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Author Robyn Davidson confronts her mother’s death

When I was 11 years old, my mother gave me a pair of gold sandals. These were for “best”, and not at all suitable for school. In all my life so far, I had worn socks and sensible lace-ups to school. Other children were allowed to run around barefoot: there was cow shit between their toes, and their feet splayed out like thick T-bone steaks. But they were “common” and the Davidsons were not.

What could it have been about that morning in particular that gave me the courage to end my mother’s dominion over me, to dress not only in the gold sandals but in a gathered green poplin skirt with rope petticoat, rather than the pleated tartan that was customary? Children mocking at first breasts, perhaps. Or a boy sending love notes across the classroom. Loyalty to a future self conflicted with loyalty to my mother’s realm. The old bindings had to be cut.

I came down the wrought-iron staircase inside our house. My mother stood below me, more a force than a person. She held my blue plastic lunch box; I clutched my school port. We argued and it seemed this had never happened before. I knew that I would wear these clothes, these sandals. I had already won the battle inside my own will.

“Aren’t you even going to kiss me goodbye?” she said.

Not guilt nor love nor fear must be allowed to weaken the momentum of victory. Without turning around, I flounced through the kitchen and out the front door. “No, I won’t.”

When I came home that afternoon, my mother was dead.

The author as a baby with her mother at Stanley Park cattle station near Miles, in Queensland’s Western Downs region, in 1950.Credit: Courtesy of Robyn Davidson

This could be the beginning of a memoir, a curtain drawn aside to reveal the theatre of life as it exists inside my mind and no one else’s. But although I know the gold sandals were real, that I wore them on a particular day and this led to an altercation with my mother on the stairs, these facts exist as no more than an instant of sense perception filed in memory and encased as a kind of seed. The other details in the picture – the skirt, port, lunch box; the duration in which the scene unfolds; the walk through the kitchen; the inference that I understood, at the time, the import of my actions – these have been furnished by imagination.

If I continued with the story, it would unfurl out of that seed, that moment, and its relationship to what really happened would become increasingly obscure.

But factual truth is the least of my worries here. What I have written is inauthentic in a much more profound sense. The confrontation over the gold sandals had nothing to do with my mother’s death, either in reality or in the depths of my own conscience. Or rather, it may have had something to do with it, perhaps even a lot to do with it, but not in the way I have intimated here.

I have been trying to write about my mother for years. Some attempts attained a considerable length, others didn’t struggle beyond five pages before being tossed in the bin.

Each beginning was different in style from every other beginning. There was an awkward attempt to write short “meditations”, each precipitated out of an object from the past. My mother would emerge from these meditations as a whole piece of music is created from individual phrases.

It wasn’t long before I admitted to myself that this was too contrived.

Robyn aged four at Stanley Park cattle station, where she was born.

Robyn aged four at Stanley Park cattle station, where she was born.Credit: Courtesy of Robyn Davidson

Another described my surroundings at the time: a small room in India. Through the window I saw boulders and jungle. A langur sat on the veranda parapet, swinging its leg. But I wasn’t actually in India when I wrote it, I was in Australia.

In yet another I placed myself at a London literary high table and pulled the scene to bits – its pretensions, its mediocrity, its envy, its insecurities – using the scene as a “How did I get here?” device.

But in judging those imaginary characters at the dinner table, I was failing in my job. An author’s job is never to judge her characters, but to understand them. Which is the same as saying, to love them.

All of these beginnings could probably have gone on to become books. But not the book. Not the right book. But why the unease after so many attempts? Why should I be so shy of reaching the lode-bearing stratum that the moment I think I might be anywhere near it, I shoot back up to the surface?

My mother hanged herself from the rafters of our garage, using the cord of our electrical kettle.

Where can I go with a sentence like that? How do I unfurl the story of her life (a life rendered retrospectively tragic by that sentence) without descending into melodrama?

My first book, Tracks, was an account of a journey I made, alone, across the Australian deserts in 1977. The person who made that journey – myself – became the central character in the book. This character/narrator/self did nothing factually different from what I did in reality. That is to say, the
account contains no lies.

The author’s 1977 epic trek from Alice Springs to the west coast across the Australian desert was recorded in her
first book, Tracks. As she recalls: “The fictionalising of myself was instinctive, guileless and completely candid.”

The author’s 1977 epic trek from Alice Springs to the west coast across the Australian desert was recorded in her
first book, Tracks. As she recalls: “The fictionalising of myself was instinctive, guileless and completely candid.”
Credit: Rick Smolan/Against All Odds Productions.

