A few weeks ago, I decided I was done with true crime podcasts. The amount of time I spend listening to the various ways in which innocent women have been abducted, raped and murdered is awful. And disrespectful. And definitely not good for my mental health. Or the mental health of my long-suffering boyfriend to whom I go on to describe said murders in great detail. And so I deleted all my true crime podcasts from my phone: Casefile, In Sight, Felon, Sword and Scale… The lot.
Literally the next day, a colleague recommended The Teacher’s Pet to me. "It’s about this woman who was murdered by her husband…" she began.
"Stop right there, well-meaning friend," I said. "I’m done with true crime. That stuff is toxic. Thanks, but no thanks." I tried to walk away.
"But the husband was a teacher and his girlfriend was his teenage student and she’d moved into their home and they were having an affair but the wife was still there and..." my colleague shouted after me, her words tumbling over each other as she raced to get them out before I rounded the corner and was out of earshot.
And so I got sucked back in.
The Teacher’s Pet is the podcast that’s currently gripping Australia. Created by journalist Hedley Thomas and The Australian, one of the country’s biggest newspapers, it is one of the most unbelievable real-life cases ever to receive the podcast treatment.
It is about the disappearance of Lyn Dawson, a 33-year-old housewife and childcare worker who vanished, 36 years ago, from her home just north of Sydney, where she lived with her husband Chris, a rugby league player turned teacher, and their two little girls.
Lyn’s body has never been found. Her disappearance was barely treated as an event by Chris, who claimed vaguely that she had run away with a religious cult. And although two separate coroners (in 2001 and 2003) have found that Lyn was murdered by Chris, no one has ever been charged. This is despite reports from numerous friends and family members that Chris abused Lyn. And despite the fact that Joanne Curtis, a teenager who attended Chris' high school, had moved into the family home. Chris was conducting an affair with her, about which many people knew. In fact, several teachers from the local area are alleged to have been grooming and having sex with teenage girls (some under 16) at this time.
FYI, none of this is a spoiler. It’s the information episode one opens with. Things only get more bizarre, more heartbreaking, and maddening from there.
Episodes of The Teacher’s Pet have been dropping weekly since mid-May, but as the case has gained public interest, the content and direction of the podcast has changed. Behind-the-scenes characters have reached out with new and forgotten evidence, the government’s interest has been piqued. Lyn’s family have allowed themselves to hope for the first time in a long time that they may find out what happened to her. And the podcast is not over yet; Hedley had originally imagined eight episodes of The Teacher’s Pet but this week marks episode 10, with more to follow. It's top of the Australian podcast charts, and the case is all over the national news. Something has to come of the investigation. It's stirred the pot too vigorously.
I'll let Hedley's incredibly capable hands guide you through the story as it unfolds on the podcast via interviews with old friends, neighbours and workmates of the Dawsons, most of whom say "they wish they'd done more" about Lyn's disappearance and that "they thought someone else was pursuing it" (very sadly, no one really was). But the most striking thing to consider as you listen is how, over the nearly 40 years since this whole sorry debacle began, both everything and nothing has changed for women.
Mercifully, fewer women today would find themselves in the same economic prison as Lyn; trapped living in a house with her husband and his teenage lover, no income, no driver's licence, two children, a husband adored by the community, and no easy way out. Older generations' attitudes to the relationships between teachers and schoolchildren too are unimaginable today. Listen open-mouthed as the ninetysomething former headmaster of Cromer High School asks Hedley, "What could I have done?" at the suggestion that his male teachers taking underage girls to a bar for drinks was probably not okay.
But while financial independence may be a reality for more (although certainly not all) women now than in 1982, and it's generally accepted that sex with schoolgirls is absolutely not okay, one element of the podcast remains frustratingly relevant to today's world and that's this "boys' club" mentality. The protection of high profile, powerful men. Chris Dawson was handsome, popular and famous, and The Teacher's Pet strives to show how a society came together to protect one of its most valued members, despite his well-known wrongdoings. It's Harvey Weinstein, it's the Presidents Club. It's the gender pay gap. It's been happening for years, and it's still going on today.
The Teacher's Pet is an alarming listen. It serves as a reminder that before the internet, the only choice many of us had was to put our trust in organisations like the police, like our schools, like the government. If you didn't like the way things were done, it was up to you to change them, all on your own. Some of Lyn Dawson's friends and family did complain to the police but, once they'd done that, there was no Twitter to take to, no Facebook to organise a demonstration.
Public opinion was that Chris was a "good guy", an asset to society. And so the fact that Lyn showed up to work with bruises was forgotten. The fact that his teenage babysitter was seen swimming naked in his pool, put to one side. And, most crucially, the disappearance of Lyn, a 33-year-old, kind-hearted and adored mother of two, was swept under the rug.