CW: mention of domestic violence
Melody Horrill kindly sat down with Rodney Hrvatin to discuss the creation of her memoir A Dolphin Called Jock and her passion for saving the dolphins of the Port River.
You’ve lived in Melbourne for a while now after leaving Adelaide. Do you think you might return to Adelaide permanently soon?
I don’t know, I’m keeping my options open. The Melbourne winters are brutal and I’ve never gotten used to them. I guess it depends on what the next stage of my life holds to be honest with you!
Moving on to your book, was the pandemic a tipping point to get the book going or did you simply feel that now was the time to write it?
I started this book probably a dozen times and I’ve never been able to get past that first chapter. I had just given up thinking, “What am I doing, I can’t write a book. I just don’t have the talent to do it.” Then at the beginning of last year I was on another visit to Adelaide and I caught up with my old mate [Dr.] Mike Bossley and I had dinner with him. We were talking about the dolphins and he was telling me about the fact that only 1 in 13 calves were surviving and that some of the adults were dying mysteriously and that the population had gone down and I sat at his table and I asked, “What’s causing it?” He said, “We don’t know,” and I just thought, “Right, that’s it, I’m going to do something about this.”
So [I wrote] an article for the Weekend Australian and that was when I first [started] talking about my connection with the dolphins as well as the dolphins [themselves] and I realised that for this story to resonate I had to open up a bit and explain to people how amazing these animals are and perhaps they could help other people. [The Weekend Australian] offered to pay me for it but I refused, because that’s not the reason I was doing it. Then I got this deluge of messages from people who either loved dolphins or had been through some awful domestic violence situations themselves who really resonated with the story and that pushed me to write a book.
Out of the blue this message pops up on my Facebook account and it was a guy called Alan Atkinson who I haven’t spoken to for more than 30 years. He was one of the very first people I worked with in the TV industry in Adelaide. He was working for the ABC and I was only a freelancer. He said, “I read the article in The Australian and have you thought about writing a book?” and I said, “Funny about that! It’s great to hear from you after all these years and yes I’m thinking about it.” He said, “I do some freelance editing and I can help guide you if you’d like.” So suddenly I wasn’t alone in the process. He demanded that I send him a chapter outline of what I think it should look like and from there I started writing seriously. What was great was that I had someone to bounce ideas off of. Someone who could tell me what I should put in, what I shouldn’t put in.
There is stuff obviously that people want to know about, like my media career, which I don’t mention in the book as I felt it would take away from the two messages. So he was a bit of a mentor who just popped up out of nowhere and he really encouraged me and was there on the other end of the phone reading as I was writing, saying things like, “Well Mel, you haven’t described that very well so think back and what was it like and what were you feeling?” He helped me delve into a lot of stuff that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do myself.
Was it early in that process that you decided to split each chapter into your story and the story involving Jock?
Not at all! When I decided that I was going to write the book, I sent the Weekend Australian article to [publisher] Allen and Unwin and I didn’t hear from them for months. I thought, “Well I’m just going to write it anyway and if it gets published, it does, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.” Eventually I finished the original manuscript and it was just that: starting with Jock, then going back to my life and bringing the dolphins back in at the end.
Then the publishers got back to me and said, “We’re interested but maybe you need to reconsider the structure of the book.” I thought they were right. Some of it is really difficult to read and you need those moments of hope and joy in between it all. So I agreed to give it a shot, and I did and even then they came back to me and said, “You’ve got to include your experiences with the other dolphins as well, here’s a structure report.” Well when I got this structure report I thought I was going to die!
It’s like getting an essay back from your English teacher with red marks all over it!
Much worse! This thing was dot by dot, blow by blow, structure. It was really thorough. I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this,” and “It’s too much work!” But then I thought, “Yes you can!” So then I started noting down all the other amazing experiences I had with the dolphins and I thought that the only way I was going to achieve what they want is to think about these things as reflections. So they were Current Day originally, then Reflection 1, Reflection 2, and so on. After each of those I would go back to the childhood story so people had the dolphins dotted throughout the book, what I learned from the dolphins, alongside my personal story. It was trying to find that balance of joy and heartache really. It’s unusual but I think it’s okay!
A lot of authors claim that writing about personal trauma can act as therapy. Was that the case for you?
Because I discussed my childhood with quite a number of school groups when I was in the media, I made it a point to try and talk to school kids. I didn’t go into graphic detail, but I discussed the issue of domestic violence and that part of my background. So from that perspective I had already vented over the years, I had already gotten that out of my system. What was tough was having to double check everything. I had to go and get the sentencing remarks checked with the court system in South Australia. Then I had to get my father’s autopsy report. Those were the things that triggered me. These were documents I hadn’t seen before and they went into great detail about what had actually happened and that was the traumatic thing.
