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The sexual abuse of Dorothy Hewett’s two teenage daughters in the 1970s reveals a culture subservient to a myth of artistic freedom. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Dorothy Hewett, Bob Ellis, art and exploitation

Writer Bob Ellis at the opening of the Sydney Film Festival in 2004.
Credit: Patrick Riviere / Getty Images

Rozanna Lilley didn’t recognise the description. Intellectually, sure. But as it applied to her? No way. Lilley was in the office of her therapist, seven or eight years ago. It was their first session. To begin, Lilley tentatively offered a disclosure about her childhood. Tentatively, because she was unsure of its relevance. “Okay, I’m going to tell you a few things now in case it’s important.”

The therapist listened gravely. When Lilley finished, he said: “So, you were an abused child.”

“Was I?” she replied. It was hard to integrate.

“There was sort of almost an argument, where I’ve always stressed my agency; but he was trying to make me see that I wasn’t responsible for the things that happened to me at 11, 13, 14,” Lilley told me this week. 

“If you just completely embrace the victim attitude, where does that leave you? You need somewhere to move. But that said, there were just cases of creepy people who groomed me. I don’t know I’ve completely reconciled it now.”

Lilley is the youngest child of the late Dorothy Hewett, the radical left-wing and feminist poet, playwright and novelist. In 1942, Hewett joined the Communist Party, and her 1959 social-realist novel Bobbin Up was later translated into Russian. Before its publication, Hewett visited Stalin’s blood-stained empire, and while she suspected things weren’t so golden as she might have assumed – “In 1952, in the year of Stalin, I came to Russia / And saw flowers growing out of the blinkers on my eyes” – she would not renounce her party membership until the tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968.

But it was Hewett’s commitment to another destructive idea that Lilley was discussing with her therapist, and would later explore in her recent book, Do Oysters Get Bored? 

The Hewett–Lilley household – Hewett was married to her second husband, the writer Merv Lilley, in 1960 – functioned as a debauched salon. Dorothy Hewett held court on a golden sofa while Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen played on the turntable, celebrity intellectuals debated the merits of Shelley and Marx, and her youngest daughters were routinely sexually exploited with her encouragement. 

In a lengthy interview with The Australian last week, Rozanna and her sister, Kate, candidly discussed the abuse: predatory, opportunistic and promoted by aggressively laissez faire attitudes to sexual “liberation”. Before they had reached the age of consent, each girl had been assaulted many times, abuses often “facilitated” by their mother.

Names were given: David Hamilton, a British photographer and child pornographer, who killed himself in 2016 after allegations of child rape; Martin Sharp, a once world-renowned artist; and the late screenwriter, playwright, polemicist and Labor speechwriter Bob Ellis. Kate Lilley has also alleged an unnamed poet raped her. This list is not exhaustive.

“I said sarcastically in therapy one day: ‘What should I do, take an ad out in The Spectator?’ ” Rozanna Lilley tells me, referring to the abuse she suffered from Ellis. “His reputation was well known. I don’t think he had a particular thing for young girls. I think he just had a go whenever he could. He was well known for his come-on line: ‘How about a fuck?’ And he used to always say how he was always amazed with how many said ‘Yes.’

“The thing is, when you’re brought up where all of this is normalised, I didn’t think that there was anything wrong. You just thought it was part of life, and you went along. Bob was a terrific raconteur, a very funny man. From me, he would take ‘No’ as an answer. In many ways, to me at the time, it seemed that they were very kind to me. It was an important relationship at the time. That’s sad in itself, I guess. I can see it intellectually, but I can’t feel it.”

In her book, Lilley describes being cast at 13 years old in her mother’s film, Journey Among Women, about a remote lesbian utopia, comprising escaped convicts. “On screen, I was intermittently raped and fondled and finally murdered,” she writes. “The nadir of this formative pubescent experience came when word went out on set that I had begun bleeding for the first time. A meeting was held and I was approached with the suggestion that my onset of menarche be documented and incorporated into the storyline of the film. I declined.”

 

In the 1970s, Bob Ellis was a long-haired aesthete, a columnist and playwright. Pronounced cheekbones, intense eyes. By his own account, his ambition burned brightly. Plenty of others can testify. He was also a sexual opportunist, and almost proud of it.

