Below is my second piece for New Territory, which is a rumination on our responsibilities vis a vis acknowledging artists’ dark sides in the #metoo era. It is a response to Rozanna Lilley’s Do Oysters Get Bored? I was lucky to see Rozanna speak at the recent Canberra Writers Festival.
I wasn’t paid a cent/ that’s what made it art: Confronting Power and Abuse in the Arts
In the #metoo era, revelations of sexual misconduct by artists are swiftly followed by public debate about whether we should continue to view their work. For some, viewing the work is an act of complicity with the abuser. Others maintain that knowledge of an artist’s questionable proclivities should not preclude an appreciation of their work.
Rozanna Lilley has been caught up in these debates after the release of her book Do Oysters Get Bored? It is a “hybrid” book, with over half of it consisting of essays that blend memoir and social commentary, and the remainder comprising autobiographical poetry. While Lilley ostensibly set out to write about the way her autistic son Oscar experiences the world, she also reflects on the sexual exploitation she and her sister Kate experienced as teenagers in the 1970s by men who frequented her parents’ social circle, including the venerated Labor speechwriter Bob Ellis and the late photographer and child pornographer David Hamilton. Furthermore, Lilley reveals that her mother, the late writer Dorothy Hewett, played a part in facilitating the abuse.
Lilley herself has conflicted views on separating artists from their work. She feels uncomfortable watching Woody Allen films, but believes her mother’s contribution to the Australian literary scene should continue to be acknowledged. She continues to participate in public celebrations of Hewett’s work, and did not support calls for UWA Press to rename the Dorothy Hewett Unpublished Manuscript Award (it subsequently retained its name).
But ultimately for Lilley, in writing this book the question of separating the artist and their work was secondary. Her concern was to claim her right to tell her story. Lilley asserts that the behaviour detailed in her book was widely known in arts circles, but at the time people didn’t care. She said to me, “[t]hey didn’t stop to think about how that world was experienced from the perspective of children” and that herself and her sister “were thought of, and largely treated as, props in our mother’s life.”
Now in her fifties, Lilley says she felt able to write the book because both her parents have passed away. She does not feel a duty to protect her mother’s reputation, or other peoples’. But nor is it open slather. Instead, she offers a nuanced reflection on her parents’ pursuit of a bohemian lifestyle, and how the “unconventional” sexual dynamics of her formative years have echoed throughout her life.
Lilley resists the straightforward narrative of uncomplicated victimhood that our society has crafted for victims of sexual abuse. Instead she emphasises ambivalence, in which pleasure and shame are inextricably linked. In the essay “Fear of Flying”, she recounts that at 13 she was both “flattered and afraid” when a male family friend made advances towards her, and that “nothing had prepared [her] for the intolerable sadness and shameful longing [she] experienced on that trip home.”
Such feelings were exacerbated by, if not directly a result of, the messages she received from her mother. For Hewett, ratcheting up notches on the bedhead had social currency, and she explicitly encouraged her daughters to have sex from a young age. She put Rozanna on the pill at 14, although by then she was already sexually active. Hewett impressed on her daughters her view that the worst thing you could do was tease men; if you encouraged desire, you had to act on it. Except sometimes encouraging desire just meant being a fourteen-year-old girl.
Furthermore, Hewett was in direct sexual competition with her daughters. Rose told the festival audience that her sister Kate, two years her elder, was at one stage in a de facto relationship with a man whom her mother was also, with their knowledge, conducting an affair. An acquaintance observed to Hewett, within earshot of a teenage Rozanna, that her daughters were her “surrogates,” implying that she could extend her sexual life through them.
Lilley says Hewett could cut off conversations through “sheer force of personality” and would make it clear to her children that she wouldn’t tolerate criticism of her lifestyle or ideology. But ultimately, Hewett’s escape from judgement was sustained through a larger fantasy underpinned by “naïve libertarianism.” In leading a bohemian lifestyle, Hewett constructed an alternate reality in which sexual experiences were not conceptualised as resulting from, or reifying, power imbalances. According to Lilley, her mother “imaginatively recast these predations as adventures, confirming our familial superiority to restrictive moral norms.”
Yet it is the casting off of social restrictions for which Hewett’s work is so prized. As Jane Jervis-Read pointed out on the Meanjin blog recently, Hewett’s grand ongoing project was to fuse her literary persona with the characters she created. In addition to putting her stories on the page, Hewett also acted them out, and involved her daughters in this elaborate web. A key example is the participation of Rozanna Lilley in Hewett’s sexually graphic film Journey Among Women. The mirroring of Hewett’s life and art also means, however, that her work is full of clues as to what was occurring in her house. Lilley pointed out in correspondence to me that while she feels her mother’s brave writing should be admired, she wanted to acknowledge the cost “of living that particular kind of imagined life for those of us who were caught in the riptide.”
In her poem “Child Pornographer” Lilley notes ironically, “I wasn’t paid a cent/ that’s what made it art.” This reminds us that art is not sacred; it can be created in contexts which give rise to, or reinforce, distasteful or downright exploitative economies and power relationships. Lilley’s book is a timely reminder to temper the emotional side of our engagement with art with an intellectual reckoning of the artist’s creative processes, and the context in which art is made. All is well with exploring a more liberated experience in fiction or art, but in real life power hurts when it is used against you. Lilley has done society a favour by placing the suffering inflicted by some of our most revered artists on the historical record and pointing out the false virtues at play when the mythology of the artist is used to cloak child abuse and silence victims.
After reading Lilley’s book, it is up to the individual reader whether they will persist with reading Dorothy Hewett, Bob Ellis, and the rest. But if they do they will have their eyes open, and should question whether unadulterated veneration is a mature, or ethical, response.