Content Warning: This article touches on the topics of mental health issues and suicide which may be triggering for some readers.
At the front door of an old stone house in Castlemaine, 90 minutes’ drive north of Melbourne, a faded fabric mobile swings from a lemon tree. Hanging from it are a few bedraggled camels, hinting at the occupant inside, but the warm, smiling woman who emerges seems nothing like the fierce, haughty 20-something she used to be.
Robyn Davidson made headlines around the world 46 years ago as the daring young “Camel Lady” who trekked 2700km across the Australian desert, from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, with only her dog, Diggity, and four camels for company. She went on to immortalise that eight-month odyssey in her acclaimed 1980 memoir, Tracks, and the international bestseller hasn’t been out of print since; 10 years ago, it even scored the big-screen treatment with Mia Wasikowska in the starring role.
Today, in the renovated Gold Rush-era hotel that Robyn has called home for the past decade, there are pointers to that life-changing adventure all over the house: an Aboriginal dot painting depicting the desert spot where Robyn had to shoot her beloved Diggity after the dog ate dingo bait; photographs of her time camel-training in Alice Springs; even an eight-month-old, newly adopted black kelpie called Diggity 2.
For the past three decades, though, the 73-year-old writer has been wrestling with a life experience even more formative than that desert expedition: Her mother’s suicide when Robyn was just 11. For years, she hadn’t thought, much less felt, anything about her mother – her name was never mentioned after she died at 46 in 1961 – but as Robyn neared her mid-40s, she felt a compulsion to tell Gwen Davidson’s story. “I felt I owed it to my mother – this little person who’d just been expunged from the world,” she says.
At first, she’d wanted to write about Gwen’s life, but time and shame had conspired to all but obliterate any evidence she’d existed. “There was simply not enough of her left,” says Robyn, “either in the real world or in my mind.” In the end, Robyn decided the only way to write about her mother was through the lens of her own life, exploring how that “essential loss” had reverberated down the decades: “The whole thing shifted to being about my fate, because that was the only place where I could locate her.”
As Robyn writes in her new memoir, Unfinished Woman;
“We never escape our mothers. Their habits of mind have life in us, either in the way we think, or in opposition to the way we wish to think.”
Composed and articulate but quick to laugh, Robyn is beautiful, with fine cheekbones and wide-set blue eyes. We’re in her cosy “winter room” on a chilly Friday morning, surrounded on three sides by hundreds of books – everything from art and philosophy to science and Shakespeare. All around us are antiques and curios: A Persian rug picked up in a Delhi market, a porcelanite rhino her father carved on an opal-prospecting trip, a painted 40th birthday plate she received from a British potter who now makes dinnerware for King Charles.
As the fireplace crackles, Robyn recounts her remarkable life, which began in 1950 on a cattle station in western Queensland and has taken her to dinner parties with London’s literati and to a remote Himalayan home, living with an Indian aristocrat for more than 20 years. Her seven-plus decades have seen her homeless on the streets of Sydney as a teenager, dealing poker in an illegal gambling house and dating a crime boss; penning Tracks in the basement of Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing’s London home; and travelling for three months with Rabari nomads in India.
Add a disastrous love affair with novelist Salman Rushdie and devastating midlife emotional breakdown, and it’s a fascinating life by any measure. But at the heart of her compelling new memoir is her mother – a woman Robyn was told wasn’t worth writing about.
Asked what her mum was like, Robyn replies, “I wish I knew.” More than 60 years since her death, Robyn has had to stitch together a portrait from anecdotes and unreliable recollections. “She was so depressed before her death – in such suffering pain – I must have blocked quite a lot, because I have so few clear memories of her,” says Robyn, who grew up with a sister, Marg, six years older. “I think she was a good enough mother – to me; I don’t think I would have got through life if she hadn’t been. She was highly strung, from what I’ve been told.”
A pretty, cultured city girl with a gift for music, Gwen married kind, handsome World War II soldier Mark Davidson and was consigned to “the drudgery and the dust” of a cattle property without electricity in Queensland’s Darling Downs. She had her two daughters, but the loneliness was devastating. Although Robyn recalls her parents liking each other, her frugal father held all the power.
“He doles out money as if he were peeling off his own skin,” Robyn writes, recalling how he would refuse his wife a new dress. “It is not just a humiliation, it is a kind of annihilation. Here she is made to understand that she is not an equal companion through life’s journey, not even a second-in-command. Everything she gives – her vivacity, her accomplishments, her charm, her grinding work and her mothering, even her body’s love – comes already paid for, so to speak, in the marriage contract. It is at these moments my mother realises she is a semi-slave.”
By the time Robyn was nine, the family was living outside Brisbane, Mark was a retired grazier, and Gwen was undergoing electroshock treatments – in an era when mental illness was cruelly misunderstood. Robyn recalls her mum telling her, age 10, that the doctors had said she “should be happy” with a loving husband and two beautiful daughters. Gwen agreed with them; her depression was her own fault. Even as a child, Robyn knew that was wrong, and she still feels the injustice keenly. Her mother “was destroyed by a kind of anti-woman ideology,” she says now. “She wasn’t ever acknowledged as a full human being.”
