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Bertie Blackman: ‘I’m not angry at my father. He gave me an extraordinary childhood in so many ways Autobiography and memoir

Bertie Blackman was born into artistic royalty: the fourth of the six children of legendary artist Charles Blackman – part of the famous “Antipodeans” group, along with Arthur Boyd and Clifton Pugh – and his second wife Genevieve de Couvreur.

“In those worlds, there’s so many extraordinary stories to tell,” says Blackman, now 40. “Barry Humphries would drop by the house, as would all the major Australian painters. There’d be these incredible conversations and these amazing long lunches that would go on and on, and on.”

The musician is primarily known for her own career in the arts, but her extraordinary childhood has prompted her to explore another medium: memoir. Bohemian Negligence is the story of her childhood, up until she turned 11. It opens with an ambiguous image: a very young Bertie is trying to sleep next to her father, both of them drowsy and drifting in and out of sleep. He is tapping her hip and it hurts, so she escapes into her head, into memories of an idyllic family holiday in Fiji. An ambiguous tone is set. Is she in danger? Is this love? How does a child cope with sudden glimpses of danger?

There are echoes of Patti Smith’s voice in Blackman’s writing. “I really loved Smith’s book about her childhood, [Woolgathering], and filed it in the back of my mind after I read it. For me, writing a childhood story felt like the right thing to do,” she says over a cup of tea at her home in Sydney’s inner east. “Like any artistic practice in my life, I didn’t want to write a book until I felt compelled to do it. I had to feel like it was the right time.”

It was also important to find the right place to start. “That first chapter I wrote over and over in my head for a year,” she says. “It was brewing for a couple of years before that. The first chapter is the most poignant memory in my whole life – it was the first time I didn’t feel safe in the arms of my dad. It was the first time I understood he was an alcoholic – and he wasn’t himself. I was never in any danger, but I didn’t feel like he was there.”

Charles Blackman died in 2018, aged 90. By the time Bertie was born, Charles was 50 and already a celebrated artist, with three children by his first marriage with the writer and librettist Barbara Patterson. (Charles married, and divorced, three times.)

“When he had me, he had been through a lot already,” Blackman says. “His early relationship with my mum was not that filled with alcohol – but it fairly quickly got quite bad.”

‘I was given the freedom to be … this beautiful free space to be a human being in this world. And that’s the perfect childhood to me.’ Photograph: Sarah Wilson

Bohemian Negligence is filled with Blackman’s love for her parents, and shows both the good and bad sides of an unusual childhood.

“When you are a child, you are just experiencing things – you are not having moral voices in your head. You just absorb things – there’s all sorts of things going on that you are just observing,” she says.

While to the reader some of young Blackman’s experiences seem dicey, “I never felt afraid at all ever. I felt like I needed to help [Charles]. He was almost like my friend. When we hung out together, he was very fatherly and tender with me. We would sit together and draw.”

Throughout the book, there are light and lovely moments with her father – but these occasions were interspersed with moments of extreme trauma, including being repeatedly molested by a family friend, an older man she calls Garth, who would mind her after school.

“Writing about Garth was very retraumatizing,” says Blackman. “I don’t know if it does you any good to immerse yourself in memories over and over again. Something so insidious as [molestation] is really difficult to relive, because it was very frightening at the time and I was very confused.”

Even though Garth had sworn Blackman to secrecy, and bribed her with ice-cream, she told her mother, who believed her and went to the police.

“I hope that if anyone reading this book has been through experiences like that and hasn’t talked about it, it’s so important to realize you’re not alone. Remove yourself from the fear and shame,” Blackman says.

Now, “memories can be retriggered. Certain smells, curtains, ice-cream. I have a physical response and always will – those things will live with you forever. All you can do is not let it dominate your whole life.”

Bohemian Negligence by Bertie Blackman

Blackman was pregnant with her first child, Rumi, when she wrote these chapters. She felt she had to get them out of the way before she became a parent. “The paedophile – it would have been harder to write about while looking at my baby,” she says. “I wanted to get it down before I had my baby.”

When she became a parent, it also shifted her perspective on herself. “I think about what my mother must have gone through – she was always there for me, loving and supportive,” she says.

Bohemian Negligence must have been a harrowing read for her mother, I say. “We have had some very big conversations about this book,” Blackman replies. “I had never spoken to her in huge detail about what had happened. She was always really respectful of me and not probing unless I was ready to talk – she had always given me support when I needed it. But I’m sure she blames herself.”

Blackman wonders in what ways her childhood shaped her. “You have this constant feeling of being an outsider. I don’t really know why,” she says. “Socially, I feel I am on the outside, looking in on things, but also as an artist, being detached helps me see things and create. But I also ask, am I disconnected from my own life? But it’s the way I’ve always been since I was little.”

As for her father, “there were times where I thought, ‘Why didn’t you talk to me about this, ask if I’m OK?’ I muse on that. Once it becomes real, it involves accepting fault – by not talking about it, it’s like it never happened. But I’m not angry. I love him so much. He’s my father and he gave me an extraordinary childhood in so many ways.”

Forgiveness is a big part of Blackman’s story. “If I can’t forgive him,” she says, referring to her father, “I’m going to be upset and angry. I refuse to let anger define our relationship when there was so much beautiful love and tenderness.

“I love the absolutely absurd kaleidoscope that was my childhood. I was given the freedom to be, to express myself however I wanted to be. It was a complete free canvas, this beautiful free space to be a human being in this world. And that’s the perfect childhood to me.”

  • Bohemian Negligence by Bertie Blackman is published by Allen & Unwin

  • In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800; adult survivors can seek help at Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International

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