The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire

Chloe Hooper writes in this 2020 Australian true-crime book:

* The arsonist had had no need to set kindling amongst the blue gums. Each tree had made its own pyre. Every summer they dropped their bark and branches and leaves, and each year without fire the piles grew higher, and they released toxins to ward off new growth that would compromise their fuel beds. No plant on the planet craves fire like the eucalypt: to live it needs to burn. ‘Gasoline trees’, the Americans call the globulus . Flames release gases that act like propellant, sending fireballs rolling across treetops. The shedding ribbon bark unfurls streamers of fire that travel kilometres on the wind.

* It is estimated that only one per cent of bushfire arsonists are ever caught.

* But in many minds, staying to defend your house is the Australian test of grit: it’s proof that you deserve to be living in the bush in the first place.

* fire-setters were more often than not male; they were commonly unemployed, or had a complicated work history; they were likely to have disadvantaged social backgrounds, often with a family history of pathology, addiction and physical abuse; and many exhibited poor social or interpersonal skills.

* The Arson Squad was aware that there were more deliberately lit fires near the urban–rural fringe – places where high youth unemployment, child abuse and neglect, intergenerational welfare dependency and poor public transport met the margins of the bush, the eucalypts. And that pretty much described most of the towns in the Latrobe Valley.

* Although statistically it’s uncommon for firefighters to deliberately set fires, it is common for arsonists to be firefighters. Volunteering to battle local blazes offers camaraderie and status. It’s a bonding, adrenaline-filled service, for which politicians and the media turn some of those in the ranks into heroes. And, of course, if there are no fires when the season starts, someone feeling powerless and forgotten might start to itch for the thrill.

* Before long she was also butting heads with Detective Shoesmith about the child pornography charges. In crime parlance, they looked to her like a ‘burger with the lot’, similar, for example, to an armed burglar also being accused of double parking and firearm possession. She felt the Arson Squad had charged Brendan too hastily and caused immeasurable reputational damage. Paedophiles and arsonists were the pariahs of modern Australian life – to be both rendered someone the ultimate outcast.

The barrister knew all the clichés about fire-setters also being sexual perverts. Sex and fire was an old, old fusion. Sigmund Freud had not been required reading in any law school course on fire-setting – and Legal Aid did not go in much for psychoanalysis – but in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud synthesised the idea by writing that fire-lighting was a regressive attempt to master the threats and uncertainties of the natural world: ‘In man’s struggle to gain power over the tyranny of nature, his acquisition of power over fire was most important. It is as if primitive man had had the impulse when he came in contact with fire, to gratify an infantile pleasure in respect of it and put it out with a stream of urine . . . Analytic findings testify to the close connection between the ideas of ambition, fire and urethral eroticism.’

A few years later, Freud provided his further thoughts: ‘The warmth radiated by fire evokes the same kind of glow as accompanies the state of sexual excitation, and the form and motion of the flame suggest the phallus in action.’

Eighty years on, fire-lighting was still widely considered to deliver an erotic thrill. Back at the Morwell police station, some local detectives who had been inside a lot of fire-setters’ houses reckoned they’d found uncommon amounts of sexual paraphernalia. And some of McCrickard’s colleagues, criminal barristers who went on to defend Sokaluk, privately also believed in the connection. One had defended a man who would lie down by his car, nearby his blaze, and masturbate; another defended two intellectually disabled men who would head into the bush, light fires and jerk each other off; and yet another defended a man whose calling card was setting fire to women’s shoes.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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