Yet it is deceiving. That “fictional” “me” seems to have a greater authenticity than the flux of contradictions, mental disappearances, memories and self-talk that must have constituted my inner life at the time. The fictionalising of myself was instinctive, guileless and completely candid.

And I did not doubt that I had a right to speak.

But I now know that memory is shot through and through with falsehood; that published words are powerful and while one has a responsibility to try to get at the truth, one has also to remember that one person’s version of it can bury another’s.

My sister’s take on my mother’s story is so different from mine that it is as if we emerged from different wombs. Up to now, my sister has owned the copyright on my mother’s story. Our story. If I tell it another way, I am breaking a kind of familial law.

While one has a responsibility to try to get at the truth, one has also to remember that one person’s version of it can bury another’s.

I don’t feel any emotion when I think of my mother’s death. I have imagined the act, what it required to do it, but I imagine it as one sees a scene in a film. It seems to hold no special significance for me. Perhaps by the time she killed herself I was already quite far away. In any case, when I touch the area around that day, I can feel only callus.

The day opens for me at about 3.30pm. This must be the time, because I have just left the school grounds and am looking down the street towards our house. My port is in my right hand. We have only lived here in Brisbane for a year or two, having moved from the country. All of us, in our different ways, struggle against suburban life like trapped birds.

As a girl on the steps of Malabah House in Mooloolah, where the Davidson family moved to in 1954 .

As a girl on the steps of Malabah House in Mooloolah, where the Davidson family moved to in 1954 .Credit: Courtesy of Robyn Davidson

I loathe the Moreton Bay beaches just a half-mile from our house. The water is waveless and opaque and it contains jellyfish. There are mangrove swamps and moaning casuarina forests. The beaches are narrow and lonely. I hate swimming in the shark enclosure with the kids from school because my mother has bought me transparent Speedos, and you can see my bottom through them when they are wet.


Summer afternoon. Cotton frock. (No rope petticoat or gold sandals.) Right hand clasping handle of school port. I am standing still, looking down the street to our house, which is different from all the other houses. Our house is two-storey with “patios”. Built by an Italian. My mother says it’s vulgar. Inside the house, every room is filled with thick dark misery, even though there is plenty of suburban light pouring through the venetian blinds. My mother, unable to get out of bed one day, told me God had come to her through the venetians and held her hand. Greg Hamilton, who passes me notes in school, reckons the house is unlucky.

It’s as if I am on an escalator from which it is impossible to get off. Dread. I can feel it now. A swooning sensation, and the stomach revolving. Occasionally in my life I have wondered about the intensity of this dread. This wish to fall down where I stand, for some miracle to intervene and cancel the inevitability of that journey to our house. I have wondered if perhaps I already knew my mother was dead, if perhaps I had sneaked home at lunchtime and found her. But there was no psychic foreseeing, no blocked memory to be tweezered out later by some crank shrink. The more appalling truth is that this was how I must have felt every day when I looked down the street towards our house.

As I approach, I see that there is a police car outside our house. My father is standing at the front of our house in his khakis. It appears someone has thrown a bucket of water over him. Next to him is our neighbour, Mrs Wallace. My father is trembling all over, and weeping. As I walk towards him he bends down to take me in his arms, something he has never ever done
before. He says, “Mummy’s dead, darling.” I reject him and go to our neighbour, Mrs Wallace. I cry but only because this is expected.

Robyn Davidson’s parents, Mark
and Gwen, on their wedding day in 1942.

Robyn Davidson’s parents, Mark
and Gwen, on their wedding day in 1942.
Credit: Courtesy of Robyn Davidson

Later, my mother’s mother is leading me through the kitchen. Her bony hand is gripping mine but she doesn’t seem all that aware of me. She shows me the electrical kettle and says something about my mother and the cord. I did not understand her because her voice was odd and high. I thought that my mother had tried to electrocute herself, and failed, so had to choose another method. I seem already to know that she has hanged herself, but I don’t remember who told me. There are no details at that time. The garage rafters, the torn fingernails, my father giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, these embellishments came later, from my sister.

The next memory is being out on the golf course behind the house with Mrs Wallace. She says comforting things. I know it is difficult for her to find things to say that match the occasion. What she says in fact bears no relation to me, as if she and I inhabit different zones. My dog, Goldie, is there. I feel I should be with someone else, not Mrs Wallace, though I can’t think who that might be.

