Hawking's ex writes second memoir

RUTH HESSEY
Last updated 05:00 08/02/2011
Jane Hawking
DEAN SEWELL/Sunday Age

SECOND CHANCE: Jane Hawking's first memoir was criticised for its negative portrayal of her marriage to renowned physicist Stephen Hawking.

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As we step into the shade of a huge fig tree on a hot summer's day, Jane Hawking admits to trepidation at the prospect of being interviewed about her new book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. She is suffering from the heat but mostly from the fear of being painted, yet again, as what she calls ''a social pariah''.

''I'm a very forthright person,'' she says, in perfectly cadenced Cambridge English. ''But one of the things I have learned is that you can't write exactly as you think.''

The memoir is in fact Jane's second go at writing about her 25-year marriage to Stephen Hawking, the pre-eminent physicist, cosmologist and popular icon. The first book, Music To Move the Stars, published in 1999, attracted a lot of attention, much of it negative. Her candour was not appreciated.

Writing then about the repulsion she felt for his severely disabled body and the tyranny of living with a man she nicknamed ''the puppeteer'' and ''emperor'', upset Hawking's millions of fans and some of his associates.

Jane Hawking had been a bundle of nerves for years and it was perhaps too easy to dismiss her as uptight and controlling. Some who had witnessed their marital tiffs claimed she often harangued the wheelchair-bound scientist. And then there were the rumours about an extra-marital affair with a choirmaster, conducted right under Hawking's nose.

''There were a lot things said ... that were not true,'' she says, hesitantly.

Since then Jane has been somewhat vindicated by the disintegration of Hawking's second marriage to his nurse Elaine Mason, whose name she still cannot bring herself to say. Jane's voice drops to a whisper and her startlingly iridescent, turquoise-coloured eyes seem to swell as she agrees that the quality of Hawking's life deteriorated dramatically during his second marriage.

Hawking divorced Mason in 2006 but has refused to discuss with anyone claims that she abused him, not even with police who were called by his other carers on several well-publicised occasions. Jane Hawking now looks like a saint by comparison.

She says she looks back on all of it as just a phase in her life. ''I guess you grow calmer as you get older but I have largely recovered too and that's been the big shift from the first book to this one.''

Between the publication of the first and the second versions of her autobiography, a rapprochement with her ex-husband was achieved. Jane decided it was time to answer her critics with a final definitive description of the marriage, purging the bitterness occasioned by the ''horrendously painful'' divorce that tainted the first book.

In person, she is a surprising mix of frailty and determination.

Testing the acoustics in the copper dome of the Sydney Observatory she suddenly breaks into a few stanzas of an English folk song, displaying a lovely Anglican soprano that soars to the ceiling and resonates around her.

The impromptu recital is oddly moving as she declares herself with an outpouring that gives praise to her God - one who, as she says in her new book, has always been there for her (especially when married to one of the world's most famous atheists).

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Singing in a church choir has brought her solace. It is through church music that she met her second husband, composer and choirmaster Jonathan Hellyer Jones.

But the story of her first marriage remains harrowing. When Stephen left Jane in 1995, even the house and garden the family had shared in Cambridge was torn down. ''I felt it had all been taken away from me,'' she says. Everything she had believed in, everything she had worked for was gone. If it was also a liberation from a restrictive relationship, it didn't feel like one.

''I was absolutely committed to the marriage and would never have ended it,'' she says. ''When we first knew each other he was very funny and very engaging, and I had great faith. I was so positive about Stephen fulfilling his genius.''

Jane's emotion is still evident 47 years after his diagnosis with degenerative motor neurone disease at the age of 21, not long after they had started going out together. ''He was basically told that no one could help him and he should just go home and wait to die. Can you imagine what it's like for a young person to be told that?''

No one predicted his miraculous survival and success. The pair determined to defy his limitations and ever since Jane has been on a mission to change attitudes towards people with profound disabilities.

Stephen Hawking chose a different way to deal with his death sentence. For decades he steadfastly ignored the physical degeneration - a feat made possible through the ministrations of successive carers, starting with Jane. This detachment - what she calls his ''emotional self-sufficiency'' - no doubt facilitated his intellectual focus. But Jane says new research into the long-term effects of motor neurone disease indicates its severe psychological impact on sufferers and possible impairment of those parts of the brain that process emotion.

''Stephen was always dealing with such overwhelming physical problems he had no time for psychology,'' she says. ''And he came from a family where you didn't voice the slightest remark about how you felt. So I had to internalise everything.''

The marriage ''probably looked amazing from the outside'', she says. The Hawkings lived in a beautiful house supplied by Cambridge University, they had many friends and - after the success of Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which has sold more than 5 million copies in 33 languages - they had fame. Their life was full of parties and dinners and academic gatherings.

''My parents were very social so I grew up with a lot of entertaining, and I suppose in some way I did it to compensate for the isolation Stephen's condition imposed on him,'' Jane says.

