More wilful than wayward

In fairness … Jan Murray was set on writing a balanced novel.
In fairness … Jan Murray was set on writing a balanced novel.

The first shock in Jan Murray's novel, Goodbye Lullaby, about a woman who's forced to give her child up for adoption in the 1950s, comes before any of her characters set a single foot on to the page.

''I apologise if my story gives offence to the adherents of a particular religion,'' Murray writes in her acknowledgments page.

She is referring, surely, to her mostly damning depiction of the Catholic home for wayward girls to which her protagonist, Miki, is sent after she becomes pregnant out of wedlock. But an apology? From the woman whose personal credo - according to son Jonny - used to be ''to thine own self be true, f--- the consequences''?

From the woman who famously admitted on 60 Minutes that she had sex with her husband, then-federal cabinet minister John Brown, on his desk in the 1980s - and then left her lacy black underwear in the ashtray of his department head - in order to protest the fact that her conjugal rights were being denied (because John was often away from home)?

Why, all of a sudden, is the woman who once super-glued the locks of David Jones in Parramatta (because they'd offended her somehow) concerned about offending others?

It's not that she's mellowed, she assures me. ''I'm determined I won't ever be invisible, I'll be up in their faces, arrive at the pearly gates in black leather on a Harley-Davidson and say, 'I've done that, now what have you got for me?!''' Murray says, laughing uproariously in the bright dining room of one of her sons' homes on Sydney's north shore.

Rather, it's that, as natural as it is for Murray to be brutally honest - many of these anecdotes appeared in her 2010 memoir Sheer Madness: Sex, Lies and Politics - she says she was determined, with her first novel, to write a balanced story.

''This isn't a dump on adopting parents,'' she says. ''I treat them [respectfully]. I want an argument. That's good writing, I think, putting two sides and letting people look at it, walk around the issue.''

The issues in her book abound. Miki's son, with whom she loses touch for decades, is called up to fight during the Vietnam War by way of the ''Birthday Lottery'', a scheme introduced by the Menzies government in 1964 that saw 20-year-old men conscripted when their birthday was drawn in a lottery, a process Murray found abhorrent.

The stolen generations feature, too, with Miki's best friend, Bernie Blackburn, a Wujal Wujal woman who has a child taken from her.

If there's anyone who's naturally suited to writing about the havoc that's wrought on children - whether via government policy or otherwise - it's Murray.

For one thing, Murray, a mother of five herself, has witnessed numerous kids become heartbroken as a result of societal norms. She recalls a family cousin being rushed to an unmarried mother's home one Saturday when Murray was 16 or 17 (her cousin was a year younger).

''Her family just disowned her, as everybody did in those days,'' she says. ''I've warned her that [story's] in the book.''

Murray also knows a thing or two about personal injustice.

The daughter of a boilermaker father and a homemaker mother, she not only struggled for years with bipolar disorder - the partial cause, she says, of many of her high jinks; she's long since recovered with the help of cognitive behaviour therapy - but she was born almost entirely deaf.

You would never know it to speak to her in person - she sounds perfectly normal, and does not ask me to repeat a single thing, so good is her lip reading - but she suffered greatly as a youngster as a result.

''Some teachers that you would've expected to be more empathetic, because they knew [I was deaf], they always said I was intractable, I was obstinate'' - because, Murray says, she would sometimes turn away from a teacher when they were still speaking, not aware that they hadn't yet finished.

It led her to develop, she says, ''an overactive shoulder that shrugs people off. I just don't need their approval. But, my god, I want them to like my novel!''

Why, one wonders, put herself at the mercy of the public after all the turmoil she's weathered? (Not only did she and John divorce after 32 years of marriage, but she was forced to abort a much-longed-for sixth child after her doctor told her that she had cervical cancer. After the operation to remove her cervix, she says, ''He said, 'Oh, it wasn't as bad as we thought!''')

''I've always hated to be bored,'' says Murray, who is now working on turning Goodbye Lullabye into a television mini-series. ''I turn feral when I'm bored.''

Goodbye Lullaby by Jan Murray is published by MIRA, $29.99.

This story More wilful than wayward first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.