With her first published book, The First Time He Hit Her, UC graduate and author Heidi Lemon hopes to bring awareness to the relationship between verbal abuse and intimate partner homicide.
To do that, Heidi takes her readers into the world of Canberra mother-of-three, Tara Costigan, as her relationship with Marcus Rappel spirals out of control and ends in 2015 when Rappel kills Tara at her Canberra home with her sister and two young boys helplessly watching on.
The book chronicles Rappel’s drug use, growing paranoia and verbal abuse toward Tara, who finds herself isolated and fearful.
She obtains a domestic violence protection order in the week before her death.
Heidi heard news of Tara’s murder on her commute home from her job as retail assistant in Melbourne where she was living at the time.
On a packed tram she held onto the stirrups with one hand and read the gruesome details of Tara’s murder on her phone with the other.
Like most Canberrans, the brutality of the axe murder as Tara held her week-old baby at their suburban home shocked Heidi deeply.
From the moment she heard Tara’s story, Heidi said it took root in her and occupied her thoughts.
A few months later, Heidi met Tara’s uncle Michael and they decided to collaborate on a book. Heidi spent the next two and a half years travelling between Canberra and Melbourne conducting interviews, examining court transcripts, including CCTV footage of the moments before the crime, and plunging into Tara’s personal photographs and correspondence.
“Writing Tara’s story became my purpose,” Heidi said. “I invested everything I had into doing the best job I could.”
Heidi said Tara was always “somewhere in her head” while she wrote the book.
“I would dream about her,” she said, “I would wake up and feel like my brain had been working on the book overnight.”
Heidi felt connected to Tara; as women of a similar age, both had lived in Canberra and both had been in verbally abusive relationships.
Because the prevalence of domestic violence in Australia means personal experience is never too far removed from conversation, Heidi integrated her own experience into the book.
“It stirred up some things that I needed to revisit,” she said. “I felt I understood Tara’s despair.”
Heidi is now married and living in NSW with her husband and has moved on from her troubled relationship, but some effects of the trauma stayed with her.
“I kept waiting for the moment when the illusion shatters,” she said. “When it didn’t, I was surprised to learn that joy could be sustainable.
“I feel I got the happy ending that Tara deserved.”
Writing has always been essential to Heidi; it was the only career she considered and said it helps her function in life.
But for Heidi, this book was both a privilege and an experience of profound change.
“It will take me a while to unpack this process,” she said.
“I’ll continue to discover what I’ve learnt about myself through this book. But I do know I’m a profoundly different person.”
The experience of connecting with such a tragic crime wasn’t easy and Heidi said there were moments of “soul-crushing despair” when she didn’t think she could keep going.
“It was too big and there was too much despair,” she said.
“I knew I was going to finish it. I had to, but I didn’t know how.
“But I did it to honour Tara.
“I never knew Tara.
“I had such good intentions and just hope Tara would approve of what I’ve done.”
The First Time He Hit Her, by Heidi Lemon, published by Hachette Australia, will be out on 30 June.
If you or someone you know has experienced any kind of abuse, sexual assault, domestic or family violence, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit their website to chat online.
If you’re concerned about your own behaviour and would like support or information, please call MensLine on 1300 78 99 78 or visit their website.