It’s been almost 37 years since Shanelle Dawson saw her mother, Lynette. Picture: AAP/Jordan Shields
It’s been almost 37 years since Shanelle Dawson saw her mother, Lynette. Picture: AAP/Jordan Shields

The people we’re forgetting in Chris Dawson’s arrest

The news of Chris Dawson's extradition to New South Wales is a triumph for some.

The central character in The Teacher's Pet podcast - an investigation into the 1982 disappearance of Sydney mother Lynette Dawson - has appeared indestructible until now, surviving two independent coronial inquests that concluded he killed his wife. Despite convincing evidence pointing to the mother-of-two's killing, including Mr Dawson's affair with a 16-year-old school student at the time of his wife's disappearance, he has lived the last 36 years as a free man. Working at other high schools. Having another child. Finding love again. Going for swims at the local beach. Growing old.

So it's not surprising that many collectively fist-pumped the air when the former Newtown Jets rugby league player, now 70, was photographed barefoot with members of the Queensland Police Service's Homicide Squad on each arm this week.

Millions have listened to The Teacher's Pet podcast since its launch in May. Journalist Hedley Thomas and producer Slade Gibson have pored over minute details, chased down lead after lead, and packaged it up for us in a thrilling 16-episode series; a challenge that garnered both men a Gold Walkley for their efforts. But as we binge on the titillating drama with tweets and hashtags, what many of us forget is exactly what scars this story's victims the most.

Lynette Dawson with a baby Sherryn at the beach. Picture: Sherryn Dawson/Facebook.
Lynette Dawson with a baby Sherryn at the beach. Picture: Sherryn Dawson/Facebook.

This is not Gone Girl. It's not Dare Me or Hypothermia. This is real life, and dozens have been inadvertently sucked into its ugly twists and turns. Not because it's a good story, but because it's their story.

While Chris Dawson maintains his innocence, there are three daughters who never asked to be part of this. His two daughters with Lynette - Shanelle and Sherryn; and his daughter with his second wife Joanne Curtis - Kristen.

Shanelle and Sherryn lost their mother, and now they face losing their father too.

Given she vanished when the girls were four and two, Lynette's silhouette would almost certainly be blurred around the edges in Shanelle and Sherryn's minds, if there at all. She appears in old video recordings, in photographs faded by the more than three decades that have passed without contact, and in stories painted with the helping hand of the adults who witnessed it - but that's all they have.

The person who was supposed to love Shanelle and Sherryn the most didn't attend a single parent-teacher interview at school. She wasn't there for dance recitals or netball games. She missed graduations, pregnancy announcements, too many cups of tea and chats on the phone to count.

For decades, Chris Dawson insisted Lynette had willingly abandoned her daughters; that she had hopped on a bus never to return. And so their mother was likely a source of anguish and anger, not yearning.

Shanelle Dawson and her aunt Pat Jenkins lay flowers in Lynette Dawson’s memory at Long Reef Surf Club in Sydney NSW. Picture: AAP/Jordan Shields
Shanelle Dawson and her aunt Pat Jenkins lay flowers in Lynette Dawson’s memory at Long Reef Surf Club in Sydney NSW. Picture: AAP/Jordan Shields

And now given this week's news, you have to wonder how it must feel for these girls, who face the prospect of losing another parent.

The lives of the children embroiled in this story have been punctuated with controversy from the moment they've been cognisant of Lynette Dawson's disappearance. While one of those little girls in the viral photographs, Shanelle, is an active participant of the investigation and the attention that entails, Sherryn and Kristin are not.

And yet, we've given them no choice.

Kristin, someone who only ever featured in The Teacher's Pet on the periphery, then in prams and cots, has been papped walking down the beach with her mother. Her outfit of a simple hoodie and black cap is now fodder for the tabloids, a titbit to feast on whenever Sherryn slams the front door of her home to the media pack waiting outside, which is often.

"It's a witch hunt and I'm over it," Sherryn told the Gold Coast Bulletin in June. "I've got a family I want to focus on."

When the most pivotal chapter of your story has been downloaded 28.6 million times, there is no "opt out" button. Say goodbye to any sense of normalcy; you're public property now, like it or not.

Shanelle Dawson, Joanne Curtis and Sherryn Dawson. Picture: supplied/Hedley Thomas
Shanelle Dawson, Joanne Curtis and Sherryn Dawson. Picture: supplied/Hedley Thomas

Inadvertently, through the interest around this case and through no fault of their own, we know their faces. Their history. The alleged details of their father's sex life.

"[Dad] taught us tennis and played in the pool with us," Shanelle told Channel Nine's 60 Minutes in September. "I would say he's got a side to him that's a lot like a loveable, adorable puppy dog."

There's no doubt that the side of Chris Dawson that Shanelle recalls in these memories was real. But what now has to be decided by the court is whether or there was another side. A side that saw him take the life of their mother.

The podcast's reach and dedicated audience has created a groundswell of pressure on the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, and proven vital in mobilising the cold case. Without Thomas and Gibson's work, the disappearance of a typical mum from a sleepy coastal area of Sydney would have been forgotten forever. Both men might just be heroes for what they have achieved with a bit of persistence and grit.

And maybe this is the price you pay for justice.

But as many celebrate the arrest of an elderly man, we must remember: he's not the only one in the spotlight. His daughters are, too.

Michelle Andrews is a freelance writer and podcast host.



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