Waiting for Elijah

Kate Wild

Waiting for Elijah
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Waiting for Elijah

Kate Wild

In 2009, in the NSW country town of Armidale, a mentally ill young man is shot dead by a police officer. Senior Constable Andrew Rich claims he ‘had no choice' other than to shoot 24-year-old Elijah Holcombe - Elijah had run at him roaring with a knife, he tells police.

Some witnesses to the shooting say otherwise, though, and this act of aggression doesn’t fit with the sweet, sensitive, but troubled young man that Elijah’s family and friends knew him to be. The shooting devastates Elijah’s family and the police officer alike.

So what happened in that Armidale laneway - and how could it have been avoided? Waiting for Elijah is the culmination of journalist Kate Wild’s six-year investigation - an investigation that not only seeks to answer these questions, but also poses some vitally important ones of its own: Why is it still taboo to talk about mental illness in our society? Is it fair to expect police to be first responders in mental health crises? If the community insists this job belongs to police, how can these interactions be improved?

Written with clear-eyed compassion and a compelling narrative drive, Waiting for Elijah is an account of a tragedy that didn’t have to happen. It is also an intense, forensic deconstruction of the extended legal proceedings that followed, and a heartbreaking portrait of a family’s grief.

Review

Just before 2pm on 2 June 2009, in the NSW country town of Armidale, Senior Constable Andrew Rich fatally shot 24-year-old Elijah Holcombe. Elijah had been experiencing increasing periods of paranoid delusion leading up to this incident and was especially fearful of police. Rich says he had no other choice but to shoot Elijah, that Elijah was armed with a knife and screaming as he moved towards Rich. However, some of the eyewitness accounts and information from Elijah’s family tell a different story and raise questions as to whether the incident needed to end so tragically.

Waiting for Elijah by journalist Kate Wild is a detailed investigation into the incident and the long, drawn-out legal processes that followed, paralleled with the story of the birth of her daughter and her own struggles with depression and anxiety. The book covers many issues: our expectations of police, the differences between civil and criminal cases, the reliability of eyewitnesses, the stigma still surrounding mental health and the inadequate resources of our mental health system. The author is determined not to shy away from these issues; she persists throughout, seeking answers and further understanding.

Wild’s writing is an effective mix of journalistic professionalism and human, spontaneous reaction. We feel her disbelief and frustration, especially at the obstacles placed in the way of getting to one side of the story. Most importantly, Wild uses the case to look at mental health more broadly, providing us with a sense of hope. She concludes that although there is a long way to go, there may be signs of progress in attitudes, awareness and education since that fateful day in 2009.

Comparisons have already been made between Wild’s writing and Helen Garner’s. Although I think they have different voices, I would definitely recommend this book for fans of Helen Garner and books along that vein.


Amanda Rayner is the returns officer at Readings Carlton.

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