Note: this piece discusses sexual assault and suicide.
Much of the coverage of Kate, who Crikey previously called Jane Doe and whose first name was revealed on Four Corners this week, has been focused on her allegation of rape against Attorney-General Christian Porter — allegations which Porter has strenuously denied.
But Kate was so much more than her allegations and her trauma. She was an academic, an artist, a debater and a caring friend. Inq has spoken to five friends who have each described her as bright and brilliant and funny. They pegged her to be Australia’s first female prime minister. She killed herself last year.
Kate was born in the UK and moved to Adelaide as a young child. She came from what friends describe as a “well-to-do family” with an ex-military father who had high expectations of his daughter.
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She went to a private girls school and was incredibly bright. She was fluent in French and a star debater, accepted to the Schools Invitational Debating Competition years before her peers.
Nick Ryan, who is now a wine writer, was a fellow debater and Kate’s platonic date to her Year 11 formal.
“Anyone she might have been romantically interested in was probably far too intimidated to accept the invitation, so she settled for me,” he said.
He remembers the event fondly: “I remember us laughing a lot. She was really happy. Life was good.”
During a national debating trip, Kate gave Ryan the nickname “sloth” because she had to wake him up to get to a debating tournament on time. It stuck. Throughout her life, she would periodically send him sloth-themed postcards.
Friends say she was well-liked in different social groups — but like most debaters, as one friend said, she was a “downright nerd”. Her nerdy humour continued on Facebook, with her posting jokes such as: “What’s better than a relationship? A scholarship.”
Kate developed strong friendships with those she met. One of those people was Porter.
A traumatic trip
Kate met Porter six times during debating trips from 1986 to 1988 — once, she said in her statement submitted to police, going to his house and meeting his mother, who she correctly named as Nerida.
Their one-on-one meet-ups in Perth have also been documented in a 1987 letter sent between two debate team friends and seen by Inq.
According to her allegations, during the early hours of January 10, 1988, she was raped by Porter in her room in the Women’s College at Sydney University.
In a 2019 email to friends seen by Inq, Kate recalled noticing Porter had small strawberry moles, the size of freckles, on his torso. “I have them too, so does my father,” she wrote. “He has skin like mine and dad’s, I thought, desperate to make some sort of connection?”
Kate wrote in her police statement she felt shame and guilt the day after the alleged assault but believed it would be OK as the pair were going to get married.
Friends say they didn’t immediately notice any major changes in Kate’s behaviour. She had for some time been struggling with an eating disorder, logging food in a diary.
“It was Year 12 and it was something she’d been focused on for quite some time and she just put everything aside to focus on what needed to be done,” Ryan said. Kate graduated with a dux of humanities.
A boyfriend she met in 1988 says he knew something had happened.
“When we first met, she told me she had a serious and traumatic event but wouldn’t say what it was,” he said.
“Over the next couple of years, she revealed more to me … I knew it was some form of sexual assault.”
Kate didn’t tell friends the name of the alleged perpetrator until 2019.
Between finishing high school and starting university, Kate travelled with her debate team to England, Canada and the United States.
One of the people she travelled with was Ian Wilkins.
“It was a fantastic experience, going to some amazing places with the debating team,” Wilkins said. “We all became great friends.”
The team saw the tourist sites in London, New York, Denver and went skiing in the Rocky Mountains in Canada. Kate flew from Washington to LA, where she caught up with another friend she had met through the national debating championship, Jeremy Samuel. They went to Disneyland together, where she mused over what university to attend.
Ultimately she decided to accept a placement at University of New South Wales studying history of ideas. There she joined the Women on Campus Council, now known as the SRC Women’s Collective.
“Her feminism was very much lived by example,” Samuel said.
Although Kate wasn’t preachy about feminism, he said, she would point out failings in people who didn’t practise what they preached, and “made her views known if she thought somebody was falling short of the mark”.
“She could put you in your place without breaking a sweat.”
Trauma starts to surface
Friends said it was around the time she moved out from her parents’ home that Kate’s mental illness started to materialise.
She started logging diary entries, writing in 1989 that Porter “took what he wanted. Me. My virginity and my voice”, and questioning in 1991 whether to tell her boyfriend about the abuse.