This is a story of a certain time – a much too recent one – when children were treated as sexual chattel. A story of a subculture’s torrid belief in the primacy of art. And a story of a gifted, but damaged, woman’s psychology, projected onto her children.

“Mum always said that when she was younger she wanted to be a grown-up lady in a house with a hundred lovers,” Lilley tells me. “And I think she literally tried to create this, down to the gold sofas and tassels on the lights. There’s a lot of romanticism there. She’d get in some terrible tangles in her life, and she would always say: ‘But I was in love.’

“Her idea of herself was adolescent. She had this fixed view of herself as a beautiful young woman that men wanted. When I was very young, Mum told me that the worst thing a woman could be was a cockteaser. You can look at a poem of hers where she’s talking about my sister and I and how bitter she was that men were interested in us, and she’s reporting someone else saying, ‘They are your surrogates.’ So she’s quite aware of these very, very strange dynamics that were going on, that I think my sister and I have spent much of our adult lives trying to extricate ourselves psychologically from that mess. She had a failing there, and it’s because, I think, she wanted to be the centre of attention and she struggled in getting older. 

“This flamboyant bohemianism, like a later version of the Sydney Push, had a very negative impact upon myself and my sister. [My mother] didn’t believe in shielding children from anything. But she was out of the mainstream of belief. She was very extreme about it. It was also a milieu that characteristically has disassociated itself from conventional morality. Sometimes that’s good – say, in providing a haven for gay people in the theatre for many decades – but sometimes that’s been negative in terms of what it’s allowed people to get away with. In the entertainment industry, and the arts, there’s a terrific lot of insecure narcissists that are far more likely to engage in this kind of behaviour.”

This was the underbelly of Hewett’s iconoclasm, an iconoclasm that was publicly admired in her lifetime and fondly remembered in her death. Eulogising Hewett in 2002, the editor of the literary journal Overland commended her “nose-thumbing, her complete disregard for the mores that prevented others from saying things, and her political commitment”. 

Lilley doesn’t hate her mother. Or Ellis. Or many of the others. A theme in her book, and our conversation, is ambivalence. Ambivalence about certain individuals, ambivalence about the description “abused”. Lilley spoke to me about her mother’s gift, her hospitality, her charm. In past years, she has read her mother’s poetry at festivals. In her book, she describes the unusual experience of seeing her mother’s ghost – an actor who had once played her on stage. She first saw her on a TV commercial, then in the local shopping mall, then her doctor’s surgery. Intellectually, she knew she couldn’t commune with her mother through this woman. But she approached her anyway. Introduced herself. There was polite small talk. Nothing more. Her mother, of course, couldn’t be summoned through this random proxy. 

Lilley is not defined by the abuse, and nor is her book. An anthropologist and autism researcher – her son Oscar is autistic – her memoir is an oddly original braiding of poetry, reminiscence and meditations on the precocious interior life of her son. “It’s not a statutory rape narrative,” she tells me. Lilley is far too curious to condemn her book so narrowly. But across its pages you can see the enormous shadow her mother still casts. 

 

I did it. As an earnest undergraduate, I embraced the Artist as a saint or psychic cosmonaut, a person made heroic not merely by their risks and genius, but their resignation to that risk and genius being repaid with contempt or indifference. It was a cosy belief, and I enjoyed the reflected glow. As a young and naive man, I vibrated with enthusiasm more than intelligence.

Eventually, my worship dwindled. I sobered up from cultish intoxications. Increasingly, I saw myths of artistic excess as tiresome and unhealthy. I stopped confusing notoriety for talent. Call it maturity. William Burroughs was a paedophile who recklessly shot his wife dead and blamed the bullet’s fatal trajectory on “Ugly Spirits”. Burroughs’ mate, Allen Ginsberg, was equally creative in rationalising the crime: the writer’s wife had willed it to happen. Consider James Baldwin’s explanation for Norman Mailer’s near-fatal stabbing of his wife: it was an attempt at existential liberation. Mailer’s own liberation, of course. Not his wife’s. It would require surgeons to liberate her from death. Remarkably, Mailer sought to advise them before the operation.

Before I completed my undergraduate degree in English, I had learnt that bohemian intellectuals could justify anything, and that the fetishisation of art was unhealthy, almost creepy. My most personal disavowal was of Hunter S. Thompson – a writer to whom the former South Australian premier, Mike Rann, compared Bob Ellis while eulogising his friend in 2016. Rann wasn’t the first to compare these two addled renegades.

