When she was a little girl, all Shanelle Dawson had of her mother were a couple of photos in a shoebox that had been shoved to the back of a cupboard. There were no photos around the house, she was never mentioned. It was as if she had never existed.
When her father wasn’t around, Shanelle would pull out the fragments of the vanished mother and spend hours gazing at photos, longingly devouring every detail. “As though,” she writes in her book, My Mother’s Eyes, “that might somehow bring her back.”
The absence, the disappearance of Lynette Dawson (née Simms) was a “deep and huge, gashing wound that nobody but her knew how to tend”.
The motherless child would go on to be a “wild, free spirit”, an adventurer and a seeker.
She would travel to many lands, but she would always ache for her mother – for the maternal embrace that was snatched away, the love that was lost.
“There isn’t a corner of my life,” she writes, “that hasn’t been touched by the loss of my mother.”
Shanelle doesn’t have a TV or read newspapers. “News has always made me get really anxious and depressed,” she tells The Weekly when we meet on a blustery day by the sea, near her home in northern NSW.
She has never sought attention. Instead, she journeys inward, finding solace in the spiritual, being comforted and held by nature. Yet her parents have often been on the front pages of newspapers – making daily headlines and nightly television news – for all the wrong reasons.
The Australian public knows the intimate details of her family’s life, of her parents’ marriage and its fatal end. “It’s not exactly positive,” she says, “I’d much rather be getting attention for reforesting the Amazon rainforest or something like that.”
Shanelle went into shock when, in August 2022, in the New South Wales Supreme Court, Justice Ian Harrison found her father, Chris Dawson, guilty of murdering her mother. “I was trying to be at peace with whichever way it went, trying not to be too distraught and attached to a particular outcome because you can only have so much emotional turmoil in one lifetime,” she admits.
She watched the verdict livestreamed on her phone with “mixed feelings of despair and relief”. But while others celebrated, “there was no rejoicing for me … it is heartbreaking for me to know he will likely die behind bars”.
Shanelle knows what it is to love and despise someone simultaneously – to love the father that he was but despise him for what he did – the internal polarisation and conflict, the painful struggle “to make peace with those parts of myself”.
Snatches of old songs still bring back memories of singing with her father in the car. They join a patchwork of memories. The verdict brought “more healing than I realised it would,” she says.
“I am still trying to restore my nervous system” from the trial. “It was the longest 10 weeks of my life.”
A life that had been on hold for the months leading up to it.
The summer of 1982 in Sydney was searing. By January, the heat was spiking into the 40s. Shanelle was four years old when the foundations of her life crumbled. As the world now knows, Chris Dawson, a charismatic former footballer and teacher, had become infatuated with a 16-year-old student, J*, who came from a troubled home.
In what seemed like a reckless fever, he moved her into the marital home as a babysitter, knocking his wife out with Valium so he could have sex with his teenage lover. Lynette (who was trying to save their marriage, and who, people noticed, bore fingershaped bruise marks on her body) had become, as far as Chris was concerned, an inconvenience.
In 2012, Shanelle agreed to a police request to be hypnotised to try to recover memories about what she had witnessed on the night of January 8, 1982, even though those memories could not be used in court. Under hypnosis she saw her four-year-old self standing at the kitchen door in her pyjamas and hearing “fighting. Seeing my father’s hands around my mother’s neck.” She remembered being in the back of the car, “my mother slumped in the front seat”. Her father “retrieving a shovel from the boot of the car, and I see him digging”.
She also remembers contradicting her father’s version of events, when he was telling Lynette’s mother she’d gone to the Central Coast because she needed “space”. Chris took his daughter’s arm, led her away, and scolded her. Shanelle can’t recall what he said “but it was enough to shut me up for the next 37 years. It was a feeling of being threatened.”
Immediately after, J took Lyn’s place in the home, wearing her wedding ring, her clothes, a reluctant stepmother to her two daughters. The broken-hearted children were told that Lyn had abandoned them because she didn’t love them anymore.
“It was a viciously cruel thing to say to us,” Shanelle writes. “I felt unloved by J. She didn’t want to be my mother and she certainly wasn’t.”
J’s friends have said she was “really awful” to Shanelle and her sister, Sherryn, who was only two when her mother was killed.
Lyn was simply erased from their lives. “It really affects you to your core at a time when you need love and nurture,” Shanelle says now of not feeling wanted. “The abandonment issues ran deep in me.”