Robyn suspects that, as Gwen’s baby, she was a source of comfort for her mother – “I think we sort of adored each other” – but that caused tension with her older sister, who saw the affection as favouritism. Marg’s constant childhood taunts of “useless ugly stupid” seeped into Robyn’s understanding of herself and birthed what Robyn calls a lifelong “habit of worthlessness”.
It’s a shocking revelation when you consider the self-confidence it must have taken to traverse the Red Centre, alone, years later. In fact, Robyn says her desert journey finally gave her proof that “useless ugly stupid” might not be the whole picture. “It made a person of me,” she says.
Yet she wonders whether she would have even attempted the expedition if not for her shaky childhood foundations: “If you have a deep sense of worthlessness, you work very hard to build a life,” she explains.
“I had to make my own tools. So … I guess I had some sort of innate strength. And I had this habit of plunging into life because I didn’t have anything else.”
As Robyn writes so matter-of-factly, “My mother hanged herself from the rafters of our garage, using the cord of our electrical kettle.” Robyn was told after she walked home from school that day, and was promptly packed off to live with an aunty who didn’t want her. Her cherished dog was taken away too, and she was later sent to boarding school. The lack of compassion for 11-year-old Robyn is astounding, but she never resorts to blame or self-pity.
“My poor dad – he found her – so he was in his own state of shock,” says Robyn. “He was an older dad and didn’t know anything about being a father – he’d left all of that up to his wife – so it’s all understandable, but the repercussions are deep.”
For decades Robyn never gave her childhood trauma a thought. “In order to lead a life, I’d had to leave that past behind,” she says. “I think I’d just cauterised it. Cut it off. And I wasn’t interested in myself; I’m interested in the world. But then my mother started coming back, and music had such a lot to do with it – [it was] this triggering thing. Sudden memories and songs.”
After a string of losses and upheavals, particularly a catastrophic romance, Robyn spiralled into a deep depression, ushering in a new empathy for her long-forgotten mother. Robyn never mentions Rushdie’s name, either in the book or in our conversation, but their love affair in the 1980s is well known; he has called her the only woman he ever loved. The pair met through a mutual friend and Robyn has talked in the past about the relationship’s terrible end.
Recalling the unnamed “demon lover”, Robyn describes his ego as “galactic” and their connection as cataclysmic. “Talk about a proper coup de foudre,” she says. “It was instant and total and overwhelming, on both sides, and therefore quite frightening – I think for him as much as for me. And we were both damaged children really. You put two damaged children together, they do more damage … I was annihilated, partly because of the nature of the relationship and partly because it opened the original wound.”
That wound was the loss of her mother – and as she neared the age Gwen was when she died, Robyn fell into despair with a force that undid her. She saw her mother anew, and her childhood pain demanded to be unpacked. “She started coming back as a person,” says Robyn, “and it was awful to think that I hadn’t thought about her since the day she died.”
That’s when the memoir began percolating. Now, after years of “puzzling things out”, she understands herself better and is thrilled to be freed from the shackles of her most personal, and difficult, writing project.
“I’m done with writing. I hate everything about it!”
She prefers to garden, paint or draw, and toys with the idea of travelling to Greenland or doing a science degree, perhaps in mycology – the study of fungi.
As she gives a tour of her 170-year-old home, we wander past the grand piano where she “tinkles around” with Chopin tunes, and through her garden, where birdhouses in the backyard oak tree welcome eastern spinebills and pallid cuckoos. In her writing studio, copies of Tracks in different languages line the shelves.
Robyn marvels at the chutzpah of her 26-year-old self. If she met her now, though, she doubts the admiration would be mutual. “She’d [think] I was an absolute waste of space! She was fierce!” says Robyn, laughing.
“I’ve mellowed a lot and I’m much less judgmental. Life is mysterious and difficult for every human.”
Robyn’s father, to whom she became close as an adult, died of a stroke in 1980 while reading Tracks, and her only regret is that she wasn’t there to care for him in the weeks beforehand. Robyn, who lost her long-term partner, former Indian politician Narendra Singh Bhati, in 2011, never yearned to be a mother.
“Thank God it didn’t happen,” she says. “Bringing a life into the world – what could be more gob-smackingly important than that? And I knew that I wasn’t capable of being a good mother. I needed to grow myself up. I’d be a good mother now.”
Comparatively low on adventure, Robyn’s daily life involves walking Diggity and taking dips in the frigid waters of the local reservoir.
After poring over the past, she understands her lifelong pattern of restlessness and feels more settled than ever. “I wanted to become a stronger, more intelligent, more aware, more everything sort of self,” she says. “It seems to me that that’s the fundamental drive, and that’s a project that keeps going.”
And the purpose of life? “It doesn’t have one,” she says. “[But] it is utterly extraordinary.”
“ Just being alive is so extraordinary.”
Buy Unfinished Woman by Robyn Davidson at Booktopia.
If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help is always available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website.