Nights were spent nursing him through terrifying choking fits. Then came the daily grind of spoon-feeding him and helping with his ablutions, along with the many medical emergencies and hospital stays. She did it all without complaining just as he, she says, never complained. Despite all the parties, it was a lonely way to live. As Hawking's work took him into more intellectually abstract realms, the scientists he worked with interacted less and less with his family. The emotional toll of his daily struggle to survive was ever more rigorously suppressed.

''I look back now and think how lucky I was to have survived it,'' she says. ''At my lowest ebb, I felt so insignificant, so diminished. I was happy to be a wife and mother, but in Cambridge those words were synonymous with stupidity. The intellect reigns supreme there, and as a wife and mother you are simply nobody.

''I have to confess I felt that in many ways I was simply fulfilling the role of a drudge. I remember one of the particularly glamorous girls who accompany scientists when they travel asking me to get her a sandwich, as if I was a servant.

''There were many many times as we struggled to keep up with Stephen's commitments where I'd drive him hundreds of miles to a function, getting him into and out of the car by myself, and people were always very thrilled to see him, but they rarely 'saw' me.''

For the first 10 years of their marriage she had no help, but once professional carers came into their lives the loss of privacy brought its own challenges. ''People don't realise what organising rosters and dealing with teams of nurses is like. We had kleptomaniacs and the odd dipsomaniac [a condition involving an insatiable craving for alcohol] too. Some would come for a shift and never return. I became so utterly exhausted juggling all this, I remember the feeling that even carrying a bag of potatoes from the car into the house was too much for me.''

There was also a constant stream of Hawking groupies and television and film crews. As Hawking's celebrity ballooned and his physical decline accelerated, she may have wondered if she was doing her job too well. ''All is revealed,'' she says of life in the Cambridge petri dish. ''Your home is no longer your own.''

This was hard for her and their three children. ''I saw our eldest son Robert's childhood disappearing as his father used him more and more as a set of spare hands and legs.'' Defending her children's right to their mother's attention became one more thing she and her husband couldn't talk about.

Jane Hawking is a bright woman, as sharp as she is forthright. She speaks three languages. She laughs when she reveals it took her 13 years to finish her thesis on mediaeval Spanish poetry. ''It didn't get me anywhere,'' she says deprecatingly, ''but it was the only thing I had 'just for me'. And I felt I had a duty too, to my parents, who had scrimped and saved for my education. My father got through university on scholarships and he was always terrified his children might slip back into the poverty he came from. Even today I don't like to feel my life is slipping away from me.''

She drew on her academic training when writing Music To Move the Stars. ''It was definitely a creative act,'' she says. ''It wasn't difficult to write. I have a very strong visual memory, I kept very well annotated diaries and I was able to conjure scenes in my head easily. I just wrote it all down and went with the process. It was cathartic and painful but in a sense I knew it was a salvation. It unburdened me of my memories. I really feel that having consigned it to paper, I don't have to carry it around any more.''

She was also ''on a mission to prove to all the people who were not interested in the life of a carer, a wife and mother'' that what she had worked so hard to do had been worth it - ''and that I had a right to have aspirations of my own''.

Whistleblowers often suffer vilification, and her first memoir exposed the Hawking marriage as a gruelling spiritual and emotional marathon. Writing the second time round, she has tempered the truth with acceptance.

Their children have been unfailingly loyal to both parents, she says. Youngest son Tim and daughter Lucy regularly visit and tend to their father. She is proud of Robert, who lives in Canada, for his ability to balance a hands-on fathering role with his professional ambitions. She visits Stephen regularly with news of their children and grandchildren, although she does most of the talking - these days he can communicate only by moving his eyebrows.

''Sometimes he is very glad to see me,'' she says, smiling almost ruefully, ''and I try to stay on good terms with him.''

Jane has put almost as much energy into Lucy's son, who is autistic, as she did her first marriage. Fortunately, her second marriage has proved a respite for a woman so evidently addicted to challenge. ''Jonathan is the most modest, kind, talented person I could have hoped to meet,'' she says.

The pair were long-time friends, bonded by their love of music, and Jonathan became intimately involved in caring for Stephen Hawking. But Jane is at pains to explain that ''we both tried to remain very loyal to Stephen, and we decided early on that we were not going to break up the family or the household. It's deep in the heart of the book, and one of the most important reasons why I felt I had to write it again.''

These days she spends time between Cambridge, where she has many friends, and her house in the French countryside - which inspired her to write her first book, At Home in France.

She is writing a novel and seems mostly at peace with her past. For all she has been harshly judged at times, from her books it's clear she is just as hard on herself. Her nervousness, though, has relaxed into an attractive zest for life. She is proud that she is now highly regarded in the scientific world for the contribution she made to her husband's career.

Has Hawking ever said thank you to her?

Jane Hawking looks up, shakes her head with a smile and says quietly: ''No.'' After a pause she adds, ''Stephen's situation is just so tragic and he's so courageous, I try to concentrate on the early days when the children were small and we were very happy. I have the freedom now to be myself and I am very grateful for that.''

- Sydney Morning Herald

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