Helen Cummings turned her face towards a camera a week ago and the seconds ticked by after she was asked to adopt a ‘‘neutral’’ look.
Standing in the foyer of her Newcastle home on a sunny day she looked beautiful, but vulnerable. Her face was still, but her eyes showed her history.
The photographer repeated the request for a ‘‘neutral’’ look. Cummings apologised and smiled a gentle smile.
‘‘Sorry,’’ she said. ‘‘My neutral look is pain.’’
It is 61 years since Cummings was born, the second daughter of fireman Ray Cummings and future lord mayor of Newcastle Joy Cummings.
It is 41 years since Helen Cummings married doctor Stuart Wynter. They had two children and she later fled from her violent husband and their Gloucester home.
And although it is 27 years since Wynter shot and killed his second wife, their toddler daughter and then himself, it is only now that his first wife Helen Cummings can speak about their marriage, and the domestic violence that still haunts her.
‘‘The emotional stuff is the one you remember more. The physical stuff you could forget,’’ she says, on the eve of the launch of her book Blood Vows.
‘‘He would hit me, but at other times, if he was in a really dark mood, he’d just lock the door and say ‘I’m in charge. I’m the boss. You do as you’re told’.’’
Cummings wrote the book for her children with Stuart Wynter – actor daughter Sarah Wynter and son Brendan – about ‘‘the childhood they had missed and the gaps that had never been filled’’.
She wrote it to honour the memory of Stuart Wynter’s second wife, Rakentati, brought from a tiny Pacific Island to an isolated Victorian town, murdered, then buried in his grave with their slain daughter, Binatia, 4.
And she wrote it in the hope of bringing about changes to a Family Law Act she argues fails children and victims of violence, by putting shared parental responsibility ahead of children’s safety.
‘‘We’re constantly told that the shared parenting law seeks to ensure that children have the benefit of both their parents in their lives and enjoy ‘the right to know and be cared for by both parents’,’’ Cummings says.
‘‘In a normal, loving, functional family, parents should do all sorts of good things, but in a fractured family where there’s a history of abuse, this isn’t real.
‘‘The courts today would probably describe my marriage to Stuart as being marked by intractable conflict, but the problem was violence, not conflict.
‘‘I went to great lengths to remove any possible cause for his anger. I did everything quietly and was careful to avoid whatever it was that had produced his previous outbursts, but it made no difference.
‘‘Goalposts were constantly shifted out of my reach.
‘‘There were rules, his rules, and I had to obey them even when I had no idea what they were.
‘‘That isn’t conflict.’’
Helen Cummings grew up in a loving, functional family in Mayfield, ‘‘in the shadow of the BHP steelworks’’. The men in her life – her father, grandfather and brother – were loving and supportive. The most influential woman in her life – her mother and Australia’s first female lord mayor, Joy Cummings – was strong and ‘‘an eternal optimist’’.
‘‘She was always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt and she was able to get consensus on issues. My mum was always the cock-eyed optimist, and I think I’ve inherited something of that from her.’’
Being willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt required forgiveness for mistakes. In most situations it is a positive trait.
In the situation Helen Cummings and her family found themselves in after she met and married the attractive medical student and future Royal Newcastle Hospital doctor Stuart Wynter, the capacity to forgive prolonged the agony of a woman who was the victim of a violent man.
They met on local government election day in 1968 while handing out how to vote cards outside a Mayfield polling place.
‘‘I would have laughed had anyone suggested I’d just met my future husband,’’ she says.
‘‘I left school in fourth form. I didn’t have the confidence of someone who’d been to university. I wasn’t ashamed of who I was but I didn’t think he’d find me attractive.
‘‘Maybe he saw a little bit of ... not weakness in me ... but someone who wasn’t going to look much past how he appeared to be. I’d like to think he loved me.’’
They married in August 1970 when Cummings found she was pregnant with daughter Sarah.
Cummings was 20. Stuart Wynter was 26.
They were living in a flat in Church Street, Newcastle, shortly before Sarah’s birth, when the first sign of Wynter’s controlling behaviour occurred.
Cummings was resting on a lounge when Wynter returned home from work.
