Bohemian Negligence is a memoir by Australian musician and artist Bertie Blackman which surveys, with a kind heart and keen eye, moments as a child into young adulthood. I was captivated by this insightful book which shows us the joy and horror of the adult world.
The short but vivid chapters are earmarked with illustrations by our author, who also happens to be the daughter of Australian artists Charles Blackman and Genevieve de Couvreur. Being a story about her young life Beatrice Octavia aka Bertie’s re-telling is in orbit of her parents, siblings and friends, but comes to be about her own identity.
Charles, her father, was a brilliant, loving and impish person who wasn’t always present. He struggled with alcohol addiction and perhaps lacked balance given this, his career and other relationships, Bertie being one of six children to three different mothers in the Blackman family. Her Mother is portrayed as a cool and caring bohemian energy. Her eccentricities, mistakes and support are catalogued here.
Metaphorically the book oscillates between a slap and a caress, difficult things happen but her wonder for life or sense of adventure isn’t lost.
Gleefully (with a dash of ‘I can’t believe we did that!’) Bertie tells stories of the hijinks of her and friends in primary and high-school, when a lot more unsupervised time was permissible. She summons the magic of childhood and gritty bits of adolescence in a way that is iridescent on the page, in its splendour and ordinariness, from swimming all day, riding horses, to mischief with siblings, throwing al dente spaghetti to the ceiling and getting into fancy-dress for Sydney’s Mardi Gras.
Our author shares experience of traumatic events with grace, dignity, and truth-telling. Not only as a survivor but now as a parent she sees the importance of sharing details of coercion and abuse. It is admirable that she imparts this information.
As a small child Blackman was repeatedly sexually abused by a ‘family friend’, she told an adult and though it took a long time she was able to get help. After police took a statement from other children as well as Bertie the abuser committed suicide, in response she writes simply ‘Coward.’ The crime is impactful but doesn’t define or overshadow her multifaceted narrative or life. The author speaks on themes such as sexuality, gender identity, childhood, creativity and expression, parenting, and, unexpectedly aliens.
Light and darkness are woven together in a way that’s realistic, for example, she recalls tenderness as her Father tells her that he won’t always be there as a parent, but to think of the waves which come to shore as kisses from him. When her Mother learns of her suffering she is an advocate for her and actively helps her to heal, as Bertie writes in the final pages ‘It is because of you that I found the strength to find these words and speak my truth.’
Bohemian Negligence is poetic and lyrical. Bertie Blackman is a sage and positive voice in this at times turbulent memoir.