo, he of the Christine Keeler scandal, Einfeld is now devoting himself to community works, including focusing his forensic skills on Australian prison reform. This reviewer at least wishes him well.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 35 books.

A Tragedy in Two Acts: Marcus Einfeld and Teresa Brennan. By Fiona Harari, Victory Books, 226pp, $34.99

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