New book tells the Tara Costigan murder story

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Author Heidi Lemon… “Not only was Tara my age but she lived in a city I lived in, a city where you don’t expect this sort of thing to happen.” Photo: Holly Treadaway

UNTIL Heidi Lemon starting writing a book about the murder of Tara Costigan, she had no idea there was a relationship between verbal abuse and intimate-partner homicide. 

In 2015, Tara, who was much-loved in the Canberra community, was killed with an axe by ex-partner Marcus Rappel in front of her two young sons, while she was cradling their newborn.

It was “The First Time He Hit Her”, as the title of the book states, which was something that not only surprised Heidi, but a lot of those who knew Tara. 

“No one had expected that murder. There was no physical violence in the lead up to the murder,” says Heidi, who at the time of Tara’s death, was following the story from her, then, home in Melbourne. 

Heidi, who had lived in Canberra for some time, was the same age as Tara, and, in the past, had her own experience with abuse, so the story really hit close to home. 

“I was following the story on my phone, looking up as much as I could about the case,” she says. 

But it wasn’t until a few years ago, after Heidi met the then-CEO of the Tara Costigan Foundation, Michael Costigan, who is also Tara’s uncle, that the idea of a book came about. 

“He expressed the wish that a book be written about his niece,” says Heidi, who had an honours degree in creative writing from the University of Canberra. 

“I didn’t initiate [the idea of a book] because I considered it sacred ground but when he expressed that wish, I committed myself to it with all of my heart and it became my purpose.

“I was very interested in the case long before I met Michael. Not only was Tara my age but she lived in a city I lived in, a city where you don’t expect this sort of thing to happen.”

The verbal abuse Tara suffered “struck a chord” with Heidi who says that background really enabled her to understand Tara’s position.

“It helped me understand what can seem so mysterious to a lot of people who haven’t been in these sorts of situations,” she says. 

Heidi says she could understand Tara’s desperation to keep the relationship going, even though Marcus would say horrific things to her. 

“It’s an account of Tara’s life and the circumstances surrounding her murder, but it’s also a study of the relationship between intimate partners, homicide and verbal abuse,” she says.

“I hadn’t really understood that there was a relationship prior to researching for this book.”

Tara was one of 80 women murdered in Australia in 2015. “The Counting Dead Women” project estimates that 80 per cent of this number died as a result of domestic violence.

“I want this book to reach women who are feeling vulnerable and fearful in abusive relationships,” Heidi says. 

“Looking at Tara’s case, she was verbally abused but she was never physically abused until the first assault that led to her death.”

Tara, certainly, didn’t expect it either, according to Heidi. And even though she took out a domestic violence order (DVO) against Marcus right before her murder, she didn’t think he would ever kill her.

Heidi says one of Tara’s family members even asked her how he would react a day before the incident, and Tara had said: “He’d go ballistic but he would never hit me” because he never had.

Turns out this isn’t as uncommon as people might think, and Heidi says almost 25 per cent of women murdered had not previously been a victim. 

“I hope that Tara’s story will not only give readers a sense of the vibrant woman she was, but also draw attention to the relationship between verbal abuse and intimate-partner homicide,” Heidi says. 

“If Tara’s story helps one woman to recognise that she may be in danger and take steps to get out of it, then I think it will have done valuable work.

“In the book I look at what measures are in place, what services were available.

“A lot of women don’t realise that their situation is one where they could receive these services, especially when they’re in a verbal abuse situation.” 

Up until the book’s publication on June 30, Heidi says she devoted the last few years of her life to writing this book. 

“It was my reason,” says Heidi, who describes writing as “innate” to her.

“I’m trying to work out what my next project will be. Writing has always been my passion. I’ve grown up writing. My late mother was an English teacher and a deep lover of the English language, and she instilled that in me.

But right now, Heidi says she wants this book to reach as many vulnerable people as possible. 

“Tara didn’t realise she was in physical danger right up until the last minute of her life,” she says. 

A life of a person who Heidi says was adored by everyone around her. 

“One life is literally a universe,” she says.

“The First Time He Hit Her” ($32.99).

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Danielle Nohra
Danielle Nohra is a "CityNews" staff journalist.

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