‘With Complexity.’ So answered Kate Lilley upon being asked by Channel 10’s Lisa Wilkinson, ‘How do you hope your mother will be remembered?’ It seems a grounded and poignant response, given the abuse Kate and her sister Rozanna experienced as teenagers in the household of their parents Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley.
Since the breaking interview with The Weekend Australian in June in which the sisters described how their mother encouraged sex with much older male visitors, Kate and Rozanna have received mixed reactions. From groups within the literary community, who apparently fear the besmirching of Hewett’s name and see the behaviour as normalised within its 1970s libertarian milieu, the sisters have met with discouragement and anger. Most of these critics have remained anonymous to the public. One man wrote to Kate, claiming that Hewett had asked him at a conference: ‘Don’t you want to f**k my daughters?’ He replied, ‘I’m not interested in f**king children,’ to which Hewett responded, ‘You’re the only one around here that isn’t’. The same man went on to advise Kate against continuing to tell her story, warning, ‘Dorothy’s reputation as a writer may be harmed’ and ‘this would be our loss’. Those happy to go on the record have blamed Hewett’s Marxist sympathies, ‘feminism gone wild’, the idolatry of ‘the artist’ and the amorality of the art world in general for what the Lilley sisters endured. Of the overall response, Kate said to Wilkinson, ‘I’m scared—already in just this last week we’re just in this maelstrom and one of our brothers has disowned us, particularly me, and it’s frightening; the whole thing is frightening’.
But would Hewett have objected to this maelstrom of news about her? It paints her as a monstrous bohemian presiding over her salon on a gold velvet sofa, regarding nothing but sexual freedom as holy. Probably, given the response she offered her daughters in the 80s: ‘What’s all this shit about me being a bad mother?’ But perhaps she would also recognise the image as somewhat self-authored.
In A Free Flame (2018), Ann-Marie Priest recalls the ‘impressively specific fantasy’ written in the diary of 16-year-old Hewett:
I will never marry but I will have many lovers and many children… In the evenings I will lounge on a crimson velvet divan… receiving my lovers and other celebrities in a cloud of incense under the wavering light of the candelabra.
Not only is it exceptional that a 16-year-old should have such an articulated vision of the woman she desired to become, but that she should maintain and work towards this vision over the three and a half decades that followed. It wasn’t until her third partnership, the new family home in Woollahra, the Australia Council grant which enabled them to be there and, indeed, the velvet couch, that Hewett’s life finally provided the circumstances she needed to embody the vision.
Hewett was adept at mythologising herself. Despite her prodigious output as a poet, playwright and novelist, scholars noted that the creation of her literary persona was a major thread within her work. Jennifer Strauss argued that ‘the construction of a legendary “self”’ was one of Hewett’s ‘major ongoing projects’, and Lawrence Bourke mused that ‘Hewett as “character” or as “flamboyant artist” was probably better known than her work’. Projections of Hewett’s self populate her pages, from Sally Banner in the play The Chapel Perilous (1972), to Alice in the poem Alice in Wormland (1987), to her naked, drunk 13-year-old daughter in the film Journey Among Women (1977). Of that film, co-authored by Hewett, Rozanna said, ‘[Hewett] had a lot of fantasies about herself that she enacted through her daughters—and that would be a prime example.’ Readers of Hewett’s autobiography, Wild Card (2012), will find that scenes from her life story reappear undisguised and sometimes word for word, in her creative work.
Despite this melding of her life and art, readers often have a sense of not being able to get to the centre of Dorothy Hewett. Some element of her emotional self remains unfathomable. Hewett’s authorial voice, with the exception of her autobiographical poetry, keeps the reader at a seductive distance. It’s infused with classical mythology and fairy tale elements, textual allusions, rollicking rhythms and theatrical language. Lyn McCredden wrote, ‘Smoke and mirrors is not far from Hewett’s work in many of its parts’, whilst Nicole Moore likened Hewett’s work to ‘a hall of loquacious mirrors—a mise-en-abyme of citational self-regard’. Indeed, it can feel labyrinthine, as if it’s designed to circle the reader torturously around the true nectar of Hewett’s self. McCredden noted, ‘It is not as if these self-conscious twistings of the textual self are unrecognised by the writer. They are, in fact, one of her central themes’.