There are meaningful comparisons between the two, but unflattering ones. These I am yet to read. Thompson’s good years were few. After Nixon resigned, he was reduced to writing self-parodies in geographic isolation while impaired by the excesses he had helped mythologise. His life and death slightly mirrored the decline of his hero, Hemingway, who had also retreated to America’s mountains – first to commit self-parody, then suicide by gunshot.

Convinced by his own legend, or the pharmacology that helped secure it, Thompson felt he could smash his strange correspondence very far away from the things he wrote about. His connection to the world was mediated by cocaine and cable TV. When the towers fell, the famous journalist-adventurer was watching from a couch in the Colorado woods, and filing his screeds for ESPN.

All of these men’s books remain on my shelves. It’s obscene that they might be thrown out or, much worse, collectively torched. As Philip Roth once said, literature shouldn’t be a moral beauty pageant. But that artists might consider themselves rarefied nauseates me, as do lofty words such as “bravery” and “nobility”, used to describe the work of some of its privileged practitioners. My antidote to this horseshit comes from the late novelist and essayist Elizabeth Hardwick: “Art is a profession, not a shrine.”

In a 1979 essay for New Poetry, Dorothy Hewett wrote about the Australian poets Robert Adamson and Michael Dransfield, the latter having died six years earlier at the age of 24, likely from drugs. “The difficulty with Dransfield and Adamson has been to separate the fire from the smoke, the romantic cult from the work itself,” she wrote. “Like all committed romantics both have, of course, collaborated in the creation of their own sensational mythology, and then let it roll.”

Hewett had collaborated in her own, and then let it roll. So did Hunter S. Thompson. So did Bob Ellis.

 

Many years ago at a Labor fundraiser – a book fair at the home of an ambitious hack – I was talking with a former party secretary when I picked up a copy of Bob Ellis’s Night Thoughts in Time of War. “Our Vidal,” he said, pointing to the book, which suggests something of the witless reverence the party once had for him.

For a while, Ellis was the party’s Falstaff – outsized, louche, loquacious and ardently soused. At least, that’s how he liked to see it. And for a few younger hacks, those who considered themselves decent with a pen, Ellis suggested a romantic alternative to the prosaic reality of media releases and talking points.

I say now as I did then that Vidal and Ellis shared little but a pungent ego and, in later years, a propensity for grotesque conspiracy theories. One of Ellis’s last was that the recently vanished MH370 airliner had been hijacked by the American government and secreted on some remote Pacific base. He was insistent about this. I can’t recall what methods and motivations Ellis dreamed up for this extraordinary rendition, and his blog – prolifically deposited with abuse, aphorisms and crank notions – is gone. The Wayback Machine has captured only so much.

In Night Thoughts Ellis muses about the CIA’s responsibility for the Bali bombings. It strikes me now that his energetic spewing of conspiracies resembled his lecherous approach to women. It was a shameless method, discomforting to many, and described to me in bookie parlance by one person who knew him as “betting to place” – beg a hundred women to sleep with you, and one will. Politically and sexually, in Ellis’s head I’m not sure it ever stopped being 1972.

Ellis carried in his head the secretive, bizarre and destructive abuses of American power: Bay of Pigs; MKUltra; the violent, clandestine interference with South American governments. But I’m not sure he ever did much with his paranoid inventory: Ellis was neither Seymour Hersh, who as a journalist exposed deep American squalor; nor Don DeLillo, who communed with American history and paranoia to create a few classic novels. Ellis, the great writer, left no great books. He didn’t have the discipline. He was too busy harassing women, enemies and his liver. He will be best remembered for a tawdry paternity case and a defamation suit he lost, involving a sexual slur against Tony Abbott, Peter Costello and their wives. It cost his publisher perhaps a half-million dollars and a great deal of respect.

Ellis was an eloquent crank, who espoused bizarre theories and consistently wrong predictions about election outcomes or the tenure of political leaderships. I lost count of the wayward prognostications, but what was remarkable was his unchastened insistence on them. Betting to place.

