The First Time He Hit Her
Testament to the recent societal understanding that to observe the presence of coercive control in an intimate relationship is to witness ‘a murder in slow motion’, THE FIRST TIME HE HIT HER is an exhaustive examination of the events that preceded the death of a young Australian mother in 2015. (I am hesitant to say ‘led up to the death’ as this removes the responsibility of humane choice away from Tara Costigan’s killer).
What is common once again from the stories of Tara’s family and friends is that none expected things to go so far, even though on the day of the murder itself some felt that Tara should not be alone. Tara Costigan had recently issued an Apprehended Violence Order against her former partner, the volcanic and controlling Marcus Rappel. Having just experienced two of the most vulnerable stages in a woman’s life (pregnancy and childbirth) Tara was also traversing through another extremely dangerous time – the days immediately after ending her relationship with a man.
There’s many, many viewpoints in this true crime examination as Tara Costigan was not a person in isolation. Tara came from a large family and had a solid circle of friends, though she had been distanced from many before her murder due to her increasingly turbulent domestic situation.
Author Heidi Lemon includes herself in her debut work THE FIRST TIME HE HIT HER so it is a much more personal read of Australia’s great shame. The author is cinematic in her descriptions of events both as she experiences them during the writing of this book and as she documents the accounts of everyone who now grieves for Tara Costigan. The visual placement is excellent, with all the pieces of the drama laid out in such a way that the reader is able to see how each family member had concerns, however fleeting, about the vulnerable Tara and her three children.
As a reviewer who consumes a lot of true crime stories both via books and digital content (audio books, streaming television, podcasts) I was in two minds about the deliberate choice of inclusions from the author’s own past. They do however serve to remind the reader that these experiences are not uncommon to Australian women. The horrendous scourge that is the prevalence of domestic violence in Australian society is not going to go away without major societal and legal re-forms.
THE FIRST TIME HE HIT HER as a complete work does much to inform the reader of how we need to re-define what is domestic violence. A hand does not need to be raised – the slow erosion of a person’s self by another is considered a crime in many European countries, and it is well overdue that such deterrents are introduced into the Australian judicial system. What-ifs are not entertained, more implied in THE FIRST TIME HE HIT HER and this serves to encourage its readers to question the relationships they might have witnessed or experienced in their own histories.
An accomplished and resolute debut, THE FIRST TIME HE HIT HER was written by first time Australian author Heidi Lemon.
Tara Costigan was the woman next door. A hard worker. Quick to laugh and easy to like. She was happy, confident, strong. A woman who always looked after herself and her kids. Close with her family and her friends, she was much loved. Then, in 2013, she met Marcus Rappel. A local tradie, he was charming and sincere, they dated and fell in love. That should have been the end of a happy-ever-after story. But for Tara, it was much uglier. And for her family it would be devastating.
A year later, Tara was pregnant to Marcus. Her family had been worried for a while, but Tara didn't tell anyone how Marcus's jealousy was souring the relationship. She tried to keep it quiet. Despite everything, she never imagined he would be physically violent - he would never hurt her.
Tara was wrong. One fine day, the last day of summer in 2015, she was holding their newborn baby in her arms when he attacked her with an axe. Her murder seemed to come out of the blue. But as this extraordinary, often shocking book reveals, it did not.
THE FIRST TIME HE HIT HER is an attempt to understand why dozens of women are murdered each year by men who profess to love them.