Julia Maurus interviews Helen Cummings about her memoir Blood Vows—her account of suffering through an abusive marriage, finding the courage to escape domestic violence and facing the reality of her ex-husband later killing his second wife, the daughter of his second marriage and himself.
It’s almost a year since Blood Vows was released [in 2011]. What sort of reaction has there been to the book?
The reaction to my book has been totally positive. It is still selling strongly and is being translated for publication in Belgium. It will also be an e-book very soon. I expected and was prepared for a few challenges, especially doing radio interviews, but everyone was fantastic (the male journalists and jocks in particular). Part 4 of Blood Vows was quite controversial but absolutely no one has challenged my views. I have done lots of interviews and talks and enjoyed meeting people and hearing their stories. It has been an amazing experience considering all the agonising.
How did you go about writing your memoir?
I was still working at the Family Court in 2006 when the shared parenting legislation was introduced. A few years earlier a totally new court called the Federal Magistrates Court was established within the already functioning family court. I believe both of those decisions have been disastrous for families, especially children. In the end, I found it impossible to watch the distress and despair of parties before the court when unsafe orders were imposed on them: babies and infants ordered to spend time overnight with a parent who before separation had little to do with that child’s parenting. Even with strong evidence of violence and abuse nothing gets in the way of the ‘meaningful relationship’.
By 2007 I knew I had to tell my story. I took three months’ long service leave and basically wrote the whole thing and then put it in and out of a drawer for several years.
Does writing come naturally to you?
Yes it does. Getting started is the hardest part but I intend to write a lot more now that I am settled. I do not have the pressure of a professional writer with deadlines and so it will be my pace. I am considering another book dealing with life after Blood Vows about life, love and families. The project that will take up a lot of my time this year, however, involves looking into the conviction of Kathleen Folbigg, who was incarcerated nine years ago for the murder of her four children. The evidence that was relied on was not safe. I have read the research by Emma Cunliffe in her amazing book Murder, Medicine and Motherhood. Emma is trying to persuade the Attorney General to look into Kathleen’s case.
How did you get the book contract for Blood Vows?
Scott Eathorne, who worked for John Wiley & Sons at the time, asked my daughter Sarah to show him the manuscript when she mentioned in passing that I was writing a memoir. I had fantastic feedback from his publisher but they did not specialise in that genre and so they referred me to The Five Mile Press in Melbourne. The rest, they say, is history. Scott managed the media after publication and so I was looked after remarkably well from all corners of the publishing industry.
What was the hardest thing about the process of writing and/or publishing Blood Vows? The best?
There were many days when I felt emotionally spent and needed to curl up and lie down before continuing. Pouring out onto my laptop memories that had been safely tucked away was harrowing at times. I thought long and hard about the consequences for family, colleagues and friends—the consequences of sharing the story with a wider audience—but once I started there was no turning back. I knew I would have to talk about the subject after publication and that was something I had never done so there was much psychological preparation. I did not set out to find answers. There never will be and that is the dilemma for my two eldest children. Perhaps accepting that there never will be answers for Sarah and Brendan is an answer in itself. I have no regrets. There is still little written or researched on the subject of familicide (the killing of one’s whole family).
My life has changed considerably since my book was published. I have gained confidence about speaking and I feel I have much to offer outside the workforce. I set myself the task of writing my story and in the beginning it was daunting, but I completed it and do have a sense of pride, which has led to much personal growth for me.
Did the manuscript change much during the editing process?
Not really—just the order of chapters. I spent a couple of years editing my own story. Completing a law degree helped with eliminating wasteful words and I deleted huge chunks of writing that I decided were not relevant.
Do you have any tips for writers who want to become published authors?
We all have a story to tell. Some are not as willing to take the risk and that is understandable. It would be vain of me to presume after one publication that I can give advice. However, just from my experience: be disciplined about the process, because it is a solitary path. Don’t make excuses, just sit down and write. I drew from my brain, my memory and my heart and that way I found my voice in the writing. I analysed my motives constantly and tried very hard to be honest and not cause harm in the way I came across through my writing.
Your mother was Australia’s first female lord mayor and you have spoken of her incredible optimism. What do you think is the most important trait for a writer?
My daughter [Sarah Wynter] is an actor and sheer determination got her through. I spend a lot of time with people who have suffered loss beyond comprehension. They do not ‘sweat the small stuff’. We can’t carry the weight of the world so we must pick our causes and understand our core values and then go in to bat for them alone. If you want something badly, do not give up. Listen carefully to those you trust, find a good mentor and believe in yourself. I am in awe of those who churn out wonderful stories but we can’t all be famous writers. Find your gift and hone it. Take the risk, speak up and be disciplined.
Are you hopeful that the family law system will change for the better in the near future?
I believe there will come a time when children who survive the damage and harm done through unsafe court orders will speak up. It is already happening overseas. I believe that future governments will have to apologise to decades of children who lost their childhood. I believe that some children, when they become adults, will sue those who trashed their duty of care to our most vulnerable. People wrongly believe that courts are about truth and justice until they get caught up in it. Until further changes are made to the legislation, families and particularly children will continue to suffer.
Who is your favourite writer and why?
No one ever has one favourite. I am a musician and love so many different types of music, composers and singers. During my twenties I read everything Kafka ever wrote. I have been through the Steinbeck and F Scott Fitzgerald phase and more recently Phillip Roth. I am presently engrossed in Stephanie Dowrick. She is Australian and I met her and bought her books at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. She has struck a chord with the place I am in at the moment. Her little Daily Acts of Love (Penguin Australia) is splendid: full of wisdom and understanding of the human condition. Her heart is big, generous and loving.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Helen Cummings’ in The Australian Writer issue 375 (February–May 2012).