Most families have secrets, scars from the past that everyone senses they shouldn’t ask about, but the secret Denise Young kept from her daughter Nina for 25 years was more than discarded family baggage, it was intense, shocking and life-changing.
So, it’s no wonder that when Nina discovered the truth about who her father really was, about the unvarnished horror of his crimes, it made her question her whole sense of self. “It felt like the ground had fallen out from underneath me. I thought, there’s no way Mum could know because if she knew then obviously I would know about it too,” Nina tells The Weekly as she casts her mind back to that day when everything went dark.
By this time Nina was aware that her father had killed a man. She was 15 when his face appeared on TV’s Australia’s Most Wanted and her mum called Crime Stoppers to offer information. It was then that Nina learned that the man she knew as her biological dad, Allan Ladd, was a dangerous criminal. A man in Albury, NSW, had been found beaten to death and Allan was the main suspect.
Nina’s heart was in her mouth. She knew that her mum had left her dad when she was a baby, that Allan was a “diamond in the rough” who suffered “a terrible childhood” which caused him to behave erratically.
Denise’s marriage hadn’t worked, she was told, because Allan was violent and she had left him to keep Nina and her brother Lex safe. But a killer?
As Nina tried to take in this new information she learned that there were mitigating circumstances to Allan’s crime. He was protecting his young son, Nina’s half-brother Conan. He had never intended to take someone’s life but snapped when he saw this man in bed with his son and then went on the run with Conan in tow. When the police finally caught Allan, then nine-year-old Conan, who hero-worshipped his father, came to live with Nina and her siblings for a while. It was confusing for everyone and for Nina the start of a descent into teenage angst. Allan was convicted of manslaughter but at the same time was painted as a devoted father saving his son from abuse.
But a decade later, Nina was now looking at the court report she had uncovered and reading a comprehensive blow-by-blow description of another killing, a vicious attack and strangulation of a 28-year-old Aboriginal woman followed by the perpetrator’s careless attempts to conceal the victim’s body in a hastily dug shallow grave. It was a heinous, hideous, brutal crime that had happened before Nina was even born.
She was paralysed. She carried the genes of the man responsible, a psychopathic murderer whose capacity for cruelty seemed innate. “There was a lot of anger. There were a lot of feelings of betrayal,” Nina says of the moment she told her mother about the new information she had uncovered only to realise that Denise had known all along. “It was a lot, because it was all there in that legal terminology. There’s no softening. And here was a list of all of his crimes laid out in front of me. I wasn’t just angry at my mother; I felt numb and sick at the same time.”
Nina started to question her own character - could she have inherited any of her father’s twisted personality? This was the catalyst for journalist Nina’s six-part 2018 podcast My Father The Murderer, which immediately topped the charts as she fearlessly investigated her father’s past and analysed her own reactions.
Denise agreed to participate in the podcast as an interviewee, though her immediate reaction was to hideaway. “We’re opposite kinds of people,” explains Nina. “She’s a head-in-the-sand kind of person. I’m a give me absolutely all of the information, let me research it and then I’ll describe how I feel about it kind of person.”
Ultimately Denise believed she owed it to her daughter to be involved. She felt intense guilt and this would be the start of her reparation. The podcast allowed mother and daughter to unpack a lot of their suppressed emotions. But there was more Nina wanted to say and she persuaded her mum to collaborate on a powerful new dual memoir which, for the first time, allows Denise to give her side of the story in her words.
One of the most compelling themes of the book is the idea of isolation. Nina had always known her family was different. She barely knew her biological dad – Allan Ladd – who drifted in and out of her life and instead the family patriarch was her wonderful stepfather Pete. Her two siblings each had different fathers and though they all rubbed along, Nina sensed a disconnect. She felt painfully different from her school friends with their “normal” family set-ups.
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