Home ContentMaking Good: A chat with Judith Fordham

Making Good: A chat with Judith Fordham

Published : May 27, 2016

“There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” ~ Leonard Cohen

By Serena Nathan

Judith Fordham used to jam a pillow under the bottom of her bedroom door. It was the only way she could stop the rats from slipping into her room in the middle of the night looking for

food. “That was really, really hard,” she says, “I slept on the floor and rats would come in and nibble on my toes in the middle of the night.” When she opened the door in the morning she’d find the pillow had been eaten from the other side.

Now a barrister, criminal lawyer and Associate Professor in Forensic Science at Murdoch University, Judith Fordham lives with her devoted husband and partner of ten years, John Jenkin in a stunning apartment in Cottesloe with views sweeping Rottnest and the Indian Ocean. There’s a beautiful mix of old and new, here, and a sense of ‘home’, even though Judith and John have just moved in days before I arrive. It feels…peaceful.

This is a far cry from Judith’s life in the late 70s/early 80s: the rundown house in the Blue Mountains, with no money, no heating, no support, three small kids and a husband who regularly beat her up. She often hunted for empty bottles on the side of the road to trade for milk money. How does one go from being eaten by rats in a Blue Mountains shanty to a multi-million dollar view in one of Perth’s premier suburbs?

Judith Fordham’s story isn’t a miracle; she’s just a person who realised that making what seemed like scary decisions was something she needed to do, whether they were the right decisions or not. She left her violent husband soon after they had moved from NSW and she got pregnant with her fourth child. Her husband didn’t want her to go ahead with the pregnancy and Judith realised that it was no longer just her life that was being threatened. By her baby’s first birthday in 1984 Judith was a student of Law at ANU: “Law was the only second degree (I already had a science degree) that government support; TEAS, was available for so I applied for law thinking I would never get in,” said Judith. She was accepted as a mature age student and jumped at the opportunity, even though she was still breastfeeding her nine month old baby - she didn’t think she would be accepted the following year.

By the age of 35, Judith Fordham was not only a lawyer, but had completed Honours, moved to Perth, written a book and started her own law firm, Fordham’s in 1989. One of Perth’s few female criminal lawyers, Judith was (and is) known to be tough but fair. “I’m proud of the fact that I get just about as many Christmas cards from police as I do from my clients and colleagues which as someone who is known to be largely a defence lawyer is a real buzz,” she says. Judith sold her law firm to become a barrister and is now researching for a PhD, conducting landmark research into how juries make decisions. An Associate Professor in Forensic Science at Murdoch, she’s also writing a book for New Holland Publishers, tentatively titled “Some of My Best Friends Are Murderers”. There’s an option for a second book, the result of a fortuitous chat with a publishing industry professional on a flight east.

She is humble about her ability to have risen above such a seemingly hopeless situation to where she is now. While a view of Rottnest Island may seem like the prize pickings of having drawn herself up out of her early life, what shows to Judith that it has been worth the struggle are the things that no money can buy: she keeps close to her at all times a beautiful message of love from one of her daughters, and a letter of love and appreciation from her husband, John.

A survivor of domestic violence, Judith is speaking out, sharing her most intimate and frightening moments to show that the story doesn’t have to end there, and can turn into something wonderful. With a father who was cruel and abusive, and a mother who was unable to protect her due to her alcoholism and addiction to prescription drugs, she grew up in an environment that fostered hopelessness and worthlessness. Marrying into a violent relationship was more or less inevitable, given that her only example of family life was an abusive, destructive one. “[Women who come from violent childhoods] have no example of how to have any normal, happy, mutually respectful relationship” Judith explains. The benchmark for family life was a brutal one and if this is the only example a young woman has it is incredibly difficult to make alternative choices. Those tools just don’t exist.

She remembers being in the emergency ward having her nose stitched after her husband beat her and being surprised that she was able to breast feed her new baby at the same time. “I always thought a mother’s milk dried up in times of extreme stress,” she says simply. “For me the important thing about this was that I was proud of the fact that even if I could not get most other aspects of my life right I was still a good mother.” Judith Fordham likes people who, like her “call a spade a shovel”. “I’m not a ‘lady who lunches’ but I do have lunches with some very special women,” she says. “And we get straight to the core. My manner sometimes puts people off—I get straight to the point and say what I mean. “People should be more direct. I have a lawyer friend who for ages hated me. Until he got to know me, then he realised I am simply honest—not an abrasive bitch. Seriously, he is one of my best friends now.” Judith admires the same quality in others and is fiercely loyal to her family and very close friends.

Yet there’s a fragility borne from hard and frightening experience that has stayed with this seemingly tough woman. “People would be very surprised to know just how fragile I am,” says Judith, but despite the fact that she fears confrontation and gets hurt by nastiness in others, she values directness and honesty so much it’s simply worth the angst. “Most important is that I am honest with myself. That’s something in me that can never be destroyed,” Judith says.

For many the fear of failure, especially when a sense of failure has been an integral part of growing up, would be paralysing, but Judith accepts her fears and keeps going anyway. “Fear is a by-product. An unfortunate necessity,” she says. “I don’t seek it out, but it’s sort of like going to the doctor and knowing that to get well you must take the most disgusting medicine. It just has to be done.” I asked her what frightens her. At four years old she was badly swooped by a magpie and is absolutely terrified of birds, and yet the entire kitchen and living room wall to the west of he new apartment is an open window looking out to the gulls of Cottesloe Beach. These feathery little foe seem an odd fear in the wake of living with men who attacked her regularly and viciously, but then fear is rarely a rational thing. Violent men don’t scare her at all, and she often finds herself defending them in court as part of her job.

“I find something to respect in everyone I deal with including men accused of the most heinous crimes such as sexual assault or murder.” I think it’s a joke to talk about rehabilitation unless you believe there is something worthwhile in a person to begin with: some potential: something to like. Judith Fordham is inspired by her children and by her husband. The letter from John and the card from her daughter that she keeps with her affirm for her how she is doing at life. She’s also inspired by her friends, and by her clients. “There are clients whose only reality is crime. That’s all they have known. It’s a huge job to even become aware that there’s another way to live. Then to work out how to get there… and then do it – failing from time to time and yet keeping going and succeeding in the end” Judith smiles in appreciation for these clients and yet it’s something she herself has learned from her experience with domestic violence.

For someone who seems to be in total control of her world, knowing when to relinquish that control has been one of life’s important lessons. “I would love to have everything under control, but it doesn’t work like that,” Judith says. “Knowing, understanding and accepting I am not in control of everything” has been an important aspect of her development.

Judith also draws strength from knowing that she’s made some very good decisions about what to do and where to go, all the while knowing that making decisions means that some of them won’t be the right ones. 

Judith Fordham is, in her own words ‘making good’ although this doesn’t mean she finds it easy—it’s just the way it is.

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