While it might seem preposterous that a loving woman would just walk out, leave small children and vanish without a trace, Shanelle says that “strangely, my dad’s brother’s ex-wife had her mum do the same thing. It had happened in our family, so it wasn’t that big a stretch.”
Shanelle has experienced a lot of rage at “the authorities and systems that had failed my mother so miserably”. The red flags that didn’t go up about a man who had moved his girlfriend in and wasn’t even looking for his wife.
“He didn’t even pretend to look for her.”
She adds that Chris played football with local police, which she believes might explain why the initial police file was almost empty.
Through her childhood, she says, Chris never gave himself away or slipped up, never hinted that he had done something terrible. All he ever said, that Shanelle remembers, was: “It’s a shame your mother let herself go; she had such a pretty face.”
When Shanelle was 13, and J left, he commented that he “wished he had tried harder to make it work” with Lyn. “Possibly,” Shanelle adds, “due to the realisation that he’d murdered our mum for no good reason.”
Now, she says, “I honestly believe that he’s got some kind of split personality disorder and he doesn’t remember [killing Lyn].”
After clashing with Chris’s third wife, Sue, Shanelle left home at 17. At 18, she began the epic inner and outer journey that would occupy her life.
She was close to finishing a degree in primary school teaching – “I always loved children” – when she was offered a nannying job in the Rocky Mountains. During time off, she’d hit the road in her green Kombi, exploring America, playing Led Zeppelin at full blast, joining drum circles, going to festivals, “blissfully happy”.
But these moments of joy and freedom would be followed by bouts of “cyclical depression. I understand trauma now better than I did in those days, and that the effects of compact trauma are very far-reaching.”
Shanelle has been diagnosed with PTSD, and suffered long-term anxiety and depression. Too much of her life, she wrote years later, in her victim impact statement, have been “consumed by grief and anger … hypervigilance and chronic stress”.
In her eight years in America she lived in a yurt in Oregon, in her van in San Diego, in a jungle shack in Hawaii, and travelled through South America. She was restless, always moving on.
“I love the feeling of being able to choose my own destiny,” she writes, “and go where the magic takes me.”
During this time, she was barely aware that, in 2001, the NSW State Coroner had determined that her mother had been murdered and her killer was someone she knew. A second inquest, held in 2003, recommended that Chris be charged with Lyn’s murder. However, the Department of Public Prosecutions assessed that there was insufficient evidence for a criminal conviction.
From the age of 19, Shanelle had kept diaries of her adventures, recorded dreams, and been interested in spirituality. On a six-month yacht trip around the Top End (working as an on-board teacher for small boys) she was in Darwin when she consulted one of the many psychics she’d asked about her mother. What this woman said made her realise the truth about her father.
She’d always unconsciously known the truth about her mother’s “disappearance” but now the pieces of the puzzle fell into place – the incoherent childhood memories, the trust issues, unhealthy relationships with men, the stress response in her body when she saw her dad.
“Once I started to see the lies I’d been told,” she writes, “it was hard to see where they ended.”
And suddenly, her abandonment issues “dissolved”. She knew now her mother had loved her after all. “I couldn’t go back once it had landed,” she tells The Weekly.
“I had to stop trying to push it away. I couldn’t deny it anymore.”
But she wasn’t ready to confront her father yet. “That was the dance for the next number of years – it was a very tricky dance,” she admits. “Maybe I’d have been better [at] just cutting him out right then and there, if I’d known my sister was going to cut me out. [Shanelle and Sherryn, have become estranged.] I probably wouldn’t have tortured myself for so long, but I was still trying to hold onto her. And I knew she wasn’t ready to accept what had happened.”
In 2010, Shanelle took off, travelling across Europe. She lived in the Canary Islands, then Glastonbury in the UK, where she found her tribe and “the right energy. I bought my medicine drum, and we had lots of drumming circles, sweat lodges, meditations, breath-work sessions, kirtans [chanting], ceremonies … Life was saturated with goodness in so many ways.”
And she fell in love with a fellow free spirit, Peter. They were soulmates, she says now, although both were struggling emotionally. During this time, she received an email from her father telling her to go to Cornwall, where her mother had supposedly been sighted on an episode of Antiques Roadshow.
