Bertie Blackman shows when love is not enough for a vulnerable child

Bertie Blackman shows when love is not enough for a vulnerable child

MEMOIR
Bohemian Negligence
Bertie Blackman
Allen & Unwin, $29.99

The cover of Bohemian Negligence is a drawing of a child in the guise of a rabbit. Her whiskers are strong and musical, her tall ears are listening hard, but her eyes are closed. Bertie Blackman’s memoir starts right here. A winsome child thrown into the world far too early. The fragile rabbit/girl can’t even stand on her tiny pointed toes, she’s holding on to a chair. A cartoon moon watches over games.

Bertie Blackman writes with a generous and open heart.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Blackman is one of six children of the artist Charles Blackman. Her mother, Genevieve de Couvreur, was Blackman’s second wife. Bertie is an artist, illustrator and musician and all three competencies are evident in this collection of moments, brief and unconnected documentaries revealing a wide-eyed little girl trying to make sense of her parent’s chaotic lives, mainly in NSW and inner Sydney in the 1980s and ’90s. Bertie was born in 1982, her mother was in her early twenties, her father was 50. She has a younger brother called Felix.

It’s a cliche that trauma carries down through generations, and it’s a cliche because it is, too often, an ordinary truth. Charles Blackman was already an alcoholic when Bertie was born. His wife of 27 years, Barbara Blackman, divorced him not because of the absence of love but because of the difficulties of her life with him.

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Charles Blackman, the child of addicts, had an unspeakable childhood, in and out of children’s homes and his work, intensely interior, shimmers with the anxieties of liminal innocence. He had a devastating originality, but he remained a child in many ways and his daughter’s fresh perspective confirms this. Bertie’s parents loved her and their other children as deeply as any other loving parents, but love is not enough. A father is not a playmate.

Bertie has dedicated the memoir to her mother, “the light, the warmth and the balance” in her life, although her mother remains an outline in this story. Her famous father fills every page, either in the flesh or later as a ghost in her life and when Blackman isn’t on the scene the book is far less interesting. Each chapter is introduced by a black and white drawing, all in the manner of Blackman, which is appropriate. A man like this has to be the central love in a child’s life but, oh, the complications that come with deep love.

One vignette describes how she sees her father and his new wife having sex. He tells his daughter he is “exercising” with his wife and Bertie quietly hopes that he’ll exercise with her. She doesn’t say how old she is. Sometime later she is sexually abused by an older man who is supposed to be looking after her. Obedient and accepting she puts up with it.

Bertie’s love for her father is entangled with responsibility for him and some unique delicacy in her pities him as deeply as she loves him. Like her father she seems to have got childhood wrong through no fault of her own.

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