Waiting for Elijah
“This is when things could have turned out differently. When everything could have been all right. It’s 6.30am. Tuesday, 2 June 2009.” With these lines, practically echoing to a ‘thud-thud’ reminiscent of a primetime crime drama’s theme song, journalist Kate Wild kicks off her debut book, Waiting for Elijah; the eponymous Elijah being, of course, Elijah Holcombe, a 24-year-old man with a mental illness who was fatally shot by a police officer in Armidale, New South Wales on 2 June 2009.
The aftermath of this event, and the subsequent six years of legal proceedings, are at the core of Wild’s investigative account, as one might safely assume from the tone of this prologue. However what these opening lines do not reveal is the extent to which Wild’s own deeply personal experiences as a mother, a daughter, and as someone who lives with a mental illness, are painstakingly explored through her involvement with Elijah’s case.
The first hint the reader gets of the author’s personal involvement comes from Wild’s initial account of Elijah’s shooting, in which she cobbles together a recreation of eyewitness statements and police accounts in a way which, on first read, feels like a cheap piece of emotional set-dressing. What the reader cannot know at this point is the amount of investigative effort, intuition, and most importantly, compassion, which supports Wild’s depiction of these events, and this pattern of being left in the dark as to the author’s justifications continues well into the second half of the book.
Wild persistently calls attention to the similarities she sees between herself and Elijah, or between herself and Elijah’s family; she references their rural upbringing, their experiences with mental illness, their family life, and skips over the reason for bringing up these relatively arbitrary connections. It is only once Wild begins to reveal more of her own background, and her own personal motives that the reader begins to empathise with her determination to find answers for Elijah and his family. This tension, between a piece of investigative non-fiction and a personal memoir, causes the construction of the narrative to lose a little clarity; certainly, the book would lose something unique if Wild’s personal narrative was not featured to the extent that is but for the reader, potentially, the pay-off comes a little too late.
The book does pose a number of more objective questions, the sort of questions which might typically arise in the aftermath of a police shooting; during the initial stages of her investigation, which began as part of a segment for Four Corners, Wild poses the question “were mentally ill people demonstrably more dangerous or were police making that assumption, and using fatal force without good reason?” Over the course of her investigation, which spans almost a ten-year period beginning in 2009 and concluding in early 2018, this question develops additional components, as Wild attempts to find conclusive answers against the backdrop of Elijah’s inquest and other legal proceedings.
Wild begins to question how and why police are expected to respond to incidents involving people with mental illness, and who might share the responsibilities of this role. This aspect particularly comes to light with regards to Elijah’s case, in terms of how hospital services and, more specifically, the mental health services were implicated in the series of miscommunications and careless actions which led to Elijah’s shooting. Indeed, as Wild unfolds the order of events in painstaking detail, the reader begins to share in her intense frustration at the exponentially fatal mishandling of the situation. As such, it is these aspects of the book which begin to break down that initial question which are among the most engaging and effective parts of the book.
It is also worth appreciating the sheer amount of time and effort put into the investigation. The timeframe in and of itself allows for a valuable degree of perspective, insofar as Wild includes examples of other shootings by police of persons with mental illness, some of which occurred prior to 2009, and others which occurred contemporaneously to the events unfolding in the book; they include Adam Salter, Tyler Cassidy, Tony Galeano, Roni Levi, Roberto Laudisio Curti, Danukul Mokmool and Ian Fackender. While the book never takes a particularly broad view of all these cases together, their inclusion emphasises the continuing relevance of Wild’s investigation.
The answers that her investigation gradually uncover do not go much beyond what we might already assume: that when police do shoot someone, statistically speaking that person is more likely to have a mental illness; that in responding to confrontations in which someone has a mental illness, police methods are not well-suited; that our mental health system is not working effectively; and that, most of all, the impact of fatal shootings on families and communities is devastating. Waiting for Elijah in some ways reflects this feeling of devastation; it is confronting, emotionally and objectively. However, Wild refuses to sacrifice compassion for the sake of closure, a principle which is, ultimately, what allows the book to retain a vital sense of optimism, and a fundamental call to action.