Making sense of the grey areas: Professor Anne Buist

Professor Anne Buist (MMED 1992, MD 1999) has balanced her career as a respected perinatal psychiatrist with writing thrilling – and sometimes raunchy – novels.

Photo of Anne Buist

Working with women who have struggled after giving birth, Professor Anne Buist has seen a lot.

She even spent time visiting Keli Lane, the Sydney water polo player who denies killing her baby Tegan in 1996, in jail and appeared on Caro Meldrum Hanna’s 2018 ABC series Exposed: The case of Keli Lane.

While it is easy to condemn the actions – or alleged actions – of such women, Professor Buist understands that the situation for most is extremely complex.

“Usually it’s a mixture of things like low intellect, mental illness, no supports, cultural issues, and they all mix in together and you think ‘there but for the grace of god go I’,” she says.

“The women I’ve seen who have been charged and convicted ... I haven’t seen an evil one yet. I’m not saying that evil doesn’t exist, but that’s not the group I’m seeing.”

Understanding why some women don’t cope with motherhood has been central to Professor Buist’s career, which has taken the unusual path of combining academia, research and clinical work with writing successful novels, including the thriller Medea’s Curse.

Now Professor of Women’s Mental Health (Psychiatry) at Austin Health and the University of Melbourne, Professor Buist’s life and CV are incredible by any measure.

She was exposed to the field of medicine early as the oldest of four daughters of prominent pathologist Dr Greg Buist (MBBS 1964), one of the few pathologists who would conduct autopsies on those who had died of HIV AIDS in the 1980s. Her mother, Jean Buist OAM, worked as a nurse.

As a child, Professor Buist wrote long-hand stories and if she hadn’t followed her father into medicine would have tried journalism. By the age of 15, she had several 40,000-word novels that she now describes as “truly awful”.

But they soon took a back seat to her studies. Professor Buist completed her MBBS at Monash University in 1981, then her Master of Medicine and MD at the University of Melbourne. She remembers her university days fondly, and the connections she made have kept her associated with the University of Melbourne as a student, teacher, professor and mentor.

After qualifying as a psychiatrist in 1989 (FRANZCP), Professor Buist spent 25 years directing hospital mother baby units. She has written a book on psychiatric disorders associated with childbirth, nine book chapters and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.

When her own two children were small Professor Buist produced several manuscripts, which were put on ice when she secured a $3.6 million beyondblue grant to research perinatal depression nationally.

“The outcomes of untreated depression ripple through that child’s life for the rest of their life and other children in the family, to say nothing of the risk to mum,” Anne says.

The results highlighted the importance of early detection and treatment and became federal government policy.

After completing that project, Professor Buist honed her creative craft with three erotic novels and seven novellas before publishing Medea’s Curse in 2015. That novel was followed by Dangerous to Know (2016) and This I would Kill For (2018).

All three feature forensic psychiatrist Natalie King, who lives with bipolar disorder. They involve themes Professor Buist has encountered in real life, but never real people. It’s important to her that her characters are relatable.

“I want all my characters, even the ones that are doing bad stuff, generally, to be sympathetic,” she says.

Professor Buist’s writing has always been supported by her husband Dr Graeme Simsion (PhD 2007), an IT specialist turned bestselling author of The Rosie Project. They learn from each other and a book they co-wrote, Two Steps Forward, has been optioned by Ellen Degeneres.

Both always have a project or 10 on the go.

“I’m usually a little too far ahead of myself,” Professor Buist says. “I’m halfway through the next Natalie King book and I’m already starting to think about the one after that. She’s a singer in a rock and roll band too, which is one of my fantasies.”

She describes her medical career as challenging but rewarding.

“I love the unknowns, the grey, trying to make sense of the why and understand people.”

As for Keli Lane, who is currently serving 18 years in jail after being found guilty of the murder of newborn Tegan, Professor Buist found that she did not fit the usual profile of a woman who kills her child and felt there was room for doubt. “She would have to be the most unusual [case],” Professor Buist says. “If you wrote that in fiction, most people would find it hard to believe.”

Find out more about Anne’s latest thriller, This I Would Kill For.