Robyn Davidson’s mother, Gwen, and grandmother, Elizabeth. Robyn still recalls her grandmother taking her by the hand and leading her through the kitchen on the day her mother died.

Robyn Davidson’s mother, Gwen, and grandmother, Elizabeth. Robyn still recalls her grandmother taking her by the hand and leading her through the kitchen on the day her mother died.Credit: Courtesy of Robyn Davidson

I still don’t feel as I believe I should feel; I don’t feel sad or grief-stricken, for example. But there is still that dread in my body. Not pain pain, but numb pain. It’s not pain being done to you, it’s pain that is you.

Later, I am in the back of a taxi with my sister, who is 17; that is, six years older than me. Or perhaps we are in the police car. She looks as if someone has slapped her in the face. I would like to wrap my arms around her but my body is out of time with my thoughts, as if it had stiffened. She is taking control of things. Our father doesn’t seem to be involved.

I am to go and live with Aunt Gillian, my father’s twin sister, on Tamborine Mountain. This is to save me from the worse fate of living with our grandmother in the pigeon-box house she shares with our grandfather. But I won’t be allowed to take my dog.

Aunt Gillian, with whom Robyn lived after her mother died.

Aunt Gillian, with whom Robyn lived after her mother died.Credit: Courtesy of Robyn Davidson

Those are the seeds embedded from that day. I can go back to them, just as I went back to that memory of the gold sandals, crack them all open, and from each one I could fashion a deluge, an infinitude of memoirs.

But would they be true? Would they be fair? As dispassionately as I’ve tried to describe the residue of that day, the whole passage is still hopelessly skewed by the first-person pronoun. Especially the bit about the dog. I don’t deny that to dispose of the pet of a child whose mother has just hanged herself is a strange thing to do. But the interesting thing about it is precisely that – that it is a strange thing to do. Not that it happened to me. But if I leave out the dog, where does the leaving-out end? Whom do I erase from the scene of that day?

My mother died when she was 46. It never crossed my mind to write about her, indeed even to think about her, until I approached the same age. Then that erased, safely buried woman came back with, literally, a vengeance. It was as if she were imprecating me to release her from the prison of other people’s stories. It was my duty to do so. There was no one else who could or would. She had been misrepresented, dishonoured, murdered.

Robyn Davidson today.

Robyn Davidson today.Credit: Graham Denholm

My mother always overestimated my talents. The job she gave me is beyond them. I have failed her as consistently as Hamlet failed his ghost.

But were I to write again about the day of my mother’s death, I might not mention the walk home from school, or the dog, or my poor father and sister. I might leave out entirely that impassable sentence: “My mother hanged herself …” I might try, instead, to focus on the kettle. It was one of those yellow, chunky kettles with a black, flip-up lid. Bakelite, I should think. A 1950s kettle.


From that kettle, which sits on the Laminex counter next to our new electric fry pan, I might describe 1961 as it was in a kitchen in an Australian suburb. And from that year might unfurl previous years: Malabah House, near Mooloolah siding on the North Coast Line, where my sister rode her horse to school and sometimes let me double behind her, where my dad sheared sheep by hand while my sister and I stamped the wool in the wool press and the big green carpet snake stared down from the rafters above us, where I got stomach ache after stealing mad Valerie’s peaches, where my mother and father flicked each other with tea towels in the kitchen and laughed till the tears ran, where the kids at school had cow shit between their toes, where I couldn’t bear to see my sister teased, where I saw my father punishing the horse with his stock whip, where I was frightened of my sister’s anger, where the Gripskies’ bull chased Grandy and me up a tree, where mirrors watched us impassively from the walls of Malabah House.

And before Malabah there was Stanley Park, the cattle station where I was born, the buggy by the barbed-wire fence, picking harebells along the dirt track, sing-songs around the piano. And before that there was a war during which my mother and father fell in love, and before that war there was a Depression, and before that there was another war, and my parents’ worlds contained the seeds of these events, so that although the kettle is common to all of us, nevertheless coded in it are all these other memories that existed before I was born and that I have inherited.

My mother is as close to me, and as hidden from me, as my own face …

Lifeline 13 11 14

This is an edited extract from Unfinished Woman (Bloomsbury, $35), out October 3.

Robyn Davidson will appear at a Dymocks Literary Lunch in Sydney on October 5 and at the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne on October 11.

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/after-trying-to-write-about-her-mother-s-death-robyn-had-an-epiphany-20230803-p5dtpv.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_national Author Robyn Davidson confronts her mother’s death

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