‘‘What the hell are you doing?’’ he yelled, and she got up from the lounge and busied herself.
‘‘I wasn’t sure of the reason for his outburst, but I took care not to rest outside of sleeping hours in his presence again,’’ she wrote in Blood Vows.
In a later conversation in front of another couple, Stuart Wynter made clear what he believed his ‘‘rights’’ were within the marriage.
Wives and young mothers didn’t have the same rights as he did, he told the couple, in front of his wife.
‘‘If I wish to drink the last of the wine and there is no more in the bottle, then I have the right to drink what is left in my wife’s glass,’’ he said.
Cummings recalls: ‘‘With this, he reached over, picked up my glass and finished it.’’
The first time Helen Cummings felt fear in her husband’s presence occurred a few months later, shortly after Sarah’s birth.
During one of his now regular bursts of anger, Wynter took a kitchen knife from a drawer and threatened his wife.
The next day, in response, she cut his rubber thongs in half, a decision she later regretted.
When Cummings returned home with her father after a visit later that day, they found the flat ‘‘nearly destroyed’’ and Cummings’s clothes torn and left in pieces on the floor. Her prized guitar was smashed. Ray Cummings was so shocked he was virtually speechless, his daughter wrote.
Wynter returned home and apologised to his wife and father-in-law, but Ray Cummings stayed at the flat until his daughter assured him he could go home.
It was the day she accepted responsibility for her husband’s anger.
‘‘All would be well from now on if I could only work out what triggered his anger and avoid being the cause,’’ she says.
In Blood Vows Helen Cummings takes 70 pages to chart the deterioration of her marriage over six years.
The doctor who appeared calm to patients and hospital staff was constantly irritated and angry at home. Cummings was criticised for the way she spoke and dressed.
In tears in hospital after miscarrying a second pregnancy, Cummings learnt that even grief was unacceptable in front of her husband.
‘‘I was crying quietly because we had lost a much-wanted baby. Stuart put his hands on my shoulders and pressed down angrily, saying ‘For God’s sake shut up, just shut up’.’’
Wynter smashed Sarah’s new white cot and a Royal Newcastle Hospital glass cabinet after an incident shortly after their son Brendan’s birth.
The baby was crying and Wynter was ‘‘just sitting, staring at the floor’’ beside his bassinet.
When Cummings suggested the baby might be calmed with his dummy, Wynter ‘‘immediately lost his temper and launched into such a tirade that I quickly dressed and left the flat with Sarah and Brendan until he calmed down’’.
They returned to the smashed furniture.
‘‘Today such behaviour would have been the last straw but life was different then,’’ Cummings says. ‘‘Stuart was still the bright young doctor and I was struggling to be the perfect wife and mother.’’
A few months later they left Newcastle for a new medical position in Gloucester.
While Cummings hoped the new life would be ‘‘the change Stuart needed’’ to end his anger, it only accelerated, and the violence he had shown towards objects was gradually directed at his wife.
‘‘Stuart’s violence could be brief or go on for hours,’’ Cummings says.
‘‘Sometimes he’d catch me off guard. In an instant his fist would clip me over the head, leaving me stunned and shaking. The message was clear: obey the rules, or else.’’
It was also at Gloucester that Wynter’s fascination with guns started.
In an interview in her sunny home last week, Cummings charted the gradual loss of self during that time.
‘‘Over all the years of trying to suppress whatever it was that made Stuart angry, I think I ended up losing myself,’’ she says.
‘‘I don’t think I’ve ever returned to the person I was before. Those few years of marriage permanently damaged something in my personality.
‘‘I can understand it when people describe the experience of domestic violence as like being in a war zone.
‘‘This is a war zone with no medals for bravery, no sympathetic witnesses, no debriefing afterwards or memories to share – just a heaviness constantly dragging on your heart.’’
There was counselling, but ‘‘Stuart played the situation like a game to be won’’. The violence was too humiliating to discuss.
It was a family wedding in Newcastle where Helen Cummings realised her husband did not even fear witnesses to his violence.
The details of that horror weekend are unclear, she says.