“I was livid,” she writes. “I sent a furious email to my mother’s brother, ranting about how heartless it was to string his own daughter along like that.”
But she did go to Cornwall.
“There was still a tiny part of me keeping hope. I couldn’t help but search for her face.”
Afterwards, Shanelle and Peter decided to travel separately for a time. She went to Ireland, France, Italy and Portugal – often sleeping under the stars. Peter travelled to South America, but was found dead in his hammock in the Brazilian Amazon.
Shanelle’s grief was enormous.
In all, she was on the road for 15 years. Was she running from childhood memories? “I think it was partly denial and not wanting to feel the grief and the tragedy,” she admits. “But also, I have a wild, free spirit and that was where I felt really comfortable and happy.”
In 2013, that restless spirit led her to South America, to visit the place Peter had died. There, she met a Brazilian, Eduardo. She wasn’t in love with him, she says. In fact, sometimes “he felt like an annoying but loveable puppy who wouldn’t leave me alone. I liked him in a confusing kind of way.”
By the time she left, seven weeks later, she was pregnant. Kialah was born in 2014. Shanelle had never missed her mother more than in those days when she was on her own, struggling with a new baby.
“Once I became a mother, things shifted internally for me,” she writes. “What had been taken away from me now extended to my child.”
When The Teacher’s Pet podcast was launched, in May, 2018, Shanelle hung on every word. “I was hoping for some new evidence,” she says. The podcast would be downloaded 28 million times, and for Shanelle, it was surreal. “My inner world [was] playing out for the masses.”
By September that year, she “couldn’t pretend anymore”. She texted her father. In part, she told him, she loved him. “But I won’t live a life based on lies, nor will I keep subjecting myself to emotional manipulation and control … You have dishonoured our mother so terribly … One day, I will forgive you for removing her so selfishly from our lives.”
Chris texted back: “You’re clearly very lonely and depressed in the life you’ve chosen … It is your adult life, now 41 with a child and without a partner, that has clearly caused this terrible depression.”
The last text message she received from him was in September, 2018. It read: “Hi Shanelle, hope you and Kialah are both well. Thinking of you constantly xx.”
So, where are Chris Dawson’s daughters now? Today, Shanelle is estranged and ostracised from her sister and father’s family, who remain loyal to him. “I feel like I’m the scapegoat. Why am I the one being cut out? I didn’t do anything wrong,” she says. “But there is also a real freedom in it that I can embrace.”
She understands why her sister “believes in the goodness of my dad. People think it’s really obvious but if you know my dad, it’s not that obvious,” she explains. “In his slight defence, not that I need to defend him, he did try to prevent her [J] from being so nasty to us and they would argue about it.”
And Shanelle lives with her daughter in northern NSW. Kialah, who has been diagnosed with autism, is her life. “I still grieve every day that I don’t have a mother, or a grandmother for my child. She doesn’t have cousins and aunts and uncles.”
“I went to great lengths to keep your act a secret from my daughter,” Shanelle tells her father in her victim impact statement, “waiting until she was older to tell her the horrible reality.
“Unfortunately, her friend told her, and I had to explain to my beautiful, innocent daughter why her grandfather killed her grandmother. She had many questions and anger, confusion, grief.
“She kept asking me, ‘But WHY did he do that?!’ The same question that’s tortured me over and over now for many years.”
Shanelle still struggles to trust people, having lost when she was so young “the sense of protection” that she believes family should provide. “There’s a part of me that’s broken, I haven’t really, fully trusted people again,” she explains. “I can be a bit prickly; my defence mechanisms are fairly well intact.”
Shanelle doesn’t want to be defined by her mother’s murder. “I don’t want people to feel my life has only been tragic. My life has also been kind and beautiful.”
But she hasn’t been the same since discovering the truth about her father. “Prior to finding out, I had more joy in life,” she says.
Recently, Shanelle founded the Lynette Joy Foundation, working to raise awareness of family and domestic violence, and to support those affected.
“Once I’m further along in my healing journey,” she says, “I’m hoping I’ll be out doing more in the world.”
Lynette’s life is, she insists, “so much more than this tragic story” that she has come to be known by. In writing her book and speaking her truth, “I am not only reclaiming my mother’s story and my story as our own,” she explains, “I am moving these chapters into the past and writing new ones.”
My Mother’s Eyes by Shanelle Dawson (Hachette) is available from October 11.
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