Perhaps it’s the sexist assumption that female writers should lay themselves bare for us, or perhaps it’s the promise of emotional intimacy in Hewett’s oeuvre that leaves the reader seeking. But only in Wild Card, where the expectation to transcend the role of reader and become a confidant is strongest, is this distance really unsatisfying. In fact, it’s generally tantalising, a quality well-possessed by charismatic people: the illusion of intimacy without real availability.
But how might this quality sit within a writer’s familial context? How might a real sense of personal identity and empathy with others be achieved when one is dedicated to mythologising the self?
Priest also unearthed an essay from Hewett’s school days, in which she argued that talented women were morally obligated not to devote their lives to raising their children: ‘Any woman who sacrifices her whole life for the well being of her children is doing something unforgivable, especially if she possesses any great gifts’. But surely Hewett would never have envisioned a future where her children felt they were in ‘sexual peril’ in her home. Photographs of her daughters at the time show happy-looking, freckled girls, in endearingly awkward stages of puberty. They appear cheeky but certainly not worldly. In one photo, Rozanna wears a blue eye shadow which has the effect of a tentative dress-up rather than the style of an adult woman. Why didn’t Dorothy protect her children from those men who would read sexual readiness and availability from the same cues?
By Kate and Rozanna’s accounts, they loved and felt loved by their mother. But, as Rozanna explains, ‘She just seemed to have … a blind spot in relation to my sister and I and our needs when we were teenagers’. They claim that their mother was not interested in caring for them in a traditional, motherly way. She felt she had ‘done all that with the boys’ and now saw her chief purpose as being to write. In her book, Do Oysters Get Bored (2018), Rozanna writes:
My mother did not intentionally hurt me. But neither did she protect me. She had a pretty good idea of what was going on in her own house and she imaginatively recast these predations as adventures, confirming our familial superiority to restrictive moral norms.
Rozanna’s words conjure a person rather limited in her perception and reactions but extremely proficient in one particular mode. Rather than to empathise with her daughters, to understand their trauma and adjust the home environment or their exposure to it, Hewett chooses to create narrative, so that the happenings in her home integrated with and reinforced her image of herself.
Wild Card reveals Hewett to be a person with a dramatic life and powerful personal narrative, but limited awareness of the impact of her actions on other people. Affairs, departures and broken promises on her part are re-told in detail, seemingly without a great deal of remorse or concern for others involved. One critic wrote, ‘Hewett resists self-assessment and self-knowledge. In her hands the autobiography becomes an unironic mode, which refuses to pass judgement on her younger self.’ It’s as if Hewett’s experience of herself is so all-consuming that there is barely room to consider the perspectives of others.
Priests posits that Hewett’s early life was so sexually repressive, the expectations upon her so conflicted, that she became ‘contemptuous of her society’s supposed moral standards.’ On one hand she was reported by her parents to the Children’s Court for dating an older man and charged with being ‘an uncontrollable child’, but on the other hand, as a young actor she encountered producers who expected sexual favours in return for career advancement. Priest also suggests that becoming a professional artist was so outside the prescribed life path of a young woman in the 1930s and 40s that Hewett had to disregard the dominant cultural mindset in order to pursue her goal. If she learned that hegemonic values were unhelpful or even damaging to her as a teenager, it makes sense that she continued to disregard them into adulthood.
She was a voraciously creative, sexually adventurous teenager set against a conservative society. It seems that a potent sense of self, even solipsism, was a refuge for Hewett in which she could shirk societal constraints and create her own story. In a 1983 interview Hewett said, ‘I really don’t understand how people survive … if they’re not artists, and can’t make a pattern for themselves. Because I don’t think I could have. I don’t think I could have lived in a world I couldn’t make a pattern out of.’ This pattern-making is at the heart of Hewett’s creative life, but the blinkered, self-justifying behaviour it required may have also been at the heart of conflict in her personal life. Adherence to a stubborn personal narrative generally seems to develop as a coping strategy, but it inevitably creates strain in relationships that require high levels of reciprocity.
