At 21, Kathryn Heyman didn’t have the luxury of “finding herself” in India like her peers. She had no money, no safety net and had learned to never rely upon others.
Instead, she hitch-hiked to Darwin with her journals and favourite books – and notions of a Kerouac-style adventure – and bagged a job as a cook on a fishing trawler, a boat called the Ocean Thief. She was later relegated to deckhand when it was discovered she could barely boil an egg.
She had a list of names that she’d carried around with her for months, of men who had steeped her in shame. Now she threw it overboard.
As she writes in her new memoir, Fury, it was among this feral crew, this dysfunctional family of outcasts out in the Timor Sea, that she felt the safest. “I felt unreasonably grateful for the simple fact of being on a boat with four men who would not hurt me. I was swollen with gratitude because they chose to honour the most basic of human exchanges,” she writes.
Fury is Heyman’s first memoir. It’s powerful, masterful and something she never expected to write, being committed to fiction. But while her six novels span centuries and continents, there is this common theme of survival.
Growing up, there was no safe harbour for Heyman. By the time she was in her late teens she had experienced a relentless litany of sexual harassment and assault; a war of attrition against a girl with low social currency. The effect was to be siloed from her friends and family.
Speaking to Guardian Australia from her home in Sydney, Heyman is warm and friendly. It’s hard to imagine the “spiky” teenager she describes.
“I think it’s a kind of psychopathology, to just keep running,” she reflects. But actually, there was plenty to run from.
Raised in a violent home, with her mother working multiple shifts, Heyman’s hunger for learning went unnurtured, but flourished nevertheless.
“In year 6,” she writes, “when I receive the little printed card – gold-embossed – that announces me dux of the year, I hold it tightly in my hand, gazing at it alone. With no audience for my achievement, I hoard a secret pleasure, guard a private pride.”
So, too, does she go to court alone, after alleging rape by a taxi driver following a boozy teenage party. She’s shamed at every step: by the sergeant who queries her intoxication when she reports it; by the defending barrister, who grills her on her choice of underwear and wonders why she would want to send a hard-working man to jail.
The way in which women absorb the shame of other people’s actions is a theme of Fury. When Heyman is hospitalised after a friend crashes his motorbike with her on pillion, she’s shamed by nurses for having worn jeans so tight that they had to be cut off, and then by doctors when she temporarily loses her vision – for hysterically making herself go blind. (Decades later, she will see a movie star tell a talk-show host about going blind after similarly injuring his coccyx and will realise for the first time that she wasn’t at fault.)
“When I was not safe it was because of other people’s choices,” she reasons, when our conversation turns to hitch-hiking. “So what the fuck? I might as well run at danger.”
It was this attitude that, in the 80s, brought Heyman to the Ocean Thief. She’d failed to pick up work as a labourer, but this felt like an even better idea.
“I wanted to be more muscular, both physically and psychologically,” she says.
Before she’d boarded the boat, Heyman was Kacey. When she disembarked, she was Kathryn. She’d long made up different origin stories for herself – “I was a total liar, pants on fire” – but now she completely killed off her old self.
“I had an attitude of ‘She was a disaster; I want nothing to do with her’,” she says.
Writing Fury addressed the question she’d been asking herself of why she kept retuning to themes of abuse and resilience in her work; aspects of her own life that she’d buried.
It wasn’t until Heyman was deep into the process – and feeling “white hot” with focus – that she decided to revisit the court case. She sent off for court transcripts and police statements – and found that, contrary to what she had been told, there was plenty of evidence that she believed could have successfully prosecuted the taxi driver.
“That was a bit of a flip,” she says. “I had believed a lie. I had believed that I was not assaulted.”
But, she says, “The core of the book isn’t about sexual assault. It’s, ‘That’s the world you’re in. What are you going to do with that?’”
Confronting this new information about her past, Heyman did what she had always done: she decided to run. Only this time, she ran back to herself.
She couldn’t track down the old crew, but she did find the remodelled Ocean Thief. The new crew took time out of their season to pick her up. This time, she laughs, she was seasick and slack. “I was shocking. I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I wanna work, I wanna remember!’ Then by the second day I was a caricature of a journalist: ‘Oh… this looks lovely. Is there any breakfast?’”
While this time around her stint on the boat was a bit of a hoot, the previous time she’d walked on and off the Ocean Thief, the experience was so profoundly transformative as to score a line across her life: before and after.
I ask Heyman what happened to rejoin those two selves – the girl who boarded the Ocean Thief and the successful author who taught at Oxford University.
Immediately following the fishing season, Heyman went on a silent retreat, which strengthened her resolve to be reborn. She found purpose through a theatre company, and found love – in a roundabout way – through a boyfriend who didn’t last long, but the familial relationship that developed between Heyman and his mother endures to this day.
“I was revolting,” she remembers of the girl who ricocheted into this woman’s orbit. “I was very spiky, in that ‘Don’t you even try; I don’t need anybody’ way. But she was determined to love me,” she says.
And then there was Fury.
“Writing this was a kind of synthesis, of bringing those two selves together and thinking, ‘You know what? You had such a spark, kid. You were so alive, so determined, and your spirit was not going to be crushed.”