Like Hunter S. Thompson, Ellis revelled in hyperbolic invective and, like Thompson, he could make music with it. Among his last pieces were gossip columns for this paper. But the danger in being melodious is that you might neglect ideas, and for all of Ellis’s gifts his music was often lazy – emotional appeals to an already secured audience. Then there was the abject hyperbole: “I have not thus far used the adjective ‘evil’ in the last fifty years on anyone: not on Hitler, Eichmann, Stalin, Pol Pot, Osama, Nixon, Thatcher, W, John Howard... But Scott Morrison is evil.”

That line should appear self-evidently absurd, but I might add that if offshore detention – the policy that prompted the screed above – had so repulsed him, it didn’t stop Ellis from stalking the corridors of Parliament House and bum-rushing some of the policy’s architects and endorsers so he might press upon them his latest emulation of Cicero for their use. To the very end, Ellis was the self-conscious rebel who still desperately sought the ear of power. “He was certainly loitering in people’s offices offering up words for speeches until just before he died,” one Labor MP told me. “Beyond that, I don’t think he ever had ‘influence’ in terms of shaping people’s actions or anything.”

Then there was the self-aggrandisement. Ellis was always casual with truth and energetic in his defamations. A few years before his death, he lamented that the ABC’s Tony Jones was a man “who votes Liberal and banned me from Q&A although I did well on it” – a short line that contains at least two mistruths. Perhaps he saw his rhetoric in the service of some higher Truth. He was less interested in facts. His looseness was a marker of his ego – like many a gifted rhetorician, he believed his music was sufficiently enchanting and truthful. 

“Bob Hope is dead,” Ellis wrote in 2003. “For a week, a lot of ink has been spent by old men asking if he was funny. Like the similar question ‘Can Laurence Olivier act?’ it misses the point, for whatever else he was he was a fact of history. He imposed himself, like Larry, on his chosen culture.”

I have no doubt that Ellis thought of himself in this way, as the gifted and wilful artist who imposed himself upon his chosen culture. Which is fine. Our culture’s health requires the gifted and wilful. Ellis was both, even if he was an awful custodian of his talents. But we might now consider how he sexually imposed himself upon women – and children – and how his lofty self-conception fed those impositions. His advances and exploitations were shameless, notorious and damaging.

Ellis was an insistent diarist of his penis. Driven, like so many Saints of Letters, by a libido he mistook for a symptom of creative vitality, or some larger cosmic hunger, its satisfaction appeared to him as just reward for his talent. “In the artistic scene then, many of these people have an enormously high opinion of themselves,” Rozanna Lilley told me this week. “Many of them think they’re geniuses, and many others think of them as geniuses. And the basic attitude is that you’d be lucky to have anything to do with them. You’d be lucky to have sex with them. Like they’re doing you a favour. That’s a part of the artistic milieu then.”

Sympathy can work its way strangely, sometimes without us noticing. One reason for listing Ellis’s artistic flaws is that their forgiveness or oversight by fellow travellers was likely cut from similar cloth as the laughing treatment of his sleaze. Had Ellis been a right-wing polemicist, his slander, kooky theories and serially inaccurate forecasts would not have been overlooked or dismissed as charming eccentricities. I suspect the same holds for his lechery.

Writing this, however, I realise it isn’t quite true. In the end, Ellis was a fairly marginal figure. Mostly ignored by the ALP, he published on his blog. About his late writing, at least, some judgements were made. Still, he was buried by at least three former premiers. Bill Shorten made a speech, laughing at his excesses: “If I had a dollar for every letter he sent, I’d almost be able to afford the legal costs of using them.”

 

Since the Lilley sisters’ interview was published this week, there have been a few distorting interpretations. Rozanna mentions to me one headline, since vanished, about an “arts paedophile ring”.

“As if anyone in the arts scene was organised enough to be in a paedophile ring,” she laughs.

The sexual exploitation of children didn’t require some hushed and sophisticated organisation. There was no conspiracy. It just was. Sex with kids was normal. All part of the artist’s entitlement; all part of the enlightened salon. It just was.

“Most of us love our mothers,” Lilley tells me. “Mine was in many ways very loveable. She was childlike in a lot of ways. She liked to play on that passivity, that she was helpless. That was one of her schticks. But there were blank spots in her. I don’t know if it was a personality disorder. She was a troubled woman. She had tried to kill herself. People think in very black and white ways, but ambivalence is the right term. I think.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 16, 2018 as "‘Disassociated from normal morality’". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.