Both Kate and Rozanna consider that their mother may have felt she was enlightening them by including them in the world of adult sexuality. Rozanna said, ‘Mum had a strong belief that sex was good … I think she genuinely believed she was offering this unfettered, uninhibited lifestyle to us’. While Kate said, ‘Mum certainly thought she was doing something for us. She had this fantasy of what a free life was, but she had no thought about us being kids.’ Both sisters experienced sexual assault in addition to their ‘consensual’ experiences with adult men. Kate was raped by a man who went on to have a relationship with her mother. In Kate’s poem, Party Favour, she writes: ‘I’ll tell my mother and she’ll say / she asked him he said I was into it / from then on I know it’s pointless / she’s not on my side’. In light of this, it’s difficult to see Hewett’s desire for her daughters to experience shame-free sex as a complete explanation for her behaviour.
Rozanna said, ‘My mum partly built her profile on these stories of being outrageous. People referred to her sometimes as being a female Don Juan’. One of Hewett’s poems features the stanza:
In this romantic house each storey’s peeled
for rapists randy poets & their lovers
young men in jeans play out seductive ballets
partner my naked girls
scripts by Polansky Russell Nabokov
This clear, public evocation of the conditions of her home as well as her alleged remarks to the aforementioned letter-writer give cause to ponder if the sexualisation of her daughters reinforced the persona Hewett was keen to build for herself.
But Hewett loved her daughters. We need look no further than their testimonies. Kate said: ‘She wasn’t a very good mother but she was our mother … I think that even when she acted maliciously… she never didn’t love us. And if I have sometimes have hated her, I have also always loved her. This is real. This is just the real complexity of it.’ To overlook that love would be to simplify the story. All situations in which children are exploited with the approval of the parent are undoubtedly deeply complex. The parent’s psychology can be examined, including the history of their relationship to power, as well as the cultural context in which the abuse occurred.
Stories such as Kate and Rozanna’s seem fairly common among children of 1970s libertarians. Perhaps those parents, now grandparents, are shrugging their shoulders or rolling their eyes at what they see as an exaggerated response to the Lilley sisters’ stories. The letter-writer commented to Kate that he had not been shocked at Hewett’s comments, rather: ‘I just thought that Dorothy was simply encouraging you to rebel against the mores of the time’. Free Love was an experiment in progress which sought to improve the constrained condition of expression in the previous generations. But it also made vulnerable people, especially girls, ‘fair game’. It may help to understand that Dorothy and Merv’s household was not an anomalous culture unto itself—rather, a representation of a broader subculture, but it doesn’t justify the inability of parents to connect with and protect their children. Those may have been ‘the times’ but they aren’t the times anymore.
Kate says she was emboldened by the #MeToo movement to tell her story. The movement gives voice to those who were positioned as sexual fodder in the narrative of someone more powerful. ‘People liked having us at a party. We were these nubile girls. We were interesting jailbait objects,’ said Kate. #MeToo asks us to revisit environments of the recent past so that we can understand them more fully, their objects now speaking as subjects. The catchcry #MeToo may not only refer to ‘it happened to me too’ but also to ‘I was there too. I have a voice too’. Kate and Rozanna’s voices are clear and filled with character, ready for their stories to be heard and included in the record. Surviving adults of that scene, whether or not they felt it was right to keep children separate from adult sexuality, whether or not they listened then, have the opportunity to listen now.
Speaking on Channel’s 10’s Sunday Project, the sisters presented as a calm, vulnerable united front. They spoke critically of their mother with a loving acceptance that must be hard-won. They seemed neither to relish their time in the spotlight nor shrink from it, but rather to claim the space of their own stories with dignity. It was remarkable that they seemed present with the pain of the past but not bitter about it. They were angry at times, confounded at times, but not bitter. It’s a significant accomplishment to sit with the paradox of having being damaged by someone who loved you, but still accept that they loved you and that you continue to love them. It takes a lot of courage to be present in that place, which is filled with unanswerable questions and contradictions. The Lilley sisters appear to be doing the opposite of pattern-making, re-casting or framing events in order to suit them. They appear to be grappling with what was real.
