The daughters of late poet Dorothy Hewett want to lift the lid on the "bohemian middle class" of 1970s Australia.

It was a time, they say, when male artists – including famous playwrights and photographers – preyed on young girls.

It took years for Hewett's daughter Kate Lilley, a poet, to fully comprehend what happened when she was still legally a child – and many more to speak out about it.

The English professor says she was raped at the age of 15 by a well-known Australian poet who is still alive. She says a film producer sexually assaulted her during a drug- and alcohol-fuelled party several months earlier.

Her sister, writer and autism researcher Rozanna Lilley, also experienced sexual assault. She names the late playwright and former Labor speechwriter Bob Ellis – who died of liver cancer in 2016 – as one of the perpetrators.


But the sisters say these are not new revelations, despite having sent shockwaves through the Australian literary community. The women say the behaviour was anything but a secret.

For example, in Hewett's poem In this romantic house each storey's peeled, the literary icon writes: "Each storey's peeled / for rapists randy poets & their lovers / young men in jeans play out seductive ballets / partner my naked girls."

"This is not some out-of-the-blue attack on our mother," Kate said. "People have acted like this is big news but [mum] wrote about this constantly. It was all openly discussed with her."

Rozanna and Kate Lilley's mother, the writer Dorothy Hewett, pictured in 1982.

Photo: Fairfax

Her younger sister Rozanna agrees.

"I have been telling parts of this story for some time," she said. "The #MeToo movement didn't exist. I [also] told my story at the Royal Commission into child abuse for a session on the entertainment industry.

"We were brought up in a very bohemian environment and some of those experiences were worse than others. Mum really didn't believe in not exposing us to anything. We grew up very fast, very hard in that environment. But there was no paedophile ring. It was just part of that time."

Kate Lilley speaking at her mother's wake at Varuna, the Writer's House in 2002.

Photo: Rick Stevens

Both women have recently published new books that explore their childhood traumas. Kate has released a collection of poetry through Vagabond Press called Tilt, while Rozanna has published a book of poems and essays through UWA Press called Do Oysters Get Bored? The hybrid work also explores parenting her son, who lives with autism.

Kate said she wanted to stress that the incidents that occurred in her childhood weren't just restricted to the Sydney arts scene. Instead, she said it was part of a larger cultural problem at the time.

"In many ways, it was a very ordinary story," she said. "It was very prevalent. A lot of women have reached out saying they grew up in a celebrity milieu and 'we too'."

Broede Carmody

Broede Carmody is an entertainment reporter at Fairfax Media.

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