Another friend, who asked to remain anonymous, said her body image problems worsened at university: “She made a very direct link between the real challenges that she went on to face with the [alleged] assault, and there was no doubt in her mind that these things were linked.”
Kate said she last saw Porter in 1994, the year after she graduated from university, at a historians’ conference in Western Australia. After having dinner with him and allegedly rejecting his advances, she wrote in her statement she felt “shaken but relieved as if I had broken a spell that had been cast some seven years earlier”.
Samuel stayed in on-and-off contact with Kate, meeting her at a beachside cafe in Sydney in the late ’90s. Inq understands she told friends about one other sexual assault during this period.
“Even then it was clear that something was a bit awry,” Samuel said. “She kind of alluded to [her struggles] but didn’t really talk about it in detail.”
Despite her struggles, Kate graduated with her degree with honours in 1993 and worked on and off as a casual tutor at the University of South Australia for nearly a decade, writing academic articles on topics from the French-Algerian war, to zero-waste activism, to entries for the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
She got married and later divorced.
She worked as a school historian, publishing a book about the school. The book launched in 2010, with the now Finance Minister Simon Birmingham in attendance. Although her friends thought she’d go on to become an influential figure, they said the role of a historian also suited her.
“She had an almost photographic memory,” Wilkins said. “She could reel off a quote from some historical figure. She was just this incredibly astute person.”
She bought a puppy which she called Lulu. Lulu dug holes in her garden and stole shoes. She dabbled in art, starting a series of gum leaf-based sculptures, and worked as a voice actor in an award-winning radio play about HIV/AIDs which she called one of her “proudest achievements”.
About 2011 she entered into what friends have described as a loving, long-term relationship for seven years.
Around this time she started seeking help from sexual assault specialists, first chatting to a counsellor in 2013. The counsellor told Four Corners Kate spoke to her at least six times and mentioned a sexual assault by someone in the debating team called Christian.
Coming to terms with trauma
In 2019, Kate’s mental health struggles intensified. Friends say she admitted herself to the mental health facility in Royal Adelaide Hospital in 2019 and after revealing her history of suicide attempts was once involuntarily admitted as a psychiatric patient to the Royal North Shore Hospital.
She experienced phantom pregnancies, which she called her “ghost”.
Across 2019 she also entered what has been described as a “whirlwind” romance with a man she married in 2020.
It was when she started seeing an Adelaide psychiatrist and a Sydney psychologist that Kate decided to open up to friends about the alleged 1988 assault.
“I have always remembered these things,” she wrote in her statement. “I had a better understanding of these memories, and only really understood them [after reading books recommended by the psychologist].”
From June 2019 she started messaging people via email, text and social media, creating a Facebook group for friends to chat and share information.
Ryan said she had stayed in on-and-off contact, so he wasn’t surprised to hear from her.
“She would always just sort of pop up and reappear,” he said.
This time, though, was different, as she detailed the allegations against Porter and her plan to make them public.
“She was rallying her army up,” he said.
She met Samuel to go into detail about the alleged rape, sending his wife flowers — a bouquet of peonies — for this inconvenience of stealing her husband for the afternoon.
“She was fully aware that it would bring enormous scrutiny to her,” another friend said. “There was a real desire to get some kind of resolution and peace.”
All the friends Inq spoke to said the details of Kate’s stories never changed, and she always went into great detail.
She contacted Labor’s Penny Wong and wrote a letter to former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Both referred her to the NSW Police. She hired a lawyer, Michael Bradley (who writes for Crikey).
In February 2020 she contacted the NSW Police who were planning to fly to Adelaide to interview her — at her request, as she felt safer in her home talking about her trauma — but never did due to the pandemic.
During a trip to Melbourne in May 2020 she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital. She was released in mid-lockdown in June and returned home.
In late June, after calling NSW Police the day before to tell them she did not want to proceed with the complaint, Kate reportedly cut her hair into the same hairstyle she had in 1988 and took her own life .
One friend said the group raised their concerns on the toll the allegations would have on her mental health.
“Her response was: ‘I’ve lived for … years not dealing with this. And, and that hasn’t stopped me from trying to kill myself,’ ” he said.
“The one thing she could guarantee is if she didn’t deal with this in this way, it would definitely kill her.
“And it turns out, but sadly, it definitely did kill her anyway.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.