The revelations from Kate and Rozanna Lilley both expand and diminish the myth of Dorothy Hewett. Their stories magnify the extremes represented by Hewett’s persona: the boundless, free-flowing lover who shirks sexual mores and familial obligation entirely. In this vision, Hewett has grown to embody her high school ideal. She is an artwork conceived and executed wholly by her own hand. But, more importantly, the women’s testimonies reveal the flawed and limited person behind the brilliant, shining image of Dorothy Hewett. They show what slipped through the pattern she made, the stories that were beyond her control. People are not myths.
Hewett’s catastrophic blind-spots, self-absorption to the point of cruelty and determination to create a mythological ‘self’ are integral points in a nuanced reading of her work. These insights further a reader’s understanding and, to some extent, fill in the missing pieces of her autobiography. Rather than fearing the fallout of the sisters’ stories, damage to Hewett’s reputation or the full disregard of offerings from the 70s art scene, the literary community can thank Kate and Rozanna for having the courage to ask the public to see Hewett in her full complexity.
Jane Jervis-Read is the author of Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall (2013), winner of the inaugural Seizure Viva La Novella Prize. She lives in country Victoria with her partner and child.
Excerpts reproduced with kind permission of Kate and Rozanna Lilley, the Dorothy Hewett estate and Ann-Marie Priest.
Jane Jervis-Read has a detailed essay in the forthcoming edition of Meanjin (Spring 2018) interrogating the relationship between Hewett’s literary career and her role as a mother.
Lawrence Bourke, ‘Dorothy’s Reception in the Land of Oz: Hewett Amongst the Critics’, in Bruce Bennet (ed.), Dorothy Hewett: Selected Critical Essays, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Perth, 1995, pp. 236-255, cited in Nicole Moore.
Dorothy Hewett, Wildcard: An Autobiography 1923–1958, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1990.
Dorothy Hewett, ‘[In this romantic house each storey’s peeled]’ in William Grono (ed.), Collected poems 1940-1995 / Dorothy Hewett, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Perth, 1995.
Paul Kavanagh, ‘An Interview with Dorothy Hewett’, Southerly 44, no. 2 (1984), pp. 123–142.
Susan Lever, ‘Seeking Woman: Dorothy Hewett’s Shifting Genres’, in Bennet, 1995, pp. 147–61.
Rozanna Lilley, Do Oysters Get Bored, UWA Publishing, Perth, 2018.
Lyn McCredden, ‘The Tragedy of Desire: Dorothy Hewett’s Poetics’, Heat, no. 6 (2003), pp. 203–13.
Nicole Moore, ‘Placing Sociality, Intimacy, Authority: Dorothy Hewett in the Biographical Frame’, Hecate: an interdisciplinary journal of women’s liberation 40 (2014), pp. 35–51.
Rosemary Neill, ‘Playwright Dorothy Hewett’s daughters say their mother’s men used them for sex’, The Australian, 9 June 2018, <https://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/dorothy-hewetts-daughters-rozanna-and-kate-lilley/news-story/750912cd027217f4181a2fc1b558f440>, accessed 5 August 2018.
Kate Lilley, ‘Party Favour’, in Tilt, Vagabond Press, Sydney, 2018.
Rosemary Neill, ‘Hewett to writer: “Do you want sex with my daughters?”’, The Australian, 16 June 2018, <https://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/hewett-to-writer-do-you-want-sex-with-my-daughters/news-story/49629d2fc8788835d0e456aa0771fb48>, accessed 5 August 2018.
Ann-Marie Priest, A Free Flame, UWA Publishing, Perth, 2018.
Jennifer Strauss, ‘A Ride with Love and Death: Writing the Legend of a Glittering Girl’, in Bennet, 1995, pp. 53–69.
Channel 10, ‘The Daughters of Sydney Author Dorothy Hewett Speak About Their Troubled Childhood’, The Sunday Project, 24 June 2018, (Lisa Wilkinson) <https://tenplay.com.au/channel-ten/the-project/extra/ season-9/the-daughters-of-sydney-author-dorothy-hewett-speak-about-their-troubled-childhood>, accessed 5 August 2018.