That’s not to say I didn’t get up and walk away from my little flat pack desk sometimes and say, “I need a break!” And even my mentor said that there were times he had to just go for a walk along the beach. So it was mentally at times quite draining but I didn’t feel as if I’d vented because I’d already talked about this part of my life before.
Your older sisters stayed in England when you moved to Australia with the rest of your family. You barely mention them again. I am curious as to whether you kept in contact with them or whether they are still alive?
Yes they are. One of them just doesn’t want anything to with me and Mum; she’s gotten on with her own family. I understand she’s doing very well. I think there are some cracks that no matter how hard you try, can never really be fixed. I don’t blame my sisters for any of this, they just want to stay in England and they didn’t want to be involved anymore. Fair enough. My other sister I do stay in fairly regular contact with (like birthdays and Christmas). But that’s taken a long time to achieve that and a lot of work. My family has never discussed this really, in fact no-one’s wanted to. It’s a shame because we should have.
I daresay that when we were growing up [in the early to mid-1970s] it was a very different time and the kind of services available to young children such as trauma counselling and family services were not what they are now.
And the same for my mum as well probably. Not saying things are perfect these days but there’s still a bit of stigma about domestic violence and we certainly didn’t talk about it either inside the house or outside of it. People saw the cops turn up regularly to our house, but it was not something you talked about. It was very much a private family matter and that was that. I understand from that perspective. My mother and I have spoken about it a little bit but even then it’s not something that’s done unfortunately.
Sadly it’s not uncommon, that mentality of don’t speak, don’t tell.
But if people don’t share stories, how on earth do you make it okay for people to talk about it? In my view, you have to share these kinds of stories, because that encourages others to get it off their chest and move on. I think it’s important that we do.
There was a point in the book when you and your mother were going to leave your father and a policeman insisted that you give your father your new address. That blew my mind. How was he not disciplined?
The police that turned up [that night] were all young police men and women. I’m not sure if they had received any training in domestic situations. I look back on that as well but I’m pretty certain that Dad would have found us anyway, to be honest.
How have your mother and your sisters reacted to you writing the book? Have you had any feedback from them?
I know that my sister that I do talk to occasionally has a copy of the book but I’m not sure whether she’s read it yet. My mother, she is of the mind that, “Okay, if you’re going to tell the story then at least it might help other people.” There were a lot of things that didn’t go into the book because obviously my mum is still alive and I was mindful of that. But at the same time I had to be honest which was a tough thing to balance. So Mum’s been okay, her eyesight is not great these days but she’s gradually getting through the book. I think my family think that I’m making millions of dollars out of this but nothing could be further from the truth. I didn’t do it for the money!
When you look back on your earlier years, do you feel you were let down by the system?
I think that it goes back to [society] not having a great empathy or understanding for domestic violence back when I was a kid. It was of its time. As for the police, there’s a great cop in the book by the name of Peter Dunstone, a detective who was amazing. There was no way I would have been able to get through that court process and testifying against my father without him, so he was always a bit of a hero of mine. He went above and beyond his duties to make sure that I was ok and in my mind I like to think of the good things that Peter did.
And what about the governments in recent years? Have you felt let down by their own inaction on the dolphins?
Well I reached out to [former Environment Minister] David Spiers last year and he at least took my call which is amazing given there’s no vote in it for him and we talked a lot about what was happening with the Port River dolphins and he launched the investigation. I felt at the time that he genuinely did care. He obviously loves the ocean. But I am disappointed that there hasn’t been more government action because it’s a sanctuary. Doesn’t that imply that things are safe in it?
Do you think the new government will help or hinder the process?
I don’t know. I can only hope that it helps. I haven’t been contacted by the SA government. I can only hope that they take the issue seriously. I understand how hard it is to pinpoint what is killing the dolphins, like a virus or something in the water. I hear stories about illegal dumping in the area and I don’t know if any of these are true, but everyone seems to have an anecdote about the Port River. I don’t think the way to go is banning things like fishing and boating. The river can be used for all of these things but in a respectful way and I think if you ban people from doing things you’re going to make people angry. It’s going to take those interest groups AND the community AND the government to come together to move forward with a plan on how to make things better for the dolphins. Everybody that’s invested in the river somehow really should have a voice and there should be more of a consultative process. Even though I live in Melbourne now the dolphins in Port Adelaide are like my family, and like any close family I’ll always be there for them.
Interview conducted by Rodney Hrvatin on 19 July 2022.
A Dolphin Called Jock was published by Allen & Unwin in May 2022. RRP $32.99.