It’s the silence of the comrades and the mates.
Rosemary Neill’s exclusive story in The Weekend Australianlast Saturday that writer Dorothy Hewett (1923-2002) had encouraged her underage daughters to have sex with men was quite shocking. But according to my research, the ABC has not covered the story.
It has been covered twice in The Sydney Morning Herald, including a piece by Broede Carmody. There was also a brief reference in The Saturday Paper along with a piece in Guardian Australia.
Hewett, whose story is well told by Ann-Marie Priest in A Free Flame: Australian Women Writers and Vocation in the Twentieth Century, was a fine novelist, playwright, poet and memoirist. Brought up in a conservative family in Western Australia, she attended university in Perth and became a member of the Communist Party of Australia.
Moving between Perth and Sydney, Hewett remained a loyal communist, including during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956. However, she could not abide Moscow’s crushing of the Prague Spring when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. But she remained on the left after dropping her love of European communism.
Hewett married a communist lawyer and later lived with a boilermaker in Sydney with whom she had three sons. She married Merv Lilley (1919-2016) with whom she had two daughters, Kate and Rozanna. For most of her adult life, Hewett was a sexual libertarian and a feminist.
Kate Lilley (born 1960), a poet and associate professor at the University of Sydney, recently has published a book of poetry titled Tilt. Rozanna Lilley (born 1962), an academic researcher, recently has written Do Oysters Get Bored? A Curious Life. Both women spoke to Neill on the occasion of the release of their books.
As girls, the Lilley sisters embraced the sexual liberation preached and practised by their mother. If this had occurred with boys of their own age, this would have been of little moment. But both women maintain that Hewett encouraged them to have sex with older men. Their father must share at least half the blame for this.
Kate Lilley says she slept with six men before she reached the legal age of consent at 16. Rozanna puts her figure as “at least a dozen”. The former says “there were constantly men staying in the house” in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra and there were “hardly any (heterosexual) men who came to the house who didn’t try to have sex with one or more” of Kate, Rozanna or Dorothy.
The Lilley sisters have named the deceased male predators, including left-wing hero Bob Ellis (1942-2016), who has had some of his miniseries shown on the ABC and wrote speeches for, among others, Labor politicians Bob Carr, Mike Rann and Bill Shorten. Also named is Martin Sharp (1942- 2013), who was a follower of the libertarian Sydney Push and was profiled in the documentary The Sharp Edge,which was shown on the public broadcaster. As Joyce Morgan documents in her biography, Martin Sharp: His Life and Times, Sharp became somewhat conservative in his later years.
British photographer David Hamilton (1933-2016), who spent time in Australia in the 1970s, is another named. He took pornographic images of Rozanna Lilley when she was 14 or 15. Hamilton committed suicide in 2016 after being accused of sexual assault.
On any analysis, this is a scandalous story involving one of Australia’s leading writers (Hewett), her husband (who also became a writer) and two leading figures among the Australian intelligentsia (Ellis and Sharp).
Yet the ABC, where many people work who were friends of Ellis and Sharp and admirers of Hewett and Lilley, appears not inclined to mention the issue. This despite the fact Ellis and Sharp were twice the age of the Lilley sisters when they had sex with them.
Yet ABC presenters, producers, editors and journalists have been extremely active in chasing down any allegations of historic child sexual abuse said to have been committed by present or former members of the Catholic or Anglican churches.
Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, Carmody says the revelations about Hewett and her daughters has “sent shockwaves through the Australian literary community” but does not comment about why there has been almost no public comment by the intelligentsia.
Carmody quotes Kate Lilley as saying she and her sister “were brought up in a very bohemian environment” and that what occurred was “just part of the time”.
She added: “In many ways it was a very ordinary story. A lot of women have reached out saying they grew up in a celebrity milieu and ‘we too’.”
Carmody reported these views without comment. Yet Fairfax Media would hardly run a story saying that we should not be bothered about sex between men and boys in Catholic institutions since such behaviour was “just part of the time”.
Among left-of-centre newspapers, Brigid Delaney in the Guardian Australia was the first to focus on the revelations.
On Wednesday she commented that “finding out your literary hero is not only a grub … but had sexually abused underage girls, forces a major reconsideration of the man and his work”.
For the most part, the left protect their own. Richard Neville (1941-2016), in his 1970 book Play Power,boasted about having sex with an underage schoolgirl in London. Soon after he returned to Australia, Neville was given a program on ABC radio in which he interviewed three pederasts in the ABC studio in Sydney in July 1975. No one reported the child sex abusers to the NSW police.
Richard Downing, then ABC chairman, who was appointed by the Whitlam Labor government, rationalised the ABC’s decision to air Neville’s program.
Downing told the Herald at the time that “in general, men will sleep with young boys”. Incumbent ABC chairman Justin Milne and his predecessor, Jim Spigelman, have refused to distance the contemporary ABC from Downing’s statement, which has never been renounced.
Ellis, Sharp and Neville were all besties, in current terminology. Today their memory is protected by their admirers — particularly within the ABC.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at theaustralian.com. au.