This was always “a family matter,” said one of the Tromp kids, Mitchell – so what now? Do we leave the family to it, or pick over the entrails still more?
His father Mark Tromp, meanwhile, who fled with his berry-farming family from the Yarra Valley on that highly unusual road trip up into NSW last week, losing all of them along the way before he vanished into parkland in Wangaratta, acknowledged today it was an “ordeal” and thanked mental health services for their help.
“More than anything,” he said, “my family and I need time to recover.”
Rewind a little, and outlandish theories on the road trip escalated but were quickly discounted by those close to them as soon as the story was in the public domain; police – including a Yarra Valley sergeant who is also a family friend — said there was no evidence or history of drug taking, no evidence of poisoning from the family’s berry farm, no evidence someone was after them for money or anything else and no evidence of any other coercive factors which might explain their behaviour.
Curiosity is natural. As reporters we were incredibly curious about what was playing out as revelations about the family’s misadventures were revealed. Readers of The Age were very curious too; all the stories about The Tromps rated through the roof online.
But then it became clear that a great misfortune had befallen the family, in terms of their mental health. We know now that the eldest daughter, Riana, who was found cowering in the back of a stranger’s ute somewhere near Goulburn, will not be charged with helping her younger sister steal a car because she falls under Section 33 of the Mental Health Act of New South Wales.
Both Riana and her mother Jacoba remain in hospital in Bathurst where they are being treated by mental health professionals. Mental health clinicians have also assessed the father, Mark Tromp, in Wangaratta, after he turned up a few days after going missing in the town. He was seen earlier tailgating a young couple in his car and wandering into a park at night after leaving his keys in the ignition.
Son Mitchell left the ill-fated family road-trip first, and came home to Melbourne via Sydney, after throwing his phone out the window of the family car.
“I can see everyone’s questions,” Mitchell said at the weekend. “I just want the family to be able to come back together and everything to work itself out.”
Yet the crackpot theories kept coming. Carbon monoxide. Magic mushrooms. Someone in Sydney, on Facebook, said she knew someone who knew the family and that person had said the family were all on LSD.
The mafia was mentioned. Brainwashing by a religious cult. All of it rubbish. It seems the family’s mental health crisis became, in some instances, a bit of a joke.
The reason appears to be that as a society we still can’t truly be sympathetic or at least understanding of mental health issues. Even if some kind of contagion swept through the family – triggered first by Jacoba’s belief that someone was after the Tromp’s money – isn’t that the time to stop with the silly rumours? Surely a possible psychological contagion is interesting enough in itself.
The truth about what happened to these people, good people who mean well and work hard, was not black or white but mired in a kind of grey area that most of us can’t deal with thinking about.
Easier then, to avoid the real issues and obsess on salacious make-believe about drugs or organised crime. The initial vacuum of information didn’t help. Because there were, initially, few facts, the fantasies took hold.
In general people would rather believe these kinds of things than grapple with the uncomfortable reality that a normal family snapped, and fell apart.
We only found out about the Tromps because a NSW Police press release called on the public’s help to find Mark and Jacoba, who were reported missing after they were last seen at Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains. They had separated from their three children.
One by one, those adult children turned up in various states of distress. In conversations with reporters before their father was found, Mitchell and Ella Tromp appeared shell-shocked and exhausted, but they were polite and showed a grace beyond their years.
They’ve had reporters – including us – knocking on their front door every day since last Thursday, but they were patient and understood they needed the media to help find their dad as much as the media needed them to try and explain to a growing mass of confused, engaged readers what had happened.
And on Sunday, the day after their father was found, Mitch and Ella fronted another press conference to thank everyone for their help. It was when pressed as to what sparked this and what exactly happened that they stressed that it was a family matter. Which, deep down, it is. A very interesting and strange family matter, but a family matter all the same.
The extreme behaviour we saw – throwing the phone away, allegedly stealing a car, hiding in another person’s ute, becoming catatonic, flipping the bird – appears to hide the mental illness issues, and that’s all.
Some people or some families, when faced with a crisis, choose to talk in public on TV or in print about the struggles and challenges they have faced. Most do this in order to try and help others who might be battling similar demons. This might be one of those families, or it might not. Certainly they have already been offered large sums of money by the TV shows which exploit grief and sadness.
In the end were we looking for a more digestible, more sensational drama that wasn’t actually there? It became clear part-way through the saga that it was a very domestic, very intimate familial build up of psychological issues that got the better of them, possibly briefly, in the end. Now it is up to the family to figure out how to go on.
Chris Johnston is an Age senior writer. Tammy Mills is an Age crime reporter.
The story Very interesting, very strange but should Tromp ‘family matter’ stay in the family? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.