Conference Abstract: Revisiting Dr. Benn
Writing an abstract for a conference paper that’s not yet completely drafted is a bit of a challenge. For the upcoming Australian Historical Association’s Biennial Conference, Reviewing History, we’re asked to provide the abstract for our proposed papers, plus their titles, in less than 170 words. The conference is being held at The University of Western Australia, so it seems like a good time to review the case of Bernard Benn, whose father, Maurice, was a lecturer at the University’s German Department.
Bernard was four years old when Maurice shot him dead with a rifle he kept in his study. Maurice, after a poignant trail in which he claimed temporary insanity, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang under Western Australia’s mandatory sentencing laws. During the trial, Maurice argued that he had saved his son from life in an institution.
The case attracted attention across the globe, and heated discussions ensued as to the value of Bernard’s future life. Older arguments about lethal injections, eugenics, and euthanasia were re-hashed. All of that has been covered by the small number of Australian historians who have dealt with the history of intellectual disability during the period. However, a different discourse also arose surrounding the case: parents, and particularly members of voluntary groups such as the New South Wales Subnormal Children’s Welfare Association, argued that the case proved government institutions were needed in Australia. Parents, they claimed, were being driven mad by the “burden” of caring for their “subnormal” children.
It happened that, at the same time as the Benn trial was making headlines, Federal Parliament was debating the proposed States Grants (Mental Health Institutions) Bill. Members of parental lobby groups had been busily writing to their local members and using the Benn case as a poignant example of the need for more institutional beds, reusing arguments they had been deploying for over a decade. In some ways, these flew against Maurice’s own claim that he had “saved” Bernard from asylum life.
A major point of the paper will be that scandals such as the Benn case can be re-imagined to fit discourses that are already circulating.
In 169 words?:
“Revisiting Dr. Benn: the many meanings of intellectual disability in a murder
In 1964 Maurice Benn, a lecturer at the University of Western Australia, shot dead his two-year-old “mentally retarded” son, Bernard. The killing, and Benn’s subsequent murder trial, attracted attention across the country.
Benn’s defence claimed that Maurice had saved Bernard from “life in an institution.” When Maurice was found guilty, and sentenced to hang under mandatory sentencing laws, debates were sparked around Australia about the “right to life,” “mercy killing,” and the social value of people with intellectual disabilities.
The Benn case has been understood by historians almost exclusively in terms of these euthanasia debates. In this paper, however, I argue that the case held a very different significance for members of the large number of parent advocacy groups which had sprung up over the previous decade. They used the murder as evidence that more government institutions were needed, and the Benn case highlights the crucial role of such groups in the emerging post-war politics of disability.”