‘‘When you live in fear and fear for your life you don’t want to recall it. That’s why it’s taken until I’m 61 to talk about it.’’
What she remembers clearly from the Newcastle wedding is returning to Gloucester knowing that a line had been crossed, and she and her children were no longer safe, even with others nearby.
She left with the children one day after Wynter went to work. It wasn’t prompted by a dramatic incident. Just the loss of hope.
The night before, Wynter had decided to comb the family dog, Oscar, an Old English sheepdog with long hair.
‘‘Stuart grew angrier and angrier as he went on, and didn’t seem to care that Oscar was yelping in pain. I couldn’t intervene. Sarah and Brendan and I just sat and waited until it was over.’’
By the time she went to bed, Helen Cummings decided her options had been narrowed to one.
‘‘There were no choices in the end, except to escape.’’
In her book Cummings recounts returning home to live with her parents and children at Newcastle. There was always fear, she says.
She recalls her mother asking a senior police officer to watch the children’s school in the afternoons that she knew her son-in-law was in town, to ensure they got home safely.
Cummings is concerned about how her parents and family will be perceived with the book’s publication.
Her parents and family could only provide love and support until she made the decision to leave a violent husband, Cummings says.
When she did, they protected her and their grandchildren.
But while Cummings continued to blame herself for causing the anger that led to her husband’s violence, she hoped he could have a better relationship with his children in her absence.
It was an incident during a visit with him, when the children were accompanied by Stuart’s mother, that showed her the children were still at risk despite the marriage ending.
‘‘I could have lost Sarah,’’ she says of the incident where Wynter produced a gun during a picnic and fired shots.
‘‘Sarah had learnt to read the danger signs in her father at a young age and she was terrified.
‘‘She recalled looking around for a place to run and hide.’’
She was 11 at the time. Her brother was nine.
‘‘I think of that and it would have been so hard on her. She wanted to run and hide but what about her little brother? She couldn’t leave him. And why did Stuart take a gun to a picnic? Why did he shoot with it?’’
It was another significant escalation of Cummings’s fear. Until that time she had taken some comfort knowing that Wynter’s mother was with him.
‘‘The fact that he would do that in front of his mother took that away,’’ she says.
It took Helen Cummings decades to reach the point where she could write about her marriage, and the deaths of her former husband, his second wife and their young child in March 1984.
It was a Mayfield police officer who rang Cummings. It was Eve Wynter, Stuart Wynter’s mother, who asked the police officer to advise his first wife that he had died.
‘‘I immediately asked if Raken and Binatia were OK,’’ she says. ‘‘After a few seconds he said quietly, ‘No, they are all deceased’.
‘‘At that instant my mind began spinning like the wheels of an overturned truck after a crash. I was facing my own past.’’
Cummings worked at the Newcastle Family Court registry and in the family law system for more than two decades after her marriage ended. She has wept in court for women with stories similar to her own, although she has hidden the tears.
‘‘The cases that end in court are the minority, I want to stress that. But when courts make orders returning children to violent fathers, judges and federal magistrates seem to forget they live and work inside a cocoon of protection from these same violent men.
‘‘In their daily lives, they are guarded by the most sophisticated security systems available. I fail to comprehend how they can understand the complexity of children’s safety needs at all.’’
It has taken decades for Helen Cummings to redefine herself. She is retired now. She sings, plays tennis and has concentrated her efforts on writing her story. She says she will never get over the pain of knowing the violence her children witnessed and the fear they experienced has had an impact on their lives.
Cummings and daughter Sarah travelled to Heathcote to visit the grave where Stuart Wynter and the wife and child he murdered are buried, together.
Brendan Wynter has not made that journey.
On a sunny day in Newcastle in 2006, Helen Cummings washed Raken’s wedding dress, which Sarah had left with her when she moved to the US, and hung it out to dry. She wept.
‘‘I remember thinking, this is so weird. I’m the ex-wife and I’m washing her dress, having a weep, realising everything she’d lost and what that dress should have meant, and all her dreams.’’
It was the start of the book written to honour the woman who died, her child, and all women and children who are victims of violence.
‘‘That was the day of her happiness and there it was hanging on my line.’’