The First Time He Hit Her by Heidi Lemon

‘To write of a relationship that ends in murder is to latch onto the earliest moments of disharmony.’

Tara Costigan was twenty-eight years old when she was murdered in Canberra in February 2015.  She was one of 103 Australian women who died because of family violence related homicide.  Tara was holding her baby daughter when her former partner, Marcus Rappel, attacked her with an axe.  Her two small sons were also present.

In this book, Heidi Lemon set out to understand the tragedy of Tara’s murder, and to try to find out why.  From the headlines at the time of Tara’s murder (I remember them well, as a Canberra resident) it seemed as though there had been no hint that verbal abuse (which had lead Tara to obtain an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) the day before her murder) would lead to physical violence.  It was also Ms Lemon’s own experience which led her to research Tara’s story:

‘It was my experience of emotional abuse – of being urged, time and time again, to believe how little I amounted to – that kindled my initial interest in Tara Costigan’s story.’

I did not know Tara Costigan, but she came alive to me as I read this book.  A young dedicated mother, a hardworking young woman, strongly attached to family and friends.  I realised, reading about the Costigan family, that I had known her father, Tony.  We had worked together, had some shared taste in music, and I was saddened by his death.  A slight connection, but it made Tara’s story seem more personal.

Domestic violence takes many forms.  A relationship that started so happily foundered as Marcus Rappel’s jealousy came to the fore.

Over two and a half years Ms Lemon researched this story, meeting with members of the Costigan family, with Tara’s mother and with friends.  She includes elements of her own experience as well, to demonstrate how widespread domestic violence is.  Ms Lemon’s experience also underlines the point that definitions which focus only on physical violence can serve to blind victims to the danger they are in.  Tara knew, when she took out the AVO, that Marcus would ‘go ballistic’.  But she never thought that he would hurt her. 

I finished the book wondering what (if anything) Tara Costigan could have done differently.  I finished the book hoping that reading about Tara’s life and untimely death would help others to realise that control is a form of abuse and violence can take many forms.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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