Virginia Pitts: Homophobia has no place in tale of fatal love triangle

I am disappointed by the homophobic tone of Dean Campbell's article, published on Tuesday, about the mystery surrounding the death of Thelma Trott in the 1930s.

The structure of the article, the selectiveness of the data presented and the reliance on hearsay over research twists the available information to create and sensationalise a link between homosexuality and deceitfulness that ought not to pass unnoticed.

So what are the available facts? Thelma Trott died from an overdose of veronal on April 15, 1935. Her husband, Eric Mareo, had stockpiled this drug before her death.

Between April 12 and 14 Trott drifted in and out of consciousness. Trott's lover, Freda Stark, visited often during this period but could not persuade Eric Mareo to call a doctor.

On April 13 Mareo prepared hot milk, some of which was administered to Trott by those present. When Stark visited Trott on Monday, April 15, to find her still in a deep sleep, she went to the neighbour's house to call an ambulance.

The medics arrived at 3pm, but they could not revive Trott, who died at 5.30pm.

Eric Mareo was eventually arrested and tried for the murder of his wife by administering a fatal dose of veronal in a glass of hot milk.

Campbell's article implies that Stark saw Mareo lace Trott's milk with veronal and relayed this to the jury. But nowhere in either the transcripts or the verbatim accounts of the court cases does Stark state such a thing.

However, evidence from a wide range of people has thrown light on Eric Mareo's history of multiple identities and compulsive lying.

It is difficult to see this elision of the facts as something other than a slur on Freda Stark and the construction of Eric Mareo as victim. Why is her credibility questioned and not Mareo's?

The article also states that there is argument over whether Stark admitted to being a lesbian during the trial. I don't know who's arguing, but research reveals how, when asked in court if she slept with Thelma Trott, Freda Stark answered with a very clear "Yes".

To the disappointment of modern commentators, perhaps, she did not couch her answer in graphic or titillating terms.

Neither did she categorise herself as a lesbian, a term not in wide usage in New Zealand in the 1930s.

But that does not detract from the truth told by Stark in court. She also answered in the affirmative when asked if she had slept with Eric Mareo, which renders superfluous the comment in the article that Mareo had caught the two women in bed several times. Stark made it quite clear that the three of them all slept with each other.

Campbell presents the view that it goes against logic for a jury of the day to knowingly accept the evidence of a lesbian. This in itself could and should be contested, for there has long been a tolerant streak in our society. Instead, the article simply closes on a plea for us to ponder Eric Mareo's last words in court' "I've been sentenced on the lying word of Freda Stark."

Unwittingly or otherwise, Campbell's disinclination to question Mareo's trustworthiness and his inclination to doubt Stark's reflects and perpetuates a skewed notion that homosexuals are somehow and innately dishonest.

That this notion is carried subliminally (rather than being openly expressed) does not detract from its potential to cast a healthy minority in a negative light.

Certainly the mystery over Thelma Trott's death remains. But that is no reason to doubt a woman's integrity on the basis of her sexual orientation.

Freda Stark had the courage to love and live according to her own truth, and suffered enough for that during her lifetime. We should not allow ignorance and partiality to tarnish her name in death, or obscure her standing as one of New Zealand's trailblazers.

* Virginia Pitts, a film director and Waikato University lecturer, is developing a feature film based on the life of Freda Stark.

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