EXCLUSIVE: Melbourne university lecturer, Adam Brown, has left a trail of possible clues for police as well as a host of armchair sleuths in the wake of his wife’s alleged murder due to a heavily online presence across social media. Historian and academic, Therese Taylor, investigates.
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The vogue of ‘Dark Academia’ celebrates the gothic, elaborate, mysterious and elitist elements of academic culture. Like Steampunk culture, Dark Academia goes from playful fashions, where people post pictures of themselves in costumes, to large scale creative works and scholarly writing.
Dark Academia has always had an appreciation for sinister events. The urtext is Donna Tartt’s 1990 novel, The Secret History, which recounts the tale of a group of students in an exclusive classics course, who become so obsessed with Dionysian rituals that they end up committing murder.
True crime writing
In 2020, Becky Cooper published We Keep the Dead Close. This is a study of the 1969 murder of Jane Britton, a graduate student in archaeology at Harvard University. The rumours, strange circumstances of the death scene, and a secret file about her death passed between one class and the next of students in her department, make for an intricate story.
In an insightful review, Booklist commented that: “Cooper seeks ideas of power and truth, and the outer limits of our human desire to be present, somehow, in the past”.
This is one aspect of Dark Academia as a cultural trend. Universities are where power and knowledge are approved and passed on. They structure our understanding of history and the nation, as well as being the location of a rite of passage into adulthood. Ambiguity and secrets are part of this.
Scholars & Crime
A consistent theme in stories about crimes and Universities, is the closing of ranks among scholars, whose loyalties can be divided between powerful institutions and between ordinary laws. The rarefied atmosphere of privilege can cast mundane and brutal events of crime into a shadow – a space of rumour and unfinished narratives.
A relationship between scholarly publications, and mysterious crimes, is peak #DarkAcademia. The editor of True Crime News Weekly, Serkan Ozturk, wrote a fascinating article about a university lecturer who, in the 1970s, published an essay in a study of 18th century France. Brian Elkner vaunted the standards of the French libertines of the pre-Revolutionary era, and proclaimed that: “the sublimity of the great artist puts him in the company of another individual with whom society wants little to do: the great criminal …”
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The problem with this theorising, which looked so interesting and transgressive on paper, was that Brian Elkner himself was a great criminal.
As Ozturk explained: “The words and themes in the essay though strike a distinctly darker note with the knowledge that it was published right while the former University of Melbourne senior lecturer in French was in the middle of a 25 month reign of terror which saw him attack at least six women and young girls – including one of his own students – in their homes across the city’s suburbs between 1972-74.”
Further, and more terrible, unsolved crimes in Melbourne, are suspected.
On Monday, 2 May 2022, a lecturer in media studies, from Deakin University, appeared in court, and was charged with the murder of his 35-year-old wife. No plea has yet been entered, and Adam Brown is innocent until proven guilty. It is, however, factual to say that his Chinese-born wife, Chen Cheng, is dead, and that she died a violent death. The court case is not scheduled to even begin the first hearings until September, which gives everyone plenty of time to speculate.
In a tweet on 3 May 2020, Adam Brown stated that: “I talk to students often about the serendipitous moments that occur when getting creative with digital content”.
People are now swarming to read Adam Brown’s online texts, looking for serendipitous moments which might reveal something about the death of his wife.
A Life Online
A video memorial which Adam made for his brother, Luke Brown, contains a scene where Luke is asked:
“Describe the disadvantages of my partner’s decision to marry me.”
This was filmed in 2017, at the time of Adam Brown’s marriage, which took place in China, attended by Luke.
Luke Brown starts laughing, then says:
“Disadvantages? …. How much tape have you got?”
Is this really a joke, or is it nervous laughter? Was Luke making a reference to something in that marriage, which would end so tragically? We cannot ask him, because Luke Brown died very young, at the age of 34, of a heart attack, in 2018.
My own impression, from Adam Brown’s online profile, is that he was very self-involved. As if conveying some useful information, he informs his students, in an online announcement, that the first time he filmed himself for a lecture was in 2013, and then he describes all the circumstances.
I myself used to teach a media studies subject, at Charles Sturt University, and I cannot imagine inflicting such personal ramblings on the students. Why would they be interested in when their lecturer might have stood before a camera? No doubt, Brown’s lectures were full of relevant material and analysis, but this minor point caught my eye. He seems to situate his own experiences as the most important aspect of every scene. Adam Brown had a lively presence, which is entertaining, but was he always ethical?
The Herald Sun reported on 3 May that:
“Dr Brown made his eccentricity known in a series of bizarre online videos,” the Melbourne tabloid pointed out.
“He dressed as Luke Skywalker in another short spoof he dubbed ‘The Teacher Awakens: A Star Wars Parody’.
“Another video features him reading out the ‘s–thouse emails’ he received from his students before naming one.”
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In a public tribute to his late brother, Luke, Adam Brown explains that he had shared his brother’s story, “making it part of my own”. Like most of Adam Brown’s reflections, the story of his brother’s death quickly turns back to his own self.
“Because that video and anything I or others who knew Luke say about him is not really his story. Although it’s the only story he has now,” Brown wrote online.
This most strangely echoes the fiction of Donna Tartt, where in the final sentence of the celebrated introduction to The Secret History, the narrator states: “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell”.
In a pinned tweet, from 5 March 2021, Adam Brown proclaimed:
“Last year I found out I got a national teaching award and within 2 hours my partner’s water broke.
“This year I found out I’ve been made a Senior Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy and didn’t know if I should tell her.
“But honestly far prouder of my son’s first selfie…”
This is the image of the ‘perfect couple’, where the family flourishes amid professional successes. A closer reading, however, indicates the familiar tone of self-obsession, where everything revolves around the individual who is writing it.
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In a recent blog post, on 27 April 2022, Adam Brown recalled the early years of his marriage, when in 2018 he took a trip to coastal Victoria. A photograph shows him with his wife, who is smiling but seems to be flinching in the strong winds.
“It can be a cold place this time of year,” Brown wrote in the blog post accompanying the photograph.
“So cold, in fact, that some evidence suggests I kidnapped my partner and forced her to endure the strong winds on the cliff’s edge.”
This mention of kidnapping has caught the eye of the media, and has been described as ‘chilling’ and ‘eerie’.
In a different post, on Instagram, Adam Brown wrote a tribute to his wife: “the strong, creative, and hilarious woman who gives me the privilege of being around her every day”.
On average, in Australia, one woman per week is killed in a domestic violence incident. What happened in this case, is yet to be judged, but the public record suggests that this homicide will haunt our imagination for some time.
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